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Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion Hardcover – January 16, 2007

2.9 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday Religion; 1 edition (January 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385511043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385511049
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,140,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sherman E. Wilcox on January 28, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The front cover of Barbara King's "Evolving God" proclaims that this is a "provocative view on the origins of religion." Perhaps, but this is not a deliberately provocative book. "Evolving God" is a gentle, respectful, and above all thoughtful book that searches for the origins of the religious impulse. King finds this in what she calls belongingness, "mattering to someone who matters to you," a trait found in contemporary humans but also in our human and non-human primate ancestors.

King's is a scientific and evolutionary account of the origins of religion, but one that is more nuanced and ultimately more satisfying than either the current trend of 'gene-based' accounts, or of those like Dawkins, who insists that science must necessarily lead us to regard religion with scorn -- a highly unscientific view, if we are ever to understand the undeniable fact that humans are deeply spiritual creatures.

Rather than pitting science against religion, King deftly uses the knowledge that science uncovers to reveal the evolution of the religious imagination. "Evolving God" should be read by all who seek to understand how and why humans came to have such an abiding interest in the spiritual, whether it is expressed through participation in organized religion or a profound sense of awe in the mystery of life. Highly recommended!
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Format: Hardcover
Barbara King makes a valiant effort to bring religion within the framework of human evolution. She's not the first to attempt this, but her primate research has placed her in an enviable position to achieve more than previous efforts. Her thesis rests on our similarity with most other primate species. We are a social creature, with outlook and behaviour depending on our relationships with our immediate fellows. Apes, she notes, express deep empathy, they mourn lost family members, just as we do. Apes interact in subtle ways, from eye contact, expressions and postures. "Body language" in many cases substitutes for the verbal skills we enjoy. Assessing these traits in a scientific manner permits us, she argues, to also assess that most bizarre of human behaviours - the religious one.

Religion, King asserts, is deeply rooted in what she terms "meaning-making". In a social species with good community identity, this creates "belongingness", a rather cumbersome term spanning self and group awareness, empathy, and a sense of common goals and values. Even the other apes, she argues, display similar characteristics. Gorillas, chimpanzees and, to a very limited extent even monkeys develop a sense of this belongingness. "Meaning-making" derives from "belongingness" by adding human forms of expression to what we inherited from our ape ancestors. Rightly inferring that modern ape behaviours have deep roots, perhaps as far back as our last common ancestor, King examines the paths humans took in their migrations and the behaviours they might have carried with them.

The best part of the book follows with fine depictions of the origins and wanderings of our ancestors over the globe.
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Format: Hardcover
On reading Evolving God I was filled with a great sense of enthusiasm and hope. Here is an author and a scientist who created a work that ordinary people can get their head around and understand. It offers a workable solution for those who want to have an intelligent faith stance but don't see it in the Fundamentalism that grips American life. The work brings together a way of considering the commonality that all religion shares and offers a clear basis for uniting instead of dividing communions. Here we have a clear and compelling call for the consideration of the real purpose and meaning of religion in the present time. This is a powerful statement of hope in a time filled with doom sayers and purveyors of dispair. By sharing her insights though her observations of animals over an extensive period of study Barbara King shows us how behavior makes all the difference. Religion is not about memorizing religious truth or doctrine but rather is about specific deeds of compassion, acts which demonstrate our belongingness and developing an ethic of respect for all life. This is a readable and thoughtful book that should be required reading for all those who want to become religious leaders. It needs to have wide spread exposure to Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddist and other major religious movements and their seminaries, institutes, Ashrams, Intellectual Centers of learning. This book will be very helpful over the course of the years ahead to discussions between religious leaders. It is one you won't want to pass up.
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Format: Hardcover
The author identifies herself as an anthropologist who has studied apes in Africa, with the main goal of understanding humans better.

This book is at bottom an extremely sloppy, vague argument about why human beings are religious. All around this nearly empty argument, the book has quite a bit of interesting, well-written, correct analyses and descriptions. There are nice debunkings of intelligent design, as well as nice balancing criticisms of claims that science precludes religion. This reader was appreciating the book, mostly, on the first read-through and had to make an effort to identify his initially vague sense that something was wrong in the basic argument.

The author quite reasonably notes that human beings (as well as apes) crave "belongingness" which she defines as "mattering to someone who matters to you." She then asks "How did humans go from craving belongingness to relating in profound and deep ways to God, gods, or spirits?" (p. 3). The alert reader might immediately think, who says we went from there to there? The author has assumed what she spends the book trying to prove, i.e. that religion and spirituality have evolved (her word) from this need for "belongingness." "An earthly need for belongingness led to the human religious imagination and thus to the other-worldly realm of relating with Gods, gods, and spirits" (p.7).

Chapter 1 sets the issue, and Chapters 2 through 6 present us with lots of lovely description of belongingness in apes and humans. She leaves us in no doubt - did we ever have any? - that we are social animals.

In Chapters 7 and 8 she addresses the issue whether all this belongingness is or is not the source of human religion/spirituality, which according to the author "evolved" from it.
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