On the Origin of Religion

At some point in our history, our ancestors became aware of a startling fact. That fact was that all beings die and eventually decompose, leaving only traces behind in the memories of others and scattered empty bones. Death is undoubtedly a cause of emotional distress – it serves as the ultimate breaker of bonds between people. When a person sees their loved one’s body void of life its easy to see how they might cope with this distress by reassuring themselves that this person has simply left their body and gone somewhere else. The idea that death only provides a temporary separation from your loved ones is a very comforting notion. In essence, our species is emotionally unequipped to deal with the eventuality of death, and the loss that it brings.

As a general rule all humans are averse to suffering, and rather than suffer emotional turmoil and distress, our brain has demonstrated an immense capacity for deluding itself in it’s search for comfort. We assure ourselves that we shall one day be reunited with our lost loved ones in order to cope with the distress that losing them brings. This eventually led to primitive ancestor worship, in which the ancestors (the deceased members of the tribe) were thought to reside in a specific mythological place, and rituals were carried out in the hope of contacting the dead – the very same desire that funds many fraudulent psychic mediums today is what drove primitive ancestor worship. Our ancient burial sites confirm notions that early humans (and Neanderthals) had a particular reverence for their dead. Items of significance were often buried alongside them, indicating that perhaps they thought the dead would carry them through to the afterlife.

A place of the ancestors lays the foundations for later traditions of heaven and hell. Religion often centres upon life beyond death, and this has essentially arisen from an inability to cope with the suffering posed by bereavement.

Our ancestors too would have looked upon the stars, and tried to reason what these tiny points of light above them might be. Carl Sagan hypothesized that early man might have assumed that the stars were the camp fires of great hunters in the sky. Living in a time in which the only thing we knew of that gave off light during the darkness was the camp fire, it’s easy to see how someone might have drawn this simple conclusion. Humans have always had the ability to question, however we also have the rather unhelpful habit of choosing bad answers over no answer at all. In a time of limited knowledge, mythical and religious explanations were numerous.

Our mind’s seek patterns – it’s how we make sense of the world. However, our skill for finding patterns does often miss the mark. In terms of agriculture, there was a lot of superstition around the processes that we didn’t quite understand. What causes a drought? Is it because the gods are somehow displeased? Perhaps the gods being pleased with sacrifices will lead to successful crops? Devoting one specific day a week to worship and ritual in their minds might ensure a successful harvest. It is known that the early peoples of Israel devoted much of their time to this kind of agriculture and worship.

Another more primitive form of worship is based around hunting, and we can see many of these forms of religion alive today in tribes from all over the world. Often the animals that are hunted, are treated with great reverence and respect. This reflects an appreciation of what the animal provides to them as a people. Often their myths interweave grandiose tales and useful information, such as the whereabouts of certain fruit or where to find water. Perhaps mythologising useful information was an early form of education. Children are likely to remember these tales and pass them on. In the days before writing perhaps this method of education was a crucial survival tool?

Sun worship was also prominent in ancient cultures, the sun quite clearly represents the giver of life on this planet, and it is no wonder that our ancestors would have devoted many hours to observing it. There are many examples of ancient areas of worship that are built specifically in alignment with the sun.

You have to bear in mind that all of these ideas arose in a world with little scientific knowledge. We prefer any magical explanation to questions such as ‘what are the stars?’ ‘how do you maintain successful crops?’ ‘what happens after we die?’ than no answer at all. Over time these ancient notions became interwoven, as the population grew and civilization began, ancient myths and oral traditions began to mix into more elaborate religions – constantly being changed and updated. The road to organised religion had begun.

 

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