Colombo Telegraph

Origin Of Religion & Extremism

By Upali Gamakumara –

Upali Gamakumara

It is the general belief that religion is the backbone of discipline that helps creating a peaceful society. This assertion has been built on another belief that there is an omnipresent observer or a supernatural force who monitors a person’s good and bad deeds. It is also believed that the ‘force’ protects the man from disasters if he does right things which pleases the ‘force’ or punish him if he does wrong. These system of beliefs is the reason for above assertion. The supernatural force can be a personalized God or a phenomenon like “Karma”. Be it God or Karma, it is a belief, which cannot be tested for its authenticity.

The process of behavioral change from belief to behavior is a psychological conditioning process. Religion and culture are the two sources which provide ‘beliefs’. Following diagram depicts how this process works.

(1) Life experience →  (2) Assumptions → (3) Guess → (4) Belief → (5) Attitude → (6) Behavior


Life experience: A boy sees a disabled person → (2) build assumptions about himself, others or the world → (3) Guess: Must have done a bad thing → (4) Belief: mother must be correct  → (5) Attitude: we are right – they are wrong → (6) Behavior: us-them categorization leading to racism/extremism

This is a universal generic process. Here I have taken ‘mother’ as the example, as she is the first to implant beliefs in particular culture.

Origin of Religion

There are four mind functions responsible for origin of religion; ‘Hyperactive Agency Detection Devise’ (HADD), ‘Theory of mind’ (TOM), ‘Flight or Fight response’ and ‘Consciousness’. 

‘Hyperactive Agency Detection Devise’ (HADD) is the most important one among all. Justin Barrett coined this defense system, which tells animals to suspect that ‘something is over there’ (Agent) behind strange physical happening in the environment. There is another defense/life-support system called Limbic System (LS), which is a more advanced system than HADD but not directly responsible for the origin of religion. The difference between HADD and the LS is that HADD signals to suspects of an agency behind an unknown physical happening. Whereas LS signals to respond to a known change in the environment. If an unusual sound disturbs a sleeping dog, its response is different to that of a smell of a bitch in heat. HADD works in the first scenario, where suspicion comes first not knowing what it is. In the second scenario the LS identifies what the signal is and act appropriately. Scientists say that HADD is a valuable ‘devise’ inherited by all animals as a defense mechanism for survival. However, HADD is still considered as a theory as its existence is spatial and subtle.   

Sometimes, ‘human-HADD’ suspects that agents have supernatural powers. For example, man believes ‘rain’ is an act of a supernatural agent. Especially early human beings believed that life threatening phenomena (or places) like lightning, darkness, huge caves, fire, and large trees are some of the places where such supernatural agents reside. They also thought that those agents can think. They thought when the agency gets angry, they instigate curse upon man. So, to keep the agencies pleased, people started offerings. Interestingly, man believed that Agents’ desires are analogical to peoples’ desires. Therefore, man sought to offer what the savage is greedy of. Burnt flesh, singing, dancing, and young women (virgin) were some of them. This is the origin of devotion which eventually evolved into religion.    

Another interesting feature of Human mind is that it guesses what others have in their minds. This is called Theory of Mind (TOM).  Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretence, knowledge, etc.—to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, … (Wikipedia). Theory of Mind (TOM) is an extension of HADD. TOM believes both supernatural agent as well as human beings have this ability. For example, ‘He must be thinking that I am rich’, is such a guess.

Fight or flight response is another adaptation for survival. Flight or fight response is common to human beings as well. This is a simple behavioral system of all animals. That is, when an animal faces a life threatening challenge, it simply fights with it or flight from it for its survival.

Consciousness is the last but not the least responsible mind function for origin of religion. Though the brainiest animal next to the man is chimpanzee, man’s consciousness is far superior to that of chimpanzees. For example, a chimp cannot identify its own mirror image as of his own. This superior consciousness of man is the one that leads man to think and worry about uncertainties like death, illness and security of his life and of his children’s. No other animal is aware of these uncertainties. The fear for death comes to animals only when they face a life threatening event. Some mammals and birds weep when their loved ones are lost. This is a result of the function of the Limbic System – not of consciousness.

