Repression and the Birth of Religion

In one of my previous articles on this topic, Life, Evolution & Consciousness, I described the human mind (or brain) as an automatic impulse-processing mechanism. A biological computer, designed by our genes to solve problems of survival and of procreation. One very powerful category of impulses it processes on a regular basis in the urge we have to recognize patterns in our world, so that we may understand how it works and have ideas about it, that will define the actions we take in regards to the various phenomena we encounter.

Ideas – the final product of this process – are, in fact, memes (discussed in In Tristitia Veritas). They are required for decision making. Since I’ve pinned the evolution of consciousness on the need for a decision making mechanism to be generating the organism’s behavior, then we could say, broadly speaking, that all organisms that make any kind of decisions are conscious, can feel pain and pleasure and have some sort of ideas about reality (even if it’s just on the level of ‘this hurts, get away!‘). And, by extension, no decision making mechanism will be complete without an ability to record experience and to learn from it, which gives us memory and a decision-making organ that is programmed by experience.

As discussed previously, these ideas can be true or false, but we must have them, about everything, or else the pattern recognition impulses within our brain, created by merely encountering new phenomena, will never subside, a thing that will result in an overload – insanity – and in our ultimate failure to spread our genes (whether we survive of not is of secondary importance).

This is merely one facet of a very profound phenomenon we refer to as psychological repression. Simply put it is a fuse, or a system of fuses, that has evolved to prevent our mind from overloading. Since impulses within the brain cannot be just interrupted, they must be ‘convinced’ to subside naturally, in this case, by soothing ideas.

It is essential for us to correctly recognize the patterns that have an immediate effect on our success in S&P (survival and procreation). But we have a need to recognize all patterns, so we need to make up the things we do not know. Or to make up stories to bury the truths we may know or suspect, but that are extremely unpleasant to us, like the randomness of life and death and the fact of our own mortality.

I believe this mechanism is not unique to humans, or to primates, that, on a certain level of complexity, it exists in all conscious creatures. But, when you’re dealing with social creatures, especially ones that are able to speak, communicate complicated ideas to each other, then a consensus must be reached about those beliefs each individual has about reality, or society will not be able to function. Thus religion is born.

So, religion is, basically, pattern recognition +repression + language. It’s the sum of all ideas society has about reality. At least – a simple society: as society evolves and becomes more complex, further ideological strata may be added to the original one (in fact, I define religion as the most fundamental of all these strata, thus also circumventing the problems of how to define Buddhism – supposedly an atheistic religion – and how to distinguish religion from ideology). It explains nature, explains phenomena, explains the role of people – the particular group which holds this set of beliefs – in the world. It also has a set of stories explaining the social moral code – laying down the rules and their justifications.

The rules themselves, they and the memes justifying them, evolve naturally, and are selected, naturally, pretty much in the same way genes are. They are the programmable adjustment a group of people does to the natural conditions in which their society has evolved.

All living creatures need to undergo a certain level of programming, on top of their ‘hardwired’, genetic programming. If you think about it, it is pretty essential – circumstances can change pretty fast, can have slight variation from one niche to the next to which it is nearly impossible to adjust genetically (genetic evolution being slow as it is), so it is good to make this behavioral fine tuning as part of any creatures growing-up process. In fact, nature has ‘decided’ it is so important that it has made it a requirement, not even providing for the occasional individual who loses their parents and, as a result, are not able to receive the programming they need to become a fully functioning adult of that species.

In the case of human beings, this adjustment, this programming, becomes much more important, since the ability to adjust to different environments is our species’ main ability – our teeth and claws, if you please. This is matched by our extremely advances pattern recognition abilities and, also as a result of this, by our ability to cooperate.


Early on, before the advent of advanced languages, cooperation – and the trust required for it – was based on mutual observation: members of a pack of monkeys, for instance, constantly observe each other, to learn what kind of behavior they could expect of any member of their pack in every situation, too keep track of their condition, of their mood, etc. Their mutual trust was founded on this familiarity, and also on the genetic relations between the members.

You can regularly monitor about 50-60 individuals this way, plus, maybe some more faces from other packs from your area, but that’s about it. When a pack of chimpanzees passes this magical number it will eventually split into 2 separate packs. Since their social abilities are limited, those packs will eventually become completely foreign to each other. I believe members of the genus homo could maintain higher level of cooperation between different packs even before the appearance of Homo S.S.

Language makes it possible to increase this number to around 150 (gossiping is, in fact, a powerful social instrument, not to be dismissed as a mere vice…. and maybe that’s why it has been dismissed in this way, in so many societies?). Plus, again, it makes it possible to create cooperation between different groups – create the idea of a tribe, and later – a nation.

Language makes it possible for members to tell stories about the behavior of other members to their friends, thus sparing them the need to personally observe all those behaviors. It also makes it possible to define the ideas that bind the tribe together.

Like I have said before, members of any group of living creatures need to have an agreement about their perception of reality, or else they cannot cooperate. In the case of animals this ‘agreement’ is mostly instinctual, with communication being very limited. In the case of Homo and particularly, of Homo Sapiens-Sapiens, this meant that every group of hunter gatherers, whether they considered themselves to be part of a larger group (a tribe), or still possessed no such concepts, had a religion to guide it trough its existence.

Those early religions were animistic. They reflected the hierarchy of the groups that adopted them, their social structures and the psychological needs of their individual members. The animist’s world is full of spirits, supernatural being, that have loccal importance – a tree spirit, the spirit of a fountain, etc. You need to stay in constant communication with these entities, learn their moods, know how and when you need to appease them. Those entities are, usually, neither good nor bad. They have their own nature, their own interests, and you simply need to get on their good side. This and the constant need to monitor and communicate remind us of how the society of hunter gatherers was run. In fact, the religion reflects and mimics the social order it exists in.

Though our primordial (yet, already anatomically-modern) ancestors lived basically in their animal state, relying on their instincts and mostly natural, hardwired, behavior, they could make some adjustments to their environment beyond what the animals around them could. They could learn and develop new technologies, and create the memes to preserve them, and they could make slight adjustments to their social order, to better acclimate themselves to the different biospheres Homo S.S. has occupied and to improve the cooperation between different packs of humans. This improved cooperation played a critical role in the arsenal of our ancestors when they were wiping out all other species of Homo (and no, I don’t think it could have been done by way of peaceful competition; when you compete for vital resources it will get bloody).

The set of beliefs people use to define their reality and to explain it, their religion, is a very important social phenomenon. It is essential, like I said before, merely as a means to reach a consensus within society about reality itself. It cannot be rational, it cannot try to provide reasonable, scientific answers for everything, simply because these answers are not available, yet the mind cannot function in a state of uncertainty (this is why all civilizations before the advent of scientific thinking, in recent centuries, believed they knew everything about everything). It cannot be truthful because our reality is not rational – it makes no sense to us that our consciousness was made simply to be discarded after a few decades. And it cannot be truthful because it needs to justify an ever changing social order, it needs to be the glue that holds society together.

Religion made the evolution of civilization possible, it made Homo S.S. possible, even before the advent of agriculture. It made it possible to create sets of mutual beliefs that groups of people that had been larger than 150 members could share, and use to identify and trust other members of their groups they did not know, personally. If a person shares my beliefs, then they are a member of my tribe.

As society evolved, religion evolved with it. As is stratified, so did the supernatural world. And when society became globalized, or when the age of globalization began – the age of empires – monotheism was born.

More on that in my next article. Until then,

Peace out.

(Previous: In Tristitia Veritas)

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