origin of religions
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Theron" type goddess,
seated on a throne flanked by two lionesses, from Çatalhöyük.
The evolutionary origin of religions theorizes about the
emergence of religious
behavior during the course of human
Humanity’s closest living relatives are common
chimpanzees and bonobos.
share a common
ancestor with humans who lived between four and six million years
ago. It is for this reason that chimpanzees and bonobos are viewed as
the best available surrogate for this common ancestor. Barbara King
argues that while non-human primates are not religious, they do
exhibit some traits that would have been necessary for the evolution
of religion. These traits include high intelligence, a capacity for
communication, a sense of social norms, realization of "self"
and a concept of continuity.
There is inconclusive evidence that Homo
neanderthalensis may have buried
their dead which is evidence of the use of ritual. The use of burial
rituals is thought to be evidence of religious activity, and there is
no other evidence that religion existed in human culture before
humans reached behavioral
Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado,
Boulder, argues that many species grieve death and loss.
Setting the stage for human religion
In this set of theories, the religious
mind is one consequence of a brain that is large enough to formulate
religious and philosophical ideas.
evolution, the hominid brain tripled in size, peaking 500,000
years ago. Much of the brain's expansion took place in the neocortex.
This part of the brain is involved in processing higher order
cognitive functions that are connected with human religiosity. The
neocortex is associated with self-consciousness,
language and emotion[citation
needed]. According to Dunbar's
theory, the relative neocortex
size of any species correlates with the level of social
complexity of the particular species. The neocortex size correlates
with a number of social variables that include social group size and
complexity of mating behaviors. In chimpanzees the neocortex occupies
50% of the brain, whereas in modern humans it occupies 80% of the
Dunbar argues that the critical event in the evolution of the
neocortex took place at the speciation
homo sapiens about 500,000 years ago. His study indicates that
only after the speciation event is the neocortex large enough to
process complex social phenomena such as language and religion. The
study is based on a regression analysis of neocortex size plotted
against a number of social behaviors of living and extinct
Jay Gould suggests that religion may have grown out of
evolutionary changes which favored larger brains as a means of
cementing group coherence among savannah hunters, after that larger
brain enabled reflection on the inevitability of personal
argues that causal beliefs that emerged from tool use played a major
role in the evolution of belief. The manufacture of complex tools
requires creating a mental image of an object which does not exist
naturally before actually making the artifact. Furthermore, one must
understand how the tool would be used, that requires an understanding
Accordingly, the level of sophistication of stone tools is a useful
indicator of causal beliefs.
Wolpert contends use of tools composed of more than one component,
such as hand axes, represents an ability to understand cause and
effect. However, recent studies of other primates indicate that
causality may not be a uniquely human trait. For example, chimpanzees
have been known to escape from pens closed with multiple latches,
which was previously thought could only have been figured out by
humans who understood causality. Chimpanzees are also known to mourn
the dead, and notice things that have only aesthetic value, like
sunsets, both of which may be considered to be components of religion
The difference between the comprehension of causality by humans and
chimpanzees is one of degree. The degree of comprehension in an
animal depends upon the size of the prefrontal cortex: the greater
the size of the prefrontal cortex the deeper the comprehension.
See also: Origin
of language and Myth
Religion requires a system
of symbolic communication, such as language, to be transmitted from
one individual to another. Philip
Lieberman states "human religious thought and moral sense
clearly rest on a cognitive-linguistic base".
From this premise science writer Nicholas
most behaviors that are found in societies throughout the world,
religion must have been present in the ancestral human population
before the dispersal from Africa 50,000 years ago. Although
religious rituals usually involve dance and music, they are also
very verbal, since the sacred truths have to be stated. If so,
religion, at least in its modern form, cannot pre-date the emergence
of language. It has been argued earlier that language attained its
modern state shortly before the exodus from Africa. If religion had
to await the evolution of modern, articulate language, then it too
would have emerged shortly before 50,000 years ago."
Another view distinguishes individual religious belief from
collective religious belief. While the former does not require prior
development of language, the latter does. The individual human brain
has to explain a phenomenon in order to comprehend and relate to it.
