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Are We Homo Religiosus?

Part 2

As we said in the previous part of this series of articles, scientists now know that anxiety and stress weaken the immune system and increase the chances of not surviving an otherwise survivable illness.

Anything that reduces anxiety and stress increases survival rates. This is one key reason that religious behavior became ubiquitous.

Illness, especially mental ones that tend to be chronic rather than fatal, provided serious challenges to the intelligent minds of Hippocampal sclerosis Epilepsy, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Phobias, Bipolar Disorders and other brain diseases occur in at least 2-3% of the population worldwide.

Thus there should be at least one or two cases in every band of 50-100 people. Severe cases are very scary and disabling, but the intelligent minds of Homo sapiens sapiens could react to the challenge of mild cases with a variety of rituals and practices that served to alleviate the symptoms through mind-body interactions that we recognize today as placebo faith healing.

Placebo faith healing works primarily by reducing pain through endorphin release and increasing the strength of an individual’s immune response, which is weakened by stress and anxiety.

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Only Homo sapiens sapiens is known to be capable of placebo spiritual healing. Among us today only a minority of individuals are able to heal themselves with the aid of placebo faith healing.

The hope that ritual can heal and the ability to trust a healer are powerful factors that frequently bring about improvement.

Chanting, drumming, dancing, meditation and fasting are widespread ways of inducing an alternative consciousness that helps alleviate pain, stress and anxiety.

With the support of a community of believers, and a tradition that enhances their individual hope and trust results would be even better.

Cures, either short or long term, aren’t the only outcome in faith healing. The ceremony itself can reduce many of the side effects of the illness such as depression, stress, anger and negativity.

This often ameliorates symptoms and brings relief. Chronic illness negatively impacts the immune system and eventually increases death rates.

Ritual faith healing ameliorates symptoms for many people in these types of situations. This reintegrates the ‘possessed’ into a support group and reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and reduces death rates.

A tiny charismatic minority, who themselves had struggled successfully to overcome these diseases, may have become guides to others.

These Shaman guides undertook journeys into a realm of evil spirits who they believed had caused these afflictions and effected cures.

Map of Homo sapiens sapiens migrations

World map of human migrations from Africa to the rest of the world.

Religiosity of Species

An archeological cave ages between 45 and 60 thousand years old at Shanidar, Iraq yielded the skeleton of a badly disabled older Homo Neanderthal that the excavator thought might be a Shaman.

Since this individual could not hunt and thus support himself, the excavator suggested that the man disfigured by his shrunken arm and damaged eye, was thought “touched” by the spirits.

Thus he might be able to communicate with them on behalf of the community. So the band had supported him, while he intervened with the spirits on their behalf.

The bear skull found next to him, the red flowers piled upon his grave, and a ring of stones around the grave are all evidence of his ritual importance. His advanced age suggested that his Neanderthal group revered him for years.

Elders of each family unit, usually in the home, regularly carry on ancestor worship to this day in East Asian religions. Shamans however, were called in as specialists for unusual situations. These Shamans were the first professionals.

Their disciples were their most successful patients. Shamans in different bands and tribes most likely exchanged experiences and techniques with each other.

Recent outcomes of psychotherapy studies have shown that Native American Healers have cure rates similar to those of modern clinical psychologists. The growing awareness of positive religious influences on restoring health has even entered medical school curricula.

In 1995 only 17 American medical schools incorporated patient spirituality in their curricula; twenty years later ninety percent of medical schools have courses or content on spirituality and health.

Without successful reproduction no species can flourish, or even survive. Homo sapiens sapiens was as subject to the biological imperative (commandment) to be fruitful and multiply as all other species.

But the intelligent minds of humans knew the dangers of childbirth. Infant mortality rates in most tribes were more than one in four. The maternal death rate for every four births was more than one in ten.

Pregnancy was highly desired and birth anxiously awaited. Pregnant women naturally sought the physical help of their mothers and grandmothers who in turn sought the spiritual help of their now departed mothers and grandmothers.

Among the earliest Gods were birth Goddesses. Small stone figures of very pregnant birth Goddesses often referred to as “Venus” figures go back to 30 or 35 thousand years. They are the first examples of iconic religion.

The worship of spirits within natural phenomena does not need iconic representation. But birth rarely took place in the open or in public. The birth Goddess needed to be present in some tangible way in order to ease the anxiety of women in labor.

