Why would someone believe in an invisible guy up in the sky who, mysteriously, is almighty, all knowing, and has the power to either crush you, or make all your dreams come true? The fact is, no society has ever been found without any type of religion. And, those societies that have tried to get rid of religion, have failed miserably. So, if religious beliefs seem so unlikely to be true, why do they persist? How did the belief in gods arise? Here are some of the theories about the origins and nature of religion, as presented by historians, sociologists and anthropologists:
Religion helped us become humans, and it is in our genes. Evolution is about the survival of the fittest and the struggle for existence. But, that does not mean we can’t help each other. In fact, we have to. Ever since Darwin, evolutionary scientists have had to reckon with altruism: why would an individual help another individual? There are various possible answers, but one of them is: because, by helping someone else, the altruist increases the fitness of the group (LINK 1). Thus, nature not only selects individuals, but groups as well. And, those groups that have altruist individuals survive in greater numbers. Biologists call this phenomenon “group selection”.
Religion reinforces group selection (LINK 2). Most religions teach some form of altruism (“Love thy neighbor”). In the African savannah, things were very tough for our primate ancestors. They needed to cooperate with each other in order to survive. Common belief in gods, spirits, or what have you, strengthened communal feelings. The flipside, however, was that religion also encouraged tribalism. And, we can clearly see that today: all too often, religionists are very loyal to other members of their religion, but very hostile to the heathen.
Religion is in our genes, but it serves no purpose. There is a tendency to erroneously belief that everything in human evolution is an adaptation. Not necessarily so. Some behaviors may be in our genes, but may serve no purpose. It may be natural for us to believe in gods, but unlike the theory of group selection, this may not have been to our advantage.
According to a theory popularized by Richard Dawkins, religion is just an offshoot of other adaptations (LINK 3). In a hostile environment such as the African savannah, it was advantageous for children to obey their parents, so as to be kept away from danger. But, this innate tendency for obedience would also make us very credulous as adults. Another adaptation in the African savannah may have been “agency detection”, i.e., the tendency to believe that inanimate things are alive and may threaten us. This allowed us to escape from the danger of predators. However, this “agency detection” also made us paranoid and, ultimately, it is easier for us to believe that things have a purpose, when in fact, they don’t.
Religion explained natural phenomena. We all like to ask questions. Over the centuries, with the help of science, we have managed to answer many of them. But, many centuries ago, human beings did not have the capacity to address scientific questions. They therefore made up religious stories to provide answers. 19th Century anthropologist Edward Tylor proposed that humans wondered how dead people appeared in dreams. According to this theory, early humans reasoned that everyone has a soul, and thus, the spirits of dead people appear in dreams (LINK 4).
Likewise, in order to explain why there is thunder, rain, sunrise, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc., our ancestors made up stories about gods. The first Greek philosophers began their rational intellectual activity precisely as a way to counter these old conceptions. But, even if science and philosophy have provided many responses, there are still many other unanswered questions. What happens when we die? How did the universe begin? Will there be an end to the world? Religion, it seems, very easily fills this void.
Religion followed magic. Humans have a desire to control the world. But, they soon find out that they cannot control it, or at least, not to the degree that they hope. Our ancestors probably began to believe that, by doing some strange rituals, they could get things under their control. According to another 19th Century anthropologist, J.G. Frazer, magic anteceded religion (LINK 5). Human beings began to perform rituals following two basic principles: contact and imitation. They believed that things that were once in contact, constantly remained so. Thus, in order to harm an enemy, a sorcerer may get hold of the enemy’s belonging and burn it, hoping to burn the enemy himself. Or, alternatively, they believed that things that look similar, are actually the same. Thus, the sorcerer may create a figurine resembling the enemy, and by sticking pins on the figurine, hopes to harm the enemy (that is how the famous Voodoo dolls work).
Frazer believed that religious beliefs follow these original ritualistic ideals. As long as humans yearn for some control of the world, so the argument goes, religious beliefs will thrive.
