Origins of religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I sometimes hear the argument that Judaism must be true since so many people would not have been fooled by a scam such as a priest, on instructions from his king, creating their texts and claiming that they were of divine origin. I hear that kind of argument from Christians too who say that Jesus’s disciples would not have believed and propagated the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, an incredible story, unless it had really happened and they had seen it for themselves.

Those who think that their own religion must be true because it is highly unlikely that so many people could be gullible enough to be fooled by a false prophet’s claims should bear in mind how other religions began because each one has a similar incredible origin and they can’t all be true. So we have direct evidence that large numbers of people can be fooled in precisely this way.


For example, Islam originated around 600 CE and has a prophet claiming to be god’s messenger and receiving god’s sacred words. Recall that Arab culture was very advanced with highly sophisticated mathematics and science. And yet enough people believed his story about riding to heaven on a winged white horse to chat with Adam and Noah and the rest of the gang, and that an angel spoke to him (when no one else was around, of course) and revealed god’s words and intentions, which often coincided conveniently with what served his own needs.

The story screams out that it is a hoax or at best that he was suffering from severe hallucinations. And yet enough people believe it that now one in four people around the globe is a Muslim.

For a more recent example take the Mormon religion that came into being a little more than 150 years ago. Their founder and ‘prophet’ Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered golden plates that contained god’s revelations to him and enough people believed him that he was also able to create a new religion that is growing in numbers even now.

What is amazing about this is how obvious is the hoax that Smith pulled. After all, no one else ever saw the golden plates or the angels that he said appeared to him. The plates were supposedly written in some strange language that only he had the means to translate, and then disappeared after he had done so. He himself had a record of being a conman. And just as in other religions, there is a whole lot of wackiness in its mythology. Every element in this story screams out that it is a fraud. And this happened at a time when there were newspapers and other media that could spread the truth about him. And yet enough people believe this so that now the Mormons are one of the fastest growing religions.

The Mormon creation story is not wilder than any of the other creation stories of other religions but it seems so because it is not as familiar and the novelty of it makes it harder to accept for outsiders. With religious myths, familiarity breeds contentment, which is why children are indoctrinated with their religious myths when they are young.

Or what about Scientology? This religion was created in 1950 by its own ‘prophet’ L. Ron Hubbard and has an origins story that is as wild as that of the Mormons or other religions. It too now has quite a following. (I’ll write more about Scientology in a later post.)

If all this can happen as late as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with our advanced science and easy access to knowledge about its founders, it shows how easy it is for charismatic people to create religions using simple tricks to fool people into becoming believers and followers.

I think that if someone was determined enough and had some charisma, he could probably make belief in Santa Claus into a major religion. After all, many of the required elements are already in place. We already have enduring myths and legends about him. He has magical powers with his flying reindeer and sleigh and the ability to travel vast distances in a short time. There are already songs about him. Children already believe in him. What prevents him from being a religious figure is that adults deliberately disabuse their children of belief in Santa Claus as they get older. All it would take is for some adults to perpetuate that belief into adulthood for the religion to take hold.

In the cartoon strip Peanuts, every Halloween season would find Linus speaking about his belief in the existence of the Great Pumpkin, who would reward the child who had the most ‘sincere’ pumpkin patch. And every year, Linus would sleep in his pumpkin patch on the night before Halloween night hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great Pumpkin. Each year he was disappointed but after some sadness his faith would return. The late cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of the classic strip, was an atheist and I think that this was his wry take on religion because, after all, what is religion except childish beliefs retained into adulthood, and what is religious faith but ‘sincere’ belief in the nonexistent?


POST SCRIPT: History of Mormonism in cartoon form


  1. says

    The Jews make the strongest case…that the entire nation heard God speak to Moses. If it weren’t true (so the argument goes), the nation would have said so.

    This is called the Kuzari principle.

    There are many refutations to it…the text was written long after the fact and most people didn’t know what the text said because they were illiterate, hearing God isn’t equivalent to knowing it was actually God, according to the Bible the nation continued to disbelief in God -- they weren’t too convinced were they?


  2. Jared says

    Hey Mano,

    I see that you found the “What do Mormons Believe?” video. I was looking for it awhile back for the “Jesus, Harvey, and Melvin” post. The movie always cracks me up. My favorite part is Elohim’s perv stroll on his way to his booty call with Mary.

    I am pretty sure that the movie was made by one christian group to discredit mormons, but unlike most such videos it is actually very well researched and mostly even-handed. I think that about 100% of that stuff really was Mormon doctrine for at least one point in time. I think that now only about 50% of it LDS doctrine now, though, and of that only 10-20% is commonly held by members. As is usually the case with religion, beliefs common to the group tend to evolve with the rest of society, albeit often a few decades behind. For example, you would have to try hard to find a mormon that believes the thing about good spirits being “rewarded” with light skin. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that they let black people have the priesthood. If you want to watch someone squirm, bring that one up. To their credit, there do exist Mormons who say “Yeah, we were totally wrong about that one. It was nothing but racism.”


  3. Eric Steiger says

    Mano --

    The problem with turning Santa Claus into a real religion is the central myth behind Santa: he brings presents. Belief in Santa couldn’t last more than a single generation, because parents who would actually believe that he brings presents to their children wouldn’t go out and buy them. At which point, no presents would show up under the tree and the belief gets proven faulty.

    If you promise tangible rewards, you have to provide them, which gets expensive, and runs you the risk of somebody giving away the hoax. IMO, this is why religions are so keen on rewards after death -- by the time you find out you got screwed, it’s too late to go back and tell everybody else.

  4. says


    What you say is true but Santa Clausists will find away to explain away the lack of presents. After all, the original Christians expected Jesus to return in their own lifetime. We are now 2000 years later and they are still waiting…

  5. Eric Steiger says

    Mano --

    I’m now picturing an adult Santa Clausist talking to a 6-year-old Christian, trying to figure out why the 6-year-old was worthy to receive presents but the adult wasn’t. Obviously, his faith in Santa Claus was lacking, and his offering of the Sacred Milk and Cookies was inferior to that of the 6-year-old.

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