General information on religion
Some theories on
the origins of religion
Groups of theories on the origin of religion:
There are two broad groups of theories about the origin of religion.
||Faith-based theories: According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World
Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD
30 to 2200," there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a
total of 270 large religious groups, and many unique faith groups. 1 Among this great religious diversity, there are probably
hundreds of different religious creation stories which describe how
humans, other species of life, the Earth, and the rest of the universe
came to be. Many of these stories describe the origins of their particular
religion. It was typically based on revelation from one or more deities --
mainly gods and goddesses.
||Secular-based theories: Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and
other researchers have reached a near consensus that humans of the species
homo sapiens evolved from a species of proto-humans who originated
somewhere in Africa. (This statement probably upsets any white
supremacists who are reading this essay. That can't be helped; scientists
consider the evidence to be
conclusive; ultimately, we are all descended from Africans.) These proto-humans walked upright, and had an opposing
thumb and little finger. Their internal brain structure represented a major advance over
those of previous
animals in terms of its flexibility, its ability to reason, and its ability to
plan for the future. This gave
improved ability to pass on their accumulated
knowledge to their descendents, to form more advanced societies, and ultimately
to create religions.
The following essay will deal with the science based theories of the origin
of religion. If you are interested in faith-based theories, we suggest that you
do a search on Google with a search string
like: origin Christianity
Secular-based theories of religion:
Nobody knows with accuracy how the first religions evolved. By the time that
writing had developed, many religions had been in place for many millennia and the
details of their origins had been forgotten. However, there is speculation that
the first religions were a response to human fear. They were created to give people a feeling of security in an
insecure world, and a feeling of control over the environment where there was
The developing abilities of proto-humans were a double-edge sword:
one hand, they aided their chances of surviving in a cruel and unpredictable
world. They helped each successive generation of proto-humans to build upon the knowledge
base of their ancestors.
||This increased mental ability led to a terrifying
piece of knowledge: personal mortality. For the first time, individual proto-humans on earth
became aware that their life was transient; they would die at some point in their future. This knowledge
can produce an intolerable emotional drain.
During their evolution from proto-human to full human, they developed questions
about themselves and their environment:
||What controlled the seasonal cycles of nature -- the daily motion of the
sun; the motion of the stars, the passing of the seasons, etc.
||What controlled their environment -- what or who caused floods, rains, dry
spells, storms, etc?
||What controls fertility -- of the tribe, its domesticated animals, and
||What system of morality is needed to best promote the stability of the tribe?
||And above all: what happens to a person after they die?
Living in a pre-scientific society, people had no way to resolve these questions.
Even today, with all of our scientific advances, we still debate about the
second last question, and still have no way of reaching an consensus on the
last. But the
need for answers
(particularly to the last question) were so important that some response was required,
even if they were merely based on hunches. Some people within the tribe started
to invent answers based on their personal guesses. Thus developed:
||The first religious belief system,
||The first set of rituals to appease the
||Other rituals to control fertility and other aspects of the environment,
||A set of behavioral expectations
for members of the tribe, and
||A set of moral truths to govern human behavior.
These formed an oral tradition which was disseminated
among the members of the tribe and was taught to each new generation. Much later, after writing was developed,
the beliefs were generally recorded in written form. A major loss of flexibility resulted. Oral traditions
can evolve over time; written documents tend to be more permanent.
Unfortunately, because these belief systems were based on hunches, the
various religions that developed in different areas of the world were, and remain, all different. Their teachings were in conflict with each
other. Because the followers of most religions considered their beliefs to be
derived directly from God, they cannot be easily changed. Thus,
inter-religious compromise is difficult or impossible. Also, because religious
texts are often ambiguous, divisions developed within religions. Different
denominations, schools, or traditions have derived different meanings from the
same religious texts. Thus were laid the foundations for millennia of inter-religious
and intra-religious conflict.
The first organized religions appear to have been based on fertility. They
on the worship of
the great Earth Goddess. Religion evolved to include male Gods who were
gradually given increased importance by the priests. This development may have been
caused by developing knowledge of the male's involvement in the process of
Today, most people follow either:
||A monotheistic religion, in which a single male god is worshipped, or
religion -- a religion which recognizes a single main deity, but which
recognizes other gods and goddesses, heroes, or saints as facets or manifestations or
aspects of that supreme God.
Most religions teach that they were directly revealed by their deity/deities to
humanity, and are unrelated to other world religions. However there is
considerable historical evidence from ancient times that religions in the area from India to the Middle East shared many
religious beliefs. One example of this are:
Religions were originally based on the particular beliefs of their
founders and prophets. Thus, there are few
points of similarity among the various spiritual paths:
||In terms of
their belief about supernatural being(s), various faith traditions have taught
Atheism, Deism, Duotheism, Henotheism, Monism,
Monotheism, Panentheism, Pantheism, Polytheism, Trinitarianism, and probably
a few that we have missed. Strong Atheists teach that no deity exist. Hinduism teaches that over 100 million deities exist. Even among those religions that believe in a God or Gods, they teach that the God(s) have very different attributes. Even within Christianity -- the largest religion in the world -- there are approximately 35,000 faith groups teaching different beliefs about God, humanity and the rest of the universe. It is obvious from these conflicting ideas about
deities that only one faith group can be correct. Most or perhaps all faith groups are thus in error.
agreements exist among the world's religions about religious beliefs, sacred ritual,
organizational structure, optimum family structure, limits on sexual
behavior, sexual orientation, the roles of women and men, other moral topics,
the afterlife, etc. However, most religions in the world -- particularly their conservative wings -- minimize the roles of women and denigrate sexual minorities, like lesbians, gays, and transgender individuals. On a positive note, essentially all religious share an ethic of reciprocity, like the Golden Rule -- to treat others as we would wish to be treated.
||Religions' traditional teachings in the area of science differ greatly
from each other and from the findings of scientists. Examples from Judaism and
Christianity are: how the
universe was formed, where rainbows came from; whether the
world-wide flood actually happened;
talking animals; the sun standing still in the sky; the cause of epilepsy,
deafness, blindness, and mental illnesses; virginal
conception, demonic possession, walking on water,
resurrection from the dead, ascension into the sky, etc.
Some observers believe that modern-day religions remain largely a response to
human fear. Their main function is to
provide their followers with a feeling of security while living in a dangerous
environment in which a person can be injured, killed or murdered at any time due
to natural causes, accidents or human hatred and intolerance.
John Shelby Spong, retired
bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA has written:
"Religion is primarily a search for
security and not a search for truth. Religion is what we so often use to
bank the fires of our anxiety. That is why religion tends toward
becoming excessive, neurotic, controlling and even evil. That is why a
religious government is always a cruel government. People need to
understand that questioning and doubting are healthy, human activities
to be encouraged not to be feared. Certainty is a vice not a virtue.
Insecurity is something to be grasped and treasured. A true and healthy
religious system will encourage each of these activities. A sick and
fearful religious system will seek to remove them."
David C. James, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church & Diocesan Mission
Center in Olympia, WA, wrote:
Many times when we think we are worshipping God, we are actually
comforting our very fragile egos. I’m not so naïve as to assume that we
build temple and erect altars to ourselves…directly. But our core need to
been safe, secure and sound mandates that we construct reality systems that
will support us. 2
David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative
survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
David C. James, "The Perils of Religion," St. John's Episcopal Church, at:
Copyright © 2002 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-MAR-23
Latest update: 2014-AUG-18
Author: B.A. Robinson