Theories of the Origins of Religion

440px-Europe_a_Prophecy,_copy_D,_object_1_(Bentley_1,_Erdman_i,_Keynes_i)_British_Museum “Why are there ants on the sidewalk?” asked the author of a popular science book. Well, people drop onto sidewalks stuff that ants like to eat. Sidewalks provide an unbroken substrate for the chemical trails that ants follow. And, of course, there are ants EVERYWHERE, but you can see them more easily on the sidewalk.

It’s typically a mistake to attribute any complex phenomenon to a single cause. So, bear in mind that the following theories of the origins of religion should NOT be imagined to be mutually exclusive, despite the fact that their proponents tended to discount, strongly, any theories but their own.

There are doubtless some major theories that I have missed, here, and I’ve left out a number of kooky ones (e.g., Erich von Däniken’s claim that religions are primitive interpretations of actual encounters with aliens, a variety of the Legend Theory described below). And not listed here is the believer’s theory that his or her particular religion is the truth and so has none of these etiologies.

  1. Agency Theory. Religion originated in the attribution of agency to the inanimate. I long ago worked out a version of this one that goes something like this: Because of their large brains, humans are born extremely dependent, before their skulls are even fully fused. For the first few months of their lives, they experience only other humans. Naturally, they interpret subsequent experience in the only terms that they know, in human terms. Our primitive ancestors were particularly inclined to do so. The wind is breath. The rumbling of the volcano is a god at a forge. Spring is birth. Winter is death. All religions, according to this theory, go through several stages, beginning in animism (the attribution of agency to inanimate things). These agents in the natural world are then given names and personal histories, and by that means Animism develops into Polytheism. Over time, the spirits become condensed into one master spirit or one leader of the spirits, and thus one gets Monotheism. The agency theory is propounded by Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett, among others. The theory of the progression from animism to polytheism to monotheism was advanced by Edward Tylor (though I had hit upon this as a general progression long before I knew of Tylor’s work).
  2.  Altered States of Consciousness Theory. Religions originated in the use of various means, including hallucinogenic plants, asceticism, etc., to experience other ways of being and so realms outside the ordinary. Associated with R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck, Terence McKenna, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.
  3. Axial Age Theory. The 6th century BCE, aka the Axial Age, was a lawless, difficult time between empires that gave us Plato (Platonism), Parsva and Mahavira (Jainism), Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism), Zarathustra (Zoroastrianism), Lao Tsu (Taoism), Isaiah and Jeremiah (millennial Judaism), each of which was centrally preoccupied by the problem of suffering—how and why suffering comes about and how we can deal with it, overcome it, escape from it.  Religion thus originated as a kind of escapism, a way of coping with stresses that would otherwise have been overwhelming. Associated with Karl Jaspers.
  4. Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind Theory. Humans were originally hardwired. When humans hardwired differently came into contact with one another, these events produced dissonance, and language and religion both developed as internal speech to one’s self, done to reinforce the previous hardwiring (must paint skin with red ocher not chalk). This internalized speech to oneself survives in the voices heard by schizophrenics like the Son of Sam and takes the forms of imperatives of the kind one finds in the Iliad and in the book of Jeremiah in the Bible. The ancient person does not act. The god commands, and the person obeys. Associated with Julian Jaynes.
  5. Charismatic Authority/Cult Leader Theory. Religions originate with charismatic individuals advancing theories by means of which they pursue various personal goals; these theories then become traditional as they are codified by followers. Associated with Max Weber.
  6. Entrepreneurial Extortion/Protection Racket Theory. Religion is an extortion and protection racket. Those who propound this theory point to the organization of the first cities around a central structure that was simultaneously a granary and treasure house, the house of the god king or pharaoh (one made monumental and central as a physical instantiation of raw power), an administrative center, an oracular center, and a site for spectacular public punishments. Message: God says, obey me and bring me a large portion of your labor. Various contemporary theorists.
  7. Escape from Personal Freedom Theory. Letter openers may be designed for a purpose, but people are not. They have no purpose. They are completely free to act however they wish to act. They are afraid of this meaninglessness and of their freedom, so they invent gods to give their lives meaning and direction. Associated with Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre.
