The Origins of Religious Beliefs

(Investigator 154, 2014 January)

Religion is merely a more respectable form of a superstitious belief in the supernatural.

Although our earliest ancestors would have had no notion of supernatural concepts, over a lengthy period of time early Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis did develop spiritual and magical beliefs. This essay seeks to examine some of the processes which might have influenced the development of such beliefs during the past several hundred thousand years. Lacking actual records of how such beliefs originated, we must extrapolate from what we know of the belief systems of ancient cultures and contemporary primitive societies.

The cognitive reasoning which formed the basis of all supernatural beliefs appears to have been:-

1.    A belief in the existence of spirit which controlled all aspects of the natural world which, in return for adoration, prayers, gifts or sacrifices, were thought to be willing to interfere with natural processes, to protect or assist human petitioners;

2.    That some of these spirits existed in a non-physical realm, and that, after death, true believers could join them in that place where they would live for eternity;

3.    That the entire cosmos was created by a spirit being, or beings, who had also given life to all living creatures, including humans.
Small and relatively defenseless fear probably served as an important survival mechanism for very early hominids. One of their few advantages was their excellent colour vision which unfortunately was almost completely useless in the dark. The effect of millions of years of nighttime experiences, hearing the terrifying sounds of predators, but unable to see them in he dark, produced a profound impression upon hominid species, an innate fear of the dark which persists to this day.

As increasing intelligence enabled hominids to become more aware of their environment, their fears and experiences led them to create an imaginary world of terrifying monsters; yet this same intelligence also enabled them to evolve coping mechanisms, imaginary beings to protect them, and, although completely erroneous, these ideas would become the basis for all subsequent belief-systems. The idea that religious beliefs evolved out of human fear is not new, Publius Statius (45-96 AD) noted, "Fear first made gods in the world." (Thebiad, book 3, line 661); more recently Bishop Spong noted that religion probably evolved as a means of providing humans with a sense of security rather than as a search for truth.

The earliest definite evidence of a belief-system comes from Tsodilo in the Kalahari Desert. This suggests specific ritual worship of a python deity some 70,000 years B.P. (Coulson, Staurset and Walker, 2011)  Around 40,800 B.P. weapon decorations and cave-painting evolved. and circa 30,000 years B.P., superstitious beliefs appear to have taken on a more definite structure. (Leroi-Gourhan and Michelson, 1986) Small stone or clay fertility figures began to appear (Narr, 2009) and while their purpose remains obscure, their prevalence in later ancient archeological sites suggests they were important fertility symbols.

Around 30,000 – 24,000 years B.P. Homo neanderthalensis died out leaving H. sapiens the only surviving hominid. Circa 12,800 years ago during the Younger Dryas period 1,300 years of lower temperatures reduced atmospheric moisture creating widespread droughts. In the Levant, shrinking grasslands greatly reduced herd numbers forcing the nomadic hunter-gatherers to increasingly rely on natural cereals which provided an alternative food source. Adopting a semi-permanent lifestyle they settled in parts of south-eastern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Ethiopia. This dramatic lifestyle change ushered in the Neolithic Age and would produce profound changes to human society.

By a process of selection in the Levant around 12,000-10,200 B.P. one group, the Natufians, discovered better yielding varieties of wheat and, with the development of the sickle, were able to produce more than adequate food supplies. While often still semi-monadic, many began to clear greater areas of land for crops and by 9,000 years B.P. cereal farming had spread from central Turkey to southwestern Iran. (Roberts, 2011, p. 208) With the introduction of crops such as flax, lentils, and the increasing domestication of animals (sheep 13,000 B.P. pigs, 11,000 B.P. and goats and cattle 10,000 years B.P.), hunting became almost completely redundant.

Because crops required a water supply people tended to cluster around rivers, forcing families and clans into close proximity with others. With common objectives a more stable lifestyle, surplus food and the emergence of trading, the individual groups began to gradually assimilate. Circa 12,000 B.P. family groups comprised only about 18 or so members, but by around 10,000 B.P. these had increased to about 90 members and by 8,000 B.P. hundreds were living together in villages of linked multiroomed houses. (Mann, 2011) To socially control these larger populations various forms of social regulation, usually allied to some form of religious and moral codes, began to emerge.

Superstitious and religious beliefs were already well evolved by the Neolithic Era; so what were the circumstances which may have contributed to the creation of such beliefs? Some major influences were probably: -

(a)    Simulacra and Nature-Spirits: The perception of what appeared to be human or animal faces or figures upon natural objects would have suggested the idea that  strange beings resided within these objects;

(b)    Dreams, Omens, Prophecies and Life After Death: When individuals interacted with deceased relatives and friends in dreams which were thought to be real, they assumed the dead must  still be "alive" existing in a place separate from the physical world;

(c)    Language and Communication: Before individuals can conceptualize the "images" of nature-spirits and communicate these concepts to others, they need to have evolved a quite advanced level of linguistic skills;

(d)    Confirmation Bias: Humans tend to look for, and find, "relationships" between random, unconnected events leading to invalid assumptions.



While processing sensory data provides our "perception" of the external world, this can sometimes become confused, especially when dealing with anomalous visual or auditory patterns. Plato called these perceptual "errors" simulacrum, (plural – simulacra, "phantasm" or "semblance", Camille, 1995, p. 31). Sometimes referred to as Pareidolia, rather like the abstract patterns in a Rorschach test, they can often be misinterpreted as being something they are not.

Simulacra are common on rough surfaces, such as tree bark, weathered rock surfaces; or in clouds. A common simulacrum in the West is the face or image of Jesus  "seen"  in clouds, snow, pancakes, tortillas, potato chips, and corrugated iron; in 1996 a cinnamon bun gained a great deal of publicity when the "face" of Mother Theresa was "seen" on its surface.

Early artists appear to have been aware of, and used simulacra; in painting the Great Bison on the walls of the Bernifal Caves at Dordogne the artist appears to have added an ear and patches to the chest to a roughly bison-shaped outline on the rock-wall. (Mohen, 2002, p. 122)

Similarly, ancient figurines such as the Acheulian Goddess, (230,000+ years B.P.), and the Willendorf Venus, (circa 26,000 years B.P.), appear to have been created from roughly human shaped stones.



Of an unknown origin, dreams must have profoundly influenced early humans, especially where they "interacted" with the dead, or received dire warnings of future calamities.  The former gave rise to a belief that, while asleep, some part of their being traveled to a place where the dead still "existed" and they erroneously came to perceive death as a "transition" to a non-physical existence; this led to the belief that, if the dead still "lived", they would need food and tools for this existence. The first burials indicating such beliefs were quite simple;  circa 100,000 years B.P. at Jebel Qafzeh (Galilee), an ochre stained skeleton was buried with deer antlers in its hands (Lieberman, 1993) and similarly, at Skhul, (Israel), body V, (circa 90,000 years B.P.), was found with a boar's mandible in its hands, (p. 163).

Belief in survival of the dead seems to have led to the idea that, In return for a proper burial and continued reverence, dead ancestral spirits would provide protection and "good-luck" to the home and occupants against the vicissitudes of human existence a belief which appears to have been well-established by the Neolithic era with the bodies and bones of deceased relatives often being retained within the homes. In Çatalhöyük, (circa 9,500 – 7,700 B.P.) collections of skulls were arrayed on clay platforms along the walls, or buried under the floors. These pagan beliefs would long survive; even against powerful Christian prohibitions they persisted to be celebrated in thinly disguised "Christian" festivals such as All Hallows Eve (October 31st, Hallowe`en), where dead saints,  like the dead ancestors of the past, were venerated as divine intercessors.