This activity predates by far the emergence of language and may have
caused it. The theory is, belief in the supernatural emerges from
hypotheses arbitrarily assumed by individuals to explain natural
phenomena that cannot be explained otherwise. The resulting need to
share individual hypotheses with others leads eventually to
collective religious belief. A socially accepted hypothesis becomes
dogmatic backed by social sanction.
and group living
Main articles: Evolution
of morality and Morality
§ Evolutionary perspectives
Frans de Waal
and Barbara King both view human morality as having grown out of
primate sociality. Though morality awareness may be a unique human
trait, many social
animals, such as primates, dolphins and whales, have been known
to exhibit pre-moral sentiments. According to Michael
Shermer, the following characteristics are shared by humans and
other social animals, particularly the great apes:
"attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy
and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and
reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception
and deception detection, community concern and caring about what
others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social
rules of the group".
De Waal contends that all social animals have had to restrain or
alter their behavior for group living to be worthwhile. Pre-moral
sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining
individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. For any
social species, the benefits of being part of an altruistic group
should outweigh the benefits of individualism. For example, lack of
group cohesion could make individuals more vulnerable to attack from
outsiders. Being part of a group may also improve the chances of
finding food. This is evident among animals that hunt
in packs to take down large or dangerous prey.
All social animals have hierarchical
societies in which each member knows its own place. Social order is
maintained by certain rules of expected behavior and dominant group
members enforce order through punishment. However, higher order
primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. Chimpanzees
remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. For example,
chimpanzees are more likely to share
food with individuals who have previously groomed
Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion
groups that average 50 individuals. It is likely that early
ancestors of humans lived in groups of similar size. Based on the
size of extant
hunter-gatherer societies, recent Paleolithic hominids
lived in bands of a few hundred individuals. As community size
increased over the course of human evolution, greater enforcement to
achieve group cohesion would have been required. Morality may have
evolved in these bands of 100 to 200 people as a means of social
control, conflict resolution and group solidarity. According to Dr.
de Waal, human morality has two extra levels of sophistication that
are not found in primate societies. Humans enforce their society’s
moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and
reputation building. Humans also apply a degree of judgment and
reason not otherwise seen in the animal kingdom.
Psychologist Matt J. Rossano argues that religion emerged after
morality and built upon morality by expanding the social scrutiny of
individual behavior to include supernatural
agents. By including ever-watchful ancestors, spirits and gods in the
social realm, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining
selfishness and building more cooperative groups.
The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group
Rossano is referring here to collective religious belief and the
social sanction that institutionalized morality. According to
Rossano's teaching, individual religious belief is thus initially
epistemological, not ethical, in nature.
Evolutionary psychology of religion
Main article: Evolutionary
psychology of religion
There is general agreement among cognitive scientists that religion
is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human
history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that
drove the evolution of the religious mind. The two main schools of
thought hold that either religion evolved due to natural
selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an
evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations.
Gould, for example, believed that religion was an exaptation
or a spandrel,
in other words that religion evolved as byproduct of psychological
mechanisms that evolved for other reasons.
Such mechanisms may include the ability
to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm (agent
detection), the ability to come up with causal narratives for natural
and the ability to recognize that other people have minds of their
own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions (theory
of mind). These three adaptations (among others) allow human
beings to imagine purposeful agents behind many observations that
could not readily be explained otherwise, e.g. thunder, lightning,
movement of planets, complexity of life, etc.
The emergence of collective religious belief identified the agents as
deities that standardized the explanation.
Some scholars have
suggested that religion is genetically "hardwired" into the
human condition. One controversial hypothesis, the God
gene hypothesis, states that some variants of a specific gene,
gene, predispose to spirituality.
Another view is based on the concept of the triune
brain: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex,
proposed by Paul
D. MacLean. Collective religious belief draws upon the emotions
of love, fear, and gregariousness and is deeply embedded in the
limbic system through sociobiological conditioning and social
sanction. Individual religious belief utilizes reason based in the
neocortex and often varies from collective religion. The limbic
system is much older in evolutionary terms than the neocortex and is,
therefore, stronger than it much in the same way as the reptilian is
stronger than both the limbic system and the neocortex. Reason is
pre-empted by emotional drives. The religious feeling in a
congregation is emotionally different from individual spirituality
even though the congregation is composed of individuals. Belonging to
a collective religion is culturally more important than individual
spirituality though the two often go hand in hand. This is one of the
reasons why religious debates are likely to be inconclusive.[citation
Yet another view is that the behaviour
of people who participate in a religion makes them feel better and
this improves their fitness, so that there is a genetic selection in
favor of people who are willing to believe in religion. Specifically,
rituals, beliefs, and the social contact typical of religious groups
may serve to calm the mind (for example by reducing ambiguity and the
uncertainty due to complexity) and allow it to function better when
This would allow religion to be used as a powerful survival
mechanism, particularly in facilitating the evolution of hierarchies
which if true, may be why many modern religions tend to promote
Still another view is that human religion was a product of an
increase in dopaminergic functions in the human brain and a general
intellectual expansion beginning around 80 kya.
