Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany

On the origins of religions

Collaboration by imagination

Humans have become 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. 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 large-scale collaboration also requires shared beliefs.

We imagine laws, money, property, corporations and states. We believe there is a law, and the law works. The same is true for money and corporations. I can tell a dog about the benefits of using cash 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. 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. Lion-men only existed in the imagination of humans.

Gods are imagined, just like laws, property, corporations, states, and lion-men. People of the same faith can go on a holy war together and slaughter infidels. Religion can 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 are incapable of doing. 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.

Development of religions

Small bands of people cooperate because their members know each other and see what everyone contributes. In large groups, it becomes difficult as people can cheat. That is where states, money, and religions come in. They facilitate the 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. 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, people began to imagine fairies and spirits. A crucial step 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 the belief that its 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 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 your land or harvest usually meant starvation. With the arrival of agriculture, property and 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 in agricultural societies. The need to defend land and crops may explain why these religions are often patriarchal and restrict women in their freedoms. 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 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 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 their god is the best. And even polytheists could believe in a supreme deity who is more powerful than 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 was 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. Those who had different beliefs had to be converted, sometimes by force.

In the first centuries, Christianity replaced the worship of local deities. To facilitate the transition, the Church converted 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 achievement and abolish these customs in favour of 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 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. Religions also provide for this sentiment.

The China exception

History features one extraordinary case demonstrating that large-scale human cooperation does not require religion, also not in ancient times. In China, faiths never developed beyond ancestor veneration and the worship of nature and never played a dominant role in history like in many other parts of the world. Yet, China was the first nation in the world that developed a modern state already before 200 BC.

The Chinese state emerged during a five-century-long Warring States period. It was an unprecedented bloody era of survival of the fittest in warfare and state-building not repeated until modern times. The requirements of war drove state development. The wars ended only after one state came out victorious and unified China. The warring Chinese states collected taxes to enlist and supply large armies with up to 500,000 combatants.

The size of the Roman army at its peak came close to that number. After that, Napoleon was the first in Europe to amass such a large army after the French state had reorganised itself according to similar principles as the Chinese did. The Chinese had built a modern state on rational principles 2,000 years before Europe did and without religion. It shows that history without a dominant role of religion is a realistic scenario.

Imagination reigns supreme

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 ourselves and create virtual reality universes for our entertainment. But that may already have happened long ago, and we may be living in one of these universes ourselves. And so, this world may have an owner we can call God.

Latest revision: 2 July 2022

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.