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Friday, May 21, 2010

Atheism is a recent Neolithic invention: Ancestral humans were spiritual people

For the sake of simplicity, this post treats “atheism” as synonymous with “non-spiritualism”. Technically, one can be spiritual and not believe in any deity or supernatural being, although this is not very common. This post argues that atheism is a recent Neolithic invention; an invention that is poorly aligned with our Paleolithic ancestry.

Our Paleolithic ancestors were likely very spiritual people; at least those belonging to the Homo sapiens species. Earlier ancestors, such as the Australopithecines, may have lacked enough intelligence to be spiritual. Interestingly, often atheism is associated with high intelligence and a deep understanding of science. Many well-known, and brilliant, evolution researchers are atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins).

Well, when we look at our ancestors, spirituality seems to have emerged as a result of increased intelligence.

Spirituality can be seen in cave paintings, such as the one below, from the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The Chauvet Cave is believed to have the earliest known cave paintings, dating back to about 30 to 40 thousand years ago. The painting below is on the cover of the book Dawn of art: The Chauvet Cave. (See the full reference for this publication and others at the end of this post.)

The most widely accepted theory of the origin of cave paintings is that they were used in shamanic or religious rituals. By and large, they were not used to convey information (e.g., as maps); and they are often found deep in caves, in areas that are almost inaccessible, ruling out a “decorative” artistic purpose. As De La Croix and colleagues (1991) note:
Researchers have evidence that the hunters in the caves, perhaps in a frenzy stimulated by magical rites and dances, treated the painted animals as if they were alive. Not only was the quarry often painted as pierced by arrows, but hunters actually may have thrown spears at the images, as sharp gouges in the side of the bison at Niaux suggest.
Niaux is another cave in southern France. Like the Chauvet Cave, it is full of prehistoric paintings. Even though those paintings are believed to be more recent, dating back to the end of the Paleolithic, they follow the same patterns seen almost everywhere in prehistoric art. The patterns point at a life that gravitates around spiritual rituals.

Isolated hunter-gatherers also provide a glimpse at our spiritual Paleolithic past. No isolated hunter-gatherer group has ever been found in which atheism was the predominant belief among its members. In fact, the life of most isolated hunter-gatherer groups that have been studied appears to have revolved around religious rituals. In many of these groups, shamans held a very high social status, and strongly influenced group decisions.

Finally, there is solid empirical evidence from human genetics and the study of modern human groups that: (a) “religiosity” may be coded into our genes, to a larger extent in some individuals than in others; and (b) those who are spiritual, particularly those who belong to a spiritual or religious group, have generally better health and experience lower levels of depression and stress (which likely influence health) than those who do not.

There was once an ape that became smart. It invented weapons, which greatly multiplied the potential for death and destruction of the ape’s natural propensity toward violence; violence often motivated by different religious and cultural beliefs held by different groups. It also invented delicious foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars, which slowly poisoned the ape’s body.

Could the recent invention of atheism have been just as unhealthy?

Surely religion has been at the source of conflicts that have caused much death and destruction. But is religion, or spirituality, really to be blamed? Many other factors can lead to a great deal of death and destruction, sometimes directly, other times indirectly – e.g., poverty and illiteracy.


Brown, D.E. (1991). Human universals. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Chauvet, J.M., Deschamps, E.B., & Hillaire, C. (1996). Dawn of art: The Chauvet Cave. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.

De La Croix, H., Tansey, R.G., & Kirkpatrick, D. (1991). Gardner’s art through the ages: Ancient, medieval, and non-European art. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt Brace.

Gombrich, E.H. (2006). The story of art. London, England: Pheidon Press.

Murdock, G.P. (1958). Outline of world cultures. New Haven, CN: Human Relations Area Files Press.


Melissa said...

You might be interested in Don't Sleep There Are Snakes. The tribe in that book has no religious hierarchy or rituals, but believes and see spirits daily.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Melissa.

Yes, the Pirahã people are indeed unique - napping frequently during the day (and not sleeping at night, I think), practicing intermittent fasting to show toughness, not counting anything ...

They believe in spirits "living above the clouds", who influence their actions. Supposedly some of their beliefs are also part of a few of Brazil's spiritualist religious. There are MANY of those around the country, often in urban areas; e.g., Umbanda and Candomble.

Erik said...

