Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Some theories on the origins of religion

The One Who Watches - petroglyph from The Dalles, Oregon.

From the pages of Religious Tolerance.org

Copyright © 2002 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-23
Latest update: 2007-MAR-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

Groups of theories on the origin of religion:

There are two broad groups of theories about the origin of religion.

Faith based: According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many unique faith groups. 1 Among this great religious diversity, there are probably hundreds of different religious creation stories which describe how humans, other species of life, the Earth, and the rest of the universe came to be. Many of these stories describe the origins of their particular religion. It was typically a revelation from one or more deities.

Science based: Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and other researchers have reached a near consensus that humans of the species homo sapiens evolved from a species of proto-humans who originated somewhere in Africa. (This statement probably upsets any white supremacists who are reading this essay. That can't be helped; scientists consider the evidence to be conclusive; ultimately, we are all descended from Africans.) These proto-humans walked upright, and had an opposing thumb and little finger. Their internal brain structure represented a major advance over those of previous animals in terms of its flexibility, its ability to reason, and its ability to plan for the future. This gave proto-humans an improved ability to pass on their accumulated knowledge to their descendents, to form more advanced societies, and ultimately to create religions.

The following essay will deal with the science based theories of the origin of religion. If you are interested in faith-based theories, we suggest that you do a search on Google with a search string like: origin Christianity

Science-based theories of religion:

Nobody knows with accuracy how the first religions evolved. By the time that writing had developed, many religions had been in place for millennia and the details of their origins had been forgotten. However, there is speculation that the first religions were created to give people a feeling of security in an insecure world, and a feeling of control over the environment where there was little control.

The developing abilities of proto-humans were a double-edge sword:

§ On the one hand, they aided their chances of surviving in a cruel and unpredictable world. They helped each successive generation of proto-humans to build upon the knowledge base of their ancestors.

§ This increased mental ability led to a terrifying piece of knowledge: personal mortality. For the first time, individual animals on earth became aware that their life was transient; they would die at some point in their future. This knowledge produced an intolerable emotional drain.

During their evolution from proto-human to full human, they developed questions about themselves and their environment:

§ What controlled the seasonal cycles of nature -- the daily motion of the sun; the motion of the stars, the passing of the seasons, etc.

§ What controlled their environment -- what or who caused floods, rains, dry spells, storms, etc?

§ What controls fertility -- of the tribe, its domesticated animals, and its crops.

§ What system of morality is needed to best promote the stability of the tribe?

§ And above all: what happens to a person after they die?

Living in a pre-scientific society, people had no way to resolve these questions. Even today, with all of our scientific advances, we still debate about the second last question, and still have no way of reaching an consensus on the last. But the need for answers (particularly to the last question) were so important that some response was required, even if they were merely based on hunches. Some people within the tribe started to invent answers based on their personal guesses. Thus developed:

§ The first religious belief system,

§ The first priesthood,

§ The first set of rituals to appease the Goddess,

§ Other rituals to control fertility and other aspects of the environment,

§ A set of behavioral expectations for members of the tribe, and

§ A set of moral truths to govern human behavior.

These formed an oral tradition which was disseminated among the members of the tribe and was taught to each new generation. Much later, when writing was developed, the beliefs were generally recorded in written form. A major loss of flexibility resulted. Oral traditions can evolve over time; written documents tend to be more permanent.

Unfortunately, because these belief systems were based on hunches, the various religions which developed in different areas of the world were all different. Their teachings were in conflict with each other. Because the followers of most religions considered their beliefs to be derived directly from God, they cannot be easily changed. Thus, inter-religious compromise is difficult or impossible. Also, because religious texts are often ambiguous, divisions developed within religions. Different denominations, schools, or traditions have derived different meanings from the same religious texts. Thus were laid the foundations for millennia of inter-religious and intra-religious conflict.

Evolution of religion:

The first organized religions appear to have been based on fertility. They were focused on the worship of the great Earth Goddess. Religion evolved to include male Gods who were gradually given increased importance by the priests. This development may have been caused by developing knowledge of the male's involvement in the process of reproduction.

Today, most people follow either:

§ A monotheistic religion, in which a single male god is worshipped, or

§ A henotheistic religion -- a religion which recognizes a single main deity, but which recognizes other gods and goddesses, heroes, or saints as facets or manifestations or aspects of that supreme God.

Most religions teach that they were directly revealed by their deity/deities to humanity, and are unrelated to other world religions. However there is considerable historical evidence from ancient times that religions in the area from India to the Middle East shared many religious beliefs. One example of this are:

§ The many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which contain concepts or passages taken from Egyptian, Babylonian and other nearby Pagan religions.

§ Many of the events in the life of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) appear to have been derived from earlier Hinduism and other Pagan religious sources.

Religions were originally based on the particular beliefs of their founders and prophets. Thus, there were few points of similarity among the various spiritual paths:

§ In terms of their belief about supernatural being(s), various faith traditions have taught Agnosticism, Animism, Atheism, Deism, Duotheism, Henotheism, Monism, Monotheism, Panentheism, Pantheism, Polytheism, Trinitarianism, and probably a few that we have missed. It is obvious from these conflicting ideas about deities that almost all religions are just plain wrong.

§ Few agreements exist among the world's religions about religious beliefs, sacred ritual, organizational structure, optimum family structure, personal sexual behavior, etc.

§ Religions' traditional teachings in the area of science differ greatly from each other and from the findings of scientists. Examples are: how the universe was formed, where rainbows came from; the world-wide flood; talking animals; the sun standing still in the sky; the cause of epilepsy, deafness, blindness, and mental illnesses; demonic possession, etc.

Religions today:

Some observers believe that the main function of religions today is to provide their followers with a feeling of security.

John Shelby Spong, retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA has written:

"Religion is primarily a search for security and not a search for truth. Religion is what we so often use to bank the fires of our anxiety. That is why religion tends toward becoming excessive, neurotic, controlling and even evil. That is why a religious government is always a cruel government. People need to understand that questioning and doubting are healthy, human activities to be encouraged not to be feared. Certainly is a vice not a virtue. Insecurity is something to be grasped and treasured. A true and healthy religious system will encourage each of these activities. A sick and fearful religious system will seek to remove them."

David C. James, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church & Diocesan Mission Center in Olympia, WA, wrote:

Many times when we think we are worshipping God, we are actually comforting our very fragile egos. I’m not so naïve as to assume that we build temple and erect altars to ourselves…directly. But our core need to been safe, secure and sound mandates that we construct reality systems that will support us. 2


  1. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. David C. James, "The Perils of Religion," St. John's Episcopal Church, at: http://stjohnsoly.org/