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Let's try to imagine a human civilization where no religions were "invented" at any point in time. How could it be possible?

My thoughts are about some specific type of thinking in such a civilization: for example, if they saw a lightning for the first time, people would not think "Zeus is angry", rather they would be thinking "Wow, what could it be? I need to investigate this thing!".

As a possible way of developing such a type of mind, I'm thinking about ancient times, when people were not yet Homo Sapiens. Probably they were living in a dangerous environment, where they need to solve some logical puzzles to survive. And so this type of thinking is evolutionarily developed and leaves no place for thoughts about any supernatural beings.

  1. What kind of environment could this be? Or, maybe, can you think of some other ways how such a civilization may appear?

  2. How will this civilization progress? What will be the main differences in contrast to our current civilization?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Mołot, sphennings, Frostfyre, anon, kingledion Dec 7 '17 at 15:06

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ If you want a civilization completely devoid of religion, I think the first step is to actually tell us what you consider to be a religion, or elements of a religion. You do mention that you want no "supernatural beings" but what is that, really? Is a belief in imaginary but non-supernatural beings acceptable? (For example, Norse mythos is full of those.) It's much easier to answer this type of question if we can know exactly what you do not want to have in your world. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 7 '17 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ This TED talk may be of help to you: ted.com/talks/michael_shermer_the_pattern_behind_self_deception $\endgroup$ – Real Subtle Dec 7 '17 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ And also a TEDx talk that is relevant: youtube.com/watch?v=4Zgwz_m7sRs $\endgroup$ – Jasper Dec 7 '17 at 11:42
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    $\begingroup$ The core reason for why religion exists is because people can assume and hypothesize. Anyone with these skills can reasonably come up with a random (correct sounding) explanation and then based their actions off of that assumption (which is the basis for religion). However, if you take away these skills, then you are going to invariably hamper human evolution and technological developments. So I would suggest that humans once had these skills, but are now no longer capable of them (which isn't an issue, if they have already built a self-sustaining society by then). $\endgroup$ – Flater Dec 7 '17 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ Wars will rage over whether we shall call ourselves the United Atheist Alliance (UAA), the Unified Atheist League (UAL) or the Allied Atheist Alliance. Science Be Praised $\endgroup$ – WernerCD Dec 7 '17 at 13:19

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The main problem here is that humans have a few inherent tendencies that lend themselves very well to becoming religious.

For example, humans have a very strong ability to recognise patterns - so strong that it can be described as overactive. We tend to see and want to see patterns in and intentions behind any event and we'll imagine a pattern and imagine an agent behind it even when there may not be a pattern at all and everything just happened randomly that way. This is an evolutionary trait - the famous example is that if you hear a rustling in the bushes, assuming it's the wind when it's really a tiger gets you killed while assuming it's a tiger out to get you when it's really just the wind only makes you a little spooked, so that's what survives. With this tendency, imagining things like spirits of things or divine plans or guidance isn't far fetched. This isn't really an instinct you can make go away, only learn to restrain it with rationality.

Humans also have a somewhat teleological world view. We are tool users and tool makers and this trait is pretty deeply seated within humanity - it's maybe the second most important trait after speech. Now, looking at the world in terms of what things are good for and/or made for also predisposes us to believe in purpose, and thus, divine purpose. Furthermore, since we make things for reasons, it is easier for us to think that other things may also have been made for reasons. Then, maybe the world and we are made too, and someone who could make us and the world would have to be super powerful - poof, you have invented creationism and religion.

There's also mind-matter dualism, the belief that our consciousness is immaterial and different from matter. This is likely to be partially inherent as well, because children tend to assume this quite naturally. Of course, our consciousness isn't a thing, it is a process, but a process running in our material brain and body. It just doesn't feel this way to us. And us not feeling material makes us likely to believe in souls and spirits.

So basically what I'm saying is that humans are naturally predisposed to develop religion and you'd have to either change your humanity into a differently working similar species or you'd have to introduce external elements that pressure your humanity into not becoming religious for some reason - I can't really think of anything besides some other more advanced species teaching them.

It is said that humans will readily believe what they wish or fear to be true. So maybe your humanity could have evolved in a place without predators, where instincts like fear weren't as important to survival and maybe wouldn't be as overactive. This could enhance curiosity and thus learning and experiments/exploration, but reducing our pattern recognition will likely also weaken our scientific ability.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, it does make sense about predators! I'm thinking about some artificial world where civilization starting to progres (maybe after some apocalyptic event) from very low pre-intelligent state, and still can face some danger from a still-working technical stuff, or maybe some other dangerous environment. $\endgroup$ – norlin Dec 7 '17 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ same thinking here, but you said it way better than I could have. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Dec 7 '17 at 14:37
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Let's try to imagine a human civilization where no religions were "invented" at any point in time. How could it be possible?

