What if religion was created based solely on the fact that humans have an inherent fear of death, and have the need to be something more than human, because they're not satisfied with the mortal state we are in right now? I'm religious person myself because there's certain things I can't explain, I'm more referring to Greek, Roman, Celtic, Egyptian, etc...

  • "Im religious person myself because there's certain things I can't explain, [...]" Why is this a reason to become religious?
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 16 '16 at 6:13
  • @JoWehler. While I am not a religious person myself, I do not find this a completely irrational idea. The fact that physics cannot answer all of its own questions leads to "metaphysics." And metaphysics forces us to contemplate the peculiar correspondences between person and world that enable mathematical physics in the first place, yet also ineluctably exceed it, especially in the realm of "ought" versus "is." I take such a sense of mind-universe "correlation" to be a primal religious sense, assuming a technically constrained form in physics. Which never "has all the answers." Feb 16 '16 at 17:17
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    These kind of open ended questions don't fit here.
    – user2953
    Feb 18 '16 at 5:11

Your idea that religion is a reaction to fear is echoed in Marx's famous "Religion is the Opium of the masses". Marx didn't reference fear of death in particular, but suffering and pain in general, which presumably includes fear of death. The idea is that life is painful, and people use religion as an anesthetic, the way they use drugs to forget physical pain.

Freud later develops ideas very similar to yours in his writings on religion, especially in his book "The Future of an Illusion". He states that religion was created as a form of wish fulfillment. People invented religion because they were desperate to believe that their soul was immortal and was going to live on after their death. Another reason Freud mentions, related to the one you mentioned, was that people created gods as a longing for father figures. As adults people subconsciously longed for the protection provided for them as children by their parents, but their parents were dead (or dying soon), so they invented gods as transcendent and eternal father figures who they felt would always be their for them.

More generally Freud saw religion as a defense mechanism agains the sheer randomness and cruelty of life, a way people coped with the fact that nature was far more powerful than they were.

Ernest Becker takes this a step further, and claims in his 1974 "Denial of Death", that most of human civilization, not just religion, is one elaborate psychological response to the fear of death.

  • Aren't these more like social functionalist explanations of authoritative monotheism? Not really explanations of religion in any ancient sense. I would argue that "things I can't explain" is more primary to religious thought than "fear of death." Feb 16 '16 at 18:06
  • @NelsonAlexander see my comment to you w/r to Neanderthals. Note that I am not saying this is my opinion, just relaying to the OP notable authors who have stated positions similar to his. Feb 16 '16 at 18:11

First, to address the premise of the question of whether psychological reasons (such as fear) explain the origin of religions in general or a religion in particular: Peter Kreeft, in Does God Exist?, explains:

When is it reasonable for us to look for such psychological explanations for the origin of an idea? Only after we know, or think we know, that the idea is false. We don't give psychological explanations for the origin of the idea that 2 + 3 = 5 or that the sun is round. Thus the Freudian argument begs the question. The God-question cannot be settled that way, psychologically.

So, we have to be careful: to ask about psychological explanations assumes the idea is false.

To take your question then about the Pagan religion: assuming (for the sake of argument) that the Pagan religion is not correct, is it right to say that it grew out of a fear of death or a desire to create morality in society?

  • Augustine, in City of God, argues against this. Much of the first part of the work argues that there were no moral benefits to the Roman worship of the pagan gods, devoting an entire section to arguing "That the Worshippers of the Gods Never Received from Them Any Healthy Moral Precepts"

  • Thucydides would probably argue in favor. Thucydides seems not to have been religious himself, but depicts how disregard for religious custom during the Peloponnesian War war lead to atrocities.


It seems plausible that religion mitigates for some people the fear of death. Though, that's not the main effect.

The whole issue of the Journal "Personality and Social Psychology Review (2010)" deals with the question "Why Does Religiosity Persist?"

For an introduction into the subject and a brief survey of the single essays see Constantine Sedikides: "Why Does Religiosity Persist? Quoting from his introduction:

Special issue articles share four commonalities. First, they ask “why” questions. Why is religiosity so important to so many people? Why is religiosity important to some people and not to others? What are the functions that religiosity serves? Second, they take a theoretical approach. Contribu- tions draw from established theories to understand and explain diverse aspects of religiosity. Third, they focus on social and personality psychological approaches to religios- ity. Finally, they try to accomplish several specific tasks:
(a) to outline the theory that underlies their argument, (b) to provide selected empirical demonstrations of the theory’s veracity from the social/personality psychological literature, (c) importantly, to discuss empirical findings that are directly linked to the phenomenon of religiosity, and (d) to draw implications for future empirical pursuits

Notably I recommend the essay Kay, Aaron et al.: Religious Belief as Compensatory Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 14(1) 37-48, 2010. The references of that paper point to several recent papers about the whole subject.


