April 28, 2008 — -- Humans alone practice religion because they're the only creatures to have evolved imagination.
That's the argument of anthropologist Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics. Bloch challenges the popular notion that religion evolved and spread because it promoted social bonding, as has been argued by some anthropologists.
Instead, he argues that first, we had to evolve the necessary brain architecture to imagine things and beings that don't physically exist, and the possibility that people somehow live on after they've died.
Once we'd done that, we had access to a form of social interaction unavailable to any other creatures on the planet. Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch calls the "transcendental social" to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental social also allows humans to follow the idealised codes of conduct associated with religion.
"What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination," Bloch writes.
"One can be a member of a transcendental group, or a nation, even though one never comes in contact with the other members of it," says Bloch. Moreover, the composition of such groups, "whether they are clans or nations, may equally include the living and the dead."
Modern-day religions still embrace this idea of communities bound with the living and the dead, such as the Christian notion of followers being "one body with Christ", or the Islamic "Ummah" uniting Muslims.
Stuck in the Here and Now
No animals, not even our nearest relatives the chimpanzees, can do this, argues Bloch. Instead, he says, they're restricted to the mundane and Machiavellian social interactions of everyday life, of sparring every day with contemporaries for status and resources.
And the reason is that they can't imagine beyond this immediate social circle, or backwards and forwards in time, in the same way that humans can.
Bloch believes our ancestors developed the necessary neural architecture to imagine before or around 40-50,000 years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.