Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany

About the origins of religion

Humans have become the dominant species on this planet because they can cooperate on large scale and in a flexible way. Other social animals like monkeys and dolphins cooperate flexibly, but only in small groups. Ants and bees cooperate in large numbers but they work together in fixed ways. Humans are special in this respect because of language. Some animals use signs and calls but we use far more words than any other species.1 Culture rather than our genetic code determines how we cooperate. Cultures can change, and this makes new ways of cooperation possible. Beliefs stand at the basis of cultures.

Humans can think of and to talk about imaginary things. We imagine that there are laws, money, property, corporations and nation states. You may think laws are real but they only exist in our minds.1 We imagine that a law exists and that is why the law works. The same applies to money and corporations. I can tell a dog about the benefits of using money 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 doesn’t mind. And so you can’t make dogs work together in a corporation to produce dog food by paying them money. Our ability to imagine things exists before agriculture and civilisations. Archaeologists uncovered a 32,000 years old sculpture of a lionman, which is a lion head upon a human body. Lionmen only existed in the imagination of humans.

Religions help to make people cooperate. Societies that made use of religion could employ more people for a common cause like a war and won out. Gods are figments of human imagination too, 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 social order and promising rewards in the afterlife for those who accept the 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. 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 hunt succeeds, the hunter 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 A crucial step in human development was ancestor worship.

Traditionally 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 dead are still with us in some way or to believe that our actions require the approval of our late ancestors. Ancestor veneration also opened up the possibility to imagine a larger-scale relatedness in the form of tribes. A tribe is much larger than a band and a tribe is held together by the imagination that they share a common ancestor. Tribes are much larger than bands so tribes could muster more men for war. And this is how tribes replaced bands. It also helps 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 has two mythical ancestors of humanity, Eve and Adam, of which all of humanity descends, effectively turning humanity into one tribe.

With the arrival of agriculture defence becomes important. Religions enabled humans to cooperate on a larger scale in states. States can afford larger militaries than tribes so states replaced tribes and so the worship of gods replaced the worship of ancestors. The God of Abraham originally was a deity adopted the Jewish state around 900 BC to bond the nation. When humans started to subjugate plants and animals for their own use, they needed 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 Bible has such a commandment for that reason.

That religions have emerged from ancestor worship might explain why many ancient cultures worshipped mother goddesses. Remarkably, there are no equivalent father gods. The first religions were polytheistic, with several gods, each with a specific role. Religions evolved from ancestor worship with devotions usually being given to 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 When Christianity spread into former polytheistic regions, the transition was facilitated by introducing saints to replace the former deities. Each saint came with his or her own specific qualities.

Monotheistic religions probably 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 and 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 praying if prayers aren’t answered. This created some logical difficulties. Not all prayers are answered and there are many bad things going on. So how can an almighty god allow this to happen? The obvious answer is that there is no god or that God doesn’t care. That wasn’t the answer people were looking for. And so they came up with Satan, God’s evil adversary who makes all the bad things happen.1

Humans are the product accident and evolution and serve no higher purpose. Over time the gods were done away with and the idea took hold that all humans are unique and valuable individuals with entitlements. Indeed, we are unique. Our imagination makes us do things other species aren’t capable of. And science may have enabled humans to make their fantasies become reality. They may have turned into gods themselves when they became immortal and created virtual reality universes for their own entertainment. And we may be living in one of these 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.

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