Views on the origins and development of religion expressed here are a contribution to secular and humanistic culture. They are no doubt anathema to believers in almost all religions today. There is a vast wealth of intricate evidence, interpretations and argument underlying my thesis into which I shall not digress much, so that the main lines are more readily graspable.
Religion certainly had its roots in both awe and fear, the overriding fear being that of death.
Wonder and awe at existence, at the world early humankind lived in and not least at ‘the heavens’ are common to us all and there is evidence that neolithic humans also had the capacity and the time for this. The human condition of not knowing the whys, hows and wherefores of being pertains even today, though is doubtless not so overwhelming as it once was. This awe cannot have been insulated from fear, which is so closely related to ignorance. (Even the word ‘awe’ is parent to the word ‘awful’). With the development of primitive technology and understanding of nature and with the inception of ideas of causation from a largely invisible (and often threatening) spirit world, the human mind groped through prehistory towards conceptions of creative and ruling gods, and eventually a single God entity. Gradually the idea of divine benevolence became more prominent than that of a jealous and punishing God, if only relatively very recently. All that has never been a smooth or painless transition, nor is the transition in recent centuries to the removal of a supposed divine agency from the one field of research after the other… and the spreading loss of faith in any God.
Fear is a natural human condition in a hostile environment, which most often prevailed in prehistory. The mystery of death, the angst it engenders and the fear of it are obviously an existential reality, however one tackles it and remains a challenge to humanity. Since the earliest history of humankind, when the causes of death were not understood to anywhere near the extent that is the case today, it would have been ‘natural’ to suppose some ‘supernatural’ agency. This was surely one powerful motivation to seek explanations in an unseen world peopled by spirits or other unseen beings, to help allay that fear and to grapple with the many enigmas of life, natural events and inexplicable human physical and psychological conditions. Needing an explanation of the many circumstances that sustain human life and how to face and overcome the challenges of this world – as science now knows them to be – the continued life of soul or spirit (in later religious terms) and realms where they resided were conceived – and developed in many local variants. This belief in an after world – or parallel world – was developed along very diverse lines. It persists today in religious conceptions of heavens and hells.
The struggle to deal with the conditions of life – scarcity of food, weather extremes, illness, wild creatures and many other circumstances related to such basic factors of existence, also involved a struggle to master and understand them. The causes were mostly seen in animistic terms – that beings inhabited and controlled the earth, water and the heavens. Rites and sacrifices came about in the attempt to propitiate and so influence these spirits (or deities) to protect and help the tribe. Contacting them ‘shamanistically’ through trance and altered states was a further step. Ideas about transcendental entities and places were no doubt based on experiences from intense rituals, tribal rites like dance and deprivations, shamanist induction of trances, rigorously demanding initiations, and not least through altered states of consciousness caused by a variety of psychotropic plants and fungi, through high fevers, extreme starvation or loss of blood… and so on. The break with more simple kinds of animism took many ages to effect, and it is not even over today for few religious cultures or groups have been rid of all animistic beliefs. Here and there, resurgence of certain natural and pagan superstitions regularly happens. Animism is yet very prominent in various sects among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Islamic sub-cultures and in amalgams of Christian with spiritualist and/or traditional tribal beliefs. In these practices one clearly sees the general prototype of religious beliefs as are widespread today. The sheer extent and time span of these primitive urges to understand the world has a tremendous cultural inertia.
The Inertia of Religious Belief: We grow up under the pressure of ideas caused by what I call ‘the inertia’ of religion. This inertia was generated by millennia of human culture where one knew almost nothing of the infinitely complex systems of natural causation. From misty beginnings, we sought to explain them as results of the acts of spirits, deities, gods. Fear of terrible scourges that beset early humans must have given rise to desires and hopes of propitiating whatever or whoever caused them. Human sacrifice is known to have been a fairly common kind of ‘offering’ to please whatever powers-that-be, and it still occurs even today in some parts of the world. The idea of influencing an invisible agency grew, multiplied, divided and were propagated – being employed in many ways to regulate or control human affairs, in short – the root of religion. These conceptions formed the glue of many societies and were the basis of a considerable part of every language, interwoven in many ways into words and phrases, and in ever-developing forms up to this day. Religions still try to propitiate idols, deities or holy figures through countless and changing rituals… and in more knowledgeable or enlightened societies this mostly takes the form of prayer, devotion, personal sacrifice and social work. In many cases, a religion is sustained by its being the policy of a State. Such is the case with Islam in Iran and other similar countries, and even with Anglican Christianity in UK (though enforcement of religious values is no longer involved in UK, of course)
Since the sky was probably the most impenetrable mystery to early humankind – unreachable and inexplicably dark or sunlit – it was the repository of our early ideas of gods. Probably only much later did the speculative ‘heaven’ as a derived realm to which the spirits of the dead went and which was hopefully imagined to be ‘paradise’ in its being close to the God the Creator and source of all wisdom and whatever. Similarly, volcanoes must have been equally impenetrable and fearful, and no doubt prefigured the widespread visions of hell as a burning realm. It only became a place of burning torture for souls for all time – eternally, much later.
