I was recently reading a piece by Edwin Kagin in which he intimated that religion began when the first con man met the first fool. Respectfully, I must disagree.
It appears to me that the dynamic of leader/follower is, in some respects, an agreement by both parties and perhaps a fault for both of them.
But I picture the event of religion’s beginnings a bit differently – a crowd begging to be fooled. I think that people want someone to tell them that everything will be all right. And I think that if no one rose up to take the mantle, the crowd would appoint somebody. (If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.)
There’s a reason that they’re referred to as sheep. They feel lost and want a shepherd to take them by the hands and lead them somewhere, anywhere, better than where they are. When the night winds howl and the lightning lights up the treetops, people want reassurance that it won’t hurt them. They want to know that the storm will end. They want a leader who shows them that the dark is nothing to fear.
One might say that their religious leaders are taking advantage of people – that they magnify and play on the fears of their followers, and certainly such exist and they are legion. To a beggar, charity is a marvellous thing. Authority over others is a temptation that some cannot resist. Simple trust in the invisible overlord is certainly more attractive than the drudgery of problem-solving and the hard work of learning how the universe actually works, especially at a time in history, or before history, when there simply was no knowledge to draw conclusions from.
And therein we see the downfall of religions: we now live in a time where knowledge is available in plenty and when compared with the all form no substance nature of religion, knowledge reigns supreme. Religion cannot compete with an ever-growing body of understanding about the physical universe. The sheep will learn to follow the shepherds who can give them results.
Or the best days of the human race are behind us.