Humans have become the dominant animal species because they can cooperate on large scale in a flexible way. Social animals like monkeys and dolphins can cooperate flexibly, but only in small groups. Other animals like ants and bees cooperate in large numbers but not in a flexible way. Humans are special in this respect. Language enables this distinctive human feature. Some animals use signs and calls but humans use far more words than any other specie.1 Cultures define how people cooperate. Cultures change and that makes humans flexible.
Another distinct feature of humans is that they can think of and to talk about imaginary things. To make large scale cooperation possible humans have invented laws, money, property, corporations and nation states. These collective imaginations only exist in the minds of humans, not in reality as such.1 For instance, humans imagine that a law exists, and therefore the law works. The same applies to money. I can tell a dog about the benefits of using money to pay a corporation to produce dog food, why there are regulations that guarantee the quality of the product and governments to implement these regulations, but all a dog can think of is dog food. And you cannot make dogs work together in a corporation to produce dog food by paying them money. The ability of humans to imagine things exists longer than agriculture and civilisations. Already 32,000 years ago humans made a sculpture of a lionman, which is a lion head upon a human body. And lionmen did only exist in the imagination of humans.
Religions can be seen as a method of making humans cooperate. Gods are figments of human imagination just like laws, property and nation states. People who share a religion can go on a holy war together and slaughter a lot of infidels. Alternatively they can do charitable work or build a house of prayer. Above all, religions promote social stability by providing a justification for the existing social order and promising rewards in the afterlife for those who accept the existing social order. This is what makes humans special. Their imagination makes them do things other species aren’t capable of. You can’t make a dog do tricks and subject itself to the order of the pack by promising that if it is a good dog it will go to dog heaven and enjoy an everlasting banquet of delicious dog food after it dies.
Early humans were hunter gatherers who believed that every place, animal, and plant has an awareness, feelings and emotions. Harari came up with the example of a deer hunter who addresses a herd of deer, and asks one of the deer to sacrifice itself for the hunt. If the hunt succeeds, the hunter then asks forgiveness of the dead animal so that its spirit will not trouble him later on. These early beliefs preceded religions and they concerned visible objects like animals, plants, rivers and rocks. Over time humans began to imagine beings like fairies and spirits. Early humans felt that they were more or less on an equal footing with the plants and animals surrounding them.1
Traditionally humans were organised in small groups and tribes based on family ties. Their ancestors were what bound them together. And so people may have started to venerate the dead. It was a small step to imagine that the dead are still with us in some way. The next step is believing that our actions require the approval of our deceased ancestors. It can be an effective way of holding a tribe together and making members cooperate on a mission like a war. It helps when people attribute magical powers to their ancestors and fear the consequences of angering them. In this way ancestor worship may have evolved into the worship of gods.
Wit the arrival of agriculture defence become more important. The worship of gods made it possible for humans to cooperate on a larger scale in states. States can afford larger militaries than tribes so states replaced tribes and the worship of gods may have replaced the worship of ancestors. When humans started to subjugate plants and animals for their own use, they needed an ideology to justify this new arrangement. To this aim, myths were invented in which the gods created this universe and ordained that humans are destined to rule all the plants and animals in the world.
The worship of gods emerging from ancestor worship might explain why many ancient cultures worshipped mother goddesses. The first religions were polytheistic. They had several gods, each with a specific role. In ancestor worship devotions where for were several ancestors. Each ancestor probably had a specific quality. Monotheistic religions emerged later because some people became emotionally attached to a particular deity and came to believe it to be the only god that rules the entire universe.1
Monotheistic religions may have won out because monotheists were intolerant. If you are fond of a particular deity, other religions can be an affront. If you believe in many different gods then it is no big deal when others choose to love a particular deity more than others. To monotheists there is only god worthy of worship. They think that the worship of other gods should be eliminated.1 Yahweh is a jealous god, the Bible claims. Those who had other views and religions were often forcefully converted or killed.
Most people prefer a god who cares for them and answers their prayers. There is no point in worshipping a deity that is indifferent. There is no point in praying if prayers aren’t answered. This particular desire evoked some difficulties. Not all prayers are answered and there are many bad things going on, so how can an almighty god let this happen? The obvious answer is that there is no god or that God doesn’t care but that wasn’t the answer people were looking for. And so they came up with Satan, God’s evil adversary who makes all these bad things happen.1
Science found a possible explanation for the origins of life and human existence. Humans could be the product accident and evolution and serve no higher purpose. That isn’t an inspiring discovery so most people remained faithful to their religions at first. Over time the gods were replaced by the idea that all humans are unique individuals, each with his or her own destiny and entitlements. And indeed, humans are unique because their imagination can make them do things other species aren’t capable of. Science may have enabled humans to make their fantasies become reality. Humans may have turned into gods themselves when they became immortal and created virtual reality universes for their own entertainment. We may be living in one of those universes.
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.