theory and archeological evidence can explain many religious behaviors,
religion's transcendental nature and extraordinary resilience, nor can
it easily explain widespread
beliefs in human-like gods. Was religion a trial-and-error adaptation?
Were early humans more likely to survive or reproduce if they believed
in gods or spirits? Or was religion a cultural byproduct - if so,
by what? Musical behaviors and emotions are similarly mysterious. In
cases, the invested effort is large relative to any tangible benefits.
I propose that religious
and musical rituals activate the mother schema - analogous to the infant schemaactivated
by an infant’s “cuteness”. In infants, the mother
diverse survival behaviors. In children and adults, it reawakens
by the late-term fetus and infant, triggered by similar stimulus
connection is indirect, because music and religion develop over long
periods in different cultural contexts. Based on simple psychological
foundations, the theory can explain strong, specific emotions
participants in musical and religious rituals, specific details of
rituals (prayer, space, voice, chant, community), and religious moral
based on love and altruism.
Forward for academic readers
The following text is written in a
light-hearted popular style, but it is also intended as the foundation
for a serious academic text with references to relevant literature in
diverse fields such as religious studies (traditional religions, Islam,
Judaism, Christianity, atheism, humanism, ritual theory, trance,
ecstasy, altered states of consciousness),
psychology (developmental, social, prenatal, musical,
evolutionary, reproductive), sociology (religious, artistic, political,
feminist), anthropology (cultural, biological, social, archeological), and philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics).
It would hardly be possible to do justice to all relevant disciplines
in a single article or even a long book, so the following text is no
more than a preliminary introduction to a promising idea.
At different times I have consulted a lot of literature on the origin
of religion and emotion that is not cited here. The most interesting
contributions were by Ellen Dissanayake and I am
deeply indebted to her for many interesting and promising insights.
Many readers will find the following ideas too speculative or naive and
reading immediately. I sympathize with you because I certainly can't
"prove" any of this. The reason I'm sticking with this theory is the
number of observations about music, religion, language and
consciousness with which it is consistent. If you know of a musical,
religious or artistic behavior that is clearly inconsistent with
the theory, let me know!
The Martian perspective
Punishment and forgiveness, guilt and redemption
Recent literature on the origins of religion
Issues of perspective and practical application
Happiness and altruism
A simple solution
The mother schema, and situations that activate it
Prenatal/infantile foundations of religious/spiritual traditions
The event that kick-started it all
Monotheism and agriculture
Is this a good theory?
Why this theory is not accepted
|I believe in the sun even when it isn't shining.
I believe in love even when I can't feel it.
I believe in God even when He's silent.
I believe! I believe!
|Ich glaube an die Sonne, auch wenn sie nicht scheint.
Ich glaube an die Liebe, auch wenn ich sie nicht spüre.
Ich glaube an Gott, auch wenn er schweigt.
Ich glaube, ich glaube!
These words by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt
(1842-1919) were later famously scratched on the wall of a Nazi
concentration camp. For a sensitive atheist, this text poses a serious
On the one hand, it would be difficult to question the beauty and power
of this statement. In a few lines it manages to convey the deepest
yearnings of humanity. It is hard to imagine how any sensitive, caring
person who reads and understands these lines could possibly
doubt the importance of religion for human existence. No matter how
much science reveals about the world, it is hard to imagine that the
power of these words will never diminish.
That is the emotional aspect of these words, but there is also a
cognitive aspect. From a modern scientific viewpoint, it is obvious
that the sun exists even when it is not shining. It is equally obvious
that love exists even when you can't feel it, even for pedantic
academics who might define love in different ways. But God falls in a
different category. From a modern scientific viewpoint, God is a
concept that humans developed to answer questions that are essentially
unanswerable: Where does the universe come from? What happens to my
soul after I die? What is the meaning of my life? The concept of God
also conveniently helped the rich and powerful to control the poor and
powerless by training them to respect hierarchical social structures.
In the present contribution I will propose that there is more to it
than that. The emotions that we feel in religious situations, when we
believe we are communicating with God or in the presence of God, are
real. They have a specific origin - not in heaven, which of course does
not exist, but right here on earth. The same applies to the emotions
that we experience when hearing music - regardless of whether that
music is religious or not. These two kinds of emotion differ from
everyday emotion in similar ways, and they can explain why so many
otherwise perfectly sensible people believe in what a scientist might
we want to understand religious and musical behavior and experience
from a scientific viewpoint, we need to adopt the perspective of a
psychologist, observing the behavior in different situations and as a
function of different variables, and of an evolutionary biologist,
asking how these behaviors and emotions might be related to survival
and reproduction. Many people have been doing this for a long time but
no-one has arrived at a clear, widely accepted answer.
Consider musical behavior. As a musician and music
psychologist, I feel qualified to address this question. Imagine you
are "amusical", which means you don't appreciate music at all. You
can't for the life of you understand why people go to concerts or
listen to music on headphones in the bus, let alone spend hours every
day practising the violin. How would you explain the musical behavior
of "normal" people, if you were an amusical scientist? Musicians put
enormous amounts of time and energy into creating patterns of sound
that have no direct benefit for survival and reproduction. Why do they
The same question can be asked of religious behavior. Humans have a
long history of investing enormous amounts of time and energy into
that. In many cases, thousands of people devoted their whole
working lives to building just one mosque, cathedral, synagogue,
or temple. Billions of people regularly devote several hours per week
to religious activities. What do they get out of that? How can the cost
in terms of time and effort be justified in terms of benefits? What
exactly is the benefit, and how does it work?
The Martian perspective
Imagine you are a Martian researcher looking at the earth through a
telescope. This is no ordinary tube with a couple of lenses in it. It
is a special high-tech telescope that only Martians have developed.
The Martian can see exactly what those humans are doing down there, and
she can also hear their speech and music. She asks herself: What on
Earth are those Earthlings doing? And more generally: How did those
Earthlings manage to take over the entire planet, while at the same
time wasting enormous amounts of time and energy on behaviors such as
music and religion that serve no obvious purpose?
That curious Martian knows the difference between reality and fantasy.
She does not need to read long complicated books by the likes of
Richard Dawkins or Karl Marx to realise that gods are fictions created
and maintained by humans for their own benefit. The idea that a
human-like god created the universe is absurd to a Martian, for at
least three reasons. First, the universe was not "created".
(Whatever do those Earthlings mean by that word? Do they mean the
universe was made out of nothing? Haven't they understood the physical
law of conservation of matter-energy?) Second, this question obviously
belongs to a special class of unanswerable questions. Earthlings proved
long ago that such questions must exist (Gödel's incompleteness
theorems) but perhaps the implications haven't quite sunk in (link) (link). Third,
even if the universe was
"created", the "creator" would not be similar to an Earthling. Humans
the centre of the universe. Haven't they realised that yet?
When will they ever grow up?
This last question is very revealing, and it has multiple meanings, as
we shall see.
Be that as it may: That arrogant Martian scholar is not altogether dismissive
of human religious behaviors. She recognizes that praying and
meditation have important individual and social benefits for
Earthlings, and that these benefits can be of both a physiological and
a cognitive nature. But five times a day (Islam) seems a bit over the
top. Who on Earth is profiting from that?
Our Martian observer can also understand human languages. She is very interested
in religious texts, because they seem so arbitrary, yet at the same time so
influential. It is obvious to her that they contain crazy ideas, but
she cannot for the life of her understand why those Earthlings love
those texts so much. Sometimes even highly educated academics seem to
believe in them! How could they be so gullible? And what is all this
Pros and cons of religion
Many people are rightly offended and outraged by sexism and violence in
Islam. But Christianity is not always better. It is better in some
ways, but it is worse in others. From the perspective of a resident of
a Western country, Christianity seems preferable to Islam, because
Christian beliefs and societies are less sexist and less violent. There
is a lot of sexism in Christianity, and the Old Testament is full of
violence, but in practice Christianity seems preferable. A global
perspective is very different. Since 1945, the world's leading
the USA, has bombed 24 countries, killing untold millions of people. In
terms of numbers of deaths - the most objective measure of the size of
a massive crime - that
is far worse that anything the Islamic world has ever done, up to
and including ISIS. Imagine what would happen if a Muslim country
dropped just one bomb on US territory. The hypocrisy is stunning.
Charlie Hebdo and even 9/11 are small
by comparison to Western crimes. The USA is a democratic country whose
elected mainly by Christians. Since the 1960s and the Vietnam war, most
voters have been aware of this problem, and access to information about
it is getting easier all the time. These observations suggest that most
US Christians are either
supporting, condoning, ignoring, or denying US militarism; relatively
few actively oppose it.
But there is a positive side to religion. A very positive side, in
fact. Religious rituals belong to the richest experiences that
human culture has to offer. The history of most of the world's art and
music is inextricably linked to religious and/or spiritual traditions.
While famous figures such as Marx and Dawkins
called for the end of religion, and had good reasons for doing so, and
others like John Lennon wondered if the world might be a better place
without it, my impression is that those people were missing the big
picture. They did not understand how fundamentally important
religion is for humans. In this text, I will attempt to
explain why we need and love religion so much.
To understand religion, we must stand above the differences and conflicts
between world religions and see the phenomenon in a more general way,
freeing ourselves from emotional connections to specific religions and
other such conflicts of interest. The clearest approach is to regard
the topic from the viewpoint of an atheist, even if that conflicts with
one's beliefs and identity. That is why I introduced the idea of a
Martian observer who can somehow see our world for what it really is -
as far as that is possible. The best we as humans can do in our
subjective human world is to try to jump outside that world, to see it
from a modern scientific viewpoint, and to understand religious
behavior within that framework. Humanities disciplines such as history
and philosophy are important and in fact essential for this project,
but they are not fundamental. Famous scientists of the past such
as Galileo, Darwin and Einstein were evidently thinking along these
lines when they made their discoveries and developed their theories. If
they had allowed their religious beliefs to get in the way, we might never have heard of them..
Before continuing, I should explain where I am coming from. I may be
writing from the perspective of a friendly Martian, but her opinions
also happen to overlap with mine. For those readers who suspect an
anti-religious atheist bias, let me say the following:
I am a strong supporter of freedom of religion. I have been working
hard within my area of influence for more tolerance and acceptance of the
religions and musical traditions of other cultures. I
have been involved in numerous research projects about musical and
religious diversity, with a broader focus on interculturality,
xenophobia and racism (more).
I come from a Christian background and I
am grateful to countless Christians for their friendship (some would call it "fellowship")
and all that I learned from them. Without learning about Christian
ethics and morality at school, I would surely be less wise today. Without
singing all kinds of religious music in a series of choirs (Chapel
Choir, Melbourne Church of England Grammar School; Melbourne University
Choral Society; UNE Madrigal Group, Armidale NSW; graz gospel chor)
and participating in innumerable church services as a chorister, I
would surely have a poorer understanding of both religion and
Although I would normally regard myself as atheist, I cannot logically
reject the idea of a god, because in a certain sense there
really has to be one. I already mentioned Gödel's incompleteness
which essentially says that for any formal mathematical system there will always exist statements about the system that are true but that unprovable within the
system. Transfering this idea to the observable universe, and assuming the universe is a finite closed system, Gödel's theorem implies that there
will always be phenomena existing or happening within the universe that
cannot be completely explained on the basis of other parts of the
universe. To explain the universe fully, we will always have to invoke
something from outside. If god is a label for that something, ok.
But Gödel's theorem
also implies that we cannot possibly know anything at all about
that extra-universal entity. Moreover, this fact belongs to a
small class of absolute truths that are true at all times in all
places, without the slightest possibility of any exception. So if there
were a human-like god, which is alrready a preposterious proposition,
s/he would not be able to turn up in Bethlehem or anywhere else without
trangressing Gödel's theorem. Speculate about the nature of god at
your own risk.
Punishment and forgiveness, guilt and redemption
Returning to our inquisitive Martian, imagine that she is trying to
understand human behavior. To understand religion, which is evidently
an important aspect, she studies things that happen in everyday
religious life. In the process she stumbles upon concepts of "sin" and
These are astonishing concepts from a Martian viewpoint. According to the Christians,
be forgiven if one believes in the resurrection (Jesus rising from the
dead). In Islam, you are
forgiven for just about everything if you recite the Shahada. For
who are not
familiar with Islam, the Shahada also commits you Islam for life.
Just say "I testify that there is no other god but Allah, and
Muhammad is God's messenger", and really mean it.
These religions teach correctly
everybody has done
bad things in their life. They then take advantage of our
guilty feelings by offering to turn our guilt into innocence
- instantly and magically. In exchange, all we have
to do is believe in some feel-good fantasies. Historically, people
often had no choice but to accept these ideas. In recent decades,
people (mainly in the West) have taken advantage of their freedom to take or
leave religious dogmas. Amazingly, many are still taking them. From an economic
perspective, it's no surprise that many people fall for this special
offer. On the surface, it's a great deal. Whether or not people realise
that it's a trick get them in so they can be controlled - they swallow
the bate all the same, and after that they're officially hooked. We are
talking about a billion Christians and a billion Muslims here.
Our Martian mascot with the super-duper telescope is amazed and shocked
at the blatant irresponsibility of the doctrine of divine forgiveness.
Why would otherwise responsible adult humans suddenly declare each
other to be innocent, simply because they decided to believe in
something that obviously isn't true? Why would those humans, at the
same time, put so much effort into legal systems (Roman law, halakha,
sharia and so on) to determine and fairly punish guilt, as an indispensible
method of protecting the rights of individuals? Surely that's a
contradiction? Something funny is going on here.
The god of monotheistic religions is the origin of everything -
all loving, all knowing, all powerful and so on. But he is also rather
down-to-earth, punishing and forgiving humans for their moral
transgressions, even getting angry. That doesn't seem very god-like.
Why is all this included in a single god-concept?
Perhaps clues can be found in other aspects of human behavior. Our
favorite Martian observes that human children are constantly
playing. That's how they develop their motor, perceptual, cognitive,
and social skills. In doing so they often break social rules that they
should have learned from their parents. So their parents and
mothers in particular are constantly alternating between punishment and
forgiveness as a strategy for teaching their children basic rules of
social interaction, otherwise known as morality. Might that have
something to do with the moral foundations of world religions?
Another issue that bothers our Martian friend is sex and contraception. Why are
world religions so obsessed about this? Perhaps this obsession
explains why these religions have so many members? Suppress flirting, and
everyone will want to get down to it. The result will be babies, and
the flock will grow. Ban contraception, and women will constantly be
getting pregnant. This seems so obvious to the Martian that it is
hardly worth writing down.
Why do those Earthlings fall for it? Are (monothestic) religions really
about close human relationships, underneath the surface? Might
they even have something to do with the human reproductive cycle? Or
perhaps they are fundamentally about women as seen from a male
perspective in a patriarchal context?
From an atheistic scientific viewpoint, there is a big general issue.
Why do so many perfectly sensible people become religious and cling to
religious ideas that are so obviously false with such ferocious
tenacity? Similarly, why do perfectly
sensible people devote their lives to making music, although logically
there is no tangible benefit? Why do Earthlings continue to engage in
religious and musical activities that may have no net benefit at all
for important things such as survival and reproduction, even in the
face of existential problems such as war or famine? Why don't they
focus their limited
time and energy on more productive activities such as food production,
group defense, and flirting?
It's all very odd, which is why so many people have been trying to
answer this question. Those earthly scientists haven't got very far, in the Martian's humble opinion. Consider the specific
question of why so many people believe in the existence of a single god
(monotheism). Why is this belief so popular, and where does it come
is hard to imagine any concrete long-term benefit for humans of living
in a religious fantasy world, abandoning reason and adopting blind
faith. It surely cannot help human development to contradict the
advances made in the Enlightenment, unless we want to go back to the Middle Ages. Or put another way: the Enlightenment
should, logically, have precipitated the end of religion, but to
everyone's surprise it did not. Centuries later, religion is as strong
as ever, in most of the world. Why?
The Wikipedia page on the "evolutionary origin of religion", which
I looked at in November 2015, contains many fascinating
insights, but it seems that none of them addresses the main
question directly: Why do so many people believe in god(s)?
central issue is the emergence of reflective consciousness and language
some 100 000 years ago. This is essentially how primates first became
truly and uniquely human. It is often understood to depend on the
emergence of symbols. In the archeological record, we find early
symbols in cave
paintings, body decorations, and other artifacts. Reflective
consciousness also gave humans the ability to think in detail about the past
and the future, so they started to wonder where the world comes from
and what happens to their souls after they die.
Logically, you don't
need the idea of human-like gods to answer such questions,
and some human cultures got along very well without them. So
consciousness in itself does not explain the enormous popularity of
monotheism. Symbols, and later writing, also helped early humans to
abstract religious ideas to each other, but that does not explain the origin of religious
ideas. It only explains their
transmission from one person or generation to the next.
of the dead, which humans have been
doing for a long time, cannot explain belief in god(s), either.
Instead, it is evidence that humans developed reflective consciousness
and theory of mind, and started to wonder what happened to their souls
after death. Logically, you can have all kinds of beliefs about
life after death without believing in god(s); a well-known example is
the Buddhist concept of reincarnation.
Nor can morality explain why people believe in god(s). Morality is essential for human social life and an important aspect of
all major religions, but you don't need gods to teach it. Confucianism is a good example. There is a kind of god in
Confucianism (Tian), but it is not essential for understanding and
applying moral principles. By extension, the same could be said about
Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Religious texts often teach
that moral principles are divine messages, but in fact basic
ideas like reciprocity or the Golden Rule should be obvious to any
child in the course of playing with other children. You don't need a
god to discover such simple ideas. Beyond that, most children learn
most of their early moral ideas from their mothers, simply because they
spend more time with their mothers than their fathers or other people.
That makes you wonder why just about every theory of the origin of
morality seems to be implicitly about men. Surely women are ultimately
in control, pulling the strings in the background? The
world would be a better place if more women were in powerful positions, and more powerful people applied the
Golden Rule to their own behavior - but I digress.
we believe things without evidence. Other times, we are skeptical,
waiting for evidence believe believing in something. This is part of
life and for humans it has always been an important survival strategy. In a sense, most animals are
constantly carrying out such
evaluations all the time. So this ability cannot explain why humans
started believing in god(s), either. Belief in god(s) is a very
specific kind of
belief, and it is one of very many things that one might believe in.
some 10 000 years ago, which necessitated
tighter social organisation. Religion may have fulfilled that function,
but tighter hierarchical social organisation would also have been
possible without the belief in
god(s). Modern examples include dictatorships on both the right and the
left side of the political spectrum.
the above points are mentioned on the Wikipedia page on the
evolutionary origins of religion, and all of them surely played an
important role during the emergence or early development of religion.
But none of them necessarily explains
the evolutionary origin of beliefs in supernatural humanoids (gods).
The wiki page also claims that religion
is an "outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human
history". If "religion" means "belief in god", this is about as likely
as a monkey accidentally typing the complete works of Shakespeare. When
neuroscientists discover and describe brain processes that correspond
to religious beliefs, that doesn't mean the brain processes are the
ultimate causes of the beliefs. The brain is plastic and constantly
both in evolution (phylogenesis) and development (ontogenesis), as the
human organism interacts with its environment. Relationships between
brain function and human behaviors may explain how those behaviors work
at a physiological level, but that
is a different thing from explaining their ultimate origins.
Recent literature on the origins of religion
Given the failure of that Wikipedia page to enlighten, perhaps we
should instead turn to recent major books on the topic. I found these
Origins of Religion in the Paleolithic" by Geoffrey J. Wightman
These are clearly excellent studies, but no matter how
good this research gets, it cannot, it seems, get past the fundamental logical
problems that I have been addressing. Our friendy Martian is not alone in holding this view. Christopher Henshilwood, reviewing
the book by Wightman, wrote:
- "Religion in Human
Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age" by Robert N. Bellah (Harvard University
religion was inevitable or not is debatable, but it seems certain that
only when human cognition allowed for the interpretation of
mental state, could belief in supernatural agents became possible.
Absolutely right: neuroscience can explain how belief in
the supernatural became possible, and archeology can provide hints as to when that might of happened, but neither can explain the origin of
Steven Horst, reviewing the Bellah's
book, addressed this
question in more detail:
I am a bit more troubled by the absence of any mention of other kinds
of work in cognitive science of religion, such as psychological
theories about the origins of our ideas of supernatural beings or
attempts to apply evolutionary explanations (such as costly signaling
theory) to religious phenomena. Belief in supernatural beings, whether
ancestors, "powerful spirits", national gods, or the God of Abraham, is
an almost ubiquitous feature of the world's religions, and one that
calls for explanation. And while Bellah provides a story about the
transitions from powerful spirits to national gods to a transcendent
God, the question of why people believe in any such beings, or the
roles they play in the forms of life of different societies, are
largely untouched in this book.
I rest my case.
Issues of perspective and practical application
How, then, can we explain the popularity of monotheism? One approach is
to separate subjective explanations from quasi-objective ones. Both
approaches are important and necessary, but they are totally different.
They correspond roughly to the humanities and the sciences.
The subjective approach is to describe music and religion from the
inside - as an "insider". We are surrounded by information of this
kind, because all humans are insiders when it comes to religion (and
music). None of us can escape the biased viewpoint of being human. I am
trying to do so in this text, but my success will be limited.
objective approach would be that of our Martian observer. Never mind that Martians don't exist - it is a useful exercise
to imagine that they do, or at least some other intelligent alien. We
should imagine this observer asking the question with an open mind,
considering any and all possible answers.
In both cases, perhaps the matter reduces to solving practical
problems. We might ask whether people believe in god because it
helps them to solve big problems that threaten their survival. Those
problems can be seen either from the inside, as a member of a society
trying to solve its own problems, or from the outside, as a Martian
would be a good reason for the existence of religion, if it were true. Evidently it is not.
If you want to solve problems, you first need to identify and
prioritise them, and then evaluate possible solutions. That it a
completely different process from religious belief. Beyond that,
religion may be causing more problems that it solves. Think Middle East.
Happiness and altruism
Does religion make you happy? If so, can that explain why so many people believe in gods?
Yes and no. There are indeed many modern studies that demonstrate convincingly that religion makes you happy. But that idea may be a modern one. Although the American
constitution talks about the "pursuit of happiness", for most people
religion was associated with duty rather than happiness until recent
One reason why religion makes you happy is the feeling of
belonging to a group of like-minded individuals who truly care about
each other and are motivated to look after each other. Many animals
tend to stick together in groups because that way they are more likely
to survive an attack and they can also share food. The biochemical
foundations of such behaviors may include hormones such as oxytocin.
Since this behavior is not confined to religion, and is much older than
religion, it cannot by itself explain the origin of religion.
Moreover, the happiness that people get
from religion has always come with a big price tag. All major religions look back
on a long a bloody history of armed conflict, and the three main
monotheistic religions are still at it in the Middle East. Their
chronic conflict is threatening the political stability of the entire
In any case, many people today (at least in Europe) would not place religion high on a list of sources
of happiness. We are more likely to attribute happiness to loving
family relationships, a job that we enjoy, and a sense of belonging to
a larger group of (non-religious) people. You get those things by supporting family
members, working colleagues, and people in other groups to which you
belong, up to and including all of humanity.
Often it is altruism, or selfless acts of generosity, that
paradoxically make people happy. We know this from common sense, and it
has also been confirmed in the academic discipline of positive
psychology. There is a lot of altruism going on in world religions,
which evidently contributes to the happiness of religious
people; but religious people are not necessarily more altruistic (more), and the altruism of religious people could be, and often is, carried out by
Why, then, why does religion still make so many people happy today? Why does it bring them such a unique and stable kind of happiness? How does that process work,
from an atheist or Martian perspective? Does believing in a god cause
endorphins to be realeased in your brain? Or oxytocin, or prolactin? If
so, why? If we could answer that question, we could understand why so
many billions of people choose to believe such weird things.
A simple solution
I have a simple, powerful explanation for all of this. It's so simple
that most people doubt it could be true. Surely we need a more complex,
more sociological theory to explain religious behavior? My claim is
that we don't. The theory I am about to present is all the more
convincing because it is NOT complex.
The theory runs like this. Everyone was an infant once. In normal
mother-infant relationships, infants love their mothers with a special
and unique kind of love. That's because during most of human
evolutionary history, the survival of infants depended almost entirely
on the care and attention they got from their mother. For that reason,
the discipline of evolutionary psychology predicts that the emotion
experienced by the infant when perceiving and interacting with the
mother is very strong, and stronger than the emotion experienced by the
the same situation. The emotion is strong because it is about raw
survival: life or death, all or nothing. In a word, it is an
existential emotion. The strong emotions we experience in musical and
religious situations also have this existential quality (sublimity,
We cannot know what it is like for an infant to experience emotion,
just as we cannot know what it is like to be a bat (to borrow the title
of a well-known 1974 philosophical paper about consciousness by Thomas
Indeed, it is interesting to ask whether an infant is capable
of experiencing emotion at all. We can nevertheless confidently predict
on the basis of evolutionary theory that the emotions of the infant in
connection with the mother are very strong. This prediction is
confirmed by empirical studies of parental deprivation or separation in
non-human animals. Physiological measures of infant emotional reaction
include piloerection (goose bumps, chills) and cortisol levels; studies
have also documented long-term behavioral consequences. The same
evolutionary theory explains
the power of adult emotions associated with survival (fear, anger,
hunger, disgust) and reproduction (being in love, sexual attraction,
orgasm, parental love).
What happens to this strong, primeval, bonding emotion when we grow up?
infant becomes a child, and the child gradually becomes more
independent. Children cannot remember the specific events of their
infancy (there is no long-term episodic memory from the first year or
so), but they still "remember" (in an indirect or implicit way) the feeling of security and
oneness they had with their mother as an infant. This feeling
accompanies their development for many years, changing as they
become more independent. The original feeling of being a part of the
mother gradually fades, but like other feelings associated with past
events, and in particular past situations that happened often, it can
be evoked by circumstances that subconsciously remind the child (or adult) of those
situations, simply because the pattern of stimuli is similar. This may
be what we mean by the musical emotion called "nostalgia".
rituals evoke strong, mysterious emotions by combining such elements as chant,
dance, darkness, drugs, and beliefs about the presence of supernatural
beings. All of these elements are related to the mother-infant bond:
song-like nature of motherese or baby talk,
- the movement of the fetus
when the mother walks,
- prenatal darkness relative to perinatal
- the dependence of infant/fetal wellbeing on hormones in the
maternal bloodstream or breastmilk (the latter including
prolactin, oestrogens, progesterone, endorphines,
relaxin, cortisol, insulin, and growth hormones) and
- the mother's
status from the infant perspective as all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful.
The theory could be rephrased as follows: human rituals
represent the ultimate origin of both music and religion, because they
reawaken long-lost, existential emotions that every fetus and
every infant experienced in the presence of her or his mother.
of us was once a fetus and an infant. Sorry to mention the
obvious, but we do tend to forget that. We may have completely
forgotten the events of our infancy, but at the time we really
were here, perceiving the world in an infant kind of way. Because
we can't remember doing that, we forget how important this "experience"
might be. We downplay how this "experience" might have fundamentally
shaped our sensations, emotions, and reactions to certain situations.
Any situation in later life that
triggers special feelings has special significance for us. We love those feelings and want to feel
them again, even if we don't know where they come from. According to the psychological principle of operant conditioning,
if we do something that feels good, we are motivated to do it
again. If we enjoy attending a football match, we try to attend
one. If we enjoyed eating in a restaurant, we go back. If we enjoy the
company of a particular person, we try to meet again. If music-like
patterns of sound or religion-like behaviors such as praying give us
nice feelings, we try to recreate them.
In everyday life, we are used to having feelings of mysterious
origin. We accept them for what they are - feelings. If we like and
enjoy our feelings, we try to recreate the situation that gave them to
us. That, in my theory, is the motor that drove the
emergence of both music and religion in spite of their evolutionary
inefficiency - the enormous amount of time and energy that
people devote to them for no apparent benefit.
The mother schema, and situations that activate it
When we perceive babies as being "cute", we are demonstrating our
instinct to care for babies. This emotion is strongly driven
by evolution (survival and reproduction). The stimulus that provokes
this response is called the infant schema.
According to Wikipedia
(November 2015), a schema is "an organized pattern of thought or
behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships
among them" or "a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework
representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and
perceiving new information". Examples of schemas include social
schemas; for example the schema of a teacher (teacher schema) may be
associated with wisdom, authority, or arrogance, or more complex
patterns depending on one's personal experience, e.g. unreasonable
expectations about student performance. If
one person starts acting like a teacher, that might trigger the teacher
schema in another person, who then inadvertently starts acting
like a pupil.
the developmental psychologist, included schemas in his theory of
cognitive development. According to him, schemas are an important
part of how children learn. Children are constantly experiencing new
things. These experiences are either assimilated into existing schemas,
or the schemas are changed to account for new experiences
infant schema includes the appearance of babies (a round face, large
relative to the face, and a small nose and mouth), the behavior of
babies (playing with colorful toys, crying, drinking, needing their
nappies changed, sleeping a lot) and the normal ways in which adults
interact with babies (which includes babytalk, of which more
presently). It motivates adults to behave in a way that promotes the
survival and development of the infant - hence its long-term survival.
In an article published in the journal Musicae Scientiae in 2009, I proposed a symmetrically inverse schema called the mother schema - the mother or carer as perceived by the infant. When communicating with infants, carers produce characteristic sounds, gestures and
facial expressions, sometimes called motherese or infant-directed speech - the babytalk that adults
spontaneously produce when communicating with babies ("Oh my, isn't she cute!"). Infants respond
to these signals by behaving in ways that
motivate adults to care for them - on the assumption (hopefully correct) that
this is probably a safe person to play with. Their mother schema is
activated, and they start acting in cute ways, which in turn reinforces
the infant schema in the carer. This mutually reinforcing interaction
between carer and infant is at least in part a simple
stimulus-response relationship: in both directions, signals are sent
evoke quasi-automatic responses.
Babies in ancient hunter-gatherer societies often died of hunger, cold, animal attack, or
even infanticide. When danger of this kind loomed, proximity to the mother was the best survival strategy. For this and other reasons, it is reasonable to assume
that the ability to recognize and respond to the mother started to
develop before birth. If that is true, the
mother schema included sound and movement patterns that are perceptible
within the human
body. This is what the fetus perceived when it was perceiving the
mother, and it included her voice, heartbeat, footsteps and digestive
sounds. This claim is supported by diverse empirical studies on the perceptual ailities of the fetus.
a child is born, there are sudden physiological changes. The
main one is the onset of
breathing. But from the point of view of psychology (perception, cognition,
emotion), the fetus before birth is the same animal as the
infant after birth. The word "animal" alludes to two
important issues. First, humans are animals, so
many aspects of our behavior can explained by studying the behavior of
more or less related animals. Second, the fetus and infant do not have
the reflective consciousness of adults, but they do have some kind of
consciousness (for example, they are capable of attending to important
stimuli), so a comparison with non-human animals may help us to
understand what limited kind of consciousness they have.
The origin of music and religion can be explained by considering the
the fetus before birth (mainly in the third trimester) and the infant
in the first few months after birth, during which it is very fragile
dependent on adults (the "fourth
trimester"). I am interested in the emotions "experienced" by the fetus
or infant during this half-year of rapid development, the inverted
commas are to remind us that non-reflective prelinguistic experience
has a different quality from reflective postlinguistic experience.
These prelinguistic emotions could help us to understand the mysterious
experience in both musical and religious contexts.
If a mother schema exists before birth, what happens to it after birth? Piaget's theory offers an
interesting answer. Suddenly, the infant has to learn to perceive the
mother in a new way; her or his survival
depends on getting that right. Suddenly, the mother is no longer a large,
moving, diffuse entity outside the womb. She no longer has a muffled
voice, heartbeat, footsteps and stomach sounds. Suddenly, the internal sounds of
her body are less seldom audible (during body contact). Gradually, the mother can also be
seen, but we know from empirical studies that the infant still
recognizes her on the basis of how she talks (her first language and
her characteristic vocal gestures). Studies of this kind suggest that
the fetus integrates this new information about the mother into an
existing prenatal mother schema. The result is an adapted postnatal
mother schema, and the process by which this transition is made is a process that Piaget famously called "accommodation". In fact, this is the first case of schema
accommodation in the infant's life, and many more will follow.
the mother schema is normally evoked only in the fetus and the infant.
As the infant becomes a child, and the child becomes more independent,
the mother schema changes in its detail and becomes less strong and less
emotional. But it does not completely
disappear as we grow older. It gets weaker, to be sure, but I am assuming for the purpose of this theory that it is
strong enough at the start of our lives to continue to affect our
behavior and experience throughout the lifespan - long after it has
outlived its usefulness.
On that basis one might predict that when the mother schema is activated in adult life, we get feelings that are (i) warm,
safe, and cosy (German has one word for all of this: geborgen), and (ii) wonderful, magic, and sublime (transcendental).
We then try to recreate the situations that
produced those feelings. Consider the following three comparisons:
1. The pitch-time structure of music is similar in many ways to
motherese, the sing-song "language" that mothers and infants use to
communicate (babbling, cooing, babytalk). It is also
similar to the internal sounds of the mother's body, to which
the fetus is constantly exposed. Melodies go up and down like the
muffled mother's voice. Harmonies sound like the audible harmonics of
voiced speech sounds. Rhythms are associated with dance, just as the
mother's footsteps are associated with whole-body movement for the
fetus. Rhythms often have a strong emotional character, like the
2. There is a remarkable connection between an adult praying to god and
a fetus or infant perceiving its mother. From the fetal
perspective, the mother is large and moving. She is also omnipresent,
omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Adult postures during
prayer are remarkably similar to fetal postures, in spite of cultural
variation. God is perceived as physically higher - where the mother's
heartbeat and voice comes from. The "voice of God" figures prominently
in monothestic scriptures.
3. For a specific example, consider the Christian tradition of
Christmas. Families gather in warm houses, in candlelight. Outside, it
is dark and snowing, which makes the micro-environment inside the house seem all the more cosy. People
exchange gifts, and consume lots of good food and drink. In church,
they contemplate the image of a divine mother and baby.
All three examples involve strong magical or transcendent
emotions of mysterious origin. As a music psychologist, I know that
musical emotion is truly mysterious, because hundreds of highly trained and motivated research
colleagues have been working hard for years in an attempt to understand
it. Perhaps the answer is simple and obvious?
Prenatal/infantile foundations of religious/spiritual traditions
Generations of theologians studying the
foundations of Judaism, Islam and Christianity have asked: How can
explain the wonderful emotions that we feel when we are (or think we
are) in the presence of God? Where do those emotions come from?
Perhaps these emotions arise because religious behaviors activate
the mother schema.
A theory based on the psychology of the fetus and infant
can explain the enormous importance of both music and religion
in all known societies - including polytheistic and animist
religions and shamanism, in which communication with supernatural
beings involves strong, mysterious feelings and altered states of
consciousness. People tend to freak out (in diverse
ways, not always positive) when they make emotional contact with their own past as a fetus
or infant. When that primordial feeling of maternal presence comes up,
people start talking about large, moving, supernatural,
celestial entities that have a voice, are capable of creation
(including giving life), and somehow represent the ultimate origin of all
universal moral principles, knowledge, wisdom, and love. The
positive emotion that they feel is so strong that otherwise smart
people suddenly throw rationality to the wind when offered religious
explanations such as communication with god and religious rewards such
as divine redemption.
I am not only talking about Abrahamic monotheism. Consider
Confucianism as a quasi-randomly selected counterexample. I am no expert, but on
the Wikipedia page on this topic (2 Nov 2015), I found
allusions to God's (Tian's) cosmic movement, creation of
life, determination of moral principles, and wisdom.
In Analects 9.5 Confucius
says that a person can know the movement of the Tian, and speaks about
his own sense of having a special place in the universe. In Analects
7.23 Confucius says that he has no doubt left that the Tian gave him
life, and from it he had developed the virtue. In Analects 8.19 he says
that the lives of the sages and their communion with Tian are
If we knew for a fact that spirituality and religion had a prenatal origin, the
key concepts in this short extract could easily be explained. The "movement
of the Tian" would allude to the mother's almost constant movement, as
perceived by the fetus. The mother is the first person the fetus learns
to perceive as a person, and maternal movement is an important
indicator of her agency. The "special place in the universe" would allude to
fetal perception of the mother as if she were the entire world. "Giving
life" is exactly what a mother does to an infant, and virtue (morality)
is what she teaches. The mother is also the source of wisdom ("sages"),
and the word "communion" reminds us that the infant initially does not
perceive itself as separate from the mother.
Perhaps spirituality is generally about the mother schema, regardless
of the details of the belief, and even if there is no belief in
supernatural beings at all? Perhaps the feeling of wholeness and of
oneness with the world or the universe - so characteristic of
"spiritual" traditions of all kind - is based in a quite simple and
direct way on the feeling of being in the womb?
When Christians pray, we kneel like a fetus (legs and arms bent,
hands touching the face) and imagine the presence of a loving god, just
as a fetus or infant might perceive its mother. This behavior may
emotions that we perceived as a fetus or infant in the presence of our
mother. At the time, she truly was our goddess, but we had
no "idea" of gender then (in fact, we had no "idea" of anything), so it
is no problem for us to transfer those
feelings in later life to a patriarchal male god. Much the same can be
said about Muslim prayer (Salah) with its bowing and prostration. These
bodily gestures can be explained in other ways, for example they
demonstrate humility and respect. I am claiming, on the basis of
diverse convergent inconclusive evidence, that they also evoke prenatal
emotion, which could explain why so many people are motivated to carry
them out repeatedly every day.
From our subjective viewpoint, we have no idea where these beautiful,
wonderful, magical emotions come from. We just feel that there is
something terribly right about them. Like in so many other things, our
sense of what is true or not is based on how we feel about it rather
than on rational thought and logic. Psychological studies have shown
how much beliefs depend on emotion, in general. In the brain, belief
and emotion are inseparable. Truth is beauty, and beauty is
truth. If it feels good, do it. So we happily accept what the scriptures tell us: these feelings
of warmth and security while praying have a supernatural origin called
"Jehovah", "God" or
"Allah". We gladly take this on board even if we realise that the
has no logical foundation. That's how strong these emotions are.
A belief of this kind also conveniently explains aspects of our
existence, for which we have no explanation and never will, no matter
how much science progresses: the origin of the universe, the
incomprehensibility of infinity, the relationship between mind/soul and
brain/body, and the mystery of death. Logically, these things have
nothing at all to do with emotions experienced by the fetus and infant. But
we happily associate those emotions with those beliefs and put them all
on a box called "god".
When a fetus experiences its mother, her voice booming down from above
like the voice of god, it is perceiving an entity that is external to
its uterine environment. This entity has two main properties: it is
large and moving. As adults, we experience the universe in the same
way. When we look in wonder at the beauty of
the Milky Way on a moonless night in the countryside, far from built-up
areas and their electric lights, we witness the entire firmament moving
relative to the earth. It too is large and moving.
This thought experiment can explain why so many ancient
traditions associated religion (spirituality), the planets, music, and human
character with each other. Even today, many people still believe in the Pythagorean concept of
the harmony of the spheres, not to mention astrology. Like religious
texts, all such beliefs are beautiful nonsense, at least from the Martian perspective. Their
ultimate origin can be explained in much the same way.
Summarising, I am claiming that the popularity of
monotheistic religions is based on the emotion that we feel in prayer,
in which we experience the presence of god; and that the
ultimate origin of this emotion is the emotion that the fetus or infant
perceives in the presence of the mother. It is no
coincidence that monotheistic gods are universally described as
omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, because that
is logically how the fetus or infant must perceive the mother. It is
natural for children to perceive their parents in this exaggerated or
fashion, and continue to do so long after the end of infancy; my
kids still think I am the
world's greatest dad in spite of my attempts to explain to them that
this logically cannot be the case. (In prehistory, the rise of
monotheism is linked to the emergence of agriculture; I will return to
this topic below.)
The same theory can explain the origin of musical
emotion. Emotions such as awe, wonder, fascination, magic, nostalgia,
transcendence, and sublimity happen more often in music than in
everyday life (according to music psychology research); they are "characteristically musical". Perhaps it is these
mysterious emotions that motivate musicologists and music lovers to announce that
a given work or composer is "great", knowing full well that no scholar
has ever developed a list of objective criteria according to which
music can be divided into "great" versus "non-great". My theory is that
emotions of this kind derive from the emotion that the fetus or baby
experiences in the presence of the mother.
theory is consistent with multiple relationships between early human development,
music, and religion. Music psychologists have found that the musical
auditory skills of infants (e.g. understanding of the structure of
phrases in a melody, or - in western music - perception of scale tuning
or responses to consonant versus dissonant sounds) are comparable with
those of adult non-musicians. Psychologists of religion have found that
children are especially open for religious ideas. Music and religion
occur together in almost every known human culture. These connections
are strong and consistent.
Interestingly, more religious people tend to
have more children (Germany: Vaas & Blume, 2009; Nigeria: Avong,
2001; USA: Mosher et al., 1992).
Some scientists think this is evidence that religion is genetically
based: there is natural selection for religious genes. But careful
empirical studies suggest the effect is cultural rather than biological
(McQuillan, 2004). Cultural selection of this kind can explain why
religion is so widespread. From a modern global perspective, it can
explain why religion is not getting weaker as science progresses, even
though education is gradually improving and the average person is
gradually getting a better grasp of science. The reason for the
higher birth rates of religious people may be a learned psychological
link between their interest in supernatural beings and their interest
in children and parenting. Both interests refer to the relationship
between a parent and a child (as an important part of the reproductive
cycle), but from different perspectives: that of the parent and that of
the child. This
combination of interests may be deeply embedded in religious beliefs, texts
and rituals, as well as the ideas and preferences of individual
In closing this short introduction to my theory of the origin of music and religion, I
should qualify that my theory primarily aims to explain emotional aspects of music and religion. It does not aim to explain cognitive
aspects such as specific musical structures or religious beliefs,
although there is clearly a strong connection between emotion and
cognition in this case. For further detail, especially with regard to
music, see my papers about the origin of music.
The event that kick-started it all
There is a danger of inventing "evolutionary just so stories" without a strong foundation to explain the origins of behaviors such as human religion, music, reflective language and consciousness. For most researchers in this area, the present theory falls into that category. Which makes you wonder why I am defending it?
My counterargument is that the theory is parsimonious in two senses.
First, it is based on a simple principle - the idea that religious and
musical rituals activate the mother schema. Second, the changes in
human behavior that led to the emergence of reflective awareness were
kick-started by a specific and very tangible change in human
circumstances, which I will now describe. I am grateful to Ellen
Dissanayake for introducting me to the following ideas.
Between 1 and 2 million years ago, as the human brain became larger,
the heads of infants also became larger. At the same time, hominins
increasingly often walked on two feet rather than four, which made
birth more difficult. Both changes meant that infants had to be born
earlier to increase the chance of both mother and infant surviving the
birth. It also meant that infants were more fragile and less likely to
survive infancy. Infants were more likely to survive if they could
communicate their needs effectively to their mothers and judge the
ability of their mothers to attend to their needs, adjusting their
demands accordingly. Thus, infants were more likely to survive if
mother and infant could communicate effectively. This is often held to
be the beginning of the special form of communication called motherese
There are good reasons for considering the radical hypothesis that motherese is the origin of religion, music, reflective language, and consciousness. All four! That may seem like throwing too many eggs into one basket, but consider the following.
- Religion: In many ways, the relationship between an individual
and a religious god or gods is remarkably similar to the relationship
between an infant and its mother - even considering the diversity of
human religious traditions. The theory is consistent with the
existential or transcendental nature of emotion in religion as
well as music.
Another point is morality and laws of behavior, which is a central
aspect of both religion and the mother-infant relationship.
- Music: Music psychologists have studied the sonic structure of
motherese carefully and repeatedly compared it to music. Motherese
includes melody and rhythm, improvisation, call-answer structures, and
implicit meaning. Like motherese, music promotes social and
- Reflective language: Motherese often involves the playful
repetition of sound and movement patterns, attracting attention to
their structure. This could be a first stage in the emergence of
reflective language, in which language is not only used to communicate
meaning (as for example bees do) - language users also reflect on the
meaning of the language that they are using, and in that sense use it
these arguments, the earlier birth of infants due to larger brains and
upright gait is a good candidate for a concrete change that eventually
lead to the emergence of human consciousness. It is unique in
natural history. The crucial role of early birth in triggering later
changes in human behavior is clear from the following argument: Larger
brains and upright gait could only have emerged if mothers and infants
had solved the problem of early birth and infant fragility by
developing new ways of communicating to ensure the survival of infants
with a certain threshold probability, otherwise humanity would not have
- Consciousness: Today, mother-infant interactions universally
involve toys which are "anthropomorphized": the mother ascribes human
agency to the toy, which the child immediately understands. This is
regarded as a step toward acquiring a "theory of mind", which in turn
may be a prerequisite for reflective consciousness. Toys are made
special in infant-mother interactions, just as artifacts are made
special in ritual. According to Ellen Dissanayake, the intimate
relationship between a mother and an infant can explain why art is a
universal feature of human culture, what art is for, and how art
works. Art in the form of music, costumes, decoration, dance and
so on plays a central role in rituals in cultures the world over,
from preliterate, tribal, nomadic, or indigenous cultures on the one hand to modern, technologically
advanced cultures on the other. Rituals that mark important social
changes such as weddings or funerals, not to mention inaugurations or
graduation ceremonies, always involve art and they generally leave
people feeling good about themselves and about being part of the group.
Mothers are also good at predicting infant accidents, which in ancient
hunter-gatherer societies could have been fatal. This could have
contributed to the emergence of consciousness. Tiime consciousness in
the sense of reflecting on the past and future relative to the present
is often considered an essential ingredient of reflective awareness.
This allows us to argue that the mother-infant relationship is a more
likely setting for the emergence of human reflective consciousness than
for example hunting. Consider the following theory of the origin of
reflective language: Hunters needed subtle forms of communication such
as sign language to trick their prey into traps and survive in times of
famine. These subtle forms of communication then developed into
reflective language. But there is no prehistoric event that would have
triggered such a change. The difficulty of trapping prey has always
been there. To my knowledge, there is no concrete development in the
prehistory of hunting that is comparable with the earlier birth of
infants due to larger brains and upright gait. For this reason we may
suppose that new more reflective forms of reflective communication
developed first between mothers and infants and were later taken up by
hunters. An additional point is that people could survive without meat
by gathering, but if the communication didn’t work in the
infant-mother relationship, the infant died, suggesting that the
infant-mother relationship was more crucial for evolution. If so, it is
more likely to have led to sustained behavioral changes that were
founded in biological or genetic changes - a combination of nature
(biology) and nurture (culture).
Monotheism and agriculture
The prehistoric origin of monotheism seems to coincide with the start of agriculture about 10 000 years ago, when nomadic peoples started to live in villages. That
seems to contradict the theory that monotheism is based on the mother
as perceived by the fetus and infant. How can that be explained?
Nomadic peoples tend toward animism - the belief that many different
spirits inhabit the natural environment, trees, animals, rocks, sacred
sites and so on. But
a kind of monotheism was also present in some nomadic cultures. Many
Australian Aboriginal cultures believed that the world was created by
Bunjil the eagle. Bunjil had assistants - but so too does god in the
In the present theory, early animist forms of spirituality can be
explained by considering the mother schema from the fetal perspective.
For the fetus, the mother is not a person, at least not in the sense of
person as experienced later by the infant. The prenatally experienced
mother is more like an all-encompassing feeling or spiritual presence.
This schema could be evoked in later life whenever one feels good about
a particular object in the natural world, for example if it is
associated with survival and well-being. From an evolutionary
perspective, we may feel good in a warm rainforest because it is an
abundant source of food, or on a high mountain because we can easily
see danger approaching. Safe, secure feelings of this kind could be
associated with the prenatal mother schema, which could also account
for the importance of changed states of consciousness in the rituals of
When nomadic people started to settle in villages, the structure of
society changed. Social roles became more differentiated. Clearer, more
hierarchical power structures emerged. These were probably also more patriarchal - the men were in charge, if only because of their physical strength. People
started to study plants and animals in a new way, to understand how
they developed and manipulate them in agriculture. The natural world
became more objective and associated with “work” - an
activity that by definition excludes ritual.
These changes might explain why spirituality was shifted to a more
abstract plane. The idea of many gods was reduced to the idea of one
god because it harmonized with the idea of a village or region having
only one ruler who wanted to maintain his power. By worshipping this
one god and encouraging others to do the same, the ruler was also
encouraging everyone to obey him.
In this situation, ritual situations stimulated the mother schema
of the infant as well as the fetus. For the infant, the mother is a
genderless person who is all loving, all powerful, and all knowing.
Monothestic gods were created in the image of the mother from the
infant perspective, giving religions a kind of emotional stability that
they previously did not possess. That can explain the extraordinary
resilience of modern monothestic religions in the face of a series of
fundamental scientific developments and changes in life-style that have
repeatedly threatened to overthrow them.
Another reason for the emergence of monotheism may have been illness.
In early agricultural societies, health deteriorated by comparison to
hunter-gatherers. People had to work harder and longer and were more
cruel to each other. There was more suffering and life expectancy also
fell. The one god of monotheistic religions may have taken on the
function of a substitute mother who listened to people's sorrows
even if no-one else did.
Is this a good theory?
There are many theories of the origin of music and religion, which
raises a fundamental problem of evaluation. Why should we prefer a
given theory over another? In a field as uncertain as this, no theory
can be "proven" or "disproven" by a critical experiment or piece of
data. Instead, experts in different areas develop opinions about
different theories based on diverse comparisons between predictions and
observations, many of which are subjective and undocumented. One might
imagine a list of relevant observable phenomena and then ask how
many could reasonably be explained by different theories.
I like the philosophical principle of parsimony known as "Ockam's razor". A theoretical
attempt to explain a complex phenomenon is more likely to be true in a
scientific sense if it is based on a single principle. Such a
theory is easier to falsify either empirically or theoretically, and
thus less likely to
contain arbitrary aspects or evolutionary "just so stories". (But the world is a complex place - especially
the social world of humans - so there are also good reasons for more complex theories.)
A second criterion is that a
theory to explain the origin of a human behavior is more plausible
if it is based on a concrete tangible prehistoric change or event
rather than some vague undocumented or accidental process that has not
left any trace.
The present theory fulfills both criteria. The simple principle is
that changed states of consciousness in ritual happen when the mother
schema of the fetus or infant is triggered. The prehistorical change
that triggered the development of religion, music, reflective language
and consciousness is held to be the fragility of human infants following the
shortening of the human gestation period as the brain became larger and
bipedal locomotion emerged.
The following passage is from Okasha (2016, p. 23-25):
Consider the following example.
The cheese in the larder has disappeared, apart from a few crumbs.
Scratching noises were heard coming from the larder last night.
Therefore, the chess was eaten by a mouse.
is obvious that this inference is non-deducitve: the premises do not
entail the conclusion. For the cheese could have been stolen by the
maid, who cleverly left a few crumbs to make it look like the handiwork
of a mouse; and the scratching noises could have been caused by the
boiler overheating. Nonetheless, the inference is clearly a reasonable
one. For the hypothesis that a mouse ate the cheese seems to provide a
better explanation of the data than the 'maid and boiler' hypothesis.
After all, maids do not normally steal cheese, and modern boilers
rarelly overheat. Whereas mice do eat cheese when they get the chance,
and do make scratching sounds. So although we cannot be certain that
the mouse hypothesis is true, on balance it looks plausible.
of this kind is called 'inference to the best explanation', or IBE for
short. (...) Scientists frequently use IBE. For example, Darwin argued
for his theory of evolution by calling attention to various facts about
the living world which are hard to explain if we assume that current
species have been separately created, but which make perfect sense
if current species have descended from common ancestors, as his
theory held. For example, there are close anatomical similaities
between the legs of horses and zebras. How do we explain this, if
God created horses and zebras separately? (...)
Another famous example of IBE is Einstein's famous work on Brownian
motion - the zig-zag motion of microscopic particles suspended in a
liquid or gas. (...)
The basic idea behind IBE - reasoning from one's data to a theory of
hypothesis that explains the data - is straightforward. But how do we
decide which of the competing hypotheses provide the 'best explanation'
of the data? What criteria determine this? One popular answer is that a
good explanation should be simple, or parsimonious.
The current theory is an attempt to explain a large number of
observations of various kinds. These are often things that we take for
granted in our everyday life, although we cannot readily explain them.
None of these points "proves" the theory, of course. But all of
them appear to be consistent with it. In fact, ever since I began to
entertain this theory, I could not find a single observation about art,
music or religion that clearly contradicted it. I would be grateful for
any feedback on this point from readers.
- The archeological record suggests that art, religion, music,
reflective language and consciousness emerged in a "cultural explosion"
roughly 100 000 years ago without accompanying neurological changes.
- Music, religion and art are universal in human culture, as is motherese.
- Music and art play central roles in religious and other rituals of diverse cultures.
- Humans invest enormous effort into art, music and religion, although
they have no clear survival value in terms of survival and reproduction.
- Rational, intelligent people - even professional scientists -
often hold religious beliefs that from a purely logical perspective are
unfounded,because they identify with them or gain great solace from
them. Religious ideas may even be dangerous, causing conflict between
different religious groups.
- Participants in musical and religious ceremonies experience
changed states of awareness, in which emotions take on a transcendental
character and become more salient by comparison to logical everyday
- Shamanism emerged independently in different cultures. It often
involves monotonous singing and beating on a drum to induce changed
states of awareness. The shaman is regarded as a wise person.
- Music can change the state of awareness of large numbers of
people in concerts, clubs, raves and so on - but also individuals e.g.
listening to headphones.
- In music, sound patterns are inseparable from patterns of movement or gesture, whether real or implied.
- The pitch range of instrumental melody corresponds on average to
that of the human voice. The tempo range of rhythm corresponds on
average to that of human walking and heartbeat.
- Infants are remarkably sensitive and receptive to art, music, and spirituality or religious ideas.
- Musical emotions are similar to everyday emotions, but they more
often have transcendental character. Transcendental emotions are
also characteristic of religious rituals.
- Prayer and meditation in different cultures usually involve special sitting, kneeling, or prostrating poses.
- Spiritual spaces such as mosques, synagogues and
churches tend to emphasize low frequencies at the expense of high,
and reverberation makes speech unclear.At the same time, religious
traditions tend to emphasize the importance of understanding sacred
scriptures. Leaders of religious ceremonies compensate by singing or
speaking in a
singing kind of way (recitation, incantation), emphasizing pitch and
rhythm over lexical content, and blurring the distinction between
speech and music.
- Gods and spirits in monotheistic and animist religions are
typically associated with creation, benevolence, knowledge, power, and
changed states of consciousness.
- Sacred texts often refer to the voices of invisible gods. The nature of god is often held to be mysterious or unknowable.
- Religions incorporate guidelines for social and moral behavior
whose origin is held to be divine. Trangressions are punished by
Why this theory is not accepted
Many distinguished colleagues in disciplines such as musicology, psychology, theology and archeology
dismiss this theory out of hand. It's crazy, they say, to assume that
the mother-infant relationship could have such an enormous and profound
effect on human behavior. But one could also turn that argument on its
head. Maybe it's crazy to assume that the first and most important
relationship in anyone's life - in the sense of raw survival - would
NOT have a big effect on human behavior? Maybe mainstream scientific
psychology is obsessed with numbers (empirical methods and statistics)
at the expense of words (clear thinking, consideration of cultural
context)? Maybe the answer to the question about the origin of music is
staring us in the face and we are looking right through it? Hmmm.
Misunderstandings about consciousness. We
have trouble imagining what it's like to be a fetus or infant,
just as we have trouble imagining being an animal without reflective
consciousness. It's even harder to understand the processes that I am
assuming to exist. How can an emotion that
exists physiologically, but is not consciously perceived, affect later
perception? I think the answer is straightforward, but others may
disagree. The fetus and infant do not have consciousness in the adult
sense, and certainly cannot apply linguistic labels to their
experiences - but they are still constantly learning. In fact, adults
are not so different. Mostly, we do not apply labels to our
moods as we go through the day; but these undescribed feelings affect
how we feel in the evening. Similarly, a dog that learns to associate
food with the sound of a bell ("Pavlov's dog") is not conscious of how
the experimenter is making him learn this association, nor is she
conscious of her own learning process. She simply reacts to different
stimuli. But she still learns the pattern, and her behavior is still
influenced by this unconscious learning. The emotion foundations of
religion and music can be explained in the same simple way.
Reverence for great music and religion. The theory seems to trivialise the "greatness" of both religious and
musical traditions. Humanities scholars feel instinctively that such a
theory cannot be correct. It seems to undermine their very raison d'etre. Musicologists
in particular (including myself) have
a lot to lose if music is reduced to a mundane human affair whose
causes and effects are known and can be studied scientifically.
Scientists have invested a lot in the idea that music is special
and mysterious, which implies that research funding agencies should be
spending up big on empirical projects to investigate it. If music is
considered a powerful but mysterious phenomenon,
politicians can be convinced that there is a need for a special kinds
scholar to try to understand it. Musicologists, theologians and psychologists would be
protecting their interests if they rejected or ignored a theory of this kind.
Fear of implications. If we gave up existing explanations
of the origin of religion and music and instead adopted the present
theory, there would be a gigantic paradigm
shift. The implications - social, political, ethical - would be
enormous. What would happen to monumental religious traditions like
Islam, Judaism and Christianity if most scholars in relevant
disciplines suddenly believed that god was no more than the mother as
perceived by her fetus or infant? Indeed. But shifts of that magnitude
happen when an old theory consistently breaks down and a new theory is
seen to be consistently superior. Revolutions in the history of ideas
were started by the likes of Darwin and Einstein, who completely
changed the way people thought about biology and physics respectively.
In the case of religion and music, we do not
yet have a widely accepted theory of origins. There is nothing to
replace. People have
become accustomed to not being able to explain their origin (or the
origin of language and consciousness, for that matter). They think music and religion are
inherently mysterious and would be most surprised to find that there is no particular mystery at
Lack of empirical testability. Scientists (like myself) are obsessed with empirical confirmation of
theories. A theory of the origin of music and religion based on
prenatal psychology is difficult to confirm empirically, because we
cannot directly access the experience of the fetus or infant in the
presence of the mother. Future research in developmental neuroscience
may address this problem by measuring physiological correlates of
emotion in the fetus and the infant, but there are big technological
and ethical problems to be overcome.
Latent sexism. The theory places women and children on centre stage, which does not
feel right in academic or social settings with strong patriarchal
and foundations (even if many of us are unaware of the resilience of patriarchal traditions, or are in denial about it).
My music-psychological colleagues rightly pride
themselves on the relative absence of sexism in our discipline, and
perhaps most leading
music psychologists are indeed women; but at a deeper level, implicit
sexism remains. Christians like to
accuse Muslims of being sexist, but in some respects the West is
worse. Consider for example how female musicians
expected to present themselves in Western pop videos; if they don't
appear as sex objects, they are unlikely to succeed. The stubborn
refusal of the Catholic
accept women as bishops, priests, and deacons, not to mention cardinals
and popes, also stems from old sexist traditions and beliefs. Women are leaving churches in droves because they
are tired of being discriminated against by men who are pretending to
see neither the problem nor the solution. In this context, an
explanation of the origin and hence fundamental nature of religion that
is based on relationships between mothers and babies seems unthinkable, in
spite of the enormous role that female symbols such as "Madonna and
child" have played in theology and church history.
Misunderstandings about ecological theory. Many people (including some psychologists) are unfamiliar with the
ecological approach to perception, given the continuing dominance of
cognitive approaches. Moreover, ecological psychologists don't
usually talk about consciousness, which is a central topic in this
theory. One of my basic assumptions is that the contents of our
consciousness are dominated by
interactions with our physical and social environment that are relevant
for survival and reproduction. What we experience when we open our eyes
is totally different from an objective representation of the physical
world: it is a reconstruction that puts things in the foreground that
are important for us. Colors have no physical existence,
but they do correspond to wavelengths of light, and their function is
evidently to help us interact successfully with our various physical,
biological and social worlds. We live our
lives in a subjective environment that our sensory systems
construct for us to optimize survival and reproduction. Beauty does
not exist in the physical world; in our subjective perception, we
experience beauty when our perceptual systems "believe" or "guess" that
something might be good for survival and reproduction, on the basis of
a complex web of similarity relationships. So what fetus "experiences"
when it perceives the internal sounds
and movements of its mother's body is quite different from what an
adult experiences when perceiving the same sounds. If we hear the
muffled sound of a voice going up and down (saying unintelligible
things), the persistent throbbing of the heart, the dull impact of feet
on the floor, digestive sounds, the swishing of fluid and movement, and
so on, it is hard to imagine that these sounds could have enormous
significance for the fetus. But if perception is guided by affordances,
these sounds are more important than any other sounds for the fetus,
whose main affordance is maternal bonding. It is even harder for us to
that these apparently trivial sounds and movements could represent the
foundation of religion and music; because for us adults, those sounds
and movements have no affordances at all and seem trivial. These examples show how important the ecological concept of
affordance is for the theory, but in mainstream cognitive psychology
the concept is usually absent. To understand and evaluate this theory, we need a
change of perspective. If must somehow empathize with the fetus
(comparable with empathizing with a pet dog or cat) in order to put
ourselves in its position (with no language and limited awareness) and imagine
the fetal significance of the internal sounds and movements of the mother's body.
In sum it is not difficult to explain why this theory is not
accepted - and is not likely to be accepted in the near future. But
from an empirical-scientific or logical-philosophical viewpoint, these
are not good reasons for rejecting it.
implications of a theory are not arguments for or against it. For
example, stopping global warming will be very expensive, but that is
not an argument against the existence of global warming. Whether the present
theory of the origin of music and religion has interesting implications for religious thought, for
sociology, or for feminism has no bearing on the question of whether
the assertions I have made are true or false. It is
nevertheless interesting and important to think about the implications
of any theory. One should consider what one is
getting into before one agrees with it.
I am claiming that the special emotions that we perceive in
musical and religious situations are not as mysterious as we think. They are derived from emotions
that are experienced by the fetus or infant as it perceives or
interacts with the mother. As music and religion emerged and developed,
and behaviors, rituals and beliefs were transmitted from one generation to the next, these emotions were shaped and moulded
in their detail, but their essential underlying character remained the
same. The emotions evoked by musical and religious rituals are
different times and in different places, but the rituals also have
certain basic universal features, which
make them special.
What are the implications of this idea? If we are prepared to take it seriously, accepting
that the arguments for it are logically stronger
than those against (at least until a better theory comes along),
then we can use it to work toward a saner, fairer,
safer world. As John Lennon sang, there is "no hell below us,
above us only sky".
There is no need to fight over religious differences, and that is
especially true if the origin of religion lies in wonderful
experiences that are shared by all of humanity, namely the experience
being a baby and beholding one's loving mother, and the experience of
re-activitating the corresponding emotions in musical and
The theory does not imply that we should give up religion or music; nor
could any such theory cause religion or music to disappear. On the
contrary, the theory explains why we need religion and music, which in any case are almost universal features of human
behavior that no-one is expecting to change anytime soon. Music and religion fulfill important psychological and social
functions, and the theory explains why.
If it ever becomes widely accepted, it may neverthess bring about some interesting changes
in the detailed content of religious beliefs and rituals.
The theory offers new justifications for continuing and reinforcing
our engagement with religion and music. If people generally
benefit from rituals and behaviors that activate the mother
schema, as the theory suggests and research in the psychology of
religion and the psychology of music appears to confirm, then even
card-carrying atheists will have a reason to return to the church and give
religion a second chance. For that reason, religions or all kinds, and
churches of all denominations, may wish to promote research and
discussions of this kind.
Imagine a world in which people are prepared to admit that their need
for music and religion is no different from their need for
unconditional love. We are born alone
and die alone, but during our lives we all have the
opportunity to use music and religion to reduce or manage our
intrinsic loneliness. Everybody
has this need, and everybody has trouble
fulfilling it. That is a universal aspect of the human condition,
and it can explain why shopping centres and consumerism are so popular,
and internet dating is such big business. Religions could get a new
lease of life by acknowledging that need, and explaining how they
The gender aspect is equally promising. Imagine a world in which gods are female rather than male, and women
and men are fundamentally equal. Social and political scientists,
ethnologists and anthropologists agree that the world would be more
peaceful if women had more power and men less, at all levels
from families to the United Nations. Humanity is slowly moving in this
direction, and we are already experiencing the benefits.
Congregations in European churches are not what they used to be, and people are wondering how to bring back the flock. Atheists and agnostics could be attracted to
church communities by a combination of strategies: explaining the health and social benefits of ritual, being
more honest about religious content, and explaining religious origins and
meaning in a simple and tangible way, as I have tried to do here. Honesty
about content might involve admitting that we can't say
anything at all about god, whatever that means exactly, but we can
nevertheless get interesting
moral ideas from ancient religious scriptures, and there is a lot to be
said for maintaining rich cultural traditions, especially those that
involve music. If the good feelings that people share in
religious/musical rituals happen to be based on good feelings they had
as infants, then at least they know what they are doing and why.
If men (including male church leaders)
find these ideas confronting, having been brought up with the quaint
idea that they are somehow superior to women, then the theory presented
here might inspire them to take a new look at their latent sexism.
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