This blog post illustrates the last of ten reasons why humans developed religion. Enjoy!
Neanderthal, a precursor to modern humans, lived from 400,000 to about 40,000 years ago. A skeleton, referred to as Shanidar I, shows an individual that had clearly been disabled long before his death. Others must have cared for him in order for him to survive. This is probably the first evidence of a compassionate practice in a social group. Later on, virtually all civilizations adopted some form of the Golden Rule including most religions. Native American Spiritually says it this way: “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.” Jainism states: “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” The Yoruba, an ethnic people in Nigeria, have one of my favorite renditions: “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.” If we are going to live together, we need to be mindful of how we treat each other. Unfortunately, our history shows that this does not always apply to those outside our tribe, our ethnic group, or our nation. In fact, religion has been used to engage in wars, subordinate women, condone slavery, and justify genocide in spite of the lofty precepts of the Golden Rule.
The Egyptian Pyramid Texts are the first recorded stories that can be called the basis of a religion. They date from the third millennium BCE, contain a creation myth and introduce one of their gods, Osiris. Another early text from the second millennium BCE that many believe influenced the biblical writers is the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish. It describes the victory of god Marduk over the goddess Tiamat. While scholars disagree on the date of its origin, it predates the Bible. The Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible is an amazing creation in and of itself. Written, edited, and compiled over a several hundred-year span, it contains not only a creation story, the description of a god, but the history of a people. It is truly remarkable that more than 2,500 years later, some Jews still follow the dictates of Leviticus including dietary restrictions. One would think that the similar elements in these stories would lead to the classification of mythology for all of them. However, when Edith Hamilton’s book on mythology was taught in my high school class, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were not included. I find it interesting that religious people so easily dismiss the beliefs of others as myths, but refuse to examine their own stories in that same light.
Neanderthal graves show the earliest evidence of intentionality. Shells are placed in the eye sockets, red ocher is used to paint the bones, and objects undoubtedly belonging to the deceased are placed in the grave. Becoming aware of one’s own morality was undoubtedly frightening. In the harshness of early humans’ lives, the lure of an afterlife must have been overwhelming. Many religions posit some type of afterlife. Egyptians mummified their dead and filled the tombs of the rich with grave goods because they believed that the physical body would be needed in the afterlife. Later on, religious views of the afterlife took on a more spiritual nature. Even later still, the notion of hell came into play. Both of these concepts allowed religious institutions to control their followers. But ask yourself, how did that work out for the Egyptians? We now dissect their mummies. Do you really need the promise of an afterlife and the threat of hell to live a good life on Earth? Why is it that the least religious countries such as Norway and Sweden have the most generous social programs while the Christian Republican candidates for president want to cut funding for Planned Parenthood that provides needed health services for poor women?
Human beings have always done evil things. From the earliest skeletons ever discovered, there are examples of man-made injuries. Today, one only has to listen to the first five minutes of a newscast to hear the latest murder, rape, or other criminal act. While the Old Testament talks about Satan, he is an adversary directed by god. It is only in the New Testament and later Christian writings that Satan is developed into the personification of a supernatural evil being who tempts man. The presence of an evil entity in a book that talks about an all powerful god is a bit hard to fathom. Why didn’t god just do away with Satan? If he is omniscient and all powerful, certainly that would have been a choice. Christian apologists like to use the notion of free will to explain the presence of evil. However there is no free will involved in being infected with the plague or in a newborn baby that dies shortly after it is born.
Valerie Tarico writes that “Worship practices, music and religious architecture have been optimized over time to evoke right brain sensations of transcendence and euphoria.” Standing in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I can attest to those sensations: the beauty of the Rose Window with all of its shimmering colors as the light filters through and the vibrations from the massive pipe organ pumping out an old hymn. Imagine what it felt to the hungry poor masses as they entered this place of worship in the 14th century shortly after it was completed. I will wager that virtually everyone raised in a faith can attest to Tarico’s explanation. For my part, I can still sing from memory the Christian hymns I learned as a child. When my brother was still alive, he, my sister, and I would break out into the hymn “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage” which the youth choir sang as it marched triumphantly down the center aisle of Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.
From Neanderthal to the present day, we have tried to explain why we are here on this earth and what is our purpose. It is not surprising that religion helped us cope. But it is time to examine whether we would be better off letting go of this mythology and focusing on the grave problems we and our planet face. We can’t afford to brush off climate change with “God has a plan” or excuse tragedies with “There must be a purpose” or “They are in a better place, in heaven.” These words will just not move us forward to make the changes we need to make to improve the lives of those who suffer and to leave this planet in a better place for our children and grandchildren.
Karen L. Garst
December 4, 2015
 Valerie Tarico, Trusting Doubt (The Oracle Institute Press: Independence, VA, 2010), p. 248.
 Barbara King, Evolving God: A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion (New York: NY: Doubleday, 2007), 117.
 John Loftus, editor, The Christian Delusion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010), 54.