Why do we worship?

Posted: March 26, 2011 in Animals, Numbers & Statistics, Psychology

I was thinking here lately: why do people find a need to worship something?

If you look into our history, you will find that in all Eras, across all the different cultures, people were constantly idolizing things. At first, those things were different Earth/fire/wind/water spirits, pagan gods, ancient ancestors, etc. Then, when religion became more organised, Humanity had all sorts of supreme beings and prophets (e. g. Jesus, Muhammad… Buddha, etc) to worship. It’s like all people are addicted to the concept of raising someone (or something) and following them as something superior.

Even in Contemporary History, when religion is in decline, we still create idols and follow them. Some people praise political figures and their ideologies (Lenin, Hitler, Gandhi), some idolize fictional characters and create strong fanbase around them (Superman, Spider-man, Batman, Jedi, Harry Potter, Master Chief), some dream to have the same power as certain super-star business tycoons (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Donald Trump, Richard Branson), and some go to the concerts and look up with love and admiration at their favorite artists and performers (Lady Gaga, Tiesto, Black Eyed Peas, Rammstein, Metallica, Usher, Armin Van Buuren… just to name a few. And, what’s interesting. many people go beyond the production of their favorite artists and start digging into their personal life. This kind of fans can buy an old toothbrush that was used by [insert an artist’s name] a few years ago on Ebay for $20 000).

So, why is this happening? Why do people feel comfort when they have something superior to look up to? What psychological mechanisms stand behind this concept and drive people into creating worship targets?

I think that one possible explanation can be derived from the Evolutionary perspective (I want to warn you that these are just my thoughts, and that they aren’t really backed up by any real research… are they?).

As we all know, humans are social animals. People were always tended to join into groups in order to maximize their chances of survival. If you ask a zoologist, they will tell you that almost all group animals who are blessed with cognition of some sort (e. g. wolfs, lions, chimpanzees) have a defined group structure, or, in other words, a hierarchy within their social groups. Every pack has a leader, an alpha-male, whose primary role is to defend his group against other animals and (sometimes) resolve internal conflicts (for example, two lion cabs are fighting over food that is left over after a successful hunting, the noises they’re making wake up an alpha-male, who doesn’t hesitate to roar them away and eat all the food by himself – problem solved).

Homo sapiens’ social structures are far more sophisticated than that, but, nevertheless, the basic concept of a pack leader remains the same. And that can be very beneficial. Different people have different view on things and different ways to act, therefore, a good leader, who is capable of selecting the best ways and direct its group, is a vitally important figure to have.

So, here we have a basic group structure: an alpha-male (who is a leader, an innovative thinker and director) and all the other individuals who follow him. Simple, but efficient.

Evolutionary, it happened that humans have certain biological aids to form social structures like this. For example, not so long ago, it was discovered that our organism produces more endorphin when we work in a team, therefore, it’s natural for a human being to seek a cooperative activity with others of its kind. And, it seems that this principle extends to religion and other sorts of activities when we have to worship someone or something. We just get more satisfaction, due to biochemical processes, when we think that we follow something strong and superior. So, it’s like a by-product of those biological mechanisms that helped us to survive during the formation of our species.

And, of course, there is a relatively small number (around, maybe, 5% of all people) of those who find no need in worshiping others. They have their own ideas and very strong personalities, and they prefer changing their surrounding rather than conform and adapt to it. These people are the leaders and innovators (just like alpha-males and pack leaders back in prehistoric times). This small percentage of people, who stand out of the crowd and initialize the action, is composed of those who move our society, either back of forward. And all the other 95% just follow them.

So, to sum up, my point is that people’s tendency to create idols and worship them is just another psychological/biochemical mechanism, a by-product of our Evolution that helped (and still helps) our species to survive.

Again, these are just my personal thoughts. They could be wrong. You’re welcome to comment and discuss this topic, either here or on Facebook (under the WordPress.com redirect Wall post).

  1. I was looking around today with the same question and found this. Interesting hypothesis. Thanks.

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