Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I’d say, after reading this essay, we can just sleep in next Sunday. We now have a scientific excuse to stay home and pull the covers up: the origins of religion. 

It opens by asking what role religion still “plays in today’s American society.” Wait, you may ask. What does religion in America have to do with the origins of religion among humans? Why, nothing at all, you silly. That’s just the obligatory thumb in the eye to religionists. After all, “the vast majority of the U.S. population does not belong to the Catholic Church,” and besides that, “a growing percentage of Americans are not affiliated with any organized religion.” Why should religion have any role in American life? The author doesn’t answer; she presumes “none” is the answer, and readers who read Live Science are already smart enough to know it.

As for the religion’s origins, “That question,” the writer suggests, “can be answered by a group of people not usually associated with religion: scientists.” Ta-da!

Religion originates in the human habit of assigning “agency” to ordinary events. That’s how early humans interacted with their environment, and the habit lingers today. After all, primeval habitats could be pretty deadly, a lions-and-tigers-and-bears sort of thing. A twig snaps or the grass rustles―maybe it’s the antelope you wanted for supper, or the lion that wants it, too, but would just as well settle for a stringy human.

Our early human responds to an agency (the potential lion) that acts on him. He skedaddles. This is called, as a helpful cognitive scientist explained, a “hypersensitive agency-detecting device,” or HADD. You can find it on Wikipedia and, no, it doesn’t require medication.

It is only a small step to believe that weather is its own agency. Rain fell where it wanted, came and went as it liked. Rain does that. From there, a simple leap of faith, so to speak, transformed rain’s agency into the independent agency of another agent lurking behind it. That’s the one you want to talk to about the rain.

I’ve come to call it the “Horn of Warning” myself. The car horn warning the pedestrian isn’t an agent, nor is the guy honking it, not to the primitive archaic human mind religionists possess. No, it is something bigger, some likely supernatural power arranging for the driver to push the Horn of Warning at the exact moment needed. Voilà, religion.

There are other explanations besides HADD. One of them is social glue. People work so much better together when everyone believes the same thing. “Religion may have sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page,” said one expert. “Humans may have developed religion as a way to promote cooperation in social groups.” Sure, but kith and kin, familial relationships between scattered bands intermarrying, may have done more with more practical effect.

What is really missing? Well, for one, the existential cognitive confrontation with death. To me that is a more plausible origin of religious development. The role of death in religious or spiritual awareness is an element not entirely overlooked, but it is never accorded a primary role in development of religion, beyond cryptic acknowledgement that the practice of burial may suggest the spiritualization of death. When our ancestors understood the finality of death, something got knocked loose in the Lower Paleolithic mind, something requiring a ritualization of grief.

The scientists highlighted in the article never mention it. Elsewhere it may be dismissed as a cultural adaptation to a hostile environment―buried bodies attract fewer scavengers. But largely, burial of the dead, below or above ground, came first and only reinforced inchoate spiritual development.

The oldest H. neanderthalensis burial is dated to about 300,000 years ago, but it is far from certain that this ever became a common trait among the species. There is some inconclusive fossil evidence that H. heidelbergensis, another precursor species, possibly conducted burials some 100,000 years before that.

But it doesn’t require religion to understand that there is good reason to remove a corpse from the cave, ceremonially or not. Whether it was done with any purposeful ritual beyond the curiosity exhibited by elephants for dead elephants is disputed.

The first intentional burial of anatomically modern humans was found at the gates of Europe, in Israel at Skhul and Qafzeh caves on Mount Carmel, roughly 100,000 years ago. Fifty thousand years on, human burials become more elaborate with the use of red ocher. By 40,000 years ago—the Great Leap Forward as Jared Diamond calls the Upper Paleolithic—burials were marked by more ocher, grave goods, Venus figurines, all matched by compellingly complex cave art and swift technological developments.

And there is this: Burial marks a felt loss, a sad wistful yearning never satisfied, something that must be expressed spiritually and addressed. This is a human need that arose 40,000 years ago, to voice our heartache and sorrow. But to whom may we finally, ultimately address it? Is there a prehistorical analogue to Martin Buber’s I and Thou? God speaks to humans in wrenching natural events, like death, as senseless then as today. Perhaps it is there, in that hammering grief universally shared, that God created a meeting ground for conversation with an early humanity, a revelation disclosing the ultimate Thou giving solace to my devastated I?

Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri and can be reached at His latest book is Speaking of the Dead and his previous First Things contributions are here.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

More on: Science, Faith, Death

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles