Saw that one coming!

Discussion (37)¬

  1. Ben in Herefordshire says:

    Nailed it with that on Author!

    It is so accurate it’s painful.

  2. Rrr says:

    Even meta-meta?
    Like so many of Author’s works.
    Must be divine inspiration? 😉

  3. Laripu says:

    This is an interesting a Wikipedia article on the origin of religion:

    It seems that larger brains caused it among very early humans. On the one hand, they understood causality, and then they also knew they’d inevitably die.

    It may have even predated the emergence of language, somewhere between 50K and 100K, but I think that once there was language, religious activity took off.

    They’ve dated graves from around 100K years ago where corpses were stained with red ocher and contained various grave goods. They’d say, it’s a sign!

    Here’s a guess. Bands or tribes may have had an exceptional person, perhaps one that figured out how to stop bleeding by wrapping leaves around a wound, or to make a splint with sticks and vines for a broken bone. Once someone is recognized as a “wise man” or”wise woman”, people will come to them with any practical problem.

    Even today, brilliant scientists in one field will sometimes express opinions in different fields, and be completely wrong. I can see that a “wise person”, who knew a few things, might make up a story about, for example, lightning, thunder, the sun, the moon, a stillbirth, or the tiger that ate Aunt Hettie. Especially if the was a terrified child that needed to be quieted.

    Language allows for those stories. Memory, and repetition turn stories into traditions. Traditions become sacred when no-one remembers the generation in which the stories started.
    “Our people have always done this.” Eventually, writing allows for orthodoxy, since the stories are recorded and the literate can refer to them.

    So it is written. (Right above… You can read it, right? 😉 )
    So it must be true. Amen. Awomen too.

  4. M27Holts says:

    Two sundays ago, I had to sit through a catlick christening, and wear a jacket and tie. Twas my granddaugher, so was mandatory attendance. My youngest son was a godparent and is more of an arheist than I am! So I laughed when he had to denounce Satan and all his works….

  5. Mr Paul Seed says:

    Laripu: You nailed it! Best simple, plausible explanation I have ever seen of where religions come from.

  6. Donn says:

    Well, sure, the less you know about how things work, the broader the range of possible explanations. But religion, or superstition? Personally, even if it evolves into a colorful well rehearsed narrative about supernatural beings and their role in the world, that doesn’t make it religion. When a society subscribes to that narrative and it’s part and parcel of their culture, still not religion.

    I’d guess religion per se started when the society bought the shaman’s claims that the supernatural beings needed stuff from us. Chicken dinners, ritual observances, etc. And if you don’t follow the imaginary rules, you’re bringing down catastrophe on the tribe, so attendance is not optional. It’s religion when you have to believe the stories and obey the priests – I mean not necessarily required by society, you can be an atheist if you want, but any religion you want to partake of demands faith.

    Secondly, religion invariably gives you an eternal soul or somehow offers an escape from reality there, and usually there’s a heavenly father or other family member.

  7. Laripu says:

    Donn, who wouldn’t expect favors from a deity in exchange for a chicken dinner? And what deity would withhold favor from someone that had sacrificed a chicken dinner to it, with some asparagus, and a nice salad. “And not too expensive.”

    I myself like a good chicken dinner, and never once have I hurled lightning at infidels. Cogito, ergo fatso. 🙂

    You asked “But religion, or superstition?”
    In my view, the difference is only the written word and the organization. With organization comes the need for preserving and copying the written word, for buildings, and therefore for money… and eventually power.

    But way before all that, there are wise men and women who know how to heal an injury; which makes the made-up stories they tell about how the world works more plausible to their charges.

    There were many thousands of millennia, over which it slowly went from one to the other.

  8. Donn says:

    If it’s superstition, then when someone doesn’t subscribe, it’s just a difference of opinion. Superstition doesn’t come with membership that entitles you to a supernatural helper and eternal life.

    It seems to me I’ve read something interesting on humans’ intrinsic ability to believe in real, full death, but unfortunately can’t recall. Anyway, that seems to be one of the hooks that religion has – it’s so easy to convince us we have an eternal soul – and superstitions commonly work that one too.

    Personally I do not favor chickens as food or anything else, but it’s hard to resist duck – and I never hear of anyone sacrificing a tasty duck to some imaginary deity.

