Agrarian Magic: 20 Theories on the Origin of Religion

Agrarian Magic: 20 Theories on the Origin of Religion

Mystic Politics has compiled the top 20 theories on the origin of religion, from animism to agrarian magic. 

| This article originally appeared on Mystic Politics / by Everett Tucker.

Religion is a species-specific human universal phenomenon, complex, full of paradoxes, and found in all cultures. Social scientists and anthropologists since the late 17th century have attempted to rationally answer questions about religion, and while we can’t evaluate the veracity of religion’s claims, we can attempt to understand its functions.

The methods of comparative religion, comparative mythology, with interdisciplinary analysis throughout the fields of ethnography, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and linguistics have made a lot of progress in the last 100 years, with a boom of database-driven analysis in the last decade.

There are a number of theories attempting to explain the mystery of religion’s origin, purpose, functions and spread, from ancestor and soul worship, animism, totemism, spirit propitiation, magic theory, cultural memes, agrarian overseer gods, fear and worship of spirits, evolved adaption, or by-product of evolved adaption, and as a control mechanism.

There are multiple definitions and criterion of religion, most dealing with the supernatural, the unknown, the ineffable, the numinous, that terrific agency of the gods, or the comfort of ancestors and hero archetypes.

Let’s examine some of these meta-theories of religion’s origins to see what we can sort out.

20 Theories on the Origin of Religion:

1. Religion as Law revealed by God

I would be remiss to not recognize that large swaths of the population believe their religion is law directly revealed from god to his ecstatic prophets, who they follow the claims of. There is not much anthropological evidence of this, and we don’t have anything of note in the archaeological record which intimates the real historical existence of many of religion’s prophets, demigods, and heroes.

Luckily for us our anthropological and sociological examination of religion doesn’t require us to prove negatives or base our observations on religious verisimilitude.

2. Religion as Control Mechanism

A theme we will see in a lot of these religious theories is the presupposition that religion is a quest for meaning, direction, reasons, purpose, or control (Lamb 2012:6). We see religion as a focus on the divine and the hereafter, with a need for guidance and organization (Lamb 2012:8). We are seeking an authoritative source, and have invented one if it didn’t already exist.

Religion finds function in attempts to explain origins or the undergirding structure of reality. Some feel that life is meaningless without the values and morals imparted by their doctrine, and yearn for consolation for their misfortunes, pains, and losses (Lamb 2012:6).

Through the rites of religion, which vary from rites of magic in that they deal with adhering to law instead of directing supernatural agents, we see nascent humanity using religion as system of exchange, trading “goods and goodness now for goods and happiness now and later (Lamb 2012:5).”

The control usually comes from the priest-caste, those who are perceived to be the messengers or intermediary of the high-god(s), who use compensators (deferred gifts for acting in-line with their dogma), rituals, and magic to work with and even compel the supernatural towards social solidarity, identity, and cohesion (Lamb 2012:7).

Unsanctioned rites of magick, or witchcraft, can be used as social control too, in that identifying someone as a witch marked them as “evil”, and criminalized the practice of their old-earth religion (2).

Later on we will explore how supernatural agency worked as a constabulary force for human society, especially as relating to agrarian and pastoral cultures. For now let’s explore the fundamental aspects of spirituality and its progression to orthodox, and usually authoritarian, religion.

3. Religion as Belief in Spiritual Beings

Over a hundred years ago Charles Henning was examining religion with what we would recognize as a modern anthropological methodology and attitude, and in his paper ‘On the Origins of Religion’ he lists the late 19th century natty ideas and terms in the study of religion and its functions.

Henning cites E.B. Tylor as seeing the individual fundamental element of religion as the belief in spiritual beings (Henning 1898:374):

By requiring in this definition the belief in a supreme deity or in judgment after death, the adoration of idols or the practice of sacrifice or other partially diffused doctrines or rites, no doubt many tribes may be excluded from the category of religious; but as such narrow definition has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them, it seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim as a minimum definition of religion the belief in spiritual beings (Tylor 1873:424).

4. Religion as Soul Worship

The second of what Henning saw as a related trifecta of fundamental religiosity along with belief in spiritual beings and ancestor worship, is soul worship, saying that Julius Lippert had “showed in many of his works that the root of all historic development of religion will be found in the worship of the soul (Lippert 1881).”

These theorists felt that once the belief in souls is achieved, it extended to all objects whether animate or inanimate. The experience of dreams, visions, and hallucinations are thought to be the impetus of this belief in ethereal doppelgangers or astral projections of selfhood.

5. Religion as Ancestor Worship

In 1873 the philosopher and proto-psychologist Herbert Spencer “traced the origin of religion in the respect given to ancestors combined with beliefs in ghosts and fairies caused by dream experience. According to Spencer the ghosts of ancestors were transformed into gods (1):”

“Using the phrase ancestor worship in its broadest sense, as comprehending all worship of the dead, be they of the same blood or not, we conclude that ancestor worship is the root of every religion (Spencer 1873:422).”

Ancestor worship is closely related to soul worship and belief in spiritual entities, agents, or beings, and although one doesn’t preclude the other, it would do us well to note that one doesn’t necessitate the other, either (Henning 1898:375).

In Jericho, a plastered-over human skull gives us the first physical indication of explicit ancestor worship and totemization, dated to approximately 8000 years ago (Lamb 2012:85).

