A practically universal phenomenon with an ancient beginning. How did religions appear?
Throughout history, faith and religion have been an important part of society, worrying about offering an explanation to the unknown. Today Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are the five major religions, although there are many other religious professions.
And many more have appeared and disappeared in time. But the different religions have not emerged from nowhere, but at some point in history the human being began to have and structure these types of beliefs. In this article we are going to try to make a brief reflection regarding the possible origins of religious faith.
What is religion?
We understand by religion any organized and structured set of beliefs, of a generally mystical and spiritual nature that allow human beings to seek and elaborate an explanation of the world and reality and that is expressed in rituals.
Religion offers an explanation of the world and a framework of interpretation of reality based on faith, often using numerous symbolisms to try to make its precepts understandable. They generally include, in addition to this, a series of norms or precepts that allow to govern behavior and facilitate the creation and maintenance of a community.
They are usually linked or make use of supernatural elements and facts that cannot be explained from the empirical knowledge of the moment. It is also common for them to try to explain complex phenomena, such as the reason for our existence and our appearance in the world, and one of the common themes to almost all of them is the concern about what happens at the moment and after we die. Faith is generally self-supporting, resistant to alteration and falsification.
Some religions also have the notion of the existence of deities, be it one (monotheistic religion) or multiple (polytheistic religion), although not all religions consider the existence of a superior being capable of ruling us or with the capacity to influence our luck or destination.
Religion throughout evolution
It is difficult to determine at what point in human evolution religious beliefs began to emerge, and it is not possible for the moment to determine when the first organized religions emerged since the origin dates back to prehistory (there being no written records about it).
What we can determine is that there are strong indications that make it clear that religion predates even Homo Sapiens, being the first religious beliefs prior to the expansion of our species.
Specifically, we know that our Neanderthal relatives already carried out ritual burials, something that reveals the existence of a sense of death and a concern about what happens after it. Likewise, in the remains of settlements of some tribes or clans, some kind of cult of some animals, such as bears, seems to be observed.
Evolution of the psyche
Another aspect to highlight is the consideration of what enables the emergence of religious thought. In this sense, it is necessary to have a series of basic mental capacities: the capacity for abstraction is necessary, the existence of a theory of mind (which allows the subject to realize that others have their own perspective and objectives and wills separate from their own. ), the detection of causal agents and the ability to make complex associations.
It is considered that faith may have arisen either as an advantageous adaptation that has remained by natural selection (since it allows group creation and cohesion, facilitating survival and reproduction) or as a by-product of the appearance of cognitive abilities such as the above .
The first type of religious belief
Another aspect to value is the fact that religions often include different types of beliefs, surely some types of beliefs arise before others.
In this sense , different hunter-gatherer societies and the different types of beliefs they possess have been analyzed, an example of this being the one carried out in 2016 by Peoples, Duda and Marlowe in which animism, belief in gods, belief in the other were valued. life, ancestor worship and shamanism.
The results of the study show that animism, the belief in the existence of a vital force or soul in all animals, plants or even geological accidents and natural phenomena, possessing a will of their own, is the most widespread type of religious belief. and ancient. This type of belief serves as the basis for the further development of belief in the supernatural or mystical.
Right after it is the belief in the afterlife or life after death, which is considered one of the most common and ancient aspects of religions. For this, the concept of the soul or of something that exists beyond death is necessary, precisely since it is necessary that animism has existed previously.
After that, the idea of someone expert who generates norms that allow access or contact with the afterlife can be developed. From there the shaman would emerge, and later the clerical institution. This would become an expert in the communication and management of the religious fact. Belief in ancestor worship may also arise.
Finally, the belief in gods is something that can be derived from the belief in higher entities that can look at us and affect our lives, but that seems to arise from a reflection of the way a society or tribe is organized.
- Peoples, HC, Duda, P. & Marlowe, FW (2016). Hunther-Gatherers and the origins of religion. Hum. Nat., 27 (3): 261-282.
- Atran, S. & Norenzayan, A. (2003). Religion’s evolutionary landscape: counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.