Uncommon Sense

November 14, 2018

Marks and Con Men in the Religion Con

I just started reading The Evolution of God by Robert Wright and, as is common with accommodationists, he is very kind in his interpretations. For example:

However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world. … But they didn’t have the heritage of modern science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientific conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew—especially as it grew via science—religion evolved in reaction.

With regard to “religion evolved in reaction,” I do not think it evolved so much as changed so as to not be subject to ridicule. But that aside, I want to address this part: “… religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world.” This seems like quite a benign motivation. And it brings those ancient people and “us” into the same room, but is this a valid supposition? I do not think so.

Allow me to finish quoting from the book, specifically, a couple of descriptions of the relations hunter-gather people have been documented to have with their “gods.”

By Klamath reckoning, the west wind was emitted by a flatulent dwarf woman, about thirty inches tall, who wore a buckskin dress and a basket hat (and who could be seen in the form of a rock on a nearby mountain). The Klamath sometimes asked her to blow mosquitoes away from Pelican Bay.

For example, Karei, thunder god of the Semang hunter-gatherers of Southeast Asia, would get irate if he saw people combing their hair during a storm or watching dogs mate.”

Think about this: what person trying to make “sense of the world” would come up with such bullshit? These sound more like the work of a bullshitter than a contemplative proto-philosopher.

I think a more likely scenario is that these stories were crafted by sly members of a tribe in an effort to acquire status they could not otherwise acquire. Imagine a gamma or even delta male who has been getting the leavings of the stronger males: poorer food, less access to the tribe’s women, what our President would regard as a “loser.” If he tried to grab a women by the pussy, he would find himself roundly cuffed into better manners by a higher status male.

But one day, a solar eclipse occurs (or any other natural phenomenon that you think they would think was rare and threatening). It gets darker and darker and it seems that the sun is being eaten. The tribe is terrified, cowering on the ground. In a moment of inspiration, our delta male jumps up and starts to belittle the spirit that was eating the sun (they were animists, remember) and sure enough, he scares away the eater and the sun comes back. Our bullshit artist becomes a hero, becomes a valued member of the tribe, earns a new title (shaman) and gets better selections of the tribe’s resources from then on.

But the shaman needs more answers. When queried after that point, he can’t just shrug his shoulders, so he has to come up with more stories, and when you read the stories that hunter-gatherer peoples have (the book has quite a few examples) see if they don’t sound to you like they were made up by a drunken frat boy.

Stories are good. They educate and they entertain, and obviously just from the couple of examples provided, they do not have to make much sense (Watch dogs fornicating and the thunder god becomes angry!).

So, while the author of this book addresses the foundations of religion (the hunter-gatherers did not have religions, they had spirits and ghosts as part of their environment) as an intellectual effort to “make sense of the world,” “as we do,” I think that is a sop thrown to the religious. It is far more likely that religion began as part of a con, in instances as described above. My argument is based upon the motivation of the bullshit creators. I think that the sly members of a tribe were far more likely to come up with such stories than any one else.

A con game is short for “confidence game” and is a effort on the part of a con man (or con men) to acquire the confidence of his marks. That confidence enables them to extract wealth from the marks willingly. As far as I am concerned, religion is a Big Con still. The con artists are still spinning stories (I can’t wait for the big Vatican conclave on the sexual predation of its priests; I expect to see big stories created.) and the marks are still believing those stories.

I note that religious apologists pull stories out of their asses in great quantities (e.g. Ever notice how a banana seems designed to fit our hands?), that is they just make things up, often with no support in doctrine or scripture or even reality. They didn’t start the Big Con, but they are going to benefit mightily by keeping it running.




  1. Your view seems pretty narrow and limited but, if you are representing Wright correctly, his views don’t seem to tell all the story either.

