Nautilus

To Understand Religion, Think Football

The invention of religion is a big bang in human history. Gods and spirits helped explain the unexplainable, and religious belief gave meaning and purpose to people struggling to survive. But what if everything we thought we knew about religion was wrong? What if belief in the supernatural is window dressing on what really matters—elaborate rituals that foster group cohesion, creating personal bonds that people are willing to die for.

Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse thinks too much talk about religion is based on loose conjecture and simplistic explanations. Whitehouse directs the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. For years he’s been collaborating with scholars around the world to build a massive body of data that grounds the study of religion in science. Whitehouse draws on an array of disciplines—archeology, ethnography, history, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science—to construct a profile of religious practices.

Whitehouse’s fascination with religion goes back to his own groundbreaking field study of traditional beliefs in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s. He developed a theory of religion based on the power of rituals to create social bonds and group identity. He saw that difficult rituals, like traumatic initiation rites, were often unforgettable and had the effect of fusing an individual’s identity with the group. Over the years Whitehouse’s theory of religiosity has sparked considerable debate and spawned several international conferences.

Whitehouse remains a busy man in charge of various research projects. I caught up with him during a brief layover in London between trips to South America and Hong Kong. He’d just returned from Brazil, where he met with two research groups studying how soccer fans bond with each other in that football-mad nation. In our interview, we ranged over a wide range of topics: the social utility of difficult, often painful rituals; the psychological power of “God” in large societies; and why it’s so hard to come up with a good definition of religion.

Prehistoric Rites: Harvey Whitehouse points out bull horns at Çatalhöyük, an archaeological excavation in Turkey. Through an analysis of artifacts at the settlement, which thrived around 7000 B.C., Whitehouse has discerned “high-arousal” rituals associated with a religious life.Photo: Justin Barrett

How far back can we trace religion in human history?

Well, one thing we need to sort out is what we mean by “religion.” People use this as a blanket term for many different things—belief in God or gods, belief in souls and the afterlife, magical spells, rituals, altered states of

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus12 min read
We Need Insects More Than They Need Us: Inside the world of plastic-eating worms, dung-rolling beetles, and agricultural ants..
The interconnection of the world is a wonder. Consider the United States Declaration of Independence, says Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, a conservation biologist. It was written with the help of a wasp. In July, 1776, when Timothy Matlack, a clerk with sta
Nautilus5 min readScience
Think You Know the Definition of a Black Hole? Think Again
When I was 12, I made the mistake of watching the Paul W. S. Anderson horror film, Event Horizon. It gave me nightmares for weeks: The movie’s title refers to an experimental spaceship that could create artificial black holes through which to travel,
Nautilus12 min readScience
When the Earth Had Two Moons: A new model—“The Big Splat”—explains the strange asymmetry of the moon.
For more than half a century, the moon had been mocking the best minds in science, and for Erik Asphaug enough was enough. The taunting began three years before Asphaug was born. On Oct. 7, 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft looped behind the moon, s