Class Warfare Blog

March 31, 2020

Theism in a Nutshell

Filed under: Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:58 pm

Mark Twain once used an analogy involving the Eiffel Tower to address all of Earth’s history. The Earth’s history is roughly four and a half billion years old. Man’s history (modern man) is roughly 100,000 to 200,000 years old, and agriculture dates back roughly 10,00-12,000 years and we didn’t have civilization without agriculture. Most people put civilization back 5000-6000 years.

Some of these estimates were coming available in Twain’s time. And in response to some divine’s claim that humanity is oh, so special that all of history points to our creation was a little like saying the Eiffel Tower is an immense construction, the part of it that would correspond to human civilization would be the layer of paint at the top of its filial and the divine’s claim was like coming to the conclusion that the Eiffel Tower was clearly created to support that topmost layer of paint. (I mean it is obvious, is it not?)

So, inane comments by people speaking outside of their expertise aside, just how did we get from “there” to “here,” theologically at least? Since there are and have been a multitude of religions and gods over that period, and most have some commonalities, it is likely that there are some common human developments that led to these, no?

Here is my best shot at showing where theism came from . . . in the course of human events.

* * *

The Theory of Mind
As social animals we developed ways of “reading” what is going on in other people’s minds from how they present themselves. For example, there is not a three-year old on the planet that can’t tell that their mother is mad at them, without their mother saying a word or do anything.

Agency Detection
We developed the ability to attach an agent to an occurrence. The classic example is a rustling in tall grass a short distance away. Was that due to the wind or is a predator stalking me? Most animals will stop what they are doing, go into a more vigilant state, and if they sense nothing directly, will go back to what they were doing. Humans will think, “it might be wind or it might be a predator, so to be safe, I am just going to move farther away just in case.” The penalty for a false agency attribution is very small if anything. The penalty for ignoring a real agency can lead to the loss of your life, so we became primed to lean toward the signs of agencies being assumed to be real.

Story Telling
Being social animals, good story tellers were and are popular, especially because there was no cable TV when we were hunter-gatherers. When the tribe or a small group was threatened, by a natural phenomenon (flooding river, volcano, earthquake, eclipse, etc.) the natural storytellers, aka bullshit artists, claimed they knew the agent behind that thing (a lightning god, a river god, a sun god, etc.) and might even make up a bullshit ritual to try to placate that god.

Cause and Effect
Our brains are pattern recognizing machines. There is a logical fallacy referred to as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” which roughly translates as “after this, therefore resulting from it.” Causes have to come before effects, so anything coming before an event is a possible cause and our little pea brains came up with myriad causes . . . even a few that were real.

Primitive humans saw a lot of deaths. In some cases, these were what we call “of old age” or “of natural causes,” meaning there was no obvious cause of death. If a hunter is killed by a prey animal, then they are obviously dead. But when grandma or mother dies when laying on her bed, there is a point just before when she is living (speaking, breathing, etc.) and then shortly after she is dead (not moving, not breathing, looking waxy in complexion, etc. She is still there after (Ten little fingers and ten little toes. . . , yep all there.) but something is missing. What ever was animating grandma is no longer there, but we couldn’t see it before and we didn’t see it leave.

You just say Grandma die but while you were sleeping, you spoke to her and she talked to you. She fed you your favorite meal. But when you woke up, she was not there.

From all of these things (there is more I think) can you see where jinns, angels, fairies, and leprechauns come from? Can you see where gods came from? Can you see why these things are mostly invisible or have behaviors that equate to being nearly invisible.

Animism came from our over developed agency detection devices. We saw animals living and dead so what was animating them was invisible, no? So, we have wolf gods, coyote gods, snake gods, etc.

Can you see where shamans came from? Being good storytellers who liked the esteem they gathered in that role and why shamans were reined in because otherwise there was no limit to their powers (other than their powers of imagination).

Can you see where supernatural “causes” came from? We didn’t know what caused rain, or snow, or thunder, etc. so storytellers made shit up. There has to be a cause for every effect, no? (No.)

Can you see where spirits and souls came from? Again, we didn’t understand where our mental powers came from so we must have a spirit like the animals do. This gets changed into a soul by power mongers.

Can you see where the idea of an afterlife comes from? Grandma’s spirit comes to me in my dreams. Where is she? We cannot see her or where she lives any more, so she must be far away. At first we might have thought she was in a cave or on a mountaintop, but after seeing quite a few of those, then dead grandma ends up living in the sky or “another realm.” (Theologians now often state outright that Heaven and Hell aren’t places, so they can’t be found. I gotta buy some property beyond space and time, it’s getting crowded there.)

