There are two main ideas concerning the origin of religion. One is that there is something real behind it, and the other is that there isn’t. Let’s begin with the former. Most any religion will tell you that it is the one true religion. In that case, how are we to explain false religions? The one true religion might well be a genuine revelation from God. But what about the others? One explanation is that Satan is busy deceiving people. Another problem is that various religions are related to each other. Just to mention some uncontroversial examples, Christianity has its roots in Judaism, its Old Testament being a collection of Jewish scriptures, and Islam has roots in both Judaism and Christianity. If the true religion is Christianity or Islam, what are we to make of earlier religions it is related to? Another problem is that many religions are variations of each other. There are numerous denominations of Christianity, several sects of Islam, and even multiple sects of Judaism. Instead of being direct revelations from God, many religions have developed as reforms of previous religions. If true religion comes as a revelation from God, what are we to make of this? If religion has been revealed by God, it shouldn’t have any need of reform. It should be perfect from the very beginning.
Let’s now turn to the other idea, that religion is a human creation, not a revelation from God. To begin to understand the origins of religion, we should examine earlier religions than the ones that are popular nowadays. The major religions these days are monotheistic, but several early religions were polytheistic. Various groups of people around the world believed in their own pantheon of deities, and individual deities had power over various aspects of nature or human psychology. I’ll focus on the deities of Greek mythology, because that is what I’m most familiar with. The Greeks had Zeus controlling the weather, Poseidon controlling the seas, Demeter controlling the seasons, Apollo controlling the sun, Aphrodite controlling sexual desire, Eros making people fall in love, Ares controlling war, Dionysus behind the intoxication of alcohol, Morpheus controlling dreams, and Athena providing wisdom. There were many others besides these. In time, as people developed more scientific explanations for things, polytheism became less credible. It became obvious to people that there weren’t individual gods controlling different aspects of the world. So, people replaced the idea of many gods with the idea of one god who created the whole order of nature, as this was more compatible with a scientific understanding of the world.
What this tells us is that when people wondered how the world worked, but did not yet have scientific explanations for things, they imagined that nature worked because people like themselves were behind the scenes making things work. They might imagine that these people were superior to them in some ways, such as being more powerful or immortal, but they imagined them as basically like themselves. In the mythologies I’m familiar with, the gods were prone to the same vices as humans. They could fall in love, get jealous, have feuds, etc. The Trojan War, for example, was attributed to rivalry between Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera thanks to Eris throwing a golden apple in their midst with the inscription that it should go to the most beautiful of them. They had the matter settled by a mortal named Paris, whom they all attempted to bribe. Accepting Aphrodite’s bribe, he ended up with Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, and Greece went to war with Troy to get her back. In lieu of scientific explanations of how things work, people came up with the idea that gods were the explanation for things.
If religion were a divine revelation, we should expect it to be the same around the world, but people in different areas had different gods. Besides that, the monotheistic gods had their roots in polytheistic gods. Christians like Jack Chick have pointed out that Allah is a pagan moon god.1 What Christians are quieter about or don’t realize is that names of the Biblical God come from polytheism. The Biblical God is known by various names, particularly Yahweh and several variations of El. According to Wikipedia, El and Yahweh were both names of Canaanite deities. You may remember the Canaanites as the Middle Eastern natives whom the Hebrews slaughtered for not believing in their deity. El was the head of the pantheon, known collectively as Elohim, and Yahweh later came to be identified with El. Adonai, another name for God in the Old Testament, is related to the name Adonis, known in Greek mythology as a lover of Aphrodite. If God were real and wanted to wipe out polytheism, why would he let his followers know him by the names of pagan deities? This makes no sense from the perspective that religion is revealed, but it is easily explained by the idea that religion is man-made.
So far, I’ve only named one factor, that people sought explanations for the world, and in the absence of scientific explanations, they turned to religious explanations. Another factor is that people feared many things in the world, particularly death, but also natural forces. People wanted control of their environment and of their fate, and the idea that they could appeal to supernatural people who controlled these things fit in with this desire for control. This is where the idea of offerings, such as blood sacrifice, comes from. People thought they could get what they wanted by bribing unseen supernatural beings with gifts.
When things go out of control, people sometimes want explanations for why. People will sometimes ask of God,
Why is this happening to me?. Or they may turn to explanations like bad karma, misaligned stars, or sources of bad luck, such as breaking a mirror. People want to be able to prevent bad things from happening to them, and when they can attribute their bad luck to some supernatural agency, they feel they may be able to gain control over their luck by bargaining with that agency.
