John Hunt
7 min readJun 27, 2021


Why is religion fundamental?

I lost my deeply-held evangelical convictions many decades ago (and coming from a family which included pastors, where church twice on Sundays and Bible studies and prayer meetings during the week were the norm, I know the language), but religion is still important in my life, and Ii see it as fundamental (in one form or other) to the human experience.


At some point in our history, whether 100,000 or 7 million years ago (lowest and highest estimates, depending in part on how many species of “Homo” you include), we became “self-aware.” Armadillos specialize in body armor, cheetahs in speed, this is our own specialty, it’s what we “do.” We began to watch ourselves “living.” We divided the world into “me” and “it.” We made a conscious choice to eat the apple (or not), to have sex (or not). We learnt how to manipulate things, changing them for new uses (the world’s oldest known worked wooden implement, the Clacton spear, in the Natural History Museum in London, was fashioned over 420,000 years ago, and stone points used for hunting go back more than half a million years — we’ve been killing animals or people for a heck of a long time). Like Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:20 — the foundational myth for our current predicament) we began naming them, and talking to each other.

So on the one hand we began to enjoy the fruits of self-awareness, of communication, and love; on the other hand we learned the ashes of separation, uncertainty and the fear of death. Ever since then, since the “Fall,” a metaphor for our birth of consciousness, we’ve been trying to put the two together again — the “me” and the “it,” turning “it” into “you,” figuring out how one should relate to the other, groping around the edges of our lives, wondering what’s over the horizon.

We started asking the questions we still ask today: Why can’t we just be happy with what we’ve got? What is love really about? Can it survive death? Can anything? If not, what’s the point? We’ve been investing in elaborate burial rituals and provisions to help the deceased into the next life for at least a hundred thousand years. Why is there anything at all? Is there a Big Truth? A God? Maybe we should shut up and relax. Accept things as they are. But if we could, and did, we’d still be up in the trees, chucking sticks at leopards.

Religion began as a response to the dilemmas that self-awareness created. For instance, rather than acting solely in the interests of the species, or the genetic pull of family, individuals could now override their biological programming and act in the interests of the self. By the way — killing, cheating, lying — these are “natural,” with the first being the principle behind most forms of life, other than plants — you only live by eating something else — the second common amongst animals and birds; it’s only the third, lying, that is unique to us, special to humans, because of our capacity to talk in complex sentences (lying is easy; it’s telling the truth we have to work at; that’s the tough part).

But to act solely in the interests of the self is self-destructive for everyone in the longer term. Religions grew to connect us again with the larger whole, replacing our lost instinct. It’s our “big idea” that ties us together; the one that stops the self from getting drunk on its new sense of power; a “larger truth.” A solid religion creates structures that control the appetites of the self and encourages service and inspiration. The wisdom tradition of Homo sapiens sapiens (“sapiens” means “wise,” which is very different from simply “clever,” or “intelligent”) — of relating to ourselves and the world around us wisely, of developing the vision of a good life and a moral code to frame it, of transcending our biology — this is what separates us from nature.

Christianity (and, to a lesser extent, Islam) is an oddball religion in this respect, because instead of focusing on how to live in harmony with our fellow creatures on the planet today it’s traditionally, historically speaking, promised vast individual reward after you die. Subscribe to the belief system, pay your dues, even convert others, and you win the lottery of heaven — the ultimate pyramid scheme. But more broadly speaking, across religion as a whole, in the first meaning of the word, it helps provide the framework for relating to each other, rituals for the key moments in life, for building societies. It’s our means of defining and confronting what is good and bad, honed through tens of millennia of cooperation and stored in our genes. It gives us benchmarks to guide us, targets to aim for, stories to get us there, standards to judge ourselves and our societies by.

If we didn’t have religion, we’d need something close to it. And in the hole left in the twentieth century by the ebbing belief in God we’ve tried a number of different ideas, organizing ourselves around consumption (capitalism), production (communism), country (nationalism) and race (fascism). Maybe the jury is still out, but these ideas don’t seem to have worked.

Of course that’s an oversimplification — these ideas have always been around. As far as capitalism goes, joint-stock companies go back to the Tang dynasty in China over a thousand years ago. The first Christians practiced a form of communism (Acts 2:44), though of course that didn’t last. Nationalist sentiments go back centuries. Few societies have pushed racial segregation as far as the USA from the eighteenth century onwards, even though we know that “race,” biologically speaking, is simply the reaction of the skin over sufficient time to sunlight, and there’s only a 0.1% genetic difference between humans. You can argue that fascism, broadly interpreted as institutionalized supremacy and bigotry, classifying some groups as subhuman, has been the dominant culture since the first settlements. And so on. But only the twentieth century has showcased all these ideologies in such extreme form at the same time in a particular region.

Maybe the reason they don’t work is because they’re all based on “us,” rather than the “other.” They lack respect for a sense of the “sacred” (for the moment, let’s call it God for short), which is the second meaning of religio. In this view, developing good relationships is not just a personal, moral issue, it’s a universal one, an absolute. It’s the meaning behind everything. Religion is about acknowledging it, bowing to it. Losing that screaming bit in your head that insists “it should be all about me.”

We may describe this God as an idea of eternal perfection, or a spirit, or in human form, or, as Christian tradition starts to say from the fourth century AD onwards with its new version of the trinity (gods commonly appear in threes), as somehow all three at once; or in any of thousands of other ways. Each suggests that values are more than our invention. They’re rooted in something that’s bigger and more important than ourselves, a next level up, something that’s beyond our control, which we can’t twist to our advantage. To put it in terms of practical relationships, there are higher values that we can’t compromise on, for which we’re prepared to sacrifice more than seems rational.

This is more controversial. Why put yourself out for something you can’t see? But the “sacred” has been with us so long it may even be something hardwired into the brain, that makes us human. It’s what the word “human” means. It probably originates from the Arabic hu, meaning spirit, or God; and the Sanskrit manah, or mind. We think that we are what we have become because we are essentially spiritual beings, minds seeking God, whatever those terms might signify. For tens of thousands of years we’ve practiced this search in religion, and more recently have described it in philosophy, the (sometimes obsessive) pursuit of knowledge. Religion is usually preferred to philosophy because it engages the heart, even the body, as well as the mind. It offers the medicine as well as the diagnosis. It describes what we have in here as well as how we relate to what’s out there.

Religion is primary. So much so that most deeply religious cultures don’t even have a word for it. For them, to explain why they’re “religious” would be like trying to explain why they breathe. Reading, writing, math, science, these are secondary. They’re what we have to go to school for. They’re relatively new on the human scene. We have a hunger for the meaning that we describe in religion, for the stories that bind us together, that tell us where we came from and where we’re going, that explain how we should relate to each other and the world around us, like we have a hunger for food and relationship.

Indeed in most religions these are linked together in sacrifice and ritual meals. Communion, eating the flesh of another to partake of its spirit, is the most ancient and widespread of all religious practices, which all Christians today still follow, literally (a priest changes the bread into the body of Christ — churches vary as to which point in the sacrament the change occurs) or metaphorically, depending on the denomination. And theology is to religion like cookery is to eating, like love is to sex. We’ve been doing it ever since our remote ancestors came down from the trees and started burying their dead.

If God did not exist He would have to be invented.

Voltaire (eighteenth century AD)