Gods were originally animals. Pretty much all religions have some connection with animals. To this day, some religions worship animals explicitly, while others incorporate animals in a more subtle way. According to early 20th Century sociologist Emile Durkheim, the original form of religion was totemism; i.e., the worship of animals, usually thought of as ancestors (LINK 6).
However, according to Durkheim, totemism is richly symbolic, and stands for a lot more than just the belief that some animal is a group’s ancestor. The animal actually serves as a symbol representing the group. And, in such a manner, the common worship of the animal is a way to reaffirm group identity and strengthen solidarity. Religion, thus, serves an important social function, and given that we are essentially social animals, religion will not be going away anytime soon.
Religion arose from a confusion of language. Do you ever get bored with scientific language? Wouldn’t it be nicer if, every once in a while, scientists used a more poetic or metaphoric language? Ancient poets certainly seemed to think so. And thus, instead of speaking about the sea as a mass of water, they would describe the sea as a person who, occasionally, gets upset and sinks boats.
According to 19th Century linguist Max Müller, these poetic expressions were eventually misinterpreted by the next generations, due to a “disease of language” (LINK 7). Ancient bards anthropomorphized natural phenomena and abstract concepts purely for poetic reasons, but audiences came to believe them literally. In such a manner, gods took a life of their own.
Religion represses our instinctual drives. We all want to have sex with the parent of our opposite sex, and kill the parent of our same sex. Or, at least, that was Sigmund Freud’s belief. Yet, the founder of psychoanalysis also believed that, in order for society to exist, human beings cannot fulfill those desires. Religion, Freud believed, exists as a repressive device to limit our instinctual drives.
According to Freud’s theory as laid out in his classic Totem and Taboo, once upon a time, the male members of the clan killed their father (LINK 8). However, they immediately felt guilt. And so, they wound up worshiping the murdered father, and imposed restrictions on sexual intercourse with their sisters. That is how the first gods and religious prohibitions arose. Granted, this story is mere speculation, but the case could be made that, indeed, religion is the main source of the moral repression that, for better or worse, makes civilization possible.
Gods are projections of ourselves. Have you noticed that African tribal gods are black, whereas Scandinavian gods are white? Xenophanes, an Ancient Greek philosophers famously said that, “if cattle and horses and lions had hands… would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have” (LINK 9). Perhaps, gods arose from dissatisfaction with our own nature, and as a projection of what we would most like to be. In other words, gods arose as a projection of ourselves.
19th Century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach certainly thought so (LINK 10). According to his theory, from its very beginnings religion has alienated human beings, by diminishing our nature in favor of grandiose beings. If humanity is to recover its confidence and self esteem, so Feuerbach argued, we must abandon religion and take control of our own fate.
Religion is the opium of the people. Why do exploited people not rise up in rebellion? According to 19th Century philosopher Karl Marx, the answer is fairly simple: because they are drugged, so to speak (LINK 11). Oppressors administer the oppressed a powerful drug, either to numb the pain, or even worse, to convince them that they are not really oppressed.
In Marx’s theory, religion is this powerful drug, and that is how religions began. The haves convinced the have-nots to endure pain and not to revolt, because in the afterlife, well, everything will be all right. Religious beliefs always suit the interests of the dominating class. For that reason, Marx believed, the revolution must eventually lead to atheism. Regardless of the merits of Marx’s theories on religion, 20th Century Communism took it way too seriously, with disastrous results.
Gods are the real deal. The previous theories assume, in one form or another, that religions are human inventions. But, if God does exist, then the nature and origin of religion can be traced back to the divine and the supernatural itself. At any rate, philosophers still debate whether or not explaining religion’s origins actually amounts to refuting the claims of religions. We must beware of the genetic fallacy: to unearth the origins of a belief is by no means a refutation of such belief (LINK 12). Therefore, even if religion is an offshoot of some evolutionary adaptation, the opium of the people, or whatever else, that is not proof enough that the gods are not real.