The Origin of Religion
By Lachlan McInnes
Religion, in some form, has been a universal feature of all races of mankind. Socrates once stated that “if horses had gods, their gods would be horses.” There is no evidence that horses or any other form of life has deities other than humans. Atheism and agnosticism are mainly the products of modern times in which old concepts and new discoveries are in conflict. The result is that older, traditional forms of religion are being revised, especially is this so in modern forms of Christianity.
Throughout all history there has not been a group of people who have not had some form of religion belief. While all forms of belief are related to their time and place or culture of origin, one may well ask why this is so. It has been suggested even that there is an area of the brain which may be labelled ‘religious or spiritual’. How, in the course of human evolution did this come about? Several theories as to the origin of religious belief have been proposed, notably by the following three:
Sir James Fraser (1854-1941) author of The Golden Bough, suggested that the origin was in magic. Certain things, activities or incantations may have preceded desired results and these became common usage, even if their effectiveness was not always apparent. We may still have lucky charms and superstitions.
Sir Edward Tyler (1832-1917) in his book Primitive Culture, invented the word ‘animism’, believing that primitive people felt that some form of spirit or some personal power lay within natural objects. Hence these became sacred to the group. The Australian aborigines have a form of this in their ‘dreamtime’, but it is almost universal among unsophisticated tribes.
The German philosopher theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1917), in his book The Idea of the Holy, claimed that the origin of religion was in the ‘numinous’. The word came from Latin, meaning power, will, divinity or mystery. He stated that the sense of ‘otherness’ toward the world around and the mystery of it all was the foundation of religious belief. It produced a sense of awe, leading to religion. At first this was polytheistic, then, with the Hebrews, monotheistic.
There came to be certain objects that were ‘holy’ and which could not be touched by ordinary people. Taboos developed as did a class of men who had special power to minister to these sacred objects. This led to formation of a priestly group with special privileges and powers and the community came to worship the sacred objects.
It may be that the theories of Fraser, Tyler and Otto each have played some part in the development of religious beliefs and practices. All were linked to their time and particular culture but, having been established, continue on. All came to set standards of behaviour within their group. Most standards were tribal or racial in the beginning and were in opposition to other tribes who had different belief systems and different deities. The natural aggressiveness of humanity played its part in this. Conflict between groups was seen as conflict between their respective deities on the basis that “my gods are better than yours”.
Forms of religious belief continue to arise even in the present. Some are the result of circumstances such as the various post-war religions of Japan when the old Shinto deities had failed them and had not led them to the victory they sought. New belief systems may also come through some psychotic individual who claims to have a divine message, usually, of an apocalyptic nature, and is able to gather a group of followers.
While all this may be so, let us not lose the sense of wonder at the mystery by which we are surrounded and which may lead us to the sense of inner spiritual power.