On the Origin of Religion

“As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Science magazine has a great article, with the same title as this post, on the science behind the origin of religion. It is prefaced with the quote above and notes that “every human society has had its gods, whether worshipped from Gothic cathedrals or Mayan pyramids.” But when and why did religion begin? Increasingly, scientists are drawing on the fields of anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience and many now believe that religion may be hard-wired in the human brain.

When did religion begin? Humans have been around for perhaps two million years, but the archaeological evidence suggests religion emerged recently. The earliest discovered deliberate burials are 95,000 years old. Only from 30,000 years ago do we find the first evidence of symbolic expression — headless woman figurines with huge breasts that some think are religious. The oldest temple ruins that have been discovered are from an 11,000-year-old site in Turkey. Yet once civilization emerged, religious activity exploded onto the scene, in the form organized religions managed with hierarchicy and boasting identifiable supernatural gods. This all began just 5,000 years ago.

Why? It turns out there may be a neurological foundation for human religious belief that may have evolved at that time, or emerged through the birth of civilization. The article cites numerous studies ranging from the cognitive psychology of children to the performance of undergraduate brain and godstudents under pressure to show our capacity for believing that things are intentionally caused by an unseen “agent,” and that human beings have a bias to see the natural world as purposefully (or intelligently) designed. As one researcher notes, “When I hear a bump in the night, I think ‘Who’s there?’ not ‘What’s there?’ … Given ambiguous stimuli, we often posit an agency at play.” Evolutionary biology and natural selection may have favored this — if the bump in the night is a burglar or lion, you could be in danger, while if it’s just the wind, no harm done, so the pre-ancient humans that had no such bias for seeing unseen agents could have been more vulnerable. And if humans insinctively suspect that unseen agents are responsible for mysterious events, it’s a short step to believing in omens or higher powers.

There may be another another reason why religion is found in every civilization — it promotes cooperative behavior among strangers and thus creates stable and cohesive groups. People are also more helpful when they believe they are being watched, so a supernatural omniscient god promotes stable society. And religion also boosts reproduction of their members, the evidence of which we can see today looking looking at the low replacement rates of the rich and casually religious societies of Western Europe (Spain: 1.3, Czech Republic: 1.23) and East Asia (Macau: 0.9, South Korea: 1.2, Japan: 1.22) compared to the high fertility of many devoutly religious Islamic societies that are otherwise chaotic (Afghanistan: 7.07, Somalia: 6.04, Nigeria: 5.2).

What about life after death? Here also, from childhood children have an instinctive belief that no matter what happens to our bodies, our minds are immortal. Every human society has developed explanations for what happens to our minds, or souls, or spirits, after our body dies. As research into religious belief continues, and we further understand the human need to explain events with supernatural explanations, we may understand further what drives religion in today’s age when scientific understanding and rational thought have refuted many core beliefs of religion, yet it continues to flourish nonetheless.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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85 Responses to On the Origin of Religion

  1. Chris says:

    @Curzon: People are militant in their beliefs because they believe that they are right without a doubt, and are frustrated that others do not see things the way they do. Rarely will a militant atheist consider himself militant, and likewise for a militant Christian.

    @Younghusband: You’ve read Brave New World.

    Stalin’s violence is no representation of atheism, but some of the scientific experiments performed under the Soviet Union are prime examples of just how unethical science can be without moral consideration.

    Take for example the experiments of Vladimir Demikhov. He successfully created over twenty two-headed dogs. The scientific knowledge acquired from the experiment was quite interesting; each head lived its separate life, eating and sleeping at different times while connected to the same body. He recorded how the puppy head of one dog would eat as if starving, even though all of its nutrients could only come from the larger head. The puppy head would eat and eat; the food would travel down the esophagus and spill all over the fur on the animal’s back (for it wasn’t actually connected to the digestive system).

    In consideration for the experience of the dogs, many would consider this extremely unethical. Could you put yourself in the mind of an animal whose esophagus drips onto its back?

    Demikhov envisioned a future where excess spare body parts would be attached to brain-dead patients (vegetables) and kept alive on farms built for this purpose, to wait for the occasion where they will be removed and transplanted onto a living patient in need of that part.

    Some experiments were commissioned by the government with the simple goal of presenting to creationists, such as the attempted human-chimpanzee hybrid.

    @M-Bone: “One could include science in this definition.”

