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The Origins Of Religions – OpEd


Religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative “opiate” (Marx). Religious behavior is a ubiquitous biological adaptation deeply rooted in Homo Sapiens, because religion, like intelligence and language, helps human communities survive.


Religion, like intelligence and language, can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Because almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that predisposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biologically based self-conscience spiritual “soul” with the evolution of Homo Sapiens.

For many centuries it was thought that mankind’s ability to use tools was what made us unique. However, we now know that several other species use tools (including small brained birds). Chimpanzees, not only use but also make at least three different kinds of tools for different functions. Chimpanzee tool use differs in different locations (a cultural, not a genetic difference). Chimpanzees also show signs of self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror.

So what makes us Homo Sapiens what we are? First, we are small-group, hierarchically-organized, social primates. Any genes that enable the group (extended family and/or band) to function more effectively and efficiently in their environment will contribute to individual survival and reproduction. Second, the species that preceded Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal have been evolving larger and larger brains for over a million years.

But eventually only two species, Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal, evolved and achieved self-conscious ways of meeting life’s challenges through non-material, i.e. cultural and spiritual, behaviors. Homo Neanderthals were a relative of Homo Sapiens that co-inhabited in Europe and parts of western Asia with anatomically modern humans from about 120,000 to 29,000 years ago. They were well adapted to the cold and were very muscular.

Spiritual activities among Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthals have evolved over the last 50-150,000 years. If one takes seriously the Biblical claim that humanity was created in the Divine image, spiritual evolution testifies to the creation of creatures who are co-creators of purpose driven non-material responses to environmental and social challenges. This prepared them to respond appropriately when Divine revelations occurred in historical times.


The evolution of spiritual activities that enhance the successful survival of humanity is not only concerned with enhancing the survival of our own species. With the recent domestication of plants and animals and the very recent industrial revolution, Homo Sapiens (HS) acquired a great deal of responsibility for the evolution of most of the species on the planet itself. Thus the behavior of religious people themselves now becomes a factor in the evolution of life on earth.

Religious behaviors are evidence of self-conscious creative thought processes most people associate with Homo Sapiens. Religious behaviors are the creative responses of intelligent minds to certain challenges in life. Homo Sapiens (HS) faced more than half a dozen different challenges over the last 150,000 years that stimulated spiritual developments that improved survival rates both for groups and individuals within the group.

One of the greatest challenges to increased HS intellectual development is anxiety and self-imposed stress. The more Homo Sapiens can think about things, the greater the ability to produce anxiety and self-imposed stress that are debilitating by themselves, and also depress the immune system. Anything that reduces stress and anxiety increases survival rates for intelligent minds. Also, as successful groups enlarged it became increasingly difficult to avoid internal conflict and splitting. Nevertheless, larger groups, or groups with strong alliances, were more likely to survive inter-group conflict, and also had reduced negative affects from inbreeding.

Anything that helped larger groups create bonds that were more than family, and behavioral norms that were more than mimicking, would increase survival rates. Individuals with a mental illness could not contribute much to a tribe or band. Anything that helped heal or integrate these individuals would help survival rates. These are some of the situations faced by a species that began using its mind at an increasing frequency.

Illness, especially mental illnesses that tend to be chronic rather than fatal, provided serious challenges to the intelligent minds of HS. Epilepsy, Schizophrenia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Phobias, Bipolar Disorders and other brain diseases occur in at least 2-3% of the population worldwide. Thus there should be at least one or two cases in every band of 50-100 people. Severe cases are very frightening and disabling. Ritual activities and ideas about help available from deceased ancestors reduced stress and anxiety and so led Homo Sapiens to expand the realm of spirits to the treatment of physical and mental illness.

We now know that anxiety and stress weaken the immune system and increase the chances of not surviving an otherwise survivable illness. Anything that reduces anxiety and stress increases survival rates. This is one key reason why religious behavior became ubiquitous. Intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens could react to the challenge of mild cases with a variety of rituals and practices that served to alleviate the symptoms through mind-body interactions that we recognize today as placebo faith healing.

