By Karen L. Garst | 27 November 2015
1. To make sense of their world
Humans are meaning seeking beings. They want answers to questions: why did the sky erupt in fire? Why did the sun go dark? Why did my newborn daughter die? And the list goes on. For many of these occurrences, early humans felt pure terror. Even when we know what causes an earthquake today, it still causes fear and alarm for those affected. So how do we make sense of these events? Early humans created an explanation by positing the notion of some kind of a supernatural entity that was angry at them. Many of the early deities, not surprisingly, were sky gods—they lived “up there” and rained down fire and calamities on the humans living below. To appease these deities—to make them less angry—people developed practices such as animal and human sacrifice as well as other rituals. As Robert Wright explains, humans tried “to raise the ratio of good to bad.” As our knowledge of our world grew, primarily through science, we learned that events such as eclipses are predictable and that the universe is immeasurably vast. As this happened, the sky god moved from the physical sphere to a more spiritual one. Unfortunately, some religions today have mired themselves so deeply in their stories, that they have become oblivious to new discoveries in science, with some believing that the earth was created in 4004 BCE because of the calculations of the 17th century Archbishop of Armagh (Church of Ireland), James Ussher. 39% of Americans recently polled believe that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago.
2. To provide for a sense of belonging
Humans are not the only species on this planet that operate within social groups. They are also not the only ones that show empathy. Barbara King writes about the youngest son of Flo, an ape, who was unable to cope with his mother’s death. He stopped eating and died 3 1/2 weeks after his mother. The roots of our dependence on others go deep. Most scholars believe the word religion comes from the Latin word religare, which means to bind fast. While the word bind has both positive and negative connotations, it indicates something that holds people together. Modern religion has a myriad of activities that provide cohesion for a group: stories that trace the history of a culture, rituals such as communion, music in many forms, and ceremonies that cover virtually every aspect of life from birth to death. The negative aspects of the word to bind also come into play with the practices of some religions, such as disfellowship in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon), which banishes members from their families and friends when they leave the church.
3. To seek help in their endeavors
Imagine a Paleolithic cave. It is a refuge from a harsh environment. Evidence of fires near the entrance show where the people lived, ate, and gave birth. Female figurines, often with pregnant bellies, are mostly found in this area. In the back of the cave, one finds the wall paintings of animals, such as those at Lascaux in France. Some of these paintings show evidence of being painted over multiple times. This is the space for the hunters and the shaman. What can they do to assure success in the hunt? Does the shaman lead them in incantations? Does he perform another type of ritual? Shamans, as studied in existing cultures, are the first religious “experts.” It is likely they existed in the Paleolithic era as well. As Robert Wright explains, shamans are a crucial first step in the emergence of organized religion. They move the group from a “fluid amalgam of beliefs about a fluid amalgam of spirits and what religion came to be: a distinct body of belief and practice, kept in shape by an authoritarian institution.” The shamans gave the hunters hope that they would be successful. Given the fact that even today we only notice when a good result comes from religious efforts such as prayer (and forget all those times when it does not), it is not surprising that the hunters became reliant on the shamans.
4. To unify diverse people
It is believed that hunter-gatherer groups were more or less egalitarian. As small groups, they were fairly homogenous. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors developed agriculture, they became more sedentary. Instead of wandering small bands, these tribes coalesced into larger entities. Undoubtedly, there was great diversity among these tribes who may have had little contact with others. Religion, with all that comes with it, can unify a group. As an example, as people came to the Nile, they brought their individual tribal gods with them in the form of a mascot or tribal fetish. As the country unified these diverse groups, a more cohesive theology developed to worship Ra, the sun god, who also became the symbolic father of the Pharaoh. Unity also makes it easier to defend one’s ground, which became a necessity once agriculture developed. It is always easier to fight “the other” when your leader is telling you that they don’t believe in your god. We see this today as ISIS attracts people from diverse nations to fight all who do not believe as they do. In some ways, nothing has changed.
5. To instill order
Settling in villages requires some type of order. The larger the community, the greater the need for a set of codes or laws to not only guide behavior, but to provide punishment for those who refuse to obey. Religion helped provide that. The very first laws were discovered in Elba (modern-day Syria) and date from 2400 BCE. More well-known is Hammurabi’s (1792-50 BCE) code, carved on a stone tablet (and now in the Louvre in Paris), whose purpose is stated clearly from the beginning—“Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind …” The Ten Commandments, which is found in two versions in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy and formed the basis of Jewish law, came much later around 1000 BCE. In Judaism, it was the Levites who served as priests in the temple. As priests, they served to enforce the rules and norms of the state. Temples were indeed the first statehouses. All of these examples, of course, predate any notion of separation of church and state.