But in seeking control, people don’t just want the freedom to make choices. They want the power to determine outcomes in their favor, and this brings us to the desire for guidance. People are often unsure of what decision to make, and the idea of appealing to a supernatural source of knowledge in the face of ignorance has often appealed to people. In the present day, people pray for guidance, consult the daily horoscope, toss pennies or yarrow sticks to consult the I Ching, ask questions of Ouija boards, or get their fortunes read through cards, palms, or crystal balls. In the past, the ancient Greeks consulted oracles, the ancient Hebrews heeded the words of prophets, and various ancient peoples cast lots or consulted omens.
These two desires, the desire to understand why misfortunes happen and the desire for guidance, both come together in superstitions. Various superstitions concern things that are considered good luck, such as four-leaf clovers, or bad luck, such as a black cat crossing your path. Superstitions provide people with explanations for why things have happened, such as it was Friday the 13th, and they provide some guidance for avoiding bad luck, such as crossing your fingers. The guidance superstition gives people might not be very effective, but it can be psychologically comforting.
So far, we have looked at some motivations for belief in the supernatural. These include the desire for explanations, the desire for control, and the desire for guidance. Believing in the supernatural can provide people with explanations, with a sense of control, and with some direction in life. But why wouldn’t people just be rational and avoid spurious beliefs that have no basis in reality? The religious person might argue that if the supernatural did not have some reality, people would have more easily avoided these temptations toward believing in it. I would disagree. First, these are very strong desires. A sense of control is essential to well-being and happiness. Experiments with animals have shown that learned helplessness can depress an animal and make it less likely to take action in its favor. Feeling in control helps us feel better and makes us more inclined to take action. Having explanations enhances our sense of control, and feeling we know what to do also helps us feel more in control. Furthermore, the main driver behind wanting control over one’s life has been the fear of death. In general, evolution has made us beings who want to survive, and it has been my observation of myself and others that the fear of death is a very strong motivator.
The bait that has often hooked people into religion has been the promise of survival after death. This is the main attraction of both Christianity and Islam, and for eons before either came on the scene, the Egyptian religion promised its followers life after death. 2 The mystery religions of ancient Greece also promised life after death. Immortality is the lure that draws many people to religion. As long as we accept the guidance of some particular religion, we are assured that we can escape death and live on. This is a degree of control that science and technology have not yet given us, and however preposterous a religion may otherwise appear, it holds out a reward that nothing else has been able to offer. So, a sense of control is critically important to people, especially when it comes to their survival, and the desire for control underlies the desires for explanations and guidance. So, they are all strong desires, naturally built into humans.
Besides the strength of these desires, religious beliefs have long been the main way of satisfying these desires. In ancient times, people could not turn to science for explanations or to advanced technology for control. As for guidance in daily decision-making, it is still frequently too difficult to know or factor in all the variables that will affect the outcomes of our actions, and what the future holds generally remains a mystery. So, this desire is not as easily satisfied by science and technology as the first two are, and it is one that still frequently tempts people in modern times. Besides that, science and technology have not yet been able to promise immortality. Because of this, religion generally holds a monopoly on giving people the hope of surviving death. But besides the strength of these three desires and the monopoly that religious beliefs have long held in satisfying them, there have been other factors that have helped predispose people toward religious belief.
One factor is explained with a bit of evolutionary psychology. We are inclined to presuppose agency behind things, because natural selection favored this. It’s not that there actually is agency behind everything, and natural selection wanted us to know the truth. Rather, it is that one type of error kept our ancestors alive better than another type of error. If our ancestors noticed some movement and assumed agency behind it, they would be more inclined to run away or defend themselves. This could save their lives when a predator was after them, and, at worst, it would spook them when they were wrong. The other kind of error would be to not assume agency behind things, even when there was agency. This could get them killed by making them too unresponsive to predators. Thanks to the presupposition of agency having more survival value than its opposite, humans evolved the tendency to assume some kind of agency behind things. This increased the tendency to imagine agency behind everything in nature, leading to animism or a belief in spirits, such as fairies, djinn, dryads, nymphs, and others behind various natural phenomena.
A second factor is pareidolia, which is the tendency to see faces and other patterns where there aren’t any. For example, while staring out my window one winter day, I saw in some tree branches what looked like the face of a woman, sort of in the style from the Dini and Timm Batman cartoon, which brought to mind Poison Ivy. Looking at it a little longer, I also thought of Hawkgirl from the Justice League cartoon. I have frequently seen faces in various random patterns, and I’m aware that this is nothing more than how my mind is trying to make some sense out of randomness. But not everyone has this awareness. The very first time I ever listened to Coast to Coast AM was June 3rd, 2002, and the guest, Lloyd Stewart Carpenter, was explaining to George Noory that a face on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean proved the existence of God. If you compare his depiction of the face with the actual ocean map, which are both displayed on the page just linked to, you will see this is a clear case of pareidolia, and it has even less resemblance to a face than the Darwin cloud depicted at the top of this post.
Another factor is dreams. When we sleep, we seem to fall into another more shadowy world in which we sometimes meet people who have already died. While we can clearly distinguish between dreams and reality in modern times, people in prehistoric times may have more easily experienced their dreams as just a different plane of reality. To them, their deceased loved ones would still be alive, waiting for them in another world. If my own dreams are any indication, people would sometimes dream of people they had never met. This could have led to the idea that the spirit world includes more people than just their ancestors. Besides dreaming of people they knew or of entirely imaginary people, they may have also dreamed of people they had heard stories about. I sometimes dream of television or comic book characters, and it stands to reason that ancient people would dream about the heroes they heard stories about. These dreams may have added content to their stories, as well as have contributed to the idea that heroes of old lived on in a spirit world, perhaps in some superior state, such as being godlike. So, dreams of deceased ancestors, of imaginary people, and of story characters may have all contributed to the idea that there could be nonphysical beings behind things in the world. These may have first been people’s ancestors. In the east, people stuck with ancestor worship more. Over time, ancestors gradually morphed into gods, and gods gradually morphed into a single god.
Another factor is altered states of consciousness. These may include hallucinations, which are perceptions or experiences of things that aren’t present or real, or more general alterations to how one perceives, experiences, or thinks about the world. To be clear, these are mental states, not mere physical impairments. So, illusions are not hallucinations, and color blindness doesn’t count as an altered state of consciousness. Also, an altered state of consciousness is not about interpreting your experiences in a different way, thanks to learning something new, for example, but about changes in your experience or mental abilities. Another important thing to bear in mind is that hallucinations have not always been interpreted as perceptions or experiences of what isn’t present or real. So, the response to hallucinations hasn’t always been one of recognizing them as unreal and waiting for normal consciousness to return. Instead, the response to hallucinations has often been to take them for reality, sometimes of a hidden reality that is not seen by everyone else. This would explain the experiences of shamans, who were understood to be able to journey into a spiritual world and report back on it to others. It would also account for the experiences people sometimes have of talking to the dead or to deities.
Sources of altered states of consciousness may include mental illness, the ingestion of hallucinogens, music, or some kind of stress, such as thirst or starvation. Let’s start with mental illness. Back in ancient times, the science of psychology as we know it today did not exist, and people with poor mental health would not be prescribed drugs or put away in asylums. While some might be regarded as eccentric, others might be regarded as possessed, or they might be revered as shamans who could see things others couldn’t. When people interpreted the mental illness of others as possession or as a spiritual gift, this would reinforce some kind of supernatural worldview. But the mentally ill would be limited in their ability to share their experiences with others.
Of even more significance would be hallucinations and other altered states of consciousness induced by means that could be shared or reproduced. These include music, the ingestion of hallucinogens, and extreme stress caused by thirst, starvation, or pain. The most powerful of these may be hallucinogens. Although people in ancient times didn’t have LSD, they did have access to plants, fungi, and beverages with hallucinogenic properties. Depending on location, these would have included marijuana, peyote, coca, and alcohol, among several others. The technical term for a psychoactive substance used in a spiritual context is entheogen, and the link goes to a Wikipedia article that covers the subject in more detail. One important thing it points out is that the word literally means
generating the divine within. You may note that the word includes theo, a root meaning god, which is used in words such as theology and theocracy. It is very likely that the story of Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil goes back to the use of entheogens for raising spiritual awareness through either the inducing of hallucinations or the expanding of one’s mind. The books Carlos Castaneda wrote on the shaman Don Juan are mainly about his experiences taking peyote under Don Juan’s guidance. The most popular entheogen may be alcohol. Although it’s a weaker hallucinogen, it does alter consciousness, and some people do drink it excessively. Its use as an entheogen can be seen in the veneration of wine gods like Dionysus and in its continued and widespread use in Catholic masses.
