20 Theories on the Origin of Religion
Religion is a species-specific human universal phenomenon, complex, full of paradoxes, and found in all cultures. Social scientists and anthropologists since the late 17th century have attempted to rationally answer questions about religion, and while we can't evaluate the veracity of religion’s claims, we can attempt to understand its functions.
The methods of comparative religion, comparative mythology, with interdisciplinary analysis throughout the fields of ethnography, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and linguistics have made a lot of progress in the last 100 years, with a boom of database-driven analysis in the last decade.
There are a number of theories attempting to explain the mystery of religion’s origin, purpose, functions and spread, from ancestor and soul worship, animism, totemism, spirit propitiation, magic theory, cultural memes, agrarian overseer gods, fear and worship of spirits, evolved adaption, or by-product of evolved adaption, and as a control mechanism.
There are multiple definitions and criterion of religion, most dealing with the supernatural, the unknown, the ineffable, the numinous, that terrific agency of the gods, or the comfort of ancestors and hero archetypes.
Let's examine some of these meta-theories of religion’s origins to see what we can sort out.
20 Theories on the Origin of Religion:
Religion as Law revealed by God
I would be remiss to not recognize that large swaths of the population believe their religion is law directly revealed from god to his ecstatic prophets, who they follow the claims of. There is not much anthropological evidence of this, and we don’t have anything of note in the archaeological record which intimates the real historical existence of many of religion’s prophets, demigods, and heroes.
Luckily for us our anthropological and sociological examination of religion doesn’t require us to prove negatives or base our observations on religious verisimilitude. 2.
Religion as Control Mechanism
A theme we will see in a lot of these religious theories is the presupposition that religion is a quest for meaning, direction, reasons, purpose, or control (Lamb 2012:6). We see religion as a focus on the divine and the hereafter, with a need for guidance and organization (Lamb 2012:8). We are seeking an authoritative source, and have invented one if it didn’t already exist.
Religion finds function in attempts to explain origins or the undergirding structure of reality. Some feel that life is meaningless without the values and morals imparted by their doctrine, and yearn for consolation for their misfortunes, pains, and losses (Lamb 2012:6).
Through the rites of religion, which vary from rites of magic in that they deal with adhering to law instead of directing supernatural agents, we see nascent humanity using religion as system of exchange, trading “goods and goodness now for goods and happiness now and later (Lamb 2012:5).”
The control usually comes from the priest-caste, those who are perceived to be the messengers or intermediary of the high-god(s), who use compensators (deferred gifts for acting in-line with their dogma), rituals, and magic to work with and even compel the supernatural towards social solidarity, identity, and cohesion (Lamb 2012:7).
Unsanctioned rites of magick, or witchcraft, can be used as social control too, in that identifying someone as a witch marked them as “evil”, and criminalized the practice of their old-earth religion (2).
Later on we will explore how supernatural agency worked as a constabulary force for human society, especially as relating to agrarian and pastoral cultures. For now let’s explore the fundamental aspects of spirituality and its progression to orthodox, and usually authoritarian, religion. 3.
Religion as Belief in Spiritual Beings
Over a hundred years ago Charles Henning was examining religion with...
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