The Greatest Swindle in the History of Mankind

This article attempts to explain how the phenomenon of religion came to be and how it manages to persist to this day. While a valid proof of or against matters of faith is logically impossible, I construct a chain of thought that lends plausible support my position that the supernatural beings, forces and events found in all religions (with all implications) do not really exist but are the product solely of human imagination.

This is a serious writeup, but it doesn't pretend to be academic. There are no footnotes or references, and everything I postulate as fact is what I believe everyone knows, or at worst can easily find with Google.

Prehistoric Origins of Spiritualism and Worship

I find it likely that these three topics/questions were among the deepest ones contemplated by our early ancestors, just as they remain central to much philosophic pondering today:

Even if early man didn't have the inclination or leisure to indulge in idle curiosity, I find it likely that as a parent he was faced with the curiosity of his children, and the apparent necessity to come up with answers to their questions. He lacked our scientific knowledge, but made up for it in imagination. Thus, for lack of hard facts, the first myths were born. "Thunder," we can conjecture him saying, "happens when the great creature in the sky bangs on his drum." To the average human intellect, even the most hare-brained theory, once conceived, is more satisfactory than the admission of complete ignorance.

Perhaps the thorniest question is that of mortality, or simply death. An animal runs around and acts according to its nature until we kill it, or maybe something else does. The animal is still there, but its motive force is gone, it lies still. Older people, ditto. As witnessed by anthropology, it is apparently a common assumption that a living being consists of body and spirit; and when the body dies, the spirit leaves it but continues to exist in some way. This is a comforting theory, because it means we don't really cease completely to be when we die. Perhaps being a free spirit is actually preferrable to being a spirit in a body.

Our early ancestors lived —and died— at the whim of the forces of nature: Exposure to weather could kill; the availability of wildlife could fend off starvation; suitable conditions could raise food, either foraged or as crops. Even as early man learned to make fire to keep warm, hunt effectively with weapons, domesticate animals and grow vegetables for food, he remained helpless with respect to many factors of his environment. Many natural phenomena, such as storms or droughts, seemingly happened at a whim — whose? One can only conjecture, but it is likely that early man's imagination created spirits that controlled his environment. Beliefs like this are seen in primitive cultures studied by modern anthropologists.

The antithesis to helplessness is control. Did early man have any way to gain/take control?

As a social animal, early man was well familiar with hierarchies of power, knew that membership in such a hierarchy demanded deference to those higher up. Displays and rituals of deference to his seniors, most likely also gifts and tributes, pleased the boss and helped assure his favor, which in turn was likely a survival factor in early societies. There's an important lesson to be learned here: If he plays his cards right, the underdog can influence his superior's behavior — an inversion of control!

The imagined spirits, who governed snow and thunder and rain and everything else vital to early man, were surely his superiors. Though invisible, they may well have been as real to him as his tribal leader. What could be more natural than to apply the same obeisances, the same bribery, to them as to the human superior? Just as with a quirky chieftain, there was no guarantee of success. But if it worked, then that would provide the leverage to bend the mighty spirit's ear, if not twist his arm. Presto, control! Even action with no guarantee of success is psychologically preferrable to inaction and helplessness.

Thus (it can be speculated) were born mysticism and worship.

The Emergence of the Priest

Any myth is a story is a meme, and the most successful ones are both plausible (or at least self-consistent), captivating and memorable. Some people have good imaginations and can tell a good yarn; those are the people most likely to create the best myths. Tribes have people who specialize at this kind of stuff that makes others' heads hurt. Today, we'd call them priests.

In its most basic form, this specialization is beneficial: Myths give people comfort and reassurance - survival traits then and now. The tribe values its shaman, and rightly so.

But human nature took its course: The priest's value to the community and the authority derived from proclaiming the will of the spirits gave him power. Political power similar and parallel to that of the chieftain. Sometimes the roles of chief and priest were conveniently rolled into one, but more often than not, there was a parallel power structure reminiscent of today's church and state.

Kindly, wise and well-meaning priests embellished mythology with ethics:

  • "Don't kill Zog for taking your food!"
  • "Don't steal from your neighbor!"
"Why not?"
"Because the spirits said so."
  • (Zog may be an asshole, but he happens to be our best hunter)
  • (If he gets caught, someone will get hurt over it, and I'm almost out of heal-herb)

To some, it's survival-facilitating behavior, to others it's "ethics." Whatever it is, instilling society-friendly behavior is certainly a positive side effect of most religions. Readers are urged to note, though, that ethics don't require religion. Religion is just a handy way to get people to embrace them.

