Religion as a human creation – or not?

We (that is the Nontheist Friends Network) say, under our Aims, that we ‘regard religion as a human creation’. But is it?

Humans have created many things – culture, science, technology, music, literature, architecture, society and so on.  There is also a developing view that we have socially created language/s.

One thing we did not create, except in the sense of ‘making babies’, is ourselves. Humans were created, if not by God then by evolution.

A fascinating story on the BBC ‘futures’ website, based in part on the work of the Dutch-American primatologist Frans de Waal, suggests that religion itself ‘evolved’ in co-evolution with biology so that its beginnings can be traced back many millions of years to a time long before humans or even primates appeared. (Much further back than Robert Wright’s sociological perspective in his ‘Evolution of God‘).

It’s quite a long read but worth the effort I think as another contribution to our reflections on matters theological.

5 thoughts on “Religion as a human creation – or not?”

  1. The only problem I have with this piece is Brandon Ambrosino seems to be equating sharing food with a religious experience. But there are good evolutionary reasons for sharing food, as our species is better able to survive if one of us looks after the children while the other goes hunting and we then share the spoils of the hunt. So, while I can accept people inventing Gods to explain the vagaries of animal movements, and then thanking those Gods for the food they are about to eat, I don’t see the simple act of sharing food as a sacred act.


    1. I think these days many folk are involved with the ‘process’ of food, growing, harvesting, preparing etc. I tend to consider these processes and more importantly the people involved. I am giving thanks for their work, whether you consider this a ‘spiritual’ or ‘sacred process, is your decision, I like to thankfully consider the connectedness, particularly if the food is from a developing country where life is more challenging.


  2. Thanks Izzy. I had to read the article again but I think he was talking about the communal and celebratory sharing of food rather than just a useful division of labour. (Is it the man who goes hunting and the woman who looks after the children, or the women who plant or gather and put the food on the table whilst the men rest and talk or become ‘religious’?).
    Later in the article he quotes Frans de Waal again:
    “We see animals want to share food even though it costs them. We do experiments on them and the general conclusion is that many animals’ first tendency is to be altruistic and cooperative. Altruistic tendencies come very naturally to many mammals.”
    and comments:
    “But isn’t this just self-preservation? Aren’t the animals just acting in their own best interests? If they behave in a way that appears altruistic, aren’t they just preparing (so to speak) for a time when they will need help? “To call that selfish,” says an incredulous de Waal, “because in the end of course these pro-social tendencies have benefits?” To do that, he says, is to define words into meaninglessness.”

    So I think he(Brandon Ambrosino)’s pursuing and stretching an argument for altruism, sentiment and what he chooses to call ‘religion’ all originating way back even before Humans.

    Frans de Waal is a fascinating writer as a primatologist and deep thinker about the basis of human behaviour and the similarities to be found in other species. (I read “Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” recently).


    1. Thank you, Trevor.

      I totally agree that Brandon Ambrosino is stretching an argument but, in my view, the stretch is in trying to equate altruism and religion.

      Yes, people share food in a religious context, such as the Christian communion, but that doesn’t mean all instances for food sharing have a religious element. Ambrosino’s headline question is, “Can the roots of spiritual behaviours and feelings be found in other animals?” but the only thing he seems to be offering by way of an answer is the sharing of food. To me, the fact that some people see sharing food as a religious act and animals share food does not mean that animals have a spiritual feeling when they share food. It could simply be a matter of self-preservation – if I share my food with you today when I have plenty, you will be more likely to share your food with me when I have none and am hungry.

      It is an interesting article; I just don’t feel his argument holds up.


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