    Cultures existing in small and relatively isolated groups (and probably most pre-agricultural societies) tend to have animist beliefs. The Latin “anima” means air or breath. I think in its most basic sense animism is an attempt to explain life and death. When the breath leaves, the body dies. So where did the person go? This leads directly to the idea of a spirit or soul. If we extrapolate spirit or soul from the individual to other aspects of nature, we arrive at other aspects of nature having a spirit or soul. (Panpsychism?) So in a way this is trying to make sense of the world but it originates primarily in trying to make sense of death. (As an aside, this idea of anima as air or breath becomes greatly refined in the idea of prana in Indian philosophy and chi in Chinese thought and medicine)

    None of this is a con (it might be wrong but it’s not a con if you don’t know it is wrong) and nobody gains any advantage from making up stories about this.

    Your story as you tell it about the eclipse is absurd. How frequent are eclipses anyway at any one point on Earth? I’ve only seen one total eclipse in my life and I had to drive about 80 miles to see that. Almost anything other than totality (there’s a big difference in the experience between totality and 99% btw) wouldn’t inspire anybody to make up a story for personal advantage. And most people even in primitive societies would see the invented story for what it was.

    There might be something in the idea that predicting (not post hoc explaining) astronomical events had something to do with early religions. Humans are observant and early humans needed to predict movement of game and later when to plant crops. But this predictive activity probably is best regarded as early science even though it became merged and entangled with other non-scientific beliefs and myths. In many cases, the astronomical cycles are related to birth and death cycles in nature – a cyclic worldview rather a linear one.

    Shamans are primitive healers and doctors. They rely on herbal medicine and placebo effects. There might be a con in the placebo effects but I doubt many shamans consciously understand that and, even if they did, I would consider it a benevolent con. But here again we are dealing with life and death.

    None of this is to say there haven’t been or are not con men in religion. There have been plenty but it isn’t the whole story, probably not even ten percent of it.

    And the “flatulent dwarf woman” – I wouldn’t be surprised to find it is much like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus – something you might tell children or say in jest but not really believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by James Cross — November 14, 2018 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

    • Wow, you have hit upon a great many points. With regard to “Your story as you tell it about the eclipse is absurd.” You will note that I parenthetically suggested that you could substitute any relatively threatening but uncommon event: a flood, a forest fire, a mud slide, etc. There are accounts of primitive people dealing with eclipses, so it is not entirely absurd.

      You do not need to parse animism for me and you are taking a retroactive viewpoint which is absurd in itself, Did you think that primitive cultures used the word animism and associated it with breath or breathing? A big part of these cultures psychology is is how to address dreams and death and dying and I touched on none of that. I was addressing the rather kind interpretation of “making sense of the world” as a motivation for creating spirits and ghosts to animate it. I would accept that with regard to making sense how dead loved ones can appear in one’s dreams, but that is not where I was going nor was the author at that point (he did so later).

      I can understand that people who are awoken from their dreams in which dead relatives appeared that an interpretation of that would involve the spirit/ghost of the dead relative. But that is not making sense of the physical world per se. When one wakes up the dead relatives are not there.

      And you are making excuses about the stories told (flatulant female entities) without knowing whether the tellers were serious or supplying that story with a wink. Flatulence is not necessarily funny in all cultures and is not necessarily a jest all by itself.

      On Wed, Nov 14, 2018 at 1:00 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 14, 2018 @ 1:12 pm | Reply

      • Animism is a Western ethnographic description of a wide variety of practices and beliefs. It was used by Edward Taylor as a “general doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings in general”. It is a generalization over many societies and cultures, so there are many variations in its practice (so many that some ethnographers don’t want to use the term). Of course, animists don’t know they are animists. They just have some beliefs about the world. My point only is that belief in spirits most likely directly relates to making sense of life and death.

        The statement about the dwarf among the Klamath or other similar “explanations” by other cultures always need to be take in context. Is it an off-hand statement made when there are too many mosquitoes, a story told around the campfire, a bedtime story for child, or a part of real pseudo-scientific view of the world? How many adults among the Klamath actually take the story as a serious explanation? Perhaps the ethnographer was conned. It’s been known to happen.


