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Why do we have religion?

Updated on June 21, 2012
Symbols of the Major Faiths
Symbols of the Major Faiths | Source


If you've studied ancient cultures, then you know that every one of them practiced some sort of religious activity, even those predating recorded history, we can assume. Now, there are plenty of cultures who left no known records of anything they did, ever. But it is not reckless to assume that they possessed many of the same characteristics of the cultures before and after them. One could point out a modern country today, Sweden, for instance, for its unique absence of faith. They are, however, indeed unique.

So why, when we look at man's past and present, and foreseeable future, do we see so many religions? It is obviously in our nature to attempt to assign cause to the events we see take place. We see purpose where there is none, look for answers when something we cannot explain happens. It is intrinsic. When early societies experienced storms, they did not know that it was a combination of winds and a sensation of water going up to the sky and then falling due to its weight, called rain. They thought there was a magic creator who brought these things specifically to that one group of people. They established rules and laws in accordance to their beliefs. (Sometimes for power and control of the masses, but this not the topic of this writing.)

Cover of Dawkins' Book
Cover of Dawkins' Book | Source

Here's a hypothetical

So, why aren't we born skeptical and with a thirst for knowledge of things outside our own realms of existence? Let's look at a situation borrowed from Richard Dawkins' genius book, The God Delusion. A boy grows up in a tribe in Africa where the elders rule the tribe and their religion rules them all. Growing up, the boy is taught basic, useful things that he needs in order to be successful making it past childhood. Such advice includes to stay out of the crocodile-infested river, how to take care of the agriculture, and to slaughter a goat once a month in order to bring rain by appeasing their creator. Now, why would the boy ever doubt their elders and parents when they receive such advice? To set up an imaginary scenario:

Elder: Never swim in the river across the field, as many crocodiles inhabit the area.

Boy: Oh, seems logical enough. After all, I could be eaten.

Elder: Provide water to all your food so they can grow and you can help feed the village.

Boy: Right, the plants probably need water for nourishment, like all living things.

Elder: Once a month, you must sacrifice one goat on this altar to please God so he will grant us rain.

Boy: Ok... uhh, wait. How would killing a goat bring the village rain? And why would God need a goat sacrifice? What is the reason for that? Also, how do you know such things? Did God tell you this? I'm a bit skeptical about this whole thing....


See? It does not seem likely that such an encounter would ever take place. It is all, as stated in Dawkins' book, about how children are born with the brain that is fit for sculpting. They will, naturally, take anything that their parents, or other authority figures, say without any consideration or doubt. If you give men a dozen healthy newborn babies and a patch of land isolated from society, they could raise them to believe in any god, any religion, any superstition imaginable. You could tell them that there are neighboring tribes that are their enemies then train them for war. Such is the reason that religion is still around and has prevailed so well in spite of many scientific advances that have eliminated many of the reasons for religion in the first place.

In order to put it in another light, think of why moths fly into the flame of a candle. (Credit to be given, yet again, to Richard Dawkins who introduced this to me through his writing.) Moth's naturally use the moon's light in order to navigate through the air in the night. Their eyes are specifically evolved to do this, so why do they fly directly in candles or bug lamps? Moth evolution has granted them this advantage in the night, yet flying into a flame is a misfiring of this evolutionary skill. That is to say, a trait that has prevailed in moths that normally assisted their survival, in this case, has harmed them. Comparably, the evolutionary trait of children being dependent on and obedient to their parents. We, as K-selected organisms, need care into adulthood and, as intelligent organisms, we are smart enough to question such effects but often dumb enough to assign them false causes. Check out my next Hub for more on that.


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    • Nathan Orf profile image

      Nathan Orf 5 years ago

      Steve, if I may just add my own contribution here, as well as a few thoughts...

      I think you answer the question of why we have religion pretty well in your discussion of the Richard Dawkin's example. As a relatively religious person myself, I can say with some confidence that pastors and priests can fill up the role of "elder" fairly well. (That is, "I said it, so it must be true").

