Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where Does Religion Come From?

There are many strange and contradictory things said about the origins of religion. (I dislike using the word "religion" because it lacks clear definition, but I do not know what other word to use. It does become somewhat clearer as you consider the earliest forms.) The problem is that looking at it from a purely naturalistic perspective and discounting what various religions have to say for themselves, there is no evidence whatsoever on the subject. The belief in gods and supernatural forces goes back as far in history as we are able to go. The Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. (Note that Neanderthals had a slightly larger brain capacity than our own and were human being with somewhat unusual features.) If this comes from a religious impulse (we really have no idea what they were thinking), it puts such concepts far back into antiquity. Any idea how these may have originated is sheer speculation. But such speculation is frequently put forth as proving something. It is said that ancient man did not understand his world, so he invented religion; modern man did not understand his world, so he invented science. Even if you grant this, there is still a question of which one is right or whether they are both right from their own perspective. (I would advocate the last view.) But this seems to be taking the modern scientific approach and reading it back into religion, which is concerned about something totally different. Religion is generally concerned with the right way to live and how to be reconciled to God or the gods. Explanations given of the specifics of the natural world seem to be incidental to this purpose.

From the Christian perspective, the answer to how religion originated is that God revealed Himself to human beings in the very beginning. However, this information was passed down in a distorted form. Nonetheless, this explains the similarity between Christian beliefs and those of other religions. It is common in many of the more traditional religions for there to be a belief in a original ancient God, a Sky Father. It is also common for this original God to be a shadowy figure and there to have been some kind of rift that developed between Him and the people involved (perhaps a remembrance of the Fall). Therefore, there are other gods or spirits put in the place of the primary God as beings to be worshiped and prayed to. These may have originated as personifications of nature or as spirits of ancestors or as human heroes who were later deified. This is, of course, not historically provable, but it makes sense within a Christian context and squares with the facts. But the bottom line is, any argument that wants to prove something based on the origin of religion is extremely dubious. It may be reasonable to explain, given your perspective, how it may have come about (as I have). But to deduce anything from it to prove your position is circular.        

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