Could a civilization grow or develop to advanced levels if they don't hold religious beliefs?

I have just watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Who watch the watchers" (season 3, episode 4). It tells the story of the Mintakan people, a proto-Vulcan race near a Bronze Age of cultural development. It is clearly said at some point, that millennia ago members of this civilization has dropped believing in any kind of gods, supernatural beings or any other kind of faith-based mythology. And yet, they're still remains in a Bronze Age.

Is this possible and believable? We're far more developed than Mintakans and yet we have many gods, supernatural beings and other faith-based believing. As we look through our history, even (or especially) this after Bronze Age, we can clearly see many examples that this believes were actually a stimulating factor to many discoveries, achievements etc. From Christopher Columbus, who found America mostly to prove, that Church was wrong. To Stephen Hawking, whos many works were meant to prove that everything is explainable without the need of God existing, led to many new discoveries in physics. But, these are only two of large number of examples, that searching to disobey some believing, to disprove existence of some gods or other religious of faith-based myths, was one of fundamental elements of our civilization development.

As you can see from above, I'm personally believing, that thesis shown in mentioned Star Trek episode is unreliable and impossible. In my opinion, it is impossible to advance any civilization to our level of development or further, when denying all believing, faith and religions. I'd like to challenge this in worldbuilding terms. Is it possible to have modern, advanced civilization without faith? If yes, would that kind of civilization need some replacement for faith and religion to stimulate its development, and what kind of replacement would that be?

  • 21
    $\begingroup$ Columbus absolutely was not trying to prove the church wrong. He was trying to find a lucrative new trade route to the East Indies, and he believed that spreading Christianity to the natives was an important part of his work. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Columbus $\endgroup$ – octern Sep 21 '14 at 21:30
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ You might want to wait a bit longer to accept an answer, because a better answer may show up (but it is less likely for someone to post an answer if an answer is already accepted). $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Sep 22 '14 at 3:48
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Yes, it just discourages people from posting new answers sometimes. Right now it doesn't matter too much because we are all confident and somewhat experienced, but it may matter later, during public beta. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Sep 22 '14 at 12:38
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This is the sort of thing people spend lifetimes studying, and write shelvesworth of books about. It seems far too broad for a Stack Exchange answer to address usefully (the currently accepted answer, for example, is not only a simplification of an outdated and discredited theory: it opens by saying this question is a bad fit for the Stack Exchange format!). $\endgroup$ – BESW Oct 2 '14 at 1:29
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ If you think that Columbus wanted to prove the Earth is spherical while the Church trying to preach that it is flat, then you have both a serious bias against the church and a seriously wrong picture about the history of science. The viewpoint that science and religion are enemies is a recent invention; for example, in the Renaissance era all (or most) scientific work was funded by the Church. $\endgroup$ – vsz Mar 21 '15 at 14:52

16 Answers 16


I think this is a question too subjective to have a correct answer. In consequence, my answer (and I believe all answers) will also be quite subjective.

I don't agree with you in that a civilization cannot develop without religion. In fact, I personally believe that the lack of religions would solve lots of problems of a civilization, and would make its development faster, because it would prevent, for example, most wars. I can't think on some advancement impossible without religion. Even the examples you are proposing aren't impossible at all, and would have finally happened, although maybe later.

However, even if a civilization could develop without religion, I think all civilizations do depend on religion/magic on an early stage. The human being constantly tries to explain its environment. On an early stage of development, there is not another explanation than religion/magic. This is why most prehistoric civilizations are known to worship the sun or the earth.

When those civilizations evolve (for example, on an stage of development similar of that of Ancient Greece), the need of something explaining the world remains, but the religion is less primitive. The birth of science led to the first atheists, but that science is far too incomplete to explain the world.

Finally, on our stage of development, the completeness of science is which makes a part of the population atheist. This percentage is likely to continue growing with the further development of science.

In conclusion, development is possible without religion, but it will never happen because humans will create something to explain their world.