      But religion is also about community, and I think, it has more to do with community than with power over the masses, as some have suggested. The fictional Tribe you gave as an example is a community, first and foremost. It grew out of a human desire to be around other humans, and, as the people of the Tribe began to form a society with established rules, their religious beliefs also became more complex. I hold that having a faith is one thing, but that is not a religion until it becomes a visible part of the community one lives in.

      As for myself, I believe in God, or the concept thereof, even if I do not buy into the idea that He is an old, bearded white guy watching us in silent omnipotence. To explain further, I believe mostly what my eyes tell me I'm seeing. I understand some of the scientific concepts, like the Big Bang, evolution and climate change, and I know that they are all undisputed fact among reasonable people. But if you go back far enough, it becomes impossible to explain our existence.

      Yes, the Big Bang happened. But WHY did it happen, and WHAT caused it? As you have said, those are not questions that can really be answered using science. I can answer it using God.

    • profile image

      John Berthold 5 years ago

      No one is answering the question. It is WHY do we have religion. Religion is an emergent behavior that best satisfies the large complex of genetically driven human survival strategies. One of the strongest is the genetic program that demands us to stay alive, but we are aware that no matter what, we will someday die. To assuage this terrifying knowledge we create an eternal afterlife.

      We evolved to live in tribal groups that range in size from around 20 to around 150 individuals that perform expected behaviors, that help and protect each other. In our massive societies today, this tribalism is retained in the clubs, churches and organizations which we join.

      We also evolved wanting a leader, a person who is in control of the fearful randomness that nature imposes on us. Who better than a god to make us feel safe and secure.

      It is of course much more complex than this, but in essence is why we have religion.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 6 years ago

      I don't think there's any doubt that organized religion is a matter of control. As to origins of religions, Zechariah Sitchen and Neil Freer have some great writings on the subject. Freer basically says that people have "got to get over organized religion" (my paraphrase) for humans to have a future. I don't get the impression that either of these writers are atheists. In fact, I'm not sure what catagory they fall into. Voted you up.

    • cbl2988 profile image

      cbl2988 6 years ago from Mesa, Arizona


      Soft atheist is essentially agnostic atheist and hard atheist is essentially gnostic atheist, but point taken. Very good points.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      cbl2988: I guess you can be a "soft" atheist and also agnostic, but you can not be a "hard" atheist (believe that there is no god) and an atheist. Hard atheists are not agnostic.

      re: Maimonides. Well, I don't revere him myself (I don't care for his attempt to impose a Jewish dogma, something that only took hold with the Orthodox), but he did say that if there is a conflict between an interpretation of scripture and science, then the interpretation is wrong. You might consider that a "get out of jail free" card, but it's preferable to the alternative you often see among Christian and Muslim conservatives: that science must be wrong.

    • cbl2988 profile image

      cbl2988 6 years ago from Mesa, Arizona


      Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. Gnosis= knowledge, or the knowability of God. Theism= belief in God. Therefore agnosticism/gnosticism deals with knowledge while atheism/theism deals with belief. You can be an agnostic/gnostic atheist or an agnostic/agnostic theist.

      I am an agnostic atheist. I do not pretend to "know" whether or not a god exists (though I find it as unlikely as the existence of magic fairies, or the Flying Spaghetti monster). But I also choose not to believe in a God simply because there is no reliable, objective evidence and because all arguments for his existence are incomplete, have problems, and are unjustified.

      That metaphorical/allegorical stuff is just an easy get out of jail free card for the Bible. It originated from superstitious primitives (who, evidence suggests, were actually polytheistic) who literally thought those things were true. People who later on realized these problems and were not willing to let go of there faith, made these ad hoc, baseless rationalizations to get their Bible off the hook. Maimonides had to be one of the worst of these. He even did it for his own writings by saying if there were contradictions in them, it was there on purpose and that people who really understood him (people who were already taken in by him or "duped" by him) would be able to understand that there really were no contradictions. People like him made so many convenient get out of jail free cards and so it is for so many religions.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Steve - Yes, the rational point of view is to have no opinion on anything that hasn't been proven. But that's arguing for agnosticism, not atheism. Not all Jews believe in God, and it's actually not a requirement to believe in God in Judaism.