  8. Group Cohesion and Moral Guidance Theory. Religion originated as a sacralizing of aspects of clan life necessary to its cohesion and general functioning. So, for example, the totem provides a common ancestry, and totemism formalizes kinship rules; rituals bind the group together; behavior is regulated by divine ordinance. Associated with Émile Durkheim.
  9. Legend Theory. Religion originated in stories told about actual persons. These stories were then elaborated and gained magical accretions over time. Associated with the ancient Greeks Euhemerus and Socrates.
  10. Monomyth Theory. Religions stories like the story of the founding of Thebes or the stories of the lives of the Buddha or of Jesus, all tell one story rooted in the Bildungsroman that is the story of any young person’s life. The young person (typically, but not always, in the old stories, a young man) sets out from his place of birth. He does service to supernatural entities and receives a boon. He experiences trials. By virtue of the boon, he succeeds in a trial and thereby gains important knowledge. He brings this back to the people. Associated with Joseph Campbell.
  11. Opiate of the People Theory. Religion is a means of social control, via prohibitions, and of amelioration of the alienation of, workers by those who exploit them. A very reasonable hypothesis with regard to monotheistic religions of the kinds invented in the first large city states, with their centralized sacred mountain/administrative center/and home of the ruling deity. Associated with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. See also Entrepreneurial Extortion/Protection Racket Theory.
  12. Personification and Propitiation Theory. Religion originated as a personification of powerful forces to which people were enthralled (death, decay, love, etc) and an attempt to control these. Associated with Gilbert Murray. See also Agency Theory.
  13. Primitive Science Theory. Religion originated in order to provide explanations of phenomena. The narcissus flower bending over the brook is the vain young man, forever looking at his reflection, turned into a flower by Aphrodite when he rejected the advances of the girl Echo (who herself wasted away to become nothing but a disembodied voice). Associated with Edward Burnett Tylor. (NB: Hobbes advances a similar explanation of religion as primitive natural philosophy.)
  14. Propitiation and Control/Imitative Magic Theory. Religion originated in an attempt to propitiate the Gods or to control natural phenomena by magical or ritual means–in particular, by imitating and then forcing the direction of the outcome within the imitation. The idea is that the powers that be would do likewise. So, for example, in the grove at Nemi, a surrogate of the fertility God was killed and replaced, each year, to ensure that the old year would die and the new would be reborn. Associated with James George Frazer. See also Personification and Propitiation Theory.
  15.  Psychopathology Theory. Hearing voices, seeing beings who aren’t there, having delusions of grandeur, making associations where none exist, experiencing cosmic interconnectedness—these are all symptoms of schizophrenia. Associated with Robert Sapolsky.
  16. Repressed Childhood Wish Fulfillment Theory. Monotheistic, paternalistic religion derives from the wish to kill the father, which is suppressed, denied, and replaced by a fantasy of subservience to the father. It is a denial on the part of the Superego that one has had such a fantasy. Associated with Sigmund Freud.
  17.  Solar Theory. Religion originated as a story told about the Earth and the Sky in which they are, respectively, the mother and the father. The father, in particular, is associated with the Sun, with lightning, and with thunder. Thus Zeus originally meant sky, and Gaia, Earth. The rising and setting and yearly rebirth at the Winter Solstice of the sun/son is associated with the changing, death, and rebirth of the seasons. Associated with Max Müller.
  18. Wonderment/Enchantment Theory. Religion originated in the experience of wonder or awe before that which was not understood. One sees this kind of wonderment or enchantment in nonhuman primates before phenomena such as rain storms, lightning, and fire. It is wonder in the face of the annunciation of the Other. Associated with Ernst Cassierer (kah-SEER-ur), Rudolf Otto, and (through his theory of hierophanies, or breakthrough of the sacred into the profane world) Mircea Eliade.

Having posted this list, I shall have to post as well, at some point, a list of cognitive biases that incline people toward the currently fashionable dogmatic reductionist scientism. The following passage from Nietzsche is often referred to by believers, in our time, as the originary blasphemy of the Modern Era, but it was not. If those offended by the passage were to attend to it more closely, they would recognize it as warning about the consequences of a barbarous, superficial irreligiosity.

Nietzsche-munchTHE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

–Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.  Pp.181-82. Originally published 1882.

Postscript | Bob Shepherd

Sculpture_at_the_St._Louis_Art_Museum,_Sunday,_November_24,_2012Herodotus tells this story: During the reign of Tiberius, a certain Thamus, sailing for Italy by way of the island of Paxi, heard, as he approached the island, a wailing from across the salt water. As he drew near, a voice called out to him, saying, “Thamus, when you arrive at Palodes, tell the people there the grievous news: The Great God Pan is dead.”

