When intelligent beings are first evolving and starting to explore the world there are a lot of unexplained things. Scary things, strange things, wondrous things. In trying to explain those things a natural first step is religion.

Why does thunder happen? Thor did it. Why do people get sick? Evil spirits are attacking them. What happens when we die? We go to a nice place.

Those explanations are seized on by people to create and maintain power for themselves. Shamans, priests, religions, all building power for individuals out of those first fumbling movements towards understanding.

But is there an alternative? We know of no human societies that have not created religion in their first attempts to explain the world, even if some have then moved on. What differences in the nature of humans or in human society would be needed to have those religions either not form or fade away rapidly as new explanations are discovered.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Nobody on earth managed, as far as is known. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Jul 10 '15 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ You can get away from organised religion, but not basic and poorly defined beliefs. There will be some beliefs, but your early society could be lacking anything approaching even a real shaman class. $\endgroup$ – MrDracoSpirit Jul 10 '15 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ The principle here is patently false, as has been demonstrated by a century of serious scholarship on religion. Please see the long Q&A I posted some time back, on "Is there an effective way to design a realistic religion?" The question should be closed as impossible to answer. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Jul 15 '15 at 21:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There is at least one example of a small culture without religious beliefs, see the Pirahã people of the amazon rainforest. Though the Pirahã do still have some superstitions. $\endgroup$ – Vakus Drake Jul 17 '15 at 17:40


I'm assuming you're looking for an early society that values the scientific approach. From your last sentence you say the people should let old explanations "fade away rapidly as new explanations are discovered". I see that as a not-religion approach mainly due to what I view as the primary difference between religion and science. Namely, science seeks new explanations to meet the facts, while religion seeks facts to explain its old explanations.


What you're describing is not Religion, it's superstition. Religion is a set of superstitions that someone, or a group of people, has decided are the correct superstitions. Then people agree or submit to this invented authority and become a member of this religion.

Preventing superstition is much more difficult to do. I think it actually arises from the same thing that made people discover and use science in the first place. It arises from that thing inside people that keeps them looking for patterns and connections between events. The filter that people put in front of that process makes it into either superstition or science.

Preventing religion is easier to do. The change in human nature would be to value evidence over conviction of faith. Humans would need to value discussion and realize that questions are not an attack, they're a cooperative effort to determine the Truth. A stronger natural skepticism will allow humans to agree that there are some things we don't know yet, and we can have ideas about what the answers might be, but we need to be willing to let go of those ideas if they don't appear to fit new information.

An early human society that values the ideas of others as much as their own will likely not develop a religion, though they may have varied superstitions from person to person.

  • $\begingroup$ Although I'm not certain about your definition of religion, I agree 100% with your distinction between that and superstitions. upvote $\endgroup$ – BrettFromLA Jul 10 '15 at 23:11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Is it possible that you are using a very narrow definition of "evidence?" When I talk with religious individuals about their religious beliefs, tribal individuals over their tribal beliefs, or even fighters regarding their beliefs about fighting, they always talk of evidence. The only issue is that not everything one believes is evidence is accepted by others. As a specific example, whether there is evidence for "Chi," as defined in Chinese martial arts, is intensely debated because nobody can agree on a communal definition of "evidence." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 10 '15 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon Possibly. I would view valid evidence as something that can lead people to the same conclusions without them needing to believe in those conclusions first. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 10 '15 at 23:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Sigh... These religious questions attract so many anonymous down votes. I suppose it's difficult to comment that an answer poked one's insecurity, but I'd hope that's not the only reason. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 16 '15 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel While certain neurological differences might make religion rare, I'm not sure they would be likely to evolve. Skepticism isn't massively valuable to hunter gatherer's, and more importantly it doesn't increase their reproductive success. $\endgroup$ – Vakus Drake Jul 17 '15 at 17:33

Religion is a hard word to define. It seems easy, until you actually try to do it. Consider the challenges faced in the US right now regarding what should be a "protected" religious belief, versus what is a "belief" from a sham religion.

Dictionary.com provides a definition I like:

a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Breaking this down:

  • "A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe"
    • Religions answer the tough questions about existence
  • "especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies"
    • Agency is a very particular word, implying entities which have "freewill" and can act on the universe around us
  • "usually involving devotional and ritual observances"
    • Doing things "because the religion says so" and "to demonstrate to others our beliefs"
  • "and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs"
    • Moral codes provide definition to "good" and "bad"

The creation of moral codes seems to be one of the sticking points. In fact, expanding the topic even larger than morality, religion seems to be one of the single most effective tools humanity has invented and/or been given by a deity. Methods of teaching soft skills such as "kindness" are often handled through religious channels because they're good at it.

However, I would like to focus on the first two points. It is human nature to wonder about the universe around them, and in fact, the more successful we are at building models of how nature works. Cultures that do not build models of the universe get overridden by those who do. Once you have a model of how the universe works, it is very difficult not to begin picking up the other traits of a religion.

Consider science. Science is often considered to be the alternative to religion. It explains much of the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe (though not all!), just like a religion. However, unlike religion, science does not include any superhuman agency... at least at first glance. Listen in on the musings of two Quantum Physics professors bantering back and forth, and you start to pick up words of agency used to describe quantum scale particles (these words are a side effect of our inability to see nor change some quantum values in tandem). Likewise, you will hear science weigh in on "when life begins," which is heavily entwined with human agency, and it is very difficult to go too far down that road before you wonder about superhuman agencies, such as those of mob mentalities and nations. These issues rapidly produce a moral code of their own!