Really interesting post. Modern paleo dieters have certainly begun addressing lifestyle issues other than just nutrition (exercise, sleep, sun, stress), but spirituality rarely gets mentioned. I'm liking it.

Monotheism is also a fairly recent invention, though, and it's a far cry from shamanism or animism or whatever else our ancestors primarily practiced. Perhaps neither atheism nor monotheism are "natural."

I'm thinking soft agnosticism is the default position for man - always looking up at the stars, wondering what could be and why, making few steadfast conclusions.

Jamie Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamie Scott said...

Hi Ned

Nice post. One thing I have observed amongst those who claim to be atheist is that they often treat science and the scientific method with the same sort of religious zeal that you see amongst those who claim to have spirituality.

I think one would be hard pushed to find a person who is truly 'aspiritual'.

Anonymous said...

First off Atheism isn't a world view. It is nothing more than not believing there is a god. Nothing else.

How do you explain things like the states that are more religious have higher rates of poverty and obesity?

How about the more secular a nation the more peaceful it is?

How about why are infant mortality rates higher in more religious states?

Why do non believers divorce less often?

Shouldn't prisons be full of atheists? Not under-represented

Here is a paper on stereotypes and how hating the atheist is a nation past time.


Ned Kock said...

Hi Erik.

Good points.

Polytheism often singles out one god as the mightiest. For example, Zeus in Ancient Greek Polytheism. In this sense they are somewhat similar to many forms of monotheism.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Jamie.

That is indeed the case, and I think Dawkins is a good example. He refers a lot to evolution, but evolution doesn't explain a lot of things - it doesn't explain the origin of life, for example.

Interestingly, when one goes deep into science, things like m-theory (link below), reality becomes weirder than fiction.


With this kind of complexity, my impression sometimes is that we are akin to mice trying to understand a mice experiment (like the one on cheese consumption of a recent post) and the thinking behind it.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anonymous.

This post makes a point about spirituality among our ancestors. It could have been titled: "If you are not spiritual, you are not really paleo."

I am not sure about the statements you made about states. There are a lot of confounding variables, and many exceptions. I don't know how you would fit Texas and Utah in there. These states seem to be doing quite fine.

Texas has a problem with obesity, and it is particularly bad among Hispanics, who tend to be very religious on average. But I don't think that has anything to do with religiosity. More likely it is a genetic propensity to tolerate refined carbs and sugars more poorly than non-Hispanics.

I have a lot of friends who are pretty much atheists. How would I make friends in academia, particularly among evolution researchers, if I had a deep dislike for atheists in general?

As time goes by, I notice that quite a few tend to convert to some form of theism when serious health/life problems arise.

The post ends with questions. I frankly do not know the answers.

What I am pretty sure of, is that atheism is a very recent Neolithic invention.

Ned Kock said...


Einstein appears to have held many views of religion. I think that the predominant was a form of agnostic theism:


Another interesting point of view is that taken by Spinoza; theistic but much less anthropomorphic than one seems in many religions:


Anonymous said...

"What I am pretty sure of, is that atheism is a very recent Neolithic invention."

I think your right. I would go one further and say that is about the time when man started making all the religions up.

The snide comment about death bed conversion also gave me a giggle.

Why does god hate amputees? I mean he/she cures people with cancers all the time but I never heard of an amputee regrowing a limb. I can point to evolution regrowing limbs.....

Your info on Einstein being a believer is also laughable. search out his personal letters (printed in several of his biography's) They leave no doubt about his beliefs or should I say his lack of belief.

Why is it religious people tend to agree with m-theory? Is it because it is un-testable? Some people reference m-theory as if it is fact without realising there is virtual no supporting data for it. Is it 7 dimensions or 11 or just made up?

Anonymous said...

"Why does god hate amputees? I mean he/she cures people with cancers all the time but I never heard of an amputee regrowing a limb. I can point to evolution regrowing limbs....."

What do you mean by cure an amputee in comparison to cure cancer? One who is living as an amputee is much different than one who is living with cancer. There are many people competing in high level sports for years as an amputee. I really thinks it is impossible to compete at a high level in sports if cancer is present somewhere in the body for years.

Is there a difference between amputees and caner? There is probably a greater chance of living a longer life as an amputee than having cancer. Also, what do you mean by "hate?"

Richard Nikoley said...

I agree with the commenter who said that atheism is merely a response to organized religion.

I'm not an atheist because of some sense of wonder and/or as-yet unexplained feeling of "spiritual" connection to other human beings or even higher animals.

