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Which came first: the chicken or the egg?  Or if you're a Harry Potter fan was it the Phoenix or the flame? That is the question that anthropologist Pascal Boyer brings forth in his essay titled Religion: Bound to believe? However, rather than dealing with poultry origins he seems to be more curious about religion and its origins in our culture.  Boyer wants to find out if "religion [is] an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution" and though it would be great to have one single answer it appears to be a question that can be argued in many different ways.

Pascal Boyer is a french anthropologist who continues his work today as a Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, and has published multiple books, including  Religion Explained (2001), and The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (1994).  He studied anthropology at the University of Paris and at Cambridge, and was a professor at Cambridge, San Diego, Lyon and Santa Barbara before finally settling in St. Louis Missouri, where he continues to teach anthropology and psychology today.


Religion and Its' Contributing Factors

Boyer's research mainly discusses why cultures have religious beliefs, and why it continues to be such a popular topic of conversation and controversy among groups.  He discusses how findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology all contribute to ours and/or other culture's basis of religion.

  • Cognitive Psychology: scientific study of mind and mental function including learning, memory, attention, perception, reasoning, language, etc.
  • Neuroscience: sciences which deal with the structure or function of the nervous system and brain
  • Cultural Anthropology: branch of anthropology that deals with human culture and society
  • Archaeology: study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains

Religious Theories

So these are some of the contributing factors behind our religious ideas, but what  are some of the actual beliefs people hold on the topic? Due to the many perceptions of religion by different groups in society, multiple theories have surfaced. Many religious people do not want religion to be dissected and explained through science, because they feel as though it will lose its power if science is able to explain it.  On the other hand, certain scientists believe that religion is childish or make-believe, and so they disregard it and view it as unimportant.

What we have come to realize is that religion should not be dissected or examined too closely by science.  Religion is represented by the combination of the following practices: Ritual, morality, metaphysics, and social identity.

  • Ritual: established or prescribed procedure for religion or another rite
  • Morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct
  • Metaphysics: branch of psychology that treats of first principles, including ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology
  • Social Identity: one's sense of self  as a member of a social group (or groups)


The Social Identity Theory is a popular idea today,because everyone can relate to it.  Henri Tajfel believed that groups that we belong to are important because they give us pride and boost our self esteem.  Here at the University of Alabama we all know what it is like to have a sense of social identity, because anytime anyone says anything about our school we can't help but be proud to say "Roll Tide".  As humans we want to feel like we belong and like we are a part of something that is bigger than ourselves.  However, like in any social group, at Alabama we discriminate and stereotype those who are not a part of the Crimson Tide.  For instance, anytime we see someone with an Auburn license plate, or an Auburn sweatshirt on we automatically assume that said Auburn fan is stupid... or redneck... or inbred, etc. (just a few examples).  What Henry Tajfel believed was that this is a normal part of social identity: separating the "us" from the "them".  This kind of separation increases our pride in our own social group, and gives one a sense of belonging.

Religion As We Grow

Our view of religion as we grow older can be compared to our view of Santa as we were kids.  Growing up your parents would always tell you that you had to be good because Santa was watching, and if you weren't good you'd end up with coal in your stocking.  Therefore we would keep track of the things we did right and wrong because we thought that Santa only cared about acts that involved morality.  Boyer explains that our thought processes with religion are very similar.  We tend to pray and ask for God's forgiveness when we have done something wrong because we believe God knows when those events occur, yet we don't concern ourselves with God's opinion on random events in our day to day lives that don't actually have anything to do with morality. This is just one of the things about humans that make us unique to other species:  our sense and understanding about morality.

Another unique trait among humans is our ability to form bonds with large groups of people with which we have no relation to whatsoever.  Our ability to form and maintain these bonds affect our religious beliefs.  It all can be linked back to the social identity theory, because part of being involved with organized religion is submitting to one groups sets of certain beliefs, while completely disregarding another group's.  This signals that one is ready to fully submit to a group and in return this person can now include religion as a part of their social identity.

In Conclusion

Poyer is able to express many ideas on humans and how religion came to be.  His study of our cognitive traits have led to many significant theories and ideas about how religion and humans have intertwining histories and have evolved together through time.  So I suppose the question of "Which came first?" isn't as important as we make it seem.  The question I would like to pose is how has the development of religion throughout or evolution made us better over time?  Has it? Do we want to know the answer? So while we never really decided if one came before the other, it seems as though a continued growth and understanding of how religion and evolution have developed over time is what is most important. After all, a circle has no beginning, right?



Studying the Stone Age is almost so boring that it’s rude, right? Researcher Yulia Ustinova has the right idea (second only to studying history while actually stoned) by approaching ancient peoples specifically to find out what type of mind-altering shenanigans they were into back then.

Her research focuses mainly on the role of Greek religion within society, and her current project is entitled “Mania: Altered States of Consciousness and Insanity in Ancient Greece.” Sounds entertaining to say the least. Among a ton of papers and chapters in collective volumes, Ustinova has written two books entitled: "The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom: Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God" and "Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth." She currently teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but has also taught in London and Chicago and conducted research in Leningrad. Suffice it to say she’s pretty legit.

Her article “Consciousness Alteration Practices in the West from Prehistory to Late Antiquity” gives an overview of the people, practices, and potentially harmful substances we can study beginning with the Stone Age. The specific stories she mentions can be understood outside of their cultural context, making them easy for us uncultured swine to understand what they’re all about.

So let’s rewind a few years.