Historical evidence would suggest this is not possible.

AFAIK every single human civilization has evolved a belief system and an associated religion (and often more than one) as part of the process of becoming civilized.

It appears to be a foundational step for organized large scale societies.

One of the primary roles of organized religion has been basically governmental. They define what's acceptable social behavior, what is a crime and what is not, what is a reasonable punishment and what is not. They form a framework for the development of more sophisticated (but not necessarily better) forms of control.

My thoughts are about some specific type of thinking in such a civilization: for example, if they saw a lightning for the first time, people would not think "Zeus is angry", rather they would be thinking "Wow, what could it be? I need to investigate this thing!".

Your thinking here is flawed as the two views are not mutually exclusive.

There are plenty of scientists who believe in a supreme being who created everything, but are still going to investigate everything they can.

Curiosity and Belief can co-exist and have done for most of human history.

As a possible way of developing such a type of mind, I'm thinking about ancient times, when people were not yet Homo Sapiens. Probably they were living in a dangerous environment, where they need to solve some logical puzzles to survive.

Which is exactly the way we did evolve.

Your mistake is excluding developing a belief in a God or Gods is reasonable not a way of dealing with some of those puzzles.

Realistically there is no way for early man to answer questions like "what is fire ?" and "what is lightning ?" or "what are the stars ?". Any answer you form will be a wild guess and in some ways it's simpler to just put these aside and file them under "Work of God" until you have the tools to investigate more.

And so this type of thinking is evolutionarily developed and leaves no place for thoughts about any supernatural beings.

Not possible, IMO.

The need to seek an answer to "where did this all come from ?" is what you want to evolve, but it's what we've had and it is in fact what generated the answer "God" just as much as it developed the tools of science and logic. Logic does not exclude belief.

What kind of environment could this be? Or, maybe, can you think of some other ways how such a civilization may appear?

I do not think it's possible at all.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, but it seems you're trying to contradict my ideas instead of helping to develop it. > Historical evidence would suggest this is not possible. Of course, that's why I'm thinking about some possible environment which can lead to such civilization, instead of just taking an example from our world. $\endgroup$ – norlin Dec 7 '17 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ Answers do not have to support your idea. They can explain why they think it's not viable as an idea. My point, which you don't seem to have picked up, is that the drive to be curious is part of what develops religion. They're different aspects of the same problem solving mechanism. Logic does not preclude "God" as an answer. The scientific method just requires you try and find an explanation other than just relying on God as an explanation. You're assuming they can be broken apart by some evolutionary process. I'm stating I think this is not possible. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Dec 7 '17 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ No source on this, buy I read a short article in some magazine a bit ago (a year or two) about some chimps performing rituals akin to religious rituals. Not quite as advanced as a catholic mass but still in the same ballpark. I can't vouch for the credibility of this, but I still think it's quite interesting. The conclusion in the magazine was that apes in general had a limited capacity for religion (but offered no real explanation or justification). $\endgroup$ – Clearer Dec 7 '17 at 12:21
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Disclaimer
This is clearly written from an atheist's point of view. Feel free to disagree, but I would prefer to not devolve this into a discussion of religious people taking offense at my interpretation of what religion is.
Live and let live; believe and let believe. I'm as entitled to my belief as you are to yours.


The core reason for why religion exists is because people can assume and hypothesize.

Anyone with these skills can reasonably come up with a random (correct sounding) explanation and then based their actions off of that assumption (which is the basis for religion).

  • This thing has happened. I did not do it. I have no idea why or how it happened.
  • (Hypothesis) There could be someone else who did this for me. That would be a valid explanation.
  • (Assumption) I can't find any other explanation, so there's probably someone who did this for me.
  • (Religion) I really like the guy who did this for me. In return, I should be nice to him.

My thoughts are about some specific type of thinking in such a civilization: for example, if they saw a lightning for the first time, people would not think "Zeus is angry", rather they would be thinking "Wow, what could it be? I need to investigate this thing!".

You're sort of missing the point of where religion starts. A conclusion such as "Zeus is angry" already implies that this person considers many things as facts:

  • There is a God names Zeus.
  • He is capable of emotions.
  • He takes his emotions out on us.
  • There is no other source of lightning.

You say they're seeing lightning for the first time, yet they're already aware that Zeus is capable of controlling lightning? That's a contradiction. Either they know about it already, or they do not. It can't be both.