6. To create a compassionate practice
Neanderthal, a precursor to modern humans, lived from 400,000 to about 40,000 years ago. A skeleton, referred to as Shanidar I, shows an individual that had clearly been disabled long before his death. Others must have cared for him in order for him to survive. This is probably the first evidence of a compassionate practice in a social group. Later on, virtually all civilizations adopted some form of the Golden Rule including most religions. Native American Spiritually says it this way: “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.” Jainism states: “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” The Yoruba, an ethnic people in Nigeria, have one of my favorite renditions: “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.” If we are going to live together, we need to be mindful of how we treat each other. Unfortunately, our history shows that this does not always apply to those outside our tribe, our ethnic group, or our nation. In fact, religion has been used to engage in wars, subordinate women, condone slavery, and justify genocide in spite of the lofty precepts of the Golden Rule.
7. To create stories that tell the history of a culture and its people
The Egyptian Pyramid Texts are the first recorded stories that can be called the basis of a religion. They date from the third millennium BCE, contain a creation myth and introduce one of their gods, Osiris. Another early text from the second millennium BCE that many believe influenced the biblical writers is the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish. It describes the victory of god Marduk over the goddess Tiamat. While scholars disagree on the date of its origin, it predates the Bible. The Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible is an amazing creation in and of itself. Written, edited, and compiled over a several hundred-year span, it contains not only a creation story, the description of a god, but the history of a people. It is truly remarkable that more than 2,500 years later, some Jews still follow the dictates of Leviticus including dietary restrictions. One would think that the similar elements in these stories would lead to the classification of mythology for all of them. However, when Edith Hamilton’s book on mythology was taught in my high school class, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were not included. I find it interesting that religious people so easily dismiss the beliefs of others as myths, but refuse to examine their own stories in that same light.
8. To provide hope for a life after this one
Neanderthal graves show the earliest evidence of intentionality. Shells are placed in the eye sockets, red ocher is used to paint the bones, and objects undoubtedly belonging to the deceased are placed in the grave. Becoming aware of one’s own morality was undoubtedly frightening. In the harshness of early humans’ lives, the lure of an afterlife must have been overwhelming. Many religions posit some type of afterlife. Egyptians mummified their dead and filled the tombs of the rich with grave goods because they believed that the physical body would be needed in the afterlife. Later on, religious views of the afterlife took on a more spiritual nature. Even later still, the notion of hell came into play. Both of these concepts allowed religious institutions to control their followers. But ask yourself, how did that work out for the Egyptians? We now dissect their mummies. Do you really need the promise of an afterlife and the threat of hell to live a good life on Earth? Why is it that the least religious countries such as Norway and Sweden have the most generous social programs while the Christian Republican candidates for president want to cut funding for Planned Parenthood that provides needed health services for poor women?
9. To explain evil
Human beings have always done evil things. From the earliest skeletons ever discovered, there are examples of man-made injuries. Today, one only has to listen to the first five minutes of a newscast to hear the latest murder, rape, or other criminal act. While the Old Testament talks about Satan, he is an adversary directed by god. It is only in the New Testament and later Christian writings that Satan is developed into the personification of a supernatural evil being who tempts man. The presence of an evil entity in a book that talks about an all powerful god is a bit hard to fathom. Why didn’t god just do away with Satan? If he is omniscient and all powerful, certainly that would have been a choice. Christian apologists like to use the notion of free will to explain the presence of evil. However there is no free will involved in being infected with the plague or in a newborn baby that dies shortly after it is born.
10. To feel good
Valerie Tarico writes that “Worship practices, music and religious architecture have been optimized over time to evoke right brain sensations of transcendence and euphoria.” Standing in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I can attest to those sensations: the beauty of the Rose Window with all of its shimmering colors as the light filters through and the vibrations from the massive pipe organ pumping out an old hymn. Imagine what it felt to the hungry poor masses as they entered this place of worship in the 14th century shortly after it was completed. I will wager that virtually everyone raised in a faith can attest to Tarico’s explanation. For my part, I can still sing from memory the Christian hymns I learned as a child. When my brother was still alive, he, my sister, and I would break out into the hymn “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage” which the youth choir sang as it marched triumphantly down the center aisle of Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.
From Neanderthal to the present day, we have tried to explain why we are here on this earth and what is our purpose. It is not surprising that religion helped us cope. But it is time to examine whether we would be better off letting go of this mythology and focusing on the grave problems we and our planet face. We can’t afford to brush off climate change with “God has a plan” or excuse tragedies with “There must be a purpose” or “They are in a better place, in heaven.” These words will just not move us forward to make the changes we need to make to improve the lives of those who suffer and to leave this planet in a better place for our children and grandchildren.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Karen Garst holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. She has worked as a field representative for the Oregon Federation of Teachers and has served as executive director of the Oregon State Bar. She is compiling a book of essays by women atheists. She blogs at faithlessfeminist.com.
 Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 32.
 Barbara King, Evolving God: A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion (New York: NY: Doubleday, 2007), 32.
 Wright, 31
 Don Cupitt, After God: The Future of Religion (New York: NY, Basic Books, 1997), 6.
 Valerie Tarico, Trusting Doubt (The Oracle Institute Press: Independence, VA, 2010), p. 248.
 Barbara King, Evolving God: A Provocative View of the Origins of Religion (New York: NY: Doubleday, 2007), 117.
 John Loftus, editor, The Christian Delusion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010), 54.
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