A Study of Religion

These notes are the result of attending a local U3A (University of the Third Age) class in 2015 entitled:
Why Religion? The socio-religious evolution of mankind.

Religion of all kinds has shaped the laws, moral codes, social structures, art and music of the many different civilisations. It’s difficult to know where to start.

The history of religion could be seen as the written record of human religious experiences and ideas. This period of religious history begins with the invention of writing about 5,200 years ago.
The prehistory of religion then relates to a study of the religious beliefs that existed prior to the advent of written records. The lack of written records means that most of the knowledge about pre-historic religion is derived from archaeological records and other indirect sources and suppositions, and is therefore subject to continued debate.
It is perhaps important to bear in mind the difference between religion (that needs components to be defined) and beliefs (that would have been oral).

Some Basic Questions
Why do almost all societies have religious beliefs and practices of some kind?
Why do people believe in invisible supernatural things?
Why does religion have such a strong hold on human society?
Are we hard-wired or is there some genetic factor?
Where does the will to survive or even to live forever come from?
What place prayer and rituals?

In primitive societies there would have been many unanswered questions:
What controls the change of seasons?
What causes weather and natural disasters?
What controls fertility?
What happens to people after they die?
Their answers seem to have been ‘mythological’ gods, goddesses and spirits.
Was that based on intuition?
Was it a response to human fear?
Was the aim to give people a feeling of security in an insecure world, and some kind of control over the environment?

Primitive Religions – were born in cultures that were not sophisticated or civilised. They sprang up in every continent among people who apparently had no contact with each other.
Why are there so many similarities?
The Neanderthals developed rituals and spirituality – they buried their dead 50,000 years ago in a foetal position. Was this significant?
Was there some vision of an afterlife as the beginning of a new cycle of existence?

I had previously understood that there was probably a human exodus from Africa maybe 200,000 to 250,000 years ago. It was in December 2012 that I had watched a BBC TV series entitled, ‘A History of the World’ by Andrew Marr that suggested a somewhat different (and more interesting story) based in part on some DNA studies.

The suggestion was that the history of Homo Sapiens began about 70,000 years ago with maybe only about 1000 people moving NE across Africa.
Did they slowly colonise the rest of the planet – India – East Asia – and reach Australia 50,000 years ago?
Maybe they first crossed the land bridge between Asia and America about 15,000 years ago – then quickly spread through to S America – see Wikipedia.
It is also suggested that from the Middle East another branch headed NW into Europe about 45,000 years ago – where the Neanderthal had been living for some 250,000 years. Maybe they co-existed for between 5,000 to 10,000 years with the Neanderthals who seem to have become extinct about 30,000 years ago.

This fits with the idea that through the bulk of human evolution, humans lived in small nomadic bands practising a hunter gatherer lifestyle. The emergence of complex and organized religions can then be traced to the period when humans abandoned their nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyles in order to begin farming during the Neolithic period (some 10,000 years ago).

One of the oldest known sculptures dates to about 38,000BCE. The oldest known worshipping place is in NW Botswana and dated about 30,000BCE by which time all convincing evidence of Neanderthal burials ceases – the time of the introduction of Homo Sapiens to Europe? There are examples of burials in Iberia, Wales and E Europe dated about 25,000 to 21,000 years ago with heavy use of red ochre and objects in the graves. Between 13,000 and 8,000 years ago there is noticeable burial activity in the same caves that were used 10,000 years previously, taking the form of modern cemeteries. Large stones may have acted as grave markers.

Homo Sapiens
Said to have evolved from proto-humans from Africa. Their brain tripled in size, especially the neocortex which processes cognitive functions and formulates philosophical (or religious?) ideas – in Chimpanzees the neocortex occupies 50% of the brain; in humans it is 80%.

Some of the evidence
Creswell Crags in Derbyshire (UK) is a gorge flanked by a pair of opposing limestone cliffs that have been eroded by millions of years of water flowing into a series of caves and fissures that have been utilized and inhabited by hominids for 50,000 years. The first seasonal visitors were Neanderthals who were following the herds of reindeer, bison, mammoths and horses and who would have had to compete with the lions and hyenas who were hunting the same prey. The Neanderthals would have used the caves as summer camps and have left behind flint hand axes, tools and animal bones with traces of butchery marks. Later around 30,000 years ago the first modern humans began using these caves for exactly the same reasons leaving their more advanced flints as well as shaped bone and antler tools as evidence of their occupation. The last group of Old Stone Age hunters to use the caves were there around 11-13000 years ago and left a type of fine shaped flint known as Creswell Points as well as several pieces of decorated bone that include hatched patterns, a human figure and a horses head.
Shanidar Cave in Iraq – the remains of ten Neanderthals dating from 35,000 to 65,000 years ago, have been found within the cave. The cave also contains two later “proto-Neolithic” cemeteries, one of which dates back about 10,600 years and contains 35 individuals.
Krapina Cave in Croatia is the biggest Neanderthal find. It is thought to be about 130,000 years old.
Qafzeh in Israel on the slopes of Mt Carmel where the remains of as many as 15 individuals were found in a cave, along with 71 pieces of red ochre and ochre-stained stone tools. The ochre was found near the bones, suggesting it was used in a ritual. It is about 100,000 years old – the earliest known intentional burial ground.