I'm an atheist because of the neolithic invention of murderous organized, hierarchical, authority driven, guilt propagating organized/centralized religion.

Spiritualism, per se, was never designed to explain anything but to look inward, contemplate, understand (but not explain). The opposite is true of organized religion. It exists for the purpose of baldly asserting origins made up out of whole cloth and establishing hierarchical dominance over the masses by means of scaring the shit out of them.

Ned Kock said...

Well, there is no doubt that some take advantage of what could possibly be a natural propensity toward spirituality in humans.

I am reminded of this disaster, and how easily groups of people can be manipulated through an appeal to spirituality:


Ned Kock said...


From my reading of several of your posts on your awesome blog (freetheanimal.com), you have delved deeply into several philosophical schools of thought.

One thing that does not make much sense to me, when I hear the arguments by people like Dawkins, is that evolution provides a solid philosophical basis for atheism.

I think evolution provides a weak basis, because evolution cannot have created itself. That is, the evolutionary process could not have emerged through evolution.

Maybe some other processes, on which evolution builds (chemistry processes), would provide a more solid basis for atheism.

Not evolution, in my opinion.

What do you think?

Richard Nikoley said...


Sure, I can buy that. But the question of origins for Earth and its Organic life are different from ultimate origin questions. And all ultimate origin assertions whether natural or supernatural are susceptible to the same complaint: infinite regression.

So, yes, evolution is merely a logical framework for how reproductive beings evolve.

Before that, it's just chemistry (inorganic). Then biology, which is where evolution finally enters the picture, i.e., billions of years later.

Scott Miller said...

>>> What I am pretty sure of, is that atheism is a very recent Neolithic invention. <<<

Almost certainly. In part because belief in gods (and before that, belief in ancestors who visited during dreams), was a way of explaining the events of the world around them, such as rain, night/day cycles, sickness, luck during a hunt, etc. Ancient people had no concept of religion, because religion was science, culture, and played a role in nearly every aspect of their lives.

Atheists are people who've dropped these primitive beliefs and embrace natural explanations for all aspects of life and the universe.

During Greek times, a few atheists were known, but if they made too much of a fuss, they were expelled.

It's really only during the last few hundreds years, the time of the enlightenment, thanks to significant advancements in science, that atheism has come into its own, so to speak.

I predict that by the end of this century, most people in educated countries will have moved beyond the primitive beliefs and comforts of religions to become atheists. Especially once we know how to create life from a soup of common organic chemicals (we're very close to this), and once we know how the big bang originated (we have several promising leads for this). This will be known as the century we shed our primitive need for gods.

Gina said...

Perhaps I am more paleo than I thought.
I cannot help but wonder -as I look up on a new moon night at the star studded sky...who am I?
The big who am I?

C. August said...

I take your point that atheism is neolithic. That's actually a bit of a "duh" statement.

In the same way, logic, as developed by the likes of Aristotle, is also neolithic. Again, duh.

My question is, what does being neolithic have to do with metaphysics and epistemology? About what the world is and how we know it?

Is being paleolithic somehow intrinsically good, even apart from nutrition? If you believe that, then any modern thought, and modern invention, is suspect.

As Kurt Harris has said, and I agree, the key to good health in the modern age is mimicking the evolutionary metabolic milieu and getting rid of bad neolithic agents. But that says absolutely nothing about philosophy, the functioning of the mind, and the acquisition of knowledge of reality. Implying that somehow because Grok believed in sky demons, we should therefore embrace religion as "evolutionarily required" is nonsensical.

Scott Miller is absolutely right. Religion was a primitive response to a difficult to understand world, and as things like the science of logic were discovered, it became less and less important. That people still cling to religion constantly amazes me. I hope that Scott is right that it will be gone by the end of this century, but if anything has proven itself over history, it's that man has an incredible capacity for ignorance, irrationality, and the propagation of tyranny (see Richard's discussion of the virulent and brutal disease of organized religion).

Ned Kock said...

The term used in the scientific literature is the "environment of our evolutionary adaptation" (EEA). You might want to use this term instead of the English-French "metabolic millieu" term; which makes no sense, by the way.

If you don't think that thoughts can evolve through Darwinian processes, I suggest you consider what thoughts actually are from a biological perspective.

Spiritualism and religiosity have been around for too long among our Paleolithic ancestors, and have been too widespread among hunter-gatherers, to have been simply the product of a plain stupidity.