I would not say that fear of death can be identified as the primary motive for religions, though it has surely played a part.

My reason is simply anthropological. Unless you define "religion" as tautologically assuming an "afterlife," there are religions, or systems of divine entities, entirely lacking in the rewards of heaven. The Greeks were by no means unanimous on this, and Buddhism, while not a monotheism, seeks absence of afterlife through the guidance of divine entities. In Egyptian religions, the concept of "afterlife" apparently underwent a kind of democratizing process, applying at first only to the pharaoh and then eventually to everyone.

Arguably a more universal source of religion is the very impulse you cite, the impulse to explain and predict. The Gods are causal forces that have not only "efficient causality" but "purposes" or final and teleological causality. Which makes sense. How else would we be able to investigate why and how these intangible forces go about things? We may find between their "reasons" and our own some similarity or correspondence to be worked out.

Such enticing correspondence between the way the universe works and the way we think and reason is also the gateway into science and survives vaguely in such ideas as Wigner's "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" or the "anthropic principle" or even Einstein's "god does not play dice with the universe." These, of course, hold no brief for some Levitical patriarch in the clouds. Yet they note the dialectical, reflective, or discursive nature of our being in the universe.

Death is certainly one of the questions that arises. The individual appears to utterly cease, yet we are also aware that the mortal individual transmits the "immortal" regeneration of the species...as well as the "other species" we consume.The finite lifespan is clearly transcended in some sense, and individuals are also "remembered." But if we are an "effect" of species being, what "causes" the species? What is its purpose? How else could we ask that except in some sort of "dialogue" with the universe? And how could we picture this as a dialogue if we heard only random static on the phone line?

In short, to take a purely physicalist stance and see the whole of religious narrative as a psychological distortion "caused" by fear of death is crude, preposterous, and evidentially dubious.

  • I didn't think of the Buddhist context, but that take on it is interesting. However, how would you explain the fact that Neanderthals were the first to bury their dead and perform funerary rituals, if it weren't for some sort of belief in the after life and a desire to continue the journey in some other realm? Also do you think Freud's can be easily dismissed as " crude, preposterous, and evidentially dubious." ? Not to mention my personal favorite view of "religion as drug addiction" ? Feb 16 '16 at 18:08
  • Also, the Egyptian initial belief in the exclusiveness of the after life, just adds a classist twist to the question, it doesn't necessarily invalidated the hypothesis that it stemmed from fear. Feb 16 '16 at 18:13
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    Personally - if we had to pin down religion to a single psychological cause, I would say that it was given by Kant: "Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after nature has freed them from alien guidance, gladly remain minors for life. " Feb 16 '16 at 18:17
  • I'm not actually arguing that Freud is wrong, only very limited. And for Freud or anyone, the broad evidence is dubious. I did think of the Neanderthals, but going so far back, even with the Egyptians, I place little confidence in a "psychological explanation," or archeological evidence for "fear of death" in our own terms. But my main concern is to express some skepticism over the easy, simplistic categorizing of such a vast swath of human thought. Not disputing your answer per se, only broadening. Feb 16 '16 at 20:25

Then no-one would believe it; it would be an ersatz religion; religions to have any value are an organic outgrowth of a people.

This is why Scientology, which is legally a religion in the states, doesn't properly count as a religion in the study of religions - more of a cult.

Your argument is in Lucretious, and he is careful to invoke both gods, and God - for want of a better name.

Perhaps he was hedging his wager; what if he wasn't?

  • Your statement that "Scientology doesn't properly count as a religion in the study of religions - more of a cult" is emphatically false. See this collection of interviews from professors of religious studies (and others). (All videos have transcripts.)
    – Wildcard
    Aug 29 '17 at 4:05
  • @wildcard: Are you scientologist? That collection of videos is from their site so not really an objective judgement; it really doesn't have the standing of the other world religions, which is why I called it a cult. Sep 5 '17 at 11:13
  • That's interesting; so I guess you think a Professor of Law and Religion at the University of Coruña in Spain (just to randomly choose one example) is incapable of objective judgment because he is quoted on a Scientology website? I'm sure a random guy on the internet knows Scientology's standing (as it applies to the study of religion) better than professors of comparative religion, military leaders, and leaders of other faiths; how silly of me. </sarcasm>
    – Wildcard
    Sep 5 '17 at 15:14
  • @wildcard: I'm saying that going to a Scientology web-site for an objective judgement on the standing of Scientology as a religion doesn't strike me as objective; and I'd say if you can't see that then how silly of you with no added sarcasm.. Sep 5 '17 at 15:16

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