Religion - when, why and how did it begin?

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The alter cloth of one aeon is the doormat of the next. Mark Twain

Beginning of Religion

Early Agriculture and Religion

Cave Art and Religion

Neanderthal Religion

Religion in Modern Society


Neanderthal Religion
Graves from Europe and western Asia give a strong indication that the Neanderthals were the first hominoids to bury their dead perhaps as long as 50,000 years ago. In some cases the buried bodies were accompanied with meaty animal bones. Other times with flowers, and in some cases useful objects such as tools suggesting that some Neanderthal groups may have had a belief in some kind of an afterlife. In a larger proportion of Neanderthal burials, the corpse had its legs and arms drawn in close to its chest, which is a sleeping position known as the fetal position Many think this indicates a ritual burial position, preceding a rebirth. And there may even be strong evidence of family graves as some Neanderthal families appeared to have been buried together, just as we have in modern society. These burial pits were perhaps the forerunner to the majestic Tombs, Mausoleums and Great Pyramids thousands of years hence.

So evidence suggests that perhaps the Neanderthals had some sort of preoccupation with death. They were self-conscious beings and this itself can bring about an awareness of death and the meaning and implications of death. And this awareness of death embodies our ideas, as it probably did theirs, on God, religion and an afterlife. They, like so many religions of today saw death as not the end, but merely the beginning of a new cycle of existence.


So were the Neanderthals the first hominoids to be aware of religion? Evidence does suggest so. What do we know about them? We know they had a culture, planning abilities, a ritualistic type of life. They had similar abilities that we have today, but probably in a more basic form. We know they were unselfish in their concerns for their young, their sick and their elders and were altruistic in nature. There is evidence that many lived longer than their individual life expectancy, perhaps cut short due to illness or injury, suggesting that the social unit looked after the sick and the infirmed. However their altruism did appear to be localised within small groups rather than universal altruism within their species (Is this why they became extinct?).

We know they sometimes buried their dead. And we know they were smart. There average cranial capacity was comparable to our own. In fact modern paleoanthropology hypothesizes the social status of the Neanderthals as "intelligent species" and while living in social groups in caves they developed rituals and spirituality.

Other researchers have found this controversial and have challenged these interpretations, particularly regarding Neanderthal burials. They suggest that graves may have been dug just to remove corpses from sight or for hygienic reasons. And this happened only in more recent times and as a result of a behavioural mechanism to protect themselves from the dangers of rotten meat. Neanderthals instinctively reacted to their dead as carrion and buried the dead for that reason.

Or perhaps burials took place just to reduce the risk of prey animals or scavengers arriving at the Neanderthal refuge and the dangerous consequences that may have. We see this often today on 'wildlife' programs where animals will bury or cover their 'kill' or 'find' so as not to attract unwarranted attention (and in their case to maintain possession for future consumption).

Also, perhaps the Neanderthals had practical rather than religious reasons for positioning dead bodies. For instance, a body manipulated into a fetal position would need a smaller hole for burial, making the job of digging a grave easier. And perhaps they didn't adorn the corpses or accompany them with animal bones as these and the flower pollen near the corpses could have been deposited by natural forces.

Also, many scientists once thought that fossilized bones of cave bears (a now-extinct species of large bear) found in Neanderthal caves indicated that these people had a so-called 'cave bear cult', in which they worshiped the bears as powerful spirits, further testament to their belief in an afterlife. However, after careful study researchers concluded that the cave bears probably died while hibernating and that Neanderthals did not collect their bones or worship them.

So considering current evidence, the case for religion among Neanderthals remains controversial.

And Neanderthals never developed language, which was essential for communicating their ideas and thoughts to each other and vital for propagating anything we might regard as religion to their descendents. On the other hand, Homo Sapiens did develop language and as a by-product of this language perhaps the idea of God and religion developed and evolved in our minds. The idea of God and the formation of organised religion may have created a sense of universal altruism amongst our species which was an advantageous trait in the survival and propagation of our species. Perhaps the earliest evidence of religion is from the Neanderthals, but the jury is still out! (Homo Sapiens coexisted along side Neanderthals. Is there any evidence to indicate that we buried our dead in the Upper Palaeolithic era?)