I can tell you, though, that this story is most certainly a fabrication, for I ran into Pan a couple years ago at Burning Man, and though he looked somewhat the worse for wear, like many another aging hippie, he moved with a quick, animal power, so that it took some doing for me to keep up with him as we talked. I can still see him clearly, in my mind’s eye, dreadlocked, shirtless, skin like armadillo hide, eyes set deep into a storied face, a necklace of simple white shells falling over his chest, and besides that necklace, but a pair of Indian white linen pants and tiny horns (post molt) protruding on either side of his high, broad forehead.

He said, “Yes, one would think I was dead. My former domain and dominion of woodlands is reduced, now, to 2 percent of its former reach. Two percent! Your species has no respect for its elders, those ancient trees that were building communities when your kind was barely standing upright on the savannah. Fish float belly up in once clear running streams. Red tides and jellyfish bloom along the margins of the seas. And the very mountaintops, blasted away, look like the ruins of old Stonehenge or of the Cathar castle of Puilurens. Ah, the Cathars. I loved the Cathars.

“But let me let you in on a secret. Every mother invests in all her children, but it is impossible for her not to favor some in some ways and others in others, and I think that the Mother always loved you (and the field mice—they are so gentle) best. Something about your quick intelligence, your alertness, the fire in your bellies, your yearning, quickened her in an almost incestuous bond. And she has shown this, hasn’t she, in her bounty toward you?

Now, you have made a mess of things, surely, but though you have, as teenagers do, forgotten us—the old gods—we have not forgotten you. We still have faith though you have none. We know that the dark blood of the mother flows in your veins, that you are body of her body, mind of her mind. You will grow beyond this disastrous, heedless, awkward phase and into a profound adulthood tending, as all things do, toward divinity. This has happened many times, on many worlds of which you know nothing. Fortunately for us all, the Mother is stronger, more resilient than you can possibly imagine.

She is furious, of course. She will discipline you before this is through. But her love is as long, long-lasting as is the passing cloud before the moon or a wave of the sea, turning, returning, world without end (as it seems to those with your sort of vantage).

In you, as elsewhere, something profoundly beautiful is to be born. This is a phase transition. Surely you can feel it, like a pot of water on the stove just before it starts boiling. Don’t be so glum. Dance.”

And then he was gone. I glimpsed him again, though, later that night, out on the playa, playing his flute and dancing the rasa lila with a bunch of hippie gopis.

Photo of Pan by Amy Bautz,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

All materials on this page copyright 2014, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. These materials may be freely distributed if this notice is retained on all copies.


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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6 Responses to Theories of the Origins of Religion

  1. Ms. Bakhmutsky says:

    I had asked my friend to post this story in the comments for your article “The Origins Of Religion”. My computer is misbehaving, and refuses to do what I ask of it. Thank God for creation of friendship and humans for practicing it.
    The core of the story is, possibly, based on tales of Baal Shem Tov. The re-telling of it and all of the nuances are mine.

