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.

Post-human motivations

We may find out that we live inside a simulation if we can notice that our reality is not realistic, at least in some aspects. To see why we can look at the possible motives for post-humans to run simulations of human civilisations. Even though it is not certain post-humans might have similar motivations as we have. Modern humans attach great value to their inner selves, so we may not change our human essence once we can. Hence, the motives of post-humans might well be similar to ours, and they might run simulations of human civilisations for research or entertainment.

Research could be about running what-if scenarios. So what if a giant meteor hits the surface of the planet? What if China never became unified? Alternatively, what if there never were religions such as Christianity and Islam? Or what if a deadly infectious disease breaks out? Countless scenarios are possible. Post-humans might be interested in running them to see how humanity will cope. These simulations are likely to be realistic.

Possible entertainment applications are games or dream worlds to make your imagination come true. Such a simulation may not be realistic in some aspects as it reflects the rules of a game or someone’s imagination. Chaos theory states that small changes in the initial conditions of complex systems can have a dramatic impact on future developments. For instance, a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas might cause a hurricane in China. And simulations of civilisations are complex, so to guarantee a particular outcome, you need control over everything that happens. This requirement does not apply to games. Unpredictable developments make games more interesting.

Our understanding of human nature suggests that the number of simulations for entertainment likely vastly outstrip those run for research, at least if sufficient resources are available. Hence, if we do live inside a simulation, we should expect it to be for entertainment. The owner or owners may use avatars and appear like ordinary human beings to us. If reality is unrealistic in some aspects, this suggests that our purpose is entertainment as a simulation run for research is more likely to be realistic. Furthermore, evidence of control further indicates that the purpose of this simulation is not a game but implementing someone’s imagination.

If the beings inside the simulation were sentient, that can raise ethical questions like whether or not they have rights the creators should respect. Considering how humans treat each other, it is not a given that these rights would be respected even when the creators acknowledge them. In a realistic simulation, bad things do happen to people all the time. And in the case of control, the beings inside the simulation are not sentient. They do not think and do not have a will of their own. Hence, we might have no intrinsic value to our creators.

Simulation hypothesis

Already in ancient times philosophers imagined that there is no way of telling that the world around us is real or that other people have a mind of their own. Perhaps I am the only one who is real while the rest of the world is my imagination. This could all be a dream. Some major religions claim that gods created this universe and that we are like them. In the Bible it is written that God said: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.”

For long it was impossible to clarify why this world might not be real or how the gods might have created it. Recent advances in information technology have changed that. This universe could be a virtual reality. We are inclined to think that what our senses register is real, so we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary. For instance, you may think you see a pipe when watching an image of a pipe.The caption of the famous painting named The Treachery of Images of René Magritte makes you notice: this is not a pipe.

In 1977 science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was the first to claim that we do exist in a computer-generated reality. This is the simulation hypothesis. He came to this insight after experiencing a psychosis. If he is right then his name suggests that our creators do like to joke around. Professor Nick Bostrom explored the probability the simulation hypothesis being true in the simulation argument.

According to Bostrom there could be many different human civilisations. The humans in those civilisations may at some point enhance themselves with bio-technology and information technology, live very long and acquire capabilities ordinary humans don’t have. For that reason these beings aren’t humans anymore and called post-humans. These post-humans might be brains-in-vats or have uploaded their consciousness into a computer and have no physical body. These post-humans may run simulations of their human ancestor civilisations. In that case we may be living in one of those simulations ourselves. Bostrom argues that at least one of the following must be true:

  1. Nearly all real human civilisations end before enter the post-human stage.
  2. In any post-human civilisation only an extremely small number of individuals are interested in running simulations of a human ancestor civilisations.
  3. We almost are certainly living inside a computer simulation.1

It comes with the following assumptions that appear realistic to many experts in the relevant fields, but are not provenbecause we have not managed to do it yet:

  • The available computing power in post-human civilisations is sufficient to run a very large number of simulations of human ancestor civilisations.
  • The human consciousness needs not to reside in a biological organism, but can be implemented in a computer, perhaps in a limited form that appears realistic.1

Bostrom then concludes that if you believe that our civilisation will one day become post-human and will run a large number of human ancestor civilisations then you must believe we are currently living inside such a simulation.1 It might be explained like this. We do not know at what point in time we are, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes. If every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented, and we are going to invent it in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years, then it will not happen later than that, because by then we will have done it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 10, 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?

