I’m sure that almost everyone who participates in debates about religion online has heard some version of this argument. It’s when an atheist tries to explain the origins of religion, and it goes something like this: “Primitve people didn’t understand the cause of natural phenomena such as the weather and earthquakes, so they made up gods and religion to explain those things.” The obvious import of this argument is that since the atheist now has explained where religion comes from, he’s also proven that religion is invalid, since we now know that gods and spirits and such don’t actually cause natural phenomena.
The only problem with this argument is that it makes no sense at all. Did primitive people make up religion so that they could explain weather and earthquakes and other such phenomena? In other words, did religion begin with a dialogue between two cavemen somewhat like this:
Thag: Garg, I do not understand why the weather and earthquakes occur.
Garg: I do not either.
Thag: I wish that I understood why the weather and earthquakes occur.
Garg: So do I.
Thag: Let us make up some gods and a religion, and then we’ll have an explanation for why weather and earthquakes occur.
Garg: Good idea, Thag! If we make up some gods and a religion, then we will know why weather and earthquakes occur.
The flaw in this argument is obvious. If Thag and Garg make something up, they will know that they made it up, so they will know that it isn’t true.
So what is the origin of religion? I don’t know. I don’t know when or where the world’s first religion came into existence, and I certainly don’t know the circumstances under which it happened. Neither does anyone else. In short, it’s those who give the silly explanations for why religion originated who are really guilty of what they accuse others of doing. They face of phenomenon that they don’t understand, namely the existence of religion. Then they make up a fictional explanation for that phenomenon. Then they start believing that their fictional explanation is the correct one.