Henning agrees that soul and ancestor worship are the start of historical religion, and cites the German scholar Bernhard Stade in agreement with his views on ancient Israeli religious beliefs:

“It is probable that ancestor worship is by all means the oldest stage of the belief in spiritual beings, and that from this belief originated the primitive conceptions of the state of man after death. Thence it comes that the oldest social divisions of mankind, the family and the gens, have doubtless originated with many peoples from the worship of ancestors (Stade 1888:406).”

Is idolizing an ancestor the same as appeasing a spirit?

6. Religion as Ghost-Propitiation

Another related and seemingly redundant possible spiritual foundation is ghost-propitiation, or appeasement of the spirits and ghosts. Spencer himself notes this, despite him finalizing his views in support of ancestor worship as the first mover in the avalanche of religious thinking:

“We get from this kinship of beliefs among races remote in time, space, and culture, strong warrant for the inference that ghost-propitiation is the origin of all religions (Spencer 1873:7).”

The gods of humanity’s cultures may have been derived from the violent experiences of war and life that manifest as ghosts thought to be the paternal ancestors of a tribe, group, or culture.

The hero god is often the earliest deity to be worshiped within and across cultures, towards its providence and protection. The refinement of this ritual could very easily be ancestor worship (Stade 1888:424).

This indicates the spiritual trifecta of soul and ancestor worship, and belief and appeasement of spiritual beings, is attached to other theories like hyper-Agency detection, which we will explore later.

Other researchers attempted to articulate these paranormal phenomena as the basis or impetus for totem rituals in tribe and clan cultures.

7. Religion as Totemism & Concept of the Sacred

Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist and pioneer of the field, saw the concept of the sacred as the defining and fundamental identifying characteristic of religion, the most original and simplest form being totemism, not faith in the supernatural. He saw religion as a reflection of the concern for society, mirroring Henning’s economic theories on religion’s origin, and foreshadowing agrarian high-gods.

Multiple theories about totemism were forwarded, with theorists placing different importance to the multiple fundamental aspects of the totem rituals.

Alexander Aleksandrovich Goldenweiser, a Russian-born U.S. anthropologist and sociologist, lent his opinion in discriminating the different theories on the origin of totemism:

Hill-Tout regarded the religious aspect of the totem as the trait it had in common with the individual guardian spirit and the animal protector of a religious society; but he also held this religious element to be the only constant feature of totemism, and sought the origin of the institution in the individual guardian spirit (Goldenweiser 1912:600).


Then there is the late Andrew Lang’s theory, which derives totemism from animal and plant names given to social groups, originally local aggregates, later clans (Goldenweiser 1912:601).

And again:

The origins of Lang, Frazer, Haddon, and Hill-Tout are nothing but starting-points (Goldenweiser 1912:602).

Émile Durkheim and other functionalists or positivists theorized religion as originating in totemic rites, designed to promote the social, tribal, and clan solidarity. Totems which may have originally symbolized territory, lineage, clan, or any other myriad of things are intellectualized and spiritualized into gods.

So before even totemism there is indication of a smaller working part. Let’s explore a bit deeper into the underlying causality of the totemic ritual.

8. Animism v. Anthropism

The simple definition of Animism is the belief that all of visible nature is permeated and animated by spirits (Lamb 2012:97). Sukesh Dey, writing on the origin of religion, credits Tylor with the codification of the animism meme:

According to the great anthropologist Edward Tylor, religion had its origin in primitive man’s belief that non-physical substances like soul inhabited the physical and inanimate objects like stones, trees etc. Animism, derived from the Greek word Anima, meaning soul, is a belief in the non-physical, transempirical substance existing independent of body (1).”

Henning cites Lefevre in setting up an argument for animism or anthropism as the seed of organized religiosity:

Man lived during several geological periods before he cared for his dead fellows. This inferiority is not astonishing-ants and gorillas had finished their development, man began his own. . . . Abandonment [of the dead] was everywhere the primitive form of sepulture, and it is still employed; only it must be adapted to the respective religious beliefs, and takes on a liturgic character (Lefevre 1892:189).

Lefevre preferred Anthropism to Animism as the impetus for religion, which he defined as attributing “…to all surrounding beings, objects and phenomena, forces and abilities analogous to our own (Lefevre 1892:189).”

Others expanded Tylor’s thesis by including a pre-animistic stage, which they saw as general belief in a universal potency inherent within all things. “R.R. Marett proposed a pre-animistic stage of religion (3).”

Could this pre-animistic stage involve the fundamental animation of nature?

9. Religion as Nature Myth

Max Muller, the founder of modern comparative religion, had a three degree process for the origin of religion as it travelled through what he reconciled as the Physical, Anthropological, and Psychological stages (4).

The central thesis of Muller’s theory is that religion arises out of myths and cults which were based upon an original personification of natural phenomena, personification of the sun, sky, mountains, and rocks was the foundation of the earliest known cults (4).

Muller suggests nature worship or the “Physical” stage in religion’s origin, evolved into ancestor worship, what he called the “Anthropological” stage (4).

Muller’s third stage in religion’s evolution from intuitive magic to monotheism is the “Psychological”, where the refining and reflection of man placed attribution on nonphysical and nonhuman theistic constructs (4). At this point we are looking at every gust of wind as evidence of agency.

It is in this context that comparative mythology, religion, ethnography, and interfaith interdisciplinary work has fleshed out a history of astronomical allegory: (5).