The super-conscious man resorts to another method of flying away at a threat: the religious belief.  Think of a man who climbs a tree top to escape from a tiger. When his consciousness tells him that there is no escape from fight or flight, he starts to pray to a supernatural power for help. This way of flight comes from the combination of his TOM and Consciousness. Scientifically, it is hard to believe whether a religion can help him but psychologically it gives some confidence to stay alive until the danger vanishes.

How a belief system turns into a strong religion?

In psychology of love, when a person falls in love with another, the lover then intensely focusses on the love aggrandizing his or her better traits, overlooking its flaws. This is a result of our hormone activity. (Helen Fisher, The New Psychology of Love, Yale University Press). It is true for a belief system too. When something good happens the devotee attributes it to the supernatural force overlooking what was denied by the same force. Thus a belief system turns into a strong religion leading to religious extremism.

Conflicts among religions

The major reasons for conflicts are due to the differences in belief systems.  Ironically, many religious beliefs are in conflict. A ‘right’ deed for one religion is a ‘wrong’ for another. Some examples for such conflicts in beliefs are: the cow is a sacred animal for Hindus and Buddhists while it is an important source of food for followers of Abrahamic religions. Pork is a delicious food for Christians but it is a prohibited food for Muslims. Similarly, some rituals have changed over the time within the same religion. Animal sacrifices practiced by Christianity have been almost abandoned by now. Further, within the same religion there are differences of opinion. According to Dr. Zakir Naik (Peace TV) murder is wrong but Jihadists believe ‘killing apostates’ as a holy act. Again, when people see their prayers are not answered, they resort to other religious beliefs. Buddhists praying and making sacrifices to demons for help is a case in point, though Lord Buddha said ‘you are your own savior’ (aththahi aththano natho).   


Religious or communal dissonance begins when different belief systems are in conflict. Unfortunately, when a man is conditioned in a particular belief system it is very difficult to change him. The most dangerous part is that when a person’s belief systems is fixed, it overrides his sophisticated self-awareness and cognitive faculties like logical thinking. Strongly held belief systems override even the basic evolutionary needs for survival and they become martyrs. 

Extremism is the rigid adherence to any kind of belief system. They do not tolerate other beliefs, faiths, races or political systems. Extremism exist always in a group. Personal rigid belief is a personal policy matter and harmless. Extremist groups have a leader who builds what is called ‘Groupthink’. Groupthink is that which deteriorate individual member’s rational thinking out of the fear for leader and losing group solidarity. Even if a member in the group realizes certain policies are against his consciousness, he simply follows the leader’s instructions until he gets a chance to escape from the group. Only a few courageous members can dissent.

Extremists are emotive. Extremist leaders exploit this weakness to their advantage. Leaders in Crusade, Nazi, Camerouch, LTTE, Al Kaida and similar others used this weakness as a strategy to lead members to fight against their enemies. Politicians too use this weakness to expand their vote bases. In the recent Muslim – Buddhist communal unrest, every political leader is pointing finger at their political opponents, simply to win minority vote. The truth is that there is a growing extremism in both communities. Nobody wants to settle this unfortunate situation but fuel the extremism for their advantage.

Way out

In every religion there are two parts – Philosophy and Belief. What is leading to communal dissonance is belief, not the philosophy. Propagation of belief in public is what leads to extremism. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka the governments, constitution, electoral limits and even the national flag propagate extremism. No politician likes to change this or at least to start a debate over these for the fear of losing their vote bases in both minorities and the majority. Because as far as people are divided over emotional issues they can manipulate vote bases.

Writer’s opinion is that we should make Sri Lanka a secular country, not the way some Western countries practice it. Singaporean model is the best as we know of. In every school all religious philosophies are taught but not as a religion. People have the freedom to practice their religious beliefs privately. However public religious events like using public address systems to chant ‘pirith’, calling for prayers in mosques have been banned. No religious processions are allowed in public places. However, freedom for practicing their religious beliefs have not been denied. For instance, building Temples, Churches and Mosques is allowed.

If you are interested in experiencing ‘cold war’ between Muslims and Buddhists, we suggest you to stay in a hotel on a hill top in Kandy city and wake up before sunrise. The quiet and the cooling morning air, once filled with the signing of birds   and the sound of rustling leaves   is now rattled by the clamoring of loud speakers from North, South, East and West, masquerading a religious war.

*VP, Institute of Quality and Productivity Management, Member of the Forum and Executive Council of Organization of Professional Associations in Sri Lanka – OPA

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