18
$\begingroup$

Now I know the cheeky answer would be "of course it's possible, it's your world, you decide what happens in it" but I'm asking this from a general point of view.

Is it really inevitable that as a civilization forms, religion and gods will always crop up whether they're real in that world or not?

Of course, the civilization in question could maybe someday move to a completely science based approach to things discarding the concept of gods completely as time goes on but they would've still started from the god perspective so that is a moot point.

Edit:
Thank you so much for the wealth of responses! Although I can only choose one as an answer, I'm reading each and every response I get because it's chock full of insight!

$\endgroup$
13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ (1) The title of the question does not match the body of the question. It is perfectly possible to have a concept of a god, that is, to know what the word god means, without believing in such. (2) What do you make of the Chinese civilization, with its unstructured (and lighweight) take on gods and religion? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 18, 2023 at 8:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ depends on how you define god, plenty of cultures had spirit or ancestor worship. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 18, 2023 at 12:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If I may suggest a book, Small Gods by Terry Pratchett has quite a few good thoughts on how gods are born, it's worth reading just for that. And also for everything else. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It depends a lot on the psychology of the inhabitants. I know a number of very civilized anthills that are also 100% agnostic (AFAICT). $\endgroup$ Jul 18, 2023 at 19:44
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Yeah but why? You'd lose 90% of Skyrim lore.... $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jul 19, 2023 at 0:29

23 Answers 23

27
$\begingroup$

I'm answering this from the perspective of someone who is:

1: An Atheist and
2: Grew up in a Religious family.

Despite my non-belief in God, there does seem to be some pretty strong evidence given the fact that all cultures have a belief system of sorts - that there will be a concept of God.

Some Deists would argue this to be proof of the Divine, but as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, even if we accept the Deist position (there is some form of supernatural being) - we still have a long way to go from 'There is a God' to 'And it's this one in particular'

Now, I'll grant you that whilst we have a sample size of thousands for Culture, we only have a sample size of 1 for Humans.

In terms of Gods - if we look at those cultures, most of the God(s) were responsible for something important.

Ra - the Sun God - Sunlight is pretty important.
Hades - The God of the Underworld/Death - Death is pretty important.
Odin - God of Wisdom - Not being an idiot is pretty important.
Athena - Goddess of Battle Cunning - being able to out-smart those you can't out-muscle - pretty important.

and so on and so forth.

On the flipside, you have Gods for things that we couldn't explain:

Apollo - the God of Disease (and healing) Loki - God of Earthquakes (among other things) Rūaumoko - Also, God of Earthquakes.

You could make the generalized assumption that for Humanity, we have created gods to either explain away things that we can't explain (Floods, Lightning, Earthquakes, disease) or for things that we think are important.

Even the Abrahamic religions, in their monotheistic sense manifest elements of that.

I say all this to lead to the answer:

If you have a civilization that either:

1: Doesn't consider anything important (Highly ulikely)
2: Has an explanation for everything (Also, highly unlikely in the first instance)

Then, for a Human civilization, you could make a case for no Gods.

However

You'll note the world 'human' - Civilizations in a made up setting don't have to be human, and whilst I suspect that our global religions are a consequence of higher intelligence, language and being highly social - there's no proof of this - and so a Non-Human civilization could easily have no gods and no concept of religion because their brains are wired differently.

To end on - for a Human Civilization, I don't think it's reasonable - we seem to have a need to believe in something to explain the unexplainable and to prioritize the values that we think are important.

But for Non-Humans? Go for Gold!

$\endgroup$
16
  • $\begingroup$ It seems that all the nonhuman living things cohabiting our earth have (each separately) no discernable civilizations now does this extend also to their notions of a god or not? $\endgroup$
    – civitas
    Jul 19, 2023 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ If a civilization sees no value in having an explanation for things (difficult to imagine, I know), then maybe they don't come up with the "explanation"-type gods? But on the other hand, how would such a civilization progress at all scientifically? $\endgroup$
    – kutschkem
    Jul 19, 2023 at 9:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It's just not true that every culture we know of has had gods; it is true that every culture has had some manner of supernatural entity but it's wrong to categorise this as "gods". $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 11:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley - what, functionally, is the difference between the two? $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ @civitas are you certain nonhumans don't have civilization? Do the gorillas and chimps who could be considered tribal populations of hunter/gatherers count as non human and uncivilized? They have their own rules, and each tribe has variations of those rules, so I think it goes beyond animal instinct, and it like a tribal culture. I am willing to bet they ponder the unknown in primitively structured verbal and non-verbal thought patterns. What about Corvids (Ravens, Crows, Jays, etc), or cetaceans (whales, porpoise and dolphin)? They have tribes as well. $\endgroup$
    – Escoce
    Jul 20, 2023 at 2:30
35
$\begingroup$

Humans have a significant bias towards viewing a given cause to have agency.

Ie, if something falls and makes a noise in another room, we seem to have a bias towards assuming something with agency caused the noise.

This causes positive errors -- falsely ascribing agency to an agency-less event. But if you hear a noise and you say "probably nothing" and you are wrong, you just got eaten. If you hear a noise and say "what creature caused that", you lost some sleep.

The error of assigning agency when there is none has less short-term harm than the error of missing agency when there is some.

When you take this error and apply it to natural phenomena you end up with ascribing agency to lightning bolts, thunder, tides, volcanoes, famines, etc. These agents are otherwise undetectable, amazing powerful, and everywhere.

Ie, you get gods.

So to avoid gods in a civilization, you need some way to avoid the over-use of the agency bias. A counter-cultural aversion to agency bias might do it, or a different biological makeup to the creatures in the culture.

If there are no predators that eat people who ignore noises in the night, for example, the evolutionary and cultural pressure for agency bias would be much less.

It still leaves social competition as a significant source of pressure. Humanizing the agency is another quirk we have; our brains seem to spend a huge amount of effort working out how other humans act and behave around us, as we are a social species and your social status in your local group matters hugely to your survival.

Treating everything not only as having agency, but being human-like, seems another bias we have. We anthropomorphise animals and natural phenomena and luck.

A species that evolved in a less social group with less need to model other creatures of its own type might have less bias here. Its "gods" (agents causing the natural world) wouldn't be as likely to be "self-like" like human gods are.

$\endgroup$
5
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "if something falls and makes a noise in another room, we seem to have a bias towards assuming something with agency caused the noise." This is clearly not true. What humans have a bias toward is to ascribe any cause when one cannot be easily found. eg, "Oh, I guess it was the wind." Combine that with a long memory and wild imagination, and then you get ghosts, demons, and gods. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 18, 2023 at 22:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You don't necessarily get "gods". There are animist variants where things like a river spirit or a storm spirit are seen as equal or inferior to humans, and thus not worthy of worship. Lightning striking something would get a reaction more akin to "the cat knocked it over" than "God is angry at us". $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jul 19, 2023 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ I'll note that assigning agency to agency-less events is not necessarily useless. Anthropomorphizing scientific phenoma may be sloppy ("lightning likes metal"), but that doesn't mean it's useless. $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Jul 19, 2023 at 13:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Brian Sure! I'm just arguing if you want to get rid of gods in a culture, getting rid of personified agents that cause natural phenomena would be a pretty good step. If there are no personified supernatural beings with mysterious powers culturally assumed to exist, taking a jump from "bob over there who owes me a sheep" to "a being like bob who has god like powers" is a big step. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Jul 19, 2023 at 13:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Mark and that is why several people have asked the OP what they mean by god/s, since some would consider those spirits as gods. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 20, 2023 at 1:21
16
$\begingroup$

It seems entirely possible for a civilization not to have a concept of god. And there are even examples on Earth (depending on how you define "god"). For example

Jainism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

Buddhism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism

Taoism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taoism

Of course it is also possible to define god in such a way that it is impossible to not have it. God is a weasel word that means different things to different people.

$\endgroup$
7
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Didn't these religions arise in civilisations that already had entire pantheons of super-powerful mythical creatures? $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jul 18, 2023 at 15:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Super powerful mythical creatures have certainly been an established element in Chinese folklore since prehistoric times, but mythical creatures are not necessarily gods any more than pixies or werewolves (although it depends on how you define “god”). Jainism is one of the oldest religion still practiced today predating all Chinese emperors and is very different to Western religions involving a personal gods. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 18, 2023 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, certainly a more rigorous definition of "god" (for the purposes of this question) is needed. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Jul 18, 2023 at 17:05
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It's difficult to make such a definition without answering the question (by definition). Perhaps we could just point to nature or to the universe or the big bang and say that's god...but id possible a more rigor would certainly be helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 18, 2023 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ when i was i sri lanka, it was explained to me that the local buddists give offerings at hindu shrines to beg favours.... so even buddists seem to feel a need for gods. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Jul 20, 2023 at 0:41
12
$\begingroup$

I wouldn't say completely impossible, but it would be unprecedented. There were many attempts to remove gods from society by force or happenstance, all of which in the end amounted to merely replacing the existing gods with something/somebody else, who was then called by a different name but treated functionally the same. These replacements could be political leaders (personality cult is exactly what it says on the tin), concepts (like Reason, which was at the center of revolutionary France's state religion), ideologies or philosophical positions (like say The Invisible Hand of the Market). Even famous artists could fill in a role of lesser gods; Church of Elvis was (is?) a thing too. It's like they say: if it walks, barks, quacks etc. like a concept of a God, then it is a concept of a God, and the rest is semantics.

$\endgroup$
8
  • $\begingroup$ New Age woo is another religion replacement. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 18, 2023 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ The claims attributed to science (real and pseudo) look religious to me sometimes. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 18, 2023 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ Religion doesn't have sigma. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_deviation .... People make claims. Science makes observations. If it's not observable then it might as well be religion. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Jul 19, 2023 at 0:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Religion doesn't necessarily include the concept of a god. And you can always find a god if you're willing to stretch the definition enough, but monotheistic societies often have effectively personality cults around absolute monarchs or philosophers chasing reason, and no one but people trying to claim that those are "a concept of a God" except for in modern arguments like this. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And if you can always find a conspiracy, then the simplest explanation is there is a conspiracy? The definition of a word is the way it's been used, and it's not been used for absolute monarchs and philosophers. Historically, there has been a huge difference in monotheistic societies and some polytheistic societies between humans and the gods, and blurring that line blurs our ability to understand those societies. $\endgroup$
    – prosfilaes
    Jul 19, 2023 at 17:24
7
$\begingroup$

If your people have Theory of Mind, then they will have Gods

If you're talking about a society of HUMANS, then, no, it can't happen, and here's why.

One of the most significant developments of the simian mind is the ability to model other people's behavior in a way that allows us to predict how they would react to a specific circumstance. If I poke you there then you will probably jump, and you might hit me. This facility allows us to live in large social clusters without harming each other.