Finally, to end with an example, as far as I know all of the underdeveloped human tribes which are still on a "prehistoric cultural stage" believe in some type of God/myth which explains the world.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I would say that a very significant portion of people on Earth today still attribute creation and a lot of workings of the universe to God, even if not directly. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Sep 22 '14 at 3:47
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ @Garoal I'm religious and I'm not sure that I disagree with you. But then again, I find that a lot of people (myself included) who claim to be religious have a pretty hard time following the more essential doctrines of their religion. It's pretty easy not to kill or steal, but loving thy neighbor as thyself? I'm a software engineer, it's hard not to judge that previous developer who wrote such crappy code! Oh wait, that was me... $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Sep 22 '14 at 11:09
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ The basic thesis you present is the so-called "evolutionary hypothesis," generally associated with E.B. Tylor and Sir James Frazer, under which magic evolves into religion and on into science. This has long since been rejected by professional scholars of religion, "long since" here meaning "for almost 100 years now." There is no evidence in its favor, and a great deal against. What's more, it's entirely dependent on a kind of cultural pseudo-Darwinism that we otherwise principally associate with eugenics. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Oct 1 '14 at 23:45
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ There are so many issues with this answer it's not even funny. "because it would prevent, for example, most wars." - WRONG! (and citation needed). Most wars are for resources (including fertile women), with religion being merely an effective too to motivate people. $\endgroup$ – user4239 Oct 5 '14 at 4:30
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ ... "The birth of science led to the first atheists" - wrong. Science and scientific method was later than atheism as a concept in some ways, and preceded it by millenia in other. There's some correllation, but "led" implies a non-proven causation. $\endgroup$ – user4239 Oct 5 '14 at 4:33

I believe it is possible.

Consider many early religions, they were based around trying to explain the world as the civilisations saw it. The ancient Egyptians believed there was a god called Ra who carried the sun across the sky, Norse civilisations belived Thor was responsible for the terrifying thunder and lightening they saw.

These deities were an early attempt to explain concepts far beyond their understanding. We now have a different theory (based on a lot more evidence) for why the sun moves across the sky or what causes lightening.

My point is that in many cases these deities were early attempts at understanding science, people looked around them and saw people. They saw the sun move, therefore it was a sensible suggestion to suggest that someone was moving it.

However, another explanation may have been the sun is ballshaped therefore it's rolling across the sky. Or that lightening often occurs at night - perhaps its bits of left over sun escaping?

If a civilisation was to create other reasons to explain the (to them) magical world which didn't involve more powerful beings the a religion could be formed on science.

There is also the counter argument that the church has held science back, there is evidence in our world of medical advanced being prohibited up until the renaissance periods. It is entirely possible that not having a religion based society would allow science to advance quicker. In my opinion however that's short sighted, the fact that religion has attempted to hamper science in the past is coincidental. In your world a dominant ruler, a highly respected scientist could just as easily hamper new and original theories.


Yes it is possible, many deities were created to explain things earlier civilisations didn't understand. If these people formed conclusions free of the concept of powerful beings then their ideas may have evolved very differently.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It's myth BTW, that religions are more likely to hamper science than secular ideologies. The last 200 year is repeat with examples of purely secular suppressions and distortions of science and investigation. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 4 '14 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ @TechZen I believe that was my point in paragraph 6? $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 4 '14 at 7:22
  • $\begingroup$ not really. Religions don't actually spend much time examining the material world. Religions are about human behavior Religions and priest classes have historically been the primary creators of secular scientific knowledge across all cultures. Virtually all astronomy and most mathematics arose from religion. Religions are also the primary sources of literacy, education and cultural memory. But $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 10 '14 at 7:31
  • $\begingroup$ @TechZen - I don't think that's true. Whatever the Russians (for a conspicuous example of alleged but not actual secularity behaving as you charge) claimed at the time, they had a state religion called Communism complete with prophet, revealed wisdom, suppression of competing beliefs, proselytism and all the other symptoms of religion. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 22 '15 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterWone - It's been noted that Marxism functions like a religion that just proves my point. Marxism was supposed to be "scientific" and Communist had a near fetish about science and technology. Sometimes ideology interfered with science e.g. Lysenkoism but in most cases it did not. It's really politics that interfere with science and other social structures only do so to the extent they are politicized. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Mar 22 '15 at 16:42

I too believe that religion and science don't always go well together. It depends how people link these two.

