Where Did Religion Come From?



The Biological Explanation:

My first direct or personal encounter with a materialist, scientific explanation for the origin of religion occurred in 1987 when I was finishing up my undergraduate work at the University of California, San Diego. I was invited to attend a faculty party at the house of the well-known neuroscientist and psychologist, Professor Ramachandran (a.k.a. Rama). Since the gathering commenced at 8 p.m. I decided to arrive fashionably late, around 9 p.m., so as to blend into the crowd and not be too noticeable. I guess I was intimidated being the only undergraduate asked to go. Well, everyone seemed to have had the same plan, except they were going for the 9:15 or 9:30 slot. So lo and behold I was actually the first guest to arrive, perhaps an omen that an embarrassing evening was on its way. The next person to show up was a tall, elder gentleman introduced to me by Rama as Francis. His wife, I was told, was a famous painter and her artwork was celebrated on Ramaís walls. Francis and I sat on the couch chit chatting while more and more guests came. I could not help but notice all eyes were in our direction. I wondered whether my new hairstyle was drawing attention. Maybe my new outfit was exceptionally groovy. Cameras occasionally flashed and enthusiastic guests hovered nearby. Still all the while I was clueless who this Francis was? I conversed with him for over two hours on a variety of topics, from animal rights to religion. Had I known this was one the most famous living scientists today, that he had received the Nobel Prize in chemistry, that books were written about him and an HBO movie was made on him, I donít think I would have dared to speak so freely and so relaxed. It was none other than Francis Crick, the Cambridge scientist who discovered the structure of the DNA molecule and who is considered one the original architects of genetics. I did not discover his identity until the next day when Rama called me to say he took a photo of Francis Crick and me together. When I learned of who my social partner was, my mind frantically reviewed the discussion. What did I say? Cold sweat began to bead on my forehead and my hands started to tremble. Did I really ask Francis Crick what he did for a living? When he vaguely retorted that he "dabbled in a little bit of this and that" I suspected he meant janitorial work. Had I actually suggested that if he had nothing going on he could come down to Ramaís lab and help me with the research on visual perception? Was I too nervy when I argued with him over the morality of vegetarianism and poked his shoulder in protest to his argument as he did mine? I could not turn a darker shade of red if I tried. While it makes a great story, how I wish I could go back and respectfully appreciate one of the great minds of the twentieth century. Yet, I doubt if I had I known who he was I would have had enough audacity to talk so openly. The sly grin on his face gave me the impression he was enjoying his disguise. Perhaps that is why he stayed seated on the couch next to (in this context) the dumb blond for the duration of the party instead of mingling with the gloating onlookers.

I learned a lot about Crick that night, including his views on religion and God. From his perspective as a neuroscientist, everything, from our thoughts to our actions to our beliefs, can be explained by what is going on inside the brain. Even the notion of free will is neurologically based. As for religion, Crick contends it too is a bio-product of our brain chemistry[1]. It does not come from God, from some higher, mystical reality, but from the construction of our neural network. Religion has emerged since our neurology allows us to contemplate the mysteries of the universe by asking why and how type questions. Without a certain amount of neurons and neuron connections there would never be religion to begin with. The reason why we do not speak of dog religions or bird religions is because they do not possess the necessary neurological state for it.

Why did we neurologically develop the notion of religion in the first place? The materialist interpretation for the origin of religion really begins with an understanding of evolutionary biology. According to evolutionists, the goal of nature is to pass on oneís genes. When the code of oneís DNA mixes with anotherís there are random changes or mutations that can occur, some minor and some more significant. If this change is to the benefit of the organism (that is, it allows it to live a longer life and hence reproduce more) then it is passed on. The environment does not determine the change itself but plays a decisive role in determining which changes will be considered beneficial. For instance, if a baby finch is born with a more pointed and longer beak than its competitors and happens to habitat a very wet area this animal has a greater chance of survival than the others as it could dig deeper into the soggy soil for food. Since it is eating better than most this bird is expected to live a longer life. It will then have more opportunities for reproduction and its genes will potentially dominate the next generation. Yet, if the same animal were born in a dry area we would most likely see only a few of its descendents, if any, for a pointed, long beak is a disadvantage in this condition.