This is called "Theory of Mind." It starts to kick in when we're about 2, and continues to develop into our 20's. A lot of what makes teenagers so challenging is that they're attempting to apply their Theory of Mind to other parts of reality, and it fails. Those that fail to develop an effective Theory of Mind capacity are labeled anti-social and we marginalize them.

Like all tools, it isn't just useful for the thing it was developed to manage. We use Theory of Mind as a shortcut to understand things like entire social groups and governments. It's a lot easier to say "Japanese be like that" than to understand the underlying complexity of their society. It makes a functional approximation for trade and social interactions, even if it isn't good enough for diplomacy.

The problem comes in when we start using Theory of Mind to understand natural systems. That is how we wind up anthropomorphizing things like rivers and thunder. Our language suggests that water "wants" to roll downhill. Einstein says "God doesn't play dice with the universe." This is all about us using Theory of Mind as a hammer model.

Thus, my supposition is that "Gods" are an unavoidable consequence of mankind's attempts to mis-apply Theory of Mind to natural systems. If your people have a cognitive mechanism for understanding each others' thought processes, then chances are they will start thinking that there is a thought process behind the way the world works. This is where Gods come from.

$\endgroup$
7
$\begingroup$

I'm gonna provide an example that implies it's actually possible.

There are semi-isolated Pirahã people of Amazon rainforest, with whom anthropologists and missionaries had a hard time talking about Christianity—because the natives don't have a concept of thirdhand narratives. When the missionaries talked of Jesus Christ, the folks asked when the preachers met this Jesus dude and whether they saw him perform all those wonders. Explanations of ‘Jesus lived a long time ago’ just didn't cut it—the natives didn't understand how and why the missionaries talked about someone whom they never seen.

Wikipedia notes:

As far as the Pirahã have related to researchers, their culture is concerned solely with matters that fall within direct personal experience, and thus there is no history beyond living memory. According to Everett, the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god, and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence based on personal experience for every claim made.

However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.

I have to wonder if Everett saying that the resurrection stuff occurred last Tuesday would finally convince the Pirahã.

These are the same people whose language is sorta famous for either having only numerals for one and two, or none at all—researchers can't figure that out for certain. Plus, there are a bunch of other unusual features in the language.

Edit: I guess, though, that animism is the chosen religion of Pirahã because it's much easier to pass on as ‘personal experience’ than a belief explicitly based on an ancient story. One simply points out things in the environment and says “yeah that thing got some attitude”. OTOH examples recounted on Wikipedia include experiences that delve further into imagination territory:

Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that "Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle." Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting, I wonder how they see lightning or earthquake as if not as "act of god". $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2023 at 5:44
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @user9564371 Well, as noted, Pirahã still have some animist beliefs, i.e. disparate spirits. So they might have a spirit of lightning and a spirit of earthquakes (the latter is unlikely in Brazil, though, as it sits almost in the centre of a tectonic plate). Alternatively, of course, they could just perceive lightning as ‘stuff that happens sometimes with heavy rain’. $\endgroup$
    – aaa
    Jul 19, 2023 at 22:53
6
$\begingroup$

I think it is possible, if we are talking specifically about Gods. Supernatural deities, singular powerful entities that think and emote much like humans.

Many pagans believe in supernatural phenomenon, particularly souls, but do not believe in any Gods.

Many are animists (look up "animism"), and believe souls exist in streams, trees, all animals, all plants, mountains, the Sun and Moon, etc. That the Sun can be happy and give us a pretty day, that the river can be angry and raging. But the river is just another living thing; not an eternal being with any magical powers other than its own body, just like a person.

Likewise, people can believe in reincarnation, without believing anybody is in charge. Wiccans can believe in magic, without believing in any gods, they just believe magic is a force in the universe that we can learn to harness, much like magnetism.

I think it is entirely possible for people raised with such beliefs that they do not conceive of any eternal god-like beings at all. It would be contrary to the beliefs they were trained in since infancy, that most things, at least those that appear to change or move, have souls, feelings, and emotions.

It is just a simple extension of their experience with humans and animals, that clearly have moods, fears, happiness, angers, even love.

Any attempts to attribute this stuff to a god would be rejected, as robbing the animals, the river, the forest of their individuality and agency. And rejected enough that the notion disappears from their civilization:

All living things by nature have souls and some degree of autonomy and emotions. All kings are just living beings, that can die, that will die someday, for that is the nature of life. None are invulnerable, or all-knowing. It is ludicrous to even entertain the thought!

I'd start from paganism and/or animism and evolve it from there to suit your purpose. Technically these are atheistic, they don't believe in any deities.

Eventually, with scientific advancement, you can tone down the magical component to a minor factor in this civilization.