The Catholic mass also uses music. Even as an atheist who grew up Protestant, not Catholic, I appreciate lots of Catholic religious music. My personal favorite is Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic nun who allegedly came up with her music through visions she had of a spiritual world. I also enjoy Gregorian chant, various masses, and other Christian religious music. And I’ll add that the Catholics don’t have all the good religious music. Johann Sebastian Bach, who worked as a church organist and regularly composed religious music, was a Lutheran. In more recent times, Christian rock operas, such as Godspell and Jesus Christ: Superstar have produced moving religious music. Music may not have the power to cause hallucinations, but it does have the power to alter people’s moods and to transport people into altered senses of reality. So, compared to hallucinogens, it’s a more low-power way of altering consciousness. But it is still effective, and it does have the benefit of being easily shared simultaneously with a large group of people. With music, it is possible to synchronize people’s movements and feelings, so that they move and feel as one instead of as individuals. This helps raise a sense of oneness with other people. Music can also transform the experience of one’s environment. It can overwhelm people and make them feel a sense of grandeur, beauty, or gentle spirituality. And it is not just religious music that has this power. Here is a selection of YouTube videos featuring examples of spiritually powerful music in a variety of genres. Since the hardest part in making this list was in narrowing it down, I’ve kept a good variety. You can listen to whatever strikes your fancy first.
- Sound of Silence (A Cappella) – The Gentlemen of the College
- Mat Zo feat. Linnea Schossow – The Sky (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)
- O Virga ac Diadema Remix
- BABYMETAL – Road of Resistance – Live in Japan (OFFICIAL)
- Godspell (1973) – “By My Side”
- October Project – Something More Than This (October 13, 1995)
- 和楽器バンド / 「暁ノ糸」MUSIC VIDEO／Wagakki Band”Akatsukino Ito”
- Evolution Vangelis Alpha Cosmos
While we have the benefit of enjoying recorded music, no one had this luxury before the time of Thomas Edison. When people went to a Catholic mass, that would normally be the only time they would hear religious music that conveyed a sense of spirituality. This would create an association between the church and the way this powerful music would transport them into another sense of reality. Of course, religion does not have its origins in the Catholic church. I bring it up only to illustrate the power of music in altering consciousness toward a state more responsive to ideas of spirituality. In more ancient times, musical instruments were fewer in number and less sophisticated, but they still had voice and drums and maybe pipes. Very rhythmic drumming has been used in African and in American Indian tribes to alter states of consciousness, sometimes even to induce shamanic journeys. In ancient Greece, there was a cult around the figure of Orpheus, a musician whose pipe playing could entrance people, and who is said to have descended into the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. This is evidence that music was used even in ancient times to alter consciousness in a religious direction.
One more way people may have been introduced to altered states of consciousness is through the deprivation of food and water while in extreme environments, such as a hot desert. The example most common in cartoons is of someone in the desert seeing a mirage of an oasis. Maybe, to keep the person going in such extreme conditions, the mind generates an hallucination of something desirable, or maybe the ability to keep desire and experience separate breaks down, and desires turn into experiences. Australia is largely desert, and Australian aborigines have a tradition of sending boys on a walkabout, in which they would spend months on their own in the wilderness, during which they were expected to have transformative spiritual experiences that would make them into men. The Middle East is also largely desert, and it is from here that we have accounts of prophets going out into the desert and meeting God. Perhaps the best known example is Moses. Besides the physical stress of going out into the desert, there is the physical stress of inflicting pain on oneself. Asceticism has been popular in many religions, ranging from Hinduism to Christianity, and the reason for its popularity among the religious is surely its role in inducing altered states of consciousness. Although I am no ascetic myself, I am at least aware of the experience of endorphins kicking in when I stress myself through exercise, which is an altered state of consciousness, though to a lesser degree than what might be interpreted as a mystical or spiritual experience.
So far, we have just looked at various motivations and other factors that have predisposed people towards religion. Motivations have included the desires to understand the world, to be in control of one’s life, to know what to do in life, and to live forever. Other factors have included an evolutionary predisposition toward expecting agency behind things, the tendency to see faces in anything vaguely resembling a face, the experiences of dreams, hallucinations, and altered consciousness. This list might not be exhaustive, but it is enough to give serious credence to the ideas that (1) people were naturally predisposed toward forming religious beliefs, and that (2) whatever form it ultimately took, religion is a natural, man-made phenomenon.
More can be said about the forces that have shaped religion into its present form. These will include social, political, and memetic factors. I may make these the subject for a part two. Please share your thoughts on the origin of religion below. There were probably more factors than the ones I mentioned. Can you think of any I didn’t mention? What do you think were the most important factors contributing to the first stirrings of religion?