A fairly new discipline in evolutionary studies is evolutionary psychology. Scholars here claim that the very thoughts we think can play a role in our survival. As an example, possessing the idea of love (brotherly love, motherly love, or romantic love) is to our evolutionary advantage. Offering love and support to a sibling or friend allows for camaraderie, hence a decline of individual existential angst and an incentive to live a full life. Since the mother feels love for her young she will nurture them and maintain their existence. When a male feels love (and/or lust) for a women reproduction can occur. Overall, it is apparent that the idea of love is helpful for our continuation.

Now let us apply this to religion. According to evolutionary psychologists, religion itself is an important survival tool for our species. It offers many powerful benefits, including a sense of meaning, group cohesion, and social rules. Instead of existential dread oneís life seems to have a point; instead of social disarray oneís community has order. Thus, early humans who possessed a religious outlook of some kind may have had a greater chance of survival. While the surface structures of religion may vary from one group to another (there are a variety of religious orientations in the world) the overall deep structure of religion remains embedded within our consciousness today. Serving as a survival mechanism for our ancestors, religion is not so easily forgotten.



The Theological Explanation:

Besides the biological explanation, there are other theories about how and why religion began offered by theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists. Let us start with the theological position since it is generally the simplest to understand. From this perspective religion originated from the Divine. God (however one fashions It) imparted spiritual truths to various mystics, prophets, or seers at some time or another and these revelations were then preserved (usually orally in the beginning) in a sacred book. In addition to the religious literature, believers can partake in the transcendent through religious rituals, generally orchestrated or monitored by a clergy member.

For Jews religion came from Yahweh; for Muslims religion came from Allah; for Christians religion came from the Trinity (Note: essentially Yahweh, Allah and the Father of the Trinity refer to the same deity); for Hindus religion came from one of the millions of gods or goddesses or from the impersonal, mystical reality, Brahman; for Jains and Buddhists religion came from a higher understanding (Note: Mahayana Buddhists do accept a celestial notion of the Buddha); etc. According to the theological position the bottom line is: religion has a transcendent origin.

As a child I was indoctrinated in the Christian perspective. Sister Enda, Sister Mary Francis, Sister Lucy and all of the other nuns at Our Lady of Lourdes school started and ended each class session with a prayer recognizing Godís hand in the day and thanking this being for guidance. That God existed and interacted with humans was presupposed; that religion, specifically theirs, was a valid means to relate to God was also assumed. Very specific rules were reinforced to ensure proper etiquette with this God. When I happened to forget my beanie on a day the class was attending church, the sisters would bobby pin a piece of tissue or toilet paper square on my head so that God would not be offended (remember this was the mid-seventies when women were generally expect to wear veils to mass). I think it was also a way to embarrass me so that in the future I would not be so negligent. The fact that I repeatedly had Kleenex or Charmin on my head indicates that plan did not seem to work.

Obviously there is really no way for the academic to verify the theological position--that oneís religion came from God--mainly because the claim of Godís existence is itself non-testable and is beyond the realm of science. Hence, all the social scientists can do with it is to acknowledge it as a matter of faith.

The Anthropological Explanation:

Coming from this Catholic heritage I remember the many miracle stories that circulated about holy objects. Eucharists when treated improperly were said to bleed; water when blessed was said to cure ailments; wooden crosses were said to ward off evil spirits; special statues were said to shed tears; and on occasion in tortillas the Virgin Mary was said to appear. While with occamís razor we can offer simpler, alternative, naturalistic explanations of these phenomena, the animistic concepts here are apparent. In all religions we find some aspect of animism--material forms taking on a life of their own as they imbued a spiritual power.

