“In the beginning…”

Marsha Hewitt explores the roots of religion – and the psychology that drives our need for a spiritual connection by Paul Fraumeni

The idea of a higher force — the spirits of aboriginal peoples, the gods of the Romans, or the supreme beings that modern religions worship — is uniquely human. Today, we call this idea “religion.” And it has played a powerful role in human history since our species evolved from apes.

Our other major innovations — such as the use of fire, the invention of the wheel, language, music, literature, cooking, understanding of the scientific forces that govern our existence — have an obvious, tangible purpose.

But why religion?

Marsha Hewitt doesn’t claim to have an answer. In fact, she says, no one definitely knows why humans developed religion. She is, however, fascinated by the cognitive ability — or to put it in more blunt terminology, the brain power — of humans to imagine a force or forces beyond what we can see and touch here on Planet Earth.

“What we call religion is hard to define and there’s a great amount of debate, even confusion, over a definition,” says Hewitt, a professor in the Department for the Study of Religion and in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College. “I work with the
definition that it involves belief in superhuman or supernatural agencies that impact our life and that we, in turn, can impact through certain kinds of rituals.”

Hewitt is also a practising psychoanalyst, helping patients deal with their lives and life situations and how the unconscious influences behaviour.

“Our brains give us the capacity for symbolic thought. My particular interest is in what are the cognitive and affective mechanisms that enable people to imagine and believe in these counterintuitive beings.”

While she notes that although the reasons humans seemed to need religion are hazy, there is evidence of us reaching out to a spiritual world from our earliest times. “The first kind of evidence we have is seen in the evidence of burials. What has been found appears to have been ritualistic or carried out at least in an organized way. But what does it mean?”

She points to South African scholar David Lewis Williams, who has explored the meaning behind Paleolithic art on the walls of deep caves, such as the Chauvet caves in France featured in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. “Williams looks at ancient cave paintings and wonders what motivated people to go into the caves. He believes the spiritual focus of the art is neurologically based, the images generated from within their minds. But the people who made that art put themselves at great risk to venture that far underground. They didn’t take this risk just to make pretty pictures. There must have been a ritualistic meaning, the walls of the caves representing a membrane between this world and the spirit world.”

Hewitt’s own research into the motivation for religion is currently focussed on Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. She is working on a book on Freud and religion.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about Freud’s critique of religion. Many people feel Freud was just an atheist and had nothing but contempt for religion. That’s really not true.”

She says Freud anticipated attachment theory, which is now considered relevant in evolutionary psychology. “Think of the infant who calls out to the world for survival — ‘Feed me, comfort me, help me to survive.’ That attachment system is an evolutionary endowment that helps in the survival of the species. When we are adults it quiets down, but it may become activated when we experience severe stress. Freud says that in certain people, maybe those who didn’t resolve conflicts of early infancy, the anxiety that is part of living may be so unbearable they have to find external sources of comfort. So he wondered if religion is a product of the human response to feelings of helplessness, vulnerability or terror.”