Gods Deconstructed

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Evolution of Belief: Costs and Benefits

Before I move on there is one other aspect of the earliest beliefs I want to consider. There must have been benefits that explain why belief was of use to early humans and there must also have been costs involved with the invention and evolution of their beliefs. Here I consider some of those costs and benefits.


  • As touched on before, humans were food fodder for other animals. Brave humans who stood their ground and fought the beasts that would eat them were likely to end up dead. Humans who believed the spirits of their ancestors helped them survive would tend to be braver than those who could not accept the existence of spirits thus negating any advantage of a flight rather than fight response.
  • The ever-increasing use of a large brain required a greater intake of food.
  • Humans needed to band together in larger family groups, with the potential for increased social friction.
  • Some humans believed they could speak to the dead but because of friction with group leaders they tended to isolate themselves, travelling between groups with the increased risk that they would be killed.


  • Humans who turned and ran at the slightest possibility of becoming a meal survived.
  • To explain the shadows that may or may not be beasts, humans invented the concept of spirits of the dead that helped them and ensured their survival.
  • The idea of spirits that exist in the real world and can help humans came from complex and intelligent brain. Those humans who could understand and accept belief in spirits were likely to be intelligent themselves. Those who did not accept the belief would be rejected by family groups and therefore have greater difficult in feeding themselves and staying alive long enough to breed. Therefore more intelligent humans would better fit their violent and dangerous environment.
  • Brains that could accept that spirits lived alongside them would almost certainly be more capable of inventing and using progressively more efficient tools. They would also have been more adept at developing more efficient hunting techniques.
  • Social interaction increased and acted as a significant force, for example in the evolution of language skills.
  • With larger family groups came the ability to recognise behaviour that was detrimental and led to deformities in offspring. This led to social taboos such as the need to limit inbreeding.


The majority of humans are naturally conservative and once they have a belief like to pass it from parent to child. They do not change their beliefs unless there is a compelling reason why they should. Beliefs can therefore restrict social evolution.

Humans’ natural conservatism meant that human social groups remained stable for many thousands of years and would eventually allow humans to expand into many continents. Constant changes to society and beliefs would have been detrimental to human expansion.

The evolution of human society was delayed by the need, as hunter-gatherers, to move from place to place within a relatively small area with the seasons.


These are some of the costs and benefits. You may be able to think of more if these posts encourage you to delve into human belief systems for yourself. You may think of criticisms or have additional ideas. If so, then they have served their purpose.

In the following posts I move on to consider what made humans leave their home territories, evolve greater social groups, expand throughout the world and the role of their evolving beliefs in enabling them to do just that …


Evolution of Belief: Totemism

Did the emergence of animism go hand-in-hand with the developing brain of the human animal and its emerging tool culture? It is a reasonable question to ask. After all, humans used stone for tools and trees for shelters and boats; believing the spirits of their ancestors inhabited the tools and raw materials they used allowed them to feel closer to those who had died before. How comforting it must have been to feel that loved ones were still there, guiding the tools, helping them shape the objects they were creating …

However, it is wrong to consider early animism as ‘just a belief’. To early animists, spirits were not something that inhabited a separate spirit world, spirits were as solid as the trees and rocks they inhabited.

The next step in the evolution of belief, totemism, is more difficult to explain. But first I want to dispel a common misconception. Totem poles have nothing to do with beliefs or religions. Totem poles are a social phenomenon associated with the next stage of society – groups of families and, eventually, tribes.

Why the development of groups of families? To understand the implications we must consider what would have happened when young adults within families mated and gave birth. It is now an established fact that inbreeding causes still births, deformities and other genetic maladies. Early humans had no books or sets of rules to tell them what others had learned; learning came from trial and error. The meeting of families allowed young adults to leave their birth families and join other families in which to find a mate. This confused the issue. Humans had to observe and learn from repeated meeting of families that deformities would be less likely to appear among those who had moved on to mate with other families.

Over time, the penny dropped. It was inbreeding that caused so many still births and genetic abnormalities. In a very clever development, humans designed a means of ensuring that related humans did not mate. It was based on maternal lineage. Any children born to a mother could not mate with each other and nor could they mate with their mother. By joining together, groups of families could ensure that they retained the security of belonging to a family but could mate with those from other family groups. But how could they tell which members of which family they could or could not mate with? The answer early humans invented was the totem.

Every family within a group had a different totem and every totem was based on the mother of each family. But … stop for a moment and consider the sheer brilliance of this early development in human society. It was an enormous step to first recognise the cause of still births and deformities and then to develop a system to ensure that, as far as possible, these were eradicated. Whoever, whether a suggestion by an individual or a joint decision by one or more families within a group, first came up with the idea was a genius! And genius of this magnitude, to recognise the cause of such a monumental problem and then to invent a system to combat the problem, required a large brain. Early humans had brains like ours, they just had to learn how to use them.

Another problem soon arose from the emergence of the totem system of identifying families within a group: only so many families could claim their totem as a tree or a rock. They therefore needed a much wider base on which to claim their totems. Luckily, alternatives were in plentiful supply: the animals, birds and fish existing within the environment in which the family groups travelled. It is possible that the drawings of animals, etc. seen in caves and on rocks represents the early totems of families within a group.