You're not starting from the basis of religion, you're describing what someone who is already religious will conclude. You're putting the cart before the horse.

Everyone (whether they're religious or not) who sees something for the first time, will wonder what that thing is, and where it comes from.
Assuming that it must be (a) God is a subsequent step. The reason for makign that assumption varies from person to person.

  • A might immediately defer to God because it's clearly not manmade.
  • B might ask around, understand that we cannot control it, and therefore defer to God.
  • C might spend decades researching the event, unable to explain it (because they don't know what electricity is), and then eventually conclude that it must be metaphysical (thus deferring to God).
  • D might think that it's not God. But when he sees E being hit by lightning seconds after E insulted D's wife; D will suddenly defer to God.

As a possible way of developing such a type of mind, I'm thinking about ancient times, when people were not yet Homo Sapiens. Probably they were living in a dangerous environment, where they need to solve some logical puzzles to survive. And so this type of thinking is evolutionarily developed and leaves no place for thoughts about any supernatural beings.

Even with the logical puzzles, a religion can be formed:

  • Who put these puzzles there?
  • Why did they put these puzzles there?
  • We have the puzzles (and the puzzle maker) to thank for our intelligence!

Whether they end up worshipping the puzzles themselves (like the monkeys and the monolith), or the imagined puzzle maker; doesn't really matter. It's a religion either way.

There is a logical problem with religion, in that it accepts something that cannot be (or has not been) proven.
You cannot prove a negative, which means you cannot prove the absence of a god. Even if you exhaust all the empirical options, there's always the argument that "God does not want to show himself to us, and he is capable of doing so".

Even though religion will start from observed phenomena (which create an assumption of an omnipotent being, and then runs with that idea), an existing religion may be perpetuated based on assumptions that are never observed (such as the existence of a god).


When you think about it, the only real difference between science and religion is the level of certainty that is required to turn a hypothesis into a fact. Without sufficient corroboration, it's not a fact, but merely an assumption.
Science tries to not "jump the gun", and prefers to keep something as a hypothesis until they are certain that it's not just an assumption, but an actual fact.


Conclusion

  1. What kind of environment could this be?

I don't think this is related to the environment, but rather the cerebral abilities of the humans. Religion exists in the mind, not in the world. The assumption of the existence of a god is a mental phenomenon (which is triggered due to observing a random environmental phenomenon).

  1. How will this civilization progress? What will be the main differences in contrast to our current civilization?

If you rewrite human history by removing the ability to assume and hypothesize, then you are going to invariably hamper our civilization's evolution, most notably its technological advancement. Hypothesis is the foundation of the scientific approach, which leads to technological advancements.

Without the skill of hypothesis, that means that humans can only think about things that really exist.

This isn't all that far-fetched. I've seen studies that point out that 200 years ago, the average man was not able to consciously hypothesize.
The given example was asking two men (one born in 1990, one born in 1790) the same question: "If your stairs at home had 30 steps, how many steps would you take to climb it?"

  • The 1990's man would think, calculate, and reply "30 steps" (or 15 if he's someone who takes large steps).
  • The 1790's man, on average, would respond with "You're wrong. My staircase has 20 steps, and it takes me 20 steps to climb it."

And this is the crux of the issue. If humans cannot hypothesize, they can only deal with what's in front of them. That means that any discovered knowledge must have been pure luck.

Note that our real-world history contains many of these cases, where people stumble on a discovery (e.g. penicillin), rather than knowingly find out something they were actively researching.
If you take away the ability to hypothesize, all discoveries will be stumbled upon, no discoveries will be hypothesized.

As a simple example:
Columbus sailed West, because he believed that there would likely be a passage to India. Without hypothesizing, he would have had no reason to sail West. America would not be discovered until someone sailed West (for a concrete reason, e.g. fleeing from pursuing attackers, or e.g. being rendered unconscious and his boat floating West due to the current/wind).

1.1 Or, maybe, can you think of some other ways how such a civilization may appear?

Taking away these skills will dramatically change the world and our civilization's evolution. It will make the world unrecognizable to the viewer/reader.

So how about we paint a picture where we once had the skills, but no longer have them now?