And can you see why there are so many common elements to supernatural deity worship practices, created by groups of people isolated from one another? We couldn’t borrow such beliefs, because we were far apart, so we made up our own from the same root normal human functions.

When we came together, competition, and the desire to get along resulted in “modifications” to our deities. First we puffed up our own and later we merged “their god” with “ours.” The Romans, rather brilliantly, allowed conquered peoples to keep their gods . . . but also pointed out that their gods and the Roman gods were often the same gods, just having different names. And if they were the same, a few nips and tucks in both made that more obvious. And, of course, the religious powers and the secular powers realized they were better off together than in competition, and so they joined forces. Everyone in a Western civilization, should read accounts of the wars fought over Christianity in its first few centuries. I can recommend the books The Jesus Wars and When Jesus Became God. Both the Romans and later governments became different due to Christianity and Christianity became different due to Roman and other state power. I can recommend the book Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Practices which shows that many current Christian practices were adopted from the Romans and which mirrored pagan practices at the time. (If you want to be a state religion, you have to act like a state religion! And, boy, did Christian Bishops want state power.)




  1. Death, or more specifically, Terror Management Theory explains a great part of it.


    Comment by john zande — March 31, 2020 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

    • I just don’t think that people spent much time avoiding death or even thinking about it, unless … I think they spent a lot of time in fear of illness, injury, hunger, and thirst … which you had to get past before death even entered one’s thoughts.

      On Tue, Mar 31, 2020 at 6:43 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 1, 2020 @ 9:09 am | Reply

      • I’m not so sure. Mortality salience was one GIANT kick in the human head.


        Comment by john zande — April 1, 2020 @ 10:33 am | Reply

        • I suggest that yes, to some, but not to all. Religions used fear of death as a lever, but to do so they had to jack up the conversation a great deal.

          On Wed, Apr 1, 2020 at 10:33 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — April 1, 2020 @ 10:39 am | Reply

  2. Excellent piece, Steve. Now … about that bloody resurrection?


    Comment by Arkenaten — April 1, 2020 @ 7:21 am | Reply

    • You know, none of Paul’s letters ever mention Jesus being on Earth. For Paul, Jesus was a “spiritual being” who was “coming.” (Paul never mentions a “return” or “second coming.”

      Paul was a good story teller, perhaps a bit too good for our own good.

      Can you imagine Jesus walking around Rome for 40 days after his crucifixion? Can you imagine the Romans not finding out about that? According to “John,” thousands saw Jesus, and not a single one was a Roman, or Pharisee snitch. It’s a miracle!

      On Wed, Apr 1, 2020 at 7:21 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 3 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 1, 2020 @ 7:25 am | Reply

  3. I like your list, but to it I would add:

    Credulous Childhood: Our children, for their own safety, must believe what their caretakers tell them. We have to have this tendency built in, or none of us would live to grow up. And superstitions hitch a ride along with the important stuff. So children are taught supernatural beliefs right along with “avoid tigers” and “don’t step in the fire.”

    And the big one, Confirmation Bias. Once we decide we have found a pattern, or an invisible agent, we look for things that confirm that belief, and ignore anything that dis-confirms it. So once a belief is ensconced in our brains, our brains work very hard to keep it there.


    Comment by Ubi Dubium — April 2, 2020 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

    • Ah, extended childhoods for social animals! Absolutely! They are born before they are mature and so get taught a lot out of the womb. Even bullshit is accepted!

      I believe there is some evolutionary advantage to confirmation bias (as there should be in all such “flaws” in thinking), I just don’t know what it is.

      On Thu, Apr 2, 2020 at 5:27 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 2, 2020 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

      • I’m sure there must be some reason we have confirmation bias, but I’m not sure of it either. Perhaps it’s just that we don’t have enough brain power to have a good instinctive understanding of probability and statistics, and confirmation bias is what you get in their absence.

        This is probably a whole topic in itself. I hadn’t really given this question much thought, and I really should.


        Comment by Ubi Dubium — April 3, 2020 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

        • It may just be *defacto *reinforcement of existing principles so as to not lose them. Tradition plays that role for society in the larger context. “That “we have always done it that way” is not necessarily a good thing, but “we have always done it that way and it worked” is.

          On Fri, Apr 3, 2020 at 2:23 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — April 4, 2020 @ 9:31 am | Reply

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