The Origins of Religion


Religion is an organized system of beliefs, values, practices, and behaviors that tries to answer the fundamental questions of life. Its roots are in primitive human curiosity about the nature of things and our fears of uncontrollable forces, but it has evolved into a system that provides hope in a better future. These hopes may be for a happy afterlife as in Christianity and Judaism or for peace of mind as in Buddhism. Most religions have rituals and ceremonies, sacred texts, a priesthood or clergy, and special days and places that are holy to its followers.

Most scholars agree that there are two major theories about the origins of religion. One is called the faith-based theory, which suggests that religions begin with divine messages from a god or gods to humans. The other theory is that religions grow out of human needs, whether for a sense of belonging to a group or for a way to cope with the problems of living and dying.

Most scholars who study religions believe that religion is a social phenomenon, not a psychological or physiological one. Anthropologists, for example, argue that humankind developed religion because it needed a way to deal with both the fear of death and the desire for a meaningful existence. Other scholars disagree, however, and claim that the evolution of religion is much more complex than a simple reaction to biological or social needs. For example, they cite the fact that most religious groups are very similar in their belief systems and the presence of certain key characteristics, such as the belief in a supreme creator or a moral code, distinguish all religions from other forms of social organization.