“Now if there is one thing about dreams that everyone should know by now, it’s that they can seem very real.”
—John W. Loftus
“Untutored tribes have many good intellectual reasons as to why living people have souls which can leave the body and which possess supernatural powers. First of all is sleep, and dreams.”
Much speculation and lab work have taken place on the naturalistic origin of life on this planet. Some experiments and observations have suggested pathways toward life, but no actual life form has yet been originated entirely from nonliving material in a modern lab. Even if such a momentous event took place tomorrow, we would still not know that the event duplicated closely the actual origin of life on earth, because there may be more than one possible pathway to life. Similarly, there may be multiple possible pathways to religious belief, and in the case of religion, more than one such path might have contributed to the earliest origins of religion in separate ancestral groups. But just as in the case with the origin of life, we will never be certain which hypotheses on the origin of religion are the correct ones. Our best attempts to answer questions on the origin of religion will always be speculative, though some may garner more substantial evidence and logic than others.
This origin (or origins) of religion took place in our prehistory, often defined as human history prior to the invention of writing, and that indeed is most of our history as a species. Without a written record, we can only surmise as best we can how religious beliefs began. We can look far back into human prehistory for the very earliest signs that might suggest a religious view, but without a written record, there is little empirical information remaining concerning our earliest cultures. We must look at the scant archaeological evidence of intentional and ceremonial burials with flowers and items of value or utility, of ancient artworks such as cave paintings, carvings, and any other artifacts that would suggest some form of magical and religious belief. In doing so we should remember that the interpretations modern people may make of such meager artifacts may be far off base from what those early and primitive people intended.
We can also look at and compare what is known of primitive religions before they were diluted and modified by contact with “the modern world.” Thankfully there is at least some reliable information available on this topic. Still, a problem with this approach is that any cultural invention, such as religion, has almost certainly evolved and diversified rapidly, even before the earliest religions we have actual evidence of and certainly more so since then. Religion is most likely similar to language in being a cultural phenomenon that evolves rapidly. Just compare the Old English of around 800 CE (earliest manuscript of Beowulf) with modern English, or even with the Middle English of Chaucer, to see how rapidly and drastically such cultural evolution proceeds. Consider the hundreds of languages that diversified and evolved in the Americas from the original language of the first people to enter the Americas some 15,000 years ago. These peoples have also evolved (culturally) a great many diverse religious myths and beliefs. This tells us that our earliest reliable evidence of religion may not be indicative of the even earlier forms of religious belief. In the face of these facts, the search for the earliest origins of religion seems hopeless, and some researchers have said as much (see, e.g., Evans-Pritchard 1990). Still, religion originated somewhere in those long, lost centuries of our prehistory, and some see value in trying to bend our modern minds to a point where we can conceive and entertain possible models of religious origins. If nothing else, such mental exercises can give us realistic possibilities (and hopefully probabilities) concerning this important subject. Perhaps we can even attempt (at least) an understanding of the minds and thoughts of our distant ancestors.
We do have several hypotheses on this matter (Pals 2006), and possibly more will be proposed. One popular idea suggests that when humans became aware that they would die as individuals, it was the fear of death that led to religious belief—or at least to a belief in life after death. A second suggestion is that religious belief fills an adaptive role within a tribe or larger group in that such a shared belief creates a sense of unity, community, and belonging—a role that is undoubtedly true and that still seems obvious for most religious people around the world. This sense of unity or community is essentially ubiquitous in the small communities of early peoples that have been studied, and at least in part this sense does derive from shared religious belief.
While these two hypotheses certainly contain some truth, I do not see how either of these ideas answers the question of the origin of belief in an afterlife, in a spirit world, or in a god. Here I offer my argument for another of the contenders that has, I believe, more explanatory strength as to origins: the idea that dreams were the source of religious beliefs. With my professional background as a biologist, I am obliged to state that my argument is at best that of a curious amateur who may, or may not, be adding any original ideas to this argument. To start with, dreams seem to support a belief in the dualism of mind and body. When we dream, we experience events and places that the body does not, thus it seems there is a separate reality for the mind or spirit. Without a belief in mind/body dualism, it is hard to imagine any reason for religious belief to have ignited.
