The origins of religion are not often discussed. There almost seems to be a taboo against investigation of its origins and development. Daniel Dennett suggested in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that this may result from a fear that the “tricks” religion uses for its advancement and protection could be exposed.
Consequently the scientific investigation of religion is still in its infancy and there is much work to do. Michael Shermer presents some ideas in How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. The comments by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs & Steel : The Fates of Human Societies are also relevant. Consider his description of the transition of superstition to religion resulting from the development of chiefdoms and state societies (p 277):
“The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy. Bands and tribes already had supernatural beliefs, just as do modern established religions. But the supernatural beliefs of bands and tribes did not serve to justify central authority, justify transfer of wealth, or maintain peace between unrelated individuals. When supernatural beliefs gained those functions and became institutionalized, they were thereby transformed into what we term a religion. Hawaiian chiefs were typical of chiefs elsewhere, in asserting divinity, divine descent, or at least a hotline to the gods. The chief claimed to serve the people by interceding for them with the gods and reciting the ritual formulas required to obtain rain, good harvests, and success in fishing.
“Chiefdoms characteristically have an ideology, precursor to an institutionalized religion, that buttresses the chief’s authority. The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person, or may support a separate group of kelptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs. That is why chiefdoms devote so much collected tribute to constructing temples and other public works, which serve as centers of the official religion and visible signs of the chief’s power.
“Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies. First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other – by providing them with a bond not based on kinship. Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others. At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks.”
Morals, values and the limits of science
Is religion the source of morality?
Religion and violence
Science and the supernatural
What is religion?
Limits of science or religious “fog”?