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 And so large groups of humans can make agreements and communicate them. Flexible large-scale collaboration also requires shared beliefs. People must believe that a settlement is good even when they do not benefit directly from it. Societies founded on religion thus had a competitive advantage.
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 cooperate because their members know each other 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. Religion was crucial in this respect.
The development of religion has been a continuous process in which thoughts emerged and interacted. Early humans were hunter-gatherers who imagined 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.
Hunter-gatherers can move on in the case of conflict, but farmers invest 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 may have emerged in which the gods created this world and ordained that humans rule the plants and animals.
The religions we now have, originate from agricultural societies. The need for the defence of land and crops may explain to some extent 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 so that they may desire to control the sexuality of women. Men can also walk out when they doubt their fatherhood, which may have given men a position of power.
Religions may have emerged out of ancestor worship so gods can be like mothers and fathers. People usually gave devotions to several ancestors. Each ancestor may have had a specific admirable quality. Consequently, early religions may have come with several gods and goddesses, each with a distinct role, which is called polytheism. Henotheistic religions emerged later on when people became emotionally attached to one particular deity. Henotheists believe that other gods exist but think that one god should be worshipped. And even polytheists could believe in a supreme deity who is more powerful than all the others.
The next step is monotheism. Monotheists believe that there is only one God who runs the entire universe. Monotheistic religions were so successful because monotheists, most notably Christians and Muslims, demonstrated an enormous missionary zeal. It is an act of charity to convert others when only believers will be saved. And because the worship of other deities is not permitted, monotheism could replace polytheism.
To facilitate the spread of Christianity in pagan areas where people worshipped local deities, the church invented saints to replace them, thus incorporating local beliefs into the Christian religion. That made it easier for people to switch to the new religion as each saint came with specific qualities like the old deities. For instance, if you are on a voyage, you can pray to St. Christopher for protection because he is the patron of the travellers. Later on, Muslims and Protestants could build on this achievement, and abolish these customs in favour of a more pure monotheism.
Monotheism comes with a few logical difficulties. We hope that God cares for us and answers our prayers. But prayers often are not answered, and 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 what 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 the people we hate receive punishment. If it is not now, then in the afterlife or a final reckoning on Judgement Day. And not very coincidentally, religions provide for this sentiment.
Then came science with a sobering message. Our existence appears to be the result of accident and evolution. Religions proliferated because they promote cooperation. Nowadays the belief is taking hold that all humans are unique and precious individuals. Indeed, we are unique. Our imagination makes us do things other species are not capable of. And so, technology may already have enabled humans to realise their fantasies. They may have turned into gods themselves when they became immortal and created virtual reality universes for their entertainment. We may be living in one of these universes. And this universe may have an owner we can call God. And God might use avatars to appear as an ordinary human to us.
Religion may be about to come back with a vengeance if we are to find out about that. Existing religions probably tell us very little about God or the civilisation that has created us. All the gods we worship are human fantasies. Most of what we think to know about God is a delusion promoted by established religions or our own desires. Still, the predominance of religions worshipping Abrahamic God appears not to be a historical accident. That justifies a closer look at the origins of Yahweh, the God of Abraham.
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.