The Greeks believed in the gods but also they also made science make huge progress. In the middle ages, things started to change in Europe but not in the Muslim world. Muslims were really devoted to their religion and science really improved during the Abbasid (for example). Christians believed that the work of God was superior to mankind and therefore it made scientific researches clash with the religious doctrines. I'm not saying that there was not technological progress in the middle ages but the religious beliefs made it harder. But this did not last forever. Customs evolved and reason supplanted the religious way to explain how things work. People still believed in gods (and many still believe today) but they now know that reason is usually better than religions to understand the world.

Today, we continue to make progress without the religions but we could ask ourselves where we would be if religions had not existed. If it's possible to have a pre-industrial world without any kind of religion. (Confucianism is really important in China but it has no god. I consider this as a belief rather than a religion even if they more or less serve the same purpose. But it coexisted with other religions like Buddhism.)

If people don't believe in gods, they have to believe in something. Humans can believe in science and they can believe in themselves. Some even said that Marxism, feminism, and other things ending in ism could be substitutes to religions. It,s also possible to believe in nothing I guess but I'M getting out of topic. Well, it does bring the point of what you mean by belief.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. +1 (pity, that I can't more) for bringing Muslim world example. Most of us to many times sees fantasy worlds as close in definition or even duplicate of "our" Middle Ages from Europe point only (very low science development, very high, negative religion impact), while we keep forgetting, that this wasn't that way in the entire world. Thanks, for reminding me that (again)! $\endgroup$ – trejder Sep 22 '14 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ The Greeks did not advance science, they had a low regard for experimental validation of hypotheses. They made great strides in mathematics and philosophy and anything else you could do sitting on your butt with your eyes closed looking wise but did very little with technology because (a) they could make other people do things that weren't fun (slaves) and (b) engineering was déclassé, philosophy was the go if you wanted status. Unless you were making war, in which case engineering was cool after all. La plus ça change... $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 22 '15 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ Historically, there is a strong inverse correlation between number of gods worshipped and level of technology. Presumably a civilisation will really take off when the number of gods worshipped reaches zero. Or it might be the other way round, and the number of gods worshipped will drop to zero as a result of technology really taking off. Wait, do I see a resonance in the real world?! $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 22 '15 at 9:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not really, because now we worship pop stars, singers, Pokemon, Comic Book and Star Wars characters as gods. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Apr 22 '15 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ I would argue that the lack of scientific advancement under Christian Europe during the Middle Ages had more to do with the political and economic climate than the Church itself. During times of prosperity where there is a strong middle class, technology advances; during times of widespread poverty, it falters. During the Renaissance, the Church funded scientific advancement and many famous discoveries were made by the devout; the idea that religion and science have been at odds historically is largely a modern invention. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Apr 3 '16 at 12:42

Well if any of the many religions here on Earth are true, then there won't be much "advancement" without acknowledging the truth and basing your understanding of reality on it. It also depends on how you define "advance" or "better" with regard to human society and behavior. I'd say so-called uneducated people who unconditionally follow the Golden Rule are far more advanced and better than so-called educated people who don't, but not everyone would agree with that.

You ask "is it possible to have a modern, advanced civilization without faith?"

While theoretically possible, since there has never been one that existed outside the fantasies of the mind, and there have been well over 100 recorded distinct civilizations, the reasonable answer in my opinion is no. After all, it is <%1 probability historically.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. (Benjamin Disraeli) $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 23 '15 at 8:44

The main issue with answers so far is that they all talk about how human civilizations develop. But the question does not ask only for human civilizations, which we know how the only one has developed, but for civilizations at large.

Can a civilization develop without religion? Of course yes. Human dependence on religions on early stages is caused by our need for explanations about "How the World works", the eternal "Why?" question. (The answer, anyway, is 42). But a species without that need for knowing the Why, but with an ability to learn and keep knowledge, is perfectly able to develop (slowly, since there is no curiosity) without any kind of religion. They simply do not need it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The idea that a species with no curiosity could develop a "civilization" seems shaky, at best. However, the implied point that curiosity breeds both technological and religious development is quite true, and is what's missing from the other answers. From what I've seen, most of the answers are variants of "Sure they can, because" $\endgroup$ – Attackfarm Oct 4 '14 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ What's wrong with "Sure they can, because" answers? As long as they are well reasoned. $\endgroup$ – Envite Oct 6 '14 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ That's the point. The answers are tantamount to "Sure they can, because." End of reasoning. The top voted answer essentially says that religion causes "most wars" (??) and a few other things, but doesn't ever back up the claim "Yes, it's possible". None of the answers dig into the reasoning behind religion, and thus examine the effects of removing that reason. That's why I like your answer, as it actually looks at the cause, rather than positing an effect of "Why not?" $\endgroup$ – Attackfarm Oct 6 '14 at 6:11

