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- The Role of Religion in History & Society
What was the first religion?
The date of the first religion
All estimates for when the first religion materialized must predate 50,000 years ago, as this is when humanity dispersed from Africa to populate the remainder of the world. It is unlikely for religious practice to have emerged on each continent separately.
The first evidence of religion
A Paleolithic religion practiced in Israel approximately 100,000 years ago provides the earliest evidence of religious behavior and belief. Archaeological evidence from the Middle Paleolithic historical period (300-50 millennia B.C.) shows that adherents of this faith engaged in ritual burial of the dead.
Grave goods including the mandible of a wild boar were found on excavated skeletons at the Qafzeh site in Israel. The bones of the deceased were stained with red ochre, a pigment derived from clay. Red ochre is thought to symbolize blood in rituals performed to ensure a rebirth of the soul. The religious significance of red ochre can be confirmed by its use with Venus figurines and other artifacts in more recent burials.
While 100,000 years is our best estimate for the earliest religion, there is evidence that humans were intentionally burying their dead as far back as 300,000 years ago. However, this may have been to prevent the spread of disease or the attention of predators following an epidemic, or a clash between bands of foragers. The dead would have been disposed of in burial sites, such as caves or pits, for these preventative secular reasons.
Neanderthals may have developed their own religion at around the same time as modern humans. Neanderthals were a competing species of primate with many human characteristics. Like us, they appear to have engaged in wasteful rituals for the dead. Rather than burial, Neanderthals would deflesh the deceased to reveal the supporting skeleton. The cut marks show this to be for purposes other than cannibalism, suggesting Neanderthals had religious beliefs concerning the dead.
The Story of Gobekli Tepe
What is the oldest surviving religion?
The oldest surviving religion is Hinduism, which is a direct metamorphosis of the ancient Vedic religion that began in India around 3,500 years ago. However, another extant sect of Hinduism called Shaivism (worshipping Shiva) may be even older. Some scholars believe that a seal from the Indus Valley civilization (~4,500 years ago) depicts the goddess Shiva, although more evidence is needed. Judaism is the next oldest at around 2,600 years; however, all religions are descendants of earlier incarnations. Judaism descended from polytheistic ancient Semitic religions, which share a degree of ritual and symbolic consistency.
What was the first organized religion?
Paleolithic religion could never have become widespread without a large scale society for it to propagate within. Up until 12,000 years ago, humans lived in bands of no more than a few hundred individuals. This changed when we developed the skills to domesticate animals and grow cereal grasses. Called the Neolithic Revolution, these advances allowed humans to produce their own food without the need to relocate. Towns and cities emerged as bands of hunters came together to form the first great civilizations. Organized religion grew as political leaders discovered the benefits of claiming divine authority (e.g. the Pharaohs and the Kings of Sumer).
To our best estimation, organized religion began in southeastern Turkey at Gobekli Tepe around 12,000 years ago. Gobekli Tepe is the site of the world’s oldest religious structure; a beautiful temple that is still being unearthed today. It is a 25 acre site with 20 stone circles that are up to 100 feet in diameter. The circle walls are adorned with animal sculptures including lions, snakes, foxes, donkeys, snakes, insects and birds. In particular, vultures are prolifically illustrated, presumably because of their attraction to the dead. The structure is so big that it must have required more than 500 workers to build. However, Gobekli Tepe may slightly predate the Neolithic revolution, leaving unanswered questions about how the workforce could have been mobilized and fed.
Pilgrims to Gobekli Tepe sacrificed oxen, gazelles, deer and sheep, presumably to ensure hunting or herding success. Similar temples were found 45 km away at Nevali Cori, indicating the region was probably home to the first organized religion. Furthermore, from genetic analyses of wild wheat, it is believed that this civilization was the first to master agriculture; the trigger for the Neolithic revolution.
With the invention of writing in ancient Sumer (modern Iraq) 5,000 years ago, religion found a new way to be transmitted between individuals. The mythologies of Sumerian and Egyptian societies became widespread through works such as the Legend of Etana, the Pyramid Texts, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
How did religion begin?
If mankind had been evolving for millions of years, why did it suddenly produce religion 100,000 years ago? There are a number of psychological reasons why people are drawn to supernatural concepts, but these are unlikely to have evolved so recently. The trigger for the development of religion may be found in evolutionary ecology, or the changing relationship of mankind with its environment.
The defining feature of religious behavior is a time-consuming attention to activity that is unrelated to one’s immediate survival or well-being. When modern humans began staining the bones of their ancestors with red ochre, performing ritual sacrifices, and burying their relatives with prized possessions, they were wasting time and resources that could have been spent gathering food or resting. This behavior could only have arisen if the environment was no longer challenging enough to warrant complete attention to survival.
Over the course of human history, mankind has steadily mastered its environment. We have risen to the top of the food chain through our increasing brain size, the collective security of living in tribes, and the development of tools and agriculture. Each new advantage reduced the ways in which our environment could threaten our survival. It is probable that the level of external threat reached a threshold 100,000 years ago, triggering the first examples of enduring religious belief and practice.
Religion may have been available to us for millions of years, but it would have been unsuccessful before 100,000 years ago. The unlucky trailblazers would have been wiped out because they allocated too much time to fruitless spiritual activity in an unforgiving world.
The imagery at Gobekli Tepe, which principally concerns predatory animals such as lions, snakes and vultures, supports the theory. The imagery suggests a preoccupation with threatening creatures, and perhaps a desire to placate the ravenous nature of these animals with ritual sacrifice. Indeed, the religion of the Ancient Egyptians shared a focus on dangerous animals such as crocodiles, lions, and serpents.
Religion is only useful when comfort is needed.
Why is religion dying?
One must ask why humanity should waste its time on religion at all. As the first religious beliefs concerned the preparation of the dead for an afterlife realm, we can deduce that these beliefs gave comforting assurances about the unknown state of existence that follows death. This would have served to reduce existential anxiety, giving a sense of control and a reduced fear of threatening situations.
While a reduced fear of death can be detrimental, it can also provide the necessary bravery to prevail in conflicts with neighboring tribes or predatory species. To fight bravely for one’s god is to be rewarded in the afterlife. This may have been the initial function of religion once ecological conditions allowed resources to be diverted into spiritual endeavors.
It would have taken several thousand years for religion to disseminate through the people's of the Earth. The Neolithic revolution and the advent of writing would have introduced new social and political catalysts to its spread. However, as humanity continued to evolve, the threat posed by our environment decreased, leading to a reduction in the anxiety associated with that threat. Thus, the comforts of religion became increasingly irrelevant. Indeed, the atheistic tendencies of European populations and the growing population of atheists in North America support this perspective.
The study of religion combines anthropological, archaeological, and psychological research to unearth one of the most intriguing facets of the human condition. Whether we are pious believers or adamant atheists, the wide array of cultural intricacies that define the religions of the world captivate the curiosity of all. When emotions and vendettas are pushed aside, perhaps we'll begin to realize that to understand religion is to understand a large part of what makes us human.