Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct is well worth the read. Wade’s blend of biology and anthropology provides us with a solid understanding of the origin of religion and its impact on human society. When I read such books I am interested both in the past and future; I want to know not only where religion came from, but also where it might be going. Unfortunately, like most such books, Dr. Wade is strong on the former and weak on the latter. Nevertheless, he does provide us with ideas worth speculating about.
Religion arose 50,000 years ago among humans living in hunter-gatherer societies. Religion was the means by which people bonded together in cohesive communities, and the means for doing so were emotionally compelling blends of music, chant, and dance that lead some participants to fall into trance states where they believed they were communing with ancestors and gods. These communities were nonhierarchical and noncreedal. People weren’t seeking new insights, but fresh experiences of solidarity and, for some, transcendence.
This was human religion for about 35,000 years. With the shift from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural society things changes. Owning land was now essential to wealth and power, and religion began to speak to the need for expanding control over other peoples and their property. Religion grew politically and became central to a communities power structure. A priestly cast arose and religion was no longer open to everyone. Kings chosen by the gods or who were gods themselves demanded the loyalty of the people that had hitherto been given to the group as a whole. Rites were now tied to harvests and planting seasons.
With the rise of city states and early capitalism religion again shifted from temple sacrifices to creeds drawn from books controlled by a scholar class that determined what could be read and how what is read could be understood.
Resting religion on books becomes more and more difficult as people are encouraged to read and think for themselves. And postmodern deconstruction of the narratives that supply religion with their raison d’être may herald another shift in religion.
This is where The Faith Instinct ends. Though Dr. Wade offers us a closing chapter entitled “The Future of Religion,” he doesn’t offer much of practical value. Wade suggests that since music was/is such an integral part of prehistoric religion, we should look at our religions as we might a night at the opera, attending for the sheer joy of the music and pageantry.
This doesn’t work for me. If religion is nothing more than voyeurism, it is no longer compelling. I suggest we go back to Wade’s excavation of hunter-gatherer religions and draw upon the deepest spiritual impulses of humanity, creating new religious experiences around song and dance.
Notice I said new religious experiences and not new religions. While we humans continue to do the latter, it may be the former for which we truly hunger. Regardless of the religious label, imagine taking your place in the sacred circle and being invited into an hour or two of music, repetitive chant and rhythmic dance. This would give way to silent sitting for 30 minutes or so, followed by sharing tea and conversation.
No creed, no holy books, no special peoples, or promised lands, no professional clergy, no hierarchy of power, just a community created by shared song and dance supporting one another in surrendering to the magic of the medium.
Such a gathering would be a risk. You would never know what would happen. Trust would have to be absolute, as the community supports one another through whatever experience a person was having. The bond that would grow among the members of such a community would be powerful, and easily adapted to more practical concerns of seeing to one another’s welfare.
I have tasted something like this in Hindu and Kabbalistic kirtan, and Sufi zhikr. I have seen something like this in Christian Taize services and in the pre-dawn chanting of Psalms by Benedictine monks. I have participated in something like this in late-night Hebrew chanting in Hasidic communities in Jerusalem. But could we create a nondenominational community built on music, chant, and dance? Would you want to?