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Providing a “minimalist definition” of religion as “belief in some kind of transcendental world (that may or may not coincide with our observable physical world) inhabited by spirit beings or forces (that may or may not take an interest in and influence the physical world in which we live),” noted anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Dunbar explores the full array of religious expression across the globe and throughout history and prehistory. Noting that religion is a universal fact of human culture, Dunbar divides the book into chapters dedicated to broad concepts of religious manifestation in civilization. Among others, the topics include the benefits of religion to people and societies, ranging from its role as a tool for cooperation to its use in community building; the global phenomenon of mysticism, which “involves direct ecstatic experience of the divine,” and the important effects that rituals have on the human brain; the ubiquity of religion in prehistory and how its practices might have helped solidify primitive cultures; and the remarkable growth in religious expression through the Neolithic period and beyond. Bringing us into modern times, Dunbar then explores the occurrence of charismatic cults and the spawning of new religious communities as well as the increasing frequency of schisms within existing religious movements. Near the end, he writes, “beneath the elegant superstructure of…sophisticated theologies lurk the ancestral shamanic religions of our deep history. These older forms play a crucial role in providing the psychological basis for being a believer, because, deep down, religion is largely an emotional, not an intellectual, phenomenon. They offer an explanation as to why the doctrinal religions are plagued by a constant welling up of cults and sects from within their own grassroots.” Seen in that way, religion is indeed an evolutionary tool in the formation of humankind as it exists today, and Dunbar is the perfect guide.

10 recommended
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