Placebo faith healing works primarily by reducing pain through endorphin release and increasing the strength of an individual’s immune response, which is weakened by stress and anxiety. Only Homo Sapiens are known to be capable of placebo spiritual healing. Among Homo Sapiens today, only a minority of individuals are able to heal themselves with the aid of placebo faith healing.

The hope that ritual can heal and the ability to trust a healer are powerful factors that frequently bring about improvement. Chanting, drumming, dancing, meditation and fasting are widespread ways of inducing an alternative consciousness that helps alleviate pain, stress and anxiety. With the support of a community of believers, and a tradition that enhances their individual hope and trust, results would be even better.

A cure, either short or long term, isn’t the only outcome in faith healing. The ceremony itself can reduce many of the side effects of the illness such as depression, stress, anger and negativity. This often ameliorates symptoms and brings relief. Chronic illness negatively impacts the immune system and eventually increases death rates. Ritual faith healing ameliorates symptoms for many people in these types of situations. This reintegrates the ‘possessed’ into a support group and reduces stress, strengthens the immune system and reduces death rates.

A tiny charismatic minority, who themselves had struggled successfully to overcome these diseases, may become guides to others. Called Shamans, these guides undertook journeys into a realm of evil spirits that they believed had caused these afflictions and effected cures. A 50-60,00-year-old site in a cave at Shanidar, Iraq yielded the skeleton of a badly disabled older Homo Neanderthal that the excavator thought might be a Shaman.

Because this individual could not hunt and thus support himself, the excavator suggested that the man disfigured by his shrunken arm and damaged eye, was thought “touched” by the spirits. Thus, he might be able to communicate with them on behalf of the community. So the band had supported him, while he intervened with the spirits on their behalf. The bear skull found next to him, the red flowers piled upon his grave, and a ring of stones around the grave are all evidence of his ritual importance. His advanced age suggested that his group revered him for years.

Elders of each family unit, usually in the home, regularly carry on ancestor worship to this day in many East Asian religions. Shamans, however, were called in as specialists for unusual situations. These Shamans were the first professionals. Their disciples were their most successful patients. Shamans in different bands and tribes most likely exchanged experiences and techniques with each other so Shamanism became wide spread in North Eurasia.

Recent outcomes of psychotherapy studies have shown that Native American Healers have cure rates similar to those of modern clinical psychologists. The growing awareness of positive religious influences on restoring health has even entered medical school curricula. In 1995 only 17 American medical schools incorporated patient spirituality in their curricula; ten years later the number had increased to 101.

Brain diseases may be mysterious and frightening but they are not contagious. Infectious diseases are. The intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens observed the spread of disease by contact or proximity and concluded that dangerous invisible pollution could occur. The most obvious source of pollution was a corpse. which could pollute its surroundings and the people it came in contact with. This pollution is therefore contagious. Even second- and third-hand pollution is dangerous. And very small amounts of pollution are also dangerous.

Thus, action must be taken to isolate or purify what has become polluted. Fortunately this can be done with specific rituals which serve to alleviate anxieties and stress caused by the spread of contagious diseases. Although corpses are the most potent source of contagion, fresh blood, especially menstrual blood and the blood of childbirth (a time of great danger to both mother and newborn due to infection) is also problematic. By extension, other bodily issues like nocturnal emissions; running sores, and some activities like slaughter and breaking taboos can also be viewed as polluting. Those who devoted themselves to restoring ritual purity achieved status and power.

Their techniques and personalities were more bureaucratic than those of the charismatic Shamans, and so they were more likely to establish a hereditary priesthood. Ritually purifying things that were polluted became important to restoring a positive, hopeful and therefore healthy balance to society. Quarantining ritually polluted people and objects also sometimes reduced vulnerability to contagious disease. These insights are still found in very ancient religions like Hinduism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism which have lots of rules about ritual pollution in their very early written texts.

