Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany

About the origins of religion

Humans are the dominant species on this planet because we collaborate flexibly in large numbers. Other social animals like monkeys and dolphins cooperate flexibly, but only in small groups. Ants and bees cooperate in large numbers, but only in fixed ways determined by their genetic code. Language makes large-scale flexible collaboration possible. Some animals use signs and calls, but we use far more words than any other species.1 We make agreements and communicate them. Flexible large-scale collaboration also requires imagination and shared beliefs. Societies founded on religion thus had a competitive advantage in the struggle to survive.

We imagine laws, money, property, corporations and states. We believe there is a law, and that is why the law works. The same is true for money and corporations. I can tell a dog about the benefits of using euros to pay a corporation to produce dog food, why there are regulations to guarantee the quality of the product and governments to implement these regulations, but a dog does not care. You cannot make dogs work together in a corporation to produce dog food by paying them money. Our ability to imagine things existed before there were civilisations. Archaeologists uncovered a 32,000 years old sculpture of a lion head upon a human body. These lion-men only existed in the imagination of humans.

Gods are imagined too, just like laws, property, states, and lion-men. People who share a religion can go on a holy war together and slaughter infidels. Religions can also motivate people to do charitable work and provide for the poor. And religions promote social stability by justifying the social order and promising rewards in the afterlife for those who subject themselves to it. The alternative could be endless class struggle or civil war. Indeed, our imagination makes us do things other species are not capable of. You cannot make a dog submit itself to you by telling that obedient hounds will go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss after they die while unruly canines will be fried forever in a tormenting fire.

Small bands of people can cooperate because their members know each other personally and see what everyone is contributing to the common cause. In larger groups, this becomes harder, and people will cheat, rendering large-scale collaboration between strangers impossible. That is where states, money, and religion come in. They facilitate collaboration between strangers. As there is a survival-of-the-fittest-like competition between societies, those who cooperated most effectively survived and subjugated others.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers who believed that places, animals, and plants have an awareness, feelings and emotions. For instance, a deer hunter might address a herd of deer and ask one of the deer to sacrifice itself for the hunt. If the hunting succeeds, the hunter asks forgiveness of the dead animal so that its spirit will not trouble him later on. These early beliefs concerned visible objects like animals, plants, rivers and rocks. Early humans felt that they were more or less on an equal footing with the plants and animals surrounding them.1 Over time humans began to imagine fairies and spirits. A crucial step in the development of religion was ancestor veneration.

The first humans lived in small bands based on family ties. Their ancestors bound them together. And so, people may have started to venerate the dead. It was a small step to imagine that the spirits of the dead are still with us and that our actions require the approval of our late ancestors. Ancestor veneration opened up the possibility to imagine a larger-scale relatedness in the form of tribes. A tribe is much larger than a band. It is also held together by a belief that all members share a common ancestor. Tribes are much larger and could muster more men for war. That is how tribes replaced bands. It can help when people attribute magical powers to their ancestors and fear the consequences of angering them. In this way, ancestor worship evolved into the worship of gods. The Bible features two mythical ancestors of humanity, Eve and Adam, effectively turning all of humanity into a single tribe, which may turn out to be an instance of great foresight.

Hunter-gatherers can move on in the case of conflict, but farmers invested heavily in their fields and crops. Losing your land or harvest usually meant starvation. With the arrival of agriculture, territorial defence became paramount. States provided territorial defence and could afford larger militaries. Kinship was an obstacle to a territorial organisation. States defend their realm and enlist the people within their realm, regardless of their family ties. As people favour helping family and friends, this may require coercion. States thus needed a new source of authority, and the worship of gods may have replaced ancestor veneration. When humans started to subjugate plants and animals for their use, they needed to justify this new arrangement. And so, myths emerged in which the gods created this world and ordained that humans rule the plants and animals. The Bible has such a commandment too.

The religions we now have, originate from agricultural societies. The need for the defence of land and crops may explain why these religions are patriarchal, limit the freedoms of women, and shame unfaithful women more than men. The men defended their village. They may be more willing to protect women and children they consider their own. Men can never be sure that they are the father of a child. It can explain their desire to control the sexuality of women. Men can also walk out when they doubt their fatherhood. This may have given men a position of power.

Religions may have emerged out of ancestor worship so gods could be like mothers and fathers. People usually gave devotions to several ancestors. Each ancestor may have had a specific quality. As a consequence, early religions may have come with several gods, each with a distinct role. Monotheistic religions arrived when people became emotionally attached to one particular deity. They began to imagine that their divinity is the only one that rules the entire universe. When Christianity was promoted in areas where people still worshipped several gods, the church invented saints to replace them. Each saint came with specific qualities. For instance, if you are on a voyage, you can pray to St. Christopher for protection because he is the patron of the travellers.

Monotheistic religions may have been successful because monotheists were intolerant. If you are fond of a particular deity, other religions can be an offence. When you worship several divine beings, you can easily accept that some people can be fond of only one particular deity. To monotheists, there is only one divine being worthy of worship, and devotions to other gods is often forbidden.1 Yahweh is a jealous deity, the Bible claims. Those who had different beliefs had to be forcefully converted or killed.

