Religion appears to be an inherent part of human civilization. From the earliest days of our existence as a species, the artifacts left behind by human beings seem to indicate some the presence of religious rituals and beliefs. For example, human remains from the late Paleolithic Era show evidence of elaborate preparation and were sometimes interred with a host of useful objects, suggesting an early human belief in some sort of afterlife. Likewise, statuettes of female forms with exaggerated sexual features found at in sites throughout southern Europe dating to same era might have been used in fertility rituals or as the focal points in religious rites involving a Mother Goddess figure. While we cannot say much with certainty about the earliest religious practices of human beings, here are some of the most basic functions of religion:
One of the most common functions of religion is to offer some
explanation for things beyond human understanding through references
to divine or supernatural forces. This function certainly included
explanations for various natural phenomena or disasters that were
poorly understood before the advent of modern science, but also
encompassed such ultimate questions as the origin of the world or
the purpose human life which often continue to be answered in
religious terms even today.
The purpose of religious rituals frequently went beyond providing
explanations and into the realm of attempting to influence divine
forces. Such rituals could take a variety of forms from prayers to
propitiatory sacrifices of useful items, animals, or in some cases,
even human beings.
Organization: Religion also generally functioned as a way to
give structure to human societies and to explain how human beings
ought to behave and relate to one another. This aspect of religion
could take the form of moral codes attributed to divine forces, and
not infrequently served to reinforce existing political and social
hierarchies. Indeed, it is no accident that some of the earliest
Mesopotamian religious texts describe the creation of the world as
the triumph of the gods over the forces of chaos, mirroring the
establishment of political authority and social order by the early
governments of the region.
Destiny: Some religions also attempted to provide some description of the ultimate destiny of human beings. Such descriptions might include beliefs in some sort of afterlife involving a system of judgment and punishment or reward by divine forces. Religions did not universally include such beliefs, as the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation or ancient Roman religion’s lack of a sense of life after death illustrate.
Bronze Age Paganism
The earliest religions we have written evidence for date from the Bronze Age, and might be described as Paganism (This was a term initially coined as a pejorative by early Christians but can here is merely intended to describe a variety of early polytheistic or pantheistic religions which share certain common traits.) The nature of divinity in pagan beliefs could vary quite widely from people to people. Most of the religions of the western world and the Indian subcontinent during the Bronze Age were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of a variety of distinct gods with individual personalities. Such gods were generally portrayed in anthropomorphic terms, with a host of features and traits which were recognizably similar to those of human beings, even if the gods themselves were still seen as being above humans in power and wisdom. In other Bronze Age societies, such as those in east Asia, Africa, and the Americas, such religion could focus on the worship of nature as an impersonal yet divine force which might be influenced by religious ritual. The worship or veneration of dead ancestors also could be a quality of pagan religion as well. Bronze age paganism also tended to be quite local, as certain deities were associated with specific regions, cities, or peoples as patron gods.
David G. Bradley. A Guide to the World's Religions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963.
The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford World
Max Weber. A Sociology of Religion. Beacon Press, 1993.
Robert Wright. The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.
Author: Douglas Campbell, Ph.D.