Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Archive for the tag “spirits”

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: The First Gods

Try searching “first gods in history”. Chances are you will find many sites that claim the Christian’s God or the Jew’s Yahweh or Islam’s Allah was the first god. You will also find sites that claim the Egyptian or the Sumerian gods are the first known. You may find more helpful references by searching for information on deities, although the word deity arises from the same Latin root as the word god. The English word God is directly rooted in the Germanic word Gott and arrived in England via the Anglo-Saxons.

The truth is to be found among all those sites but compared to the number claiming theirs was the first god they are relatively few. The truth is that we don’t know. We cannot know who invented the first gods because we can only find written references to gods that already existed, and we know they already existed because they were named. There is no written reference to an unnamed ‘god of the mountain’, to a ‘god of the earth’ or a ‘god of the river’ or even a ‘god of the sea’.

So, how can we speculate with any confidence why the first gods arose and what they were? Gods could not have arisen before humans began to believe that there was a separate spirit world. Had the gods been like the ‘real’ spirits humans first believed their ancestors to be then they would not, could not, have had supernatural powers. Without supernatural powers they would not be gods. Those first spirits were real humans, the only difference being that they were dead. But the dead, because they were real, were able to watch over humans and warn them of impending danger.

Then came early shaman-like characters, possibly storytellers who travelled independently from family group to family group but who gradually decided they wanted a share of the political power of the leaders of those groups. The shaman invented a separate spirit world, a truly brilliant idea that was based on their politically-motivated ambitions. And the spirit world was accepted relatively easily as it merged well with a world with which humans were already familiar: their dreams.

Yet in that emergence of belief in a separate spirit world there came a significant evolution of belief itself. Before the spirit world, human beliefs were much the same as some other animals or birds. They were beliefs about the real world, concerned with whether there was something in the shadows that could be dangerous. There was a gradual evolution into animism with the belief that every living, including humans and even dead humans, had a spirit. In the emergence of the spirit world, however, humans began to use their ability to think abstractly. They had invented their first virtual world. It was a world that would come to influence every aspect of their lives including their arts and crafts and even the way they conducted themselves.

As it was, for the shaman there was plenty more that could be wrung out of the ‘spirit world’ idea. The spirits of the dead could also warn humans, through their dreams – which could only be interpreted by the shaman, of course – when disasters like floods or earthquakes were due or when mountains were coming to life.

Except that some of those predictions failed to come true.

Why did predictions fail to come true? There could only be a certain number of excuses that would be accepted by members of family groups – and especially their leaders – before everyone began to question the shaman’s abilities. Family group leaders had plenty of things they could use to placate the people: a sweet-tasting berry from a tree to which the people could be led to as a reward for hard work; areas where herbs could be eaten that would make people feel good and forget their anger or questioning; areas known for good hunting at certain times of the year. The shaman would eventually take a significant part in this role but that was far in the future. For now, the shaman needed another reason why predictions didn’t always come true. Maybe the spirits had leaders and the shaman were talking to the wrong leader? Maybe the shaman wasn’t able to placate the angry spirit of a dead leader or wasn’t able to encourage the leader’s spirit to act because the shaman didn’t show enough veneration?

But aren’t these suggestions pure speculation? There can be no substance to them. It’s just guess work. OK, well let us see if we can gain any insights from events that have taken place in the the recent past. Religious leaders in America were beginning to lose influence when along came the weather in the form of a hurricane. The devastation in New Orleans brought huge relief to America’s religious leaders. The hurricane was God’s revenge for not venerating him enough, for not obeying his teachings. Come back to God and this won’t happen again! Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! Or the devastation caused by the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was because people were not godly enough and had to be punished. History is full of the ranting predictions and warnings of the religious and especially religious leaders at times of disaster.

Of course, we are not talking about religion here. That is far more organised than mere belief. No, we are talking about belief and how it emerged and evolved. There had to be a good reason why humans should be ready to develop their beliefs in a supernatural world yet further. It would have to be a very good reason. And there was. Humans had an acute desire to understand why something happened, especially the things they had no control over like floods, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Nowadays, we learn about the world using our advanced technology. It is important to remember that technology then consisted of shaping pieces of wood, bone, antlers and flint. Few people these days realise just how long it took humans to discover any form of technology beyond forming these simple tools to make simple huts, boats and clothes made of skin. The first proto human fossils date from around three million years ago. Modern humans, as we would recognise them, are variously thought to have emerged from Africa between one hundred thousand to seventy thousand years ago. By a mere thirty thousand years ago homo sapiens sapiens (us) had become the dominant, if not the only, human sub species left on the planet. Yet technology beyond the use of working stone, wood and bone did not evolve until after the first use of agriculture around twelve thousand years ago and the bronze age began around five thousand five hundred years ago. So, for the best part of human existence humans had not learned to smelt metal. But for around one hundred thousand years human had a modern, questioning brain.

When we discuss the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the age of steel and so on it is easy to think that human technology developed in distinct stages. It just did not happen like that. For instance, in many areas of the world the inability to smelt the constituent parts of bronze continued long after smelting had been discovered in other areas.; the stone age continued long after the bronze age began.

