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The Ancient Rites That Gave Birth to Religion

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

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

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

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

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