I suspect that they evolved, and not as costly traits. I suspect that they evolved through a complex covariance path (traits must covary with reproductive success to evolve) that has led to enhanced survival as an intermediate to enhanced reproductive success. I believe that they must have served a purpose.

If this is correct, then lack of spiritualism and/or religiosity may have a negative effect on health and survival among modern humans. This is not pure speculation. Religiosity is associated with better health, both mental and physical; there are empirical studies on this.

And all of this has absolute nothing to do with whether supernatural beings, deities, or the like exist or not. It has absolutely nothing to do with the use of religion for oppression. These issues are not even indirectly addressed in this post.

By the way, if you think that humans are fully equipped to understand everything, then consider the possibility that our brain may be rather limited. Can rats ever understand the intentions of a researcher running experiments on them? No. The reason is the limited capacity of the rats' brains.

The human brain is magnificent, but it is the next step up from an ape's brain.

David said...

Hi Ned,

I enjoyed this post. Interesting thoughts. Along these same lines, you might find this book interesting: http://www.amazon.com/Believing-Primate-Philosophical-Theological-Reflections/dp/0199557020


Ned Kock said...

Thanks David. That looks like a very interesting book.

Anonymous said...

'spirituality' / 'religiosity' - i guess they are still with people, even with those who call themselves 'atheists', it's just the context that has changed: now, instead of spirits people can believe in human rights or big ban or whatever...

Tomasz R. said...

You have no way to estimate the amount of atheists in paleolithic. Finding religious or spiritual items form the past left by those paleolithic people who were religious does not prove that there were no people with no beliefs who simply didn't possess and therefore didn't leave such types of artefacts.

Don said...


I've been thinking about this topic myself for some time now, as a result of studying shamanism, and have been collecting my thoughts and planning to write on it. From what I can tell, hunter-gatherers did not just "believe" in spirits or a spiritual world, they actually experienced spirits or a spiritual world directly via altered states of consciousness including shamanic traveling and lucid dreaming and vision quests, etc, often stimulated by fasting or plant drugs (e.g. peyote). Michael Harner, an anthropologist who specialized in studying shamanism, wrote a book "The Way of the Shaman" in which he discussed the hostility that "scientists" express toward shamanic knowledge of alternate realities such as presented by Carlos Castaneda:

"To understand the deep-seated, emotinal hostility that greeted the works of Castaneda...one needs to keep in mind that this kind of prejudice is involved. It is the counterpart of ethnocnetrism....But in this case it is not the narrowness of someone's cultural experience that is the fundamental issue, but the narrowness of someone's conscious experience. The persons most prejudiced against the concept of nonordinary reality are those who have never experienced it. This might be termed cognicentrism...."

Modern "atheists" may confuse neolithic religious belief with paleolithic religious experience. The average modern believer in God does so not based on experience, but on doctrine or hearsay. In contrast, shamans don't "believe" in spirits, they actually know and work with them directly in altered states of consciousness.

Don said...

Harner also addresses on an natural selection basis the prejudice that the ordinary state of consciousness (OSC) is real reality, while the altered shamanic state of consciousness (SSC) is illusion:

"Some might argue taht the reason we spend most of our waking lives in the OSC is that natural selection intended it that way because that is the real reality, and that other states of consciousness, other than sleep, are aberrations that interfere with our survival. In other words, such an argument migh go, we perceive reality the way we do because that is always teh best way in terms of survival. But recent advances in neurochemistry show that the human brain carries its own consciousness-altering drugs, including hallucinogens such as dimethyltryptamine. In terms of natural selection, it seems unlikely that they would be present unless their capacity to alter the state of consciousness could conver some advantage for survival. It would appear that Nature itself has made a decision that an altered state of consciousness is sometimes superior to an ordinary state.

We are only beginning in the West to start appreciating the important impact the state of mind can have on what have previously been too often perceived as questions of purely "physical" capability. When, in an emergency, and Australian aborigine shaman or A Tibetan lama engages in "fast traveling"--a trance or SSC technique for running long distances at a rapid rate-that is clearly a survival technique which, by definition, is not possible in the OSC."

Since shamanic practices and knowledge are human universals, I have accepted that shamanic knowledge has a evidence basis and is part of all cultures by natural selection...i.e. H-Gs rely on shamans because it improves survival, if it didn't than the tribes that relied on shamans would have died out, not spread universally. Neolithic religion is as divergent from shamanism as neolithic diet is from paleodiet.

