Origin of religion.

June 2024 Forums General discussion Origin of religion.

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    I wrote this for a friend who is a Catholic Christian. I thought you might also be interested in it. I have tried to give a basic history of how religion came about.

    There is a classic study of religion called The Golden Bough, by Frazer. It is 19th century and nicely complements Darwin’s books, except this is about the evolution of religion.

    We don’t know how other animals see themselves, but we know that humans are animals who think about themselves and about life and death, and want to find out why we live and why we die.

    These matters do not only concern religion, but philosophy as well. All philosophy is divided into two schools.
    Idealist, and materialist. I am a materialist. (For instance, in Buddhism both schools exist).
    But here we are considering religion.


    Now, some of what I say you may not like, being a Christian. But I trust you know that the Catholic Church has accepted Darwinian evolution. The Pope accepted it in 1957, I believe, but permitting individual Catholics not to, if they wish. The Catholic clergy accepts evolution on the basis that science is its own field, and religion its own field, and both can live together.

    It is the extreme protestants, the fundamentalists, who reject Darwin and believe every word in the Bible to be absolute truth, which cannot be disputed.
    I trust this is not your belief.


    The men and women of the earliest human societies could not understand things more powerful than they, and which they could not physically alter. The weather; death; why some women were barren, but others gave birth. Floods and forest fires. Their observation of other animals taught them that females give birth and males don’t. Other animals were respected because, having been here a long time, they were wiser, as well as mysterious. When humans hunted them for food, they gave thanks to the animal and performed rituals to ask its forgiveness. Humans never killed just for killing (as they do today).

    Religion came about through these and other rituals. Ritual was more important than belief. Religion primarily means ritual and performance, not belief, and this is still true today in Hinduism, the oldest main religion in the world and the closest to ancient Greek and Roman religion. (There are some Hindus who do not believe in gods at all!)

    Certain men and women of a tribe would be better than others in the use of herbs as medicines, and at treating illnesses and healing wounds, etc. Since in most tribal societies, the women were the gatherers of herbs and seeds, as well as being revered for motherhood, women became the first seers and magicians, respected by the tribe. Some men too were equally special, but most tribal societies were matriarchal, including the Celts.

    Magicians preceded priests. It was in the interest of a magician to know about weather, the risk of floods, how to cure the sick, because if the magician was wrong, or failed, or prophesied wrongly, then he or she was to blame. He or she might even be killed by the tribe, as a fraudster!

    About 10,000 years ago, simultaneously in Asia, Europe, parts of Africa and parts of the Americas, humans discovered agriculture. This was to radically change society.
    Now the magician’s role was to ensure good crops and good harvests. But safer than being a magician, was to be a priest.
    A magician is responsible for prophesying this or that. Plus, s/he needs skills in medicine, etc.
    A priest does not have to worry, and is not blamed when things go wrong: because, unlike a magician, a priest only intercedes with the gods and asks them to save the crops, bring a good harvest, make the sick better, etc. When things go wrong, it is not the priest who is to blame, but the gods!

    So priests came to replace magicians.

    With agriculture too came the raising of animals for food and milk. A class society emerged, as wealth was measured. Those with more cattle had more prestige. Animals were no longer the wise and mysterious beings that tribal people had respected. Now they were slaves, and those who were useless for harvesting, milk and food, were now seen as pests. Human arrogance emerged, and humans first began to see themselves as more important than other animals.

    Following the enslavement of other animals came the enslavement of other humans. Priests were the first kings. A small number of people saw that they could live without working, if slaves did the work for them.

    Matriarchy would gradually be replaced by patriarchy, and female gods would come to be replaced, with the rise of monotheism, by one male God, justifying male domination over female in society.

    And with the patriarchal, monotheist, religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the importance of belief grew, and religion changed its meaning to belief alongside ritual, until, in protestant Christianity, belief is all there is, and hence the modern meaning of religion as belief.
    By controlling what people believe, a prince, king or statesman, or cult leader of any kind keeps people obedient.



    Religion was the best way that human being found to explain nature, universe, death, life and their society, in some way, it was a very progressive conception based on materialism.


    Yes. As I say above, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Hindus, and indeed the Japanese, religion was/is primarily ritual, not belief.

    We in the West associate religion with belief, because of our Christian heritage, and especially protestant heritage, which stresses belief over everything.

    But religion for the Greeks, Romans, Hindus and Japanese holds its original meaning: as the expression, via ritual and performance, of social cohesion.

    The Romans were open to all religious cults and persecuted none. Most Roman notables served as priests sometime during their lives, and attendance at the rites was expected of all citizens. It had nothing to do with belief.

    The Jews, in abstaining from the Hellenist rites, were tolerated and exempted because they were an ancient people. But the Christians were not all Jews, and by rejecting the rites, they were rejecting Roman society. That was the reason for persecution. The Romans couldn’t care less what the Christians believed; they were snubbing Rome, and snubbing the Emperor. This was their crime.

    So with China and Japan, essentially materialist societies. Which doesn’t imply there weren’t superstitions. But religion was there, and amongst the Hindus, about the stages of life, marked by rites.

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