“I have long wondered how a religious belief could have come about, looking way back into Man’s social history. Before seeking an answer to that question, I had to define what I consider to be religious belief. My conclusion?
A sense or feeling of awe about something or events so powerful, so beyond our control or understanding, so ubiquitous, more often than not very frightening, yet uplifting at times. Since our primordial emotional state is anxiety, that is, uncertainty mixed with a degree of fear about what might happen, it is only natural that we would seek to reduce our sense of trepidation or fear.
Normally, when confronted by either an ethereal or a tangible source of anxiety, one either flees or fights. When thunder and lightning, torrential rain and floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, and such like terrorised primitive Man, did he conjure up or imagine spirits of indefinable form, with malevolent intent, as causing his terror? Indeed, are not beliefs of an animist nature still held in the more simple societies in the world? Did Early Man then also attempt to propitiate the unknown and unseen causes of his terror in some way? Did he subsequently come to conclude that propitiation can at times be effective, especially after experiencing a period of relative peace?
Then did some opportunistic fellows set themselves up as competent intermediaries? That is, to intercede between the fearful and the feared – and perhaps for some small reward, price or benefit, which progressively led to control over the fearful? Was this how the shamans, the witchdoctors, the ‘brahmins’, and all other priesthoods came into being?
By interposing themselves as intermediaries able to reach fearsome spirits, and by appearing to appease them, as well as purporting to obtain guidance for the gullible, did the intermediaries then extend their power by subtle threats against both unbelievers and competitors? Were shrines then constructed as places for placation? Did gifts, ostensibly to bribe the spirits (now possibly described as gods), then lead to the enrichment of the ‘priests’? Did they then begin to conduct ceremonies of some kind to convey the dead to their resting places, to welcome the newborn to the living, and to join in marriage those wanting to create new life?
Did these clever intermediaries use rituals they had devised; accompanied by allegedly explanatory mumbo-jumbo they had also concocted, to subjugate in superstition the fearful? Was this the process which engulfed not only primitive Man, but also the members of the simpler societies which subsequently developed? Claiming to reach the Under-world, or the Over-world, or the mystical domains of those who allegedly have power over mankind must have been persuasive – especially if accompanied by some evidence of ill-luck for non-belief or non-compliance!”
The above are extracts from my book ‘Musings at death’s door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society’