Faith in general does not provide you with anything physical, so aside from cultural issues, it is very possible that a society can exist without faith. Bronze, copper and whatever else is necessary is not found through believe, and methods of utilizing it are not given to men by gods or similar, it is simply curiosity and drive that causes a society to advance technologically.

How the culture exists on a social level however is a different question. Faith and associated religions have often been used to keep the common people under control, give them a reason to exist or to endure difficulties, and sometimes even inspired them to archive things others would had considered to be impossible. Without faith a culture would have to understand their existence well enough to no longer need any form of believe, and to maintain order on their own. Otherwise they would fall into chaos, which not necessarily destroys a culture, but might turn them into a very evil and self-centric one.

The Vulcans are a special case here, as they suppress all emotions, and suddenly many things no longer require faith, as they can be explained through logic. The need to faith is replaced by understanding and logical conclusion, so the culture was able to strife without any believe system.


I would say that civilization requires faith at least in beginning and probably always.

Evolutionary game theory strongly suggest it does. As products of evolution by natural selection, we are innately selfish. Our behavior is anchored in hardwired desires which in turn focuses on short-term survival and reproduction.

Even our reason ultimate depends on hardwired emotions. We can't use reason to decide between two courses of actions unless we first desire one outcome over the other. When tend to rationalize why we should fulfill our desires, to the harm of others, much more often than we rationalize we should suffer loss or take risk for others not genetically related to us.

If one looks at religions form the perspective of behavior control, of suppressing short term immediate selfish impulses to foster long term thinking and cooperation, then all religion look the same.

Religions impose significant material cost on societies, especially in the materially poor past. There is an odd concept that our forbearers were morons stumbling around in a superstitious haze bumping into trees. But our forbearers had far fewer resources than we and far less margin for error. Their behaviors had to be more precisely adapted to circumstances than ours. When the population devotes 90% of it's efforts just to grow food, there's not a lot of room for maladaptive behaviors.

We've fallen into the trap of thinking them foolish because we regard their explanations for why they made this or that choice as nonsense. What we missed was that the explanations are irrelevant, only the consequences of the behaviors matter. E.g. many traditional medicines work even though the explanations for their mechanism of action are nonsense. There is no connection between a justification for a behavior and the adaptive benefit of the behavior. It does not matter why someone believes that should act less selfishly, it only matters that they do.

If religions did not produce some concrete material good, very quickly selection forces would favor societies with progressively less and less religion. Societies that wasted resources on religious constructions, manpower on clerics and time on rituals would be outcompeted by societies who could use the same resources for roads or defenses, the same manpower for work or war and the same time for production.

Instead, we see religion being completely ubiquitous throughout history and the most dynamic and innovative cultural periods also being ones of great religious fervor.

The problem that religion fixes is that morality is something of a lie when looked at from purely materialistic terms. If an individual can get a signficant advantage by harming another without paying material consequence, then evolutionarily, there is no reason not to. That is especially true in primitive conditions where material consequences are unlikely and interdependence low.

With the experience of thousands of years of practical experience behind us, we can argue that enlightened self-interest might guide us today, but how did the ball start rolling in the first place? How do people learn to cooperate on progressively larger scales when everyone can determine rationally and accurately that they personally could benefit from quicker and surer by cheating, exploiting and killing?

That's were religion comes in. It invents a consequence where one does not not exist. Religion supplies the one behavior modifier that no secular idea can: inescapable consequence for moral choices.

For the faithful, regardless of the faith, their is always an inescapable consequences for selfish moral decisions. In a purely secular society, the most power humans, or one thinking himself just smarter than those around him, have no rational incentive not to abuse others.