$\endgroup$
8
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This sounds like neo-paganism, which is more of a hippie-dippie modern thing than any real religion. There were gods, and a creator God, in ancient paganism. Serious Wiccans, which are maybe the closest thing to actual paganism, are also a modern reactionary movement, and so transgressively reject god. None of them naturally lack the conception. Quite the contrary, they juxtapose their beliefs with it to define themselves. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend you are not considering the vast arrays of animist religions that exist across the world. You may be right about pagans in North-West Europe, but this answer is still valid nonetheless. Animism and Jainism are the best places for OP to start looking $\endgroup$ Jul 18, 2023 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @BugCatcherNakata I don't know Animism as a religion (compared to a specific belief structure (this would be like saying trinitarian is a religion)), but Jainism came from God believing culture, so it is a child of it. Like the neo-paganism of today, it was probably reactionary then. "Nothing is new under the Sun", as they say. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ @BugCatcherNakata Thanks. Actually the point is to arrive at some form of animism without any deities or gods. I know people now that are this way. After some thousands of years with these beliefs, the concept of a God or Deity could be non-existent, and antithetical to their psychology; for the reasons stated. It would rob agency and independence from all those things they believe have souls and self-determination, it would be a form of slavery if their fates were determined by God, even if there were supernatural threats and rewards.God would be too alien a concept to them. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jul 19, 2023 at 13:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @fredsbend That is animism in the Ancient Australian religion (The Dreamtime), having a spiritual perspective similar to modern day "hippies", but otherwise lacking the concept of a deity, if I remember correctly. $\endgroup$
    – Galaxy
    Jul 20, 2023 at 19:12
4
$\begingroup$

It does seem so from history. Religion does seem world-wide. When people establish a God-less state, such as after the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it seems to re-establish itself. However, the image of God seems to vary according to the believer.

A possible explanation is given by Julian Jaynes book on the bicameral mind. Briefly, he suggests that the 'voices in our head' such as our conscience telling us not to harm others were seen as voices from an external agency, and also fits of passion may be visited from outside. The Gods of the Odessey are like that. The Gods of the Iliad are less visible, less present, more mysterious; and the protagonists consider some of the 'voices in their head' to be part of them. Extend this process, and the God of today is not 'above the clouds, raining thunderbolts' because we know about electrical storms, and the like; so God is more abstract and mysterious.

There is no proof of this. Science does not take sides. For some, the idea of a God is an unrewarding hypothesis, while others believe and are still effective scientists. However, if and when we get on top of AI, the study of belief may get an experimental basis.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ the bukl of your answer does seem to contradict the first sentence. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Jul 18, 2023 at 8:00
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "The Gods of the Iliad are [...] less present": In the Iliad Aphrodite enters the battle personally with the goal to protect her son Aeneas, and is wounded bodily by Diomedes; she has to withdraw from the battle, but Apollo comes to replace her in the Trojan ranks. Athena makes numerous apparitions to provide advice to Achilles and Odysseus, and she fights personally with Ares, as they were on opposing sides. Not to mention that quite a few characters (such as Achilles, Aeneas, and Helen) are children of gods, and everybody knows it. I wonder how much more visible the gods could have been. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 18, 2023 at 12:23
4
$\begingroup$

See, throughout history, every civilization we know of started out worshipping some sort of deities. Why is that? Were the ancient people just more gullible? I don't think so. Here's my hot take.

When you don't understand jack about the world, it's freaking scary! Storms, earthquakes, disease - it's all random chaos. So we humans tried to make sense of it by imagining gods controlling everything. Zeus throws lightning bolts! Gods send plagues when they're ticked off! It's all part of some divine plan. Phew, feels better now.

Plus, believing the sun is a fiery chariot flown by Apollo really brings people together. Nothing bonds a community like ritually sacrificing oxen to ensure the harvest gods bless you with nutrition!

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ And eat some mushrooms and smoke some dope for digestion! Nothing bonds like passing the spiff! $\endgroup$ Jul 18, 2023 at 19:54
3
$\begingroup$

No, but not for the reason you might think

We have one and only one data point: Earth. Based on Earth's history, the advent of curiosity combined with the beginnings of reason and speech will always lead to a desire to explain things to your neighbor - like why your spouse had to die at a young age or why your crops failed. Understanding the underlying biology, physics, chemistry, etc. will always come much, much later. Therefore, from a human perspective (and this is the important part), we can't relate to the idea of early humanity not developing the idea of gods. And once you develop the idea of gods, you instantly have people ready to step in and lead the worship of said gods... aka, religion.

So the real issue isn't "can I create a species that develops without depending on the concepts of gods and religion?" Of course you can (and not just in the trivial, "it's your world" way). All we need to do is figure out a few evolutionary pressure points that would lead to special1 stoicism and Bob's your uncle.

But your readers wouldn't relate to it.

At least not well. If you're expecting your readers to wholly believe your species can exist then you have a long row to hoe, because we have no experience whatsoever in the idea that it can happen and whatever rationalization you come up with will matter little because that's not what happened to us.

So, from the perspective of "is it possible?" (which always presumes "in Real Life") the answer is no. We have no evidence whatsoever that it's possible and I expect all speculation would be received with a skeptical eye.

But does that matter?

No, it doesn't. I'm not a fan of "is it possible?" questions because they imply that you want a factual answer rather than a believable answer. I do believe you can come up with sufficient rationale to produce suspension of disbelief in a story. Especially if you're using that characteristic of the species to make a point in your story, helping your human readers to better comprehend "the human condition" through the eyes of your aliens. In that regard, the answer is yes.

One more thing...

Please keep in mind that the persistence of belief in god has, in a very simplified way, two reasons: humans experience and fear the unexplainable. We do not know what happens after death. Science can point out that the chemistry that keeps us alive stops — but it's impossible to prove "there's nothing there, no bright light, no loving ancestors, no benign being...." It will always be impossible to prove that, and so long as it is impossible, there will always be people who fear that unknown and seek comfort in belief in the divine.

Similarly, we humans occasionally experience the unexplainable. Call them miracles, gifts of the Spirit, attendance of our Ancestors, whatever. You can even go so far as to complain that either (a) the individual simply hasn't received the education necessary to realize it wasn't miraculous or (b) science hasn't progressed far enough to prove that it isn't miraculous. The reality is that the individual becomes overwhelmed with a (usually positive) outcome that "can't be explained." Like the feeling of relief when you avoid an accident that you're sure couldn't have been avoided. Poof, god.

