Reading Time: 3 minutes By Photographed by User:Bullenwächter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes

A long, long time ago, there were humans on the earth. Records show that the first ones probably lived in what we now call Africa more than fifty thousand years ago, and from there, they gradually spread to the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, continued eastward into Asia, northward into Europe, and then into Indonesia, Australia and North and South America via the Aleutians, which at that time, formed a land bridge connecting Asia to North America.

They were hunter-gatherers. Nomads. Early groups were small; a family or two. The more successful ones developed a set of informal rules for cooperation, increasing their chances for survival. These rules were passed down from generation to generation by word-of-mouth. Don’t kill your companions or steal from them. Don’t seduce their mates. Treat other people as you would like to be treated by them. Common sense rules that allowed groups of people to cooperate and live together. It was a dangerous world and there was safety in numbers if they could learn to live together.

These rules were not always followed by all members of the groups. Sometimes arguments turned into fights, and people got hurt and killed by other members of the group. A favorite ax disappeared from its owner’s tent. Women had children that didn’t look anything like their mate, but bore a striking resemblance to another member of the group. The offenders were sometimes subject to criticism, but there were no formal rules for punishment, so usually nothing was done.

Other bad stuff happened. People got sick and died, were mortally injured on a hunt, etc. The others sometimes wondered, “Why them and not me? Is something protecting me? What happens when they die? What will happen to me when I die?”

Naturally, nobody wanted to die, although they knew it was going to happen eventually, and the fear and uncertainty of that inevitable event led to the development of myths. Nobody knows how religion got started, but here is one possible scenario. It is similar to the Christian myths in that it involves three wise individuals, but, as you will see, these three characters are a bit different from the Three Wise Men of the Bible. So I called them the Three Wise Guys. I think you will see why as the story unfolds.

These three guys all belonged to the same nomadic group. The group was a little larger than most, and quite successful. The Three Wise Guys were close friends, and they often talked about how fortunate their group was. They speculated about why that might be.  The First Wise Guy (WG1) thought that there might be a Great One who was watching over them and protecting them. They also talked about the individuals who did bad stuff and got away with it. WG1 said that was wrong, and, after thinking about it for a long time, he thought he saw a way to stop it. They needed a set of rules that everyone had to obey. He offered to carve the rules into a set of stone tablets. But WG2 said, “Why should anybody follow your rules? You are just a member of the group. You cannot expect others to do what you say.”

They argued about it for awhile, and finally WG1 made a clever suggestion.

“The rules need to come from the Great One who watches over us. If he made the rules, then everybody would listen and obey. I must go out into the wilderness to make the stone tablets, and then return and say that the Great One gave them to me.”

They all thought that was a good idea, but WG2 still had some reservations.

“If there is no punishment for breaking the rules, even though they come from the Great One, people will still break the rules.”

This was a problem. How could they convince the other members that the Great One would punish those who defied the rules? And then WG2 had a truly brilliant thought.

“Everybody is afraid of dying. What if the Great One said that anybody who breaks the rules will be punished when they die?”

And then, WG3, who had remained silent until now, showed that he was the wisest of the three.

“Punishment is not enough. There should also be reward. So the Great One should also say that anyone who obeys all the rules will be rewarded when they die. But even that is not enough. Not everyone in our clan will believe in The Great One, so some of them will not be willing to follow the rules. We need to think of a reason why everyone will want to believe in the Great One.

They thought and they thought, and then WG3 hit upon the idea that would insure the success of their scheme.

“The Great One must say that when people die, a part of them does not die, but continues to live forever. This will make everybody very happy, and they will want to believe in him. And then, The Great One must say that the reward for obeying his rules, or the punishment for breaking them, will also continue forever. Then nobody will dare to break the rules.”

And thus was religion born.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...