Well , we may as well have a look at this one as it appears to have such a hold on the imagination and can stir up some very strong emotions, fears , hatreds and even violence .It was pointed out recently that I was very disparaging about those who hold strong religious beliefs .That was a bit strong , I thought. I don’t really care too much about it at all , certainly not to deliberately disparage anyone , but I do find it all a bit fascinating that people get so excited about it .
There’s a subtlety , you see. My thoughts are that people who “enjoy” religion actually don’t really give it a lot of thought at all.Maybe they really never bothered to ask themselves any questions or hadn’t the time to think about it. If they did they would find many questions to tussle with and answers that made no real sense. Let’s face a few facts before we develop this one . There are millions across the world who believe in the existence of a God of some sort so I’ll assume that we all know what a “god” is supposed to be, in our minds and that somewhere in our education we’ve come across the concept..There are very many interesting religions with adherents believing in some form of this god.Lots and lots of them.All kinds of everything. It goes into thousands , so there must be a common thread. There are the big ones like the collective Christians, the Jews and the Muslims , but it is reckoned that there are approximately around 4,200 religious beliefs across the earth at this present time.
Why is that so?
Of course , you might have grown up on an isolated island somewhere in time and never came across this “god” concept, so let’s start with the idea of god. To a believer in “god”, that being ,creature or abstract thinking , intelligent essence is the creator of everything we know on earth as human -beings.
What fascinates me is not the quantity of the differing ideas but where the ideas originate from in the first place, and , even more to the point,why they come at all.
Anyone reading this who has a religious belief knows exactly where that came from for him or her personally .Most likely it was instilled from your early days from your parents, your school and your church. You took it for granted as you learned to read and write and eat and play.It didn’t start there , though. it had to start many generations back in time.
A good place to start would be with someone who has put the time and effort into a study of this .Robert Bellah, the author of ” Religion in Human Evolution” has spent his career at Harvard and Berkeley as a sociologist of religion and has done a lot of the spadework for us , but he is only one voice .There are many others..He is also a religious person in that he believes there is a place of sorts , for a form of it in his life.He may or may not believe in god in a conventional sense, but he certainly sees religion as a tool of social cohesion.
Many religions seem to have an association with death and how to deal with the loss of life.
If you looked for the earliest evidence for burial of the dead , you would go to Atapuerca in Spain. There you’ll find thirty sets of bones in a pit , thought to be the remains of Homo heidelbergensis .Our cousins the Neanderthals are also thought to have placed their dead in shallow graves alongside some tools and possibly parts of animals , because such bones have been found with them. They seem to have been intentionally buried like this ..These additions in the grave , possibly as a food source and with workable tools seem to indicate that they were preparing their dead for further journeying beyond death and that they had familial or at least an emotional connection to the dead. and the possibility of some kind of life after death.
There are such Neanderthal burial sites to be found in Shanidar in Iraq and Krapina in Croatia and Kebara Cave in Israel.That puts them back in a time some 300,000 years ago and it was discovered in 2014 that Neanderthal DNA displays in our own genetic timeline so the Neanderthals must have bred with humans some 50- 60 thousand years ago.Modern human remains found in a cave in Israel at Qatzeh have been dated to 100,000 years ago and various additions to the graves have been found , in a form of deliberate, ritualised burial.
The development of shamanist art expression seems to have been key to the creation of imagery and symbology to represent the otherwise abstract representation of supernatural beings that would otherwise remain only in the imagination.These early artists communicated and shared these supernatural concepts with everyone else in the tribes and made them real in a material form.They would otherwise be hard to understand given that they violated any natural laws that they could see , hear or touch.Art became entwined with religion at this point. and indicates minds that could form “religious” thoughts and ideas in an abstract way. Coloured red ochre paint pigments which have no real practical purpose otherwise in a hunter-gatherer society ,, have been found in Stone Age sites in Africa which means it was probably used for other ritual practices.It is still used throughout such hunter-gatherer societies throughout the modern world and the red colour usually represents blood, sex, life and death; the four most important things in life .
Many animals “grieve” at the loss of their companions in death. They show some of the behaviour necessary in the development of religious thought, just as our hominid ancestors must have done some 6-8 million years ago .Although our cousins the chimpanzees and the bonobas are not religious at all, they show these same traits. The difference being that humans developed greater brain size and intelligence.The idea of loss and ritual burial is the first sign of carrying a religious idea .The idea of protecting the dead seems to be where it all starts..Most animals probably never consider the concept of their eventual demise.They have no understanding of it.We humans ,because of our larger brains, do.