According to scholars subscribing to this view all the great symbols of the world’s religions were personifications of natural phenomena; the sun, moon, stars, storms, the seasons of the year. One branch of this school maintained that solar myths were most important and that primitive rituals and myths were primarily concerned with man’s relation to the sun (1).

The Astrotheology memes have a lot of currency in alternative news and fringe academic circles, being derivatives of proto-ethnography’s antiquarian focus on edifice alignments and ethnic-astrology or Ethnoastronomy. (5).

During this nature-centric pre-animistic stage, the world is supposed to have been teeming with perceived “mana,” universal potency intrinsic in all things (4). In some occulted circles magic is defined as the “knowledge of the stars.” As such, a transition from nature myths to magical rites seems apropos.

10. Religion as Magic Theory

Another near-universal feature of culture is the ritual action towards compelling supernatural agency, which we call Magic (2). Anthropology sees magic as prescribed rituals spells and chants meant to force supernatural agency to help (Lamb 2012:12).

Another social-anthropologist and comparative mythicist, James G. Frazer, corroborated the totem-magick origins of religion in his most famous work, The Golden Bough (1890), through which he compares magical and religious beliefs from across the globe. Frazer theorized that religiosity evolved through a different three stage process: primitive magic; religion; and science (4).

By performing rites in a particular way, myriads of cultures and individuals have attempted to steer providence towards greater crops, replenished game herds, fertility, and health (2). Émile Durkheim saw magic not as religious, but as an individual instrument to achieve something, somewhat differing from Tylor and Frazer but agreeing in some individual applications:

According to Sir James Frazer, religion developed out of an original magical stage of human culture. As the magician believes that nature can be overwhelmed and instrumentalized for personal benefit through magical spells, in the very same manner, religious man believes in the existence of spirits that must be pleased and cajoled by prayers, rather than overwhelmed by magic formulas, though religionist, like magician, seeks to understand the mechanism of nature and control it (1).

We see two major modalities in this “primitive” magic: sympathetic and contagious. Sympathetic magic is derivative of the ‘like produces like’ meta-meme, and is exemplified by voodoo doll rites of will. Contagious magic presupposes that upon contact things influence each other, with spells that act like viruses and jump hosts (2).

So we have a system of allegorical gods aping nature that may have derived from crystallized magical thinking as it evolves into religious dogma, impacting culture with its tenets:

When people pray to deities for cures or blessings, that is religion, but when people take the supernatural into their own hands and compel it to act by applying specific rituals to achieve specific results, its magic (Lamb 2012).

Shamans worked as intermediaries between the supernatural or paranormal and the people, leveraging ecstatic trance journeys to experience the knowledge and vision of the other side, manipulating nature, supposedly, to control the weather, find the lost, to heal, and to perform any number of community maintaining tasks (Lamb 2012:14).

The shaman in many cultures was a trans-human in a state of becoming, with Paleolithic art evidencing their desires to be, and be associated with, animals (Lamb 2012:17). To embark on their visionary trips these proto-doctors chanted, danced, drummed, fasted, took hallucinogens (itself a theory on religion’s origin), and most disturbingly, took to bloodletting towards reaching states of gnosis (Lamb 2012:16).

There is a fair share of physical evidence documenting our magic-infused religious history, which we will explore now.

11. Religion as Hunting and Fertility Magic

Cave Art from the Paleolithic era, or old-stone age, is an effective record of man’s ideology, faiths, aspirations, science, and culture. We see depictions of shamans becoming animals, animals becoming food, both the crystallization of hopes, economic woes, and maybe hard-wired neurological functions- all recorded by these stone-age galleries (6).

In early-human artistry we see repeated instances of animals depicted as hunted, gored, and dying, which seems to indicate a “like draws like” sympathetic magic paradigm or logic. Near-3D models of prey are raised up in clay (Lamb 2012:48), enforcing the premeditated and intentional creation of them.

Ritualistic slaying of bears in Japan by an odd sect of Japanese mystics named the Ainu might indicate our own prehistoric rivalry with cave-bears survives in rites meant to enforce human ascendancy in the hierarchy of nature’s agents (Lamb 2012:81-84).

We have indication of fertility magick via artifacts created between thirty and fifteen thousand years ago (Lamb 2012:43). The Venus of Willendorf artifacts, figurative art of audaciously curvy and seemingly pregnant women gives us clues to their purpose, possibly as an amulet or magic object meant to compel the spirits towards grants of fertility, which we date between twenty-five and twenty thousand years ago (Lamb 2012:44).

The Dolni Vestonice artifacts of twenty-two thousand years ago seem to indicate that our ancestors were concerned with attempts of divination, to see the future or fate, to foretell potential windfalls and to identify someone who was colluding with nature against you (2; Lamb 2012:45).

The Dolni Vestonice figurines appear to be designed to shatter upon heating (Lamb 2012:45), which intimates a divination or scrying ritual in-line with the Chinese origin of writing, which is thought to be from the sigilization and shattering of turtle bones towards fatalistic knowledge. Interesting to think of religion and writing as derived from divination. Thoth would be proud.

We have now covered the more magickal aspects of proto-religion, but the 20th century saw more emotional reconciliations of religion’s origins.

12. Religion as Emotional Theory

Robert Ranulph Marett was a British ethnologist who had altered the theories of E.B. Taylor to place a pre-animism stage to the beginning of religion’s development, and who also argued that religion was less an intellectual and rational endeavor than it was a system premised by emotional responses to outside stimuli.

