The Origins of Religion Part 4: Social Order and Stability

The need for social order and stability became an urgent and novel problem for large groups of people after the invention of agriculture. Prior to the invention of agriculture, people lived in bands numbering a few dozen up to no more than a few hundred people, where everybody knew everybody else and decisions could be made collectively as a group. Once agriculture provided for surplus food production bands could increase in size from dozens of people to tens or hundreds of thousands of people. This was the most critical move that humanity has ever undertaken – removing us from our hunter-gather environment which human and prehuman ancestors evolved in for hundreds of thousands of years to placing us in large city-state environments with larger populations, divisions of labor, and everything else that came along with an agricultural society. Once of the most pressing problems then, was how to get people to cooperate with each other; in other words how not to steal possessions and women from people you didn’t know and were never going to see again and not to fight and kill those same people. Religion appears to have provided the earliest solution to this problem by coding for behaviors that their gods either pTen Commandmentspunished or rewarded.

The patterns of ancient religions are illuminating. While the god and mythologies are largely random and a product of cultural drift, the practical themes to the functioning of society are more consistent – themes such as obeying the religion, not stealing, and not killing member of one’s own religion. Nearly all ancient religions codified these teachings in one way or another as most are familiar with the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity.

Another way that religion provided social stability is that it worked to reduce anxiety and provided people with comfort in the face of uncertainty. For instance, starvation was serious concern at the dawn of agriculture when crop yields depended on the weather. A hurricane could wipe out most of the crops or a drought could kill most of the crops. When people have done everything in their control, the next step is to turn to religion – to resort to rituals, prayers, sacrifices to the gods, reading and interpreting omens, and so on. Although these actions are scientifically worthless, they at least gave people who knew nothing about science the feeling that they were in charge, in control, and made them feel less anxious and more comfortable about their futures. This function of providing comfort also applied to death, in providing an explanation for death, hope in the form of a pleasant afterlife, or a sense of justice that people who have wronged you in this life will be punished in their afterlife.

The origins of religion are quite different from the modern, institutionalized religion of today.  Putting all of these components and functions together in order to understand the benefits of religion will be the subject of the last part of this series.


Further reading: The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond; The Evolution of God by Robert Wright


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