Religion in Modern Society
So why do almost all societies have religious beliefs and practices. Why is the belief in invisible supernatural beings that have the power to influence our lives and our destiny so widespread? Why did we develop religious rituals and prayer? Why does religion have such a strong hold on human society? Presumably once the belief is there and firmly established then the rituals and prayer will follow in a natural progression. And the influence religion was to have on society would naturally grow as unfolding events, in particular evil events, would become increasingly interpreted within a religious context.

Maybe the spirit world and religion had its origins in dreams. In ancient times it must have been difficult to understand and explain dreams after waking. It must have seemed like another world which you stepped into. And maybe the concept of a spirit world was developed which was the only viable explanation of dreams at that time.

Perhaps religion is hardwired into the brain. Does some sort of psychological mechanism in the mind make us susceptible to religious beliefs? Is this why there are so many similarities in the religious ideas of cultures that are not geographically connected and are widely separated through time?

So maybe the human mind, across all cultures, is pre-programmed to generate and be easily acceptable to religious ideas. This is a function of the brain. It's inherited, it's in the genes. Is there a 'religious' gene? Did this gene appear in the Neanderthals around the time of the Upper Palaeolithic? Or maybe this was one of the first memes (see below) that began to propagate in our very ancient past.

The strongest instinct of mankind is the will to survive and live forever. Could this be the reason we created 'religion' and the concept of an afterlife? An afterlife is at the heart of all major religions, it allows us to become immortal and live forever. Or was it at this stage in our evolution that we began to become aware of the existence of God and an afterlife, and 'religion' was developed by us to help us understand and organise that new complex and difficult-to-grasp idea? It was a convenient means of trying to explain life and the whole universe. It was a 'simple' answer. There was no need to explain further. If anybody asked difficult questions about life and the universe then the answer was that God made everything!

Suppose for a moment that there is no such thing as a God, and no afterlife. Would there be an advantage for humans if religion was hardwired into our brains? Perhaps belief in the supernatural and an afterlife strengthens and fortifies human minds. It gives us something to aim for, it strongly suggests immortality. Also, in general the morals preached by many religions would tend to establish a better and more organised society. They would assist us in creating an orderly world, controlled and managed by dependable rules and practices. I stress in general, as the evil side of religion and the atrocities perpetrated on behalf of religion and by the guardians of religion are widely known, from the human sacrifice of mammoth proportions in many of the Mesoamerica cultures such as the Aztecs, to the medieval inquisitions, to the many wars fought because of clashes between religious ideals, to the modern day revelations of child abuse. But that aside (and not meaning to trivialize the above), in olden days religion held the family and the tribe together, and still does to a large degree. Maybe these are favourable traits for a species to have and Darwinian evolution would therefore imply this trait would be selected and would dominate (if it were an inheritable trait). The trait would be central to the optimum survival and functioning of man. So religion persisted and spread, because it was favourable to survival. There was and is a profound inherent need to create an orderly world around us.

Recently we have seen the theory of evolution by natural selection being applied to ideas and not just biological processes. Ideas too replicate themselves, they can be contagious, passing from person to person, generation to generation and from culture to culture and can change over time. They too compete for survival in the minds of people and some 'survive' and some become 'extinct'. Ideas that replicate themselves in this way have been called memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The word was chosen to suggest a strong analogy with genes and a strong analogy between evolution at a cultural level and a biological level. The study of this process is called memetics.

A meme refers to a replicator of cultural information that one mind transmits to another mind. They can be ideas, opinions, beliefs, fashions, etc., that propagate within a culture or from culture to culture. It is a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission analogous to a gene as a unit of genetic information. Just like genes propagating themselves by leaping from body to body, memes propagate themselves by leaping from mind to mind. And as it propagates itself it is subject to evolution by natural selection.

It should also be noted that while ideas, customs and collective rituals can replicate themselves widely and spread from culture to culture over time, they may not correspond or have any bearing to the truth. This is how some people view the whole concept of religion.