Article by John Merkel | Illustration by Caroline Cooney | Additional Reporting by Brianna Skrivanek & Jennifer Pezzella | Owl Staff
From Sunday’s contemporary worship to the reading of sacred texts in Ancient Egypt, religion has played a central role in human society for millennia. Regular spiritual gatherings stretch back to prehistory in an unbroken chain.
No one is sure how long the human race has been partaking in religious rituals, but the murky beginnings of the phenomenon are becoming clearer. It’s been long assumed that belief in the supernatural arose after the establishment of early societies, but some experts believe that the origins of both religion and civilization are more closely intertwined.
Dr. Matthew Rossano, Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, has spent much of his life investigating the origins of religion and spirituality. He continues to weigh in.
“Common beliefs and rituals may have built the trust necessary for different hunter-gatherer groups to join together and form larger and larger bands until eventually you start to get villages and cities,” Rossano says.
The relationship between community and religion appears to be symbiotic. As ancient people gathered for funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and worship, they found a place to be accepted and provided for. In addition to physical safety, early religious practices likely also evolvedto address more sophisticated needs.
“Religious communities tend to be high in social capital-meaning social support networks- and this has all kinds of benefits mentally and materially for individuals,” Rossano states.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory conceived in 1943 and still frequently referenced today, organizes motivating factors into levels. Abraham Maslow theorized that each level must be fulfilled before the next can be addressed, beginning with physical needs (food, shelter, etc.), continuing through needs such as acceptance and love, and culminating in self-actualization.
Rossano explains, “Supernatural belief facilitates cooperation bycompelling people to follow group norms. In most traditional societies, sharing is a group norm. If you have food, you share it. If someone needs to borrow your spear or digging stick, you let them and so on.”
He continues, “Believing that not sharing will not only anger other group members, but also bring down upon you supernatural retribution…that makes you even more scrupulous about adhering to that group sharing norm.”
Religions may have developed and thrived by fulfilling Maslow’s needs in a comprehensive way. These communities provided a place for members to find not only food and shelter, but also love and a sense of belonging. Rossano comments further on religion’s ability to help individuals cope with death, isolation, and meaninglessness.
“Humans have been struggling with these issues since we evolved brains [capable] of thinking about them and religion and its associated rituals are probably the most effective mechanisms we have come up with for dealing with them,” he says.
The continuing success of today’s most popular religions is a testament to the effectiveness of such practices. Although stark differences exist between belief systems such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, they also bear significant resemblances to one another. Each world religion emphasizes the importance of community, meaning, and morality.
Since they emerged to address similar issues, this common ground between religions follows logically. Rossano also points out that the sheer scales of world religions contribute to their similarities.
“The commonalities are very likely due to the fact that all the global religions had to solve a similar problem-that is, how to get diverse peoples to unite under a common belief system. That’s how you become global,” he says.
The benefits of organized religion were, for the most part, taken as a given throughout most of history. However, beginning with the enlightenment in the 18th century, religion as a concept has seen widespread criticism.
Karl Marx, who was a staunch atheist, famously referred to religion as the “opium of the people.” More recently, the late physicist Stephen Hawking told El Mundo in an interview that “science offers a more convincing explanation.” The Pew Research Center reported in 2019 that 26% of adults in the U.S. are not affiliated with any religion-an all-time high.
However, an improved scientific understanding of religion’s origins has not nullified the positive effects of practicing faith.
“There’s lots of evidence that regular churchgoers are happier and healthier than non-attenders. They also tend to suffer less from depression, heal faster after surgery, [are] less likely to be obese [ or] suffer from high blood pressure, etc.…” Rossano says.
The International Review of Psychiatry featured a review of the evidence on the subject. The findings supported Rossano’s sentiment. Many studies had found involvement with religion to be “associated with greater well-being, less depression and anxiety, greater social support, and less substance abuse.”
People gravitate naturally toward the benefits of religion. The real-world advantages of practicing faith continue to draw adherents, even thousands of years after its conception.