        Comment by James Cross — November 14, 2018 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

    • Con Men are around us in every walk of life and we all sometimes use the techniques of the Con Man to convince others that we are right especially in financial transactions. We also admire some Con Men or Con Women for their skill in pulling the wool over our eyes.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by kersten — November 14, 2018 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  2. “I think a more likely scenario is that these stories were crafted by sly members of a tribe in an effort to acquire status they could not otherwise acquire.”

    Which means these “sly tribal members” knew the truth about solar eclipses and the west wind but they made up bullshit stories to control their primitive peers. To me, that doesn’t seem a ‘more likely’ scenario.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by John Branyan — November 14, 2018 @ 1:31 pm | Reply

  3. […] Ruis makes a very good case that all world’s religions started out by some bullshitter making up a story (out of whole […]


    Pingback by Were All Religions Started As Con Jobs? | GFBrandenburg's Blog — November 15, 2018 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  4. As soon as the first soon to be con man realized they could benefit by pretending to be the “great knower of all things” it was on. Why work, or pull your fair share of the load when you can get by with the con? Easy living. All you have to do is make up bullshit stories, demand they are true to any skeptics, and play your part. Now we have 10,001 different sects, with 10,001 different variations of their bullshit stories, all of which are claimed to be TRUE, and people throw their money at them. The con to end all cons. The big kahuna of cons. *

    I have said for years preachers should drop the con and get a damn job.

    * Not to be confused with tRump.


    Comment by shelldigger — November 16, 2018 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

    • “As soon as the first soon to be con man realized they could benefit by pretending to be the “great knower of all things” it was on…All you have to do is make up bullshit stories, demand they are true to any skeptics, and play your part.”

      I think your comment is bullshit.
      (That makes me the skeptic so this is when you demand you’re telling the truth.)

      Easiest thing in the world is dismissing a belief as “a con”.


      Comment by John Branyan — November 17, 2018 @ 7:10 am | Reply

      • Ah, we both have opinions! Wonderful! But really, think about it. We have all sorts of classifications for other people: bullshit artists, class clowns, etc. What is more likely, that you will encounter a con man, a bullshit artist, a former class clown or a seriously contemplative person who wants to make sense of the world? Just playin’ the odds!

        On Sat, Nov 17, 2018 at 7:10 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



        Comment by Steve Ruis — November 17, 2018 @ 8:04 am | Reply

        • Indeed.
          What are the odds that your readers are seriously contemplative people?


          Comment by John Branyan — November 17, 2018 @ 8:08 am | Reply

          • Should I care? They are self-selected, as are all blog followers, so I can only presume they get something of value.

            On Sat, Nov 17, 2018 at 8:08 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by Steve Ruis — November 17, 2018 @ 8:18 am | Reply

      • I’d like to thank all the people that got me here. Especially all of my blog friends. My family of course, and my ability to at least be able to think my way out of a wet paper bag. I am truly honored by this event of being insulted by a true believer, It was a long long road getting here. But I’d do it all over again just for the opportunity.

        Is there a check in the mail? Or a small statue I can put on my desk?

        (methinks a nerve was infringed upon lol, might want to think on why that is JB )

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by shelldigger — November 19, 2018 @ 7:23 am | Reply

        • 2nd easiest thing in the world is dismissing an argument as a personal insult.

          (methinks you’re trying to con me with that pretend acceptance speech. Might want to think about that, Shellster.)


          Comment by John Branyan — November 19, 2018 @ 7:31 am | Reply

          • Oh, I’m sorry, last time I looked calling someones opinion bullshit was considered an insult. I guess the times be a changing…

            So in the vein of fair and being hip with the times, You are full of bullshit! 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by shelldigger — November 19, 2018 @ 7:34 am | Reply

    • Richard carrier wrote a wonderful blog post “What’s the Harm? Why Religious Belief is Always Bad” which really, really nails the entire practice … but he didn’t go far at all into who benefits. Obviously, all of the people with bogus jobs (Bishop, Cardinal, Pastor, etc.) but the support for religion is political and the people benefiting are more than the direct workers. Clearly there was reciprocity. Whether the tribal strong men/women saw that the con man/shaman was indeed a con man is irrelevant. It was probably clear that the strong man/woman and the shaman were better off working together than in conflict fairly quickly. So, the “secular” tribal leader used the shaman (and vice-versa) to control the tribe for their benefit (and to some extent the tribe’s). Tye con was fully formed at that point and the rest is history.