The biggest challenge facing HS is also the ultimate one: death. Homo Sapiens is the only living species that knows in advance that death is inevitable. Genesis 2:17 relates “on the day you eat it (the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will know) you will surely die.” Elephants, chimpanzees and orangutans have been observed to mourn for a dead offspring, but no other living species practices ritual burial. The intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens responded to the death of loved ones by creating funeral rites and rituals of ancestor worship. Evidence from Qafzeh cave in northern Israel of ritual burial and grave goods (red ochre and mollusk shells of an inedible species) goes back 100 -120,000 years or more.

In Eurasia, both Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthals commonly buried their dead in residential sites from at least 120,000 years ago. Grave goods of tools, weapons, jewelry and flowers imply an after life. These funeral rituals brought comfort and solace to the mourners. Funeral rituals also had the important effect of strengthening group solidarity at a time when leadership might be challenged and changing. Strengthening group solidarity reduced internal conflict and violence, thus increasing the chances of raising children to adulthood.

So what role does God (the One God of the revealed Abrahamic religions) play in all this? According to Genesis 4:26, humans only began to call upon the name of the Lord in the days of Enoch. That could mean that prior to Enoch, prehistoric religions evolved naturally. Only with the rise of scriptural revelations did the One God penetrate human consciousness.

Spirituality among Homo Sapiens has been evolving for at least 100-150,000 years. It is as deeply, if not more deeply, rooted in the HS brain as art or music. Recent studies, especially those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s general religiousness. The idea that reason, socialism or modern science would replace religion has turned out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy of people who bear a grudge against religion. Usually their children or grandchildren return to religion.

Religious rituals and ideas are ubiquitous and continue to evolve as the creative intelligent minds of Homo Sapiens encounter changes in their environment. This will most likely continue as long as there are creative intelligent minds. Or, as Albert Einstein put it: “What is the meaning of human life or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in asking it? I answer, people who regard their own life and that of their fellow creatures as meaningless are not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

2 thoughts on “The Origins Of Religions – OpEd

  • March 6, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    Hi, Rabbi:
    You seem like a big twister and dancer with 1/2 knowledge.
    Religious Cults like Zoroastrianism is the root cause of the Ills–have you ever heard of Ahura?
    Ask me if you can’t recall your own roots. Or maybe you have heard of Sura v. Asura in Sanskrit.
    Or you forgot about Sanskrit & Swastika–did you?
    Have you ever heard of Veda? That’s pure science–Vedic people have been following in Temples for more than 3 million years.
    Please go and visit a Temple, ask Qs, and learn–then write !

  • March 7, 2022 at 6:39 am

    Rabbi Maller,
    I’m very impressed. Few people invoke the evolution of human cognition as a reason for the development of religion. It is, in fact, the essential ingredient that led to religious behavior, not group cohesion, which is a secondary consequence. When religion developed over 100kya, human societies were far more like chimp societies. The differences between them that may have existed like a need for increased cooperation due to greater intelligence had already been solved considering toolmaking and group hunting of large game had already been going on for a 1-2 million years.

    The way I think about it is that religion is a compensating mechanism for the drawbacks of advanced human cognition, or as many refer to it, human consciousness. You named several types of those drawbacks. Another is that people have a tendency to overthink—to fall into obsessive rumination—perhaps related to clinical OCD, but even most nonclinical people have this disposition. Since we all do this, we take it for granted, but it is truly an enormous tax on our well-being as well as a boon on occasion.

    Yes, it is ritual that results in altered states of consciousness, and those rituals include music, dance, art, and mythology. Not all altered states are dramatic changes. Temple services provide the environment for self-meditation and self-reflection, modest changes to consciousness, but important nevertheless. Thanks for this article.


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