An overview
Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) – from say 100,000 years ago – living in small bands – 10s to 100s.
Hunter gatherers – primitive stone tools – pre-literate (Neanderthals had no speech – unlike Homo Sapiens).
New Stone Age (Neolithic) – from say 10,000 to 5,000 years ago – tribes of 100s or 1,000s.
Prehistoric – from say 5,000 to 3,000 years ago – chiefdoms of 1,000s to 10,000s.
Historic – from say 3,000 to 1,000 years ago – states of 10,000s to 100,000s
Modern from 2,000 years ago to the present – empires of 100,000+.

The Neolithic Revolution – the widespread transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement resulted in the ability to support an increasingly large population. Archaeological data indicates that the domestication of various types of plants and animals evolved in separate locations worldwide between 12,000 and 4,000 years ago. The Stone Age and early farming ended when metal tools became widespread (Copper or Bronze Age, or in some geographical areas, the Iron Age) leading to a worldwide population explosion. The climate was becoming warmer. There was a development of languages. There was the move from hunting and gathering to farming. Wild crops were cultivated and domesticated – figs – wheat and millet – seed selection – animals domesticated – selective breeding.

The following entries have been copied from Wikipedia:
7500–5700 BCE:
The settlements of Catalhoyuk develop as a likely spiritual center of Anatolia. Possibly practicing worship in communal shrines, its inhabitants leave behind numerous clay figurines and impressions of phallic, feminine, and hunting scenes.
5500–4500 BCE:
The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) emerged, probably within the Pontic-Caspian steppe (though their exact urheimat is debated). The PIE peoples developed a religion focused on sacrificial ideology, which would influence the religions of the descendent Indo-European cultures throughout Europe, Anatolia, and the Indian subcontinent.
~3750 BCE:
The Proto-Semitic people emerged with a generally accepted urheimat in the Arabian peninsula. The Proto-Semitic people would migrate throughout the Near East into Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Their religion would influence their descendant cultures and faiths, including the Abrahamic religions.

It would appear from what I have seen that most of the historic religions had a place for both gods and goddesses but that there was a suppression of goddess worship in Europe when the Indo-Europeans settled here. There was the domestication of the horse, war, belief in male gods, etc. Goddess worship melded with worship of male gods to produce polytheistic religions: Greeks, Romans, Celts.
It is suggested that literacy reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, feminine right one and that this shift upset the balance between men and women, initiating the disappearance of goddesses, and the decline of women’s political status and the development of patriarchy (a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it) and misogyny (dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women).

There was the same theme in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The pagan religions were suppressed and the female principle was gradually driven out of religion. The God, King, Priest and Father replaced the Goddess, Queen, Priestess and Mother.

Back to these early farmers. Their settlements consisted of houses: one in Jericho dated to 9,400 BCE is made of mud bricks – with a surrounding stone wall: for protection from nearby groups or from floods, or to keep animals penned.

For the first time we can talk of organised religion. A temple area in south-eastern Turkey at Göbekli Tepe dated to around 9,500 BCE. Developed by some still nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, but they built a “sacred space” of seven stone circles, covering 25 acres, limestone pillars carved with animals, insects and birds. This suggests that these people were no longer so nomadic; they had some form of formalised religion; there was a link between religion and art.

As the population increased and the social groups became larger, it was important to maintain social control. Religion must have become the cultural framework for this. What system of morality developed? Some people within the tribe started to invent answers based on their personal guesses? A belief system which was in the hands of a “priesthood”?

The resulting sacredness needed to be protected: shamans, diviners, medicine men, priestesses (who guarded the temples of Greek mythology who relayed the oracles of the gods to men). Such people were seen to have had access to a higher wisdom and healing skills.

Homo sapiens were the first to develop language. Rituals involved dance and music, but also words and chants. Sacred truths have to be stated – preached. Religion as we now understand it, cannot pre-date the emergence of language.

