Origin of religion

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The historical origins of religion are to be distinguished from their psychological or social origins.[1] The first religious behaviour appearing in the course of human evolution is probably relatively recent (Middle Paleolithic) and constitutes an aspect of behavioral modernity most likely coupled with the appearance of language.

The further development of religion spans Neolithic religion and the beginning of religious history with the first documented religions of the Ancient Near East (the polytheistic cults of Egypt and Mesopotamia).

Hominid behavior[edit]

Further information: Chimpanzee spirituality and Sociobiology

Scenarios employing primatological evidence for the evolutionary development of religion are somewhat controversial.[2]

Citing a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realization of "self", and a concept of continuity, anthropologist Barbara King suggests that humanity’s closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, exhibit traits that would have been necessary for the evolution of religion in human beings.[3][4][5]

Primatologist Dr. Frans de Waal recognizes primate sociality, which he describes as the nonhuman primate behaviors of empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking, as a precursor of human morality. Arguing that human morality has two additional levels of sophistication with respect to primate sociality, he suggests only a distant connection between primate sociality and the human practice of religion. To de Waal, religion is a special ingredient of human societies that emerged thousands of years after morality. Commenting for an article in the New York Times he said, “I look at religions as recent additions [whose] function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them.” [6]

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.[7]

Paleolithic religion[edit]

Further information: Paleolithic religion

Evidence of religious behaviour in pre-Homo sapiens early humans is inconclusive. Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a "concern for the dead that transcends daily life."[8] Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead. Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons.[9] Likewise a number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies such as Neanderthal societies may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship in addition to their (presumably religious) burial of the dead. Emil Bächler in particular suggests (based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves) that a widespread Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal bear cult existed.

The evolution of religion is closely connected with the evolution of the mind and behavioral modernity.[10] Evidence for paleolithic burials is often taken as the earliest expression of religious or mythological thought involving an afterlife. Such practice is not restricted to Homo sapiens, but also found among Homo neanderthalensis as least as early as 130,000 years ago. The emergence of religious behaviour is consequently dated to before separation of early Homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of symbolic ritual activity besides burials may be a site in South Africa dated to 70,000 years ago.[11]


Though religious behaviour varies widely between the world's cultures, in its widest sense religion is a cultural universal found in all human populations. Common elements include:

Psychology of religion[edit]

Evolutionary psychology is based on the hypothesis that, just like hearts, lungs and immune systems, cognition has functional structure that has a genetic basis, and therefore evolved by natural selection. Like organs, this functional structure should be universally shared and should solve important problems of survival. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve.

Psychological processes[edit]

The cognitive psychology of religion is a new field of inquiry which attempts to account for the psychological processes that underlie religious thought and practice. In his book Religion Explained, Pascal Boyer asserts there is no simple explanation for religious consciousness. Boyer is concerned with the various psychological processes involved in ideas concerning the gods. Boyer builds on the ideas of cognitive anthropologists Dan Sperber and Scott Atran, who first argued that religious cognition represents a by-product of various evolutionary adaptations, including folk psychology, and purposeful human constructs about the world (for example, bodiless beings with thoughts and emotions) that make religious cognitions striking and memorable.

Cognitive studies[edit]

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. Stephen Jay 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.[12][13][14] 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 events (aitiology), 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.[15]

For Steven Pinker the universal propensity toward religious belief is a genuine scientific puzzle. He thinks that adaptationist explanations for religion do not meet the criteria for adaptations, and that religious psychology is indeed a by-product of many parts of the mind that evolved because they aided survival in other ways.


Further information: God gene

Some scholars have suggested that religion is genetically "hardwired" into the human condition. One controversial hypothesis, the God gene hypothesis, states that some human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to episodes interpreted as religious revelation. One gene claimed to be of this nature is VMAT2.

Language and religion[edit]

A number of scholars have suggested that the evolution of language was a prerequisite for the origin of religion.[16] Philip Lieberman states "[h]uman religious thought and moral sense clearly rest on a cognitive-linguistic base," and that the presence of burial and grave artifacts indicate that early humans had distinctive cognitive abilities different from chimpanzees.[8] From this, science writer Nicholas Wade concludes that religious behavior was present in human populations preceding the out of Africa migration some 60,000 years ago.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pals, Daniel L. 1996. Seven Theories of Religion. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508725-9, page 271
  2. ^ Matthew Rutherford. The Evolution of Morality. University of Glasgow. 2007. Retrieved June 6, 2008
  3. ^ Gods and Gorillas
  4. ^ King, Barbara (2007). Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Doubleday Publishing." ISBN 0385521553.
  5. ^ Excerpted from Evolving God by Barbara J. King
  6. ^ Wade, Nicholas (March 20, 2007). "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  7. ^ Rossano, Matt (2007). "Supernaturalizing Social Life: Religion and the Evolution of Human Cooperation". 
  8. ^ a b Uniquely Human. 1991. ISBN 0674921836. 
  9. ^ Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins - research of burial rituals of Neanderthals
  10. ^ "The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religious Forms". p. 14. "The interplay of religious evolution and mind reveals that even as religion and society evolve, the basic psychological functions of religion remain intact, though expressed in different modes" 
  11. ^ World’s oldest ritual discovered. Worshipped the python 70,000 years ago, apollon.uio.no, retrieved December 22, 2007 
  12. ^ A scientific exploration of how we have come to believe in God
  13. ^ Toward an evolutionary psychology of religion and personality
  14. ^ The evolutionary psychology of religion Steven Pinker
  15. ^ Atran, Scott; Norenzayan, Ara, Religion's Evolutionary Landscape 
  16. ^ a b Johansson, Sverker (2004). "Origins of language—constraints on hypotheses". Journal of Linguistics 42: 486. doi:10.1017/S002222670629409X. "A related argument is that of Barnes (1997), who postulates language as a requirement for religion, for much the same reasons as for art — religion requires the ability to reason symbolically about abstract categories. Müller (1866) proposed instead a more direct role for religion in the origin of language, with religious awe as the root of the need for speech (Gans, 1999c)." 
  17. ^ *"Wade, Nicholas - Before The Dawn, Discovering the lost history of our ancestors. Penguin Books, London, 2006. p. 8 p. 165" ISBN 1594200793


  • Churchward, Albert. (1924) The Origin and Evolution of Religion (2003 reprint: ISBN 978-1930097506).
  • Cooke, George Willis. (1920) The Social Evolution of Religion.
  • Hefner, Philip. (1993) The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • Hopkins, E. Washburn. (1923) Origin and Evolution of Religion
  • King, Barbara. (2007) Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 0385521553.
  • Lewis-Williams, David (2002) The mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0500051178
  • Mithen, Steve. (1996) The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05081-3.
  • McClenon, James (2002), Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion, Northern Illinois University Press, ISBN 0875802842  (Reviewed here by Journal of Religion & Society)
  • Parchment, S. R. (2005) "Religion And Its Effect Upon Human Evolution", in: Just Law of Compensation ISBN 1564596796.
  • Reichardt, E. Noel. (1942) Significance of Ancient Religions in Relation to Human Evolution and Brain Development
  • Wade, Nicholas. (2006) Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. The Penguin Press ISBN 1-59420-079-3.
  • Alfred North Whitehead (1926) Religion in the Making. 1974, New American Library. 1996, with introduction by Judith A. Jones, Fordham Univ. Press.
  • Wolpert, Lewis. (2007) Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. New York:W.W. Norton.

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