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Baba Brinkman: Rapping Up Evolutionary Theories of Religion
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Lloyd Black
Lloyd Black
is a doctoral student in the Evolution, Cognition, and Culture program of the Anthropology department of the University of Connecticut.

In his recent release The Rap Guide to Religion, the rapper Baba Brinkman presents a lyrical précis of the major contemporary theories of the evolution of religion. He offers the listener an appreciation of the complexity of the different theoretical approaches. Surveying the adaptive, maladaptive, and by-product schools of thought, his witty overview of the subject is designed to appeal to experts and laypeople alike.

Brinkman takes the time to summarize a host of proposals of the broader makeup of religion, such as: theory of mind, cultural evolution, supernatural punishment, mind viruses, or just plain old human curiosity. With an understanding of our species’ long evolutionary history, the foundations of his lyrics are as much in psychology or cognitive science as in religious allusions or pop culture references.

In “Religion Evolves”, Brinkman introduces the listener to the fundamental questions that scientists of religion grapple with. Is religion an adaptation for maximizing descendants? Does it primarily benefit individuals or groups? Is culture or genetics a better explanation for its propagation? Perhaps it is not adaptive at all; could it simply be a by-product of another force at play, like a belly button is for an umbilical cord?

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Brinkman notes that although there are thousands of extant religions, the vast majority of the world’s population are adherents to just a small handful of the most successful faiths. The competition between faiths creates a potential evolutionary arena in which selective pressures encourage the proliferation of some, and the disappearance of others. As Brinkman quips, “They’re just like rap artists, most of them won’t be around in a decade”.  This could promote belief systems that are especially good at enhancing fitness or solving groups’ problems. Or, perhaps the adaptability of religion has been exaggerated? In all, Brinkman raises the arguments of each school of thought, giving each their due without aligning firmly with any camp.

Interwoven amidst his scientific references, Brinkman proffers a philosophical system wherein religion is grounded within a naturalistic framework devoid of supernatural elements. Using “Imagine” as the title for his final track, Brinkman takes inspiration from the John Lennon song of the same name, while stipulating “So yeah, I can imagine a world without religion, but that’s not my vision”. Alternately, he argues that – even flawed – religion is amazing, and that ritual and transcendence should persevere, but within a worldview that places rationality at the forefront. Boldly suggesting that if people merely comprehended the evolutionary perspective, that “religious violence would be all but ended”, Brinkman invites us to partake in a quest to discard the divisiveness of religion while keeping its fulfilling qualities in a non-metaphysical context.

This proposal to pivot the raison d’être of religion away from the explication of the supernatural is purposed as a feel-good pitch for a less superstitious future; however, for many, the powerful significance of religion lies exactly in its ability to navigate the terrain of the supernatural. Without this capability to traverse these innately felt (and unlikely to disappear) landscapes, the vestigial structures remaining could very well be potent philosophies unto themselves, but it is not clear that they would be in any way a ‘religion’ as he intimates. In contrast with his synopses of the major theories touched upon in this album, the evolutionary logic behind this transformation of religion is not immediately evident. Nor are the implications of this as necessarily obviously beneficial as he assumes. However, the sentiment of reducing the amount of unnecessary division in the world is certainly a laudable one in which we can all join.

In conclusion, The Rap Guide to Religion is a thought-provoking and hip exploration of some of humanity’s deepest concerns. Bringing together an array of hypotheses from psychologists, anthropologists, and other scientists, Brinkman’s raps weave together his hopeful personal philosophy with informative presentations on some of the possible reasons why religion exists, spreads, and matters. The result is a rhythmical tapestry that is both provocative and entertaining. After all, it is not every day that one can listen to raps in which evolutionary theories of religion, Jay Z, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Michelle Obama, Star Trek, Jesus, and velociraptors each make an appearance.

You can stream and download The Rap Guide to Religion here.

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