Chapter 9: Religious Foundations

83% of the world’s population identifies with a religion. However, there is no religious root older than 6,000-8,000 years. How did religion form and why is it so prominent today? 

What is “Religious”?

Religion likely developed from hope and wishful thanking. Believing in the unlikely, the things without material evidence, is a regular part of human existence.

The emergence of religion is also due to the fact that humans are both transactional and transcendent beings. We are transactional beings because our experiences are based upon interactions with others. We are also transcendent because our interactions are governed by the roles, rules, and laws of society that we have conjured up and decided upon. These interactions surpass the material; they involve our expectations and rituals that come from our imagination. Our transactional and transcendent natures appear in our evolutionary history, and likely led to the formation of religion.

Evidence for religion is difficult to find because all the material things we see in current religions were not present 5,000+ years ago. No researchers can be certain as to whether the items they find were used for religious purposes or not.

The Sense of Identity

Anthropologists Candance Alcorta and Richard Sosis identify four patterns that appear in most forms of we call religion: 

        • Belief in supernatural agents and counterintuitive concepts
        • Communal participation in religious ritual
        • Separation of the sacred and the secular (ex: holy water is not sacred until after a ritual is performed)
        • Religion has to be learned

Evidence of Religious Experience

40,000-100,000 years ago, certain trinkets and symbols begin to appear. Ochre and pigments are first used and elaborate figurines and necklaces were created. Cave paintings, graphic art, and bone carvings were made as well. Although it is unclear as to weather these were religious or not, they likely had some symbolic meaning. 10,000-20,000 years ago, people painted in very dark and dangerous regions of caves. Some scientists have supposed that these paintings were done for some sort of ritual, but there is no way to prove this hypothesis.

The concept of religion we have today was due to great amounts of cooperation and collaboration. Humans created meaning out of meaningless concepts and objects and developed a figurative language. Imagination and the ability to share imagination led to story-telling, which eventually led to the development of religion.

One way in which researchers could differentiate the religious from the secular was through burials. Between 50,000-150,000 years ago, burials were performed in Croatia, Israel, France, and Iraq. The dead were found in deep pits with items such as antlers and shells. After the creation of villages and towns 8,000-14,000 years ago, there is clear evidence for items being used in symbolic ways in living spaces. In sites such as Catalhoyuk, shrines and alters have been identified from 8,000-9,000 years ago.

The Road to the Big God(s)

Many scientific researchers argue that tool making allowed for the neurological structures, communication, and skill transfer necessary for the creation of ritual and emergence. Alcorta and Sosis propose that the emergence of emotionally charged symbols allowed us to transition from regular ritual to religious. Human brains are wired to be emotional, so we associate meaning with objects and make them symbolic. 

  • “symbolic systems of religious ritual in early human populations solved an ecological problem by fostering cooperation and extending the communication and coordination of social relations across time and space” (209)

Because religion was evolutionary advantageous in terms of cooperation and communication, some argue that religion persisted because of natural selection. They argue that religion was created because of our innate physiological and psychological mechanisms, and stuck around because it offered social benefits.

5,000-7,000 year ago, “Big God” religions (Modern day Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) emerged as social complexity increased after domestication and agriculture. Two scientists, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering, suggest that these religions developed because their teachings on punishment would help coordinate larger social groups. Additionally, Norenzayan stated that human evolution led to the development of morals and rituals, which the powerful and punishing Big Gods enforce. However, there are some problems with these hypotheses. The Big Gods theories overstate human need for a superior punishing power to control large scale communities. Complex infrastructure was already in place by the time Big God religions developed. Additionally, we cannot assume that Big Gods religions evolved to be the key structural factor holding large-scale civilizations together. 

Imagination, Faith, and Hope Came First

At some point in our evolutionary history, humans created symbols. Indexical signs (signs correlated with what they represent) and iconic signs (signs that physically resemble what they mean) are common amongst animals. But symbolic signs are unique to humans. They have no material correlation to what they represent; they are created by human imagination and collaboration. Language was created from symbolic signs. Human society is built upon symbolic signs. Our entire existence is based upon how we perceive the world through the symbols we have created.

Humans evolved to have increased cognitive abilities, imagination, and perception, which is what gave rise to symbolism. The development of symbols as well as neurological complexity resulted in personal experiences of revelation, and eventually religion.

Religious, Religions, and Humans

Theologian Wentzel van Huyssteen suggests that human religious imagination played a role in evolutionary success. Religion is undoubtably a central aspect of humanity and has had a great influence on our development. Every person engages in some form of symbolism or belief in the supernatural, regardless of whether they identify as religious or not. This is unique to humanity, for no other animals share a universal belief in transcendence.