I have no interest, here or elsewhere, in debating the specific merits of this or that religion, other than to state at the start that I believe that all faiths, no matter how much they may reflect the habitual or inborn ways that humans think, are entirely wrong in their details, to the extent that those details involve any trace of supernatural content.
And I will not devote much space here to why one or another religion became dominant in this or that culture. The histories of the spread of Christianity, or of the march of Islam, or of the transformations of Buddhism are, with some exceptions that are relevant to my main topic, someone else’s subject.
What interest me here are some of what I believe to be the most cogent and reasonable explanations of the origin and purpose of religion. This focus is grounded on a firm belief that religion developed and flourished precisely because it had a natural origin and served personal and social purposes, which it continues to do for the many people who cannot bring themselves to do without it.
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It is important at the start to make two clarifications.
(1) This essay is not intended as an attack on any specific religion or on religiousness itself. I have written rather a lot elsewhere about the follies of Bible literalism and the kinds of anti-rational fundamentalism that it fosters. However, my intent here is to consider the case for the origin of the religious mindset, not to re-engage with “intelligent design” or the doctrine of a “young earth.”
And I have no present quarrel with the religious sensibilities of those many thoughtful people who, while not caught up in the folk tales of scriptural literalism, take intellectual, emotional, or moral solace in a generally religious outlook.
As has been ably pointed out by others elsewhere, “faith” and “religion” are not synonyms. The first is a claim of fact, a statement of what is believed to be real; the second is an attitude, an approach or response to life. Religion is, in this second sense, the framework for and the outcome of a sense of divinity, whether or not this divinity is perceived as a traditional, personified God. Daniel Dennett has called it “belief in belief,” and while I think that’s a useful way of putting it, I hope to avoid the scornful tone in which Dennett puts the phrase. The distinction between “faith” and “religion” is critical, for the absence of evidence for the existence of God does not automatically invalidate all of the human experiences, intellectual and emotional, that we call “religious.”
Nevertheless, I do claim, and as it’s the central theme of this essay it’s worth repeating, that even the most thoughtful believers create God out of their very human ways of perceiving, relating to, and interpreting the world and their lives within it. So I also believe that whatever reasonable impulses lead people to assert the divine comes not from God inspiring them but rather from their creating God. On that point the believers and I will just have to go on disagreeing, and enough on that subject.
(2) I am well aware that talk of religion always threatens to deteriorate into a kind of full-contact metaphysics, a spectacle of philosophers duelling with crossed, and often cross, words. So there will be no reliance on ontological or epistemological arguments, from a fundamental belief that language in the absence of evidence is always inadequate truly to validate the material presence of anything. From Aristotle to Wittgenstein, this has been true. For that reason, my emphasis in this essay will be on explanations and theories that arise from concrete sources, from factual data ranging from the excavation of ancient temples to the exploration of the human brain.
In these two ways – avoiding fights over doctrine on the one hand, and devaluing metaphysics on the other – I hope to keep a firm focus on what we can reasonably know, and on what we can reasonably say about what we know.
So while I have written and will continue to write here of what I “believe,” by this I mean what I think to be sensible, based on the available evidence. That is not the same kind of “belief” as is faith in a supernatural deity. To borrow a wise saying, “Faith is something you don’t need when you have evidence.”
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An impulse to create religion exists in every human society. Why should this be true? Some believers say that we have an inborn sense of the God who created us. Some non-believers list survival advantages, making God a winner in the Darwinian sweepstakes. The adaptationists are closer to the mark, but they’re not right, either. The convincing argument is that God is really a byproduct of the human psychology we’ve all inherited from our primitive ancestors.
That an actual God gave us the ability to sense his existence might be a more defensible claim if it weren’t for the fact that there have been thousands of religions. The fact that we humans have not one God but many gods supports the notion that it isn’t “God” that exists, or why wouldn’t we all have a common perception of just One, everywhere in the world? It makes sense that, while the impulse to posit a god-figure is universal, the form of that god-figure differs from culture to culture.
Some evolutionists argue that belief in God has certain desirable benefits for the believers, making us feel safer from natural harms or human enemies, or enhancing our commitments to our communities, or giving us comforting illusions of purpose or meaning. All of these benefits certainly exist for many believers, but that doesn’t explain how the belief in God the protector, the designer, or the redeemer arose in the first place.
Why create gods? Nothing in the nature of the emotional religious experience requires positing a non-material, eternal entity which created the universe and all that’s in it. The god impulse can’t be explained backwards by looking at the god effects.
Others claim that God is the creation of the religious caste, that priests and shamans have always recognized the benefit to themselves of religious hierarchies in which they are at the top. This, too, is treating the effects as the cause. Once religions existed, of course some people exploited the creation of faith to personal advantage. But it’s just not credible to suggest that one day, independently, in every human society, someone sat down and thought, “I need a way to control the people, so I’ll invent a magical world inhabited by a super-being.” Religions may have strengthened and persisted because of their appeal to a ruling class, but they weren’t created for that purpose.
A more thoughtful version of the socially-created religion narrative was supplied by John Teehan, in his readable book In the Name of God, in which his primary argument is that religion is a social construct that serves to facilitate our innate need for social organization. As he puts it:
I contend that religious moral traditions are cultural expressions of underlying cognitive and emotional pre-dispositions that are the products of evolutionary processes. The thesis this book intends to develop and defend is that evolution has designed the human mind in such a way that we possess a set of mental tools that shape our moralities and our religions.
Teehan asserts that religion developed as a means to an end, a way to give power and importance to the communal behaviours essential to our development as social animals living in ever-larger groups. He supports this argument with both a summary of the findings of contemporary evolutionary psychology and an analysis of the Bible.
He uses the first to explain the second, making the case that social animals need a moral code that regulates their interactions, and that religions provide a powerful framework for delivering and enforcing whatever specific moral rules a society has developed. The rules themselves are not central; that rules exist, and are believed to be enforced by a powerful entity, a god, is central. In other words, it doesn’t greatly matter what the rules are, as long as there are rules, and rules that are taken seriously by the members of a group.
One recent claim takes the idea of God as an embodiment of moral rules in a rather surprising direction. Harvard psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner posit that “the more people suffer, the more they appear to believe in God.”
It’s not that suffering people turn to God primarily for comfort, although many do find comfort in their belief; rather, in the authors’ view they “need” God in situations in which they’re suffering but there’s no obvious cause to blame. Rather than do without a cause — that is, accept that bad things happen to them for no good reason, or for no reason at all — it seems that many people conjure up an intentional agent to explain their suffering. Better a fictional bringer of pain than random pain.
The authors attempt to explain their experimental finding in terms of “moral typecasting theory.” In this construct, we see the participants in a moral situation as either the “moral agent” (the “doer”) or the “moral patient” (the “receiver”). And, once we have placed an entity into one category or another, we tend to keep it there, to “typecast” it. We don’t see the mugger as a victim; we also don’t see a bullied child as provocative. Once an agent, always an agent; once a victim, always a victim.
This moral “dyadic structure,” as the authors describe it, leads to significant outcomes. One, if there is a “moral victim,” there must also be a “moral agent.” If we can’t identify an agent in the situation — a river floods and destroys a farmstead, for instance — the authors suggest that we feel a compulsion to “supply” an agent, so we invoke belief in a supernatural entity whom we can hold responsible. (And, of course, in those cases where we receive unexplained benefits, whom we can praise.)
In this view, “morality may be not only a consequence of religion … but also a fundamental cause.” The authors write that “the central features of beliefs about God and religion spring not from our naïve wonder at thunderstorms or the sunrise but from our use of religious ideas to understand the moral world.” And, “humans invent God and Satan as moral agents to be responsible for the good and bad in our lives and in turn understand ourselves as moral patients who receive the good and bad that supernatural agents send our way.” What results is what the authors call “God of the Moral Gaps.”
It’s an intriguing idea, but with only one small study supporting it, there’s little reason to consider their explanation anything more than a well-reasoned speculation.
Religion is a meme, say writers like Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore — a social gene-equivalent, surviving by being passed down as an idea from one mind to another. This may well be true once religion exists, but again, the meme theory doesn’t satisfactorily address how religions originated. Blackmore has famously revised her previous claim that religion is a “virus.” And many others reject the memetics approach as a whole, arguing that the entire meme thesis is a false analogy.
There are a large number of possible external reasons for religion, and as we’ve seen, they range from the slight to the significant. None of them, however, satisfactorily explains the root causes of religion. Why do religions exist?
Without the gratuitous and circular argument that religions exist because God created them so we could experience him/her, without the backwards causation of gene and meme theories, what’s left that makes sense is that we’re asking the wrong question, or at least asking the question wrong.
According to Steven Pinker, the question is really not why is there religion but what are the activities of the human brain, of the way it processes the world it senses, that lead to the god impulse? In other words, of what natural processes is belief in a divine world a secondary consequence — not an adaptation, but a “spandrel,” a byproduct of adaptation?