  • People were capable of hypothesis. They had religion and science. They built our civilization.
  • We built our civilization up to a point where everything is either automated or well documented. No further technological research was deemed necessary.
  • Humans lost the ability to hypothesize and reason. This could be due to many circumstances:
    • You could create a villain plot, where a villain (disenfranchised by the horrors of religion) genetically changes humans and removes their skill of hypothesis. This could be unintentional; he thought he was removing the "religion gene", but instead ended up destroying the entire skill op hypothesis and assumption.
    • It could also simply be a scientific experiment that got out and infected everyone, as seen in many, many zombie stories.
    • Similar to how the people in Wall-E could no longer walk, humans may simply have unlearned the behavior over a long time period. If they haven't needed to make any discoveries for centuries/milennia, they will no longer be teaching their children these skills. While technically capable of hypothesis, no one has bothered to do so because there's no reason to do so anymore (everything is already taken care of, no problems need fixing anymore).
    • Humans may be able to hypothesize, but their freedom is limited in a way that they're not allowed to do so anymore. There is an global autocratic government (that thinks of itself as a scientocracy but in reality is merely traditionalist and fascist). To a degree where dissent is nigh impossible (e.g. immediate execution when a "spy chip" in your brain alerts that you're hypothesizing).
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Gods. Really mundane gods.

The other answers have pointed out that people will always always try to find answers to questions, and so offering logical problems will not dissuade them from questioning and, ultimately forming opinions. Instead, give them answers.

Some would argue that having gods would inspire religion, rather than quenching it. However, there's no inherent reason why we would worship someone who created us. Hence we can make sure we don't, but having mundane, present-on-Earth gods who really don't want people to worship them. Maybe Athena runs the butcher shop in a particular town; she's technically omnipotent, and may reluctantly display this to skeptics, but she's otherwise just a member of the community and should not be worshipped.

(EDIT: Perhaps these gods did the whole 'lavish me with praise and build temples in my honour' thing before, and it ended spectacularly badly, so they built this world and agreed to keep their heads down?)

At your discretion, you may add a book written by the gods that details most of the secrets of the universe, just to really tamp down on those prone to bouts of questions.

(I understand that this may not solve your problem, depending on why you want this irreligous society, but I think it nicely answers your question as asked.)

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    $\begingroup$ "no inherent reason why we would worship someone who created us" Unless we want them to either create more of us (or be provided with the means so that we can procreate and feed our offspring), not delete us from existence, play cruel games with us (as the ants under their magnifying glass), or provide us with the means of doing something with the life they gave us. All good reasons to appease your creator, even if they're "only human". $\endgroup$ – Flater Dec 7 '17 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ You just replaced religious-worship with fan-worship. There is this god named Apollon, who invented music. Normally, he works at the local coal mine, but boy, have you been to one of his concerts? I tell you, his music is just the best. I worship this guy! Also, if I am really nice to him and offer gifts, he might tell me the secret to his fabulous music, or how to achieve peace with my neighbour, or seduce that sweet girl at the local bakery ... he's just so good at everything! $\endgroup$ – Heinrich Dec 7 '17 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Flater This is a valid point, but presupposes the gods a) want to do any of these things, and b) want to be worshipped. If I want to crash at your place for the weekend, burning a goat in offering is unlikely to improve my chances. $\endgroup$ – BlueHairedMeerkat Dec 7 '17 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @BlueHairedMeerkat: Hey, it's the gesture that counts :) I'd appreciate a barbeque in my honor, it's a fair trade for crashing on the couch. $\endgroup$ – Flater Dec 7 '17 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, in fact this is a great idea! Thank you! $\endgroup$ – norlin Dec 9 '17 at 8:39
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Re: pattern recognition (connected to that video I linked in the comment section) maybe if the cost of a false negative equalled the cost of a false positive, evolution would promote the survival of individuals who tend to be rational/sceptic about most things. For example, the movement of the grass might be a predator or might be just the wind, but running away from it wouldn't save your life as you'd starve to death if the grass happened to be growing around the only oasis for miles and miles. Although at first the running away would prevail because the danger from a predator is more immediate, but maybe after that the individual would think of a way to investigate? Maybe this is not a good example.

But patterns don't only mean predators, patterns could be the sign of an impending natural disaster, like smoke when a volcano is about to erupt or the waterline receding before a tsunami. So maybe if they lived on a planet where such things don't happen but that planet would have to have no weather, no satellites, no tectonics, maybe if they lived on a rouge planet drifting in space between galaxies?

The belief that consciousness must continue after death could be dealt with if it really did, maybe in the form of genetic memory, or maybe a hive consciousness. Maybe they would be like Turritopsis Nutricula - a jellyfish which doesn't die from old age - but that doesn't prevent dying from other things. Maybe they can restore life to an individual that died? Or don't care about individual life because they have a hive mind and losing one individual would be like for us to clip a toenail.

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Your society will need a highly authoritative and trusted education system, which may be difficult to achieve at various points in societal development.

I agree with many that a total lack of religious precedent is very unlikely in any environment, not just because of humanity's natural habit of pattern-recognition, but also because religion has been historically used as a tool for education (and public safety) in areas where education can't reliably keep the public informed.

Leviticus claims the following regarding seafood: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+11%3A9-12&version=ESV

9 “These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. 11 You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.

Shellfish are classically bottom feeders, and prone to carrying disease and parasites. This is a difficult item to educate the public on, as people are hungry and the reason some shellfish harm people is poorly understood, so the important yet debatable information is absorbed into religious, therefore infallible, decree.

This is present in many cultures. Pork is prone to carrying parasites and stores poorly compared to chicken or beef. Both Islam and Judaism banned consumption, and both again ban consumption of Shellfish, while the practices of Halal and Kosher slaughter has some roots in safe food preparation.

In India cows could be used for Milk, Ghee, Agriculture, ground Fertilisation. The loss of long-term value to a community through slaughter is immense, and they were again enshrined in religious law.

For your society to function you will need a method of disseminating information to the masses in a form which is inherently trusted and understandable by the public, as widespread adoption of this information without belief in a scientific method will often manifest itself in a religious belief in the forces which cause uncomprehensible facts to be a certain way.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding AdmiralRabbit! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Dec 7 '17 at 14:59
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No, because Sociopaths

Others have commented on various human abilities/traits that tend to generate beliefs and systems of beliefs. While this is true, it ignores a very important fact:

Religion is a great way to control people

Marx wasn't far off when he said that religion is the opiate of the masses. Disregarding dualism, monism, spiritualism, and any other -ism, from a purely social perspective, religion is a great way to organize and direct large groups of people.

Even if you don't call it religion and don't place some diety at the center of it, religion-like organizations will pop up. Sociopaths will craft a narrative that meets the needs of those who might follow. Those in the population who want a simpler narrative for their life than Raw Unfettered Nihilistic Reality, will buy into these narratives. They will pay the price required for inclusion in the group that adhere to this narrative. The narratives will naturally benefit the Sociopaths who made up those narratives.

Controlling what other people think and do is very appealing to certain people. Whether the organization is called a religion or a kingdom or a corporation, there are people who will be willing to create self-beneficial narratives and there will be plenty of people willing to buy into those narratives.

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I'm not sure this is logically possible.

Let's take a thought experiment: suppose you spin around - you feel something pulling at your arms and legs. You might hypothesis that some sort of force is created by the act of your spinning. Some people, not nearly as interested in the problem, may take your hypothesis on faith and use it to design gyros. Others may think your hypothesized centrifugal force is supernatural junk - and they would be right after a sound hypothesis for linear and angular momentum is proposed.

To have a world in which no one has blamed things on an unseen intelligent actor, the idea must have just, somehow, not ever occurred to anyone. Any trait that makes people too suspicious to be capable of believing one idea, I think, makes them too suspicious to believe any other idea requiring an equal amount of faith.

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It may be impossible never to have invented religion, but I think it certainly is possible to evolve away from needing it. It seems, looking at religions in the world today, that the poor and the uneducated are much more religious than the educated and wealthy, and thus if you extrapolate that if we get to a society where everybody is well-educated and have everything they need, that religion will fade away and eventually get lost in time.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site. Please note that the Worldbuilding SE is dedicated to providing detailed answers to specific questions individuals have while developing their fictional worlds. We are not a discussion forum. If you believe the OP's premise to be fundamentally flawed, please edit this to detail why it's flawed, rather than just providing your suppositions. Otherwise, this is likely to be deleted as low quality. Feel free to take the tour to get a better understanding of the site. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Dec 7 '17 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ well-educated The problem is with how you define "well". The needed level of education you're thinking of, is what our cavedwelling ancestors would consider us (today) to be; as everyone alive today is well-educated in a caveman's opinion (because each and every one of us exceeds each and every cavedwelling ancestor). As education improves, so does the expectation of the educational level.This means that we're always going to be chasing the horizon. 50% of people will always be below the median level of education, regardless of how much you advance the field of education. $\endgroup$ – Flater Dec 7 '17 at 14:00
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"Intelligent" creatures will always invent religions (the want to explain things, the need to believe in good and evil, the fear of death). Possibly the only way to have a society without them is to have creatures that are more skeptical and inquisitive, prone to long logical debates. They would have to be creatures that were in control of their emotions (they could still have emotions, just not be anywhere near as hot headed as we are) rather than ruled by them. Possibly then, they would shoot down the religions they invented as not being real or rational.

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