Can Societies Survive Without Religion?

wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Historian-science writer, Nicholas Wade, in The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures(2009) argues that no society could have existed without religion. Wade hypothesizes that religion has always been necessary for social control–in all societies from ancient tribes to advanced civilizations. In this post1, I briefly outline Wade’s argument, contrast differences between religion in primitive and civilized societies, and provide evidence that religion is unnecessary for social control.

In Latin the word religio(n) means ‘obligation, bond, or reverence’. The Latin word religare means ‘to bind’. The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as ‘belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods’. Wade argues that religion is or was necessary for all societies to exist. As we shall see, using the Oxford definition of religion Wade’s argument does not apply to all societies.

Elemental and Complex Gods
Prehistoric tribes-people may have found supernatural guidance from dreams or in nature– elements like the sun, moon, rain or water. Perhaps these crude gods gave primitive people’s a sense of control over nature–when tribal menfolk would kill and bring home carcasses of wild beasts for dinner, or when the womenfolk would give birth to living and virile children. Do dreams or worship of earthly elements lead to social controls?

wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Prehistoric tribes may have imagined they communed with phantoms in dreams or trances, but how and when these early ancestors started believing in super-agents or gods who punish or reward their worshipers, Wade does not make clear. He mentions shamans who interpreted dreams for the tribe. But the tribal shaman, if she was necessary for controlling the primitive clan, would develop when tribal societies evolved into civilizations.

In complex societies–civilizations like Babylon, Egypt, Medieval Europe–we start seeing priesthood. Priests were the intermediaries between the peasants and the gods. With religious authority and power granted to priests by the people. Common peasants were instructed by priests that the actions in this life would secure rewards in the next life beyond the grave. Controlling religions-based on elaborate fears of punishment of the gods, souls, or life-after-death are likely developments of complex societies.

Freeloaders and Warriors
Wade argues that religion was necessary for societal control by pointing out that primitive societies were under constant threat of freeloading and warfare. Freeloaders burdened the community, consumed scarce resources, and failed to go to battle against fierce and vicious enemies of the tribe. In a primitive society, writes Wade, religious behavior “demonstrated an ability to deal with foes both internal and external”. Wade posits that religion was necessary: it saved a society’s time and resources and advantaged religious tribes over less religious tribes.

wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Complex religions and beliefs in supernatural agents–while offering some methods for social control, do not appear to be necessary for social control, nor necessary for human survival as Wade argues. The necessary social control that is likely true is the family or structures of control based on genetic relationships. Family structures appear to be the most basic, natural, and necessary type of social control. Of course, religion may be a factor in state and societal control, but certainly religion is not necessary. There are many examples of secular or non-religious families and societies, such as Scandinavian countries, that exercise high degree of social control without use of religion.

The most basic level of social control is built on the family structure: relationships between mother, father, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Commitment to a religion, to priests or religious leaders, may be a factor in societal control in complex societies along with state laws and government. Wade’s argument that religion is necessary in all societies–from prehistoric tribes to the present–is unwarranted. There are numerous societies that are non-religious–that do not use beliefs in supernatural agents for societal control. Religion is unnecessary for social control.


1 This post is from a paper I wrote for a course assignment in Soul Beliefs by Rutgers University

2 “The Evolution of Religious Behavior,” by Nicholas Wade, from The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures (2009), Penguin Group


  1. SkepticMeditations

    Thanks Sabio: I checked out Cris Campbell’s post, you linked to. I agree labels or categorizations such as “primitive” are, well, primitive, and probably not terribly accurate descriptions. There’s probably better terms I could’ve used to describe peoples in “ancestral”, ancient, or pre-historic societies or tribes. Frankly, this was a challenging post for me to write. I wasn’t happy with it, but decided to share my feeble thoughts and words as they are.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    Hey Scott,

    I don’t know if you’ve read much by Cris Campbell at his site, Geneology of Religion, but he has helped me to stop the all to common reflex of labeling some HG societies as “primitive”. Here is one article by him. Type in “primitive” in his search bar and you will find many more.

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