“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 students 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.