In a faithful society, however, the behavior of the most power human is still subject to to judgement by the divine. Whether that conceived of as a personified god or some mindless supernatural force doesn't matter, nor does it matter if it "true" to any degree. To produce a positive material effect. It just matters that most believe inescapable consequence will fall upon the selfish and uncooperative.

Once the belief in such inescapable consequence becomes part an axiom for one's reasoning, then cooperation, self-denial and self-sacrfice appear rational and optimal choices for individuals. More over, if one knows that most of the rest of a society believe the same thing, then it is rational to assume their behavior is likewise moderated making them more trusty. This lowers transaction cost and increases social cohesion, making the society materially wealthier, less internally contentious and more militarily effective. All the great periods of dynamic innovation and growth in human cultures are associated with ages of great piety.

On the other hand, the direct example of the last 200 years strongly suggest that polities grow more brittle and prone to violence as they grow more secular. Since the French Revolution onward, the more secular the dominate political ideology, the more murderous the regime. Robespierre feared no divine consequence and neither did Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Kim il Sung or Pol Pot. Once they reasoned that their actions were necessary and that they could escape material consequences for their choices, there were no limiters on their behaviors.

Since we are trapped with our darwinian cores we may always require that a high percentage of our population be religious. It's pretty clear that we really needed it in the past.

  • $\begingroup$ Very well explained. +1 $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Apr 3 '16 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ Part of the human biology is empathy. Or isn't it? I respect the effort you put into this post, but I disagree with the assumption, that homo sapiens without religion would have no morals. Religion does not create basic behavioral tendencies, it only reinforces some. $\endgroup$ – user6415 Apr 3 '16 at 12:53

Faith is belief in the absence of evidence.

Strong faith is unshakeable belief in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Neither of these is conducive to an evolving understanding of reality.

You have conflated correlation with causation. Religious belief retards science and technology because why look for answers when you already have them. Undoubtedly you will now object citing monastic centres of learning and various inventions that came out of them. To this I answer that progress during the Dark Ages was very slow precisely because control was in the hands of the church. Technological development is hostage to surplus. There are three things that will stymy it:

  1. Slavery - what do you need a machine for when you can make someone else do it? In a slaving society, technology is pointless and expensive. Developing even more so. Philosophy has all the intellectual posing advantages and it's cheaper.
  2. Religion - all the answers come from the priesthood. Looking elsewhere is suspicious and finding other answers gets you branded heretic. Even if the church is well pleased with your new idea they will dispose of you anyway and have a divine revelation.
  3. Relative scarcity.

The renaissance occurred as a direct and immediate consequence of the Black Death's rapid depopulation of Europe, which left all the assets intact. For the first time, trade skills were so valuable the balance of power shift to craftsmen. Even the value of peasants rose; it was hard to get enough staff to farm your land. The dire need to get higher yields at every level of civilisation greatly increased the value of reach-extending technology like better ploughs, water-mills, wind-mills, weaving looms, then mechanical looms, then power mechanical loom...

This is why nothing happened for so long then steel to silicon in ninety years.

And none of this happens when people think they already have all the answers in a book about the creation of the world by their psychopathic invisible friend who occasionally tells them to kill their firstborn just to see whether they're stupid enough to do it.

Once the Black Death gave men respite from scarcity and the renaissance began, it was in the minds of men that the church didn't have all the answers. Fortunately it also gave men respite from oppression by the church. God's protection wasn't much chop and the power of the church was also broken. Otherwise it would have enthusiastically put a not-very-merciful stop to independent thought of any sort.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Religion does not retard science, quite the opposite. Astronomy, the first science was created by the priest of many religions across the world. Chemistry evolved out of alchemy which was driven by gnostic cosmology. The idea that science and religion innately collide is a mythology created by political ideologues who wanted usurp traditional authority and social structure so they fastened themselves parasitically to the physical science to create social and political pseudo-sciences. Modern religion's antipathy to some science is a counter-reaction to those attacks. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Mar 22 '15 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ Religion did not fulfill the role of science in the pre-scientific world. World religions spend nearly zero time explaining material phenomena e.g. christian bible devotes a couple of dozen verses to the creation the universe and then all the remaining tens of thousands of verses are devoted to controlling selfish human behavior. Galileo himself pointed out that the bible contains not one bit of scientific or technical information. Science was held back more by technological limitations of measurement than any other factor. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Mar 22 '15 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ The slavery hypothesis can only be evoked to explain the lack of development of labor saving machines but that is not the whole of technology. Metal working, military technology, watercraft, construction of buildings, roads aqueducts etc are all technologies and all advanced in the slavery riddled classical world. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Mar 22 '15 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ The Black death hypothesis fails as a controlling factor because 1) it only explains the development of labor savings technologies, not science or protoscience. 2) The Renaissance began in small city-states whose economies rested on trade e.g. Venice and Florence. The primary driver of the renaissance was the rise of the commercial classes inside free-cities where individuals could escape the near caste-system of the social order and rise on merit. They likewise supported a more empirical approach to tech and science than the nobility would allow. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Mar 22 '15 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ The sudden evolution of technology has little to do with science because science and technology are only peripherally related. Technology advances, even today, primarily by trial and error experimentation and it began when humans first sharpened a stick. Science develops predictive models of the behavior of the material universe. The two do not necessarily overlap. In fact, there are many instances where scientist declared a technology impossible and inventors proved them wrong e.g. radio, edison tube, Sperry's gyroscopes. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Mar 22 '15 at 18:00