Why is our blood red? Is there some adaptive advantage to having red blood, maybe as camouflage against autumn leaves? Well, that’s unlikely, and we don’t need any other adaptive explanation, either. The explanation for why our blood is red is that it is adaptive to have a molecule that can carry oxygen, mainly hemoglobin. Hemoglobin happens to be red when it’s oxygenated, so the redness of our blood is a byproduct of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. The color per se was not selected for.
Pinker has some sympathy for the “feels good” and “good for the elite” ideas above. Still, I’m not confident that social benefits are truly adaptive in the same way that processing oxygen is adaptive. The adaptation and selection metaphors may be getting stretched a little thin when one thinks of them in this way.
There is another explanation, offered by Pinker and others, that satisfies the adaptation vs. spandrel distinction without undue speculation or cause-effect manipulation, and that is the idea that we have brains that are hard-wired to perceive minds in others and, as a result, to seek analogous agencies behind the physical forces in the world.
Pinker puts the first point this way:
I impute minds to those people. I can’t literally know what someone else is thinking or feeling, but I assume that they’re thinking or feeling something, that they have a mind, and I explain their behavior in terms of their beliefs and their desires. That’s intuitive psychology. There is evidence that intuitive psychology is a distinct part of our psychological make-up.
Once we have given “an invisible entity called the mind” to other people, the creation of a non-material identity is not far away:
… it’s a short step to imagining minds that exist independently of bodies. After all, it’s not as if you could reach out and touch someone else’s mind; you are always making an inferential leap. It’s just one extra inferential step to say that a mind is not invariably housed in a body.
Once we’ve attributed minds to others, and we’ve next conceived of minds without bodies, it’s psychologically inevitable that we will project immaterial minds as the agencies behind material phenomena, from lightning, to disease, to a successful hunting trip on the early savannah.
And once this process has given psychological credibility to the god impulse, all the other secondary social forces — community solidarity, political discipline, the sustenance of an elite, and the rest — come into play and create what we know today as formal religions.
Teehan gives a similar account. Teehan writes that “we conceive of the mind of God in much the same way as we conceive of the minds of persons – but with some vitally important exceptions.” Our “Theory of Mind” operates, but with the enhancements necessary to make our god an effective moral regulator:
Gods, as “full access strategic agents,” occupy a unique role that allows them to detect and punish cheaters and to reward cooperators. In moral religions such gods are conceived of as “interested parties in moral choices..” They are concerned with social interactions and they are fully cognizant of the behavior and motives of those involved. The gods know who reciprocates and who cheats, and the gods remember.
Teehan summarizes his explanation of the origins of morality and the role of supernatural beings this way:
Religious morality provides a vehicle for extending the evolutionary mechanisms for morality, that is, kin selection and reciprocal altruism, via communal belief in supernatural beings, conceived as full-access interested parties. Belief in such beings is a natural outgrowth of cognitive processes that did not evolve for religious purposes but that channel human experiences in such a way as to lead to religious beliefs. Once such beliefs become culturally available they are in a prime position to support and extend our evolved moral psychology, thus making the development of larger and more complex social organizations possible.
An innate moral framework, based on core emotions, joins with our innate cognitive functioning, which we call reason, to create what we know as religions. With these tools, Teehan argues, we create the moral environment — the culture — needed for success in large social groups:
The synergy created by the integration of our religious cognitive framework and our moral cognitive framework sets the conditions for the rise of cultural institutions – that is, religions – with a potential to shape human affairs unsurpassed by any other force in history. Given this, it is not surprising that cultures throughout history, and across the globe, have developed ways of tapping into this psychology that fit their own particular circumstances.
Anthropologist Stewart E. Guthrie presents a compatible argument in his essay “Anthropological Theories of Religion.” In this essay, Guthrie explains that religion is one of the remnants of an intuitive animism, an evolved tendency to see agency in non-human and non-living things.
When something happens to us, we are hardwired to look for a being — human or not, alive or not — to which we can attribute intentionality. If we assume that most of the things around us can act upon us, for good or ill, we are better equipped to survive than we would be if we were generally oblivious to possible prey, predators, and social contacts.
Guthrie notes that “recent cognitive psychology and related research … [show] that our tendency to model the world on humans is neither superficial nor mere idiom, but is pervasive and deeply rooted.” He writes that “we have such ideas without knowing why, or even that we have them. They transmit easily because they strike chords that already are familiar.”
This intuitive tendency manifests itself in the two central features of religion — animism and anthropomorphism. Guthrie writes:
… [T]hey constitute apparent but mistaken discoveries – that is, false positives – of animals or people, and are inevitable products of our chronic search for important agents in an ambiguous world. This search in turn is part of an evolved strategy for finding the most important features in our uncertain perceptual environment.