Full disclosure: I am very religious myself. There's a great deal of space between the facts of science and the mystery of faith. With each increase in science that gap widens, not narrows. All that's lost is the rationalization of people long past who couldn't better articulate the wonders around them. As an engineer I have no trouble combining the two: there is certainly an explanation to everything. And that in no way excludes the existence of someone who knows those explanations.

How does all that relate to your question? The ability to believe in your aliens rests on your aliens' ability to deal with the experience and fear of the unexplainable in a way that doesn't require millennia of theists, poets, philosophers, and intellectuals. You need to develop within them the capacity to live with the unknown without explaining it, justifying it, or leveraging it (that's important! How many wars have been fought over religion?). That's why it'll be difficult for your human audience to relate to your aliens.

And to make my point, I want you to think about how much you want the reader to relate to and believe in your non-existent alien species while you're trying to justify a non-belief in what could be described as another non-existent alien species. It's quite a challenge!


1That's pronounced "spee-see-al," not "speh-shal." The former pronunciation describing something that relates to a species and the latter describing something notable. English — ya gotta love it.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Many answers here sufficiently explain how supernatural beings are spun out of humanities need to ascribe motivation and narrative to natural sources, so I won't expand on this here.

So, what would we need to change to stop this from happening?

Imagine a tribe who - for cultural or biological reasons - will not accept a vague or unambigious answer to questions like "What was that?", or "Why did that happen?".

"Dad why did the river flood?", "I don't know son, we see that water flows down hill, and that river comes from those mountains, maybe it rained a lot in the mountains but really we don't know". "Dad, why does water flow down hill", "We don't know". "Dad, maybe a giant peed in the river!", "Maybe son, but he'd need to be very giant to make the river flood, and we've never seen a person that big. So we don't know if giants that big exist".

If there's societal pressure to not accept easy answers without evidence, from the get go, then there's no opportunity for gods to be spun out of the need to put order on the randomness of the natural world.

The real problem here is the conceit that humanity knows it can reason and water cannot reason, that people have motivations, but water doesn't. There needs to be a reason why "Dad why does Ug want to hit Tharg?" is a perfectly valid question but "Dad why does water want to flow down hill" is not a valid question.

You can just make the people be that way, but giving them a reason to be that way would be better (If I think of anything I'll update this answer)

$\endgroup$
4
  • $\begingroup$ "Dad why does water want to flow down hill" is not a valid question. It's a perfectly valid question if you're Aristotle, or his 2000 years of philosophical disciples. (The word is teleology: stuff wants to be where it naturally belongs.) $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 20, 2023 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn but water can't want anything, it mindlessly obeys physical laws, we cannot ascribe motivation or desire to it's movement. As water cannot desire to flow downhill, it cannot want to flow downhill either, it just does. Water can't choose where it goes. Aristotle and his choice of wording "stuff wants to be where it naturally belongs" is what I'm talking about preventing in the answer, i.e. language and word choices that allows stuff to want things 😊 $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2023 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ I gave you an example of (a quite intelligent) someone who thought it was a quite reasonable question. You don’t have to like it, but it happened. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 21, 2023 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I think we have some wires crossed. I know it happened, it happens all the time, I'm just saying, to have a civilization without gods, we need it to stop happening. My apologies if I came across as haranguing you, that was not my intention at all 😊 $\endgroup$ Jul 24, 2023 at 8:36
2
$\begingroup$

I don't believe it's possible for a civilization to never develop a concept of a god, no.

We humans are problem-solvers. We use our sapience to figure out patterns in things, understand what these patterns mean and then use this understanding to choose a course of action that will benefit us. However, that means we don't deal well with situations where we can't figure out any patterns, when things appear to happen at random.

So sometimes, if people can't figure out any patterns in why a e.g. flood happens, rather than accept that this devastating thing happens randomly and there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening, they will invent patterns they do understand. So they invent an intelligence that controls these events, which may be a spirit of a god. You can't control the god that is causing the flood, but at least you can bargain with it, you can do things to keep it pleased, like sacrificing livestock and praying to it. You can do something to at least reduce the possibility of the flood happening again. It's a way of trying to take control of the situation. Of course it's not real control, but it feels better.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Gods (and therefore religion) are the product of three parallel features of our brains that interact with "civilization":

  1. hierarchy (which is ancient),
  2. superstition* (an emergent property of our highly interconnected brains) and
  3. a desire for fairness (which is probably also ancient, given that monkeys, fish, dogs and probably others can also detect unfairness).

Thus, the human species wouldn't be what we recognize as human without the "bell curve tendency" (some people obsessively religious, most people kinda religious and some people atheists/naturalists) towards religion.

Superstition, though, might not be an emergent property of Space Alien species that evolved differently.