We prefer a god who cares for us and answers our prayers. That creates logical difficulties. Prayers often are not answered, and many bad things are going on. So how can an almighty creator allow this to happen? The obvious answer is that there is no god or that God does not care. That is not the answer we want to hear. And so people imagined Satan, God’s evil adversary, who makes all these bad things happen.1 And we hope that evil people receive punishment. If it is not now, then in the afterlife or a final reckoning on Judgement Day.

Then came science with a sobering message. Our existence appears to be the result of accident and evolution. Religions were invented to promote cooperation. Over time the belief may have taken hold that all humans are unique and valuable individuals. Indeed, we are unique. Our imagination makes us do things other species are not capable of. At some point, technology may have enabled humans to realise their fantasies. They may have turned into gods when they became immortal and created virtual reality universes for their entertainment. We may be living in one of these universes. God is a good term for the owner. And God might use an avatar to appear as an ordinary human to us.

Existing religions tell us very little about God and the plan God has with us. All gods are fantasies. On a rare occasion, your imagination can come true. So, if you believe that this universe has an owner who has a plan for us all, you may be right. Still, everything else you think to know about God most likely is a delusion promoted by established religions or your desires. The current predominance of Abrahamic God appears not to be a historical accident, however. That justifies a closer look at the origins of Yahweh, the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Summary:

  • Societies founded on religion had a competitive advantage in the struggle to survive as religion facilitates collective action.
  • Religions developed gradually from spiritual beliefs via ancestor veneration to the worship of gods.
  • Political needs and psychological desires shaped the development of religions.
  • Religions may be patriarchal because agricultural societies required defence and because men cannot be sure of fatherhood.
  • Hence, existing religions tell us little about the possible owners of this universe or what is going to happen.
  • It may, however, be no accident that the worship of the God of Abraham has become predominant.

Featured image: Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany.  J. Duckeck (2011). Wikimedia Commons.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

A society on pillars

For a century, Dutch society consisted of identity groups based on religion or ideology. This division was called pillarisation. Religious and ideological groups encompassed several social classes. Social life usually was within your own pillar, and contacts with other people were limited. Each pillar had sports clubs, political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasters. Roman Catholics and Protestants also had their own schools and hospitals.

The pillars of Dutch society were Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Socialist, with each about 30% of the population. The Protestants themselves were further divided into smaller identity groups. The remaining 10% of the Dutch were liberal. The Dutch liberals were less organised and opposed pillarisation, but they too had their own political parties, newspapers and broadcasters.

Strong communities are close-knit, have shared norms and values based on ideology or religion, and come with social obligations. The pillar organisations focused exclusively on their own communities. This happened in other places in Europe too. Nowadays, similar models exist in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the same laws applied to everyone. And the curricula of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and public schools were nearly the same as everyone was preparing for the same state exams.

To make pillarisation successful, the overarching identity, for instance, the nation, should be strong, and the intensity of the identity conflict should be low. Western Christianity, which includes both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, features a separation of worldly and religious affairs, so religious beliefs did not conflict with submission to a state.

The Dutch are famous for their tolerance, which was at times close to indifference. The identity groups accepted each other and minded their own affairs. After 1800, there was no civil war in the Netherlands, nor was it close at any time. Leadership was also important. The leaders of the pillars were willing to compromise, and the members merely followed their leaders.

Nevertheless, identity issues dominated Dutch politics from time to time. For instance, on 11 November 1925, the cabinet fell when the Catholic ministers resigned after Parliament accepted an amendment introduced by a small Protestant fraction to eliminate the funding for the Dutch envoy with the Vatican. A Protestant government fraction supported the amendment.

None of the identity groups on its own was able to dominate society. Instead, they had to make deals with each other. On religious issues, Roman Catholics and Protestants often found each other. For instance, they arranged that schools and hospitals could have a religious identity and that the state would fund them like public schools and hospitals. The Socialists were able to make deals on working conditions and social benefits.

Pillarisation in the Netherlands began to take shape at the close of the nineteenth century. One could say that Dutch society was built upon the pillars. They allowed groups with different worldviews to coexist peacefully and work on a common destiny, which was the future of the nation. From the 1960s onwards, the pillars began to lose their meaning.

Pillarisation can be helpful if people believe in a shared destiny, for instance, the nation-state, but do not share a common background. In that case, everyone can live and work together with the people they feel comfortable with. Cultural and religious differences may subside over time. But as long as these identities remain distinct, people can organise themselves accordingly via pillars, and in doing so, avoid conflict.

Fat cat

The mystery of being

Why do we exist? People have been pondering this question for ages. The findings from science suggest that life on this planet emerged without intent and serves no purpose. We are inclined to see ourselves as unique, so we might delude ourselves by thinking that this universe is there for us, and so it must have a purpose, and therefore, a creator. The odds appear stacked against us being here, so our existence might appear a miracle. But if humans had never arrived on the scene, all the other species would still have roamed the planet, and no cat or fern might ever have wondered why it is there.

