Uncommon Sense

April 13, 2021

Why Religion?

Filed under: Culture,History,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:10 pm
Tags: , ,

There are myriad reasons offered for why religions exist, most are unsatisfactory (even the ones I have offered. It is clear that the topic is worth writing about but most of the explanations for religion focus on people as its creators. This I can accept up to the beginning of organized religions, which created along with accompanying civilizations pretty much in lock step. I think the evolution of religious concepts passed from the people to the elites when we became “civilized.” What this means is if you are still asking questions about why people this or why people that when it comes to organized religions, you are probably looking in the wrong place for the “whys” you seek. I think the only power individuals have when addressing religious innovations is whether or not they accept them.

In Pascal Boyer’s rather brilliant book “Religion Explained” he does a survey of all of the common explanations for why religion exists and basically dispatches them all as being possibly part of the reason by not the main reason for the existence of religions. religion large, complex; explanations small, simple.)

One point Boyer makes is that “The main problem with our spontaneous explanations of religion lies in the very assumption, that we can explain the origin of religion by selecting one particular problem or idea or feeling and deriving the variety of things we now call religion from that unique viewpoint.”

“But we should approach the question from another angle. Indeed, we can and should turn the whole “origin” explanation upside down, as it were, and realize that the many forms of religion we know are the outcome not of a historical diversification but of a constant reduction. The religious concepts we observe are relatively successful ones selected among many other variants.”

“To explain religion we must explain how human minds, constantly faced with lots of potential ‘religious stuff’, constantly reduce it to less stuff.”

I feel that the cultural appropriation of religion as a tool to coerce the labor of the masses to the benefit of the elites is a major powerful shaper of religion. The example I give, possibly too often, is “would Christianity have been adopted by Rome as a state religion if it were anti-slavery?” Since Rome was the greatest slave state in the western world (possibly the whole world) at the time, I think not. If Christianity were not made a state religion of Rome, would it have been in position to flow into the vacuum left when Rome collapsed and thus become a major political force in Europe thereafter? Again, I think not.

So, is the current status of Christianity as a “major religion” globally due to the ideas it contains and how they resonate in the minds of individual Christians? I think not. I think it stems from the utility of Christianity in controlling the masses under the secular powers. To quote Boyer again “Churches and other such religious organizations are notorious for their active participation in and support for political authority. This is particularly the case in oppressive regimes that so often try to find some support in religious justifications.”

In my lifetime, Russia as part of the Soviet Union, was considered an atheistic regime. When the Soviet Union fell, the organized religions of Russia were allowed to reopen their churches, with the new regime’s support, but do you know the bargain that was struck for that to happen? When the Russian churches reopened, they all seemed to be supporters of their fearless leader, Vladimir Putin, and never direct an ill word his direction. Apparently, leash accepted. Unlike the Hebrews of the OT, the Russian Orthodox Church did not refuse the yoke with a stiff neck.

So, while the psychology of individual human beings is the field religions are planted in, it is no longer the source of the religious ideas. The elites provide these. (Remember limbo? It was and now is not a religious idea that is in favor. Did this change come from individual Christians? I don’t think so.)


  1. It seems like religion originates in anxiety over death. Almost every religion has some promise or explanation for dealing with mortality.

    What you seem to be talking about is how religions, particularly successful ones, begin to take on additional societal functions as it becomes state supported, how the long term success of any religion becomes tied to aligning itself and its beliefs with broader societal goals.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by James Cross — April 13, 2021 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

    • I think the death anxiety is overblown. As Woody Allen has said that he is not afraid of death, it is the dying he is afraid of, the painful part.

      I think primitive people were more connected to nature. The fife cycle of all living things was blatantly obvious. Since no one could remember what it was like before they were born, why would anyone care what it would be like after they die? Religious rituals were more closely related to what was happening while people were alive. Rituals for having a good hunt. Rituals to keep lightning away from the tribe. Rituals to keep peace with the neighboring tribes. All of these things were more pressing than death rituals, I suggest. But since burial (probably to keep wild animals from invading the tribe’s space) was practiced, and people buried objects with the deceased, we tend to think death rituals were more important. But the remains of a harvest ritual probably got eaten, or for a spring lambing, or … a good run of salmon. This seems a sort of survivor bias for rituals.

      On Tue, Apr 13, 2021 at 12:52 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 14, 2021 @ 12:36 pm | Reply

      • Most primitive people believe in spirits, survival after death. Many practice ancestor worship. While some think animistic beliefs may have proceeded belief in an afterlife. They are closely related.

        “Once animistic thought is prevalent in a society, interest in the whereabouts of spirits of the dead could reasonably lead to the concept of an unseen realm where the individual personality of the deceased lives on. The afterlife might be a rewarding continuation of life on earth, or a realm of eternal punishment for those who break social norms. Belief in an afterlife may have generated a sense of “being watched” by the spirits of the dead, prompting archaic forms of social norms (Bering 2006) actualized in the role of the shaman”.

        “The minimum requirement for veneration of dead ancestors is animism and belief in the survival of the personal identity beyond death. In our analyses, ancestor worship is significantly positively related with belief in an afterlife and shamanism. Belief in an afterlife evolves prior to shamanism and ancestor worship. There is significant support for coevolution of shamanism with ancestor worship and active ancestor worship. Belief in an afterlife with shamanism appears to be a stable cultural state, rarely lost once achieved. Ancestor worship is also less likely to be lost in the presence of belief in an afterlife with shamanism”.


        The Immortality Key argues that the earliest structured religions also were cults of the dead and based on communication with dead spirits through usage of psychedelics.


        Comment by James Cross — April 14, 2021 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  2. Vlad deserves worshipping! A true humanitarian.

    Yeah, there are many reasons, but I don’t subscribe to it being complex, just broad. Existential death anxiety is the biggie for *why* belief exists/took/takes root. There are multiple directly related subsets connected to this fear/pain, and then you get into poverty, the idea of cosmic justice, club mentality, hats, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by john zande — April 14, 2021 @ 4:36 am | Reply

    • Boyer goes over extensively all of the normal causes proffered for the existence of religion and shows how none of them alone holds much water. The book is worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 14, 2021 @ 11:21 am | Reply

  3. You must add that it gives people a feeling of superiority. That they got it “right” because they are so smart and holy..they can feel they are better than you…fear of death for sure, but also ego


    Comment by maryplumbago — April 19, 2021 @ 9:03 am | Reply

    • Well, yeah! I have always found it ironic that religions can have the storylines that you are an abased, fallen, unworthy sinner but you are saved, so Hooray! Is irony dead?

      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — April 19, 2021 @ 10:53 am | Reply

  4. There is always daylight and night. There is always positive & negative. Likewise within humans there is logical and religious side (beyond logic). This religious side gave birth to religion through Divine revelation. This logical side gave birth to science. That is the superiority of human over all creatures.
    Hopefully you don’t mind if I provide this link:


    Comment by Tikno — April 20, 2021 @ 10:03 am | Reply

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