Anthony Campbell

The Origin of Religion

Anthony Campbell

See also Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning

Where do religions come from?

From the Enlightenment onwards there have been attempts by sceptics to account for religion naturalistically. At first their attention was inevitably focused mainly on Christianity, but later the writings of travellers and anthropologists made it evident that other societies had beliefs and practices that might also be termed religious.

This realization has prompted a lot of speculation about the origins of religion. Why do people in almost all societies seem to believe in the existence of invisible supernatural beings who may influence human life for good or ill and whom it is advisable to pray to or propitiate? And why have almost all societies developed rituals, sometimes very elaborate and demanding in nature, in connection with such beliefs? In spite of much speculation no generally agreed answers to such questions have emerged.

Pascal Boyer's theory

In his recent book Religion Explained, the anthropologist Pascal Boyer finds all the hypotheses commonly advanced by rationalists to explain the widespread existence of religion to be superficially plausible but ultimately unsatisfactory (Boyer, 2001). He puts forward instead the theory that religion is the result of psychological mechanisms shared by all normal human minds.

The same systems in the mind that we use to explain everyday occurrences such as a tennis ball breaking a window, he suggests, also generate belief in invisible beings and hidden influences on events. For Boyer there is no real difference between these two sorts of explanatory process. He develops this admittedly counter-intuitive argument at length, with abundant citation of anthropological evidence. An important part of his theory is that the explanatory processes themselves are not accessible to introspection, which is why the beliefs they give rise to are so persuasive. This is an interesting argument though I am not sure that it explains the phenomena fully. (See my review for more details.)

It has often been remarked that there are similarities in the religious ideas of cultures that are widely separated from one another geographically or in time. For Boyer these resemblances are explained by the fact that all human minds and brains function in much the same way. The psychologist C.G. Jung reached the same conclusion earlier from a different starting point when he formulated his theory of archetypes.

Jung's archetype theory

We don't have direct access to the archetypes themselves, since they are unconscious, but they may become "constellated" or made manifest at the conscious level in various ways, notably in dreams. (Dreams were considered to be very important in many ancient religious traditions; in the Bible Joseph receives Divine guidance in a dream.)

Some critics have dismissed Jung's archetypes as unscientific and metaphysical, and it is true that there are inconsistencies and obscurities in the way Jung himself described them. However, some modern Jungians, for example Anthony Stevens, have interpreted the idea in a biological sense (Stevens, 1990). Stevens regards the archetypes as inherited patterns of function analogous to instincts in animals. On this view archetypes could be thought of as psychological "instincts" that manifest themselves in behaviour and thought patterns.

The widespread devotion to the Virgin Mary in Catholic countries and within Orthodox Christianity can be seen as arising from the archetype of the Anima. Stevens's version of Jung's archetype theory implies that religion is hardwired in the brain. There are (presumably genetic) mechanisms which tend to give rise to religious experiences and ultimately beliefs.

Richard Dawkins's meme theory

Another idea that has attracted a lot of attention in recent years arises from the concept of memes first introduced by Richard Dawkins (Dawkins, 1976) almost as an afterthought at the end of his influential popular exposition of modern Darwinism The Selfish Gene. Since then, in a kind of recursive illustration of its own hypothesis, meme theory has proliferated enormously so that today we have a "science" of memetics, textbooks on memetics, journals of memetics, websites on memetics, while references to memes constantly appear in books and articles on all kinds of subjects.

Susan Blackmore's view

Dawkins himself has claimed that religions are an example of meme transfer, and the same idea has been developed at some length by Susan Blackmore in her book on memetics. Here she has a whole chapter on the relevance of memes to religion: "Religion as memeplexes" (Blackmore, 1999).

A memeplex is a group of memes that cooperate to ensure their own survival. So the memes of Catholicism are supposed to include the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, the Virgin Birth, the infallibility of the Pope, and so on.

Too much emphasis on belief?

This is an attractive idea but I think it attributes too much importance to the role of belief in religion. I want to suggest that the origin of religion is not in belief but in narrative. Religions, I suggest, mostly begin with narrative; belief arises later and is, in a sense, a secondary development.