There are many uncertainties. The available computing power of post-human civilisations might not be sufficient. It is possible that nearly all civilisations die out before becoming able to build simulations of human civilisations. Maybe post-humans will differ from us to the point that they will not be interested in running these simulations. Bostrom doesn’t try to guess the likelihood of the options. He thinks that we have no information as to whether this universe is real or not. But that may not be true.

Featured image: The Treachery of Images. René Magritte (1928). [copyright info]

1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.

Donar by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné (1911)

Imagined gods versus one true faith

Throughout history, humans imagined thousands of gods. The Jewish deity Yahweh was one of them, just like Zeus, Venus, Donar, and many others. Archaeologists discovered that the worship of Yahweh was first much like other local deities in Canaan. And the evidence does not support much of the historical account in the Hebrew Bible. Atheists often use these arguments to refute existing religions.

There is an issue with this view. Somehow the worship of the Jewish deity in all of its forms survived and grew, so by now, nearly half the humans in this world believe that Yahweh, also known as The Father or Allah, is the only true God who rules our world. This universe could be a virtual reality running a script, so that may not be a historical accident, and this deity may be a veil behind which the owner of this universe is hiding.

Existing faiths cannot be correct. Not only do they conflict with the evidence, but there can be only one explanation of our existence. Christianity comes with more than 45,000 denominations, all claiming to be the one true faith. And there are two entirely different religions, Judaism and Islam, with fewer branches but similar claims. And many of these religions declare that non-believers will go to hell, even when they never had an opportunity to learn about the one true faith.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share an apocalyptic worldview featuring a final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil and a day of reckoning. That makes little sense with today’s knowledge. Humans are social animals that live in groups, and morals help humans cooperate. Good actions benefit the group, while evil actions harm the group. Depending on which group people belong to and estimates of benefits and harms, views on good and evil may vary.

Throughout history, humans imagined thousands of gods. The Jewish deity Yahweh was one of them, just like Zeus of the Greeks, Venus of the Romans, Thor of the Vikings, and many others. Archaeologists discovered that the worship of Yahweh was first much like other local deities in Canaan. Like Israel and Judah, neighbouring small states had also adopted a god to protect them from harm. And the evidence does not support much of the historical account in the Hebrew Bible. Atheists often use these arguments to refute the Abrahamic religions.

There is an issue with this view. Somehow the worship of the Jewish deity in all forms survived and grew, so by now, nearly half the people believe that Yahweh, also known as The Father or Allah, is the only true God who rules our world. This universe could be a virtual reality running a script, so that may not be a historical accident, and this deity may be a veil behind which the owner of this universe is hiding. Even if you believe in evolution and survival of the fittest, you have to admit that one of all these imagined deities has won the competition.

Still, existing faiths cannot all be correct. Not only do they conflict with the evidence, but there is only one explanation for our existence. Christianity comes with more than 45,000 branches, all claiming to be the one true faith. And two entirely different religions worship the same God, Judaism and Islam, claim to be the only true religion too. Christianity and Islam declare that non-believers will go to hell, even when they never had an opportunity to learn about the one true faith.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share an apocalyptic worldview featuring a final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil and a day of reckoning. That makes little sense with today’s knowledge. We are social animals who live in groups, and morals help us cooperate. Good actions benefit the group, while evil actions harm the group. Having norms and values helped the communities of the faithful. The group we belong to and our estimates of benefits and harms affect what we see as good. If there is a God, and there is good reason to think so, then what God believes is good or evil probably is not what the faithful think it is. That is because God is not who the faithful think God is.

Latest revision: 6 October 2022

Featured image: Donar by Gustaaf van de Wall Perné (1911). Public Domain.