Have you noticed that it is devilish difficult to belong to two religions, with equal acceptance, at the same time? They are almost always mutually exclusive clubs. That, in my opinion, is their main function. First consider what it is most formal religions ask adherents to accept. All religions require that those who wish to stick to them accept complex packages of ideas that no-one in their right mind could ever get to by an independent intellectual analysis of the real world around us. The sets of ideas regarded as essential by the different major religions are all markedly different one fom the other, but to belong to one, you have to accept that one lot of ideas is both entirely true and hugely important, and the others are not at all so, as they are often irreconcilably contradictory. You are not allowed to belong to most religions unless you accept almost the whole of the core package of ideas for the religion you are wanting to adhere to. Hence only those whose intellectual ethics are either a bit vacant or decidedly rubbery, can be comfortable within most formal religions. Basic logic will tell you that other folk must have had some ideas that are more useful or true than those of your own pet set, over the millennia. But, think for yourself on religious matters and you are out, or at least heading for the boundary line. That is precisely where most of the intolerance on this planet is born.
In that sense, though in many others it is a religion, science is slightly different. In theory, there is no party line, and the would-be scientific are committed to one basic notion, that is, that everything should be examined rigorously in the light of all the available evidence. It doesn't always work, as party lines do develope, (see Nasa on the past rivers and oceans of Mars, for instance, my own pet scientific laugh) but the point is, they have no formal legitimacy. They must be challenged, and they will in time be dumped if disproved.
It is not so with the old formal theist religions. Despite the wild variation in their respective core stories, and the lack of any real evidence whatever for beings who interfere at whim with the laws of nature, millions of people still believe in meddling supernatural beings that are remarkably similar to those of the Stone Age. Millions routinely ask their favorites among those supposed beings to meddle in the smooth running of this complex planet and universe, for their private personal advantage. It is all very odd.
If one accepts that skygods and the like have no real existence outside of people's heads, it is still worth noting that they are very old ideas. To pick the very old ideas in a religion, it seems a good idea to find those that are shared by many. They may have a common ancestor. If you also find those same notions in the religions of the longest and most isolated people, you have further support for their antiquity. It is not positive confirmation, as that is not possible. Just highly likely.
The aborigines of Australia have long been very isolated from other cultures and head fashions, so their shared beliefs may be a good starting place. Genetics and their own legends show that they have not been quite as isolated as either their own current beliefs or the people who have overrun them would like to have it. But, they do appear to have always had devils and skygods. The devils seem to have been the more important, in real life. For they were very real. I think that they are also the older set, precisely because they were real and beings who flew through the air, then as now, were and are not. Devils are ancestral to gods, with the latter just being the former with their acts slightly cleaned up. For For the aboriginal evidence here shows clearly that the oldest devils were priests, or shamans if you prefer.
The most isolated of the Australian aborigines were the Tasmanians. Their religion is little known, but what is known is that they feared a devil. On the mainland, the smallish folk who still live along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, the Mutti Mutti, who claim relationship to theTasmanians, also feared and respected a devil, that they now call the bunyip, who was a water and sky god. And he was very divisive. He was believed to protect his people by killing all strangers who came into their territory without diplomatic immunity. He led in battle. He enforced the laws, mainly the marriage laws, puttng to death those who flouted them, particularly the women. His true nature was not to be discussed, again on pain of death. This bunyip or devil was described in formal stories which were never to be questioned or varied. He was a thunder god and brought the rain and the floods that were cental to the life of the river folk. Seals in the rivers were said to be him. As one of the deal species that went up the Australin rivers was the leopard, a real killer, that helped ginger up the bunyip's reputation.
In reality, as with all religions and notional gods, the bunyip's functions were shared two main ways. An utterly disinterested natural world took care of the thunder and the floods and arranged assorted other disasters and human deaths. A very secretive priesthood arranged many other human deaths, as well as ancilliary medical and judicial matters. It cultured xenophobia, its own influence, and general ignorance about the natural world. It actively discouraged independent thought, as all priesthoods do. In return for these services its priests lived, not exactly an easy or a safe life, but a different one, with many priviledges and some onerous duties. The bogeymen or cunning men of Europe are their exact equivalent and a leftover from the same old shamanic fraud.
