The Development of Religious Behavior, Thought, and Organized Religions

2.3 Tool Use and the Development of Religious Behavior and Thought

Because survival was made much easier by tools, our ancestors who had them also had more time to pursue other ventures and question their priorities and routines. They began learning about how the reward mechanisms that drive us to survive can be manipulated for easy self-gratification. Feelings of motivation, joy, and even love can be stimulated by different plants and fungi that affect neurotransmission, and while the underlying affects on the brain weren’t understood, humans began to experiment with such life. This at first resulted in an explosion in human creativity and religious behaviors as Terence McKenna discusses in his book, Food of the Gods. The oldest scriptures of Hinduism, for example, written during the Vedic period repeatedly mention a psychoactive drink called Soma, which was said to bring the strength of God and immortality. It was also said to popular among the Gods, Indra and Agni.

When our ancestors became able to recognize their instincts and question them, this provoked many ideas and behaviors, some religious, and some eventually led to the development of organized religions. Because humans could conceive of the significance of death, and relationships were becoming more complex and important, this made individuals have a stronger impact on each other. Deaths had the ability to be even more devastating, so eventually our ancestors began to wonder about death and whether or not it is the end of existence.

Since there isn’t any visible force that can always be held responsible for personal tragedy like the spread of untimely death and disease, our ancestors began to single themselves out and deny that they deserved what was happening to them because they did not. Because more complex conceptions of morality were developing, it makes sense that our ancestors began to wonder why bad things happen to good people, and this again changed their sense of entitlement. Our ancestors began to feel (understandably) entitled to live longer, better lives, and perhaps not die at all.

Humans also began to wonder why everything occurred. Explanations were made so that they could feel that there was moral order and fewer unknowns than they thought there were. These unknowns included the nature of causality (why things happen) and all physical processes humans could see because the scientific method hadn’t yet been crafted. As discussions about these unknowns began, humans likely began to feel overwhelmed by them. Great concern about death, the after-life, or lack of one and (as mentioned) feelings of being wronged or cheated can all lead to extreme actions.

The only way our early ancestors could answer these questions was to claim that everything is caused by a higher power for divine reasons. It was and still is easier, more intuitive, and simpler to believe this than it is to believe that the universe is consistent and controlled by complex scientific laws that we could discover with much study. Believing an ambiguous higher power is responsible for all events made life less difficult for many humans. It gave them hope that one day they would be told the answers to the “big questions,” which took the onus off of humans to actual test and discover whether or not they were right.

Cave paintings depicted what humans could not explain, and they likely sparked contemplation about these subjects. Philosophical and religious ideas that were too complex to be coherently communicated or discussed were illustrated by cave art, and it likely catalyzed more complex forms of communication and expression. Cave art also served as a way to leave a record of history and literally make a mark, (as tools did). It expressed our ancestor’s desires, and they may have thought that their illustrations would affect elements of reality they could not control or understand. (For example, hunters may have drawn pictures of speared, dead buffalo on cave walls because they thought this would lead to more successful hunts.) This is another example of “magical thinking,” which today is often labeled as a symptom of a mental disorder but is also still a facet of most religions.

We know roughly when humans began thinking about death more abstractly because we know when they began intentionally burying their dead. However, the significance of intentional burial is debated. Some cognitive scientists like Philip Lieberman theorize humans started burying their dead because they believed in an afterlife, rebirth, or reincarnation1 while some others theorize intentional burial was secular in nature.2 At any rate, intentional burial shows a stronger emotional attachment to the people in our lives. If humans just left corpses of their friends and family to rot, animals would pick them apart until there was nothing left but bones scattered and strewn about. Intentional burial is generally a sign of respect for the buried. Intentional burials and even burial ceremonies weren’t practiced solely by people who believed in an after-life, however. When humans first began burying their dead, the concept of an after-life may not have been conceived yet. Physical remnants can only tell us so much, so it is hard to pinpoint when exactly these beliefs developed.

