In the Beginning… The Origins of Religion

Human existence has always been inexorably tied and indebted to its beginnings… Understanding the past is the resilient aspiration of all mortal inquiry, for which mystery, curiosity, creativity, and imagination are timeless allies.


For centuries, the question of how and when religion and its practitioners began has been one mind-boggling enigma that has captivated the imagination or even the speculations of a multitude of inquisitive minds, especially in the field of comparative religions. Neither history nor science has succeeded in their attempts to find the truth. To our disappointment, no one really knows; it is an unsolved, attractive enigma. Besides, the idea that religion as an experience with the Invisible Unknown Mystery started out with only one person or group in a very specific location, millions of years ago and that, from there, it expanded to the rest of world, seems impossible to swallow. The genesis of religion is not linear. It is more reasonable to assume that such an experience began in different places and times in history with common, transcultural traits. Thus, when it comes to the origin of religion it makes more sense to talk about beginnings, in the plural.

The answers to the question of beginning depend considerably on what we believe the nature of humans is. In other words, they will be based on our anthropological assumptions.  If we accept the scientific notion that we are energy, mass, and movement, we will get one type of response, perhaps the one that affirms our definition is something subjective and socially constructed, and that the existence of a Supreme Reality is an illusion because it cannot be explained scientifically. If we look at this issue from the standpoint of the psychological and physiological needs to live lives that matter beyond simple feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and that we need healthy lives to guarantee our survival, the origin of religion may be one sub-conscious mechanism whereby those needs are met, and nothing else, a matter of health and wellbeing. But if we accept the relative truth that we are not just feelings, minds, and bodies but also souls, that understanding will give us a different answer, namely, that perhaps humans have an in-born trait or intrinsic quality that drives them to establish a relationship with the Unknown Mystery in the universe. Defined this way, then, humans do not create religion, they are religion.

Fortunately, dealing with the issue of how, when, where many world religions started is much easier to handle although not without some difficulties. The information is not always available or clear; also the founders of many of them were not keeping track of details of this sort. They did not even know that this kind of information would be important down the road. With different levels of precision, we have an idea of how many religions started in pre-historic and historic times. Thanks to a long history of research whose roots go back to the 19th century, we now have a series of inter and cross-disciplinary hypotheses seeking to explain how some pre-historical efforts to connect with a Supreme Power might have started or – even with a little more precision – how particular religions might have begun in our seven continents. To put it simply, in many cases we have a very good idea of what the roots and branches of some world religions might look like. Despite this helpful knowledge, we still are clueless regarding how religion, as a pervasive and cultural human effort to develop a relationship with the divine mystery, started, and developed.

However, using as “informants” what world religions have been and have done for centuries, as finalized concrete products of very long and convoluted processes, and setting aside the idea that religion or religions originated out of a primitive mentality, faulty thinking, naiveté and/or human ignorance, we hereby outline some of the most popular, tentative proposals about the genesis of religion, as a transcultural experience or phenomenon.

1. Everything is Alive and There is Life in Everything.  As a result of dreams and visions of people who died, in primitive societies religion might have started as the belief that former family members, friends, warriors, and ancestors were alive in some form, in another world, and still connected with the physical world of those left behind. The experience with the deceased in somewhat abstract terms, led many cultures to conclude that the dead existed “spiritually” and that they had “souls” as well; somewhat they were alive in another dimension. The same views were extended to animals, objects, plants, and other elements of nature; everything was alive and had a soul as well. As time passed by, this recognition led to the veneration of the dead and nature until they were worshipped as divine entities whom they would please in order to obtain favors. In the academic study of religion, this view is usually called Animism.

2. Dealings with the Mystical Powers of Nature.  Another hypothesis argues that religion began with groups of people responding to what they heard, saw, felt, touched, and tasted in the natural world. From their sensorial experience, they assumed there were mystical forces behind anything that they interacted with. As a fundamental piece of this evolving relationship, these pre-historical communities started personalizing the elements. -As an example of that, they gave names to the mystical powers of nature and attributed to them specific roles or functions until they became deities with the corresponding myths to explain who they were, what they did, and how they related to the physical world. Natural phenomena became impersonal divine realities and/or expressions of specific gods or goddesses in charge.