Wherever there is religion there is art, often purely symbolic art. Images and symbols to represent supernatural beings and ideas made it easier to communicate and understand. Stone-Age art – the cave paintings at Chauvet in France show that these people were capable of religious and of abstract thought (something that we are perhaps now losing?).

Over time there was an increase in the complexity of religions. Society became more complex. States were born out of the Neolithic Revolution – states with chiefs and kings who had the dual role of political and religious leaders (Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt). A movement from the shamans to a formalised system of government and a formalised system of religion. The development of theocracies. Consequences:
1. Religion justifies the political power of the central authority, and
2. These larger states consist of unrelated individuals and its politico-religious structure cemented the people together.

Those in power want to remain in power. A contrast to Palaeolithic times (the Old Stone Age) where the form of government appears to have been egalitarian. Now there is one “big man”. Religion and a central government go hand in hand.

The invention of writing is thought to have taken place about 5,200 years ago (3,200 BCE) and the Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt are some of the oldest known religious texts in the world (2,400–2,300 BCE). Writing played a major role in creating, sustaining and spreading organized religion. These written sacred texts were maintained by a select group (clergy), as the many different religions developed comprehensive doctrinal systems.

As a personal study by someone coming from a non-academic Christian background this is where I stepped back a bit. My knowledge of other religions is very limited. I have extracted some of the material from Timeline of Religion on Wikipedia for pointers to some of the major dates in the development of religions generally from those early dates. My abbreviated version can be found here.

More Basic Questions
Is there a difference between the sacred and the secular?
What is spirituality?
What is the difference between religion and spirituality?
Some initial thoughts:
Sacred: Connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.
Religious rather than secular – “sacred rites” – sacred writing or text – embodying the laws or doctrines of a religion – “a sacred Hindu text”.
Synonyms: hallowed, holy, blest, consecrated, sanctified, dedicated, venerated, revered – “only the priest was allowed to approach this most sacred place”
Antonyms: unconsecrated, cursed.
The sacred is intuitive – open to the cycles of nature that allowed the primitive peoples to experience the world as a sacred reality.
Everything we experience naturally in ourselves and in external nature is somehow seen as holy, deserving our respect?
Did God give us dominion over nature?
Do we have the right to plunder or are we stewards?
What about care of the environment?
What place New Age thinking?

There seems to have been a belief that the universe and all sacred things are in the control of the gods or spirits. Sacred things are presided over by them – spirits reigning over a family, clan, village, or certain localities such as a river as in Greek mythology; a pantheon (the word for a collection of gods under Zeus) and nymphs or minor deities that were generally lacking in mercy and love. “We have to appease their anger to gain material favours from them.” Spirits connected with dead ancestors who control human destiny and hand out rewards and punishments.

Their vision of time was not linear but cyclical, like Hinduism and Buddhism. Cyclical means following the seasons of nature. Their religion was expressed in rituals – structured, formalised, some communal, others were limited. Purposes:
1. To celebrate the rites of passage in life;
2. Life cycle rituals associated with the seasons;
3. Fertility and fertility goddesses;
4. To ensure the favour of the divine or to ward off evil;
5. To enable them to contact the spiritual realm (“sacred time” or “dream time”);
6. To bind members of the community together.

Which came first, religion or morality (the terms and conditions imposed upon a social group to enable them to live together) – an important question! A restraint on individual selfishness. Lack of group cohesion could make them vulnerable. Being part of a group also improved the chances of finding food. All social animals have hierarchical societies. Dominant group members enforce social order.

I had previously attended a class in 2014 entitled “A Study of Christianity”.

Comments can be posted below or directly on the appropriate Post on the Facebook Group “Outside the Goldfish Bowl”


One Response to A Study of Religion

  1. Joe Austin says:

    According to this, the “gods” are personal, volitional.
    In Science, the “forces of nature” become inanimate, abstract, presumably unchangeable.
    “Scripture” implies language, in fact a particular language. It always seems to be the language of the prophet and his constituency! This is convenient for the “my god is the real god” theory but doesn’t offer much evidence for the “one god of all mankind” theory. One might suppose that a “one god” would speak in “tongues”–all languages–as the Christian Apostles supposedly could (but then we have no written records of their linguistic ability.)
    I’m beginning to suppose that the key to understanding “religion” is understanding “revelation.”
    How did the prophets come to believe they were recipients of messages from the gods?
    How were they able to convince the general population who had not personally experienced such revelations?
    Why do we TODAY believe our Scriptures are from God?
    Do we believe God wrote them because they are true,
    or do we believe they are true because God wrote them?

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