I would suggest that the universe is too populated for there to be a planet without the dichotomy of those-with-advanced-knowledge and those without. No matter where you go, there's going to be visiting aliens who seem like gods to the inhabitants.

And then, this existence will continue for the planet dwellers until such a time that they've intellectually grown up. They realize that they've had neighbors all the time and that their advanced physics really isn't magic or supernatural after all. At this time then religion converts into appreciation or awe or envy or even fear.


Science is predicated on philosophical naturalism. It's not faith-based, or atheistic, but it is largely agnostic, or more accurately theologically noncognitivist in how it formulates and tests answers. It doesn't matter if there's a god, or if god was responsible for an apple falling, because that doesn't tell you anything about the nature that god created in which apples fell. Many Christians were humanists and naturalists. They believed that God set the rules, but that the rules themselves were knowable, measurable and predictable - and what's more, they saw this measurable predictability as evidence of God. Some theologians took issue with naturalism, under the belief that it removed God's imminence in all things. But both interpretations were possible within the religious constraints of the time.

I believe that religion is man-made. And as such it's simply a context in which human beings discuss and analyze things. It's not magical. It's self-serving. If scientific discovery serves individuals well, then religious people will encourage scientific discovery up until the point that it threatens their comfort or power. The Church didn't mind using Galileo's heliocentric model of the solar system to keep track of religious holidays, so long as it remained hypothetical.

So yes, civilizations can develop with or without faith. Civilization cannot flourish without at least a modicum of free thought. Religious beliefs typically slow the rate of change, or set it back for a few centuries, nothing more. You don't need religion to formulate dogma or create taboos. Religion is what people label their personal preferences, where they store their anecdotal wisdom. Unless you have a religion that successfully stifles technology and information transfer, which we saw in the dark ages, but eventually mankind got back in the game (or Europeans I should say, I think the Eastern world was trucking along okay during that time).


I think religion is inevitable for a species like ours, because it ties into how we handle risk assessment.

The key is that at points during our evolution, we lived in very small groups. This made it beneficial, from an evolutionary standpoint, for us to treat risks oddly. An irrationally cautious proto-human was more likely to survive and breed than a rationally risky one. So we're literally programmed to be bad at math in critical key areas. You can see this in how we handle things like lotteries or safety in sky diving (risk homeostasis).

This fundamental evolutionary irrationality ends up manifesting as religion, because a large percentage of humans will see patterns that aren't there. This gets treated as spiritual events, miracles, etc. Eventually, confirmation bias locks it in and you end up with long-term religions that reject outside rational explanations.

So, I would say that it is very likely that any species that evolved in small groups will develop religion, because at some point being hunted will create this type of beneficial irrational behavior.

However, you might see a non-religious swarm species. Say if ants or bees eventually became intelligent - they can afford to be rational because they have the numbers to play the odds correctly.


There is a pitfall of bias by many. The roles of faith:

  • Explain what is not known
  • Moral code and value system
  • Unifies the people

Religious figures like priests create primitive governments that are ruled by the law of god. The belief of good and wrong create a system where people will not abide the laws only by the fear of law enforcement. Before modern era the law enforcement did not have the same global reach. Communities are built around worshiping gods.