Guthrie believes that animism and anthropomorphism are widespread because they are intuitive, arising from “related dispositions and processes.” He writes that they “frequently or always are present in religion.” In this view, religion doesn’t pre-exist; rather, it is a secondary byproduct of an evolved tendency to see agency, a tendency that “has a basis in experience over the course of human evolution.”
Guthrie identifies two forms of animism, both of which can lead to superstitious beliefs of all kinds, including “disembodied” religions like the three major Western monotheisms. The first form of animism is the concept of “spirit beings (humanlike beings who may be invisible and/or more or less insubstantial.” The second form of animism consists of “attributing life to phenomena that biologists consider nonliving.” Combine these animisms with anthropomorphism, which attributes human traits to nonhuman beings, and you have a conceptual landscape ready to be populated by spiritual beings.
Guthrie speculates that “a subjective reason why disembodied agency is intuitive is that we conceive our selves and the selves of others as immaterial. … Normal experience is disembodied.” In other words, not being able to see or touch the supposed spirit living in that old oak by the river is not a barrier to believing that the spirit is there, in the tree.
He concludes with the key assertion that religion and superstition are based not on experiential evidence but rather on an evolved state of mind:
The animism and anthropomorphism central to religious thought and action are not unique but are subsets of our general animism and anthropomorphism. They are distinguished from the general set only by their relative systematization and gravity. No clear line distinguishes religions from other thought and action. They are not themselves selected for, nor are they a unitary phenomenon. Rather, they are a family of side effects of our perceptual and cognitive proclivities, linked to each other by our search for order and meaning.
Seen this way, it may not have taken God to create us; rather, it took us to create gods.
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Despite the reasonableness of these explanations, not everyone is convinced. Much of that lack of conviction is based on the old complaint: well-reasoned speculation is one thing, but where’s the evidence?
Some newer research seems to support the idea that a “religious impulse,” for want of a better phrase, is a basic outcome of the development of modern human cognition. That evidence comes in at least two forms: archaeological findings of the real events of human history, and neuropsychological research into the workings of the human mind.
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For a prominent historical example, the recent controversy over the archaeological findings at Gobekli Tepe, “the world’s first temple,” casts doubt on the conventional story that organized religions were a product of the more settled societies that grew up in the wake of the introduction of agriculture and the domestication of animals.
The central issue with the Göbekli Tepe excavation is that it appears to show large-scale, cooperative monument building while the local inhabitants were still hunter-gatherers with no permanent cities and no agriculture. If this is true, the evidence contradicts the accepted sequence, in which agriculture and herding were the first steps in a process which developed a complex social structure next, and only after that anything like a state religion. At Göbekli Tepe, the temple comes too early, and this anomaly raises a number of key questions about the history of the development of human culture.
As Sandra Scham wrote in Archaeology:
Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, archaeologists believed that societies in the early Neolithic were organized into small bands of hunter-gatherers and that the first complex religious practices were developed by groups that had already mastered agriculture. Scholars thought that the earliest monumental architecture was possible only after agriculture provided Neolithic people with food surpluses, freeing them from a constant focus on day-to-day survival. A site of unbelievable artistry and intricate detail, Göbekli Tepe has turned this theory on its head.
Led by German Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologists digging at Göbekli Tepe believe that the complexity of the site and the fact that its multiple layers of stone circles were built over a period of several hundred years point to an existing social structure, with a noble or priestly class likely supervising and guiding the construction. Since the site is littered with auroch and deer bones, but not with the remains of house foundations or cooking hearths, Schmidt believes that the people who built Göbekli Tepe and who participated in the rituals performed there were hunter-gatherers who did not live there permanently but who came from farther afield, drawn by the spiritual significance of the structures into a group with shared religious experiences.
In Schmidt’s view, the idea that large-scale religion was an outcome of an existing social society is backward. As he sees it, the evidence at Göbekli Tepe suggests that it was a shared spiritual experience that bonded the group, which only later turned to agriculture and herding to support its more highly concentrated population. If this is true, then local or clan animism gave rise to a regional religion, which then supported the later development of larger, more complex social systems, which turned to agriculture for sustenance.
If a religious impulse predates advanced societies, it becomes much harder to argue that religion is an organized expression of our cooperative, social natures. Some other source of religion becomes necessary, bringing us back once again to the idea that we have an innate cognitive predisposition to create “super” agencies that explain the mysteries of our life experiences.
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I pointed out earlier that thousands of gods have been worshipped in hundreds of human cultures. How, then, can we hope to settle on just one reason for the origin of the belief impulse?
The simple answer is no more or less than that human beings are members of one species, and as such we share, within quite narrow limits, the same physical brains and the same cognitive functions. In other words, all religions are the same because they all express the same inner mental processes.
