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What Do We Know? What Can Be Known?

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Part of the New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion book series (NASR,volume 10)

Abstract

Scientific research into the evolution of religion depends upon two sources of descriptive knowledge: traces of prehistoric religion and information about historic religions. The asymmetry between the two bodies of knowledge results in a prevalence of retrospective hypotheses based upon analogies with historic religions. Sometimes they consist of several mutually dependent assumptions. An example is the proposal that the Neanderthals used a special form of proto-music instead of the conceptual language typical for Homo sapiens.

Knowledge of human origins inevitably becomes part of the ongoing political and cultural discourse about human nature and social value systems. Identity-building narratives depict the rise of humanity from its natural roots to emphasize specific world-view perspectives. Science, the “art of doubting”, clashes inevitably with the urge to create consent in a community by shared narratives. An example is the genetic bottleneck early Homo sapiens lived through in Africa, which was discovered by genomic methods. In popular accounts, the result is turned into a heroic survival story. Yet scientific research has to be based upon a realistic outline of prehistoric religious phenomena, including difficulties of interpretation.

Keywords

  • Methodology
  • Critical evidence
  • Retrospective hypothesis
  • Paleoanthropology
  • Singing Neanderthals
  • Human nature
  • Public discourse
  • Identity-building narration
  • Genetic bottleneck

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Hemminger, H. (2021). What Do We Know? What Can Be Known?. In: Evolutionary Processes in the Natural History of Religion. New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion , vol 10. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-70408-7_3

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