E.B. Tylor, a 19th century British anthropologist, advanced the theory that religion originated from animism[2]. Primal people, according to Tylor, developed the belief that spirit forces exist and can embody particular objects such as a rock or a tree. The notion of spirits occurred when they mistook the apparitions of a dream, usually of dead ancestors, as visions of spirit entities. Spirits were then projected unto animals and material objects in nature and rituals were invoked to interact with and control them. Simply put, from dreams came the idea of spirits, from spirits came the idea of animism, and religion with its myths and rituals followed.

Another popular anthropological explanation for the origin of religion comes from Sir James Frazer, a 19th Ė early 20th century British scholar. He argued that for early human beings religion initially grew out of magic[3]. With the lack of a scientific worldview, the forces of nature were reckoned with through magical formulations. Eventually, since magic did not help primal people control the environment effectively, these impersonal forces became deified as personal gods (it was easier to manipulate something with a name and a personality than unpredictable, indifferent powers that be) and religion then began. Thus, religion is a step in the evolution of human intellect. The next step, claimed Frazer, is science. A religious explanation of the world will no longer suffice as science offers a much more powerful tool for understanding and controlling nature[4].



The Psychological Explanation:

Since I majored in psychology I ran into Sigmund Freudís and Carl Jungís name quite a bit. Whenever Freudís theories were discussed in class up came the topic of sex. Often the class atmosphere turned uncomfortable as the Oedipus and Electra complex were entertained. Repulsed by the idea of oneís mother or father as a sexual partner most students grinned their teeth and let out a "ugh" sound. Well, as expected Freud also connects the origin of religion to sex. According to Freud, religion stems from deep psychological roots of our unconscious mind[5]. Early male humans, out of passion for their mother and jealousy of their father (otherwise known as the Oedipus complex), wished the father dead. Instead of carrying out the act in reality they substituted an animal and performed a sacrifice in a ritual ceremony. The animal became the totem for the particular clan and taboos were established concerning it. Totemism, then, is the first form of religion announced Freud[6].

His student, Jung, whose overall psychological analysis deviated a great deal from his mentor, agreed with Freud that religion comes from our unconscious mind but disagreed that it has a neurotic genesis. Rather, Jung declared that our "collective" unconscious mind is filled with archetypal symbols, many of which manifest in our dream state, and religion is an outward expression of them. Tapping into the deeper meaning of religious symbolism can lead one to a higher understanding of the universe. Joseph Campbell, a scholar of mythology, certainly agreed with this thesis as he dedicated his life to comparing religious myths and unraveling the psychological significance buried within them.


The Sociological Explanation:

Sociologists of religion approach this subject from a very different angle. According to this school of thought, religion does not have purely a psychological origin but a social one. Emile Durkheim, a 19th century scholar considered one of the original thinkers of sociology, agreed with Freud that the first form of religion for early tribal humans was totemism. But unlike Freud who saw the totem as a substitute for the father, for Durkheim the totem was a personification of the forces of society[7]. Surrounded the totem were certain rules of society (taboos) that were empowered as they were associated with something that seemed to transcend the mundane realm. Religions of today follow the same dynamic. Instead of a totem animal we speak of God. Yet, this entity is none other than the embodiment of societal elements at play. God sets up how we are to behave and what we are to think. This allows for social order. When disobeying the rules one is threatened with an existence in hell (or, if from an eastern perspective, a bad re-birth), demanding no less than total obedience.

There is an interesting story I read about in the Los Angeles Times illustrating the extent of religionís grip over what we think and how we act. It is about a Hindu man who sued Taco Bell for mixing up his food order. Instead of the vegetarian bean burrito he requested the clerk handed him a beef one. A couple of bites later he informed his wife that the burrito had a flavor he had never tasted before. When he unraveled the flour tortilla to his horror he discovered meat. Now, while a vegetarian diet has no necessary connection to religious ideology (there are many non-religious vegetarians) in this context it did. His lawsuit was based on the claim that he was now considered impure to other Hindus and that bad karma was heading his way. A painful illness? A detrimental rebirth? Only fate could tell. Eventually, the lawsuit was settled out of court. The point of the story has nothing to do with what to order or not to order at Taco Bell. Rather it suggests that for this devotee disobeying the religious rules he was raised with meant for him severe social and spiritual consequences (and perhaps in this case a cushy financial benefit).