    Separate religion from dogma, and what do you have? – a world view. Even though science is intended to be the study of the observable world, a very different discipline from philosophy, today many atheists use science to deny the existence of God, creating a world view to conflict with that of conventional modern religions. Thus dogma, which I would define as a system of beliefs imposed by society that one feels they absolutely must adhere to, has come to meet its scientific equivalent.

    I asked earlier in this thread, “At what point does science become a religion, Darwin a prophet, and accepted scientific theories unquestionable?”.

    The only difference between militant atheists and militant theists, is that the former only wish to look down at what they can see, and the latter only wish to look up at what they can’t. Both groups have mistakenly assumed that because God incomprehensible, He is without explanation. Militant atheists are frustrated by the idea that the Universe cannot operate without the aid of magic. Militant theists are frustrated by the idea that the Universe can operate without the aid of magic.

    I turn you to a commentary on the Kena Upanishad by Sri Swami Paramananda Saraswati Maharaj:

    “If God could be known by the limited mind and senses, then God–knowledge would be like any other knowledge and spiritual science like any physical science.”

    @Younghusband: You stated earlier that even Dawkins has his own spirituality. Atheist to atheist, would you mind sharing with me your own?

  2. M-Bone says:

    Chris, have you read “The Telling” by Ursula Le Guin? It is a novel about an anthropologist who encounters an alien civilization for whom religion is the sum total of their ways of talking about themselves and their world. I think that you would enjoy it.

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you for the recommendation, as well as with the Native American biography.

  4. M-Bone says:

    No problem – if you write a bit more about what you are looking for, I may be able to recommend a few more.

    Coincidence – the author of the Native American bio is Le Guin’s stepmother.

  5. Chris says:

    I am interested in everything; every subject, and every viewpoint, from every part of the world.

    What are some of your favorites?

  6. M-Bone says:

    Reading over a few of your posts, I would recommend Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund” – a story contrasting the institutional/rational and the solitary creative/passion in the Middle Ages.

  7. Younghusband says:

    Chris,

    “@Younghusband: You’ve read Brave New World.”

    No, I haven’t. It’s been on the list forever.

    Regarding the case of Demikhov (and Mengele for that matter), let me refer to my previous statement: “These atrocities were not the result of societies too attached to critical thinking, or too demanding of evidence.” It was not too much science that lead to such experiments, it was too little ethics. The Bolsheviks and the Nazis hijacked the morals of the society (hmmm… sounds familiar no?) and suppressed dissent by limiting personal liberty. You said it shows “just how unethical science can be without moral consideration.” Absolutely. But morals do not come from god, so there is no need to abandon them in pursuing a secular society based on rational thinking.

    “At what point does science become a religion, Darwin a prophet, and accepted scientific theories unquestionable?”

    For science to become a religion it would first have to stop being science. Science is a process for finding answers. Religion is answers pre-found. They are in opposition in my view.

    If you like funny stories, and you want to know how science and atheism are like ironed trousers, have a listen to this but from Adam Rutherford: Science, atheism and ironed trousers

    “@Younghusband: You stated earlier that even Dawkins has his own spirituality. Atheist to atheist, would you mind sharing with me your own?”

    I get the spiritual heebie-jeebies when looking into space. It is just so big and wondrous, and we are so small. That and watching Man United lose — makes me nearly praise god every single time!

  8. Chris says:

    “It was not too much science that lead to such experiments, it was too little ethics.”

    Absolutely! The same can be said for religion and power.

    I find it very interesting that this thread, which began attempting to unearth the origin of religion, has ended up attempting to unravel what religion actually is.

    In the end, when we see through the dogma, the politics, the psychology and the atrocities of religion, we find that we all look up to the cosmos and speculate as to the wonders that exist beyond our horizon.

  9. Curzon says:

    … in that case, to bring us back to the topic at hand, look at Younghusband’s final note:

    “I get the spiritual heebie-jeebies when looking into space. It is just so big and wondrous, and we are so small. That and watching Man United lose — makes me nearly praise god every single time!”

    This is example that shows that even an athiest engaging in behavior that constitutes an act often associated with religion. Even with a rational athiest, we see that the tendency for religion engrained in human consciousness.

  10. Chris says:

    Curzon, you said you were working on a timeline of religion.

    In the future, I would like to see it, as well as hear what you see as the next major step in religious development.

  11. T. Greer says:

    A fascinating discussion. So much has been said that I do not think I can respond to everything written. I shall, however, comment on one notion I found rather interesting.