Even today in some African countries the maternal mortality rate is 3% per birth. A woman who gave birth to 8 children had a one in four chance of dying from giving birth.

Any band would benefit even if the presence of Goddesses reduced that mortality rate by only 5%. Carvings in wood of birth Goddesses probably preceded stone statues by many millennia and may have originated at 50 or 100 thousand years ago.

Shamans also found that visual aids helped their patients relate to the mysterious struggle that the Shaman fought in the foreign spirit world.

Since the spirits of animals were often involved both as friend and foe, much of prehistoric rock art (especially in difficult to access caves) probably relates to Shamanistic healing rites.

Religious Iconism

Humans vs NeanderthalsEventually iconic representations of gods and spirits would become almost universal. In historic times these icons would be viewed by increasing numbers of people as representatives rather than incarnations of the Divine.

There was no reason to limit activities of spirits to the realm of the dead or the diseased. All natural phenomena could be motivated by spirit minds.

Self aware intelligent minds that can read the intentions and motivations of others can also project all kinds of motivations on to other people, animals, objects and events.

Gifts and offerings should be able to influence these spirits (intelligent minds don’t like to admit to impotence) and so regular offerings should be made by a group/clan/tribe, to keep the natural forces friendly.

Western anthropologists influenced by Christian thinking refer to these offerings as sacrifices. The Hebrew term Korban and the Arabic word ‘Qurban’ are both more accurate and more insightful.

The verb l’karayv in Hebrew means to draw near or come close. A Korban is a way to reattach, reach, reengage or reconnect the human realm to the Divine realm.

The Qur’an states Qurban has little to do with blood: “It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah. It is your piety that reaches Him…” (Surat Al-Hajj 22:37). And the Biblical God doesn’t want grain or meat offerings (Psalm 40:7).

Rather, Qurban is done to help the poor and in remembrance of Abraham’s willingness to offer his son Ishmael at God’s command. When food and drink are offered to another it is not a sacrifice.

Food and liquid offerings are an invitation to a closer relationship. Especially during ceremonial occasions food and drink serve to bring people together, including those who have been estranged from one another because of transgressions that have occurred.

Thus offerings to God can help people who feel estranged from God return to a closer (karayv) relationship. Offerings help people reunite or reconcile with God. The food offered to a God is usually eaten wholly or in part by those who contribute it or by the priests who offer it.

Humans offer them, especially when they feel estranged from the Divine, in order to reattach and draw closer (karayv) to the Divine. Only human sacrifice should be called sacrifice. While human sacrifice was widespread in the past it was usually relatively rare.

Ritual specialists, who unlike charismatic Shamans are more likely to be administrator types, usually direct these offerings. As time goes on, the rites tend to get more complex and the necessary skills require more training.

Those people performing the complex rites easily become a hereditary cast of professional priests. They sometimes also offer an alternative type of leadership to that of the hunter/warrior types.

Priests can become the custodians of the customary law of the tribe. Priests can offer advice to help in making important decisions by consulting the gods to determine their will.

Fortune telling enables decision-makers to avoid the backlash of wrong decisions while claiming credit for the good ones. Divination also reduces many people’s anxiety about difficult decisions in unclear situations.

Even today millions of Americans still consult astrology charts and in Asia people in many Buddhist temples still cast their fortunes.

Most people feel better when they are in control of the important factors in their life. The strong desire for control coupled with belief in good and evil spirits eventually leads some Homo sapiens sapiens intelligent minds to attempt to force a spirit do what an individual wants it to do.

Magic is an attempt to subjugate a force in the spiritual world for another person’s weal or woe. Magic is always dangerous because people believe that the spirits do not like to be enslaved by humans and power tends to corrupt even those with good intentions.

Yet many tribal religions still have lots of room for defensive magic and even those religions that condemn magic have occasional practitioners.

Again, the mind-body placebo effect makes magic effective in some societies where belief in magic and superstitions is widespread and well accepted.

Accusations of magic and witchcraft are also widespread in some tribal societies. They can be the result of paranoia or scapegoating as often, if not more often, than the actual incidence of magic. Magic and superstitions are the dark side of HS spirituality.

About Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Rabbi Allen S. Maller web site is: He is an ordained Reform Rabbi (HUC_JIR 1964) who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. Rabbi Maller has written many articles about Islamic and Jewish connections that have appeared on Islamic and Jewish web sites. He is also the editor of a series of “High Holydays” Prayer books, and the author of a book on Jewish mysticism.