This opened up the discussion on the emotional aspects and basis for religion’s origins. A quick table delineates the emotional theories as:

i) Fear – Wilhelm Wundt saw religion as projection of fear into the environment, fear also being associated with the sense of mysterious; the uncanny; the numinous (1).

ii) Unspecified emotion – Psychologist William James sees religion as having a profound emotional basis, but refutes attempts to single out an emotion as the impetus (1).

iii) Fetishism – Fetishism or profound attachment to objects is another emotional reconciliation, which people think is exemplified with stones, trees, and other artifacts or objects found in religious context (1).

The issue with most theories of religion’s origins is that they ethnocentrically presuppose that Western Christendom’s monotheism is the culmination of religious evolution, whereas Lang and Schmidt posit that religion began with primordial monotheism, off-shooting into polytheism, animism, and magic. This is important to realize, as when we discard mono-theism as the evolved template for religion we open our eyes to the other underlying causes of religiosity, such as psychological propensities.

13. Religion as Psychological Theory

U.S. psychologist and philosopher William James was a pioneer in psychological analysis of religious belief, thought, and action. James introduced the differentiation of institutional religion and personal religion, the former relating to a group or organization, the latter to individual mystical experience irrespective of culture. Another designation he made after examining religion psychologically was his distinction between healthy-minded and sick-souled religion.

Sigmund Freud also wrote a lot about psychology and religion, and in Totem and Taboo he applied the infamous Oedipus complex (unresolved sexual feelings with your parents, which he superimposed unto the Oedipus saga in what may be the first “fan fiction”), postulating that the origin of religion lay in some inchoate state of development:

Religion comes in as a substitute to fill up the vacuum created by displacement of the father. Religion, therefore, has its origin in man’s attempt to project into the universe a belief in a cosmic father or God to give him support he once had from his human father (1).

In Moses and Monotheism Freud exhibited some of his Weimar Republic era mysticism and retold the biblical narrative in accordance with his psychiatric theories, summarized by Sukesh Dey:

Religion, according to Freud, “is a universal, obsessional neurosis of mankind,” which operates as an escape mechanism for our infantile jealousies and is born of a wish for protection from the terrors of life and nature. All forms of worship and all dogmatic beliefs are wish projections. God is the rationalization of the father ideal and is consequently a purely human creation. Since the earliest time, man has felt the force of the father image and has consequently believed in some kind of god; he will not relinquish this belief until he recognizes that it constitutes a false security which expresses rather than cures neurosis. When this recognition comes, religion will vanish and its place will be taken by science and the controlling intellect (1).

While Freud’s century-old ideals might not hold-up in all modern psychologists minds, he is highly influential on those seeking to reconcile religion in solely psychological terms.

A Swiss psychoanalyst, contemporary, and sometimes student to Freud named Carl Jung adopted a more sympathetic view of religion than his mentor and contemporary, where he focused on the religious symbolism.

It was through his reflection on man’s religious beliefs that Jung developed his mega-influential collective-unconscious and archetype memes. Jung also contributed to the corpus of comparative mythology with his attempts to delineate the fundamental and archetypal symbols or sigils of man.

The psychological analysis of theology is three-pronged in that it scrutinizes the rituals and actions, the origins of the phenomena, and the outcomes of the ritual on individuals and society.

The three main hypotheses of psychology on religion’s role in society are:

i. Secularization – Science and technology will replace religion.

ii. Religious Transformation – Secularization will lead to hyper-individualism making the core of religious worship more private and focused.

iii. Cultural Divide – Religious Transformation will lead to growing cultural disparity.

The hypotheses above indicate there is a lot of overlap between psychological and sociological takes on religious ritual, which we will explore now.

14. Religion in Sociological Theory

The Sociology of religion is distinguished from theology in that it does not set out to assess the validity of religious, but instead the sociological impact of it.

Auguste Comte was a French philosopher who is credited with creating the academic discipline of sociology and the scientific philosophy of Positivism, which is premised on the idea that only empirical facts derived from the scientific method should be considered knowledge.

Comte coined the term altruism and gave rise to the secular humanism movement with his seminal sociological work The Religion of Humanity. His ideas on social utopianism and evolution impacted social philosophers like Marx and George Eliot, setting the stage for Émile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer.

Comte too had a three phase model, his on the evolution of human thinking that culminates in what seems to describe our modern age (2012):

i. Theological or Fictitious stage – in this stage we see human thinking as theological or fictitious, at the level of a child and without strong logic or orderly thought- unscientific. Man is at a loss to reconcile nature so he reflects and invents, placing attribution on divine or supernatural hands. This first ‘theological’ stage of Comte’s was sorted into three benchmarks (1):

a) Fetishism – (or animism) the belief in something animating non-living objects.

b) Polytheism – fetishism crystallizes into polytheism where gods are classified w’ different aspects of nature attributed to them.

c) Monotheism – Comte evinces some ethnocentricity by classifying monotheism as the culmination of fuzzy thinking, where the logical belief in a Supreme God is felt to have replaced irrationality of polytheism.

ii. Metaphysical or Abstract stage – with a supreme god at the helm, natural questions arose as to why this presumed benevolent creator of man also create tidal waves, earthquakes, disease, and tornados. Metaphysical logic was introduced to address the question by presuming the answer lay behind the veil of physicality, occulted by our senses.

iii. Scientific or Positive stage – in the technocratic age of Comte, the knowledge derived from the previous stages is rejected as unscientific, marking a new age of rationalism and secular study. The scientific modality replaces canon law, and there is no room for superstition.