    Younghusband said:

    There is no logical connection between atheism and violence. The same cannot be said of religion.

    This statement is true. I am curious though, why no one has broad up the converse.

    There is no logical connection between atheism and peace. The same cannot be said of religion.

    This is also true. For every religiously motivated act of terrorism, you can find a hospital built, a community strengthened, and, in some cases, a war averted because of religion. But atheism, which in and of itself carries no moral imperatives, possesses no ability to motivate men and women to resolve conflicts peacefully.

    So where does that leave us? Younghusband says that the goal should be rationality – cut out the dogmas, and the world will be a wonderful place. I object to this line of thought. I have yet to see any evidence that the dogmas can be removed at all. This thread started out as a discussion of the evolutionary origins of religion. If religion is truly ingrained by thousands of years of evolution into the human condition, then removing religion is an exercise in the impossible. History backs confirms this point. How many drives to remove religion have been successful? It always seems to rush back the minute persecutions stop. And when it does not, another dogma has risen to take its place. Harris’ point about the works of Stalin and Hitler being the result of dogma are fair, but they lead the question — why does such dogma arise in the first place? Why do atheistic societies refuse to act rationally?

    I would answer that it is because we cannot. To do so is to override 50,000 years of evolutionary history. Thus our goal not be the destruction of dogma, something we cannot do, but the construction of the dogma that will be most beneficial to humanity.

  12. T. Greer says:

    Also, I hope you can forgive me for jumpiness of that last comment – writing in transit never produces good work.

  13. Chris says:

    When humanity decides as a whole that nothing exists unless it has been proven, and that until it is, it doesn’t exist, then we have eliminated God.

    There will still be violence and suffering.

  14. Younghusband says:

    @T. Greer,

    I am curious though, why no one has broad[sp] up the converse.

    That is equivocation, a logical fallacy.

    But atheism, which in and of itself carries no moral imperatives, possesses no ability to motivate men and women to resolve conflicts peacefully.

    Of course not. Atheism is simply a position (on the existence of god) like Copernican heliocentrism (on the position of the sun). It is not an organizing principle for society. For that, I recommend you look at secular humanism.

    Why do atheistic societies refuse to act rationally?

    Begging the question. See my reply above.

    Thus our goal not be the destruction of dogma, something we cannot do, but the construction of the dogma that will be most beneficial to humanity.

    I could not disagree with this more. As I said above, “dogma is the mind-killer”. We need people to think rationally, to not accept things at face value, to question authority and to be willing to change their position when presented with credible evidence.

  15. Younghusband says:

    Two last things for T. Greer:

    If religion is truly ingrained by thousands of years of evolution into the human condition, then removing religion is an exercise in the impossible.

    “Religion” is not ingrained per se, but something is that gives rise to religion. Things like looking for agency, theory of mind etc.

    There are many attributes that we have evolved that are detrimental to our health nowadays. Take the human sweet tooth for example. Back in the day, that was a great attribute to have. Since modern times, with the abundance of man-made sugar, that evolutionary trait can kill us. We fight it with dietary moderation.

    The same argument can go for religion. We may have something inborn that manifests itself as being credulous and thinking there is a creator, and all the killing, maiming and bigotry that goes with it. So we must fight it, fight it with rationalism.

    But atheism … possesses no ability to motivate men and women to resolve conflicts peacefully.

    No. But realism, neorealism, international liberalism, idealism, institutionalism, constructivism etc, all these ways of thinking about international problems are atheistic: they do not take the supernatural into account.

  16. Chris says:

    “So we must fight it, fight it with rationalism.” – Younghusband

    “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” – Mahatma Ghandi

    This is a blog full of people who are very knowledgeable in the world. I have never left my country.

    So Younghusband, you’ve been to the Islamic Republic. Tell me, where in the world are people killing for God, and only for God?

  17. Younghusband says:

    How is tallying up body counts going to help?

    Nice Ghandi quote by the way.

  18. T. Greer says:

    In response to Younghusband:

    “Religion” is not ingrained per se, but something is that gives rise to religion. Things like looking for agency, theory of mind etc.

    Point acknowledged and agreed to. Would you agree to designate “Things like looking for agency, theory of mind, ect” with the label “dogmatism”?

    Assuming that you agree to this designation, this statement should hold as true:

    Thousands of years of evolutionary history have ingrained dogmatism into the human condition.