Over time, there developed two types of totem, family totems and personal totems. Family totems defined the identity of the family within the group or tribe. Personal totems were used to distinguish individuals within the family. Individuals were often named after significant personality traits. For instance, a baby may be nervous and cautious like a deer or be big built like a bear or possess the ferociousness of a wolf.

With the development of these social totems came the belief that spirits could reside within animals, birds or fish. It would be comforting to think that the spirits of ancestors were still there, resident in the creature chosen as the family totem. As the family groups gradually merged into tribes, in some parts of the world the tribes also claimed an animal as representing the spirit of the tribe as a whole. However, the important thing to remember is that totems were essentially social in origin; the transference of belief in spirits inhabiting the raw materials used for tools implements into those inhabiting social totems followed later.

There are a number of commonly held misconceptions associated with totems which I wish to dispel:

  1. Totemism is not a religion. It may have led to the evolution of belief systems but totemism is essentially social.
  2. Totemism is nothing to do with worship, especially religious worship. Worship was an alien concept to those early humans.
  3. Totems have nothing to do with magic or guardian angels. The spirits associated with totems were strictly those of ancestors.

The development and evolution of totemism can be difficult to understand for those who are used to religions having an important role in modern society. In fact, the emergence of totemism seems to have little to do with belief systems at all except to show how early humans adapted their beliefs from spirits resident in raw materials, tools and implements to spirits resident in other living creatures. It is in the context of that adaptation that totemism has an important place in the evolution of belief.

Evolution of Belief: Animism

Gods are a recent phenomena on the human stage. Before the neolithic revolution, there were only spirits. But what are spirits and how did they begin?

Before we can answer that, we need to look at human development and, more importantly, the development of the human brain. Like it or not, humans are animals and like all animals they are subject to evolution. Many people think evolution is a random effect exerted on genes with no direction or guidance. Sure, there are constant random genetic and epigenetic variations and mutations, some beneficial, some detrimental – but without a guiding force, without direction, they are potentially useless. The guiding force directing evolution is the environment. Without changes in the environment evolution as we know it would not have happened.

Sometimes there are changes within the environment itself and sometimes it is a subject organism moving from one environment to another that causes change.  As we are talking about humans, we can consider humans as a subject organism. Changes in environment that can affect human evolution, as with all other animals, include, though far from exclusively, changes in weather and changes in predation. Changes in weather may include substantive changes in ocean currents, for instance, and even though the human population may reside many hundreds of miles from the ocean they can be affected. Perhaps a change results in drier or wetter weather. Either may mean a change in food supply. Those humans who have a particular mutation may find they can digest a different type of meat or vegetation and they will live and pass their adaptation or mutation onto their offspring while those without the mutation will die. Changes in predation may be caused by a carnivore newly entering the environment in which humans live. Humans with a particular mutation that allows them to run faster will survive and pass on their genes, those without will die and their mutations and adaptations are lost with them.

Much the same happens when humans move into new environments. When humans split from the other great apes they came down from the trees and started walking on two legs. Those who adapted quickly and were able to run had a greater chance of survival than those who did not, and those who were able to use tools stood a greater chance of survival than those who could not. Tool use was an incredibly important stage in human evolution, for greater abilities in the use tools required a larger brain. It is debatable if tool use came first and drove an increase in brain size or if a larger brain enabled greater tool use. Later came what is said to be the most important development in all of human history – cooking. In fact, cooking wasn’t, strictly speaking, the most important development; it was the ability to realise that meat and vegetables heated for some time in or over a fire was more digestible than raw meat and vegetables. This ability to cook meant that more nutritious food was now digestible and with it came the the ingredients needed if brain size was to increase further.

Modern humans are generally sociable animals and can live in populations of hundreds of thousands, even millions, in large towns and cities. But this wasn’t always so. For most of human history, populations consisted of nomadic family groups. There was no social structure, as such, perhaps a more assertive father and mother taking the roles of alpha male and female, lesser brothers and sisters fulfilling roles with less standing within the group, and then the children at first fighting amongst themselves for supremacy, eventually growing into roles commensurate with their parents.

Life was short and often brutal as family groups hunted and were in their turn hunted by other animals. Taming their environment was an impossibility in such small groups but their brains were becoming as large as our own, and with their large brains came curiosity and invention, sympathy and empathy. They had the same hopes and fears as we do and the same feelings of loss and grief. But how were they to show their sadness at the death of loved ones? The way they chose was to imagine that the dead did not die but became spirits that inhabited the world around them. Rocks and pools, trees and large plants, all, they believed, could hold the spirits of the dead.

Once the idea had taken hold other spirits were identified, some benign and helpful, like hills and caves that brought shelter from winds, rain and cold, and some terrifying and harmful, like thunderstorms and volcanoes. Although we cannot be sure, it is likely that those early humans thought of the spirits, both of their dead and more generalised spirits, as being part of their natural world, as solid as the ground on which they walked.

These, then. were the first stages of belief. Today we call those beliefs Animism, although the Animism we know today has developed far beyond those original beliefs and has often been incorporated into more advanced forms of belief, including religions. We shall look further at the development of belief in the coming weeks.

One word of caution. Searching for early beliefs on the World Wide Web used to be a dream, consisting as it did of academic papers and learned documents. Today, the Web has been corrupted by religious groups and individuals and is full of the most ridiculous assertions and daft ideas imaginable. Luckily, it is possible to download search engines designed to strip out the garbage and highlight only academic research. Downloading academic search engines is highly recommended.

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