Neanderthals may have intentionally buried their dead before we (Homo sapiens) did. There are many examples of Neanderthal burial in Kebara Cave in Israel, Krapina in Croatia3 and in Shanidar, Iraq where Neanderthal bodies were buried with flowers. (However, there is some controversy about whether or not this was intentional.) One of the oldest known human fossils (belonging to the Homo genus) intentionally buried is the Tabun C1 Neanderthal, which could be as old as 120,000 years.4 The oldest known example of intentional human deposition, however, was found in the dark recesses of a cave called the “Sima de los Huesos”5 (or “chasm of the bones”). In this cave, over 32 Homo heidelbergensis skeletons were found, some 300,000 years old. The bodies were likely deposited in the cave intentionally in lieu of burying them. This is not quite the same as burial, but it may have been done for similar reasons.

Both cave art and intentional burial were forms of religious behavior that preceded organized religion by tens of thousands of years. Organized religions likely developed before written language did, so we don’t know exactly when they first formed. But since some of the first cave paintings illustrated some religious ideas, we can speculate the first organized religions formed sometime between 28,000 BCE and 5,000 BCE at the end of the Neolithic/Agricultural Revolution.6 Before the Neolithic Revolution, religious thoughts and ideas were very likely abstractly conveyed, but fully formed religious ideas remained isolated among small bands of humans. Groups or bands consisted of about 10 to 100 humans. It was only until communities became much larger and written human language was developed that religious thoughts and myths were able to survive generations intact.

The Neolithic Revolution led to the development of larger and larger societies, which allowed religious ideas and powers to spread more quickly and become more dominant. As societies grew denser after the Neolithic Revolution, many abandoned the first forms of religion, such as shamanism and ancestral worship and began to develop organized religions that eventually spread and conquered others worldwide.

2.4 Organized Religion


The first organized religions were mostly polytheistic. Polytheism is the belief in multiple Gods. This belief likely seemed suitable because so much was unknown about life and everything around our ancestors. The first organized religions made attempts to understand our world. The Sumerians were one of the oldest religious civilizations of Mesopotamia. They lived in modern day southern Iraq from 5500BCE to 3500BCE. In Sumerian mythology Gods were attributed to almost every physical process our ancestors did not understand. “Nergal” was the God of sickness and war. “Adad” was the God of storms. “Uttu” was the goddess of plants, and “Labar” was the cattle God.7Nammu” was the mother Goddess and “Anu” was the sky Goddess. “Ninsun” was the sheep Goddess and “Enki” was the God of fresh water. The Sumerians also assigned Gods to planets and our sun, showing a more universal perspective. The word used for God in Sumerian was dingir, and the glyph used to represent dingir also meant sky or heaven. These Gods included the sun, the moon, and the five planets in our galaxy visible without a telescope. The Sumerians also believed in demons and monsters, which were said to be responsible for the evil in the world.

Many Mesopotamian societies including the Sumerians’ were built around a temple complex. Initially, these temples were built on raised pieces of ground (called ziggurats) where people came to offer scarifies and tributes. But as towns grew, the temples were made larger and ziggurats became much taller. They also became more sophisticated. Some had simple ramps that led to the temple and others had staircases with hundreds of steps. Some ziggurats had enormous steps, which humans could not use and were meant to be steps for the gods. The platform at the top of Ziggurat where the temple stood was used for worship, sacrifice, ceremonies, and contemplation. Temples were built on taller and taller ziggurats because chief priests believed this would bring them physically closer to the Gods. The location of these temples also gave religious clergy the ability to hide their activities.

Some Mesopotamians believed that the positions of the stars have specific significance to human beings. Unlike the stars (aside from the sun), the visible planets move in seemingly unpredictable ways throughout the year. Stars do appear to move as the Earth spins on its axis every day; some stars rise and set on the horizon and others make full circles in the sky. But the recorded apparent motion of the stars was predictable, whereas the planets seemed to wander unpredictably throughout the year. This might be why some Sumerians believed they were alive as Gods, (although in some Mesopotamian literature the planets or “moving stars” were referred to merely as possessions of the Gods.) The word planet is derived from the ancient Grecian word planetai, which means wandering star since even during part of the Greek Empire humans still did not know they were planets like Earth. (Anaximenes was the first to distinguish the planets from the stars because of their movement.) Although Mesopotamian religions differed among the various cultures located there, each phase of Mesopotamian history had primary deities that most cultures shared, so religions at this time did not change significantly there.

