Human’s Quest for Meaning 2: The Beginning of Religion

Homo sapiens began between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. In the Big Picture of life on Earth, of course, this is a mere blip on the screen. What’s a Millennium here and a Millennium there? Homo sapiens and our cousins, the Neanderthals, (who lived mainly in central Europe, and overlapped with us, and did not die off until around 40,000 years ago), appeared to have a notion of something “Beyond.” There is evidence that both species buried their dead in shallow graves—Neanderthals more than Homo sapiens– some of which included stone tools and weapons, perhaps suggesting belief in an afterlife. However, there is still so much not known; and despite intense efforts by archeologists, there is no consensus as to when religious thought or practice occurred among prehistoric humans prior to around 40,000 years ago. By this time the Neanderthals had thrown in the towel, and we Homo sapiens were all that was left standing. These early humans could better be described as “pre-religious,” than religious.

It was in the following period, beginning around 40,000 years ago—the “Upper Paleolithic Period” –that evidence indicates religion had started to emerge.

Most archeologists agree that the earliest forms of religion involved shamanism and animism. Shamanism  is a religious practice that involves a practitioner (a shaman) interacting with the spirit world through a trance. The goal of this is usually to direct spirits into the physical world for the purpose of healing, divination, or to aid human beings in some other way.

 Animism (as described in Wikipedia) “encompasses beliefs that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no categorical distinction between the spiritual and physical world, and that soul  and spirit   exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features (such as mountains and rivers), and other entities of the natural environment. Examples include water spirits, and tree spirits among others.” Religious cults began in those days as well, and that is when art began to flourish particularly in cave paintings.

Among tribal people today, especially in remote or isolated areas, both animism and shamanism still exist. Some ancient religious concepts were revisited in the Hippie era–the “Age of Aquarius” — and are alive today in our secular, modern world as society drifts away from traditional worship in mainline religious institutions. Many young people today refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” see merit in unorthodox views regarding religion, and shun participating in traditional religious practices.

So there you have it: The history of the planet goes back some 4.5 billion years. The history of humans on the planet goes back 3.5 million years. The only surviving human species—Homo sapiens—goes back only between 200,000 and 300,000 years, but it was not until between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago that religious beliefs and practices began to emerge for the last remaining human species on the Planet Earth– Homo sapiens. Ironically the oldest of those beliefs, animism and shamanism, are still practiced today by aborigines people and by hippie hangers on.  Art and symbolism also began to start at the same time as these early efforts to understand the nature of world, seen and unseen.

So the short answer is yes. Yes, humans had awareness many  thousands of years ago that there was something “real” about human existence that could not be explained by what they could observe, touch, hear or feel. Imagination was one of the main characteristics that separated early humans from other animals. These invisible–but believed to be real forces–were called gods. Call it the “god gene” if you like, but whatever it is, it seems to be part of our human nature. Most, but certainly not all, humans on the planet today, believe there is more to the “ultimate meaning” of life than what can be observed by us humans or can be “proven” by science. But what this mystery is varies greatly by culture, history, and language. In the early years of religious consciousness and development–about 5,000 years ago—ideas expanded from belief in spirits and a supreme being who created the universe to ideas about afterlife (a heaven and a hell), and to religious ethics (the difference between right and wrong and good and evil) and how humans should live their lives. And one of the oldest professions began—religious professionals like shamans, wise men, rabbis, priests, monks, ministers, and imams.

 Early religion around the world started off as polytheistic, a grouping of spiritual forces which were believed to impact human lives on Earth. Hinduism, which remains a complex polytheistic religion, came first, practiced in India. In Persia, there was Zoroastrianism, which had a very complex cosmology acknowledging one god above all others and a good versus evil dualism. Though diminished in size, the religion still is practiced today. Judaism emerged a little later, first as a “monolatrist” religion where “YHWH” (Pronounced as Yahweh, but there are no vowels in ancient Hebrew and the name of God was considered holy and off limits for humans to speak.)was only one of the many gods originally worshiped by the Canaanites, but who became in early Judaism the strongest and most powerful god. Over the years YHWH became the only God  when Judaism slowly morphed into a pure monotheistic religion, but that was not until much later—in the 300s BCE.

When religious or spiritual consciousness became more advanced around 12,000 years ago, religious beliefs in spirits and gods evolved from personal to familial, to tribal, to regional, and finally to national gods. Subjects in early countries and empires were expected to tow the line, to believe what their rulers and their culture told them to believe. Over a period of only a few thousand years the Big Five had all entered center stage: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. These religions are all active today. But, of course, there are many, many more. It seems that religions tend to pop up and disappear all the time. While about 75 percent of humans on the planet Earth who are religious belong to one of the Big Five, there are estimated to be more than 4,000 currently active religions on the planet Earth.

Early religion involved primitive forms of worship and ritual, the purpose of which was to bridge the gap between humans on Earth and the mysterious, spiritual dimension of life where gods existed. One early feature of worship in many cultures and  religions involved sacrifice. Animals were offered to the gods for a variety of reasons—to bring good weather, to assure a successful hunt or harvest and to help humans in conflicts with enemies—and probably many other everyday challenges of human existence. The act of sacrificing a live animal to appease the gods and bring good fortune was performed by a religious professional, a priest or holy person, and served a secondary purpose of providing food for the tribe or clan. It is not clear when the custom began but certainly it was important in early Judaism and in Greek culture and religion. In some cultures—especially Mesoamerican—human sacrifice was used. It remains a central feature of Christian worship today in a symbolic way through communion since Jesus was considered by the early church to be the symbolic “paschal lamb that takest away the sins of the world.”

But while all religions focus on ultimate meaning of life and most on a god which is believed to be the creator of the universe and our world, there are many differences. These differences have at times led to persecution and war. It has been a mixed bag. A visitor from outer space might observe how religious practices and beliefs work on Earth and ask questions like this: How do you know which god to worship? What happens if you don’t worship the god you are supposed to? Why is your god or gods better than someone else’s? And does belief in one god versus another affect your life and wellbeing? And what about behavior and ethics? How are your religious beliefs supposed to affect how you live? And what about an afterlife? Do you think humans on Earth really go to heaven or to hell? Each religion seems to be different. Which one is right? And why do you religious people fight with one another?

These are the same questions that we who are part of religious communities ask as well.We humans may have the “god gene,” but a good question is what we have done with that.

The next post will focus on Christianity and how that became a major game changer in the history of religion and why. And, I can’t help adding, “for better or for worse.”

Stay tuned.


One thought on “Human’s Quest for Meaning 2: The Beginning of Religion

  1. Thank you so much for this history, Joe! I think it’s so interesting how we “postmodern” spiritual-but-not-religious types actually believe in, or at least deeply intuit aspects of shamanism and animism in our practices of yoga, meditation, forest bathing and reverence for nature, vegetarianism, etc. So we are returning to the basics even as we seem to reject organized religion. Recently I’ve been also reflecting on the cultural value of the traditions of organized religions and on preserving some of them, despite all the trouble they’ve caused. So I am very much interested in your next post as well!

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