When presented with information, our curiosity leads us to seek more information relating to what we already know. You’ve probably seen this phenomenon in children when they ask “Why?” a million times. They are still legitimately interested in gathering new information, no matter how annoyed you might get.
Our ancestors felt the same curiosity for the world around them. They asked questions like “Why are things the way they are?” or “How did we get here and why are we here?” Unlike a child whose questions can usually be answered by a parent or teacher, our ancestors had no teachers who already knew those answers. However, not knowing the answer did not prevent some individuals from making up stories to explain something. Stories could range from explaining ‘why snakes have no legs’ to ‘why there are stars in the sky’ and often those stories acted as silly or magical explanations with moral lessons built in.
The stories told by our ancestors usually related natural phenomena back to ourselves, which makes sense since it’s what we already know. We extrapolate our own self awareness to other parts of our world. Let’s take a look at a logical thought process of an early ancestor to clarify.
Let’s say you see a member of your village go down to the river to get water; you would assume that he or she chose to do that. You look down and see an ant carrying a leaf and you assume that it chose to pick up and transport the leaf. Then you look at the sun and assume that it chooses to rise and move across the sky every day. Here is where our ancestors have made a mistake, but an understandable one. Since the sun was clearly a powerful source of energy and since it makes the “decision” to rise in the sky, our ancestors extrapolated that it is the sun that created all that we saw around us. We’ve given this character many different names, but the current one is simply called God.
Many ancient civilizations were centered around worshipping the sun and stories were created using the sun god as one of the characters. Although different cultures all have vastly different religious stories, many of them begin with darkness and introduce the god as a light bringer. This is important because it shows that we started from the same basic thought process and diversified based on our surroundings.
The stories would explain the world to curious youngsters while often teaching lessons of kindness, patience, and peace. In addition to creating the world, many cultures gave the sun god credit for the unknown voices in your head. This is probably the most powerful addition to the story since now the audience gets to experience a personal relationship with the created character. Your relationship only solidifies the character in your mind.
Religion became institutionalized either because the societal leaders actually believed the stories, or because they saw the advantage of having a character that their citizens believe to be all-powerful and all-knowing. Think about it, your understanding of the world includes a god that can do literally anything and who can even get inside your head to talk to you. You’re probably going to obey the laws of that god.
Religious leaders created basic laws for humanity to do no harm to those around you. A law that you’re told was the direct word of god will carry much more weight than the laws made by other humans. With the power to personally communicate with the god, religious leaders could elevate in power to join with, or become, the government leaders. Sometimes this took the form of god-kings, to further increase the authority of the human king. Other times it meant that the voice of god could command armies and wipe out non-believers.
You probably already know that people don’t like to be wrong. When people learn of other cultures with religions different than their own, they might think, “If you are right, then I must be wrong.” That simple thought, along with our violent tendencies, is the cause of hundreds of millions of humans killing other humans throughout our brief history.
Two opposing religions would both believe their god to be more powerful and able deliver their human army to victory. In short, lots of people on both sides die so that an imaginary battle between story characters can be decided. History is written by the victors, so it would make sense that word would spread that an army won because their god was the true god. The people that converted to worshipping the victorious god were usually spared when that army rolled into their towns. New converts only furthered the stories of god’s mercy toward their own kind while killing those who were different.
Religions have changed over the course of our history: the trend of many gods fell to the ideology of a single powerful god in many cultures. The one that was very well suited for the religious niche was Christianity. This is not to say that the tenets of Christianity were inherently better than other religions, but it picked up its steam in the height of the Roman empire which had enormous influence.
After the fall of Rome, the cultures that kept Christianity alive were the same ones that honed their skills for fighting with new technologies. When those Christian explorers set out to discover new parts of the world, they again believed that their god was real due to their success. Those conquerors had no idea the unfair advantage they had with their better weapons and the microscopic threat they carried from the plague that devastated their own population years before.
Just like almost all cultures began with darkness and a light bringing god before diversifying, Christianity too diversified into many sects that in turn diversified more. The reasons for diversification ranged from disagreement with the official law to simply adaptation to more modern times. Despite all diversification, the majority of religions tend to teach nearly identical lessons in different ways.
Religions started out as a way to separate us from the animals, to allow us to take what is best about our intelligence and use it to elevate past our animal instincts. Sin is the term many religions use to describe Basic Functions like sex and selfishness. It’s important to remember that we were the ones that made religions in the first place.
With the awareness that they are all just made up stories, we can choose to follow whichever stories from whichever religions we want. They are all made by your species, after all. We can just choose to take the best from all our ancestors and move forward from there.
Whether you are religious or not, you cannot deny the huge effect religion has had on the world. It has helped to create like-minded communities, help the less fortunate, and become comfortable with your own mind. Religion gave us an origin story as well as a few lessons of how to live.
We have finally discovered our true origin story and it’s way cooler than any story that humans have made up along the way. Lessons can easily be added to it much like our ancestors did with their own made-up stories. It’s time we all see the world as it truly is, not as the stories that people have created to explain it.