Prophetic dreams warning of future misfortune were thought to be helpful warnings from spirits or gods, and prophetic dreaming to gain such omens were considered so important they became an inherent part of the religious beliefs of many cultures. The Jews believed Yahweh spoke to the prophets via dreams, (Numbers 12:6), he warned Abimelech that Sarah was the wife of Abraham; (Genesis 20:3), Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, (Genesis 28:12), and was later warned to flee to the land of his own people. People took notice of their dreams; Emperor, Augustus had a recurring nightmare, and although he never admitted its contents, one day every year he would go and sit in a public place, "… with his eyes closed and his hand outstretched like a common beggar.  (Gabriel, 2001, p. 183) So important were "prophetic" dreams that the Babylonians and Egyptians, had texts providing dream interpretations; e.g. if an Egyptian dreamt he was drinking warm beer it meant suffering would come upon him. (Lewis, 1970, p. 11.)

Since the occurrence of prophetic dreams was uncertain, seers devised many techniques to produce trance states to "communicate" with deities and spirits. The ingestion or inhalation of hallucinogenic substances was common; however, because of the often toxic side-effects, they devised techniques to overcome the dangers. Siberian Shamans fed the toxic psychedelic mushroom Amanita muscaria to reindeers; their metabolism broke down the toxins, leaving, "… the hallucinogenic properties intact in the urine." (Vallance, 2005, p. 49); collected and drunk, this produced a safe hallucinogenic trance. American Indian shamans sat in tightly closed tipis and inhaled smoke from burning green or damp wood which rendered them unconscious. In another technique, the "star blanket", the shaman, wrapped so tightly in a blanket that it severely restricted heir breathing, would fall unto an unconscious trance.
Less dangerous methods were developed the most common being divination by the casting of lots, throwing down devices with marked or different coloured sides; the answer to the query being indicated by which side landed uppermost. Later, additional pieces were added to provide more varied results.  Divination became widespread and was used by individuals as well as civic and religious authorities.



While the earliest hominids probably possessed simple communication abilities, to warn of danger or where to find food, their vocabulary would have been insufficient to communicate the abstract concepts which comprise religious ideologies. All that would change for, as they evolved, the hyoid bone moved down the throat to form a long resonating tube which provided greater ability to articulate sounds. Then, some 300,000 – 400,000 years B.P., genetic variations in the gene FOXP2 led to brain maturation and speech and language developments which gave hominids the ability to articulate a greater range of sounds (Krause, 2007)

Human language developed an ever-increasing complexity of structure, syntax and vocabulary and, with adequate communication abilities both H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, were able to  exchange the abstract concepts which comprised the earliest forms of superstitious and religious beliefs.



Confirmation Bias is the tendency to recall events which agree with our beliefs while forgetting those which do not. One may surmise that early humans "saw" a simulacrum and afterwards a male had a successful hunt; or a female had an easy birth, and in their primitive logic they erroneously perceived a "relationship" between these two unrelated events. Probably after a series of similar coincidences they mistakenly concluded that something living within the tree or rock, a nature-spirit, had the power to influence everyday events and so concluded these spirits could be valuable allies in the human struggle to survive. Thereafter, whenever they sought help, good-luck, or guidance, individuals would return to the tree or rock, touching it, hugging it, or offering "prayers" in an attempt to gain its support. However, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, when the time came to follow the migratory herds they would have to leave their sacred object; they seem to have reasoned that a piece of the tree or rock would contain some of the object's spiritual essence and so, they began to wear or carry pieces of the sacred object; this appears to have been the origins of the practice of carrying, or wearing amulets for protection.
Perceived as reservoirs of spiritual energy, trees become associated with the origins of many mythical or heroic beings. Common in folklore and mythology; friendly tree spirits were believed to provide messages of support, or to warn of danger; e.g. the rustling of the trees was interpreted by David as a sign that God had readied the Philistines for defeat. (2 Samuel 5:24)

As the children of "Mother Earth" rocks and stones were thought to contain powerful spiritual forces, and, as her children, to share her knowledge of the subterranean world, being aware of the locations of gold, silver, mineral deposits and even hidden treasure.

Believing the Sun sank beneath the Earth into "the realm of the dead;" (Thiel, 1957, p. 46), caves, were considered especially sacred and often associated with the concept of resurrection. Solar-deities such as Adonis, Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Hercules, Horus, Isis, Mithra, Osiris and Jesus; were claimed to have been "rock-born" ("petrogenes" – born in caves). Jesus was possibly the ultimate rock-born-deity; born in a cave, his resurrection from a rock tomb indicated his further supremacy over the powers of the underworld.