  9. OtterBe says:

    I have nothing to back this with, but I assume that religion just naturally arises at the intersection of our need to explain phenomena and our yearning to be important and listened to-to hold secret knowledge.

    On the ‘we’ve always done it this way’, I enjoy a half-remembered story I heard on npr regarding preparing a holiday meal. The new bride cooks the roast the way her mother taught her. It’s well-received, but her husband asked why she cut the end off the roast? Curious herself, she calls her mother, who in turn calls Grandma—who chuckles and informs her that the roasting pan had been quite small, and the roast had to be trimmed in order to fit.

    Ha! I had to check if I had this right—and, even above the npr result, is Snopes listing the story a a legend. Even better is that the npr result is titled, “How to Creat an Ancestral Alter at Home”

  10. Shaughn says:

    These days, we offer money to a deity named Government and hope for its benign blessings, though often enough we get malevolence and cursed instead.

    Woe to those who not bend to tax laws, tax collectors and tax inspectors!

  11. Choirboy says:

    Once the human brain became sophisticated enough to develop an imagination, lines between reality, dreams and imaginings were inevitably to become blurred in those who didn’t know what they had.
    “And in the night, imagining some fear
    How often is bush supposed a bear. (AMSND)
    Or a demon.? Or a spirit? Or a fairy? Or a god?
    Shamans probably latched on to this in many cases but I reckon it wouldn’t have been hard for a group to reach agreement to placate the unknown ‘being’ in the forest with an offering or two and a religion starts there.
    The dead parachutist in Lord of the Flies, which covers a great deal of this stuff, comes to mind.
    Sadly it’s still only too easy for millions to choose their imaginings over reality as evidenced not only in the prevalence of religion in the US but also the inexplicable worshipping of the Mango Mussolini.

  12. jb says:

    For those who are interested, there is a lawyer who writes a web comic called The Illustrated Guide To Law who has spent the last two years or so on an extended digression into the origin of religion and its role in law and society in order to explain the thinking of the American Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution. The comic is written in a breezy style, but the author is quite erudite and is up on the latest scholarly research, and he’s serious about what he’s doing. He starts with humans living in leaderless egalitarian bands (the original “state of nature” that Hobbes got so wrong) and works his way through the invention of agriculture and city states and most recently the details of how and why the Hebrews elevated Yahweh from a local storm deity to the only god whose worship was permitted (“no other gods before me” implies that there are other gods!) to the only god, full stop, inadvertently inventing monotheism in the process. While the comic as a whole is full of fun stuff (like this Fifth Amendment Flowchart), the sequence on religion and society that I’m talking about starts here (or click “Current Lesson” on the main page). If you have the time take a look and let me know what you think!

  13. M27Holts says:

    Some science geezer argued for overlapping magisteria as a fop for the whinging science-envying theologians. I’m not having that at all. Anybody who genuinely BELIEVE’s in religious bullshit should be treated fir psychosis in my opinion. I get a fecking headache trying to think down to their level, I still think it’s frightening how religious loon bombs are allowed to walk freely in the 21st century…Nail some sense into them says I…

  14. M27Holts says:

    Ah. Possibly got some grammar mistakes there. I am currently preferring Python syntax to English at the moment…

  15. Anonymous says:

    M27Holts: That would be “Monty Python” of course?

    I wouldn’t be too worried about “religious loon bombs” walking freely. Both here in Aberdeen, and in my hometown, churches are closing down left, right and centre due to dwindling congregtions. Surveys show that actual religious belief is in freefall, but many people still like church for weddings and funerals (and “catlick christenings”!) – if they can find a church!

    The worry is that their priests, parsons, presbyters, chaplains, etc still have undue influence in the likes of school governors, county councils and the House of Lords.

    The C of E recently got great chances to wallow in ceremonial when the Queen died, and when her son was “coronated”, although both events did stir up some opposition.

    Unfortunately, our brethren in the good ole US of A are not shedding religious belief and influence as much as we are in the UK.


  16. Son of Glenner says:

    Sorry – that “anonymous” was me!

    I unintentionally did a Laripu! Sorry, Laripu.

