From superstition to religion


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.”

Related Articles:
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”?

6 responses to “From superstition to religion

  1. I can not recommend too strongly David Sloan Wilson’s book on religion as a society-level adaptation. The title is Darwin’s Cathedral and Wilson manages to bring together a lot of work both on religion specifically and on evolution (biological as well as cultural) in general. I am really finding that reading him is helping me to clarify a lot of my own ideas.


  2. Thanks for the recommendation Konrad. The book has been in the back of my mind since I read an article by Wilson criticising Dawkins’ ideas on the matter. I think I will recommend it to our local library – it needs to have more books like this.


  3. Have you read Scott Atran on the origin of god(s)through human evolution?


  4. I am yet to look at Atran but that is because my interest is actually focussed on superstition rather than religion. I have seen him presenting some of his research though and he seems very much worth looking at further. I guess I prefer Wilson for three reasons. 1) He has an excellent grasp of the work done in relevant disciplines including work on cultural evolution and on major transitions in evolution. The one area I would fault him is in evolutionary-developmental biology but that is very new and often rejected out of hand. Wilson is also a bit too adaptationalist to be likely to view it favourably. 2) He is generally very open to his explanation being only a partial one and needing to be viewed in the context of the various other explanations of religion that have been put forward. 3) He is a functionalist, which strikes me as the sociologist’s equivalent of philosophical pragmatism that I espouse. The research I am doing should fit fairly well with what Wilson has done on religion, despite the fact that I go for a by-product theory for trying to explain (some) superstition. The reason is that the (group) adaptation approach seems more appropriate for religion than for superstition. I want to write up a paper about the reasons for this difference in the near future.


  5. I see that both Scott Atran and David Sloan Wilson spoke at the Beyond Belief II meeting held a few days ago. PZ Myers describes his reaction to some of Wilson’s presentation on his blog posting Wish you were here.

    There will be videos from this meeting which I am really looking forward too. There is a great list of speakers and the videos from last year’s meeting were great.


  6. Yes, last year’s Beyond Belief was amazing – beyond belief, one might be tempted to say. Considering that I share many of the central values of the Enlightenment, I also very much look forward to viewing this year’s talks. As something of a entrée, I suggest Shimony’s 1997 Presidential Address to the Philosophy of Science Association. It is available through JSTOR which, unfortunately, requires a subscription.


Leave a Reply: please be polite to other commenters & no ad hominems.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s