Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion

Julian Bell writes:

‘God created man.’ There are various ways you might read those words even without looking beyond the scriptures. Set them in the context of archaeology and a different reading altogether suggests itself. Primates turn recognisably human when factors beyond the reach of the senses leave traces in their behaviour. It is an intrusion of the invisible that sets homo sapiens apart from other species. This animal has the unique habit of making one thing stand for another: where prehistoric evidence of that habit shows up, we infer that the agents knew – in the way that we know, and in a way that other creatures seemingly do not – what it is like to contemplate and to relate physical objects, on some plane distinct from the objects themselves. ‘Mind’ is the obvious label for that not exactly material zone. It is not obvious, however, where mind cuts off from the larger bodilessness that we point towards when we speak of God. Perhaps objects interrelate in our individual minds because they are already interrelated within a communal mind. Perhaps understanding is located not in us alone, but in the world about us in the manner of water under the ground, of blood under the skin or the flame within fuel: perhaps it’s a stuff within objects, awaiting release. In which case, homo sapiens becomes sapient by dowsing for that flow – or, to switch metaphors, by seeking spark-points where that fire will catch to illuminate the world.

(LRB 10 June 2010)