Origins of Religion

Experience taught Stone Age people the difference between what poisoned them and what satisfied their hunger. Their minds gathered empirical realities necessary for survival. They did the best they could in drawing conclusions about the world beyond them. They assumed that they were at the center of the universe, which they saw as flat, small and under sky. They called themselves "the people" and thought that strangers were creatures of another sort less human than they. They believed that if they ate the flesh of a strong beast they might acquire its spirit, or if they ate a portion of the body of a leader who had died they might acquire his special qualities. They assumed that the sun and moon they saw moving across the sky were animate beings. A face of a dead person they knew and recognized in the peculiar shapes on the face of a rock was associated with the living spirit of that person dwelling within that rock. With no defined difference between spirit and materiality, they believed that in preserving a corpse they were also helping to preserve the spirit of one who had died. They believed that a body went limp at death because the spirit that had been within it had left it for the invisible world of the spirits. They felt no urge to meld these ideas of spirits and materiality into a consistent picture. People correctly associated their own movement with their will, and they believed that all movement was the product of will. They saw insects as moving by will. They assumed that plants grew because of a will within. They saw the sun, moon and stars as closer than they really were and as moving by will. For Stone Age people, will was spirit, and they saw the world as filled with many spirits. Or, to use another word: gods. They saw gods within everything that moved. There was a god within the wind and another god within the rivers. A god in the ocean made the waters rush to the beach and then retreat. The sun was a god. They saw their reflection in water and believed that what they were seeing was their spirit. People attributed much that happened to the spirits and to magic. Lightning, thunder, rain, the tides, procreation and fire were all magic. And fire was not only a product of magic it was a manifestation of spirit. Their view of the world came to them with invented stories. These were stories that were told and accepted without recognition of a difference between fact and fantasy. Every society had its stories about creation, each with a different twist. Storytelling described their world in a way that they could understand. There were stories of a god having created them out of earth and a story among others that they had been created from the bark of a tree. An occasional exception to universal order might be described as the work of a demon spirit, an evil of sorts. There were stories about evil and dread, a story with a threatening demon of some sort producing more excitement than one without danger. People believed that if the gods could perform magic so too could they. The earliest form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic through imitation -- such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that the magic of the drawing would encourage birth. Hunter-gatherers were trying to get by rather than to change their world. They tended to believe the world would always be as the gods had made it. They had no sense of social progress or image of humanity's capabilities beyond their abilities. The imagination of those who had a biological potential for genius and those of normal intelligence were limited by their culture. Had it been otherwise, modern society would have appeared much sooner.

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