      Remember, 100 years ago, people would have scoffed if you suggested energy and matter were interchangeable. There is a lot about the nature of the universe that we don't have proof for or don't yet understand.

    • Steve Orion profile image

      Steve Orion 6 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      Well, livelonger, why bother to speculate on what is scientifically unprovable (but also un-disprovable). To have your faith be compatible with the current scientific knowledge is all well and good, but isn't it unscientific to go on making pure conjecture on the existence of some creator? In this sense, isn't reason and logic the only valid "religion," to call them such.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      ...unless those things were understood to be metaphorical. My religion (Judaism) believes most of what's in the (Hebrew) Bible is metaphorical, and science constitutes ongoing revelation. The medieval Jewish sage, Maimonides, wisely stated that if observable fact conflicts with an interpretation of scripture, the latter must be wrong and reinterpreted. I would say that's the case for all religions.

    • Steve Orion profile image

      Steve Orion 6 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      True, in fact, most provide explanation of what we may never know. Therefore, when unprovable claims are made, that can't be disproved at the same time, evolution of the religion is unnecessary. You're absolutely right in your claims, but I'd add that the fact that religions that claimed to be divinely valid need to evolve with science is absurd, as, if they weren't completely true to begin, they can be disregarded as false as a whole.

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 6 years ago from San Francisco

      I agree with Druid Dude. First, not all religions are the same. Not all religions believe in things that are easily disprovable through science. Only fundamentalist factions of Christianity and Islam (and their offshoots, like Mormonism) tend to actively believe in things that no longer have any scientific validity. Second, many religions evolve. Those that cling with desperation to bronze-age mores are doomed to die off (and most of them have...we're not stoning people anymore), while those that adapt to the moral inclinations of modern society continue to prosper. I know looking at fundie evangelicals and Muslims might give you pause, but they're on borrowed time.

    • profile image

      Justin Stalcup 6 years ago

      Get em Steve!

    • Steve Orion profile image

      Steve Orion 6 years ago from Tampa, Florida

      "Religion evolves. If it doesn't, it dies out. Nothing can stand still while everything moves around it. Religion was made for man, not man for religion."

      Wrong. Many people still believe what was believed thousands of years ago. People think the world is 6 or 4 or however many thousands of years old, when it is 4.5 billion! Religion does not, at all, evolve with facts as humanity uncovers them. I should stop due to this level of absurdity but I'll keep going in case someone thinks what you do and is eager for a response.

      "It is attached to our morals and therefore, our values." As if there were some intrinsic "morals" or "values" everyone is born with? Wrong, again. This is especially so since many religions war with each other. People kill and die for such things, and also taught from birth. No one comes to the logical conclusion after years of unbiased research in life that some religion is correct.

      "Until then, everyone is shooting in the dark...religionists and non-religionists."

      Half-right. Yes, there are things, perhaps innumerable, that we can never know as human beings. But the quest for answers is never shooting in the dark, as we have a foundation to go off from. A large amount of knowledge that we add to as the years go on.

    • Druid Dude profile image

      Druid Dude 6 years ago from West Coast

      Religion evolves. If it doesn't, it dies out. Nothing can stand still while everything moves around it. Religion was made for man, not man for religion. It is attached to our morals and therefore, our values. Religion will outlive it's usefulness, although I don't believe that time has come. The knowledge of this culture isn't absolute, nor is any of it conclusive. Things change. New discoveries are made. When no new discoveries are made, then we can arrive at a conclusion. Until then, everyone is shooting in the dark...religionists and non-religionists.