During human evolution, our brain has tripled in size,stopping at its peak some half a million years ago. Much of the brain’s expansion took place in the neocortex. which is the bit involved in processing higher order cognitive functions that are connected to ideas of religiosity. It is also associated with self-consciousness, emotions and language skills.The suggestion is that religion has probably grown out of evolutionary changes which favored larger brains as a means of keeping together and cementing relationships among the first humans to leave the trees and hunt on the savannah plains. The larger brains allowed these humans to think and reflect on their own limited lifespan . They no longer had the security of limitless existence . They began to understand the concept of death and possibly didn’t like thinking about it.
It seems that religious rituals began in Africa where we all started our long human journey throughout the world about 50,000 years ago. It had to begin after we developed a language of sorts but it most likely also had ritualised dancing and music. This was the only way these new ideas that the mind was capable of dreaming, could be shared.
This eventually leads to a group agreeing on an explanation of of a unknown phenomenom that they might not individually understand .Something that makes some sense in that context and is accepted by the group becomes the dogmatic law and carries the agreement of the tribe. This is the foundation of a social order.It is also the basis of a religion.
Many social animals develop a form of “morality ” which allows them to operate in a group structure.Human morality seems to have grown out of primate sociality. You can still see that operating in any group of apes who groom and care for each other and develop relationships .Neither is it unique because dolphins and whales also exhibit some kind of moral sentiment.The idea is that to actually get the benefits involved in living collectively in a group, individual behaviours had to be adjusted . Things like natural selfishness and aggression had to be toned down in exchange for cooperation , security and finding food together.A group working together made more effective hunters than a lone individual.You had a better chance of getting a meal.
Even packs of wolves and chimpanzees have a pecking order in their societies.
Every group creature has a hierarchy in which each member knows its place. The social order is balanced by certain rules of expected behavior and the dominant group members enforce order through some form of punishment. Primates also have a sense of fair-play. Chimpanzees remember their allies and their enemies and respond in kind , just as humans would.It is actually a balance of power, not much different to an arms race.
Chimpanzees live in groups of around 50 individuals so it’s a fair bet that humans had similar structures and that can easily be studied even now. . As community size increased over the course of human evolution, even greater degrees of control would have been developed to achieve control.and a form of morality would have been needed to protect the group.. . Humans still enforce society’s moral codes with rewards, punishments and the concept of a “good reputation” . Humans also developed some degree of law-making and reason which no other animal was able to achieve.
It has been argued that religion came about in this evolving process and used morality as a foundation -stone adding a supernatural dimension to include supernatural spirit beings keeping an additional, external eye out as a further social control. This included the ever-watchful ancestors, spirits and gods .In this context these “spirits” became as real as the humans they looked in on.
In that respect these , humans had chanced upon a very effective tool for restraining selfishness and making the group more cooperative.
As the limited information coming in was exchanged , early humans looked around and deduced that as they attempted some control of their environment , it followed that questions regarding things like who controlled the daylight and made the rain fall were deduced to mean that other more powerful beings beyond their experience actually controlled these things.
Human beings have a tendency to give even animals human qualities. This anthormorphic drive which children still enjoy in talking cartoon animals on television , allowed humans to imagine these powerful beings to be like themselves and with the self-same human appetites, but greater superheroic powers .The imaginitive power to carry the sun across the sky in a burning chariot…to move the water in the rivers and the seas and to make the wind blow .It followed that some of these figures were actually responsible for their very own existence and the existence of their known world.These thoughts occurred in every culture in pockets of varying imagination .There was always a sense of unpredictability with these “gods”, but a sense and a science of responsibility developed to attempt some explanation of their motives. The responsibility of life and death rested with them and with their changing moods.
This was the first notion of scientific explanation for the environment .For thousands of years, if the crops failed , someone “up there” wasn’t too happy about something. The same held when people died of disease or in other unexpected ways . The idea of sacrificial gifts to appease their bad humours came into being.It applied to everything from bad weather to physical affliction.As years went by, thinking men realised the there actually laws of nature and it was these rather than an external deity which was responsible for change.Gradually the collection of gods were replaced by one single entity in many communities ,that was soley responsible for everything that couldn’t be explained.