Anonymous said...

This is a very foolish post. Theism (or lack thereof) and spirituality are very different things. Spirituality is hard-wired into human brains and has many universal qualities, but theism and religion are abstract conceptual systems that vary wildly depending on cultural context. God concepts and god experiences are two very different categories of brain events. They can be mapped to each other in various ways.

Atheists with rich spiritual lives are not rare by any means. I've been one for the past two decades and I've encountered hundreds of others. Atheists comprise a very large percentage of all industrial societies, and atheism is the world's fastest growing religion. It's hard to measure the actual extent of atheism because a lot of people identify as Christians or other types of theists, but use abstract interpretations of such religions that are almost equivalent to atheism, or compartmentalize their theism into such a tiny part of their life that they are almost equivalent to atheists. But most importantly, many theists have spiritual lives that are essentially separate from their theism, mapped on to other types of conceptual systems like art, nature, yoga, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm the same "anonymous" as directly above. I wanted to make one other point.

Your observation about atheism as a neolithic invention is certainly interesting, and a very nice blog post, but you fail to note that virtually every religion practiced today is also a neolithic invention, and probably a more recent invention than atheism, which almost certainly pre-dates the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion that dominates current religious culture. Religions have been incredibly diverse and numerous throughout human history, reflecting all sorts of arbitrary cultural conditions and constantly evolving alongside those conditions.

And that's one of the very best arguments for atheism. In the most precious words of Stephen Roberts: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Ned Kock said...

Hi Don. Very good points. I look forward to seeing your post (or posts) on this.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anon. You are right, by definition, in that: “… every religion practiced today is also a neolithic invention …”

This post makes several points, including some related to cave paintings and shamanism. I hoped that the post would serve as a basis for some lively debate. I guess this is happening, so I am happy to have contributed.

Tomasz R. said...

The point that there's a division between modern religion and spirituality is actually a very good one. Modern religions can be either a detailed system of law, like Islam or giant hierarchical organizations with huge bureaocracy like Catholicism. That's not very spiritual.

If something similar to Julian Jaynes speculation was true - that people had hallucinations in which "gods" spoke to them, then modern religions might be the main contributor to it's demise, as the are very verbalist, and verbal profficiency is what is supposed to stop these direct listening to the words of gods.

viagra said...

how can anyone make fun of such a serious and reasonable endeavor as gathering urine samples from thousands of highly educated and loyal scientists on the off chance you can catch one !!

Chris Masterjohn said...

Hi Don,

I read all of Castaneda's books when I was a teenager. Just a brief point. Peyote, jimson weed, and other psychedelic drugs were only featured in the first two books. Castaneda made it clear by the third book that they were used only to cultivate "dreaming potential" and were not an essential part of the shamanistic experience, or the experience of a "sorcerer" or "man of knowledge" as he would have put it. The whole rest of the series essentially has nothing to do with drugs at all, and is instead about the acquisition of a largely hostile but powerful spirit as an "ally" to keep at your left side, to use lucid dreaming as a gateway to being able to be in multiple places at once and use your "dreaming body" to actually do things in distant places, and eventually acquiring all this occult power to recognize that, in the final analysis, your life is worth no more than a beetle's.


Ned Kock said...

I also read each and every one of Castaneda’s books, a while ago. Here is a profound comment: I always liked Genaro better than The Nagual, Don Juan Matus ;-)

I am sad to disappoint fans, but I think that those are works of fiction – beautiful fiction.

Sanjeev said...

folks, Robert A Burton's book would inform this discussion


Some of the things he discusses are brain surgery pre-operative electrical brain stimulation and various forms of epilepsy (a form or electrical brain stimulation) and how they sometimes lead to extremely religious experiences.

One evolutinary factor that's not been discussed here or by Burton (that I remember) is the usefulness of religion in the maintenance of power structures.

The religious elites and the political elites frequently overlapped and reinforced each other throughout human history. By Robert Wright's theories this type of social cohesion was the type of selection pressure that favoured the survival of religion.

Sanjeev said...

> verbal profficiency is what is supposed to stop these direct listening to the words of gods
doubtful ...

The verbal is almost always slave to the emotional ... people can almost always come up with verbal rationalizations for their actions and beliefs, no matter how irrational.