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The origins of religion: how did it appear and why?

The origins of religion: how did it appear and why?

May 1, 2024

Throughout history, faith and religion have been an important part of society, worrying to offer an explanation to the unknown. Today, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are the five major religions, although there are many other religious professions.

And many more have appeared and disappeared over time. But different religions have not emerged from nothing, but at some point in history the human being began to have and structure these types of beliefs. In this article we will try to make a brief reflection about the possible origins of religious faith.

  • Related article: "Types of religion (and their differences of beliefs and ideas)"

What is religion?

We understand by religion all organized and structured set of beliefs, of a generally mystical and spiritual nature that allow the human being to seek and elaborate an explanation of the world and reality and that is expressed in rituals.


Religion offers an explanation of the world and a framework of interpretation of reality based on faith, often using numerous symbolisms to try to make its precepts understandable. They usually include, in addition to this, a series of norms or precepts that allow to govern the behavior and facilitate the creation and maintenance of a community.

They tend to be linked or make use of supernatural elements and facts that can not be explained from the empirical knowledge of the moment. It is also common to try to explain complex phenomena, such as the reason for our existence and our appearance in the world, and one of the common themes to almost all of them is the concern of what happens at the moment and after dying. In general, faith stands on its own , being resistant to modifications and falsification.


Some religions also have the notion of the existence of deities, be it a (monotheistic religion) or multiple (polytheistic religion), although not all religions consider the existence of a superior being capable of ruling us or with the ability to influence our fate or destination.

Religion throughout evolution

It is difficult to determine at what point in human evolution religious beliefs began to emerge, and it is not possible to determine for the moment when the first organized religions arose, given that the origin goes back to prehistory (there are no written records in this regard).

What we can determine is that there are strong indications that make it clear that religion predates even Homo Sapiens, being the first religious beliefs prior to the expansion of our species.

Specifically we know that our relatives the Neanderthals were already performing ritual burials , something that shows the existence of a sense of death and a concern about what happens after it. Also in the remains of settlements of some tribes or clans seems to be observed some kind of cult to some animals, such as bears.


  • Maybe you're interested: "The 6 stages of Prehistory"

Evolution of the psyche

Another aspect to be highlighted is the consideration of what makes the emergence of religious thought possible . In this sense, it is necessary to have a series of basic mental capacities: the capacity for abstraction is necessary, the existence of a theory of the mind (which allows the subject to realize that others have their own perspective and objectives and wills separate from their own ), the detection of causal agents and the ability to make complex associations.

It is considered that faith may have arisen as an advantageous adaptation that has remained by natural selection (since it allows group creation and cohesion, facilitating survival and reproduction) or as a by-product of the appearance of cognitive abilities like the previous ones .

The first type of religious beliefs

Another aspect to value is the fact that religions often include different types of beliefs, with certain types of beliefs surely arising before others.

In this sense hunter-gatherer societies have been analyzed and the different types of beliefs that they possess, being an example of this carried out in 2016 by Peoples, Duda and Marlowe in which animism, belief in gods, belief in the afterlife, ancestor worship and shamanism were valued.

The results of the study show that animism, the belief in the existence of a vital force or soul in all animals, plants or even geological accidents and natural phenomena, possessing a will of their own, is the most widespread and ancient type of religious belief . This type of belief serves as the basis for the further development of the belief in the supernatural or the mystical.

Right after it is placed the belief in the afterlife or life after death, which is considered as one of the most common and ancient aspects of religions. For this it is necessary the concept of soul or something that exists beyond death, precisely being necessary that animism existed previously.

After that, the idea of ​​someone expert can be developed that generates norms that allow an access or a contact with the beyond. From there the shaman would emerge, and later the clerical institution . This one would become an expert in the communication and management of the religious fact. A belief in ancestor worship may also arise.

Finally, the belief in gods is something that can be derived from the belief in higher entities that can look at us and affect our lives, but that seems to arise from a reflection of the way in which a society or tribe is organized.

Bibliographic references:

  • Peoples, H.C., Duda, P. & Marlowe, F.W. (2016). Hunther-Gatherers and the origins of religion. Hum. Nat., 27 (3): 261-282.
  • Atran, S. & Norenzayan, A. (2003) .Religion's evolutionary landscape: counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The Big Story: Origins of Religion (May 2024).


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