One can understand why, in a post-Christian context, there should be this emphasis on belief. Belief has always been a central issue in Christianity. Wars have been fought over questions of belief and innumerable heretics have been tortured and burnt for holding what the authorities regarded as incorrect beliefs. Europeans and North Americans therefore tend to assume, as a matter of course, that belief is the fundamental issue in religion. Yet in other religions there has been less emphasis on adherence to particular beliefs. This is certainly true of Hinduism and Buddhism, and even in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, there has been much less persecution of "heretics" than has been the case in Christianity.

Narrative central to religion

Narrative is at the heart of probably every religion we know of. The Old Testament is not a philosophical treatise, it is mostly a huge collection of stories and it is on these that its power largely rests. The same is true of the New Testament. The narrative of Christ's life, death, and resurrection is intrinsic to Christianity, and Jesus himself used narrative in the form of parables to convey his meaning.

Narrative in Christianity

Probably few people apart from religious professionals spend much time thinking about doctrinal statements such as the Nicene Creed or the Thirty-nine Articles. Statements of belief are not how most people encounter their religion as children; they generally meet it as narrative. My own introduction to Christianity by my father began with his telling me stories from the Old Testament and I should guess that something of the kind is the experience of many people who have had a Christian upbringing.

The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages had statues and pictures illustrating events in the lives of Christ and the saints. For most people this was how they experienced religion: not as formal statements of belief but as stories. And even today, Catholics follow the story of the Passion in the sequence of the Stations of the Cross.

In fact, Christianity is more dependent on narrative than probably any other major religion. It is based on a story that begins with Genesis, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and bequeathed Original Sin to their descendants. The human race therefore stood in need of redemption, which occurred because God sent his son to earth to die as a sacrifice. This myth seems to have originated with Augustine, or at least to have attained its full formulation thanks to him. It's quite a story. Without it, Christianity as we have it today could not exist.

Narrative in Hinduism

Narrative is deeply infused in other religions too. Hinduism contains innumerable narratives of the deeds of the gods, and even Buddhism, probably the most "intellectual" among religions, starts with the narrative of the Buddha's quest for enlightenment. Buddhists are also familiar with a huge number of stories about the Buddha, not only in his final existence on earth but also in his innumerable previous lives.

Narrative in Islam

Islam might at first glance seem to be an exception, in that the Koran does not consist primarily of narrative (though it does include some narratives). However, the origin of Islam is based on a narrative (the story of the Prophet's reception of the Koran), and Islam accepts the divine inspiration of the Old Testament, which is, as we have seen, largely made up of narratives.

As religions develop they accumulate stories about the lives of their saints and prophets—more narratives. New religions typically also start from a narrative: Mormonism, for example, begins with the story of Joseph Smith's discovery of the golden tablets on which was inscribed the Book of Mormon. In almost all traditional societies the process of initiating young people into the mysteries of the tribes seems to have consisted largely in telling them stories about the deeds of tribal gods and ancestors.

Religion as narrative

One reason why religions have such a strong hold on human societies is that they are based not primarily on intellectual beliefs but on narratives. Story-telling accesses the human psyche not at the intellectual but at the emotional level, where it is more powerful; probably the brain pathways are different for narrative response and belief formation. Human beings are story-telling by nature. Every society seems to have had its story-tellers, its oral epic poets, and the earliest literature that has come down to us (the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Gilgamesh epic) is narrative. Today we still enjoy narratives in the form of plays, films, and novels. (The death of the novel, like the death of religion, is constantly being foretold yet both novels and religions seemingly continue to thrive.)

Intellectual critics today tend to assume that all this narrative material is merely a concession to the uneducated masses, who are unable to understand the sophisticated concepts that are the real substance of religion. I think that this puts things the wrong way round. To understand the appeal of religions we should look first at the narratives in which they are expressed and only subsequently at the doctrinal beliefs that they give rise to.

If this idea is right, it follows that the occurrence of strange beliefs in religion has a ready explanation. Many people find it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Writers of radio or television soap operators often report that people write to the fictional characters in the apparent belief that they are real. This is a trivial illustration of a basic human propensity, which is to project the stories we tell ourselves on the outer world. The human imagination has given rise to religious stories in which all kinds of miraculous and wonderful events occur. These are taken to be real, and give rise to beliefs which are then incorporated into the religions as factual statements.


See also Religion and Language