    I will use this statement as a starting point. I am afraid that my previous post (and argument) lacked a logical organization, making some of my points unclear. Allow me to restate it in a more logical form.

    Contention I: There is no logical connection between rationalism and violence, but such connections can be found between violence and dogmatism.

    Contention II: There is no logical connection between rationalism and peace, but such connections can be found between peace and dogmatism.

    NOTE: I interrupt the flow of the argument to clarify a point – I will stand fast to the claim that religion plays an ambivalent role in history. If I need to back this point up with further evidence, I will. However, unless shown otherwise, I shall assume that most readers agree that religion carries with it much more than murder and bigotry. (And as another aside: even if the peace-violence scale was a tipped one way or another, it would matter little — what is important is the recognition that at some point in history, dogmatism has ended, diminished, or stopped violence from occurring altogether.)

    Contention III: Dogmatism has been ingrained into the human condition by thousands of years of evolutionary history and cannot be removed.

    NOTE: You assume that it is as easy to remove dogmatism from human psychology as it is to limit our diet. (Or at least, you assume that the two are similar enough to make for a valid comparison.) I do not understand why this is so.

    I ask again, what evidence is there that dogmatism can be removed from human society? Every hunter-gatherer tribe on the face of the Earth buys into some kind of dogma. When these societies slowly transformed into tribes, villages, and chiefdom, these dogmas became institutionalized – religions. Thousands of years later, when aesthetic movements swept over these societies, dogmas were not removed – new ones simply sprang up. And when these dogmas collapsed, when the Jacobins and the Stalinites fell away, religion whooshed back in, again capturing the hearts of millions.

    Again I ask, what societies are free from irrationality? Forget about religion, if you must – what society is free from that most omnipresent dogma, patriotism?

    You cannot separate man from his dogmas. I am extremely skeptical of all who say they have. (The sheer vehemence with which many militant atheists attack religion and its children backs up this point, but I digress.) You say we must “fight, fight, fight” with rationalism — I find this mystifying. Human beings are, at their root, irrational beings. That is to say, we are emotional beings. Our decisions are made on the basis of feeling. This the root of the problem — I feel a great attachment to, even a love for, a country I have consigned to doom and a people whom I offer only Jeremiads. It is not rational, but it guides me nonetheless. So too with God. I love my God and his Church. Is it rational? Perhaps not — I am still deciding on this point. Yet, the feeling still guides me.

    Dogma, I am afraid, is part of the package evolution has given us. To remove it from the human experience is to remove the human from our experience. Do you think such a thing is possible?

    Conclusion: If dogma is reality (Con. III), and its effects on human beings can serve for good (Con. I) or ill, then the most effective peacemakers will be those who use dogma for peace, not those who waste time on trying to stop dogma as a whole.

  19. Chris says:

    @Younghusband: “How is tallying up body counts going to help?”

    First you must count a body. Just one. That is all I am asking for.

  20. Peter says:

    I’ve enjoyed this thread, although at times it started reading like some sort of non-smoking sequel to “Franny and Zooey”.

    I must admit that I found it refreshing when, in the middle of the thread, the post’s author wrote briefly about what he believes (and in turn what he doesn’t believe). I didn’t see much else from anyone talking about what he/she believes in…

    Since we have many self-professed “atheists” writing in, I would like to ask: “How do you define faith, and is it possible for an ‘atheist’ to have/use faith?”

  21. Younghusband says:

    @Peter: So, one death, religious at its core, something that cannot be mistaken as a political act (Fort Hood, 9/11) or oppression (Northern Ireland, Israel) despite the underlying religious reasons, but is only the will of god? How about the stoning to death of a women for having an affair with an unmarried man just last month?

    @T. Greer: As for each of your contentions, I am wary of the way you use “rationalism” in the place of atheism simply because earlier in the thread we talked about the need to temper rationalism with ethics. Regardless, I see where you are going.

    I do think you are correct in your observation that humans tend to the dogmatic (not that dogmatism is inborn, which doesn’t make sense).

    Again I ask, what societies are free from irrationality?

    Now that is what I call getting to the heart of the matter. I think it is a constant battle, a tension in the human condition. To progress we must we wary of our own internal biases and dogmas. It has been done many times throughout history, often with the application of rational thinking.