The sociological view on religion sought to find the outcomes, both good and bad, of religion on society, and studying the effects on a society’s economy shines a light on some of these.

15. Religion in Economic Theory

Charles Henning was vexed by what he saw as fruitless attempts to answer the origin of religious conceptions, which he felt were missing the underlying impetus of even current (1898) anthropological theories on the genesis of Genesis: the economic conditions (Henning 1898:376).

Henning asserted the worship of ancestors and souls were primitive forms of religion, but not what he considered the original and primordial form (Henning 1898:381). Henning felt that notions of souls, spirits, or ubiquitous agency were too complex for primitive man, and that ‘Primitive man had no religion (Henning 1898:376-377).’ As Henning saw it the life of ‘primitive’ man revolved around subsistence:

The life of primitive man turned primarily upon the satisfaction of his temporal needs; the care for his own life absorbed his entire mental forces, originally very weak and but little developed. Only then, when the “struggle for existence,” the battle with surrounding nature, and the gradually developing language caused him to invent words for the objects around him, which enlarged his intellectual horizon; only then, when his nomadic life was succeeded by residence in a place where nature gave him her rich gifts in greater abundance and made easier their acquirement; only then, when man possessed property, attaching him to the soil; only then did man think of his companions, and then the bud “religion ” could develop into the flower (Henning 1898:376-377).

Henning posited that man was united in efforts to survive, and the union led to social conventions which is probably the origin of social morality, which worked towards greater public welfare, greater tribal livelihood, and greater economic conditions. He saw prayer as fundamentally a request for an easier life, not as formal adherence to religious doctrine.

Henning caps off his theory:

I define religion as the conception man forms of his relations to the superhuman and mysterious powers on which he believes himself to depend; but these powers having arisen from his mental life, and having originated in its economic conditions, the treatment of the question of the origin of religion belongs to the territory of the science of man-to that of anthropology (Henning 1898:382).

Max Weber, one of the early leaders of sociology and positivism, also emphasized the connections between the social and the economic spheres of society (3).

Henning and Weber, through their theories of communally evolved cultures and religions, segue into more modern theories of religion as nature selected.

16. Religion as Evolved Adaptation

Most scientists now agree that the propensity towards religious thought evolved early in the history of humanity. However there is a split, with some seeing religion as adapted behavior, and others seeing it as a by-product of another adaptation. Some see religion as derivative of a by-product cognitive process which was then culturally evolved [see Meme section].

The evolutionary examination of religious belief centers on the sciences of evolved neurological and psychological propensities towards religion, which its proponents see as genetically transmitted and selected by nature “…in the same way that the vertebrate eye, or ecolocution in bats, or possibly language, is an adaptation that has conferred a reproductive advantage to ancestral organisms (Pyysiäinen 2010:3).”

In the “religion as an adaptation” camp there is a number of theories revolving around the why behind the evolution, or the adaptive value: that it “evolved to facilitate intragroup cooperation and empathy (Pyysiäinen 2010:1),” “to facilitate social cohesion (Norenzayan 2010:7),” with most falling under the “social solidarity” family of thought.

Norenzayan enumerates some of the adapted values of religion:

Some of these theorists highlight the adaptive value of religion for life in socially cohesive moral communities, either at the individual level, or at the group level. Others maintain that religion’s adaptive value springs from its capacity to provide hope and immortality in the face of debilitating existential anxieties, in particular the terror of contemplating one’s own death (Norenzayan 2010:59).

Some also think there is evidence supporting that aspects of religion “…address the dual human problems of existential anxieties and social defection (Norenzayan 2010:59).” We will cover more existential anxieties in the Terror Management section.

Many see taking care of ‘genetically unrelated others’ as problem for evolved adaption theory (Pyysiäinen 2010:1), which presupposes that taking care of someone else wouldn’t be entrained behavior for an organism adapted to propagate itself. Humans making too-costly religious sacrifices led some researchers to think that religious belief emerged to facilitate, again, group cooperation.

The “Old Cripple” of Shanidar Cave, over 50 thousand years old, evidences altruism, as he lived far beyond what would be possible without group help, effectively doomed on his own (Lamb 2012:34). The old man of La Chapelle Aux Saints, France, is another possible example of altruism, this time of the Neanderthal variety, approximately 100 thousand years ago (Lamb 2012:41). The “old man’s” teeth were in such disrepair that some researchers believe he would have needed help eating, with someone helping him process food.

Pyysiäinen suggests that the rites of religion require costly signals or tribute to the community which a faker or free-rider wouldn’t want to part with, “Religious rituals and taboos, as costly signals, thus promote intra-group cooperation based on cultural selection (Pyysiäinen 2010:1).”

There is the assumption that these proto-mooches would have incurred the wrath of the tribe if they took the fruits without the labor. Cross-cultural surveys have demonstrated that men in societies which engage in war do submit to the costliest rituals (Sosis 2007:234).

There is also a split in researchers studying the lifetime expectancy of individuals in cultures with religion, whether it is a benefit to them, or just a placebo effect.