About 11,000 years ago the invention of agriculture resulted in a huge change for humanity. For the first time there was a settled rather than a hunter -gatherer ideal ,which happened gradually throughout the world and it was something that transformed and expanded society into large settled communities, relatively quickly, in terms of the technology of the day and the population which grew at a rapid pace.This development demanded a more central authority rather the the nebulous laws and beliefs of many individual foraging groups.To provide this stability, religions became a more centralised authority and became a stabiliser for social and economic growth.These new authorities also came to be the providers of power and security and began to gather taxes. The new religion provided a communal bond for large groups of otherwise unrelated distinct individuals to cooperate, who may have been otherwise prone to murder and mayhem.
The ancient states of Mesopotamia and Egypt were ruled by individuals with a two-handed role in that they were kings and emperorors who were also religious leaders and justified their rights of leadership by assuming a divine authority from a god , too.They held onto power by aligning themselves to this esoteric, spiritual overlord.
Artistic vision eventually evolved into writing and communication went up a step about 5000 years ago. It is thought that this happened in Egypt or Sumeria and was initially used for counting goods.Next, after money, came religion .It was then that the first religious ideas were written down by the very few literate men .These men were a power in the spread of ideas in a society where the scratchings of writing were very much magical symbols of power. These were the first clergymen and priests.What had previously been only symbolic drawings became gradually an exact technological form of written communication that a few could master.Things could be written down rather than simply explained or half-remembered .About a thousand years ago printing was invented so that copies could be made of the words. Prior to that we had an oral tradition where nothing was written and everything was communicated by storytelling and shamanism. This is when ideas and thoughts were formulated and argued out and physically committed to history for the first time in mankind’s growth.
Developing mankind tussled with the mystery of their own growing ego and the idea of consciousness. The idea that the mind resided as a distinct entity in some ways separate from the physical body..Where did our consciousness go at the point of dying ?. People could see that the physical body deteriorated and gradually became dust but they were loathe to believe that their mind did likewise.In that respect the religious idea that there was a god-created “soul” developed. or was an eternal part of a cosmic whole that never went away.Jews, Christians and Muslims developed the idea of this continuity and Hindus and Buddhist took the eternal cosmos route.The idea of morality went hand in hand with your individual place in all this and was dependant on how you behaved with your neighbours.If you were good you were rewarded .If you were bad you’d be punished.
It is apparent though , that as a person’s brain cells die at the point of death, or sometimes earlier as in dementia , the mind and consciousness begins to die too so there is nothing left to go anywhere .
Human beings would always prefer their idea of god to be of a personal nature and to be someone they can easily relate to so it may not necesssarily be a fear for the future or even a search for some abstract meaning that drives the need for a god figure. There is always the need for a father-figure or a super-heroic being to right all wrongs .It is no .surprise that filmstars, rockstars, footballers and comic superheroes are feted in popular culture and adored especially in large -group situations .This behaviour seems to fill a communal need deep in our being . We have a tendency, as a species, to elevate special individuals for our adoration.
We desire a hero and a “god” has fulfilled that need. We’ve actually made him for ourselves and our own appetites.
Although humanity has at its outer reaches actually grown beyond the primitive explanations that religion and a belief in god supplied in the past, religion has not faded away because there is still a need for a simplistic explanation as to the reason for existence itself..We have enough available information to actually know this but the answer may not be palatable to a species seeking a heroic ideal., Our real problem is that many people are unable to understand the information and religion relies on on this confusion to survive .It supplies rituals which are a balm to the oppressed but as time goes by it constantly confronts its own built-in illogic and thrashes about in unseemly alternative explanation of the already clearly known facts..
At its worst, a belief in god divides communities into unreasonable, simple tribal hatreds of misunderstanding.At its best it provides a solace in an uncompromising life.
In the end though ,God only exists ,not because he is actually to be found anywhere in our known universe, but because of some inner deeply- buried longing inside the primitive part of our brains , expects him to be there.
The aforementioned Robert Bellah has this to say , in conclusion :
“The physical world is not as dead and quiescent as Newtonian physics would have us think. And we still don’t know where life came from. I don’t think anyone in their right mind thinks God came out of somewhere to create life, but the emergence of life from inanimate matter does remain a bit mysterious. I’m not saying it won’t be explained in perfectly good natural scientific terms, but it involves things that are not your usual run-of-the-mill behaviours you’d expect to see. The world is full of questions and we can’t take anything for granted, because the more we know, the more questions are raised.”