Not your average refrigerator art

PREHISTORY: What a mystery

Because humans in the Stone Age didn’t communicate with writing, we are left with their art, i.e. cave paintings, for clues about their experiences with altered consciousness. We have vague ideas that they did indeed have these experiences, because their drawings tend to mimic certain visual hallucinations like zigzags, grids, and dots. Some consider these images “embodied metaphors expressing subjective feelings of death” which describe an individual’s experience of altered consciousness. In the Neolithic period, art started resembling certain visual phenomena like spirals, which according to modern shamans may represent doorways between dimensions. From Paleolithic to Neolithic eras, people began using various other methods of altering their consciousnesses, including:

  • Music and Dance- Picture lots of repetitive stomping and banging on things.
  • Psychoactive plants- While there is little hard evidence that hunter-gatherers used them intentionally, it's highly likely they were aware of the plants' effects, because, c'mon.
  • Opium- Accounts surfaced in the Neolithic era.
  • Alcohol- Accounts showed up in the 4th millennium in eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

It's likely that all of these were used in a religious context.

PROTOHISTORY: Or as I like to call it, Brotohistory

Protohistoric peoples are less mysterious because they began leaving texts giving us the dirty details. Herodotus gives the first account of a “purification rite” involving hemp seeds as a hallucinogen. This showed that in Iranian-speaking cultures, hallucinogens were used in religious ceremonies, and that other Europeans used hemp as a psychoactive substance. Also, accounts from this time period give us more information about the Germans, Celts, and a few other peoples beginning to use alcohol in their cultures.

File:Levant (orthographic projection).png
Geographical reference

ANCIENT NEAR EAST: Things get interesting

In the Ancient Near East, which Ustinova clarifies as being “part of the West because the Mediterranean world has always served as a bridge between Northern Europe and the Levant,” we find more of these kooks using opium and other plants like water lilies for mind-altering. In several cultures such as Minoan and Egyptian, opium and other plants were most likely used specifically to alter states of consciousness. They also used beer and wine in social and ritual contexts. Around this time period, people started believing that altered states of consciousness were linked to prophesy giving. The Mari texts from 18th century BCE give counts of men and women “possessed” by spirits and they named them ecstatics or respondents. These texts detail the culture's perception of prophetic moments. Furthermore, in ancient Israel, what they called “inspired prophecy” played a huge role in the culture. For example, Ezekiel’s vision in the Old Testament gives a primary recollection of altered consciousness. His experience takes on several hallucinatory forms: visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, and kinesthetic. This may have been some form of synesthesia.

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
His beard is full of secrets.

ANCIENT GREECE: The really good stuff

In Ancient Greece, some versions of this “madness” were sought and revered, and others were looked down upon. States of altered consciousness were viewed as a blessing if "the divine" had inspired them. Plato named four different types of “god-induced frenzy”: prophetic, initiatory, poetic, and erotic. In Greece, someone had to be possessed by a god to gain inspiration—an inspired person was seen as a medium between two realms. The terms used for these experiences were “enthousiasmos” or “mania.”

  • Prophetic: There were many methods seers or prophetic priests used to induce this state of prophetic “enthousiasmos”: drinking sacred water, dipping feet into sacred water, shutting themselves in a temple, mounting sacred structures, fasting, seclusion, and many more. People involved in these frenzies were disposed to hallucinations because of their lifestyles and the rituals they underwent in preparation. One example of this was the “Daimonion of Socrates” by Plutarch. This detailed an out-of-body experience of a man who, in a “prepared” state, enters an oracular crypt and experiences some larger-than-life sensations, leading him to profound conclusions about his mortality. Such mystery rites were directly relevant to the individual, and were aimed to influence that person’s attitude toward life and death.
  • Initiatory: The most important objective of Greek initiations was to make participants live through a certain experience; they
    Eleusinian Mysteries

    had to be inducted into a certain state of mind to achieve it. Ustinova asks us to consider the questions: what was the nature of the experience, and what methods were used to make the initiated “fit for the purpose”? The pay off for this ritual was that the individual gained peace of mind and acceptance of death. They were essentially forced to endure death and learn not to fear it. This mirrors modern individuals who experience life threatening situations (such as a heart attack or trauma injury) and come back from the experience with a whole new personality or outlook on life.

  • Poetic: Lastly, in this era it was believed that poetry and prophecy sprung from the same source and that poets inspired by muses must "celebrate past and future."

The Greeks studied many ways to liberate their souls from their bodies at will, including meditation, bringing themselves to the verge of death, welcoming possession, and so on. They viewed this separation of the body and soul as the ultimate way to gain wisdom--a wisdom that was not attainable when the soul was restricted by the body.

ROMAN EMPIRE: Basically copycats

Goddess Isis

Lastly, Ustinova examines the Roman Empire, which essentially adopted the consciousness-altering practices of the Greeks when the Greek and Near East cultures flooded theirs. This led to mysteries such as the Greco-Roman Mystery of Isis; initiates were made to feel the anguish of the goddess Isis and live through it. They approached the "threshold of death" and experienced contact with the divinity. The Roman Empire also birthed Plotinus, the Father of Wetstern Mysticism.




From the Stone Age to Late Antiquity, individuals definitely experienced and experimented with altered states of consciousness. As time passed, accounts and records became more specific, individualized, and culturally relevant. These events and people have extreme influence in the development of human history, and the study of such practices is still very relevant today.

So the next time you're bored in history class, wondering how it's possible that at one point the Austrian army actually attacked itself to the point of self-inflicted decimation, just remember it could be due to the fact that they were probably high on opium. #history.