From Publishers Weekly
In this sure-to-be-controversial treatment of the origins of religion, King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, posits that "an earthly need for belongingness led to the human religious imagination and thus to the other-worldly realm of relating with God, gods, and spirits." For evidence, King draws upon cutting-edge research in primatology to demonstrate that once animals are capable of emotional attachments and cognitive empathy, they are ready for—and even appear to require—certain intangibles like a belief in something greater than themselves. While many theological types are likely to caricature King's arguments as a cool scientific dismissal of religion, her interpretation is actually far more nuanced and subtle than this. It's true that the book requires some enormous argumentative leaps; it's a long stretch from demonstrating that contemporary primates have emotional attachments to claiming that they are then capable of creating religions, as King maintains human beings once did. But even readers who close the book unconvinced will be impressed by King's fresh insights and her lucid writing, which is a jargon-free, story-filled model for all academics who wish to write for a general audience.
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*Starred Review* Biological anthropologist King contends that religion, conceived as a system not of beliefs but of actions, not as theology but as worship, is a consequence of primate evolution. It proceeds, she posits, from the sense of group membership that highly developed mammals, especially the great apes, demonstrate in many ways but most saliently for religion when they show concern for a group member that has died. Signs of such concern appear in the fossil record of human ancestors first at burial sites. Certain arrangements of the bodies of the dead, funerary articles, and choices of particular colors and designs indicate an expanding consciousness of the universe-in-time and speculation about creatures' places within it. Even before the famous cave paintings of early Homo sapiens, which increasingly are seen to express religious feeling, large Neanderthal ceremonial sites indicate worshipful attitudes--indicate, King insists, the emotions of religion. In conclusion, she weighs the popular debate over evolution, noting high skepticism about human evolution and high belief in God, and questions the compulsion to choose either evolution or belief. Anyone who recognizes that compulsion, internal or external, may profit from reading this brilliant book. Ray Olson
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