Lionheaded figurine from Stadel in the Hohlenstein cave in Germany

About the origins of religion

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 We make agreements and communicate them. Flexible large-scale collaboration also requires imagination and shared beliefs. Societies founded on religion thus had a competitive advantage in the struggle to survive.

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 can cooperate because their members know each other personally 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.

Early humans were hunter-gatherers who believed 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. The Bible features two mythical ancestors of humanity, Eve and Adam, effectively turning all of humanity into a single tribe, which may turn out to be an instance of great foresight.

Hunter-gatherers can move on in the case of conflict, but farmers invested 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 emerged in which the gods created this world and ordained that humans rule the plants and animals. The Bible has such a commandment too.

The religions we now have, originate from agricultural societies. The need for the defence of land and crops may explain 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. It can explain their desire to control the sexuality of women. Men can also walk out when they doubt their fatherhood. This may have given men 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 quality. As a consequence, early religions may have come with several gods, each with a distinct role. Monotheistic religions arrived when people became emotionally attached to one particular deity. They began to imagine that their divinity is the only one that rules the entire universe. When Christianity was promoted in areas where people still worshipped several gods, the church invented saints to replace them. Each saint came with specific qualities. For instance, if you are on a voyage, you can pray to St. Christopher for protection because he is the patron of the travellers.

Monotheistic religions may have been successful because monotheists were intolerant. If you are fond of a particular deity, other religions can be an offence. When you worship several divine beings, you can easily accept that some people can be fond of only one particular deity. To monotheists, there is only one divine being worthy of worship, and devotions to other gods is often forbidden.1 Yahweh is a jealous deity, the Bible claims. Those who had different beliefs had to be forcefully converted or killed.

We prefer a god who cares for us and answers our prayers. That creates logical difficulties. Prayers often are not answered, and many 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 the answer 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 evil people receive punishment. If it is not now, then in the afterlife or a final reckoning on Judgement Day.

Then came science with a sobering message. Our existence appears to be the result of accident and evolution. Religions were invented to promote cooperation. Over time the belief may have taken hold that all humans are unique and valuable individuals. Indeed, we are unique. Our imagination makes us do things other species are not capable of. At some point, technology may have enabled humans to realise their fantasies. They may have turned into gods when they became immortal and created virtual reality universes for their entertainment. We may be living in one of these universes. God is a good term for the owner. And God might use an avatar to appear as an ordinary human to us.

Existing religions tell us very little about God and the plan God has with us. All gods are fantasies. On a rare occasion, your imagination can come true. So, if you believe that this universe has an owner who has a plan for us all, you may be right. Still, everything else you think to know about God most likely is a delusion promoted by established religions or your desires. The current predominance of Abrahamic God appears not to be a historical accident, however. That justifies a closer look at the origins of Yahweh, the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.


  • Societies founded on religion had a competitive advantage in the struggle to survive as religion facilitates collective action.
  • Religions developed gradually from spiritual beliefs via ancestor veneration to the worship of gods.
  • Political needs and psychological desires shaped the development of religions.
  • Religions may be patriarchal because agricultural societies required defence and because men cannot be sure of fatherhood.
  • Hence, existing religions tell us little about the possible owners of this universe or what is going to happen.
  • It may, however, be no accident that the worship of the God of Abraham has become predominant.

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.

10 scientific reasons society is like it is and why we can’t fix it

Despite what the media would have you believe, we’re actually living in the most peaceful time in human history. There’s no doubt that the world is in a bit more chaos than it was, say, five years ago, but largely, it’s still way better than even fifty years ago. We’re just more connected than ever, giving us a direct glimpse into global human suffering we’ve never had before.

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So much progress has been made already. Perhaps we can’t fix everything that is wrong in the world but maybe we can improve things somewhat more. I hope you agree.