Human beings have always had to rely since birth until maturity on their parents to answer their needs and questions. Where lacking, elders or other authorities capable of fulfilling these requirements took the place of father and mother. Yet the adults and elders themselves had not such paternal being to watch over them, to whom the could appeal for solace or justice. Thus the idea of God easily filled that role – the great spirit which made the wonderful world work and who could hopefully be appeased when troubles descended. Voltaire most likely also considered this when he wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” (“Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.“). Times have changed, however, as the need to ‘un-invent’ God becomes more widespread and intellectually and morally pressing.
That cultural heritage is the motor which drove religion forth for most of human existence on earth. What is now known to be superstition persisted and is carried along well after it has been explained away. We know that God does not bring the rain (Latin “Jupiter pluit” – i.e. Jupiter causes it to rain) or the drought. Yet many primitive religions still believe this and even educated people go to church to pray for the end of a drought… and the same with many trials and tribulations. Not least also, of course, thanksgiving to one God or another all manner of things which arise as normal effects of nature and life.
The secular, humanist value system’s embodiment: The increasing smouldering away of the props of religious faith led to the establishment of many human institutions which re-embodied and improved human values. Values which religious theologies had appropriated to themselves as God-given were becoming more and detached from their religious context. Further, mainstream religions had proven incapable of resolving their differences to reach a common value system or to organize and body with universal appeal and authority – often due to internecine strife. Major religious conflicts amounting to warfare (eg. Hindu-Muslim, Islam-Judaism) persist today and religions have shown themselves unable to create a world of peace. Instead, the secular and humanistic striving of enlightened societies resulted, after the 2nd World War, in the remarkable political embodiment of human values in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of that document holds that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion & expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference & to seek, receive & impart information & ideas through any media & regardless of frontiers”
This ideal had long been suppressed and rejected in one practical or theoretical way and another – often quite totally – by all mainstream religions. These require adherence to belief in the authenticity of each their various scriptures which must be regarded as the will of God and not to be doubted or criticized with the aim of challenging them. This limitation on freedom of information – and consequently on the scope of education – student the growth of those brought up within a belief system and either delays or stops natural human development of knowledge in the search for the truth (which may contradict doctrine). Religious bodies have had to pay respect to human right, though sometimes grudgingly and only as lip service (as in much Hinduism and most of Islam).
Religion and equality: All mainstream religions and virtually all sects still contravene or silently ignore (less in theory than in practice) central values in the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, Article 2, which states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights & freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion.” Sex or gender is almost universally regarded in discriminatory ways by religious scriptures and doctrines derived from these. Even where women are accorded freedoms in religious scriptures, the organised religious communities often fail to allow them to exercise the few freedoms the doctrines allow.
The discrimination against non-heterosexual persons is rife in most religious communities, and has traditionally been punished by the most brutal means… and this occurs widely still today with religious doctrinal backing. Even religions which preach and emphasize love and compassion at the same time also often supported (or fail to condemn) extreme religious bigotry, intolerance of dissenters and provoked fanatical zealotry and social hatred to convert others through unfreedom. This has been due to the absolutist nature of most handed-down scriptural injunctions and to the many doctrines derived more or less from them. These have caused only hate, violence and have contributed the driving force in countless destructive wars and conflicts to this day. Organized religions have supported many wars as ‘holy’, the idea of the ‘jihad’ not being confined to Islam by any means. No all mainstream religions extend universal rights or equality to all, whatever they happen to believe. The two religions with most adherents, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam, provide prime examples of this non-universalism and divisiveness.
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion: Article-18 of the Geneva Convention states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience & religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief,& freedom, either alone or in community with others & in public & private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship & observance”. There is a potential inherent conflict in this article in that freedom of thought and conscience do not at all always concur with religion, for many dictate what one must think and what is right or wrong (other than what ones personal conscience insists). Tolerance of religious belief is essential, though any pressure to ‘respect’ and therefore not criticize beliefs one rejects and sees as harmful would not protect the freedom of speech and thought and should be avoided. Non-interference in the private life of others is an ideal which seems essential to personal freedom. This gives the opportunity to foster a universal attitude, one where human equality and common rights, duties and destiny are understood. This universal humanistic attitude enables people to work for common human benefit. Yet where it is done more or less out of fear of punishment or hope of reward in a next (invisible) world it is not done for the sake of fellow humans, but for oneself. Being able to think freely and express one’s ideas without being persecuted (provided that one does not break the laws of an enlightened or ‘liberal’ society) gives much creative energy and personal fulfillment. This is a secular value, above all, and is the result of millennia of struggle towards liberation of humanity from the bonds of ignorance and unfounded fear.
Are spiritual beliefs a human necessity? To start with religious faith (assuming ‘spirituality’ can have some fruitful meaning apart from religion or faith in a God), the evidence is that people can live well – most likely far better – without belonging to or believing in any religion. This presumes a social and cultural environment where there is no strong authoritarian or group pressures to be or become a believer (or to cease believing)… in short, in societies where there is freedom of thought and expression both in law and in practice. Only in the latter case can interchange of ideas, values and friendships really develop, with the security, harmony, peace and pleasure that this engenders.
See also On the roots of religious, political and other fanaticism