Dopamine promotes an emphasis on distant space and time, which is
critical for the establishment of religious experience.
While the earliest shamanic cave paintings date back around 40 kya,
the use of ochre for rock art predates this and there is clear
evidence for abstract thinking along the coast of South Africa by 80
evidence of religion
See also: Paleolithic
religion and Prehistoric
When humans first became religious
remains unknown, but there is credible evidence of religious behavior
from the Middle
Paleolithic era (300–500 thousand
needed] and possibly earlier.
earliest evidence of religious thought is based on the ritual
treatment of the dead. Most animals display only a casual interest in
the dead of their own species.
Ritual burial thus represents a significant change in human behavior.
Ritual burials represent an awareness of life and death and a
possible belief in the afterlife.
Lieberman states "burials with grave goods clearly signify
religious practices and concern for the dead that transcends daily
The earliest evidence for treatment of the dead comes from Atapuerca
in Spain. At this location the bones of 30 individuals believed to be
heidelbergensis have been found in a pit.
are also contenders for the first hominids
to intentionally bury the dead. They may have placed corpses into
shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. The presence
of these grave
goods may indicate an emotional connection with the deceased and
possibly a belief in the afterlife. Neanderthal burial sites include
Shanidar in Iraq
and Krapina in
Croatia and Kebara
Cave in Israel.
The earliest known burial
of modern humans is from a cave in Israel located at Qafzeh.
Human remains have been dated to 100,000 years ago. Human skeletons
were found stained with red
ochre. A variety of grave goods were found at the burial site.
The mandible of a wild boar was found placed in the arms of one of
Philip Lieberman states:
"Burial rituals incorporating grave goods may have been
invented by the anatomically modern hominids who emigrated from
Africa to the Middle East roughly 100,000 years ago".
Matt Rossano suggests that the period in
between 80,000–60,000 years after humans retreated from the
Levant to Africa was a crucial period in the evolution of
The use of
The use of
in religion is a universal established phenomenon. Archeologist
contends that it is common for religious practices to involve the
creation of images and symbols to represent supernatural beings and
ideas. Because supernatural beings violate the principles of the
natural world, there will always be difficulty in communicating and
sharing supernatural concepts with others. This problem can be
overcome by anchoring these supernatural beings in material form
through representational art. When translated into material form,
supernatural concepts become easier to communicate and
Due to the association of art and religion, evidence of symbolism in
the fossil record is indicative of a mind capable of religious
thoughts. Art and symbolism demonstrates a capacity for abstract
thought and imagination necessary to construct religious ideas.
Wentzel van Huyssteen states that the translation of the non-visible
through symbolism enabled early human ancestors to hold beliefs in
Some of the earliest evidence
of symbolic behavior is associated with Middle
Stone Age sites in Africa. From at least 100,000 years ago, there
is evidence of the use of pigments such as red
ochre. Pigments are of little practical use to hunter gatherers,
thus evidence of their use is interpreted as symbolic or for ritual
purposes. Among extant hunter gatherer populations around the world,
red ochre is still used extensively for ritual purposes. It has been
argued that it is universal among human cultures for the color red to
represent blood, sex, life and death.
The use of red ochre as a proxy for symbolism is often criticized
as being too indirect. Some scientists, such as Richard
Klein and Steven
Mithen, only recognize unambiguous forms of art as representative
of abstract ideas. Upper paleolithic cave art provides some of the
most unambiguous evidence of religious thought from the paleolithic.