*a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief. Source: https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

$\endgroup$
5
  • $\begingroup$ This answer would greatly improve with some development. For me, I don't know what you mean by superstition, and it's not clear how those three things combine to make God. It's also not clear how that makes your bell curve "human". It looks like begging the question. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ @fredsbend definition of superstition has been added. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ @fredsbend as for why hierarchy, superstition and fairness? Gods are, by definition, the top of the hierarchy, superstition because they "explain" natural forces, and fairness because "the all seeing eye in the sky" is always watching so as to punish us if we do something wrong. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ Now it's definitely begging the question. "Superstitions are beliefs in God. Humans are superstitious, so they believe in God." $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @fredsbend no, that's not what I wrote. The "supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event" started with nature spirits (aka animism). Animism then evolved into belief in gods when we developed civilization (which is much more hierarchical than hunter-gatherer societies) and agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 18, 2023 at 23:44
2
$\begingroup$

Depend on how you define a god. If your definition is any being with supernatural powers then no such society exists. But if your definition is a being who created the universe or something along those lines, Then tons of societies fit the bill.a

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

The Piraha people are generally believed to have no concept of a Supreme Being or "God". This may be a misinterpretation of their actual beliefs by researchers though as they do believe in "Spirits", however they claim they can literally see these spirits. We don't know enough about their culture to know if these spirits are truly analagous to deities, but it doesn't seem like it.

They have no creation myth, they do not have a tradition of storytelling that we know of. It's built into their language that these concepts just do not exist.

Their culture/language is very literal. They require evidence based on personal experience if they're going to believe anything you say. They were initially interested in Christianity when exposed to it, but lost interest when they found out the missionaries had never personally met Jesus.

Piraha who are multi-lingual do sometimes seem to take stories from other cultures. Portugese, and Tupi, however they don't have any of their own myths/accounts of the past.

Oral histories/collective memory is generally acknowledged to only last about two generations among the Piraha people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirah%C3%A3_people

https://news.mit.edu/2016/data-amazonian-piraha-language-debate-0309#:~:text=Some%20linguists%2C%20including%20one%20who,have%20disagreed%20with%20such%20claims.

https://www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Everett.CA.Piraha.pdf

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Firstly; what is God?

There are many definitions for God that would represent some people's usage. For some, God is the creator, for others, God is the thing that created everything; for others, God is the most powerful being that exists, for others, God is the (most powerful) principle(s) of reality, and for some, God is everything. God could be anything from a consciousness that created the universe, to the universe itself. So, ask yourself, what is God in this context? What kind of God is it that you want your civilization to not have even conceptualized?

I'll answer for the different options I listed:

God as the universe:

Your civilization would have to be really stupid to not realize there is a universe. If you are conscious, then you are aware of stimuli. If you have a shred of meta-cognition, you are aware of your awareness. If you have an ounce of ability for abstraction, you can then refer to all that you experience (and maybe refer also to the mysteries beyond that experience), and assign a name to it; the universe. If your civilization is not capable of doing that, then its hard to imagine how they even became a civilization, let alone how they are going to make for interesting characters.

So, your civilization will likely have the concept of the universe in hand. So, once one has begun referring to all there is, one might be met with a feeling of immensity. Maybe they have also stumbled upon the concept of infinity, and ascribe this to their concept of the universe? Well, then those feelings will only be stronger. If their minds has their species' equivalent of our tendency to anthropomorphize, then they might very well ascribe a kind of character to the universe; a character that could readily be described as God.

The more general tendency of seeing animacy in inanimate elements is likely a mechanism of survival. It's better to be safe than sorry; if that bush rustles, it's better to interpret it as a predator, and thus prepare oneself or run, than it is to reckon that it's just the wind. This mechanism thus leads to all kinds of feelings of animacy in inanimate things. So, if your species does not have this tendency to feel animacy in things, then it is less likely for them to have even survived in the first place.

However, there can be compensatory mechanisms in this case. If their universe is extremely cold and unforgiving, they might come to the conclusion that it definitely isn't God, because they cannot/will not imagine a being so apathetic/cruel enveloping them at all times. It's then better to just think of it as mindless space and matter.

God as the creator/thing that created everything:

This definition of God, and the previous, are not mutually exclusive.

For God to have created everything, there must be a beginning. If your civilization gets it into their head that the universe has existed forever, then there is no time for a creation, and thus, no creator/prime mover. So, if they for some reason believe/know the universe is eternal, this can explain why they do not believe in a creator/prime mover.

Another way, that has a lot more plot impact, but would be kind of fascinating, is if the civilization has no concept of time. Without a concept of time, there is no beginning; no creation; no creator/prime mover. Not sure how this could work, but I found it too interesting a possibility to leave out.

God is the most powerful being:

It's hard to not have a concept of the most powerful being. If you can conceptualize power as a quantity, then you can conceptualize the most powerful being.

Thing is, if you do not believe anyone/anything is particularly powerful, then the most powerful being might not be alone in that role, nor be anything particularly special. Although that being would technically be God given the above definition, there is few that would recognize them as God.

God is the (most powerful) principle(s) of reality:

Some think God is the laws of reality; others think God is particularly the ultimate law(s) of reality. God is gravity; God is 1 + 1 = 2; God is the fact that all things die, etc.

I think such a conception is sufficiently abstract that you do not really need to explain why your civilization did not conceive of it. It is not really natural to think of rules as a being; we rather think of rules as the creations of beings.

Further research:

See this video of a guy posing, among other things, theological questions to Hadzabe tribe members.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

I'd like to answer this in a slightly different way.

In your world, does "progress" exist? Is there civilization, do characters exist? I'm going to assume yes, a character exists in this world, and they share some human like traits.

If the species this character belongs to are curious and they want to understand the world, the first basic observation I think one can make is that of cause and effect.

How does cause and effect manifest in a primeval world, that their ancestors lived?

Well if you observe around you, a boulder can be caused to roll down a hill on it's own, but never up a hill. If a boulder gets to the top of a hill, then you must conclude a person did it.