Norenzayan posits that the religion as adaptation theory doesn’t bear scrutiny as you need to:

…meet tests of adaptive design that is standard in evolutionary biology: compelling adaptive function in ancestral environments, unitary and complex design, efficiency, precision, specificity, economy, and reliability. A strong adaptationist model also needs to rule out the possibility that religion is a cultural byproduct of adaptive design. In my view religion fails on all of these criteria and is more likely an evolutionary byproduct. This does not render the evolutionary perspective any less relevant to religion, however (Norenzayan 2010:59).

Let’s explore the evolved by-product theory in more detail.

17. Religion as Cognitive by-product

Researchers such as Ara Norenzayan see religious belief as a product and a shaper of the human mind, that religious beliefs are the “product of cultural transmission constrained by evolutionary psychology (Norenzayan 2010:1).”

Norenzayan presents a pragmatic amalgam of previous theories which is summarized as:

The core cognitive feature of religion -belief in supernatural agents, itself a byproduct of the naturally selected disposition for detecting agents was further culturally transformed from counterintuitive agents to counterintuitive and morally concerned policing agents. This cultural innovation, along with costly commitment aided by ritual, made possible a novel social phenomenon -stable, large, cooperative moral communities of genetically unrelated individuals (Norenzayan 2010:1).

The argument here is that religious belief is derivative of pre-existing capacities that didn’t evolve for religious function, that “religion is a set of ideas that survives in cultural transmission because it effectively parasitizes other evolved cognitive structures (Pyysiäinen 2010:1).”

The detractors of religion as an evolved adaptation see it as a too-nebulous term, with no real empirical criterion: “Second, although such concepts as ‘God’ or ‘life eternal’ are regarded as religious, no specifically religious cognitive mechanisms have been specified and nor would they be expected according to the by-product view (Pyysiäinen 2010:2).”

Norenzayan doesn’t see religion as adaptation per se, and furthers that religion is not even a unitary structure or specific function, but instead as an aesthetically similar set of cultural by-products intrinsically psychological in nature that steer and shape transmission of cultural belief and practice. Norenzayan lists this by-product family:

The four Cs of religion -counterintuition (supernatural agents), commitment (costly sacrifice), compassion (relief from existential anxieties), and communion (emotion-arousing ritual) are themselves cultural manipulations of psychological adaptations (Norenzayan 2010:59-60).

The “four Cs” coalesce or canal themselves into what people call religion: “passionate, ritualized communal displays of costly commitments to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents (Norenzayan 2010:60).”

The conceptual, versus the psychological, foundations of religion, according to Norenzayan:

…are given by task-specific, panhuman cognitive domains, including folk mechanics (object boundaries and movements), folkbiology (biological species configurations and relationships), and folkpsychology (intentional agents and goal directed behavior). God concepts are thus counterintuitive because they violate what studies in cognitive anthropology and developmental psychology indicate are expectations about the world’s everyday structure, including such basic categories of “intuitive ontology” as person, animal, plant and substance. They are generally inconsistent with fact-based knowledge, though not randomly. Beliefs about invisible creatures who transform themselves at will, or who perceive events that are distant in time or space, contradict factual assumptions about physical, biological and psychological phenomena. For example, ghosts are similar to human agents in most respects, having beliefs, desires, thirst, and hunger, yet they violate a few core assumptions of folkphysics and folkbiology, such as their ability to move through solid objects and often being immune to death (Norenzayan 2010:61).

Pierre Liénard and Pascal Boyer suggest that agency detection is triggered by several features of ritual behaviors, often a major feature of religion (Liénard and Boyer 2008:814).

This theory is very in-line with neurotheology, the attempts to trace the neurological mechanisms behind belief in what is considered religious, in that it is based in agent detection that pattern seeking mammals, like humans, are adapted to perceive. And it is the cultural evolution of this faulty detection of agency that frames religious doctrine and thinking:

The idea of supernatural agents, a byproduct of mundane cognitive capacities, was culturally transformed into morally concerned supernatural policing agents (Norenzayan 2010:64).


Thus, minimally counterintuitive supernatural agents help people remember and presumably transmit the more numerous intuitive statements that comprise the bulk of any religious tradition (mundane happenings). Such beliefs, even if they were initially evolutionary byproducts, grab attention, activate intuition, and mobilize inference in ways that greatly facilitate their mnemonic retention, cultural transmission, and historical survival (Norenzayan 2010:61).

And still:

In this view, once supernatural agency emerged as a byproduct of mundane cognitive processes such as agency detection and mindreading, cultural evolution favored the spread of a special type of supernatural agent -omniscient, moralizing supernatural watchers who facilitated cooperation and trust among strangers and contributed to the expansion of human group size (Norenzayan 2010:12).

Justin L. Barrett neologizes this agency detection as the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), which he sees as an evolved, or by-product of evolved, adaptation that might give rise to belief in spiritual entities and god, utilizing the same mechanisms humans use for social intelligence and recognizing other minds (Barrett 2012).

With the points from nature myth to animism to agent detection effectively bridged, let’s examine how more complex religious ideals may have promulgated.

18. Religion as Cultural Meme

Evolutionary Biologist and Zoologist Richard Dawkins in his books The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion coined and refined the term meme, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”

Memes, as posited by Dawkins and his proponents, act as a unit of cultural ideas or practices which travel from person to person through speech, gestures, or writing, which some see as self-replicating and prone to mutation or adaptation depending on their context or currency amidst selective pressures, studied in a discipline called memetics.

Dawkins suggests that agency detection led to individual accounts of paranormal activity which were retold, mythicized, and eventually organized into systems of folk-religion, giving rise to the religions we have today.