All that was almost certainly happening back in the early Paleolithic, or Stone Age, long before people anywhere built solid houses, let alone towns and villages. We had huge open-air temples for our gods, known as bora rings in Australia, when for ourselves we only had wurleys, brush shelters to protect against rain and cold and mosquitoes. We also, from France to Australia, whereever nature provided them, had caves for both ourselves and our gods to shelter in. That is incidentally why the insides of churches and cathedrals mimic vast limestone caverns. We had all that religion and all that differentiation of society into the common folk and the professions, even before we herded animals. We were still hunter-gatherers, and our religions are leftovers from the notions and imperatives of those times. That is not so strange, as we made our living scavenging and then hunting larger and larger game, for the millions of years we have been human and for a long time before. You can set the change to being human where you like, but we or our ancestors have been using modified stone tools for three million years or so. Excluding permanent fishing camps, we have only had villages and towns for perhaps ten thousand years at the outset. As that is just a third of one percent of three million years, it is not surprising that old notions should still be with us. Those notions developed as our brains adjusted to the new ways of persuading things, animals and neighbours to alter as we preferred, so they are fairly well imbedded. Soon after we developed language, we no doubt got the beginnings of grand explanations, and very shortly the eloquent learned to explain things to their own group's long-term advantage. The part of that set of explanations that survived is now called religion, and the eloquent explaners-to-advantage are called priests.
The priests of the early Paleolithic fulfilled in one caste all the functions that were later divided up amongst clerics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, policemen both overt and covert, and all their derivatives. We also incidentally had protected travellers, whose descendants are postmen, diplomats and traders.
We can be reasonably sure we know that we had all that in the early Stone Age, because when British settlers arrived in Australia and started learning about aboriginal religious beliefs and practices, the people long here were still living an early Paleolithic existence that closely fits what we know of such existence from other similar societies, from archaeology and from cave art. Australian aboriginal culture was very complex and and differentiated. yet the religious elements outlined above are so widespread and so deeply held among the oldest of the many waves of aboriginal people who came to Australia over some 60,000 years and so well intergrated into their culure, that they are very unlikely to have been late imports.
All religions bear the deep imprint of those that preceded them, as an essayist in the Encyclopaedia Britrannica pointed out many years ago. So the religion of the rest of the world follows from that of the Stone Age. Northern hemisphere sacred places like Stonehenge and Woodhenge follow the bora rings. Yahweh is quite clearly the same head-occupying entity as the aboriginal Yowie, and it is very likely the similarity of names is not a coincidence. The range of the dugong or sea cow extends along coastal sea grass meadows from Brisbane back to the Red Sea, and if you are a hunter with a canoe, the dugong is easier to spear than fish, seals or whales. It is also very valuable.The Veddoid folk followed the dugong and remnants are to be found all along its range. With them, under many names, went their devilgod the Wowee or Yowie. He was their thunder and river god and sometimes also a mountain-top dweller, that being where rivers originate. In Sumeria, the chief of the legions of monsters was represented by the saltwater crocodile, before that animal became locally extinct. In the east, he is the original, or water dragon, probably also represented by a crocodile.
In Australia, at the end of the rainbow is the bunyip's lair, where great cultural treasures, namely the laws and new songs and dances, are obtained. The priest or bangal dives under the water to commune with the bunyip, and emerges triumphantly hours later with the new songs and dances and edicts. In reality, he sat it out solo, in damp discomfort, in an enlarged platypus burrow. Those all have underwater entrances, but a dry chamber in the river bank, just above the water-level. Or he would use a purpose-built burrow of his own. There is the origin of baptism, is my guess. The priest carried out his judicial and executionary functions at night on the riverbank or in the camp, wearing a foul-smelling cloak to disguise his personal whiff, or by day from the water. The river people's staple food was lily bulbs and molluscs, not wallabys, and the women mostly collected them, wading or diving. The attack priest, with a mat of weeds on his head and a reed for a breathing tube, stalked sexually disobedient women the same way his people stalked ducks, breathing through the reed and wholly submerged. Victims were strangled and their bodies were pegged out underwate, and were soon gone, including the bones. Lots of river animals need calcium. The bunyip was, naturally, credited with every such disappearance, particulaly by himself. That is why Australian aboriginal women were terrified of the bunyip, and still do not much like devils. Their fear was very well founded. In some areas of Australia, the kadaitcha man still exists and still kills secretly.
It is not accidental. Religion was invented to control and supress young women. Have you noticed that everywhere, no matter what religion you are looking at, it interferes with and attempts to control people's sex lives? Particularly thiose attempting to have sex lives without the formal "blessing" of their religion? It may help the feminists to realize that and to stop dreaming about a golden past when priestesses ruled the world. Who were they supposed to be strangling?
Before as Yahweh his act was cleaned up slightly at one end of the dugong's range, at the other end the Wowee or Bunyip or Yowie was incontrovertably the devil. They still share the thunder, the homicidal mania, the supporting fallen angels, the jealousy, the xenophobia, the secretive male priests, the protection of the chosen folk, and the same dedication, above all else, to enforcing the marriage laws of the tribe. Yahweh and the Yowie are one and the same delusion. I have argued that in more detail elsewhere on the net; Google, my surname and "The Origin of rewligion" should find it, if you are interested.
What now needs consideration, is why? I confess I am of the old structuralist-functionalist school of anthropolgy, and at one remove, via the teaching of Monica Hunter, an unrepentant student of Malinowski, Evans Pritchard and Radclifffe Browne. I admit to even once having worn a pith helmet to work, so you are now fully imformed as to my tribal predjudices and intellectual idiocies. Having incurable geological tendencies, I also believe that evolution works in the social sphere as in the paleontological and ecological. If it serves a useful function, it may survive, sums up the philosophy.
So I think, in a large Stone Age world with few humans, the division and splitting of communities was the mechanism whereby new territory was found and settled. If you and your relatives have found a nice rift valley with comfortable caves, babbling brooks full of molluscs and crustaceans, and fine shady trees, you will probably happily raise kids till the place is overcrowded. So some of your descendants will need to chase others of their fellows away. It will not be a success for the evicted if they go as individual outcasts. To survive and establish new territory successfully, they need to go away in groups. So, once you have language, you need to construct divisive arguments, such that the group will split into a larger segment, which will stay home, and a smaller one which will leave. Heretics emigrate. That is as it should be,. The energetic and impatient challenge the sacred truths, which are chosen to be sacred exactly because they are trivial. No religion ever held that fish are to be caught by clambering around high up in trees. No religion ever even held that you should spear yabbies with the blunt end of your long stick. They always just pivot the heresies around trivia, such as the name of the river or sky god, and whether you should dunk just the head or the whole person in baptism, or the exact nature and relative importance of the members of the Holy Trinity. If the heretics or deported convicts survive, swamp the indigenae and colonise America or Australia or wherever, contacts can be re-established later, via trade and war and the import of movies, or whatever.
But now, in the Internet Age, we need a change, as we have filled the whole planet with humans pretty effectively, and if we stick with our Stone Age religions, we look like blatting the ecosystems on which we live. We need to abandon our divisive and xenophobic religions, all of them, including the old shamanic cult of the warrior, the universal underlay of all our killer cults. We need to abandon all of them - Judaism, Christianity (my own tribe's particular folly), Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindiuism, Shintoism, Communism, Anti-terrorism, Conspiratorialism, the lot.
We need a new view of philosophy and of science that accepts the realities of our situation and our needs as a biosphere, and that developes the ethics to go with those shared needs. We do not need and cannot tolerate any more antique Teutonic heroes, wandering the planet dispersing depleted uranium shells and such, or any more antique shamans, depriving people of condoms and spreading Aids. Instead, we need smaller and more efficient vehicles, shorter travel distances for food and everything else, less waste, etc., etc. We really do need to wake up.
We should to be able to walk outside on as starry a night as we can still find, look up at those vast expanses of nothingness interspersed at unimaginable distances by large nuclear hells, and laugh. Then, we need to give the antique gods still rattling around in our heads the old Agincourt two-finger salute. Next morning, we need to get up with a new will to get on with understanding this planet, its ecology, its climate and its history, those of the planets next door, and of the universe. We need to do this with each one of us thinking as independently as possible about the evidence of the real universe, just for a change. Then we need to think hard about what we are doing collectively and about the daft dreams of wealth and security that we have sold each other .We need a new game plan for loving and living on this jewel of a planet and for using its treasures carefully, without wanting to destroy or own them exclusively.
Then we and our descendants will see a far clearer sky.
Incidentally, you are not required to accept or believe a word of the above. And no fatwahs please, or at least, only during business hours. Fair's fair.