  17. postdoggerel says:

    Son of Glenner, Unlike the UK, we in the USA have a clause in our constitution separating church and state. Separation of Church and State is a phrase that refers to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The phrase dates back to the early days of U.S. history, and Thomas Jefferson referred to the First Amendment as creating a “wall of separation” between church and state as the third president of the U.S. The term is also often employed in court cases. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black famously stated in Everson v. Board of Education that “[t]he First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state,” and “[t]hat wall must be kept high and impregnable.”
    As of late we have too many in jail for being high, and as far as the impregnable part, that has gone the way of the dodo after the fall of Roe v Wade and proscription of birth control methods. Thanks, conservatives, for your invaluable contributions to progress and compassion.

  18. Donn says:

    I seem to have made it through the extant pages of The Illustrated Guide To Law. A lot to absorb. I am pretty sure he isn’t making it all up, and maybe the idyllic pre-civilization story isn’t really that critical to an understanding of where we are. Or the various “never before in the history of the world has this happened” dramatic flourishes.

    The impression I get for the origin of gods, is roughly ancestor worship amplified to cultural hero. I didn’t notice anything about souls, which leads me to think he isn’t really seriously interested in the question of religion as a human trait.

    He doesn’t seem to have many illusions about the role of justice in the modern world. One of the pieces that I found most interesting was the idea of reconciliation as an object of pre-civilization justice.

  19. OtterBe says:

    I’m working my way through The Illustrated Guide To Law. I do wish the author would at least post a bibliography for each section, but am nonetheless enjoying most of it. I note that, when asked, Nathan has stated that he didn’t want to interrupt the narrative flow with footnotes, but I guess I’ve been spoiled by blogs like acoup.
    Thank you for posting the link, jb.

  20. Donn says:

    “Need to explain natural phenomena” is often cited as an excuse for making up this stuff. I don’t buy it. We went for many thousands of years in a transition between relatively smart apes to modern human, and many thousands of years after that, before we suddenly needed to invent transparent fantasies to explain all these natural phenomena? No. When you hear thunder, and someone explains that it’s Thor whacking his hammer, you know exactly as much as you did before.

    We have souls, because we have a fundamentally hard time believing in death. Because we have souls, there are stories about what they’re up to after this life, i.e. spirits, and that was undoubtedly one of the first rackets — hey, wanna know what’s up with yer mom? I can talk to spirits, for $20 I’ll ask her. Some of those stories involve doing stuff for us (people still pray to saints), and inventive racketeers populated the spirit world with more generic entities and services.

  21. postdoggerel says:

    Donn, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
    ― Mark Twain

  22. Donn says:

    From an article in Scientific American, “Never Say Die: Why We Can’t Imagine Death”, Jesse Bering recounts a thought experiment he proposed to his students, where Richard just died in a motor vehicle collision, and now what’s his mental state. Some students who didn’t believe in afterlife turned out to have some contradictory ideas.

    One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well—he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because
    there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now.

    In another experiment, young children were treated to a story where a mouse is ambushed and eaten by an alligator.

    But here’s the really curious part. Even the preschoolers had a solid grasp on biological cessation; they knew, for example, that dead Baby Mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow up to be an adult mouse. Heck, 85 percent of the youngest kids even told us that his brain no longer worked. Yet most of these very young children then told us that dead Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother.

    It seems to turn out, that what’s innate is a belief in the afterlife, and only through culture are we likely to learn any different. So there’s a great big hook in the human brain, for religion to hang off – we’re born suckers for the soul story.

  23. M27Holts says:


  24. Son of Glenner says:

    Of course, I know that death will be the end of my personal existence, but i “resent” that I will never know what comes next in the continuing story of my family, my circle of friends, my neighbourhood, my country, my planet. I won’t even have the pleasure of eavesdropping on my own funeral, and hearing what they say about me! (Maybe just as well!)

    At least I know I will not be meeting up with M27Holts in the afterlife; not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing!

  25. Laripu says:

    Donn, about the hook in the brain for “the soul story”:

    By nature, by selection, we have a natural fear of death, so that we avoid danger, run from it. That predates the advent of language and the increased brain size.

    And yet, early bands also needed some bravery. For example to rescue an injured band member, or to perform some other dangerous but necessary deed. Bands in which some percentage of individuals had that bravery would be slightly more likely to pass on the group’s genes. Eventually, statistically, you get the right mix of bravery in the face of danger, and fear of death.