Worship of sacred stones, or stone images, was once common even in Judaism. Although forbidden, (Leviticus 26:1), smooth river-stones had long been objects of worship (Isaiah 57:3-7), while teraphim, possibly human shaped stones, were also apparently worshipped in the homes.

Stones were an important part of many religions; gravestones were erected as dwelling places for the spirits of the dead, while megaliths and stone circles marked the locations of sacred locations throughout Britain and Europe. Despite the influence of Christianity many groups never completely abandoned their old beliefs; until recently, the indigenous Saami, (the Lapps), continued to worship sieidi (or seita), trees and rocks that appeared to possess faces of human or animals.



To explain the concept of "life"  early humans evolved the concept of Animism, (anima, Latin for spirit or vital breath), a belief that all humans, animals and even inanimate objects such as trees, rocks, hills, rivers and lakes were "animated" by a life-force, or "soul".  Many believed this ethereal "soul" was a "divine" and immortal form of energy, separate and independent from the physical body; it was thought to return to the heavens when the physical body "died".

Animism eventually evolved into Vitalism, a belief that a constant stream of "life-energy" flowed from heaven and, after entering the body flowed" through a system of "invisible" channels, independent of the blood-stream, known to the Hindus as srotas, and "meridians" to the Chinese. Based on Vitalistic concepts most alternative therapies claim that a constant and balanced" supply of this energy is needed to sustain life and health; should the internal flow of this energy become depleted of "blocked", poor health will result., although of course, they claim their particular form of "therapy can restore a healthy balance.

Early humans mistakenly perceived a connection between this life-energy and both blood and air.
Believing blood was the life-energy led to a belief that eating the flesh of strong powerful animals, or brave enemies, one could absorb their life-energy and so become stronger and more powerful.

Others erroneously perceived a relationship between breathing and life, some like the Hindus and Buddhists identifying it as a subtle form of air-borne energy drawn into the body with every breath. They called it Prana, (from, pra = constant + an = movement).

To the Chinese it was Qi, or ch'i — a "vital or heavenly air" a radiant energy originating in the Sun, "… strong enough to blow the tails of comets as if in a strong wind." (Teresi, 2002, p. 149)  Many other cultures also identified the Sun as the source of this life-energy and some, like the ancient Egyptians, believed the rising Sun transferred its life-force, (ka) directly into the sacred image of the god or goddess in the temples.  (Reidy, 2010, p. 204)

Carpenter (1920) indicated that Christianity was essentially a form of solar worship. Jesus shared many of the mythical traits of other solar deities; like them, he was born on, or about, the time of the Winter equinox, 25th December; and shared a number of festivals celebrating the growing power of the Sun. He was born in a stable, a cave or underground chamber, (the traditional birthplace of the Sun); his mother was a virgin who, like Virgo the heavenly virgin, remained an eternal virgin, (Remsberg, 2007, p. 259). After birth he faced danger and, like Horus and Krishna, was taken by his parents to a distant location to avoid death. Like the Sun he had twelve disciples, (signs of the Zodiac), and was resurrected from his underground cave.

The fact that the Sun disappeared each night, and grew weaker throughout the year, was attributed to the belief that it was engaged in an eternal battle with the forces of darkness which ruled the night. This belief led to the concept of Dualism, the idea of two opposing cosmic forces light versus darkness, locked in an eternal battle for supremacy. To support the Sun in its eternal struggle the ancients built great bonfires to send heat skywards while others, like the Incas, sacrificed humans and animals believing their blood would maintain the Sun's strength and sustain its path across the heavens.

So it was that the various components, increased intelligence, language and imagination came together and early humans created the earliest "religious" concepts then, as family groups grew into tribes, religious leaders, Shamans, Medicine-men, etc. appeared, along with more complex forms of superstition, magic and religion.



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