Ancient Egyptians were also especially careful observers of the sky. They too had a sky god, as well as an air God. “Nut” was the sky goddess (and mother of the sun, moon and heavenly bodies) who was supported by the air God, “Shu,” her father, and the Earth god, “Geb,” brother and husband of Nut.8

The Egyptians also worshiped the sun as the Sumerians did, and the Sun God “Ra” was one of their greatest deities. It is theorized by historians Richard Talcott and Patricia Blackwell Gary that Egyptian observation of zodiacal light, the triangular glow sometimes seen in the night sky as the sun’s rays reflect off cosmic dust was the inspiration for the shape of pyramids.9 They also theorize tall columns of light produced by the reflections of the sun (and occasionally moonlight) off of ice crystals in the atmosphere served as the inspiration for the shape of the Egyptian obelisks.

It makes sense our ancestors worshiped the sun since it’s a free source of energy, it lights up our world, and there would be no life on Earth without it. But there is a fine line between worship and obsession. If we only worship, we won’t have time for anything else. Balance is important. The Earth and all innocent life forms deserve respect, so it makes sense to worship them all if you believe in worship.

In addition to the Sun, the Egyptians were also very preoccupied with death, possibly more so than any culture in history. They believed there is a great connection between the body and the “soul,” so they went to great lengths to try to preserve the bodies of rulers after their deaths. Ancient Egyptians believed that eternal preservation of the body would result in eternal life because of palpable connections between our bodies and consciousness. The Egyptian atmosphere was, of course, arid and dry, so this slowed the decomposition of most of the vital organs on its own. But the Egyptians went to far greater lengths to prevent bodily decay by building dark and cool tombs underground, removing and jarring vital organs. and wrapping the body in linen or canvas. The insides of the bodies were also covered in natron, a mixture of sodium carbonate (washing soda), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and sodium chloride, (salt) all of which are naturally occurring. The oldest known mummy from Egypt is 5300 years old, but the oldest mummy currently known is around 9000 years old and was found in the Atacama Desert in South America.10 The mummy likely came from the Chinchorro culture, which started mummifying even before the Egyptians. Mummifying, in fact, may have been a common procedure among the most ancient civilizations that inhabited arid desert land. 

The pyramids of Giza, (oriented with the cardinal directions) the Great Sphinx, and the many other temples and monument tombs, which served to commemorate ancient rulers were all built by slave labor. They are enormous and astounding feats of labor, especially considering the technology available when they were built was very limited, but of course, many died and suffered during their construction. It is especially tragic because these monuments were built largely out of fear. Rulers were afraid of being forgotten, and not being granted an afterlife, and slaves were afraid of being killed whether they helped build them or not.

The first wars were almost all fought because of religious differences. Many of our ancestors believed that as they fought wars, so too did Gods fight celestial wars. Dynasties were formed and toppled over thousands of years in Mesopotamia. But Mesopotamian religions were fairly similar, and monotheistic religions that became more popular later on also have significant similarities.


2.5 Abrahamic Religions


Monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are very alike in several ways. They all developed around the same time period. They all have one prophet or messenger of God, (Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad, respectively) and they all have one God, which is what makes them monotheistic. Their mythologies also all involve the mythology of Abraham, which is why they are called Abrahamic religions. The Old Testament in the Christian bible is a rewritten version of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah11 written from 600 BCE to 400 BCE. Many of the mythologies in these texts are almost identical and some were adapted from older religious texts. For example, the mythology of Jesus Christ is very similar to the mythology of the Hindu God, Krishna, who was also a carpenter, baptized in a river, and born of a virgin mother. This mythology was written well before the coming of Christ. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead (also written before the coming of Christ), Horus, the believed son of God, had a virgin mother. Much like Christ, Horus was said to walk on water, heal the sick, and was tempted in the desert. Jesus Christ may have been a real person. It is possible at least, but his body has not been found, and it does seem likely his story and supernatural powers were just adopted from older mythologies like the Book of the Dead. Christianity’s use of the cross was also likely adopted from the Egyptian hieroglyph, the ankh, which was used in the Book of the Dead. (Ishaq, Emile Maher, 1991.) It is sometimes called the key of life, the key of the Nile or crux ansata, which means “cross with a handle” in Latin. Whereas the cross is a symbol of death in Christianity, the ankh was a symbol of life for the Ancient Egyptian people.

