Sunday, 23 August 2009

A Skeptic’s View of The Origin of Religion

Skeptic Michael Shermer ponders the origin of religion. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

People have a tendency to explain reality in accordance with their worldview. This is no surprise since when they encounter issues that they cannot satisfactorily explain, they tend to suffer from cognitive dissonance, i.e. a mental conflict resulting from an attempt to believe in two or more mutually incompatible views simultaneously.

Thus, Sigmund Freud, for instance, developed a theory (or rather a hypothesis) of the origin of religion. In a typical Freudian manner he explained how sacrifices began.

Recently, Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, outlined his view of the origin of religion. He suggests that humans believe in God since we have a tendency to ”find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world”.

Shermer concocts his explanation by mixing animistic beliefs, voices that early people heard on the African savannah and social expediency.

Michael Shermer is an atheist who regards Darwinian evolution as fact. He thinks religion is a by-product of evolution that is beneficial for our existence.

Shermer assumes that aeons ago wild humans living on the savannahs of Africa associated the rustle they heard in the grass with predators and later learnt to discern other causal patterns in nature. He thinks this is ”the basis for the belief in souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.”

Natural selection plays a major role in Shemer’s explanation. it is good for us to live in peace with other people, and religion offers a set of rules for this that serves the evolution of our species.

Morals and religions are ruses that natural selection devised to get us to observe social and moral rules. At some stage, people came up with the idea of outsourcing the origin of these norms and they invented God to serve as lawgiver.

Shermer’s explanations of the development of religion are no more convincing than Freudian storytelling. They are mostly traditional Darwinian stories. It seems that their main purpose is to lessen Michael Shermer’s cognitive dissonance.


Shermer, Michael. 2009. Homo religious. (18 August).