    Rationality is about making conclusions in ratio to the evidence provided. When astounding new evidence is presented, we must not be limited by our dogmas and change our position. Evidence is the key. This is where religious belief falls short, and furthermore, answers the second part of Peter’s question. (Further note to Peter, it does seem like we have a lot of atheists writing in, but I am getting the feeling that not all of them have studied the full implications of what being atheist means. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the position out there.)

    Finally, as for T. Greer’s conclusion, this is something I have been seriously thinking about recently, and maybe I should argue it in a new post. Just so as not to leave you on the cliff, I very much agree that policymakers can use dogma for the ends of peace. I am just not sure they should do so.

  22. Peter says:

    “So, one death, religious at its core, something that cannot be mistaken as a political act (Fort Hood, 9/11) or oppression (Northern Ireland, Israel) despite the underlying religious reasons, but is only the will of god? ”

    Younghusband, I’m not clear at what part of what I wrote you’re addressing, nor am even clear what this sentence means. I was only asking for an “atheist” definition of faith, and whether or not one can be atheist and still have or use faith. Someone mentioned that famed atheist R. Dawkins admits to having spirituality of one form or another; however, ‘faith’ seems more clearly definable than ‘spirituality’, yet seems to evade the definition of atheism as a position of not believing in a supernatural god or supreme being.

    You cannot answer the second part of my question without answering the first part.

  23. T. Greer says:

    Sounds good, YH. I shall look forward to your new post.

  24. Chris says:

    @Peter: “How do you define faith, and is it possible for an ‘atheist’ to have/use faith?”

    You can have faith in anything. Did you ever perform any pea plant experiments yourself?

    As for an atheist believing in God, as contradictory as it seems (and Younghusband will have a field day with this), yes, I am an atheist who believes in God.

    @Younghusband: Yes, and the Code of Hammurabi would have had you chopping off the hand of a thief, but it had nothing to do with God.

    Jewish law wasn’t any better. Have you read Leviticus? Faith in God wasn’t responsible for that death, but rather childhood conditioning to political dogma.

    Millions of Americans believe in God, and we’re not stoning women to death.

  25. Chris says:

    @Younghusband again: Thought I should add, there is nothing religious about the Israeli/Palestine conflict or 9/11.

  26. Peter says:

    @Chris

    We still haven’t gotten down to what ‘faith’ is.

    What does faith have to do with pea plant experiments? I imagine Mendel to have been a religious man, but beyond that I do not follow you…

  27. Chris says:

    Faith is trust in what you have not seen for yourself.

    A scientist does a study, and a scientist knows. Another scientists disputes that study with his own, but only on the grounds that he has proven it with his own study. He knows.

    Millions read and accept, based upon trust. They have faith.

  28. Pingback: ComingAnarchy.com » Polling the readership: Religiosity

  29. Peter says:

    @Chris

    Thank you. Your definition is similar to what I think, which is in turn is similar to the latter half of the definition of faith described in Hebrews 11:1 of The New Testament. (This is not a defense of Christianity, but just to say that the author of Hebrews, whoever he/she was, came up with a fairly easy to understand definition.)

    “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

    I suppose that if one did not live by faith, then vis-a-vis the existence of god, atheism is the only option. No?

    As for the Science article that started this post, I’ve read it and will say that Elizabeth Culotta does a good job of gathering information from several different fields being done on why humans believe in the supernatural and have faith. I won’t say, as Roy did, that any of the evidence is “solid” per se, and Culotta spends part of her time reminding the reader that there are opposing views for just about every theory she mentions.

  30. Chris says:

    Peter, I have a question for you.

    If I asked you to tell me who you are, without telling me anything about yourself, how would you answer?

  31. Peter says:

    I AM.

  32. Chris says:

    And, if I were to ask you why?

  33. Peter says:

    Sorry, that was me being a smartass and referencing Moses’ conversation with God in Exodus.

    Normally, in order to answer who I am I would just blurt out my name and say nothing else.

    Where is this going?

  34. Chris says:

    No, it was the correct answer.

    Answering with your name would be telling me something about yourself. The only possible answer is “I am.”, and it is the same answer for everyone.

    Science is the study of the “What?” and the “How?”. In order to answer “Who?”, one must resort to philosophy, and the answer to the “Why?” will always remain beyond everyone’s comprehension.

    Faith isn’t the creation of beliefs, it’s adhesion to beliefs that have already been created. The lure of that very last question, I would argue as the origin of religion.

  35. Peter says:

    Aah, nicely done.