Scientific accounts of the origins of religion

  • Created by: maya
  • Created on: 30-05-17 22:24

Precedents in phil for theories of the origins of

Precedents in philosophy for theories of the origins of religion

These were the early examples regarded as an example to follow in similar circumstances 

David Hume (1711 – 1776)
- wrote dialogues concerning religion/natural world 
- natural history of religion where it came from

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
- Nitezsche was interested in origins of religion 

1 of 14

Precedents in phil for theories of the origins of

1) David Hulme: The Natural History of Religion (1757) 

Saw religious belief not as the product of reasoned argument, but of fear and ignorance
fear - weather terrifying, diseases, plagues 
ignorance- no explanations, no way of controlling why things happen 

Polytheism the earliest form of religion, which came from our perception of the ‘various and contrary’ events of life, and our desire to have some control over them.

Polytheism natural response to fear and ignorance - don't know so give agency to them - agencies can be in conflict with each other- human agencies. controlling things -> multiplicity 

2 of 14

Precedents in phil for theories of the origins of

(1) David Hume: The Natural History of Religion (1757)

“If ... we trace the footsteps of invisible power in the various and contrary events of human life, we are necessarily led into polytheism, and to the acknowledgment of several limited and imperfect deities. Storms and tempests ruin what is nourished by the sun. The sun destroys what is fostered by the moisture of dews and rains. War may be favourabl to a nation whom the inclemency of the seasons afflicts with famine. ... ” [Section ii]

3 of 14

Precedents in phil for theories of the origins of

(1) David Hume: The Natural History of Religion (1757)

Monotheism arises when some group becomes particularly attached to one of the many gods, and in their eagerness to please this one, attribute greater and greater powers to him/her.

But even when monotheism arises, the tendency to polytheism doesn’t go away. So religious belief tends to be unstable, with polytheistic tendencies surfacing in monotheistic religions and vice versa. e.g. Christianity the trinity 

4 of 14

Precedents in phil for theories of the origins of

(2) Friedrich Nietzsche: On The Genealogy of Morals (1887) 

Not strictly speaking about the origins of religion

But Nietzsche does have a lot to say about why Judaic and Christian morality are as they are.

For Nietzsche, these belief-systems are a rationalisation of the will to power of people who are powerless – ‘slave morality’ 

Unconscious will - all living thiings have a will to grow, Nietzsche naturalises this - Vikings successful in war like gods. But Nietzsche does have a lot to say about why Judaic and Christian morality are as they are

 For Nietzsche these belief systems are a rationalisation  of the will to powers of people who are powerless  - 'slave morality' 

A big influence on Freud

5 of 14

2 major psychological theories i- late 19th/early

Two major psychological theories in the late 19th/early 20th century:

Sympathetic to religion:
William James (1842-1910)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

- both concerned with reasons why people believe- go away from just focusing on Christianity
-common themes between all religions 

6 of 14

William James

The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
“The Will to Believe” (1896)

More interested in personal religious experience (functions' individual's has  affects a person's personality)  than in religious institutions.
Believed that personal religious experience transcends culture. -> more important than doctrine. 

Religion is rooted in people’s emotional responses to the world. People have an emotional response to the world.  That drive's people's beliefs, Optimisitc/pessimistic Buddha 
therefore different temperaments produce different kinds of religion. 

The healthy mind:  +ive 
Optimistic, at home in the world

The sick soul: -ive 
Pessimistic, unable to find peace

James does not think that there’s anything wrong with people’s beliefs  (resting on emotions) having this kind of origin.

7 of 14

William James

James’ underlying philosophy is pragmatism
Pragmatism -> an approach which evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. 
- Truth, answers why we believe, what our beliefs rest on 

Theory about beliefs formation: 
The purpose of beliefs is to help us cope with the world, to make sense of the world.

Beliefs have to be consistent with evidence, but in the case of belief in God, it’s equally consistent with the evidence to believe that there is as that there isn’t.
- can't beleive things that go against evidence e.g. I can walk through walls 
- you can believe or disbelieve in freeewill since no evidence pushes us one way or another 

Believing in God helps us cope with the world, and makes more moral sense of the world.

He admits, however, that people have different temperaments. So some people may find atheism more satisfying.

8 of 14

William James

“Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, "Do not decide, but leave the question open," is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes or no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.”

[“The Will to Believe”]

Beliefs have to be consistent with evidence, all evidence in the world is conssitent with there being  a God or not, but stll William does not agree with agnostism - go one way or the other.

Believing in God helps us cope with the world, make moral sense of the world. We can beleive based on our temperament. He admits people have different temperaments so people may find athesim more satisfying. 

9 of 14

Sigmund Freud

Totem and Taboo (1913) - theory on religion 

Civilization and its Discontents (1930)

The Future of an Illusion (1927) role of religion on peoples' lives ad futures 

10 of 14

Sigmund Freud

Basic components of Freud’s general theory:

We have many unconscious desires and wishes

They can’t express themselves directly, but instead express themselves in coded forms – dreams, slips, symptoms. Dreams are expressions of unconscious wishes- coded ways because these are wishes we're ashamed off- socially unacceptable. can't handle dreams so thats why he have dreams, slips, symptons (forms). 

The content of these desires and motivations:

Desire to return to time when you were the centre of your parents’ world

Desire to eliminate rivals for parents’ affection.

-explains religion's appeal not origins

11 of 14

Sigmund Freud

That might explain religion’s appeal, but Freud also has a theory about its origins:

Totem and Taboo draws on:
Darwin’s “primal horde” hypothesis in The Descent of Man (1872)

James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough
(first edition 1890/third edition 1906-15)
- you can directly  compare mythological traditions & find similarities. 

In the Stone Age, sons ganged up and killed their fathers.

But the representative of the father lived on in the Unconscious - dreams, symbols, conscious moral laws as time goes on becomes  huge terrifying father figure

Eventually, this representative became the Super-Ego – a quasi-personal figure of terrifying power, both feared and loved, that issued moral commands. absolutely have to obey moral commands 

12 of 14

Sigmund Freud

Freud asks: why do we find the following three features in religion?

“[1] It gives them information about the origin and coming into existence of the universe,

[2] it assures them of its protection and of ultimate happiness in the ups and downs of life and

[3] it directs their thoughts and actions by precepts which it lays down with its whole authority.”

[New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1933, Chapter 35]

1) Theory origin of world - info - origin & coming into existence -> universe
2) Happiness- good -> protection -> ultimate happiness ^ & below 
3) Moral concepts -> directs thoughts & actions - divine law 

13 of 14

Sigmund Freud

The remarkable combination in religion of instruction, consolation and requirements can only be understood if it is subjected to a genetic analysis. ... Psychoanalysis infers that he [God] really is the father, with all the magnificence in which he once appeared to the small child.”


parents say what is right and wrong - religious beliefs uncnscious desire return to parents. 

Part two -

14 of 14


No comments have yet been made

Similar Religious Studies resources:

See all Religious Studies resources »See all Religious Studies resources »