It was the same with thinking and ideas. It has been recently suggested that humans evolved rapidly because of conflict. This is an interesting line of thought, though it is doubtful if inter-family group conflict was the cause. There is good reason for querying this. Humans were relatively few and far between. It can be confidently speculated that humans, certainly in more remote areas of the world, would have lived their entire lives without meeting another human outside of the family group and the odd travelling shaman. The carriers of conflict are more likely to be the shamans who travelled from area to area, spreading their ideas embedded within their fictional but inspirational stories, teaching dances and songs – and challenging leaders for political supremacy. If they won, they would settle in with the family group; if they failed they had lost nothing but face and could move on to the next area where a family group roamed. After all, one family group was unlikely to know what happened within any other family groups.

So, it should now be fairly easy to imagine how family group leaders and then tribal leaders may have learned to fear and respect shaman. A shaman meant conflict.

Shamans had plenty of time to invent their stories and to incorporate their ideas within them because they spent so much of the time alone, travelling between family group and family group. They did not have the daily chores of bringing up children and ensuring that every member of a family was fed and remained healthy. They had themselves to feed and clothe and plenty of time to think. What emerged from their thoughts was the answer to the problem of predictions coming true. It wasn’t leaders of the spirit world who guided shaman; no, there were no spirit leaders. No, it was powerful supernatural beings who could order earthquakes or floods or volcanoes to erupt. The world was held ransom to the whims of these supernatural beings, these gods. And in order to placate the gods, humans must worship them and make sacrifices of their most important possessions to them.

Evolution of Belief: Shamanism

Before we move on to consider why humans devised a separate spirit world we need to fully understand how and why humans could ever have believed that spirits were part of the natural world.

As has been stated many times before, humans are not naturally at the top of the food chain. To many predators, humans were tasty morsels. There were brave humans who stood and fought the beasts who would eat them and there were humans who immediately turned and ran. Human lives were brutish and short but the lives of brave humans were even shorter. Their lives were often so short that the brave humans did not have time to procreate. The humans that did procreate, therefore, were the ones who ran away.

It would be wrong to think that we are descended not from cowards. Our ancestors were those who saw things that may be a predator or maybe not, and they did not take a chance by hanging around. They were not cowards but intelligent. Once far enough away, they could ask themselves if they had indeed seen a predator. If not, what was it? Don’t forget that these humans were fast developing their intelligence. They needed reasons why they ran away when others stood their ground and were eaten. Was it one of their ancestors warning them not to hang around,? Warning them that a predator was in the vicinity?

They did not see their ancestors themselves but fleeting images out of the corner of their eyes. Obviously spirits were part of their own world, ancestors they could see but who hid themselves, ancestors who looked after them and cared for them. But how could they communicate with the spirits if they did not want to be seen?

If a member of their tribe or family group said they could communicate with these hidden spirits, who would want to disagree with them? Especially if those who could talk to the spirits dressed unlike everyone else and shook rattles or went into a trance to summon the spirits from their hiding places. Humans needed to communicate with the spirits to fully understand what the spirits wanted to tell them, so if those who could talk to the spirits were able to pass on their messages then they must be believed.

Those who could talk to the spirits acquired a name: shaman.

Of course, the whole concept of the shaman was ripe for trickery and deceit but once the concept of shaman and their power was established shamans were not going to be relieved of that power so easily. Even so, like today, there were always going to be those who questioned the legitimacy of the shaman. Spirits who hid themselves? Ridiculous, there were no hidden spirits! These spirits were generated by human imagination! And of those who had most to lose by sharing power? Listen to me, I am your leader and I say you must fight the beasts without fear! The spirits don’t need an intermediary. The spirits need to know that you are strong, able to care for your own families!

Given what we know of our own societies, can you imagine the political battles that would have ensued? What could the shaman do to counter the material power of tribal leaders? Remember we are not talking about the Hollywood version of primitive cavemen. Our ancestors were as intelligent as you or I; their brains were fully-formed human brains. Maybe they hadn’t invented the science and technology we have today but they were just as intelligent and just as politically astute. And we need only look at the political and religious battles of today to get an idea of the machinations that would have been employed. Shaman needed to strengthen their position, and there was one way in which they could. If spirits belonged not to our physical world but to another, separate, invisible world: a spirit world that leaders were unable to enter.

How the concept of the spirit world emerged we can only conjecture but we can immediately put forward three possible scenarios.

  • As a result of visions induced by epilepsy or other types of brain damage or mental illness. This is not so far removed from the realms of possibility. It is said that Mohammed suffered from epilepsy and some of the greatest political leaders also suffered from the condition. Other politicians and religious leaders are known to have suffered from bipolar disorder.
  • As a result of drug-taking. We definitely know from interviews with shaman – and yes, they still exist today – that they have used herb and fungi concoctions to put themselves into a trance, which they say helps them communicate with the spirit world.
  • A calculated decision by meetings of shamans to fully devise and introduce the concept. This, also, is within the bounds of credibility. Some of the great religions were either founded or formed by committee: Christianity at the conference of Nicea; Islam under the auspices of a committee formed by Uthman.

Of course, it could have been a combination of all three. We shall never know for sure but for whatever reason there was a leap from belief in spirits as part of our material world to the belief that spirits inhabited their own spirit world.

We can ask again, how do we know humans believed that spirits inhabited our physical world? It just seems silly; we know from our religions that a separate, supernatural world exists! Well, we know because tribes of hunter-gatherers have been found in remote locations whose members believe just that. Beliefs do not disappear overnight when another belief system evolves. Unlike genetics, in isolation old beliefs remain unchanged.

With the emergence of shamanism, family groups and tribes that were not totally isolated would never be the same again. In that one leap of political ingenuity, the shaman had produced a world tribal leaders could not and dare not enter. Word of mouth through meetings passed on the information and spread the meme amongst tribes and shaman themselves.

This did not happen immediately: shamans from different parts of the world developed slightly different versions of shamanism, and in some areas of the world shamanism would never emerge. It’s hard for us to realise but religions have been around for a few thousand years at most and we are talking in terms of tens of thousands of years. It took a long time to develop the memes but the big leap had been made: spirits inhabited their own world!

The next great leap would came when humans began to search for further meaning in their lives and for answers to the great questions. Why were there catastrophes? Why did volcanoes erupt? Why were there earthquakes? The spirits of their ancestors could not and would not cause such devastation, the spirits of ancestors were benign, helpful and caring. But something did …

Evolution of Belief: Fetishism

It would be a mistake to think that the evolution of belief was like some sort of punctuated equilibrium, one belief being dropped when another was invented. Far from it. It would be more accurate to think of beliefs as memes that act like DNA, gradually evolving and building a genome over time. Animism did not give way to totemism, rather elements of animism and totemism merged as human beliefs evolved. Sure, over time one belief may have eventually been superseded by another but the evolving beliefs invariably incorporated elements of the earlier beliefs. Maybe earlier beliefs were eventually junked but they often remained in the background of people’s minds, reappearing as superstitions, which, while not real, helped humans get through their often miserable existences.

The evolution of beliefs usually went hand-in-hand with the social evolution of a family, eventually the amalgamation of a number of families and the evolution of social structures associated with a tribe. Each family’s beliefs merged or the biggest or most powerful family forced its beliefs on weaker ones. Usually the retention of a belief in its original form depended on a group of families, a tribe, being completely isolated from other tribes and societies.

The evolution of fetishism as a belief is often confused with magic or sexual deviation but it was one of the most important developments in human thinking. A fetish is an object, usually artistic, which has a special meaning. We saw that the artistic elements of totemism probably began as paintings on cave walls or rocks and probably depicted the totem of a family. It is, however, impossible to isolate painting as an art form. Remember that humans were still early in the stone age but were developing ever more sophisticated tools for killing and cutting meat, preparing vegetables, skinning animals for their fur and building living accommodation and modes of transport. Boats. As improved methods of working flint developed, chipping ever smaller pieces of flint became possible. Thin slivers were ideal not only for skinning but also for carving objects from materials like wood.

At first, objects were decorative, often used for bodily adornment. However, humans found that their brains could do something quite remarkable. They could think in the abstract.

Let us not forget that humans, although their societies were increasing in size and complexity, were still hunter-gatherers moving from place to place within an area. Painting a totem on a cave wall or rock meant that it would have to be repeated in all areas the tribe visited and would have become a particularly odious task. So the painting would instead be in one cave or on one rock in a place visited by the tribe. How much easier it would be to be able to carry a family’s totem with them? But there was a serious problem with that idea; if a family’s totem was a wolf but they visited areas where wolves did not roam, how could a model of the totem represent the animal in which their ancestors resided. The totem was a real thing, a part of their world, and as real as their departed ancestors. If the wolf was not in a place they visited before they developed the fetish they knew they would eventually return to the place where the wolf did roam and therefore they would return to their ancestors. Their ancestors were never far away.

Thinking in abstract, however, allowed humans to think of the object depicting their totem, their fetish, as a representation of their dead. But if their dead resided in the totem but not in the fetish, how could they keep their ancestors with them? For some humans it would not have made sense. So maybe their ancestors did not actually live in the totem but instead lived in a different world, a spirit world, and their spirits could coexist in the spirit world and in their fetish? Or their fetish need merely be a representation of the spirits who existed in the spirit world?

The development of fetishism meant that humans had to devise a new way of thinking about their dead. Being able to think in the abstract about their world allowed the invention of a spirit world. The evolution of of abstract thoughts about spirits would eventually lead to the invention of religion. Before then, however, humans found they had a more pressing problem. Their fetishes were all well and good but they couldn’t converse with the spirits of their ancestors residing within them like they could a living totem. The totem need not be able to speak but it could show them the way and protect them. Maybe each family or tribe needed someone special who could communicate with the spirit world and let them know what their dead were trying to tell them that would help them, the living, in the real, non-spirit world.

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.

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