I have noticed that in almost any discussion of the evolutionary origins of religious behavior, someone is bound to say, “religions originated as pre-scientific attempts to explain nature.” They will often then go on to explain how the Thunder God is an effort to explain thunder, how the Sun God is an effort to explain the sun, and so forth.
I get so tired of hearing that worn-out 19th Century idea. Perhaps there is some slight truth to it, but there’s certainly not enough truth to it to make it a remarkable idea.
What aspect of nature does the crucifixion of Jesus attempt to explain? What aspect of nature does Siddhartha’s enlightenment attempt to explain? How does the Confucian emphasis on cultivating proper relationships attempt to explain nature? What aspect of nature does Zen meditation attempt to explain? The notion that “religions originated as pre-scientific attempts to explain nature” simply does not explain crucial aspects of several religions.
I do not subscribe to the notion that religious behavior has only one evolutionary origin. It seems more likely that it arises from at least three sources.
First, humans have an inherent predisposition to ascribe personalities to things. You see this trait at work even in everyday events. Someone might think of their car or their computer as having a personality, for instance, and even go so far as to name their machines. This tendency to ascribe personalities to things — even to inanimate things — seems to me to be the the origin of many supernatural spirits and beings. It is not much of a step from thinking of the weather as having a personality to conceiving of the weather as a spirit or being.
Another likely origin for at least some religious behavior are mystical experiences. Mystical experiences are poorly understood, but there are at least several kinds of them. It is not hard to imagine at least some kinds of mystical experiences giving rise to religious behaviors. For instance, one has only to think of the experience of satori in Zen.
It seems clear that various psychological disorders might also have given rise to some religious behaviors. For instance, some passages in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus appear to have been inspired by psychosis.
Those are three possible sources for the origin of religious behavior. It is also possible that an effort to explain natural phenomena played a roll in the origin of religious behavior. However, I think that roll was marginal at best when compared to the other three sources.