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The Two Most Important Causes of Human Religiosity?

Thirty-five years ago, I signed up for a college course in comparative religion because, as a hopelessly idealistic 18 year old freshman, I figured religion in general would last for 10 more years, then die out, and I wanted to see what the hullabaloo was all about before it was gone forever.

Of course, I could not have been more wrong about something. Looking back, I had made — not just one — but at least two cognitive mistakes.  First, I was thinking of religion as mostly a primitive attempt to explain things — a proto-science.  That is, I had bought into the ancient and outdated notion that folks had invented the gods  in order to explain what caused thunderstorms, diseases, love, and other such catastrophes (however much outdated, that notion is still around, though).

That first mistake led directly to my second cognitive mistake: I believed science could and would replace religion because it seemed natural and inevitable to me that truth would replace falsehood.

In other words, I thought (1) religion largely offered us little more than false explanations for things, and (2) true explanations would inevitably displace false ones.

Nowadays, I think I have a somewhat more accurate view of how we humans came to be religious animals.  In fact, I think there is more than one cause of our religiosity.  But one of the things I do not think played much of a role in the evolutionary origins of our religiosity was any need to explain things.

It might be true humans are an animal that feels some need to explain things, but I do not believe that need gave rise to human religiosity.   For one thing, religions in general seem to place much more emphasis on the antiquity of their beliefs than they place on their explanatory power.   But if religiosity arose as an explanation of things, then wouldn’t that be turned around?  Wouldn’t people be much more inclined than they apparently are to demand that their religious beliefs accurately explain something?

Today, I think there might be as many as a dozen reasons humans are a religious animal.  But I think, of those dozen reasons, two are by far the most important.

First, I think  Theory of Mind offers us a powerful explanation for how religiosity originated in our species.  “Theory of Mind” is a name for the human tendency to assume that other people, besides we ourselves, have minds.  The polar opposite of  Theory of Mind would be the notion that we (i.e. you yourself) are the only thing in the universe with a mind.  If one wants to know how we humans evolved religious behaviors, then I think one could do much worse than to study how we humans evolved our Theory of Mind.

The second most important cause of human religiosity, so far as I am concerned, is the mystical experience.  The mystical experience occurs when subject/object perception comes to an end while awareness yet continues.  If you are passionate enough about mysticism to be interested, I have written about that mystical experience on this blog, including in my post on the vital topic of How to Marry a Beautiful Woman by Discussing Mysticism“.  I firmly believe the post should be required reading in all kindergarten level courses in comparative religion.

Near as I can figure out, a large proportion of mystical experiences involve what can be described as “an experience of god”.  But even those that do not involve “an experience of god” tend to have a wee little inspirational effect on people.  I, for one, can easily imagine any and all mystical experiences as likely to inspire religious behaviors.

Those are my best guesses these days for how human religiosity came about.   Perhaps oddly enough, if either one of those guesses is true — let alone if both of them are true — then human religiosity is not going to die out of our species any time soon.  In fact, if those guesses are true, a strong case can be made for the notion that humans will be religious so long as humans are Homo sapiens.

18 thoughts on “The Two Most Important Causes of Human Religiosity?”

  1. Ahem! It appears that religion and such things have absolutely no spiritual meanings to you.

    Scoring beautiful women indeed!


  2. The cause of the drive in humanity to recognize religion is God/Allah/Other and this is exactly the same rational for mysticism.

    God/Allah/Other only left enough evidence to allow those willing to accept a human explanation for origination to use faith to accept “science” How were fossils made? God/Allah/Other made them. How were “fossil fuels” made? God/Allah/Other made them. Oil is not a result of anything ever being alive.

    Why have the scientists of the world never found the “missing link” to prove evolution solidly? God/Allah/Other did not create that sly of a trap. It would be illogical to create evidence that you did not exist. God/Allah/Other is not an idiot. “Science” is another form of religion when it accepts carbon dating, fossil fuel, or evolution as fact.

    God/Allah/Other requires one thing that only humans have. Humans have the ability to believe in God/Allah/Other despite what the “false-prophets” of science “preach in the name of science”. Belief and acceptance of facts exclusively through faith and not from EVIDENCE. Sorry Paul… Carbon Dating, “fossil fuel”, and evolution are not supported by evidence.

    Carbon dating is a bad joke. If you research it enough you will be required to agree based on the lack of sampling data. In the future it can’t be used due to nuclear weapons. That is enough of a rational for carbon dating use to no longer even be humorous.

    If you have enough faith in your mind to believe in “evolution” or enough faith to believe in “carbon dating” or that “fossil fuel” exists, you have demonstrated enough faith to accept God/Allah/Other.

    Most mammals have a “theory of mind” and whimpering puppies or cats are examples of the puppy believing that whimpering will make the mother provide milk or provide protection. I have tried to be nontheist and tried to accept the human religion of science but the fact is that God/Allah/Other exists. Thousands of humans “whimpered” and God/Allah/Other heard them and after over six weeks allowed me to return. Had thousands of humans NOT “whimpered”, I would have died several times as the “god” of science required.

    I have followed along and attempted to respond appropriately but I am too busy with litigation currently to invest enough intellect to comment. How did the G-string get its name? Lets not forget the importance of G-Strings to blogs!


  3. Religosity or whatever you want to call fear and guilt imposed upon people from birth, is nothing more than a primitive weapon used by man to scare his peers into submission.

    What people never stop to think about, is the fact, only those who believe are restricted in how they can live their lives, whilst those who indoctrinate them with stories about imaginary beings, and things like heaven and hell, live as ruthlessly as they please, because they know all they’ve preached is a load of rubbish.

    Your time is now. Heaven or hell is yours depending upon the efforts you make in this life. A better life costs money, and you won’t have money of you stick to the beliefs cemented into your head by those who try to handicap you, whilst they greedily and ruthlessly reap all the profits.

    People are being manipulated by the powers that be, in which the church has always played a huge role to ensure they do as they’re told, that they feel guilty, and fear punsihment, as their chance at heaven passes by, and their live’s descend into a hell.

    Wake up before it’s too late, or life will pass you by and you’ll die believing a massive lie.


      1. If you don’t have something constructive to add, it’s probably best if you don’t say anything at all. After all we wouldn’t want to offend anyone, would we?


  4. I disagree these are the two biggest factors, though they are an important part of the picture.

    Religion – in civilization – concretizes social structures. That’s its primary function. It facilitates the illusion of certainty for the things humans use in social reality. In that sense, it’s methodologically the same as what we call “nationalism” or people who “believe in science” but don’t really understand the fundamental uncertainty on which the scientific method depends.

    The adaptive advantage is that a neurology evolved to habitually do this leads to people more capable of organizing into large and sophisticated group identities, better suited to organized agriculture, controlling flooding in a river valley, or killing the neighbors and taking their shit.

    Related to that primary purposes are two direct secondary ones – one of the things religion concretizes is self-identity as a social unit. This is the foundation for human morality and social interaction. And yes, we do this neurologically as a theory of mind task. The more social reality reinforces the illusory burden of moral “choice”, the more real the ego becomes.

    And once the ego is concretized the second big motive for religion, and the reason is has much of the form that it has, arises – existential anxiety, the fear of death and managing the sense of besieged alienation that comes from having a concretized ego.

    These factors have a feedback loop. Religious systems reinforce the ego as a concrete thing – setting up systems where it is even immortal. That creates a heightened sense of alienation, which causes the animal to bind psychologically more to the group identity, which proposes systems of morality that further concretize the ego . . . and so on . . .


    1. Thank you for a very interesting set of comments!

      I confess I am unpersuaded, however, that the primary function of religion is to “concretize social structures”. For one thing, I am uncertain how that notion could be falsified. For another thing, I am concerned that explaining its origins might require us to posit group selection. I also worry that religion appears to have evolved long before our species lived in large enough groups that group order and cohesion could not have been brought about by other more powerful means that religion seems to offer. For those, and perhaps for other reasons, I am not at this point persuaded that “concretizing social structures” can account for the evolutionary origins of religiosity. Your mileage might vary, though.

      I do believe, however, that religion nowadays seems to function in society to some large degree as you have described it.


      1. Religion and civilization developed together. I don’t think of pre-civilization spiritual experience (like what we would now call animism or even shamanism) to have much at all in common with religion. These direct experiences are more akin to mysticism, which is contrary to religion. But as human economics becomes our species’ primary adaptive trait, group identities become essential. And group identities require individuals with a need to attach themselves to that identity so that they will sacrifice their own self-interest in futherance of the “good of the group.”


  5. It’s an interesting thought experiment to wonder if other highly developed intelligences on this planet ever ponder spiritual matters.

    Does the elephant mourning the death of a dear friend wonder about a soul?


  6. Religiosity stems from introspection and unprecedented analysis of one’s fundamental beliefs. It is a process of “awakening” and discovering the core of one’s beliefs.

    This naturally leads to two outcomes; rejection or embracing beliefs long held and never recognized. We only see religiosity, in its truest sense, in those who are no strangers with their beliefs but partners building off of each other. These are the only type of religious folk worth their salt because every action they pursue and every motive they hold is divinely motivated and a return to their true self.

    This level of religious awakening is largely unheard of in the modern world and has regrettably been replaced with another notion of foolishly imitating this inner calm and burdening others publicly with their flawed notion of religion. They feign understanding outwardly to calm their fear that they do not understand what they preach.


    1. Hi Abibi! Thank you for some interesting comments!

      I am genuinely curious, though, how your comments tie into the topic here, which I believe to be the evolutionary origins of religious behavior? I’m at a loss to see a connection. Help!


  7. From my personal experience, another factor to consider is the thought of having something greater than oneself.

    Talking to people who have previously recovered from addictions, the biggest trigger for feeding the addiction would be the feeling of being overworked, being the one in charge. They feel like they are left solely responsible for everyone else and if they don’t take responsibility the world will fall into chaos. Many often say, “I took over because I thought God wasn’t doing a good enough job.” The irrational thought of having to take over, of having to fix everything helps provide them with control and stability but it also plants in them a fear of not being able to be up to the task or of being in over their head.

    When you rise to the top, you become peerless and alone. Who will be there to bail you out when you crash? Who will provide for you? There is a need in many humans to share burdens, to feel like somebody has their back. Knowing there is a safety net provides peace of mind to even the most independent of people.

    Having a higher power helps provide this feeling. It’s like having a parent. Without one, the world becomes a scary place as a kid. The kid now risks exposure to the world without any buffer to protect them from harm or failure. I think the primitive need for religion to explain the world is mostly behind us as humans. But to need a feeling of safety and comfort is still profoundly human.


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