Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Origin of Religion

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

How did religions get started?  That's a challenging question to answer.  I've had thoughts of its answer along the lines of this:

  1. Errant pattern recognition led to superstition.  (When I do X, then Y occurs sometime thereafter.)
  2. Superstition led to errant agent detection.  (Some controlling force or some invisible being makes Y happen when I do X.)
  3. Agent detection led to empathetic reasoning.  (If Y is a good result, the controlling power likes it when I do X.  If Y is a bad result, the controlling power doesn't like it when I do X.)
  4. Empathetic reasoning led to attempts to manipulate or influence the controlling power.  (The controlling power likes when I do X, so I will do it again.  Or, the controlling power doesn't like when I do X, so I will try doing Z instead.)
  5. The techniques used to influence the controlling power get formalized/systematized, and a new religion is born.

This is a simplistic model, and there are many other factors to consider in order to broaden the religion from being that of just one person or one family to being the common practice of an entire community, but it seems like the basic mechanics are sound.  I could see religion going either positive (a "good" controlling power) or negative (a "evil" controlling power), or both.

Carus presented a different theory, one which was challenging for me to accept:

"Demonolatry, or Devil-worship, is the first stage in the evolution of religion, for we fear the bad, not the good.... 
....Devil-worship naturally precedes the worship of a benign and morally good Deity. There are at least many instances in which we can observe a transition from the lower stage of Devil-worship to the higher stage of God-worship, and there seems to be no exception to the rule that fear is always the first incentive to religious worship." HOD, P6, Paul Carus

Does religion always begin with fear?  We'll take a closer look at that theory as we dive into the History of the Devil.


  1. The question seems mistaken to me because "religion" seems a new phenomena. It has so many components, we have to discuss all the components. But the present day choice of components is relatively recent, I think.

    Anyway: I like reading this Chris for good insights -- he is an anthropologist.

  2. I figure some guy's kid started asking questions the father didn't have answers to and the dad said "some guy in the sky did it" and the son passed it along to his kids. The biggest question was probably "what happens when we die?"

    I always thought the idea of the bicameral mind was interesting. Basically, early humans may have had their left and right sides of the brain acting more independently then they do now resulting in something like general schizophrenia. This hearing another voice in one's head could have been interpreted as God talking to them. (There isn't much evidence to support this, but still interesting)

  3. Sabio, thanks, and I'll have to take a closer look at that post when I am be from vacation.

    Yeah, Grundy, I've heard of that bicameral mind theory. It is fascinating! I've also heard that developers of AI (Artificial Intelligence) have found that they get a much more realistic behavior pattern when they incorporate "competing" rules as opposed to one master algorithm. That would seem to lend some support to an evolutionally advantaged bicameral brain. It's pretty cool research!

  4. I was recently listening to The Atheist Experience #464 podcast where the co-host was going through the history of gods in the bible. She mentioned some Hebrew and other Mesopotamian myths that had El (later evolving to Elohim) as a demon. In my favourite the goddess Sofia (spelled Saffiya?) was supposed to make new life with a male consort. She decided to create life by herself instead and spawned a demon lion. This demon then created the earth and became god over it.
    If god was originally more malevolent, it is easier to understand why the depictions of the OT god(s) are so nasty. It also fits with a more unpredictable and violent world.

  5. That sounds like a really interesting podcast, prarienymph. I had heard a little bit about El before, but I haven't heard of Sofia. I'll have to check that out when I get a little time!

    I think you're right, that the OT God (or gods) definitely fit better into the era in which they came, when violence and unpredictable catastrophes ruled life, and so became incorporating into the being of that/those God(s).