Reportedly, around 95 percent of people dream, as do many other mammals (Hobson 2002). Certainly then, our earliest ancestors who originated religious beliefs had dreams. Dreaming is a form of consciousness in which a sense of self is generated, yet in dreams we seem to be in places and situations that are not typically those of the body in sleep. What can be made of this strange anomaly? At least some probably concluded that while the body was in one place, the essential self was elsewhere in some mysterious dream world. If so, this was a probable start of our beliefs in mind/body dualism, and thus the beginning of belief in souls or spirits. I have noticed that I often dream about people who are dead, though in my dreams they are of course alive and interacting with me in various places and situations. In most of these cases, the deceased people are members of my family: my father and mother, my brother, some in-laws, aunts, and uncles—in short “ancestors.” I have also had a couple of dreams about my deceased major professor—an important mentor in my life. Only the few animals that can recognize and remember individuals in their social groups could possibly dream about other specific individuals in this way. We can only wonder if dolphins, wolves, chimps, and gorillas dream about known individuals, living or dead, in their group. Ants, honeybees, schooling fish, and flocking birds almost certainly do not.
Certainly, our ancestors of prehistory recognized one another as individuals and likely dreamed about those recently dead members of their tribe or group. This experience (along with the idea that spirits of the living could leave their bodies during dreams) could easily have given rise to belief in a spirit world where the dead ancestors lived and where the living could make visits during dreams (Howells 1962). Such a belief would mean that these dead ancestors are still around and still interacting with the living, perhaps trying to communicate with and guide us. In short, ancestor worship could easily spring from these assumptions, and ancestor worship is an old and widely spread belief in many of the world’s primitive religions (Howells 1962), one I will address again further on. Also, believing that recently deceased tribe members are still interacting with the living strengthens the feeling of community, belonging, and importance for the tribe or group. In Africa, dead ancestors are still viewed as members of the village (Johnson 2016).
Two other factors necessary for such beliefs to become established within a group and then get passed on culturally are a “theory of mind” and a sophisticated language. There is some evidence that a few other animals have a theory of mind (recognizing that others have a mind similar to one’s own), so this property was likely already present in our earliest ancestors. Sophisticated language came later and is of course uniquely human. Only with language could people share with others these strange experiences of interactions with the dead during dreams, planting and reinforcing these ideas in the minds of others of the tribe and even encouraging them to recognize these themes in their own similar experiences.
When I wake, I recognize that my nightly excursions are only dreams, and being a scientist and rationalist, I view my dreams as curiosities and generally without any special meaning. I certainly don’t believe that the dead people who often populate my dreams are trying to communicate with me. Dreams can be thought of as the earliest examples of virtual reality—they can seem very real while they are occurring but obviously are not the real world we come back to upon waking. After decades of sleep and dream studies, there is still today no strong scientific consensus on whether dreams have a function or are rather just cerebral noise generated while the brain is doing other things while asleep (Flanagan 2000). The people of prehistory certainly had no empirical or rational methods to investigate these strange phenomena, though undoubtedly they wondered what dreams were. We know that in many of the more recent civilizations people did seek out the meaning of their dreams from shamans, priests, and astrologers. Even in our modern societies, any sizable bookstore will contain books that claim to reveal what your dreams signify.
The earliest ancestors of our species lived out their entire lives in local and natural environments. For the most part, they did not make great journeys to see new and impressive sights or interact with other really different groups of people except for perhaps a neighboring tribe or two. They largely interacted every day of their lives with family members and others of the tribe who they knew well. Also, their lives were not filled with strange events and changing scenes as are so many modern lives. They had no movies or media through which they could imagine a wider range of experiences, events, and environments. In short, by modern standards their lives and especially their mental lives would have been relatively limited and local.
In some of my dreams, I am in strange environments that I can sometimes realize are places I have visited, or at least close to places I have been—cities, buildings, college campuses, amusement parks, islands, etc. For some reason, I often dream about living in a huge country mansion house like those in the British Isles though I have never been to England and actually visited such homes. Of course, I have seen these and a multitude of other exotic environments on television and in movies and have read about them in books.
Primitive people would not have these multiple sources to draw on for constructing their dreamscapes. They would most likely dream about environments like the ones they experienced on a daily basis, and when they dreamed of dead family or tribe members they would likely be “interacting” in a dream space not unlike the local environment that they experienced throughout their lives. Because of this, upon awakening, I would argue that if they remembered a dream it would not be as bizarre and strange as the average dreams of us folks today. So, the question then arises: What would a primitive person make of dreams in which he and his dead ancestors were interacting and communicating in something like the familiar local landscape, making the dream somewhat realistic? With no scientific understanding of the world and no good intellectual tools to sharply divide reality from the virtual reality he experienced in dreams, one likely interpretation he might make is that these dead ancestors were still somehow present in the landscape or in a realm that somehow overlays the landscape in which he lives. But now the dead can only interact with the living in dreams, and they probably do so because they are still interested in the affairs of the living—of the family and tribe. Such an interpretation leads of course to a belief in life after death and a belief that beings in this “spirit realm” care about us enough to remain in contact with the living. From here, it is a short step to believing that the dead are at times communicating with the living to guide them in the difficulties of life; thus, the dead are to be venerated and obeyed.
