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This quote below, attributed to American horror novelist Edgar Allen Poe, suggests why dreams may have been a seminal influence on the evolution of supernatural religions in human communities.

The central idea is that life itself is an illusion within a larger illusion. It is a mystery most human beings for thousands of years have agreed is the result of divine machinations — the handiwork of various gods or one omnipotent God.

So, then, why wouldn’t the dead visit us in our dreams?

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Edgar Allan Poe, 18th-century American Gothic novelist

Research in psychology tells us that one powerful attribute that sets Homo sapiens far apart from other species of animal is not our intelligence and creativity, it’s our burning, driving need to understand things. And, importantly, when substantive answers to our questions are not forthcoming — we seem to be fine with just inventing them.

That’s why we have superstitions. And supernatural religions (which, in fact, are one and the same). Why do we exist? The supreme being who made all things willed it.

Imagine if you were a hunter sometime in the dawn of mankind and a lightning bolt explodes into a tree 50 yards away, killing your brother and uncle, but leaving you unscathed (if badly shaken and temporarily deaf). Considering you have no knowledge of science or how weather works, what might you think?

You might very well imagine a mysterious, invisible force in the sky, far more powerful than any human. It would be short walk to thinking it’s an all-powerful divinity that affects everything. Including allowing the dead to visit our dreams.

Whither God?

To the ancients, powerful natural phenomena were profound mysteries beyond normal explanation, and primitive human beings would certainly have badly wanted to understand them. The only available explanation for such overwhelming reality? God.

I have been thinking about this since recently reading an article in The Skeptical Inquirer magazine — “Religious Belief from Dreams?”

Of the several hypotheses about the origins of religious belief, dreams and the content of dreams seem to be “highly likely sources of such belief.” The article’s writer, David Zeigler, is a retired professor of biology and the author of Evolution: Components and Mechanisms.

“While we will never know with certainty how religious belief was ignited in our ancestors in prehistory, it seems apparent that dreams, the mind/body dualism suggested by dreams, and [dreams populated by] the dead are all likely candidates for the origins of several aspects of religious belief,” Zeigler concluded in his article. “Even today, some people believe that spirits or gods communicate with them through dreams.”

Pop culture and so-called “post-modernism” have popularized the idea that reality is a dream world not to be fully trusted, that things may not always be what they seem.

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved,” John Lennon, a band member of the hugely popular British group the Beatles, once said. “So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

Do dead really visit our dreams?

Well, science shows us that dreams and nightmares actually aren’t as real as the here and now, that they only have a fleeting existence, trapped in imagination, before fading into oblivion, likely forever. You will never later find a unicorn from your dreams in your backyard, unless psychoactive drugs or insanity are involved.

So believing dreams have their own material realities is like saying an unvoiced, unwritten plan is a hard fact. Still, without knowledge to tell you that what you dream is only effervescent, like carbonation in Pepsi-Cola, it will never see the light of day.

“Untutored tribes have many good intellectual reasons as to why living people have souls which can leave the body and which possess supernatural powers,” Zeigler wrote, quoting anthropologist William W. Howells. “First of all is sleep, and dreams.”

Although Zeigler concedes that the evolution of religious ideologies may have traveled various hypothetical paths, he contends archeological and anthropological evidence seems to point most directly toward human interpretations of dreams in prehistory. Once such ideas embed in culture, they can spread like wildfire, he said.

“Religion is most likely similar to language in being a cultural phenomenon that evolves rapidly,” he wrote. “Just compared Old English of around 800 CE (the earliest manuscript of Beowulf) with modern English, or even with the Middle English of (the Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey) Chaucer, to see how rapidly and drastically such cultural evolution proceeds.”

Other hypothesis for religion

Besides primitive ideations about the experience and content of dreams, Zeigler notes several other hypotheses for the emergence of religion in human groups.

“One popular idea suggests that when humans become aware that they would die as individuals, it was the fear of death that led to religious belief — or at least to a belief in life after death,” Zeigler writes. “A second suggestion is that religious belief fills an adaptive role within a tribe or larger group in that such a shared belief creates a sense of unity, community, and belonging — a role that is undoubtedly true and that still seems obvious for most religious people around the world.”

But he contends these ideas still offer a scant explanation for the ubiquitous belief among human beings of an afterlife in a spirit world, or God. He posits that dreams seem to offer the most credible explanation of why ancient humans came to believe in life in another realm after life on Earth. After all, they could access that realm in their dreams.

In the end, though, these hypotheses explain how people with no modern knowledge might have come to embrace their superstitions, like religious belief.

But the best answer is that dreams, like thoughts, are not real in the sense that they can be duplicated in reality, except as an imperfect reflection of human imagination. Just like religion.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...