Criticism of memetics as mechanisms of cultural evolution centers on their novelty and lack of empirical ‘code script’, which would make them truly analogous to genes and genetic evolution, with some calling them proto-science, and even worse, pseudoscience.

Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson support the memetic theory, except they see what they perceive to be misconceptions in both camps of the meme debate, focusing on five key points in their paper, Five Misunderstandings About Cultural Evolution (Henrich 2008:2):

  • Mental representations are rarely discrete, and therefore models that assume discrete, gene-like particles (i.e., replicators) are useless.
  • Replicators are necessary for cumulative, adaptive evolution.
  • Content-dependent psychological biases are the only important processes that affect the spread of cultural representations.
  • The “cultural fitness” of a mental representation can be inferred from its successful transmission through the population.
  • Selection can only occur if the sources of variation are random.

It would go well beyond the scope of this article to summarize the five arguments, which all go in favor of the memetic theory as a mechanism in cultural evolution in-line with most of Dawkins original hypothesis.

We are seeing the light of the end of the terrifying tunnel as we move to the next theory.

19. Terror Management Theory (TMT)

Anthropologist Ernest Becker in 1973 wrote The Denial of Death, which promulgated the theory of terror management theory. Terror management theory maintains that cultural tropes, paradigms and worldviews which infuse our lives with order and imagined immortality, are a defense mechanism against the terror of death, and that human behavior is predominately driven by fear of mortality.

Terror Management Theory (hereafter TMT) experiments reveal that thoughts of death incite people to reinforce cultural memes or beliefs, while looking down on foreign paradigms. These cultural beliefs are called symbols, and are propagated like crazy in times of duress.

TMT sees all institutions of man, such as religion, law, or cultures, as symbols meant to insulate them against the inevitable annihilation we face, which we then use as the basis for self-worth or to explain human significance.

Norenzayan “suggests that the need for belief in supernatural agency is a buffer against the terror of death that is distinct from worldview-defense (Norenzayan 2010:63),” to assuage the tragedy of cognition: “the fact that human beings, like other animals, have an innate survival instinct (Norenzayan 2010:63).”

Norenzayan sees this as a mechanism of evolution in a culture as:

…minimally counterintuitive supernatural agents achieve cultural success… [because] …they relieve existential anxieties that are not in principle resolvable by rational deliberation (Norenzayan 2010:63).

Norenzayan asserts death-related anxieties have been linked to religious behavior in psychological experiments, and that “[all] religions propose some kind of a supernatural resolution to this quandary in some minimally counterfactual afterlife that is governed and guaranteed by one or several powerful supernatural agents (Norenzayan 2010:63).”

With the framework for our final entry constructed, let’s explore the most multifaceted and pragmatic of the theories on modern religion’s origins.

20. Religion as Agrarian Magic

In Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion, Hervey Peoples and Frank Marlowe’s cross-cultural analysis shows that moral High Gods increase in cultures with greater technological complexity and subsistence productivity, showing that agriculture or pastoralism are intrinsically linked to modern theology.

Peoples and Marlowe’s research builds upon Guy Swanson’s Birth of the Gods (1960) and its theory that High Gods are more common to cultures with booming populations and great jurisdictional complexity. Their study compares the modes of subsistence among the recorded ethnographic indexes against the frequency of High Gods, active or moral, finding that:

“Foragers are least likely to have High Gods. Horticulturalists and agriculturalists are more likely. Pastoralists are most likely, though they are less easily positioned along the productivity continuum (Peoples and Marlowe 2012:1).”

High Gods are present in all types of societies, but far less often among foragers and horticulturalists. Foragers do not depend on resources they have to ‘tend and defend’, are self-sufficient, subsist on a variety of resources, occupy varied habitats, and require less cooperation. Foragers are more likely to be egalitarian, resistant to authority, resist the concept of high gods, and be susceptible to evangelism (Peoples and Marlowe 2012:7-8):

Simple foragers would be the least likely to accept or benefit from the social constraints of High Gods (which are a bit like “high rulers”) (Peoples and Marlowe 2012:3).

Norenzayan catches the melody:

…large societies are more likely to invent and propagate high Gods -group size was correlated with the existence of high Gods, supernatural watchers who are omniscient and concerned about the morality of human interactions (Norenzayan 2010:65).

Pastoralists are marked for their direct and continued contact with their herds, their need to be ready for moment-to-moment shifts (such as wild animals, herd scattering, or tribal warfare), and have the highest frequency of warfare among the four compared modes of subsistence.

High Gods were found more often in cultures where drought is a perpetual source of ecological stress, which might indicate some crystallized nature myth / animism is occurring, with the mental constructs of angry and paternalistic spirits being built. Norenzayan sees the gods as a personification of life-threatening water supply (Norenzayan 2010:69).

The cause-effect relationship between agriculture and religion is fleshed out in the archaeological record that evinces the appearance of agriculture accoutrements which predate and usher in the appearance of evidence for animal sacrifices and religion (Peoples and Marlowe 2012:2).

After plant domestication and animal husbandry occurs, fertility, population, and food production skyrocket, giving agriculturalists and to some extent advanced horticulturalists new problems in cooperative and collective action not experienced by less sophisticated foragers.

Peoples and Marlowe suggest belief in High Gods was encouraged by emerging authoritarians (or Big Men) in cultures dependent on resources that were difficult to manage and defend without cultural cooperation.