Religion and Government

Welcome, now, to the thin line between ethics and government. What behavior patterns are beneficial to the survival of a social group, which ones are helpful to keeping a tribe/state/empire running smoothly, and which ones simply keep leaders snugly in power and material benefits?

Power corrupts, they say, and given human nature, who would be surprised that some of the claimed will of the gods was conveniently aligned with the will of the clergyman? And given that governments are staffed by frail, fallible human beings but the pantheon with entities claimed to be both superhumanly wise and powerful, is it any wonder that people are more easily governed by religion than government? The smart money was on government that claimed to be enacting the will of the gods; see King David of old and Islamist states of contemporary times.

How the Meme Propagates

Memes are similar to viruses and propagate in a similar manner. They are passed from host to host with the willing co-operation of the infected host.

The meme of a benevolent superhuman being who is concerned with the life of each and every one of us, who occasionally performs extraordinary deeds and may intervene on behalf of a single human is a good one - one we want to believe. Beside this carrot, many religions wield a stick: Eternal damnation allegedly awaits the unbelieving. Having at one point been convinced themselves, adults pass the story on to their children, who are trusting and gullible. But is this enough?

Back in its heyday, also known as the Dark Ages, the Roman Catholic Church held life-and-death sway over its subjects in many countries, and people paid lip service even if they didn't believe. Similarly, in hopes of assuring their well-being, adults imbued their children with their faith. Nowadays, outside of Islam religious institutions no longer wield the clout of force and need to resort to non-violent means of coercion: Formal institutions exist to support the indoctrination process: Churches/synagogues/mosques operate Sunday/Hebrew/Qu'ran schools that subject children to colorful pictures, impressive parables and rote drill. Thus, even parents who are not good indoctrinators/story tellers may be assured that their children are made to believe.

But while children make up most of a religion's recruits, many religions strive to embrace every man, woman and child. Trying to make adults believe the story and drink the Kool-Aid is called proselytizing or evangelism: Serious-looking, glib talking elder gentlemen buy air time on television and dour-faced strangers knock on our doors. This can be annoying but will rarely affect a sound mind, though it's certainly worth a try. A better conversion rate is achieved by charities like the Salvation Army, which tends to people of little self-esteem and willpower. The charity aspect is certainly a Good Thing™, bringing comfort and warm meals to the needy. But there's always the ulterior motive: The meal comes with prayers and sermons.

Benefits of Religion

  • Answers nagging yet important questions
  • Comforts the bereaved
  • Ameliorates feelings of helplessness
  • Prescribes rituals, which many people find comforting and satisfying
  • Encourages decent social behavior
  • Creates a sense of community and togetherness, strengthening social ties
  • Often prescribes benevolence and charity

Negative Side Effects

  • While religion gives hope in hopeless situations, it also encourages non-useful behavior (praying, rituals) in situations where there is hope.
  • Personal energy devoted to rituals could be better devoted to productive efforts to achieve goals.
  • Religion often places restrictions on the actions of individuals. While the really useful restrictions ("Thou shalt not kill") are often ignored, some of the more useless or self-serving restrictions (on sex, on scientific research, on driving a car on Saturdays) stand in the way of an enjoyable, productive life for everyone.
  • Religion provides a fake authority for any action, however reprehensible, carried out in its name. Torture and murder are still happening in the name of religion to this day.
  • Religion forms groups, and these groups often bear animosity toward one another for no other cause than religion itself.
  • Religion often emphasizes the afterlife to such an extent that believers neglect their present —and perhaps only— life.

Mankind's Way Forward

Religion has evolved from natural mysticism to polytheism to monotheism. I'm sure there's a next stage waiting in the wings that will have its adherents smiling with aloof amusement at our society's myths of Jehovah/Christ/Allah. Very likely, as societies become better informed, they will voluntarily abandon these myths to become what we today call atheists. But better yet would be a new faith: one that gives comfort, hope and solidarity without asking us to give credence to ancient Sci-Fi stories. A belief strong enough to not require brainwashing children, soliciting door-to-door and killing unbelievers. Perhaps belief in ourselves, in mankind as a unified whole?


If this amateurish philosophy piece has kindled your interest but left you unsatisfied with its lack of depth and rigor, I recommend Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennet.

A hard link has pointed me to haze's excellent writeup God is an imaginary friend for adults. That article and mine share a lot of common ground but complement each other. Thus, for a more rounded-out view of my theme, I recommend going there too.

Thanks to RoguePoet and kalen for messages with constructive criticism. kalen feels that for lack of research I have cause and effect of religion mixed up, and that animism, spiritism and religion are completely different kettles of fish. See also: Spirituality has nothing to do with religion. Our discussion is still ongoing.

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