Once you reverse the argument, it becomes clear what’s wrong with it. My existence depends on my parents having met each other. My parents had not lived if my grandparents had not married. They, in their turn, depend on the many generations before them. According to chaos theory, small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have a dramatic impact on future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China.

So, if one of my forebears had done only one small thing differently, for instance, getting up earlier on one day, I probably would not be here. The probability of my existence is so close to zero that I might consider it a miracle. Similarly, the odds of humans appearing when dinosaurs were still living, and living creatures on this planet appearing when the galaxy was emerging, were negligible.

In a similar vein, people argue that it is unlikely that this universe emerged by chance. The laws of physics and the values of physical constants are fine-tuned for life to exist. But if that hadn’t been the case, it would have been impossible to observe this. There could be an infinite number of universes or big bangs that failed to create universes with different laws and constants. This universe might be just right by accident.

Intelligent design proponents claim that undirected evolutionary processes cannot explain the living creatures on this planet. They believe that life on Earth requires a creator. Indeed, the odds for life to emerge in the way it did, were zero from the outset, and still, we are here. But evolution is an organising principle. Given ample time, the possibilities are endless, and anything could happen. Scientific findings indicate that life on this planet had four billion years to develop.

The mystery of being is not a mystery at all. So many things could have happened but didn’t, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. That’s why the future is unpredictable. And there is not much more to it than that. Many people find it difficult to accept that their life has no purpose. And so religious people may contend that our existence is a miracle and proof of God. Their argument leaves open questions like why does God exist and how did God come into being? The simulation hypothesis does not come with these issues. It does not consider our existence as a miracle but as the product of advanced technology.

New Book: The Virtual Universe

Religions claim that a god or gods have created this universe. More recently, the simulation hypothesis allows us to explain how the gods might have done this. We could all be living inside a computer simulation run by an advanced post-human civilisation. But can we objectively establish that this is indeed the case?

There is sufficient evidence that we live inside a simulation, and this evidence allows us to establish the most likely purpose of our existence. This book is an exercise in applying logic to the evidence. It does not promote a specific religion. It goes along with science, but there are limits to what science can establish. God is beyond those limits.

This book addresses the following topics:

  • Why our existence is not a miracle that requires a creator.
  • How the possible motivations of post-humans can help us to establish that we live inside a simulation.
  • Why there is not proof in real life, not even in science.
  • Why the simulation hypothesis is not scientific.
  • How our minds can trick us how to avoid pitfalls in our observations and reasoning.
  • How the laws of reality can help us to ascertain that we do live in a simulation.
  • Why the evidence for the paranormal is not scientific but strong enough to count.
  • How to explain premonition, evidence suggesting reincarnation, ghosts, ufo’s, and meaningful coincidences.
  • How coincidences surrounding major historical events indicate that everything happens according to a script.
  • Why many people see 11:11 and other peculiar time prompts.
  • What predetermination tells us about our purpose.

By reading this book, you will discover that the world makes perfect sense if we assume it to be a simulation and that it does not make sense to presume that this world is real.

You can find it here:

Post-human motivations

We may find out that we live inside a simulation if we can notice that our reality is not realistic, at least in some aspects. To see why we can look at the possible motives for post-humans to run simulations of human civilisations. Even though it is not certain post-humans might have similar motivations as we have. Modern humans attach great value to their inner selves, so we may not change our human essence once we can. Hence, the motives of post-humans might well be similar to ours, and they might run simulations of human civilisations for research or entertainment.

Research could be about running what-if scenarios. So what if a giant meteor hits the surface of the planet? What if China never became unified? Alternatively, what if there never were religions such as Christianity and Islam? Or what if a deadly infectious disease breaks out? Countless scenarios are possible. Post-humans might be interested in running them to see how humanity will cope. These simulations are likely to be realistic.

Possible entertainment applications are games or dream worlds to make your imagination come true. Such a simulation may not be realistic in some aspects as it reflects the rules of a game or someone’s imagination. Chaos theory states that small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have a dramatic impact on future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China. And simulations of civilisations are complex, so to guarantee a particular outcome, you need control over everything that happens. This requirement does not apply to games. Unpredictable developments make games more interesting.

Our understanding of human nature suggests that the number of simulations for entertainment likely vastly outstrip those run for research, at least if sufficient resources are available. Hence, if we do live inside a simulation, we should expect it to be for entertainment. The owner or owners may use avatars and appear like ordinary human beings to us. If reality is unrealistic in some aspects, this suggests that our purpose is entertainment as a simulation run for research is more likely to be realistic. Furthermore, evidence of control further indicates that the purpose of this simulation is not a game but implementing someone’s imagination.

If the beings inside the simulation were sentient, that can raise ethical questions like whether or not they have rights the creators should respect. Considering how humans treat each other, it is not a given that these rights would be respected even when the creators acknowledge them. In a realistic simulation, bad things do happen to people all the time. And in the case of control, the beings inside the simulation are not sentient. They do not think and do not have a will of their own. Hence, we might have no intrinsic value to our creators.