How I see it, the religion provides a strong power that can unify huge groups. Without Vatican and crusades, the Europe would have been overrun by the caliphates => Europe would anyway have a religion, although a different one.


the fact is we have in Brazil a almost atheist indigenous people, so there is no strong law enforcing religion for primitive societies: Pirahã people note they are in stone age, not bronze age.

But the religion plays a role in the development of civilization. Without religion would be necessary another form of central ideological power, and maybe these is mandatory.

Also, religions can vary a lot. Sumerians don't believed in afterlife, a essential component in nowadays religions. Romans have many lares, deities without form or appearance.


I think something important may have been overlooked in the premise of the question...

Faith is, or at least can be, a much broader term. Religious or supernatural faith, belief in unseen powers at work in the universe, is but a tiny sliver of the faith that most people demonstrate.

People have faith in themselves, in each other, in leaders, in institutions, in governments, in philosophies, and even in science. The list could go on indefinitely...

Is a soldiers faith in his commander or country all that different from a priest's faith in his god? Do these belief structures not provide many of the same sorts of rituals, symbols, morality, codes of conduct, and so on?

This may seem to be generalizing an awful lot, but everyone seems to have faith in something, even the atheist has faith in his/her own reasoning.


Could a society develop without faith? Probably not.

Could a society develop without supernatural faith? Most likely yes.


It depends a great deal on how you define "faith".

Human civilization has often tied together the concepts of 'explaining the natural world', 'explaining the birth of nations', and 'encouraging people to follow the rules of society', which we tend to lump under the broad concept of gods and the supernatural.

While the first aspect could be largely done away with in a society that somehow attained advanced science early, and the second aspect can be done away with if a nation recorded its history accurately from the very beginning, the third aspect is very difficult to pull off without either

  1. belief in some kind of moral code that exalts people who live according to its laws and encourages people to look down upon those who do not, or
  2. an authoritarian rule, often operating under a totalitarian dictator who effectively functions as a god incarnate, at least in the eyes of the people.

Atheistic societies can exist only if they substitute 'gods' with a suspiciously similar substitute that encourages society-promoting behavior, which generally relies upon faith that the system will work and people who "follow the rules" will be "rewarded" for their behavior in the end. Without this, society will devolve into anarchy. Most humans are not altruistic enough to reliably make sacrifices without the belief that they will get something in return. (A society built by a naturally altruistic eusocial species, such as intelligent ants or bees, may be different.)

While anarchistic societies based on merit and natural social encouragement/discouragement can and have existed (the first human societies were like this), they are by nature small - no bigger than the average "social circle" - since every person must be aware of every other person in the society to ensure people are contributing and reward/punish behavior appropriately. A major civilization could not develop in this state.


I find it interesting that your own argument supports the Star Trek episode. You said you find it to have been impossible for us to have developed modern civilization without religion pushing the changes (mostly be others trying to prove them wrong). The civilization you are talking about has only made to the Bronze age and seems to be stuck there?

However, most religions and beliefs are based on our fears of the unknown and wanting to feel someone/thing can control the fickle fates of life (one we can appeal to in our favor). If for some reason a people are fatalistic or just unafraid of say dying, they would have little reason to believe in anything supernatural.

  • $\begingroup$ My preception of mentioned eposide says, that they're not stuck in Bronze Age, because they've just reached this stage of development, but are continuing to develop. Hoever, your point of view is quite interesting, and that deserves +1. I decided to accept Garoal's answer only because it is bit more comprehensive and bit more close to my question. $\endgroup$ – trejder Sep 21 '14 at 15:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Not a problem, I gave him a +1 as well because I thought it was a good answer. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Sep 21 '14 at 18:11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ There is no evidence that religion are based on fears of the unknown or mortality. Many religions are very fatalistic and grim. Classic greek afterlife was horrific for all but a tiny few. The Norse religions were frankly just depressing with nothing to look forward to but an eternal war were good was destined to lose. The only pattern in religions is that they all seek to control the same selfish behaviors in individuals. Historically, religions have also been great promoters of science and discovery. Neither do secular ideas have a better track record in any regard. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 4 '14 at 5:48

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.