The last step towards science meeting that definition would be the presence of devotional rituals. Consider the repetative practice at the scientific method in school or the act of blind faith of landing in a foreign city with nothing but a GPS and the internet (or perhaps even the blind faith of getting on an airplane in the first place). These may not qualify as rituals in your own lexicon, but you have to admit that they are on a slippery slope.

And if society's alternative to religion looks this much like a religion, that suggests that it would be remarkably difficult to handle the development of an early society without accidentally treading on it. In fact, I think it would be tricky to accomplish, even if you started the society with the expressed intent of sidestepping this particular definition of religion. Things just happen, especially when they are beneficial.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I honestly can't tell what your answer is, it seems to say "Yes, and no, also maybe." Would you summarize as "No, because everything may be considered religion."? Also, regarding "blind faith" would you also consider dropping a stone with the expectation of it falling as blind faith? Or perhaps that, as well as your other examples, could be a "reasonable inference". $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 10 '15 at 23:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Samuel The answer would summarize as "No, because the word 'religion' is too wide reaching to escape it." I'm torn on "reasonable inference," because I deal with so many situations where blind faith would have worked comparable (what do you mean component X does behavior Y in environment Z?! Nobody could have predicted that!). The question of whether prayer has an effect is probably my favorite discussion regarding "blind faith" because its close enough to the tricky point that our definition of provability becomes the key subject of debate. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 10 '15 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ I will commend you on your choice of wording. "dropping a stone with the expectation..." rather than "dropping a stone, expecting..." since expectation is actually the technically correct statistical term, firmly entrenching your wording in science. And I do think you could choose a definition for "religion" which excludes science, but such a definition would be contestable. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 10 '15 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel That part is an interesting one. You could argue religion did keep up with the development of new ideas. It is not until the written word that you start seeing religions that act as fixed rigid entities. And, in many disciplines, especially social sciences, science is NOT keeping up with development of new ideas. In fact, it is struggling to keep up with the influx of old ideas from old groups and their religions =) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 10 '15 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I deleted my comment before you replied so I could post it into my answer without spamming yours. In reply though, science, being a human endeavour, does not always live up to its ideals. I don't know much about social sciences, but the new ideas must be coming from somewhere, presumably from scientists. The majority may not be keeping up, but they likely will eventually. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 10 '15 at 23:32

That depends on whether or not the religious beliefs are actually true, something people here do not seem to be considering.

If the religious beliefs are false, then sure, it is probably possible to develop society without those beliefs. I even believe it likely that religion would not develop in such a case. I won't elaborate since the point of my answer is the opposite case.

If the beliefs of a religion are true, then it very well might be impossible to develop a society without them given the nature of the religion.

Take the following case for example:

If the universe was intelligently designed, then if that designer created people, put on them on Earth, had introductions with the people, and those first people (and possibly various people thereafter for a while) interacted on a personal level with their God, and if God really was a (or the) God and made that abundantly apparent, then no, it would not be possible at all to develop initial society without the existence of these religious beliefs.

All it takes for competing religions to pop up everywhere is for usurpers to prey on their neighbors; that part is likely inevitable if there is already an initial religion, regardless of the truthfulness of that initial religion.

I would elaborate on my case, but it seems rather straightforward and self-explanatory. If religion is accurate, if God exists and demonstrates such, religious development is unavoidable.

  • $\begingroup$ This. The answers that speak of religion as avoidable speak as if atheism were the sole correct belief. In spite of many centuries of argumentation, that premise remains to be proven. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Jun 16 '17 at 12:59

Religion is created by Fear. The Unknown doesn't lead us to the religious believes its the Fear of it.

I think if a Species/Civilization has following characteristics then they are most likely not to develop religious believes:

  1. They don't fear anything (They just don't posses an ability to be afraid)
  2. All of them are Equal (No one is weak or strong)
  3. They live in a balanced Society

As already been mentioned that fear of unknown is a factor which causes civilizations to start develop religious believes. For the sake of survival a rational mind would develop some scenario in which the subject would survive by the intervention of some powerful creature who can handle the danger which could be in the unknown so that the subject may live calmly until the danger actually presents itself.

Second point being the fear of known. If some creatures are powerful than others in that case a possibility exists that in some scenarios powerful would try to exploit the weak. In this case too creatures would develop a belief system which would result in their survival/favor. Like It happened in every Human Civilization. Weak chose someone strong & good to protect them against someone strong & evil. That could a God, a King or a Military leader.

My Last point about society being balanced. If both of the previous conditions are met then society would very much tend towards the balanced one. But if it isn't then it would be a very odd society where few who have less than others would blame the ones with more. But everyone is equally strong and no one is afraid of anything so the weak ones or even the strong ones can develop some believe system that they are being kept down by some entity or they are being blessed by some entity respectively.

NOTE: The 3rd point isn't really necessary as it happens in our civilization too. Where this unbalance is sometimes tackled by Marxist believes or Capitalistic ones where entity that is holding you back or blessing you is associated with secular entities rather than religious ones.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. It feels like lack of fear wouldn't be a good survival trait for this species though. In addition "All equal" is also highly unlikely - there will always be variation in things like strength, dexterity, mental ability, etc. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Apr 10 '17 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ You are thinking about a environment that resembles to Earth. I agree that fear is a good survival skill for us but for a totally different species or even the Universe you can't apply our observations. $\endgroup$ – Ahmad Apr 12 '17 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ and about All Equal.. I always like to think about Multiverse Theory. Anything that can happen will happen or already has happened. $\endgroup$ – Ahmad Apr 12 '17 at 10:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.