3. Recognition of One Supreme, All-Powerful Deity.  Some scholars affirm that, in some cultures, religion appears to have originated as a belief in one God, normally seen as above everything else and attributed perfect qualities. Recognizing the centrality or uniqueness of this God, the belief in many gods, and animism developed much later, as a normal part of the diversification process or even seen as a distortion. For that reason, many decided to go back to monotheism.

4. Controlling the World of Nature.  It has been said that once humanity failed to manipulate nature with magic, as a second stage of three-stage process, primitive societies resorted to the use of religion to achieve this goal, hoping that through its beliefs and rituals nature itself would also cooperate and submit to the will of humans. Religion’s failure to control the elements was replaced by science, as the third stage of this linear understanding of humanity. One could then say that religion came after the failure of magic, only to fail again. It is the result of an evolutionary process, which is no longer relevant.

5. Psychological Projections. Since humans are not just souls and bodies, but also composed of minds and emotions, it is reasonable to assume that religion, in many places, might have originated as a result of human desires, wishes, and/or needs that needed satisfaction in the face of challenges or threats to their well-being. Motivated by fear and guilt of the spirits or God or even death, individuals and groups might have generated their beliefs, symbols, and rituals as defense-mechanisms, media for self-protection, affirmation, and control. According to this hypothetical explanation, religion may be seen as a subconscious self-seeking effort to benefit the self but projected to the outside. One implication is that we must study religious activities, symbols and actions to analyze the mental and emotional makeup of religious people.

6. Social Organization, Identity, and Meaning. In response to a type of life that might come across as chaotic, shapeless, and meaningless, religion mediates peoples’ desire and need to have a structured, unified community to which they belong and out of which they obtain answers to where they came from, who they are, and where they are headed. For centuries, all humans have longed for balance, harmony, and purpose in life. The emotional longing to be connected with something greater than themselves might have served as a very strong motivator to pursue a relationship with the mystical and ethereal powers that have been out there for billions of years up the present moment.

7. The Overwhelming Enigma of Life and Death.  A last hypothesis is reasonable.  To give to our dialogue more philosophical and existential overtones, we have to recognize that there is nothing more appealing, attractive, and powerful in life than life itself. Therefore, religion might have originated out of a profound reverence for the mystery and power of life and concerns for death, which inspired in people a sense of awe, humility, powerlessness, and submission to a perceived deeper reality. We should not be surprised that such sentiments might have crossed the minds of many primitive cultures and forced them to respond according to those sentiments, without full awareness of the presence of those sentiments.

Although there might some other explanations one could add to this list of hypotheses, a few, tentative conclusions may be presented:

1. Religion is as old as human existence. It does not come across like an after-thought, footnote or appendix in the course of human history. The premise here is that men and women, because of their complex nature (comprised of emotions, souls and body) have some sort of innate, intuitive and/or spiritual tendency to response to the outside world in mystical ways.

2. Religion must have started as a natural response to nature as an extension or projection of self and/or as the result of some kind of dynamic and complex dialogue between the inside of humans and what is outside.

3. Religion must have started in different places at different times; a linear process presupposing one, single, pre-historical religion from which others branched out is unreasonable and simplistic. If this is so, it would perhaps be more appropriate to talk about “origins.”

4. Religion originated as a result of a combination of several factors, difficult to single out. We now know that things in life are multi-factorial and that, at any given time, one factor or a combination of several could be more important than taking into consideration all the factors.

5.  Religion, in the interest of viability, growth and survival, went through a necessary process of formalization or institutionalization.  This is clearly seen in the case of religions that existed for many years and disappeared (like the Mystery Religions in the Greco-Roman world), but also in the case of those religions that have managed to survive up to the present times (like Abrahamic religions).  What started out as simple, spiritual experiences became  something more structured, formal, and diversified, with all the possibilities and limitations associated with this process.

While we give embrace these and other reasonable conjectures, one thing will forever be the same or go unchallenged: the untamable, human spirit will continue to look for answers that, buried in the-now-gone past, still long to be creatively reimagined until that moment when the mystery of the beginning(s) of religion will no longer be a treasure to look for, but an awesome discovery that will make all inquiries an issue of the past for other to assess.





About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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