You can recognize in these points some logical first steps toward many of the important tenants of the world’s major religions. I would assume that early peoples were prone to the same habit of most modern people—trying to find meaning in the strange and mysterious events of life. For early peoples, I would argue that having an interaction with a known dead person in a dream would qualify as an event that begged for explanation and meaning. It seems reasonable and even obvious that such events could be a source of the belief in spirits and of ancestor worship, ancestor worship being an element in the religions of many primitive cultures from around the world (Shorter 1984; Howells 1962).
Another potential aspect of dreams that might have contributed to the belief that ancestral spirits or the spirit world can aid the living is the phenomenon of problem solution during dreaming. There is evidence that when we are involved in problematic situations, solutions to these problems sometimes well up during dreaming. This is the origin of the saying that one “should sleep on it” and the answer to the problem may be clearer in the morning. It seems that our brain does work on pertinent problems during sleep. There are many recorded examples of this, such as Elias Howe, who reportedly came upon the key idea for inventing the sewing machine in a dream. Ottow Lowei got the idea for an experiment on the nervous system from a dream, and the results of that experiment contributed to his Nobel Prize in 1936. The great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan claimed that the Goddess Namakkal came to him in dreams and delivered many of his important insights and ideas. While these (and other) examples seem far removed from early humans, there is at least the possibility that some early humans (who had already concluded that their ancestors lived on in a spirit world) could have had insights of importance arising in their dreams. They surely encountered many problems in their daily struggle for survival. Upon awaking with helpful insights, they might easily credit the dream world spirits for their own ideas—and most likely want to tell others of this amazing occurrence.
I argued earlier that our early ancestors could not have dreams as bizarre as those of modern people because of their limited sources of images and events. They may, however, have been bizarre in a way some experience when dreaming to be another animal. Such dreams are much less common, but they do occur. I once dreamed I was a dog running in my father’s yard, and it was indeed both strange and realistic. Many times I have dreamed that I could fly and glide like a bird, and these dreams were very enjoyable and memorable. Dreams such as these may have suggested the idea that all living things may have spirits and that in this realm of the dead one can experience animal spirits—even learning important things from them. Many early religions are animistic in believing that other living things and even mountains, rivers, thunder, etc., have a spiritual essence, and these too of course can appear in dreams.
People of many cultures venerate graves and cemeteries that contain their ancestors. They visit them from time to time, sometimes speaking to their dead ones there. Some religions, including some Christian denominations, hold celebrations in church cemeteries to be near to the departed ancestors of their family, community, tribe, and church. Many of the older believers look forward with anticipation to being eventually reunited with loved ones who have died earlier.
Another possible remnant of ancestor worship is the humanoid characterization of so many of the gods from the earliest records of humanity up to those of today. The several Roman, Greek, and Norse gods serve as decisive examples, as do the major monotheistic gods of today. Many of the older gods were not only portrayed and thought of as human in form but also as having all the major human emotions. In many of the ancient religions, gods even procreated to give rise to other gods and goddesses.
To sum up, it seems very possible that dreams could have contributed much to the earliest glimmerings of religious thought, specifically a belief in spirits and a life after death. I would argue that dreaming of known dead individuals from one’s family or tribe is a very likely source of belief in a spirit world, belief in ancestor spirits that interact with the living, and eventually to belief in gods with humanoid traits. Though a much later development, one might recall that the Bible contains several instances of God speaking to or instructing individuals in dreams. In one such example in the book of Matthew, Joseph is instructed in a dream to marry Mary even though she is pregnant because the child is “of God” and therefore no shame should be felt by him or Mary.
While we will never know with certainty how religious belief was ignited in our ancestors of prehistory, it seems apparent that dreams, the mind/body dualism suggested by dreams, and dreams of the dead are all likely candidates for the origins of several aspects of religious belief. Even today, some people believe that spirits or gods communicate with them through dreams.
- Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1990. Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Flanagan, Owen. 2000. Dreaming Souls. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hinnells, John R. (ed.). 1984. A Handbook of Living Religions. New York: Penguin Books Ltd.
- Hobson, J. Allen. 2002. Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Howells, W. 1962. The Heathens. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company.
- Johnson, Dominic. 2016. God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Pals, Daniel L. 2006. Eight Theories of Religion (2nd Ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Shorter, Aylward. 1984. African religions. In A Handbook of Living Religions. John R. Hinnells (ed.). New York: Penguin Books Ltd.