Besides offering normative values and an incentive to honor them, religion creates a feeling of belonging for its constituents. During religious services adherents usually greet each other, hold hands during prayers, sing together, and afterwards plan social events. Two years ago a woman in my class confessed to me that she no longer believed in her religious upbringing but grieved over the loss of the social community. So torn up was she that for about a year she still attended the services just to feel apart of a group until the ideological differences became too irreconcilable. From then on her social calendar was no longer the same.

The anthropologist Victor Turner argued that religion offers a unique sense of communitas, an academic term simply meaning community. During religious rituals, such as pilgrimages, social distinctions are ignored, hierarchies leveled, and communitas experienced. A classic example occurs during the Muslimís pilgrimage to Mecca. All pilgrims strip themselves of ornaments, including jewelry, fantasy clothes, and makeup, and wear plain white cotton attire with sandals. There are no doctors, lawyers, shop owners, mechanics, clerks, beggars, but attending are one class of peopleófollowers of Allah. Returning to society the disciple feels reinvigorated, as though one can face the everyday grind and accept oneís social disposition, whatever that be, with a smile. Social order and cohesion, necessary requirements for a healthy society, are reestablished.



Explanations for Religion




A More Cynical Explanation:

Thus far we have been reviewing why the religious mind developed. Another question to ask is why would one found a religion to begin with Of course, there are many authentically inspired religious teachers; one only has to consider Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, although it could be argued that their disciples, not themselves, founded the tradition that followed. However, there are some religions that seem to have a more dubious origin. Instead of driven by a feeling of divine calling, the incentive to start the group may be for alternative reasons, including fame and fortune.

Understanding the seven dimensions that constitutes a religion allows us to see how easy it is to create one. If one covers all the bases and includes myths, rituals, a code of ethics, etc., one can develop oneís own movement. While I am in no way arguing that all religions are a conscious creation of opportunists (there are many sincere and uplifting traditions), certainly several may be. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of religions, especially new religions, which fit under this category[8]. Manufacturing a religion takes some creativity, usually a great deal of ego and a lot of time on oneís hands. (I figure if I burn out of teaching another more profitable career awaits me.) It also takes an audience. P.T. Barnumís statement that "a sucker is born every minute" addresses many of the constituents here. The making of a spiritual movement is made simpler today more than ever due to the internet--an accessible tool to get the message out. In time, if enough people find the ideas appealing, there will be an incentive to write more books, to develop fascinating hagiography, to record numinous experiences, to fine tune doctrines, to clarity moral systems, and the fledgling movement can really begin to take off.

Yet, whatever the religionís origins, whether genuinely or materialistically inspired, the fact remains that from the perspective of the disciple a sense of the sacred, perhaps an inherent trait of humans, is somehow touched. Even for the most charlatan of religions what the members bring to it from their own desires, hopes, and experiences can give the group a transformative quality.


A Combination Approach:

As we have seen, there are many interesting explanations for the origin of religion. Determining which one is more valid is difficult. Perhaps religionís beginnings can be understood only when combining the different approaches. For instance, the archetypes Jung and Campbell speak of, which may have survival benefits, may fit nicely into the evolutionary psychology camp. And the step out of the magical world into the religious one that Frazer mentions may have resulted from an advancement in neurology (new neural connections means a new world view). Or if one wishes one could declare from a perspective of faith that religion initially came from tapping into the realm of the transcendent and perhaps dreams offered the window to do this. The special cases of religion being willfully created for opportunist reasons should also be considered. However one explains religionís origins, there is one thing we can feel confident in: religion will most likely have a prosperous future since it is so deeply rooted in our neurology and hence psychology. The claim that secularization will eventually overtake religion remains suspect at this stage. We will investigate the future of religion in the final section of this book.