In delivering the inaugural lecture of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, renowned scholar Jared Diamond pondered the evolution and impact of religion in human society.
“Religion offers lots of power. Religion wasn’t invented from scratch, religion didn’t suddenly appear,” he said. “Religion was something that evolved gradually over the course of modern Homo sapiens.”
In his April 20 address, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel combined astronomy and philosophy to explore the functions and origins of religion in society—asking the same kinds of broad questions that the Stevanovich Institute examines regarding human knowledge.
“His ability to speak, both to academics and to the public, the range of his research beyond disciplinary boundaries, and his support of cross-cultural understanding are skills we admire and hope to emulate,” said Prof. Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, the institute’s director, who introduced Diamond to a packed lecture hall.
A professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, Diamond’s academic research studies society through a variety of lenses. In his lecture, Diamond outlined the core tenets of religion in society—the belief in a divine creator, moral codes and an afterlife. Observing that all human societies have some kind of religion, he concluded that religion must have had functions and advantages that allowed it to persist this long.
“Religion must have evolved gradually over the last 70,000 years,” Diamond said. “Religion is a byproduct of the enlarged human brain, which gives us an enormous advantage by allowing us to deduce what’s called agency, to deduce cause and effect in other humans, to deduce motivations in other humans, and to deduce cause and effect in animals.”
He examined the historical advantages of human religion in the contemporary world, in which Diamond said people increasingly seek explanation of the world from science rather than religion, and where inequality is increasing and religion is a less acceptable justification for war.
Diamond asserted religion’s oldest functions include explaining the world, reducing anxiety in the face of danger, and providing comfort, hope and meaning when life is difficult. A more secular society added other functions—a leader claiming divinity for legitimacy and demanding obedience, creating moral codes and behaviors, and justifying war.
Diamond even pondered what extraterrestrials traveling to Earth might observe about human society. “Put yourself in the position of a visitor from one of those planets, like the Andromeda Nebula,” he said. “These humans have some curious beliefs as well as habits.”
The talk concluded with questions from the audience, ranging from the possibility of life on other planets to Marx’s critique of religion. Diamond emphasized the strength of religion, particularly when asked about repression of religion.
“When societies have attempted to repress religions, as in Communist Russia, religions have gone underground,” Diamond said. In other words, even the possibility of an atheistic society is negated by the tenacity of religious belief.
Formally established in 2016, the institute brings together faculty, graduate students, and visiting scholars to work across disciplines. The Stevanovich Institute also offers classes to students, produces a biannual journal and hosts a variety of events. Next fall, the institute will be moving into a newly renovated space and hosting an inaugural conference on Nov. 16-18.