The Origin of Religion on Earth

Religion is perhaps the most influential human creation in history. Even if one follows some religion or not, one cannot deny the influence it has in our day to day lives. Religion is so intertwined with culture, tradition, and even moral beliefs that it is difficult to separate one from the other, and even more so to contemplate what must have preceded the other. 

Take God, for an instance. Can you think back to the time when you first learned about the concept of God? At least, I cannot. It is one of those things that you inherently learn as a child, just like your mother tongue; you do not even remember when or how. In fact, concepts like God feel so natural as a kid that it is almost impossible to separate what is real and what is not. 

Let me stand clear of one thing here, I am in no way trying to question the existence of God. I have always endorsed freewill, people should be free to believe whatever they want to, and I see no point in trying to veer people off of their belief – whether they want to believe, follow atheism or be agnostic. 

The origin I want to trace is not of God but of religion, something that we can all agree is a human creation. So, let us take a journey back in time, and see how it is related to culture and morality. 

Tracing the origin of religion is a daunting task in itself, for it is impossible to pinpoint a particular moment or a frame of time in history as its origin. In fact, it is even difficult to define what exactly means and constitutes a religion. It is comparatively easier with the modern religions we practice on various parts of earth today, so considering these religions, we can come up with a definition or a theory on what religion actually is. Broadly speaking, religion could be defined as some sort of a shared reverence for a God or Deity or Supernatural, that is often institutionalized and associated with particular God/Gods, rituals, symbols, and sacred books. Hence, tracing the origin of these shared reverence or rituals, which are the foundations of religion, is vital.

Even before we get to the reverence part, however, we need to take a quick detour into the sharing part – what made it possible, or what triggered humans’ behavior of sharing with others – be it their prey, food, or reverence. This is where we also need to take into account culture and morality, two notions that are often associated with religion, and contemplate on what must have preceded the other. Is it religion that gives rise to culture, or is it the other way around? And even more pressingly, is morality born out of religion, or is it rather religion being constituted out of collective moral beliefs? 

Let’s talk about culture first. Cultures can be defined as a collective adoption of behaviors that are followed in groups, transmitted through number of generations. Just like physical attributions like evolution of species, even cultures evolve and are often winnowed by natural selection too. Similar to how the physical traits that are beneficial for the survival of living beings are passed down, behaviors that are deemed beneficial for survival share the same fate (in the long run, which let’s be clear, is super long whenever we are talking in evolutionary terms). So, as humans evolved slowly, even the evolution of behaviors must have taken place. As some of the behaviors that were important for the survival of individuals were also important for the survival of groups as a whole, behaviors that minimized suffering and maximized mutual benefits got passed down in the form of rituals. And if we think about it, religion is but a collection of these rituals, so in that sense culture must precede religion. We can take the ritual of meal sharing for an example. Almost all the religions practiced today have rituals related to the sharing of food or meal in a way or the other. And we all know how food sharing was one of the important details that aided in the survival of our ancestors. A prey captured by one hunter or forager, would fill the stomach of number of individuals, subsequently helping them get to where they are today.

As religions gradually got more robust, just like meal sharing, rituals that were part of the existing culture started getting incorporated into religion. However, it was not just a one-way flow of rituals from culture to religion. There were plenty of rituals related to religion or the mythological tales that were passed down as cultures. That is the reason why we have this blurry line between culture and religion even today. Yet cultures can exist without religion too, and there need not necessarily be a correlation between the two. Today we have cultures that are global like Pop Culture, Movie Culture, Football Culture, and local cultures like bullfighting and La Tomatina, all of which have nothing to do with religion. 

Just like it was important for our ancestors to identify which behaviors strengthened their chances of survival, it was equally important for them to know which behaviors were regressive and had to be avoided. And for that, they had to have, or eventually develop, this sense of what is right and what is not. In other words, they must have had to develop some sort of morality. Without having at least some loose sense of what is good and what is bad, and a sense of fairness and reciprocity, it would have been difficult for them to develop rituals like food sharing in the long run. Without morality, staying and surviving together for long would have been out of question, and no sort of culture or religion could bloom in such an environment. So, morality, too, must precede religion (or even culture), and is imperative for the establishment of various religions.

