Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany

On the origins of religions

Humans became the dominant species because they collaborate flexibly in large numbers. Other social animals like monkeys and dolphins cooperate flexibly but in small groups. Ants and bees cooperate in large numbers but in fixed ways. Language makes large-scale flexible collaboration possible. Some animals use signs and calls, but we use far more words than other species.1 That allows us to make agreements and communicate them. But that is not enough. Our large-scale collaboration also requires shared imaginations.

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

And we imagine gods, just like laws, property, corporations, states, and lion-men. It helps us to cooperate. People of the same faith can go on a holy war together. Religion 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 support it. The alternative could be a class struggle or civil war. Indeed, our imagination makes us do things other species can’t. You cannot make a dog submit to you by saying 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 contributes. In larger groups, that becomes more difficult as people can cheat. That is where states, money, and religions come in. They facilitate collaboration between strangers. States do so by coercion, money by trade, and faith by inspiration. As there has always been a survival-of-the-fittest-like competition between societies, those who cooperated most effectively survived and subjugated others.

The evolution of religions has been a process in which ideas emerged and interacted. Early humans were hunter-gatherers who imagined that places, animals, and plants have awareness, feelings and emotions. Hunter-gatherers felt they were more or less on an equal footing with the plants and animals around them.1 Over time, people began to imagine fairies and spirits. A crucial step in the development of religions 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 made it possible to envision a larger-scale relatedness in the form of tribes. A tribe is much larger than a small band. It is also held together by the belief that its members share common ancestors. Tribes, however, are too large to identify their common ancestors, so they imagine them, and the stories about them are myths. Because tribes are much larger, they can muster more men for war. That is why tribes replaced these small bands. It helps when people attribute magical powers to their ancestors and fear the consequences of angering them. In this way, ancestor veneration may have turned 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 their land or harvest usually meant starvation. With the arrival of agriculture, property and territorial defence became paramount. States defend their territory and can afford larger militaries. Kinship can be an obstacle as states enlist the people within their realm, regardless of family ties. States thus needed a new source of authority, and the worship of gods may have replaced ancestor veneration. When humans started subjugating 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 in agricultural societies. The need to defend land and crops may explain why these religions are often patriarchal and restrict women. The men defended their property. 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 they may desire to control the sexuality of women. Men can also walk out when they doubt their fatherhood. That can give them a position of power.

Religions may have emerged from ancestor worship so gods could be like mothers and fathers. People usually gave devotion 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. That is called polytheism. Henotheist religions emerged later when people became emotionally attached to one particular deity. Henotheists believe that other gods exist but think theirs is the best. And even polytheists can believe in a supreme deity who is more powerful than all the others.

The next step is monotheism. Monotheists believe that only one God rules the universe. Monotheistic religions were successful because monotheists, most notably Christians and Muslims, have missionary zeal. Converting others is an act of mercy, as unbelievers will end up in hell. The worship of other deities is an offence to monotheists. After all, it contradicts their belief, and not taking action against pagans could make God angry. Polytheists are less likely to feel offended when some people worship just one of the many deities. To monotheists, there is only one God. They tried to convert those who had different beliefs, sometimes by force.

In the first centuries AD, Christianity replaced the worship of local deities. To help pagans switch to Christianity, the Church transformed these deities into saints. In this way, the Christian religion incorporated local beliefs. Each saint had specific qualities, just like the previous deity. 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 and abolish these customs in favour of 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 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. 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. Religions also cater for this sentiment.

Scientists discovered that our existence could be the result of accidents and evolution. Religions proliferated because they promoted cooperation and contributed to the success of societies. But human imagination reigns supreme. We may soon have the technology to become gods and create virtual reality universes for entertainment. But that may have happened already, and we may live in one of these universes ourselves. And so, this world could have an owner we can call God.

We do not need religion for large-scale cooperation, and civilisation can develop without a prominent role of religion. In China, faiths never went beyond ancestor veneration and worship of nature. Religion never played a dominant role in history like in many other parts of the world. Yet, China was the first nation in the world with modern states, already before 200 BC. In 200 BC, China had become the largest and most advanced country.

Latest revision: 11 March 2023

Featured image: Lion-headed 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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