The origins of religion as a whole, like many concepts about humanities early days, are hard to trace to a single point in time. Humankind as a whole has had a continual preoccupation with the origins of our own existence and the creatures living amongst us. Many scholars of art history believe cave paintings are rooted in the earliest forms of religious ceremonies and festivals. Inevitable there are a number of questions prompting many individuals to search for the origins of religion.
Anthony Campbell voices many of our thoughts in two simple questions, “why do people in almost all societies seem to believe in the existence of invisible supernatural beings who may influence human life for good or ill and whom it is advisable to pray to or propitiate? And why have almost all societies developed rituals, sometimes very elaborate and demanding in nature, in connection with such beliefs?”. (Campbell, n.d.) Regardless of the question asked a considerable amount of ink has been used to explore the many possibilities and to date there is no general consensus as to why we feel the need to worship the unknown.
The origin of religion, as we think of religion, can be traced to the ancient Near East. Even though Hinduism is the oldest written and continually practiced religion it is believed to have been brought to India by a nomadic people of the Vedic civilization or Aryans (not to be confused with Hilter’s Aryan nation of the 1930’s) possibly more than 8,000 years ago. (Chandler, n.d., p. 5) The early Vedic religious practices have similar aspects seen in the religious practices of many other cultures. For instance, the “practice of performing sacrificial rites” is seen in Greece with the “sacrificial offerings of a bull to the gods” and also in the Old Testament “there are many descriptions of burnt offerings of animals to the gods”. (Chandler, nd, p. 27) The before mentioned findings are evidences that these rituals are rooted in ancient Vedic origins.
For clarification purposes, we must discuss the three classification categories of religion: polytheistic, pantheistic and monotheistic, which all date to ancient times. Polytheism is the belief in many gods who control natural events, such as rain, lightening, harvests, or fertility. While pantheism is the belief in the idea that god is in everything, and everything is god. In pantheism mankind is no different than any other animal. The last religious category is monotheism, or the belief in one God. A quick side note about atheism, which is the disbelief or denial of the existence of a God or gods. Atheism is a modern belief system resulting from the writing of Thomas Pain called “The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology” and carried into what is known as the Enlightenment period.
Of course, Vedic traditions are little known today outside of India and the Indian culture. When most people think of religion and religious practices they are referring to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. All three of these religions have beginning origins with one man named Abraham roughly around 2000 BCE.
The important characteristic of each of the three well-known religions today is how each religion shaped the people and culture that practice its belief system. For the most part, each belief system has long been considered a means of controlling the population. According to McCullough and Willoughby:
“Religion is a potent social force. History testifies to religion’s ability to focus and coordinate human effort, to create awe and terror, to foster war and peace, to unify social groups, and to galvanize them against each other. In addition to religion’s social power, however, religion is a psychological force that can influence the outcomes of individual human lives. Indeed, the range of health-related, behavioral, and social outcomes with which religiousness is associated is both provocative and puzzling.” (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009, p. 69)
Also, at the heart of any religion is a narrative. The collection of “stories” within any given religious text is where the “power” of the religion lays. According to Campbell, the “reason why religions have such a strong hold on human societies is that they are based not primarily on intellectual beliefs but on narratives.” (Campbell, n.d.) The narrative of a story captures the emotions of an individual not the intellect. Since before recorded history our species has been a people of a story-telling nature, we revel in the thrills of being captivated and transferred to another place and time. Some of the earliest literature, such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh) were narrative stories past down from generation to generation. It is no wonder why we are still so captivated and sometimes even moved by good religious stories.
As time has progressed and cultural needs (necessities to survive) change, so has religion. The ways in which religion has transformed over the last 8,000 years is very similar to how language changed to meet the needs of the culture using the language. Religion has undergone an evolutionary process taking on many different forms when the culture demands it to do so. Humankind has continuously simplified religious ideology to fit the day and age it occupies. In many ways “we” have streamlined religion to be more efficient for our needs. However, sometimes these simplifications can cause miscommunications to occur between different cultural groups, even if the roots of the religions are similar.
Campbell, A. (n.d.). The origin of religion. Retrieved from http://www.acampbell.org.uk/essays/skeptic/narrative.html.
Chandler, K. (n.d.). Origins of vedic civilization .
McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69-93.