To further corroborate this, we can look at the examples of animals that also display rituals and some sort of sense of fairness and reciprocity, without having any organized institution like religion like our case. While people have for long been quite adept in practicing various local, social or religious cultures, recent discoveries and studies have shown that animals (especially other primates that are genetically close to us) have their own rituals and some sense of equality, equity and reciprocity. Of course, animals lack intelligence and richer language like humans to codify these behaviors and beliefs and are unable to pass it on more effectively and add to it, while humans can add more necessary complexity to it with time.

And thanks to their intelligence and language, humans eventually created the most effective medium of entrenching these important behaviors and beliefs – moral beliefs and culture were incorporated to give rise to religion. Religion became this basic guideline for how people should act, and also the most effective way of making sure people adhered to these important behaviors and beliefs. 

Still, when we picture religion as just the evolution of these necessary-for-survival rituals and moral beliefs, we miss out on one very important aspect of it. We have till this point only explored the ‘staying together’ and ‘sharing together’ part, we haven’t talked about ‘reverence’. Without reverence, religion would never be what it is today. Religion did not purely bear out of somebody’s fiction. It is not like a person created a myth around these rituals and everyone started falling for it immediately. Therefore, I think it would be a bit unfair and even careless to trivialize religion as a pure fiction (which I did in my previous article), without talking about one very crucial missing element. And that missing part, which adds on to the ‘reverence’ aspect, is the experiential side of religion, which we know as Spiritualism. While one could very well be spiritual without being religious, it is the intertwining of religion with spiritualism that made it possible for a large number of humans to experience and share reverence. And to understand how this possibly started, we need to delve deeper into the world of emotions. 

Just like intelligence, important changes to the brain structure gave humans the capacity to experience a broader range of emotions. Apart from the four primal emotions: fear, aggression, sadness and happiness, humans can experience a multitude of other sentiments, all combinations of the aforementioned four primal emotions. For example, guilt and shame are the combination of sadness, fear and anger. And it is through such fusion of primal emotions that we can experience a sensation that is pivotal to the origin of religion, and also the cornerstone of modern-day religions. Awe, which is the combination of fear and happiness, gave rise to the feeling of reverence in us human beings.

And while we might think humans are the only animals familiar with feelings like awe, it has been observed in other animals too, most widely in our closest relative Chimpanzees. In what is known as the ‘Waterfall dance’, Chimpanzees perform a rhythmic dance in the presence of a waterfall. It is important to note that humans share almost 99 percent of genes with the Chimpanzees so, this behavior of them can be correspondent to what we humans experience as awe in the presence of nature. Moreover, the play they perform is similar to what we enact in the form of rituals. If you think about it, not all rituals we have are for pure survival-related purposes. There are many rituals that we perform just for mirthfulness and gratification. We have many playful non-religious rituals, like playing sports, singing, and dancing – activities that not only foster group bonding but also causes the brain to release endorphins and make us happy, making us want to continue doing it in the future as well. 

Therefore, it is because of the human capacity to experience a broad range of emotions in the first place, and their ability to share these emotions amongst each other – that is empathize – that humans were able to experience shared reverence. As humans evolved with time, they were able to make this experiential aspect of religion, along with other survival-oriented rituals, behaviors, and beliefs that are passed down, more concrete, and more cohesive, through stories and fictions. But the experiential side of religion, that is spiritualism, is not a fiction, simply because feelings in themselves are not fiction. 