This is a reasonable assumption, every cause in the natural world is caused by a human, and the effects are totally determined by the natural laws of that world.

So when a non naturalistic cause happens (like grass growing, the tides changing, heat being created) who was the causer?

It is a natural conclusion to project oneself onto it, and say the personified sun causes the heat. The personified moon causes the tides.

They would be a reflection of their own culture, maybe initially just metaphors but over time taken more literally.

Don't just start with gods, start with the society, and the values and nature of that society and ask yourself what myths they would tell themselves to explain morality or natural causes.

If they value justice, it makes sense to personify justice as a "god" who acts and judges.

If they have some unique environmental phenomenon, like say on this planet it rains glass, well how could they personify it?

There is a god of glass who wanted to marry the god of justice but he could see she had a wicked heart and denied her. Out of anger she broke the scales of justice. This blinded the god of justice so he could no longer see her evil, but without his sense of justice, he got angry and cruel. As retribution he turned her into a glass scale. This allowed him to judge right from wrong again but was very fragile. Whenever an act tips the scales too much, she is destined to shatter and rain glass upon the land. The raining of glass is then associated with a great evil (or even a great goodness) having occurred, and the fragility of the scales of justice explain why evil can still exist. People then look at the glass rain as the fulfilling of various prophecies or events in the world, and can be used to add thematic depths with various interpretations of what the rain means and what could've caused it.

I think, given enough diversity and time, stories like the above would naturally occur.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Obvious disclaimer: Atheist trying to describe the founding principles of religion - assume any bias you think is fair.

Laying some groundwork

Religion is, at its very core, a form of deference to a higher power. "Higher power" here means "able to do things that we cannot".

It is no different from me relying on Gordon Ramsay to make me a better Eggs Benedict than I can. I defer to his expertise. He can make a hollandaise, I cannot.

However, we can generally agree on Gordon Ramsay being better than me, because there has been demonstrable proof of him cooking great food - and I happen to have seen a video with him making hollandaise and people liking it.

But what if I told you that I defer to John Doe to make me a better Eggs Benedict than I can, because I've seen John jumping up and down yesterday and that's why I'm convinced he's a great chef?

That doesn't sound as logically sound anymore.

What if I told you that I defer to Jane Doe to make me a better Eggs Benedict than I can, because I've seen lots of people going to her house in the morning and eating the food she makes, and that's why I'm convinced she's a great chef?

We can argue this both ways. Maybe it is proof (why else would people go there and eat food?) but maybe it isn't (maybe she tells great stories and people eat her mediocre food since they're sitting there anyway).

We can argue whether we consider the evidence to be sufficient, but from my perspective, it's the same principle at play in all three cases. I have seen evidence, which is valid by my standards, that lead me to believe that Gordon/John/Jane can make a great Eggs Benedict.

"My standards" is the key takeaway here. Belief is an inherently personal thing, because it requires clearing a subjective bar, not a universally objective one. This bar can be different for other people. Maybe some people believe in the meaning of colored socks, or because a loved one believes, or ...

To answer your question

As a society grows, we learn to specialize in jobs. This inherently comes with needing to put your trust in others to do their jobs. This trust is based on evidence, and whether you accept the evidence depends on your subjective standards on evidence.

The only difference between me trusting someone else to make me a great Eggs Benedict and a deity making sure that we have a bountiful harvest next year are:

  • I have seen sufficient evidence to believe that this person/entity can do so

We already discussed this, it's subjective to every person.

  • I either know of or have assumed there to be a person/entity that can do so.

This is the tricky one. I knew Gordon Ramsay, the person, slightly before I was told what he could do. But I can invert that. I could see a restaurant with lots of customers, therefore assume that there must be good food there, and therefore assume there must be someone making all this food.

My belief in the existence of the chef can be concrete (I have met the person) or can be indirect (I have seen good food around)

The belief in the existence of God is effectively a combination of two things:

  • I have seen things that I am convinced are not just a stroke of luck, someone must have intentionally done this.
  • No one I know of is capable of doing this, and therefore I infer there must be another party (who I have not met) who is doing all of this.

And there you have it, a religion is born, and the individual steps that got us there are rooted in the cornerstone of any civilization: deferring to someone else who has more expertise, even if you don't personally know them.

I don't see a way for a civilization to organically establish itself without some people being liable to make the assumption of the existence of a deity because of the (inherently required) deference to others' expertise, and without that deference, we never learn to divide jobs and work together as a society.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Let god, aliens or randomness oppose the idea

Not meant as a joke; You could go into the direction of some "outer" force actively preventing it.

  • God / aliens try to shape a population where any behavior that implies belief / religion has immediate negative consequences, so people learn to only make "scientific" assumptions
  • Make your world so (static and deterministic, maybe?) that the scientific method yields extremly good/reliable results & leads to fast improvements
$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

According to meme theory, religion is a requirement for civilization, at least in humans.

Meme theory is a model popularized by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins that imagines bits of information as being divided into units called "memes" and acting analogously to viruses and subject to the same laws of evolution as living things, with the host for such an "information virus" being a human mind. Memes thus reproduce by causing a human to transmit them to other humans through specific behaviors, speech, and the creation of cultural artifacts. Memes and their hosts can be thought of as interacting in a feedback loop, each influencing each other's capabilities of surviving and replicating.