      I suspect that as tribes came into more and more peaceful contact (to trade, trade was a big motivator) the shaman’s got together to compare their bullshits and this lead to a harmonizing of the various stories. Effective stories were “borrowed.” ineffective one’s dropped and occasionally conflict arose to determine whose stories were better. Evolution at work, theists!

      On Fri, Nov 16, 2018 at 5:03 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 17, 2018 @ 8:32 am | Reply

      • Your views of tribal politics and shamans are seriously uninformed.

        As I explained, the primary role of a shaman is doctor. A shaman may gain some prestige and material resource in performing this role, much like a doctor in our society would. Shamans are not the inventors of the stories or myths of the tribe any more than other members of the tribe. The stories and myths are held in common with many members of the tribe contributing to them and telling them. They may evolve over time and through contact, but frequently they maintain a degree of consistency from generation to generation as long as the tribe is intact, Their creation and evolution is a collective effort, not something isolated to the strong man/woman or shaman for the purpose of controlling the other members of the tribe.

        A secondary role of the shaman is mediator with the spirit world. Often healing is involved with mediation with the spirit world, but this mediation can also be on behalf of the tribe.

        This spirit world isn’t an invention of shaman. The understanding of it and navigation in it is passed to the shaman through apprenticeship. It is learned along with knowledge about medicinal plants from other shamans.

        Whether any of this could be called “religion” is questionable. I prefer to use “religion” to refer to larger social structures (hierarchies of priests) with more formal doctrines and ceremonies that began to arise with the early agricultural states.


        Comment by James Cross — November 17, 2018 @ 2:57 pm | Reply

        • The spirit world is the real world in such a society; all tribe members operate in that world. I was referring not to the beliefs of the tribe members, who I mentioned were animists, but with regard to the creation of a proto-religion, which requires a great many things get created. Almost everything you have said above is contradicted by the discussion of shamanism in *The Evolution of God*. Rather than quote copiously from that book, I suggest it to you to read. He does, by the way, mention solar eclipses and that shamans can be replaced in such societies by other tribe members who have better stories. I have not studied shamanism in detail so I can’t comment as to how trustworthy the author of that book’s discussion is, but it is heavily larded with citations.

          On Sat, Nov 17, 2018 at 2:57 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — November 18, 2018 @ 9:54 am | Reply

          • “heavily larded” … ?? Yes, lard can be quite expansive. 🤣🤣

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by Nan — November 18, 2018 @ 11:28 am | Reply

      • That is likely a pretty good case for how religion and power became so linked.

        No true believer wants to admit how their precious magic book has been edited to suit those in power through the centuries. The bible itself is an example to the harmonizing aspect you mention.


        Comment by shelldigger — November 19, 2018 @ 7:28 am | Reply

        • As soon as the first soon to be heathen skeptic realized they could benefit by pretending to be the “great knower of all things” it was on…All you have to do is make up bullshit stories about precious magic books being edited by mysterious people in power. Nobody will ask for supporting evidence. When a True Believer objects, play your part – pretend you’ve been insulted.


          Comment by John Branyan — November 19, 2018 @ 7:46 am | Reply

          • If I’m a con man, I sure can’t see where I’ve benefitted from it yet. Perhaps you would like to send me money? I’ll take all I can get, and the more you give, the more you are right about me 😉


            Comment by shelldigger — November 19, 2018 @ 7:49 am | Reply

            • The benefits aren’t solely monetary. You are esteemed within your tribe. You receive power and prestige. The applause of your peers is your reward. Pretending you haven’t benefited is part of the con. 😉


              Comment by John Branyan — November 19, 2018 @ 7:55 am | Reply

          • This has been fun Brainyawn, but Im too busy and too unconcerned to keep it up, so I recommend you go play with yourself 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            Comment by shelldigger — November 19, 2018 @ 7:52 am | Reply

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