While feelings like awe are pivotal to feel reverence, we don’t need gods or some supernatural to experience the said feeling. An atheist is capable of experiencing these range of emotions, in the same way a believer is. Be it years old religious scriptures, temples, pyramids or modern-day skyscrapers, all of these can generate a range of emotions within a person all for different reasons. Just like Chimpanzees experience awe in the presence of natural wonders like waterfalls, the early humans had nature fulfilling the purpose. Hence, it is no wonder that most of the early religions on earth, the ones along the line of Shamanism and Paganism, are based on nature and not gods. And it is also no wonder that most of the earlier gods were in the form of nature, like the Sky god, Land god, Ocean god, and so on. 

Over time, humans started incorporating elements of nature that were necessary for survival as gods. We don’t need to look any further than the Fire god, which is still prevalent in some of the earliest religions present practiced even today, as it was the discovery of fire that helped humans in their journey as the rulers of the world. And these gods and religious beliefs differ vastly based on different culture, morals and religion. The same Cow that is revered as a goddess in Hinduism is feasted by people following other religions. Thus, depending on the culture and locality, depending on the need and their usefulness, more gods were incorporated, leading to the development of many polytheisms based religions. 

The Agricultural Revolution is what led to the advent of the organized religions that we have today. As humans started living together permanently in groups and had an excess of food resources, it slowly led to the division of labor and stratification of society into classes, giving rise to the social constructs like priests and kings that would play a massive role in both organization and patronization of religions. Concepts like temples, idol-worshipping, and organized rituals flourished across various cultures. Rituals already part of the fabric of the society got intertwined into religion. Moral beliefs got more and more space into the songs and books of religion since religion had proved to be the most effective tool in fostering moral beliefs, law and order in society. 

There were however still fundamental questions that were left unanswered, leading humans to ruminate on them and look for answers – questions relating to the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and what happens to people when they are dead. And naturally, humans turned to one aspect of their life they trusted and revered the most – they started looking for these answers in God. The answers came in a pattern which is a common denominator in almost all of the modern-day religions. The messengers, mostly in the form of prophets and sages, claimed to have received these messages in the form of revelation from God. Humans started believing in the answers recounted by these prophets and sages. Additionally, the pattern of religion started shifting towards monotheism from the earlier practiced polytheism. It was through these messengers and their revelations that modern-day religions like Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam were formed. 

So, to summarize, the origin of religion cannot be pinpointed to one moment of history. The evolution of religion is a product of thousands of years, just like the evolution of humans. Since we have information on the human history dated back to the last 5000 odd years, I think we sometimes make the mistake of trying to attribute everything to these 5000 odd years and overlook thousands of years from before that laid groundwork for it. But it was the thousands of years before where important gradual bricks of religion were laid down. And looking at primates like Chimpanzees, which descend from the same common ancestor as us, we can even surmise that the important foundations of religion – like playful rituals, feeling of reciprocity, and experiential side – could predate even our Human (Homo) genus. 

The foundations necessary for religion, that is, culture and morality, also evolved in conjunction with each other and synchronously in such a way that the lines separating these three entities got blurred more and more. Today we can develop culture without any aid of religion, become moral without any adherence to religion, and become spiritual without following any religion, but it was through the vehicle of religion that the culture and moral beliefs were carried along for long. Still, many people try to seek all four – that is culture, morality, spiritualism and religion in one. Even today, if we ask people why they believe in moral beliefs like ‘one should not steal even when no one is watching’, the answer of most of them would be ‘Because God is watching’. 

However, religion isn’t without its fair share of antagonistic attributes. Along with culture and moral beliefs, one another facet adhered to religion – Religious Fanaticism. People could not only kill in the name of religion, but also die for it. Even worse, they could even justify and glorify these extreme acts of violence done in the name of religion. And thus, collectively, religion would not only shape the humans at the individual level and small groups, but the entire world and human history, till today, and probably for years to come. 

So, in our journey to trace the influence of religion in history, we start next, fittingly, with the oldest organized religion on earth. We time travel to the Indian Subcontinent, to almost 4000 years ago, to trace the origin of Hinduism. 

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