Origin of Religious Species

The churn of a storm, the lightning that tears open the skies, the wasted colors to beautify a moment’s horizon. Each, in the mind and heart of perceiving man, gives birth to awe. That unique state where, bereft of understanding, there stands a heightened state mingled with fear. And some might argue a state of perception beyond mind. Religion, poetry, piety and more might have their birth here.

I have always been fascinated by the religious instinct in man. Especially the origins of it. What impelled earliest man to conceive a God? Whence the origins of his impulse to obey and surrender?

I believe I have come across a plausible answer on what could have given birth to the religious instinct. And the clue arrived while watching this movie called the Quest for Fire.

The sequence occurs when Naoh, of the Ulam tribe, is being chased by the Kzamm tribe. While fleeing Naoh comes across a herd of Mammoths, more menacing and imposing than any creature he has ever come across.

Keeping in mind the evolutionary stage of this tribe the typical response would be to flee or fight. Neither of which are relevant or feasible in this scenario. Kzamm tribe outnumbers the paltry four from the Ulam tribe, including Naoh. The Mammoths are in a herd, with the testy bull male right upfront. Again, to emphasize the obvious, neither flight nor fight is feasible.

That is when Naoh does the unexpected. With eyes reflecting a mixture of suppressed fear, or is it surprise?, he does the unthinkable. He moves towards the bull male, slowly inching his way forward, contradicting every instinct he has grown to trust. When close to the animal he bows; head down, arms raised with palms facing forward and bows, kneeling and head touching ground. The near-human animal offers its surrender to the Mammoth, acknowledging its superiority.

And the Mammoth acknowledges that surrender. It protects the near-human creature by chasing away the Kzamm tribe when they try to get close. Naoh and his tribe mates don’t fail to observe this response by the Mammoth.

This  amalgam of emotions – shock, fear and being in the presence of something big and unexplainable is how I perceive awe. Awe becomes the origin of our first religious instinct, inspiring our surrender and the giving of ourselves entirely.

In response, the one who surrenders sometimes perceives the answering grace. And in that specific stimuli-response is the origin of all preoccupations that exceed our sense-filled rationality.

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