This idea is neither new nor original, of course. For just one example, some of the best modern expressions of the notion are available in the works of Joseph Campbell. And one of the best explanations of the mechanics of the structure and functioning of the human mind can be found in Antonio Damasio’s How Self Comes to Mind.
There are far too many experiments and behaviour studies to cite in so short an essay, but a convenient summary of the relevant results has been supplied by Michael Shermer, author of Why We Believe Weird Things and The Believing Brain.
Shermer’s explanations follow the emerging consensus on human cognition: we all share cognitive structures and tendencies, which manifest themselves in different ways in different cultures and different contexts. He believes that the research comes down firmly on the side of a single, universal cognitive arsenal:
Because humans share a universal evolved architecture, all ordinary individuals reliably develop a distinctively human set of preferences, motives, shared conceptual frameworks, emotion programs, content-specific reasoning procedures, and specialized interpretation systems— programs that operate beneath the surface of expressed cultural variability, and whose designs constitute a precise definition of human nature.
Shermer is clear on what he thinks is the reason that we believe in “weird things” like God: “We have magical thinking and superstitions because we need critical thinking and pattern-finding. The two cannot be separated. Magical thinking is a necessary by-product of the evolved mechanism of causal thinking.”
In other words, our supernatural beliefs are accidental tag-alongs with ways of thinking without which we would not have flourished as a species. Why have these kinds of falseness lasted? Why weren’t they selected out? Shermer argues that these kinds of beliefs, which he calls “false positives,” are “tolerated,” in evolutionary terms, because a tendency to false positives is less catastrophic than a tendency to false negatives.
If you see the wind move a branch ahead of you on the trail, and you think that it’s a waiting leopard, there’s no fatal consequence to your mistake. If your tendency when you see a branch move is to think, “It’s probably just the wind,” you’re the leopard’s lunch when you’re wrong. Better false gods than unseen predators, Shermer explains.
It’s not a matter of how “smart” you are. If you’re more intelligent than most, all that means is that you’re better at composing and “selling” the post hoc justifications you construct to explain your largely unconscious and irrational beliefs and behaviour: “Although intelligence does not affect what you believe, it does influence how beliefs are justified, rationalized, and defended after the beliefs are acquired for non-smart reasons.”
Early in The Believing Brain, Shermer states the familiar central tenet of his analysis:
Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.
In the case of belief in an afterlife, Shermer writes that “we are natural-born immortalists.” His explanation is that our belief in immortality results from the interaction of agenticity, dualism, and theory of mind. It is “an extension of our body schema.” We can imagine ourselves being in another place, or another time, Shermer explains, so that we have no trouble imagining ourselves being in a supernatural place for an infinite time.
For many who cling to the hope of endless life, the source of that boon is of course a benevolent God. Shermer tackles the reason for belief in God:
God is the ultimate pattern that explains everything that happens, from the beginning of the universe to the end of time and everything in between, including and especially the fates of human lives. God is the ultimate intentional agent who gives the universe meaning and our lives purpose. As an ultimate amalgam, patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all other forms of theisms and spiritualisms devised by humans.
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None of the reasonable views presented in this essay — not Pinker’s, or Teehan’s, or Shermer’s — is “true” in the same way that believers assert that it’s “true” that the universe was specially created, or that our lives are directed and/or judged by our God/gods.
However, and crucially, each of these cognitive explanations of the origin of earthly religion not only begins with a set of essentially empirical data — from archaeology, history, behavioural psychology, neuroscience, and biology — but its very reasonableness, not to mention all of its persuasiveness, stands or falls with the strength of the evidence on which it is based.
The authors of these arguments rely on true questions, about real things, and not on abstract explanations of merely presumed entities. And that’s important.
To restate an idea from the introduction, you can’t use word games to prove anything, for the simple reason that you can use word games to prove anything. Statements like “God created the World” and “Jesus loves me” are not declarations of observed facts that can be investigated or confirmed or disproved; and because they’re not, they are inherently “irrational.” No argument that starts with this sort of assumptive claim is more, or can be more, than a hypothetical. That the introductory words “I believe that …” or “Let’s assume that … ” are missing from the page doesn’t mean that they’re not included in these statements.
What’s real may be described by words, may be explained by words, may be understood by words — but words aren’t what’s real. What’s real are the real things into which we really run, to which our words apply. Proof is things. Things that are real. They exist. Nobody has to propose them as premises or assume them as givens for them to exist.
That suggests that while it is rational to ask “How did the idea of God develop?” it isn’t rational to offer any answer that can’t be engaged with in the material world.