The Dead Sea Scrolls (written from 408 BCE to 318 BCE) also preceded the Christian Bible. They are mostly written in Hebrew and were found in the Qumran Caves in the settlement, Khirbet Qumran, in the West Bank. The scrolls contain books with the same names of many of the books in the Christian Bible and the Torah, such as Psalms, Deuteronomy, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Kings, Ezekiel, and Job.

Part of the reason there has been so much violence between Abrahamic religions, (as well as denominations of these religions, such as Shia Islam and Sunni Islam) is that they all involve the same mythology, but they choose to interpret it differently. Sunni and Shia are the two main denominations of Islam that are often in conflict with each other. This conflict is made catastrophically worse by the politicians and militaries of empires that often add fuel to the fire intentionally to further the bloodshed for their own ends. Like most denominations within the same religion, Sunni and Shia Islam are very similar. Both denominations hold that Muhammad was the final prophet sent by God but the fundamental difference is that they disagree about who was his proper successor. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, Hazrat Abu Bakr, an adviser, friend, and father-in-law of Muhammad who led prayers by his deathbed was chosen to be the first Caliph of the Rashidun Calphiate, which he led from 656 to 661, taking over Muhammad’s political and administrative activities. Those who believe Abu Bakr was Muhammad’s proper predecessor are called Sunnis from the Arabic ahl as-sunnah wa l-jamāʻah (أهل السنة والجماعة), meaning “People of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah.” A minority of Muslims, however, was displeased with the decision and preferred Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law and cousin of Muhammed, to take over as Caliph. They called themselves Shia-t-Ali, the Party of Ali, shortened to Shias. 87 to 90% of all Islamic adherents were Sunnis in 2009. Shias, meanwhile, made up just 10-13% of all Islamic adherents. Sunni Islam is the largest religious denomination in the world, consisting of about 1.44 billion people, even more than Roman Catholicism, which has 1.2 billion adherents. Including all denominations, however, there are more Christians worldwide.


Sunni Islam has dominated North Africa over the 20th century mainly due to Islamic regimes that have colonized the region, as well as proselytization by missionary and extremist groups. Salafi, a division of Sunni Islam, takes Sunni Islam’s fundamentalist and conservative tendencies to absolute, violent extremes. Iran has the largest Shia population in the world, despite being surrounded by countries with a majority of Sunnis, explaining to some extent the conflict between Iran and other surrounding countries in the region. There were 66 million Shias in Iran in 2009, representing 90% of Iran’s population. While most Islamic people are peaceful, radical religious authorities, violent governments that use religion to manipulate others, the literal interpretation of Ancient texts seen as Holy, foreign invasion of predominately Islamic countries, bombing of innocent Islamic people, and extreme poverty (according to World Bank data, 60% of Nigeria’s population lives on less than $1 a day) coupled with the desperation of some deeply religious people has created a powder keg that has turned some innocent, non-violent, religious people into violent extremists and increased recruitment to radical, religious groups.

The exact history and origins of ancient religious texts is also a topic of constant debate, and one that some people take very seriously. But most religious texts, (especially Abrahamic ones) are also very violent in nature, patriarchal, separatist, intolerant and they draw a very clear line between good and evil. Extremists often cite the most violent parts of these texts to justify horrific, gruesome acts while ignoring pieces of the same literature that promote peace and understanding.

What is most tragic about all of the senseless violence and conflict that goes on between religious groups is that it has all been fueled by our natural desire to give human life purpose by answering some of life’s unknowns. At least, we are not alone. Religion speaks to what is fragile about humans. This is why people become so defensive and fanatical about defending their beliefs.

Another reason there has been so much conflict between Abrahamic religions is that they all consider the same city holy. According to historian, Eric H. Cline, “Jerusalem has been besieged 23 times, attacked 52 additional times and recaptured 44 times.”12 It is the most fought over city in the world due its religious significance, and it is also one of the oldest cities in the world. Money plays a major part in the conflict as well. Many who conquered Jerusalem were much more concerned with the money to be made from doing so than “winning” God’s favor. According to the Old Testament, King David of the Kingdom of Israel made Jerusalem the national capital 3000 years ago. His successor, Solomon, commissioned the construction of Solomon’s Temple, which was the primary temple in Jerusalem built on the Temple Mount, (a hill considered Holy by all three Abrahamic religions) in 957 BCE before it was destroyed in the Siege of Jerusalem of 586 BCE by the Babylonians. According to the Old Testament, the Temple Mount is also the site where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac.

According to the New Testament, Jerusalem became a holy city for followers of Christ when he was crucified there in 30 AD, and the Church of Sepulchre was built in Jerusalem on the hill of Cavalry where Jesus was said to be buried. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem (called the “Noble Sanctuary” by Muslims) became a focal point for prayer for Muslims long prior in 610 BCE when Mohammad was allegedly contacted there by archangels who gave him messages from God, which later became the Quran. Mohammad also traveled there during his Night Journey in 621 BCE to lead others in prayer. According to the Quran, Mohammad ascended to heaven when he arrived there and spoke with God.13 The Temple Mount contains the Foundation Stone, which is specifically where some Islamic sholars believe Muhammad ascended to heaven. The Foundation Stone is also viewed by some Jewish people as the rock which God used to create the Earth. The Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, was built around the Foundation Stone in 691 AD. When the Temple Mount was conquered, it became the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque built in 705 AD. These are two very significant places of worship for many people.

The battle for control over Jerusalem and the other contested “Holy” areas like the shrinking Gaza Strip and the West Bank continues to this day between the Israeli “Defense” Forces, its allies, and Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah or the Islamic Resistance Movement, currently led by Islmail Haniyeh. Both innocent Palestinians and Israelis have been caught in the crossfire but Palestinians have been targeted far more frequently and severely. 208,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority wishes to turn into the future capital of a Palestinian State. Israel’s basic law calls Jerusalem the “undivided capital,” but the international community does not regard it as such. Instead, it recognizes East Jerusalem as a Palestinian territory. The UN will not let Palestine join the UN due to Hamas, but Palestine was granted ‘observer state’ status in November of 2012. Palestine and Israel will be discussed in the next section as they are emblematic of the problems of the confluence between religion and power.


1Lieberman, Philip: Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior, pg 164.

2 “Evolving in their graves: early burials hold clues to human origins – research of burial rituals of Neanderthals”.

3 Bennett, Paul: “When Burial Begins.” British Archeology, August 2002. Magazine.

4 Grun, R. and Stringer, C. B. “Tabun revisited: revised ESR chronology and new ESR and U-series analyses of dental Material from Tabun C1.” Journal of Human Evolution 39:601-612. 2000. Journal.

5Bermúdez de Castro et al.: Paleodemography of the Atapuerca-SH Muddle Pleistocene Hominid Sample. 1997. Print.

6Barker, Graeme: The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers? Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-955995-4. March 25. 2009. Print.

7Kramer, Samuel Noah: Sumerian Mythology, pp. 42 and 57. 1944. Print.

8 Incestuous relationships are fairly common in Ancient Egyptian mythology.

9Blackwell Gary, Patricia and Talcott, Richard: “Star-gazing in Ancient Egypt.” Pg. 62, Astronomy Magazine. April 21st 2006.

10 Arriaza, Bernardo T.: “Beyond Death: The Chinchorro Mummies of Ancient Chile.” Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1995. Print.

11 The writers of the New Testament were fairly presumptuous. They edited the most important religious document to the Jewish people, the Torah, picked out parts they liked and used it as an introduction to give their “New Testament” context, which could be seen as very disrespectful to the Jewish people (or at least rather unapologetic plagiarism).

12 Cline, Eric H: Jerusalem Besieged, University of Michigan Press. November 7th 2005. Print.

13Qur’an, Surah: 17.93.

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