Cave paintings at Chauvet
depict creatures that are half human and half animal.
of organized religion
See also: Neolithic
Social evolution of humans 
Organized religion traces its roots to the neolithic
revolution that began 11,000 years ago in the Near
East but may have occurred independently in several other
locations around the world. The invention of agriculture transformed
many human societies from a hunter-gatherer
lifestyle to a sedentary
lifestyle. The consequences of the neolithic revolution included
a population explosion and an acceleration in the pace of
technological development. The transition from foraging bands to
states and empires precipitated more specialized and developed forms
of religion that reflected the new social and political environment.
While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these
beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer
of wealth or maintain peace between unrelated individuals. Organized
religion emerged as a means of providing social and economic
stability through the following ways:
Number of individuals
Justifying the central authority,
which in turn possessed the right to collect taxes in return for
providing social and security services.
Bands and tribes consist of small number of related individuals.
However, states and nations are composed of many thousands of
unrelated individuals. Jared
Diamond argues that organized religion served to provide a bond
between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to
enmity. In his book Guns,
Germs, and Steel he argues that the leading cause of death
among hunter-gatherer societies is murder.
Religions that revolved around
moralizing gods may have facilitated the rise of large, cooperative
groups of unrelated individuals.
The states born out of the Neolithic revolution, such as those of
Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were theocracies
with chiefs, kings and emperors playing dual roles of political and
Anthropologists have found that virtually all state societies and
chiefdoms from around the world have been found to justify political
power through divine authority. This suggests that political
authority co-opts collective religious belief to bolster itself.
See also: History
Following the neolithic revolution, the pace of technological
development (cultural evolution) intensified due to the invention of
writing 5000 years ago. Symbols that became words later on made
effective communication of ideas possible. Printing invented only
over a thousand years ago increased the speed of communication
exponentially and became the main spring of cultural evolution.
Writing is thought to have been first invented in either Sumeria or
Ancient Egypt and was initially used for accounting. Soon after,
writing was used to record myth. The first religious texts mark the
beginning of religious
history. The Pyramid
Texts from ancient Egypt are one of the oldest known religious
texts in the world, dating to between 2400–2300
Writing played a major role in sustaining and spreading organized
religion. In pre-literate societies, religious ideas were based on an
the contents of which were articulated by shamans and remained
limited to the collective memories of the society's inhabitants. With
the advent of writing, information that was not easy to remember
could easily be stored in sacred texts that were maintained by a
select group (clergy). Humans could store and process large amounts
of information with writing that otherwise would have been forgotten.
Writing therefore enabled religions to develop coherent and
comprehensive doctrinal systems that remained independent of time and
Writing also brought a measure of objectivity to human knowledge.
Formulation of thoughts in words and the requirement for validation
made mutual exchange of ideas and the sifting of generally acceptable
from not acceptable ideas possible. The generally acceptable ideas
became objective knowledge reflecting the continuously evolving
framework of human awareness of reality that Karl
Popper calls 'verisimilitude' – a stage on the human
journey to truth.
Wolpert (2006). Six impossible things before breakfast, The
evolutionary origins of belief. New York: Norton.
with regard to hafted tools, One would have to understand that the
two pieces serve different purposes, and imagine how the tool could
F.H. (2011). Dopamine, altered consciousness, and distant space with
special reference to shamanic ecstasy. In E. Cardona & M.
Winkelman (eds.), Altering consciousness: Multidisciplinary
perspectives (Vol. 1), pp. 43-60. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.
F. H. (2006). The role of the extrapersoal brain systems in
religious activity. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 500-539.
article on the Neanderthals". Neanderthals buried their
dead, and one burial at Shanidar
in Iraq was accompanied by grave goods in the form of plants. All of
the plants are used in recent times for medicinal purposes, and it
seems likely that the Neanderthals also used them in this way and
buried them with their dead for the same reason. Grave goods are an
archaeological marker of belief in an afterlife, so Neanderthals may
well have had some form of religious belief.
Uniqueness and Symbolization". This 'coding of the
non-visible' through abstract, symbolic thought, enabled also our
early human ancestors to argue and hold beliefs in abstract terms.
In fact, the concept of God itself follows from the ability to
abstract and conceive of 'person'
A., & Shariff, A. F. (2008). The origin and evolution of
religious prosociality. Science, 322, 58–62
Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, 1972, Rev. ed., 1979,