Rambling On About Religion Today

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.

9 thoughts on “Rambling On About Religion Today”

  1. We tend to confuse religion, religiosity and spirituality. Religion is an effort, conscious or not, to organize one’s beliefs and systematize them, hence the birth of organized religions of whatever stripes. Religiosity is akin to some type of superstition and ritualization of religion, it also tries to explain things. Spirituality is a state of mind an openness to transcendental experience and a belief in something above us that is not enslaving and does not require rituals but fosters meditation and consciousness of others and our relations to them.
    Religions despite their claims more often than not divide rather than unite humans, religiosity makes them captives of rituals they don’t understand but observe out of fear of God or gods. Spirituality frees to explore one self, the other and the world we live in without constraints or indoctrination…it’s the twin sister of philosophy.


  2. Since you brought it up, I’d like to discuss this a little bit further. The origin of specific beliefs are probably not evolutionarily derived, but the capacity to hold such views is. There are several Religion Enabling Capacities (RECs) which I think are responsible for the capacity for religions.
    REC#1) All supernatural religions currently in existence or that we have documented evidence of have a vitalist element, that of “souls” or “spirits” of some kind. Humans the ability to dissociate the mind from the indivudal; the Mind-Dualism REC-that is, humans can think about another person’s behaviors even if that individual is not present.
    REC#2) All supernatural religions do try to explain something; usually with a creation myth or so forth. This is from the Causal REC which allows humans to attribute causality to an event, action, or phenomenon without seeing it happen. We tend attribute cause to pretty much everything we see.
    REC#3) In-group vs. out-group selection leads to another interesting REC, that of social cohesion. It has been demonstrated that religious adherents believe that which is common within their groups, rejecting that from other groups. Dan Ariely discussed how we will behave as our group does or intentionally avoid doing the same action if done by an individual in another group. This has a similar implication in religion; if it is accepted by our group or rejected by our group, regardless of how ridiculous the proposition, we will follow our group.

    The combination of these RECs allows religion to not be “evolutionary” per se, but rather a spandrel resulting from other evolutionarily derived .


  3. Joseph Campbell taught that mythological stories (with which I would include religious stories, but much more, including history and, in a way, even “scientific” explanations) serve four major functions:

    (1) Mystical. Observing a living mythology sustains “in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect, in recognition of that ultimate mystery, transcending names and forms, ‘from which,’ as we read in the Upanishads, ‘words turn back.'”

    (2) Cosmological. A model of set of descriptive models of how the universe of our experience is organized, how it functions and what is its purpose and direction (if any).

    (3) Social. Myths inform people about who they are in relation to other people and provide guidelines for the organization of people in groups. This is where the moral aspects of religion manifest.

    (4) Pedagogical. Myths become our identity and lead us through the stages and changes of life with a sense of our self intact. They define being.

    What we think of as “Religion” has failed to adapt its authoritarian system to account for the inability of modern humans to reconcile its dictates for functions 2 and 3 with the world as we now experience it, with the negative effect that many people feel ungrounded in areas 1 and 4. In other words, we now tend to split the systems for morality and cosmology from our spirituality and artistic life as a result of the rigidity of authoritarian religious systems. A health personal mythology should have all four acting in harmony, and certainly none should be in opposition to the others.


  4. religion is the easiest way out to put blame on all the problems. and it also provided all of us the support system in case of crisis and moreover it is the cushion on which we all fall back. we all tend to rationalise our acts by using religiton as the scapeboat that way we put all the responsibities of every thing whether good or bad on religion and we save ourselves from being answerable.
    I dont know about other countries but in India every thing has an answer in religin and we place so much importance on it that no one can question any act committed in the name of religion


  5. I think that any problem with the original sentiment, and one that includes your suggestions, is simply by including the possibility of explaining “human nature” as well as, you know, nature nature. I mean, that is actually key to how they go about explaining nature nature: by describing a natural phenomenon in human terms (e.g. explaining with thunder with an anthropomorphized Thunder god). Of course, you are dealing with rather new religions comparatively, and they happen to have more complex beliefs than simple animism, and often have some kind of philosophy applied to it in order to get to its unique conclusions.
    I agree that religious ideologies probably did have a rather complex evolutionary/memetic development. But the basics behind them can actually be explained rather simply (at least hypothetically…). And, I honestly think that the case in point is your very post, in which you’ve basically done that, just focusing on the matters in which religions are not explaining anything about the external world, but are rather dealing with some observations of human experience and the things that they arrive at based on twisted logic springing from such experience or the natural world.


  6. I tend to agree that the act of personifying the world around us lies deep in the roots of what we call religion. Alongside this is our capacity to generalise…
    A passage out of the Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson mentioned how we go from referring to individual instances of things to a general idea of them so that instead of saying this leaf, or that leaf, we say that they all contain something similar which I will refer to as ‘leafyness’…
    This capacity to generalise things into groups and kinds (which definitely came about from our evolution) seemingly leads to the idea that all leaves contain this ‘essence’. Tis similiar to a Platonic form no?
    Isn’t a soul or spirit the same? We are all individual instances of what we call ‘humans’ but what is it that makes us human? Through language we generalise the notion that to be an instance of something (a human being?) is to contain the essence or spirit of what that thing is (and we then sometimes call this our true self?).
    I think also that the term spirituality is what one of my lecturers would have referred to as a weaselly word (it means different things to different people AND its hard to pin down)… and yet I regard myself as someone who is spiritual… not by subscribing to something above myself, and not by reference to the possession of something in me called my true self but rather because ‘I’ am greater then the sum of my parts emerging as it were from that which also constitutes that which ‘I’ am. And what is this thing that is greater then and yet grounded in my physicality… it is not a thing rather its an event! To put it into terms I’m sure you have all heard derived from Nietzsche… I’d describe a human not as a being but as a becoming.


  7. One problem in trying to understand the history of religion is that the history of civilization which we rely on to inform us in the West of social history is antecedent to mystical development. The most reliable form of religious history in the West depends upon Sumerian and ancient Indian religious development which exist within developed city and civilized structures as opposed to animism and shamanism among more tribal structures which had not developed into a greater city hierarchy.

    In other words, the most noted religious institutions with a written history come after human societies with preexisting religious beliefs that very well may have differed from the established religious structures that developed later.

    Thus modern religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism could possibly hold very little resemblance to the religious structure from which these are derived. Positing any view of those religions we have a written history of as representing earlier human constructs are speculative.

    While there are observations of those civilizations that did not have as sophisticated social development as those in the Middle East that we find among “aboriginal” groups do tell us that a religion developed as a metaphor for natural observation it does not inform us of the disparate religious developments among human societies. One can try to deduce the development of priestly classes and their associated hierarchy and power among those groups that developed into city structures as a sort of social evolution that coincided with the specialization of labor as being a form of social and moral control.

    I may be way off base here but the concept of mystical experience I think is appropriate to smaller groups but the concept of an organized religion exerting social control applies when humans developed into larger population groups and formed cities.

    I have absolutely nothing to back this up. It’s purely conjecture. From a standpoint of social evolution this allowed larger groups to from a cohesive unit.


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