The Origins of Religion Part 5: The Benefits of Early Religion

We’ve seen that religion provided many beneficial functions for prescientific peoples such as providing a completed – even if inaccurate – a sense of cause and effect for phenomena they did not and at the time could not understand, and by providing moral and social order and stability at the dawn of human civilization. These functions were enabled and reinforced by performing rituals that supposedly evoked the powers of the supernatural.

Aside from those main functions religion also provided other supplemental benefits to our ancestors. In hunter-gatherer bands religion provided a rudimentary form of medicine, group identity, and prestige to the shamans and warriors who labored in the name of their gods. Many times religion provided legitimacy to these shamans and warrior rulers, increasing confidence from the group in their abilities and reducing strife within the group. As humans made the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to sedentary tribes, chiefdoms, and eventually city-states, religion provided an increasing role as a source of national identity for the group. The writings of the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, and many other early religious sources clearly illustrate this point.

On the level of the individual, religion allowed people to have the perception of a greater sense of control over of their lives. An adequate amount of rainfall is necessary for crops to grow, but the amount of rain in a certain area during a given time is out of people’s control. By performing rituals to their gods, people at least felt like they had a sense of control over the weather, even if they didn’t. The same was true for warfare, diseases, and other things that may have been out of people’s control. In an uncertain and incomprehensible world, this added sense of control provided comfort, hope, and reassurance in many of its beliefs, for instance the comfort gained by the belief in the afterlife.

Religion appears to have been a cultural evolutionary necessity in allowing the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to modern nation states. Unfortunately it is a persistent vestige of the dawn of civilization that now creates more problems in the modern world than the superficial benefits that it currently provides.

 

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

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