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Religion has been one of the primary subjects of controversy ever since ancient times. Moreover, religion-related arguments can be found in any society or culture at any point in human history. Being quite a sensitive and intimate topic for many individuals, religion often becomes the source of arguments and conflicts. The society is divided into two general groups – the opponents of religion and its proponents. The former state that people were created by God, the latter argue that Gods, as well as religions, were invented by humans for cognitive purposes.
Even though the argument persists till today, the pro-religious side has many strong arguments, however, there is a substantial body of research that supports the idea that religions carry out specific cognitive, political, and social purposes and are the tools necessary for a human mind to comprehend and the mysterious world around and thus were created by people artificially.
Religion is viewed as a tool necessary for the survival of the human population throughout centuries (Nickels, 2008). First of all, scholars point out the fact that religious beliefs are well-spread throughout the whole world and can be found in any human society (Pyysiainen & Hauser, 2009). Besides, religious beliefs have been in place for many centuries; older worldviews were replaced by the newer ones, but a certain dominant set of values and religious ideas has always been present in any society regardless of an era.
While theology focuses on the explorations of various norms and values within different religions and their evolution over the course of history, sociology concerns with the role of religion in the development and evolution of the human society (Beyers, 2010).
Namely, religion is perceived as one of the major factors that facilitated the establishment of civil society (Beyers, 2010). At the same time, the nature of religion itself is a meaningful question that many scientists attempt to answer using logical reasoning, critical thinking, and the scientific findings in the spheres of social development, biology, and cognitive evolution of a human brain. The groups of scientists who explore this issue are recognized as secular-based theorists (evolutionary biologists, sociologists, some philosophers)
The first argument used by the supporters of secular-based theories of the origin of religion relies on the people’s natural willingness to comprehend the world around sing cognitive abilities and attempts to arrange the collected information in an ordered fashion (Some theories on the origins of religion, 2014; Beyers, 2010). In other words, the scientists believe that trying to make the world around more comprehensible, human societies were looking for explanations of the happenings that were not easy to understand. Nowadays, when science is highly developed and technically equipped, the researchers have all the necessary tools to conduct experiments, measure outcomes, collect data, and examine it.
The tools that are unavailable can be built due to the high technical capacity of the contemporary world. However, centuries ago, when the technological progress was at its initial stages of development, many of the common phenomena were unclear and mysterious to the human observers. For example, such happenings as sunset and sunrise, thunder and lightning, solar eclipse, diseases, or childbirth were impossible to explain back in the ancient times due to the absence of the tools for research. That is why they were automatically attributed to the divine will and treated at phenomena that were inflicted by gods or other mystical beings.
Besides, exercising the ideas that most of these happenings could be controlled by means of building positive and friendly relationships with the gods provided the proto-humans with an impression of being in charge of their circumstances. This tendency was mentioned by Friedrich Nietzsche (n. d.) in his work titled “Gay Science” where he likens the people’s striving to detect order and patterns in the world around and create an idea of a safer and non-chaotic world where the situations can be controlled. Nietzsche (n. d.) did not speak about religion directly; however, he discussed morality in this manner, making a comparison with a quiet island surrounded by an ocean of chaos.
Another analogy used by the philosopher was a cage in which a wild animal preferred to live, instead of being exposed to the unknown and mysterious world. This argument is supported by the homogeneity of religious beliefs when it comes to the most general questions. Regardless of the diverse details religions of the world contain, they are rather similar in all the major aspects such as the creation of people by the gods, the power of the gods to control the world around, people’s need to keep the gods happy in order to ensure their own safety and happiness (Boyer, 2001). That way, without communicating with one another, the ancient cultures of the world developed paganist religions with very similar structures that have many general points in common.
Another argument that supports the idea of religions being generated by human societies is the need for order inside of these societies. In other words, religions served as the sources of rules and regulations developed to maintain civilizations, avoid conflicts, and establish balance (Pyysiainen & Hauser, 2009). In reality, the vast majority of the world’s religions that existed during various eras contained similar rules commanding the followers to stay away from behaviors and practices that the society of that time considered harmful and destructive – murder, stealing, adultery, to name a few.
These concepts remain common for most of the modern and old religions. At the same time, practicing religious rituals, worshiping, and sticking to the required customs was recognized as a desired lifestyle because it fell within the framework of safe existence and peaceful society (Pyysiainen & Hauser, 2009). In other words, if older religions existed to establish behavioral norms within communities making them safer for their members, the religions that occurred later (such as the modern ones) were constructed specifically to bring unity to the states and make them stronger to withstand the pressure created by the other cultures. In turn, all the religion-based wars can be viewed as the clashes of interests of different religions focused on the maintenance of the states.
It is likely that the supporters of religious beliefs as the truths that come from above and the proponents of the idea that human societies were created by gods and not vice versa, would attempt to refute these arguments stating that human societies and cultures appeared many centuries ago that thus it is impossible to tell whether or not they developed without a push of a divine origin. Also, the similarities of the social behaviors and voices in the core pillars of different religions may be used as an argument to support the idea that there is a divine force whose laws were similar for people everywhere in the world.
This counterargument could be refuted by the statement of Beyers (2010) who pointed out that religion is a concept specifically created to exist inside of human societies and absolutely inviable when placed outside of them. In fact, Beyers (2010) maintains that this logic is applicable to all the manmade units of culture – material and non-material. Each and every one of them stops making any sense of having any meaning when isolated from human culture. The author also emphasizes that throughout their history, human cultures took an active part in the creation of the world around, and thus, many products of human cultures came to existence. Religion is one such product. In fact, these products changed over time as the societies matured, evolved, and transformed.
That way, religions may be compared to any object of culture such as clothing for example. It used to be crude and harsh back in ancient times and served merely to maintain the survival of people who used it. Over time, it became more complex and detailed, more cleverly made, and beautifully applied, moving from fulfilling basic and practical needs to higher ones such as self-expression and personal development. Finally, today, this product is treated as something a free individual may choose for themselves personally depending on their unique character and goals in life. To sum up, religion is an ancient concept whose origins are unclear, but a substantial body of evidence supports the idea that it is a product of human society and not the other way around.
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Beyers, J. (2010). Religion, civil society and conflict: What is it that religion does for and to society? Hervormde Teologiese Studies, 67(3), 1-8.
Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Nickels, M. K. (2008). Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. American Anthropologist, 110(1), 117-118.
Nietzsche. F. (2001). The Gay Science. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Pyysiainen, I., & Hauser, M. (2009). The origins of religion : evolved adaptation or by-product? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 104-109.
Some theories on the origins of religion. (2014). Web.