The initiating scenes of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are powerful. They depict ape-like creatures going about the process of living in what is presumably a part of our distant, prehistoric past. Since the obvious intention of the film is to imply that humans evolved from this point in time, and from these kinds of creatures, such scenes undoubtedly caused an uproar amid the established religious community at the time of its release. My own interest rests with a particular scene in which a leopard attacks one of the creatures by the watering hole. In this moment we have what many cultural anthropologists believe to be the origins of religious sacrifice.
For the evolving man, nature was a continuous, ever-pervading threat, especially in terms of the food chain. When a predatory animal entered the space of evolving humans, like any other species, these early humans must have felt great anxiety. Imagine the relief when the group became safe as one of their members fell prey to a voracious predator. In this sense, the threatening elements of nature became a force to be reckoned with and appeased. As consciousness formed, the idea of safety through sacrifice evolved.
Eventually the association of cruel nature and formidable forces came to equate matters of the unseen, the supernatural. To think that over a period of thousands and thousands of years, the loss of tribal members to the jaws of life eventually came to manifest itself as the religious sacrifice, this hypothesis is not far fetched. The end result clearly expresses itself in the goat sacrifices of the Old Testament and beyond.
Of course, we can thank J&M to put matters of religious sacrifice in their proper place (through humor), since humans have come to understand the reality of nature’s power:
For more humorous reflections on the Atheism/Religion debate, read J&M here: