The origin of music and religion

The mother-infant relationship from the infant perspective 
Richard Parncutt

2 November 2015, revised March 2017



Evolutionary theory and archeological evidence can explain many religious behaviors, but not 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, motivated by what? Musical behaviors and emotions are similarly mysterious. In both 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 schema triggers diverse survival behaviors. In children and adults, it reawakens emotions “experienced” by the late-term fetus and infant, triggered by similar stimulus patterns. The connection is indirect, because music and religion develop over long time periods in different cultural contexts. Based on simple psychological (not psychoanalytic) foundations, the theory can explain strong, specific emotions experienced by participants in musical and religious rituals, specific details of those rituals (prayer, space, voice, chant, community), and religious moral codes 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 stop 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
My background
Punishment and forgiveness, guilt and redemption
Evolutionary explanations

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 problem.

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 call hocus-pocus.

If 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 do that?

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 are not 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 about?

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 Christian country, 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 politicians are 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..

My background

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 music.

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 theorem, 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 "forgiveness".

These are astonishing concepts from a Martian viewpoint. According to the Christians, one's sins will 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 readers 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 that 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?

Evolutionary explanations

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 from originally?

It 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)?

A 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 explain 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.
Burial 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. Sometimes, we believe things without evidence. Other times, we are skeptical, waiting for evidence believe believing in something. This is part of everyday 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. Agriculture began 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. All 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 developing, 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 two:
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:

Whether religion was inevitable or not is debatable, but it seems certain that only when human cognition allowed for the interpretation of one’s own 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 specific beliefs.

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.

An 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 observer.

Solving problems 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 decades.

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 planet. 

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 atheists .

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 mother in 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, transcendence).

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 Nagel). 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? The 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".

Human 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:
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.

And all 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 another 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. 

Piaget, 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 (accommodation).

The infant schema includes the appearance of babies (a round face, large eyes 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 that 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.

When 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 experience of 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 and 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 emotions we 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.

Initially, 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 mother's heartbeat.

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 we 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 interwoven.

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, head bowed, 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 simply trigger 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 belief 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 perfectly natural for children to perceive their parents in this exaggerated or superlative 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.

The 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 believers.

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 or babytalk.

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.
Given 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 survived.

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, w
hen 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 Christian tradition.

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 hunter-gatherer societies.

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.

It 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.

Reasoning 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.

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 conscious 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 feelings and 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 of 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 only 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 all. 

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 traditions 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 many or 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 are 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 church to 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 affordances: 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 imagine 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 radical 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.


The 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 at 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 of being a baby and beholding one's loving mother, and the experience of re-activitating the corresponding emotions in musical and religious contexts.

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 fulfill it.

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. 


Avong, H. N. (2001). Religion and fertility among the Atyap in Nigeria. Journal of Biosocial Science, 33(01), 1-12.

Dissanayake, E. (2000). Antecedents of the temporal arts in early mother-infant interaction. In N. L. Wallin & B. Merker (Eds.), The origins of music (pp. 389-410). MIT Press.

McQuillan, K. (2004). When does religion influence fertility? Population and Development Review, 30(1), 25-56.

Mosher, W. D., Williams, L. B., & Johnson, D. P. (1992). Religion and fertility in the United States: New patterns. Demography, 29(2), 199-214.

Okasha, S.
(2016). Philosophy of science: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Vaas, R., & Blume, M. (2009). Gott, Gene und Gehirn. Stuttgart: Hirzel.

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