Norenzayan harmonizes with Peoples and Marlowe:

Many small-scale societies, which more closely approximate ancestral conditions, do not have omniscient and morally concerned deities. Belief in such Gods is ubiquitous in evolutionarily recent anonymous social groups, where reputational and kin selection mechanisms for cooperation are insufficient. Thus, beliefs in moralizing supernatural agents could be examples of culturally evolved variants that played a key historical role in the rise and stability of large cooperative communities since the agricultural revolution (Norenzayan 2010:68).

Among horticulturalists we see the development of charismatic Big Men who establish conventions, institutionalizing social controls, gaining power, prestige, and enhanced reproductive success from their “relationship” with High Gods who grant them providence. If these Big Men weren’t the originators of the High God narrative and meme, you can bet they promulgated it anyways.

The emergence of the Big Men was probably derivative of need for more cooperation necessary to manage burgeoning populations, with environmental threats shown to be a primary contributor towards the social psychology that facilitates coalitions, cooperation, and religiosity (Peoples and Marlowe 2012:8).

Marlowe and Peoples cite Sosis:

A High God demanding new codes of conduct, backed by threat of supernatural punishment, would force cooperation and deal with those seeking to gain benefits without paying the costs or doing the work. Free-riders would not be able to hide from an all-seeing God. Costs of punishment and incentives could be delegated to the supernatural (Sosis 2000).

High God conceptions would have been a powerful tool if used as leverage, to exploit the others into banding together towards protecting the society the Big Men had ascendancy in, using the concept of the supernatural moral enforcer towards cooperation:

Supernatural enforcement of moral codes maintained social cohesion and allowed for further population growth, giving one society an advantage in competition with others (Peoples and Marlowe 2012:1).

Pyysiäinen elaborates how supernatural agency could have given a low-cost, low-effort solution to monitoring your agrarian workers when they span vast geographic areas:

One explanation for how religion fosters cooperation is that belief in spirits or all-seeing gods, as found in larger populations, effectively blocks defection by triggering the feeling that one is being watched and subsequently rewarded for cooperative behavior and punished for cheating (Pyysiäinen 2010:2).

Norenzayan duets:

The vigilant supernatural watchers acted as both constant watchers, and take the blame for intra-tribal punishment and mitigate retribution (Norenzayan 2010:64).


The omniscience of supernatural agents greatly extended the social accountability of human beings to all times and all places (Norenzayan 2010:64).

Pyysiäinen posits that god beliefs, and not merely communal religion, reduced cheating and increase generosity toward strangers (Pyysiäinen 2010:2), which, of course, Norenzayan elaborates on: “In societies with moralizing gods, a fear of supernatural agents among individuals can be evoked in order to enforce moral norms (Norenzayan 2010:65).”


It seems clear that most anthropologists and researchers into religion’s origins agree that its genesis lies in a hyper-agency detection device of our brain, even though not explicitly named by proto-anthropologists, who saw it as ‘pre-animism’ or a step right before or after nature myth and nature worship.

Hyper-Agency, Nature Myth, Anthropism, Animism, Ancestor Worship, Totemism, Ghost Propitiation, and Magic formed the nucleus or germ of religious thinking and belief.

This germ or seed of religiosity bloomed into towering totems of religious orthodoxy and law, which in times of duress or necessity transformed into paternalistic, moralistic, and seemingly hostile High Gods.

These High Gods acted as a constabulary force, to the benefit of emerging authoritarians, or Big Men, who leveraged the fuzzy thinking of the citizenry towards their own power and propagation.

As Neurotheology and the science of belief continues to develop, so too will our understanding of the often poetic and romantic mythology of man- what underlying purpose it serves, and what cold truths it assuages.

| Sources: Article (Everett Tucker) / Image (Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839), Landschaft mit dem Dankopfer Noahs, 1803).

Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future anthropological or sociological hack work.

Selective Bibliography:

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• Henning, Charles L. On the Origin of Religion. American Anthropologist 11, no. 12 (1898): 373-382.
• Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson. Five misunderstandings about cultural evolution. Human Nature 19, no. 2 (2008): 119-137.
• Hoernes, M. Urgeschichte der Menschheit. (1895): p. 20.
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• Lefevre, A.. La Religion. Paris, (1892): p. 189.
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• Lippert, Julius, and Moses David Hoffmann. Der Seelencult in seinen Beziehungen zur althebräischen Religion: eine ethnologische Studie. T. Hofmann, (1881).
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• Pyysiäinen, Ilkka, and Marc Hauser. The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product? Trends in cognitive sciences 14, no. 3 (2010): 104-109.
• Schaffle, M. Bau & Leben des socialen Korpers. 2. ed., vol. ii, (1896): p. 424.
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1. Dey, Sukesh. Short essay on origin and various theories of religion. Web.
2. O’Neil, Dennis. Magic and Religion. (2006): Web.
3. Padgett, Doug. Anthropology of Religion. (1998): Web.
4. Religulous. Evolution of Religion, Theories of the Origin of Religion. (2011): Web.
5. Tucker, Everett. Archaeoastronomy, Astrolatry, and Astrotheology: Beyond the Megaliths, Monomyths, and Memes. (2012): Web.
6. Tucker, Everett. The Paleolithic Artisans: Modern Art in the Old Stone Age. (2012): Web.

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  1. gregorylent says:

    mind knows it’s a subset of something larger, consciousness .. that’s enough to start the whole story.

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