Here is a little tangent: Humans have what is called the Dunbar's Number, which is the number of people with which one can have stable social relationships and how everyone relates to everyone else. It is currently accepted to be around 150, although the 95% confidence interval is 100 to 230. Past that, everyone else is just a faceless other. One does not know whether this person he just met on the streets is willing to cooperate with him, what his motives are, and how he gets along with people one knows. As one may have guessed, this is going to be an impediment towards having a society larger than 150 people. Thus, you cannot have a large society that is held together solely by empathy. Now, if only there was a way of quickly telling at a glance whether Ug is one of Us or not...

Enter religion. Religion is a set of memes comprising beliefs in the supernatural, along with rituals and ethics associated with it. When a group of people all partakes in the same communal rituals, everyone can immediately tell that everyone else present roughly adheres to the same code of conduct without having to spend as much time on forming and assessing social relationships. Thus, religion presents a way of bypassing the limit on the size of a society imposed by Dunbar's Number. In this model, the rituals associated with religious beliefs provide a way of quickly signaling that one adheres to the same code of conduct as other members of a group, while the ethics of that religion comprise said code of conduct itself. Belief in a deity and supernatural punishment would thus serve as justification as to why the code of conduct is the way it is and why one should follow it. Thus, for humans, belief in some deity is one of the prerequisites for a large civilization.

And let's be real here,

"Ugh, why do we have to smoke seven different herbs on Wednesday and treat my fellow townspeople with hospitality and respect when I can just tell them to get lost since I got my clan to look out for me?"

"Because Alef the all-knowing rock god says so"

"And what if I don't care what that rock god says?"

"Then he'll be pissed and make a rockslide destroy our city and we'll all die"

Is a far greater incentive to cooperate with people one doesn't know well, even if the belief is complete bullshit, than

"Why should I cooperate with strangers when I got my family and clan to look out for me?"

"Because if we all do that, then maybe in 6 thousand years our descendants would be able to go to the moon and not worry about shitting themselves to death".

Sidenote, there is a hypothesis that belief in deities is something humans are genetically predisposed to.

Of course, if you are writing about an alien species, rather than humans, anything goes. A species where every member lives and dies for a single individual and has no independent thought, or a species of telepaths that can readily probe one another's minds would probably have no need for religion in order to form a civilization.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_gene

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

There are popular fictitious societies that do not believe in gods. For example, the Vulcans from Star Trek no longer have that belief. At some point in their far past they did but they discarded them.

I think it would be hard to imagine a human civilization that did not have some percentage of people that believed in gods or something godlike, or even just a higher power which could be aliens or something. I think our imagination is too great and people tend to reach for something when greatly distraught or in peril.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ But still the Vulcans have a concept of "god". They just discarded it's reality. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 20, 2023 at 17:49
0
$\begingroup$

As an atheist, I find it very strange to have religion in the first place.

When you can’t explain a natural phenomenon, why would you invent some obviously unlikely character or spirit? Does anyone seriously believe that the sun is a God? Does anyone seriously believe that lightning gets thrown down by some angry bearded man in the sky?

When you are lost and alone and in despair, why would you start inventing an imaginary friend and actually believe in them despite no evidence for their existence?

When somebody dies, why would anyone believe that they continue to live on in some imaginary place?

$\endgroup$
10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm an atheist too but the way I see it, these kinds of things manifest from the need of people to have an anchor, something to hold on to. It doesn't come from a rational point of view but from an emotional one. At least, that's how I take it based on observing family and friends. It's a better feeling to think that there's some omnipotent being out there that has your back if you please them enough than accepting you're all alone. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2023 at 15:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "When you can’t explain a natural phenomenon, why would you invent some obviously unlikely character or spirit?" Because you live in a pre-science society, and you're at the mercy of Unseen Forces. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 20, 2023 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ "Does anyone seriously believe that the sun is a God? Does anyone seriously believe that lightning gets thrown down by some angry bearded man in the sky?" Not anymore. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 20, 2023 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ "When you are lost and alone and in despair, why would you start inventing an imaginary friend and actually believe in them despite no evidence for their existence?" Because it's comforting. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jul 20, 2023 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ @user9564371: That one I can kind of understand, but would you really, deeply believe in your imaginary friend you made up in some desperate moment? Would you go to war for them and die for them? Argue for them and make gifts for them? Maybe you really, firmly have to stick to this belief for the mind trick to work properly. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Jul 20, 2023 at 19:51
0
$\begingroup$

The divine as we know it, as a expression of the loop deformation. A tribe of creatures bounces between the ressource ceiling of its environment, diseases and neighbouring tribes. The result is instincts regarding correct behavior.

In the "valley" of peace & plenty, its important to not waste resources on anything but creating more genetic lottery tickets for the harsh future to come (no art, no music, no science, just procreation).

When the population increases and the resources ceiling closes in, its important to redirect the tensions of the hopeless youth outwards towards a common enemy. Thus its unbelievers, non-society integrated minorities who get the worst of it.

Then the resource ceiling comes down, its all out war against the neighbouring tribes- or if that fails civil war of the rich against the poor in various permutations. Gut willz it.

After that its reconstitution, forgiveness for the horrors of the past, the environment recovers, trade resumes, the valley awaits, in endless cycles.

This is god. Its in every creatures gut who has been prolonged exposed to this environment. It rewards optimizations for keeping itself optimal to this environment. It distrusts all non-environment behaviour. The situation is universal, thus the retardation - or adaptions to it are universal.

It could only be avoided by a environment were the surplus always outgrows a exponential growing population. Or a population which limits itself out of a strong accord.

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .