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Religion is characteristic of humans. All societies and ethnic groups that we know about have one or more gods and at least one religion. Some ancient societies from before history are known to us only by their art work (cave paintings and sculptures) which is assumed to be religious. In my view, understanding of God1 is one aspect of man’s attempt to relate to, explain and predict the word around us.2 The earliest attempts were to invest each stone and flower with its own god – fairies, trolls.

Early, sometimes called primitive, social groups, used a form of thinking and religious practice that Frazer calls magic. It is based on a way of thinking that now psychologists call associative thinking – recalling items from memory based on their association with the current item. This thinking makes the tennis, elbow, foot game possible.

There are two principles of magic: that like produces like (a result resembles its cause) and that things that have once been in contact continue to influence each other after contact has ceased. These laws of similarity and contagion are assumed to universal. Magic of similarity commits the mistake of assuming that things which resemble each other are the same: contagious magic commits the mistake of assuming that things which have once been in contact with each other are always in contact. But in practice the two branches are often combined. These trains of thought are extremely simple and elementary. Looked at from this perspective, magic survives not only in the spell, charms and taboos of so-called primitive tribes but through the beliefs, rites and rituals of Christian and non-Christian religious groups, speeches of modern politicians and even the opinions of one’s friends.

As far as we know all religions from simple magic and leprechauns to Christianity and Islam have a set of beliefs about the nature of the world and our place in it. They all involve some form of ritual for invoking and appeasing the god(s). Almost all the gods are more or less humanoid, sometimes combined with animal characteristics. In some religions, such as the plains Indians of North America, spiritual values are represented by and embodied in familiar animals. In all religions there are religious experts, priests, shamans, witch doctors and so on, who officiate at ceremonies, guide, advise, heal, and admonish their followers. The chief religionist and the chief political leader are sometimes of equal status and power; sometimes one is subordinate to the other, occasionally they are in conflict (Henry VIII and the Pope).

Religious beliefs are another form of a theory of everything: one that is predicated on the existence and behaviour of one or more supernatural beings. Typically the god(s) themselves and their behaviour and environment are modelled on human abilities and behaviour and the world we inhabit. In some versions of modern Christianity, scientific knowledge has prompted a revision of the religious world to be more abstract and less physical and even less human.

Religion in general is core to being human and to human societies. As far as we know no other organism or species has religion. Religion is one of the major forces that turn a group of humanoids into a society with biological survival advantages. Crucially it provides the rules for working and living together as a society, the society’s morals and ethics. They are broad, general rules that each individual must interpret and apply to the specific situations in which he or she finds himself.

The expert who leads the religion has a very powerful position. In the case of the Christian church in medieval Europe we see this power being exercised across political states. So powerful was the medieval church that many of its beliefs, principles and images are with us today and both condition and confuse our thinking. These include ideas about the nature of life after death, original sin, sacrifice, images of God as a white bearded man sitting on a throne somewhere in the sky, the historical veracity of the Gospels, and the notion of the Bible as the absolute and complete word of God, and so on.

A person’s religion in any society is so much part of his or her personality that to threaten or question it is often a killing matter. Religion and its practice are subjectively experienced as passionate, awesome, powerful, satisfying and comforting. Objectively it has immense value in organising, structuring and coordinating the society into an effective and satisfying living unit. It is not the only such force: politics, commerce and the Law are similarly important forces.

Two ideas seem to lie near the core of religion. One is mystery and the other is belief. Religion deals directly with the great mysteries of life, the nature of God, why we are here and how we should each behave and why. It also deals with our subjective feelings that link our beliefs to our behaviour and give us personal experience of living, including our religious experiences.


In pre-literate times some of the mystery religions, ritual cults and similar sub-groups within a society were responsible for collecting and teaching practical experience with crafts and technologies. Much of this craft is still with us and it works as well as it ever did.

A difficulty with religious responses to mysteries is that whereas belief systems were constructed from nothing to resolve the great mysteries, when more reliable information becomes available, for example through scientific study, there is no mechanism for accommodating this new information and adapting the believed-in system.


What is believed in is characteristic of each and every religion and variations and nuances within a religion in part account for the sects and denominations with in it. Belief as a phenomenon and as a behaviour is common to all humans whether or not they claim to be part of an organised or recognised religion. The critical importance of belief in human behaviour can be seen in the rather cruel schoolboy trick of pulling away a chair just as the person is about to sit on it. Of course the person falls on the floor and looks and feels foolish. My point is that our belief (the chair is there and able to support me when I sit on it) directs and controls our behaviour (I bend my legs and transfer my weight to the chair I believe to be there) informed by (I saw the chair a moment ago) but independent of the actual state of the world (unknown to me, someone moved the chair, and its not there anymore). The corollary to this observation is that by holding on to the chair, monitoring and controlling one’s body in relation to the chair – as do the old and the infirm, avoids this problem.


One of the difficulties with mystery is that like many other things it can itself become the object of veneration, adoration and worship. The mystery itself becomes the thing to be sought out and enjoyed for its own sake. In my view when this happens both the mystery and it associated religion have become perverted.

Politics, commerce and the law are important, powerful and useful aspects of community and society, but they become perverted when a person pursues power, money or justice as an end in itself and adopts that pursuit as the supreme moral authority. Worship and moral values belong in religion and its associated philosophy and spiritual experience.

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