    The hook that provides that is the idea of a post-mortem reward for failed valor, or good deeds in general. Valhalla. Heaven. Somewhere, over the rainbow. It allows the tiny natural courage a hint of possibility that deadly failure is still a kind of success.

    And that is the Jesus story: the death penalty equals victory.

    And there’s nothing in natural selection, in human social evolution, that would penalize have such a belief. Until recently: if people are so convinced that prayer is better than medicine, then their sick children are more likely to die.

    Here’s a Google search for “people who pray instead of seeking medical help”, but without the quotes:


  26. Laripu says:

    Sorry about the messed up link. My point is; the existence of life saving medicine creates some survival benefit to those not completely overtaken by extreme religious beliefs, such as the belief that prayer will heal the sick.

    Not to mention: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Went_Hensley


    George Went Hensley
    (this is my take)
    died from the bite
    of a poisonous snake.
    There was no holy spirit.
    There was nothing to save.
    There was only an idiot
    dead in a grave.
    Pentecostal pendejo.
    Incurably dumb.
    Pierced on the wrist.
    By venom overcome.
    He lied to the people,
    he asked for belief.
    He died from his con.
    He deserved no grief.

  27. jb says:

    OtterBe — By “acoup” I assume you are referring to A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. I find blogs like that so intimidating! I like to think of myself as intelligent and well informed and so forth, and then the Interwebs go and expose me to people who can churn out erudite and highly interesting and readable essays on a preposterous schedule, and I am put in my place. Another blog that produces that reaction in me is ACX (previously SSC), and of course there are others. Before the Internet we had these things called “books”, many of which in theory should have induced the same realization, but for some reason it just wasn’t quite so obvious and in your face back then.

  28. Donn says:

    The author of that article brings in a lot of opinions to the effect that whether we fear death or not, we’re fundamentally unable to conceive of it. Hence the children who understand the mouse is dead and function has permanenty ceased, but easily imagine it continues to have ideas etc.

    On the other hand, believing one has a soul doesn’t seem to relieve people of fear of death at all. It’s sort of a common joke, that people ought to be happy to go on to their “reward”, and yet so few seem to be.

  29. M27Holts says:

    I am learning Python. Which is named, after those wacky boys from oxbridge. I always feel sorry for those poor Diamondback rattlesnakes who have endure being molested by religious loon bombs. I always hope that the snake bites the fookers clean on the neck and the haemotoxin kills the baptist , slowly….

  30. Donn says:

    The programming language? For me, it’s been going down hill since version 1.54. When I had a medium size application dumped on me because it was written in Python, that put the cork in it – the language is unsound. Too much room for folderol that makes programs difficult to maintain.

  31. M27Holts says:

    Its version 3.3 at least now. I shall find out how efficient it is when I start using it in earnest….

  32. suffolk blue says:

    Sorry to hear about your aunt Hettie, mate

  33. Shaughn says:

    The more I think about having an ‘eternal soul’ and ‘eternal afterlife’, the more I’m awestruck with the sheer horror of it. Our ancestors never thought it through, I think.

  34. M27Holts says:

    “Jesus watches while I wank”….no wonder those catlicks are so hung up on sex..they have an eternal voyeur on their case…

  35. Son of Glenner says:

    Another take on death and non-existence.

    I often feel that a small part of my deceased father (“Glenner” of course!) or mother (just “Mum”) lives on in me, when enjoying something that would have been a shared experience when they were alive, such as a much-loved piece of music or a longstanding family in-joke (lots of these!). When I die, these fragments will also die with me. (Although similar fragments will continue within my surviving close relatives.) There’s a quote I’m too lazy to look up, that someone is only truly dead when no-one remembers them any more.

  36. OtterBe says:

    I’m a faculty brat, and, by the time I became fully conscious, I was surrounded by (mostly humanities) grad students. So I grew up around voluble informed people who would happily dump a book or two on me when I questioned them: I quite enjoy-and often check-footnotes. They were mostly kind to my hyper young self, so, while I’ve often felt ignorant, I was never told that I was stupid—and, importantly, I was usually guided on how to mitigate that ignorance.

    I, too, am often in awe at the informed missives that some people can produce seemingly without effort, but I usually enjoy the knowledge-dumps rather than be intimidated by them. I wish more people had a chance to grow up the way I did in that regard (Some of the other 70s-child-of-hippies stuff, notsomuch)

  37. Spoing says:



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