    Long time ago, before the story was given many interpretations, I heard it from the stranger, who was passing our town on the way to the big city where our king lived. He was hoping to get a job at the court as a story teller. His claim to the position was strange – “when I tell my story, it will be believed.” I never heard anyone saying this with such conviction.
    ” Is it because u are telling the truth?”, I asked him. “I don’t known the truth”, he told me, “all I know is this story”. “Then, why do u think it will be believed?”, puzzled, I looked at him. He shook his head, gazing over my head at the distance. He opened his mouth to as if speak, closed it, sighed, and after awhile spoke in his low clear voice – ” I heard it first from my father, who heard from his grandfather, who heard it from the stranger like me. I don’t know why it was believed, I don’t know why I had to leave my town and tell it anyone who would listen to me. I don’t even know the significance of the story, all I know is the feeling of it and the need for it to be told”.
    The man was old, tired from his journey. It took him years to get where he was standing now. He was not at all like the young musicians who came to our town recently. There was nothing bright or fast in his movements. His face was wrinkled, his clothes were simple. Nothing sparkled around him. He was just a man.
    It was getting late. Most families finished their dinners. Children were in bed. Local drunks finally settled sleeping off their drinks. It was time for me to go, but I was fascinated by the man’s quiet strength and his unwavering belief in the truth of his story. I asked him to come with me to my house.
    We shared a drink. After the silence settled around us, he began: “Ages ago – no-one remembers when – a man came to the market place. It was an early morning. A long day of work was ahead of him. Accustomed to it, with an ease of a habit he placed his wares on the table, and was just about to begin his business.
    Suddenly he heard a commotion. Not far from his stall a man was singing. So much power, beauty and love was in the singers voice, the man could not stop himself. He had to see for himself the miracle that just touched his heart.
    The melody reminded him of every feeling he’d ever felt, of his youth, his dreams, of his deepest yearning he couldn’t name. The words spoke of his thoughts, unformed ideas, the questions he did not know how to ask. They were words of hope, of promises. He felt that for a moment his burdens were lifted, he was free to fly, to drift through the sky and see his world, his life as he has never seen it before.
    He could understand the language of the birds, the animals below him, the whisper of grass, the untold stories of every being. For the first time he was at peace with himself, and for a moment, he closed his eyes.
    When he awoke, it was late evening. He thought he slept, but his business was done, the days earning in his pocked, the leftover wares packed, and the horse ready to get on the road. His memory of the singer was so clear, he refused to believe that it was just a dream.
    All the home he sang the song that he heard. He remembered the presence of the singer, every word of the song. He even had a good ear for music, but nothing was the same.. the animals did not speak, the everyday concerns kept him down, and the emptiness nothing could fill began to form inside him. He knew with certainty, he must go to find the singer.
    He searched far and wide.
    As the years went by he forgot what he saw when he glimpsed at the singer, though the words and the music were still clear in his mind. He was still strong. He believed that nothing would stop him from reaching his goal.
    More time has passed. He started forgetting the words. He tried so hard, but no words of his own could take the place of the ones he was losing. He did not despair. His body was still filled with melody. So on and on he went with his search.
    The counted years and the uncounted time kept flowing through his life. One morning he woke up and could not recall the melody. He felt tired and old. He returned home and told his story to his grandchildren’s children. His majestic tale found fertile soil, and the roots of the story imbedded deep in their hearts.
    They went looking. They did not know the words or the melody, they did not know who the singer was. The story was passed on to their children. As the time went by, they too, kept on forgetting more and more. At the end they forgot everything.
    All they had to tell their children – that once they heard something. They could not remember when or who told them. They did not remember what it was all about, or why it was so important. The hunger, the need for the search was there, but they did not know why. Most of them could not comprehend the strength of that desire and stopped searching. Some went on, telling and retelling the story of their search”.
    The man fell silent. I believed him. I too, once went on that journey, looking for something that sang inside of me without clear words or melody. I, too, did not know “who” or “what” or “where” or “how”. I knew that I must continue my search for something, somewhere, somehow; and for the lack of better words I called it “The Meaning”.
    I did not need any proof, I believed him. As his story unfolded I felt connected to him, to all the people he talked about, to the memories of my youth and the youth of my world. I knew that I will not be alone, ever again. He gave me hope. I believed him, though he was just a man”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alan says:

    Are you familiar with the work of Rene Girard or Eric Gans?


  3. Alan says:

    My explanation may not be thorough or perfect but I’ll give it a shot. Rene Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred and also later work, posits the idea that humans’ propensity for mimetic behavior escalates violence that can eventually threaten the cohesion of a community. In such situations and crises, humans instinctively seek a scapegoat against whom the violence is expressed. The feeling of catharsis that binds the group, united in its aggression against a common victim, is the experience of the Sacred, associated with the scapegoated victim who “saves” the community through his own destruction.

    Eric Gans has developed a field which he calls Anthropoetics. A google search will turn up his online journal that has a great deal of interesting material. Gans imagines the origin of distinctively human consciousness (and as a result language and culture), as occurring in a punctual event rather than gradually over a long time period. He calls this event the Originary Scene. He imagines a group of proto-humans surrounding a desired object, such as a game animal they have hunted. Each person reaches for the object, but sees everyone else doing the same and imagines the violence that would ensue. Thus, the gesture of appropriation becomes a gesture of signification; the first sign. The gesture “means” the object, as well as the resentment of inattainability and potential destruction. The awakening of human consciousness in this way is the experience of the Sacred. Gans’ work takes off from Girard, but Gans does not require violence to occur; it is sufficient for it to be imagined.

    I was first introduced to these ideas as an undergrad in the early ’90s by a professor mentor who was himself a student of Gans. I was studying a lot about ancient religions at the time and found these theories an interesting and useful way to examine things like sacrifice and Greek drama. Of course, the scapegoat mechanism also provides some explanation to more contemporary events, such as it’s deliberate exploitation by nazis or even education reformists (not that it is a fair comparison).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Play and the Origins of Art | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

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