Clearly, our spiritual beliefs are still evolving, being distilled by persistent analysis and introspection. Even ancient belief systems founded on creation myths do not give people credit for knowing God, in His Entirety, right from the instant of their creation — all authorities agree that people undergo a gradual awakening in the pursuit of truth, even if we were created, fully formed and in God's image. So it's an ongoing process. And it might be useful to see how this process has evolved through time.
Some anthropologists have argued that modern conceptions of God emerged from quite mundane sources — ancient deities might have originally been just extraordinary people, whose exploits grew with the story-telling, eventually being remembered as super-human beings who visited this world briefly before venturing onward.1 (See euhemerism.) Their descendants then claimed to have inherited the supernatural powers, marking the birth of "living gods" among the ruling classes. In time, the more popular legends dominated, and when combined with object lessons, had all of the makings of recognizably religious frameworks.
Then again, another group of anthropologists believe that spiritual thought had a celestial origin, albeit physical instead of mystical. Humans made little progress for the first 200,000 years of their existence on this planet. Then, all of a sudden, around , things started changing rapidly. First wild wheat was cultivated into a staple crop. Then animals were domesticated, and towns started forming, marking the transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, to Neolithic farmers & pastoral nomads. Interestingly, some scholars believe that right around that time, an asteroid struck the Earth.2,3 It appears to have hit the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which was the glacier covering Canada during the last Ice Age, and which absorbed the impact. North America was showered with large chunks of ice, some of which were a couple of kilometers across, landing as far away as northern Florida.4 (See Figure 1.) Other ejecta from the impact would have continued on out into space. The direct and indirect effects would have been devastating. The Clovis Culture suddenly disappeared, and a number of species went extinct, such as the saber-tooth tiger.5 The event might have also inspired some superstitions.
Figure 1. Hypothesized location of the asteroid impact in .
For example, all ancient pagans believed similar things:
The gods came from outer space.
They were capable of great wrath.
They had children while they were here.
They left the Earth after a brief stay,
returning to their homes in space.
Here's what they might have actually witnessed:
One or more objects approached from the sky.
There was a violent impact.
The sky was filled with flaming debris.
Fire rained from the sky and wrought havoc on the ground.
Some of the fragments proceeded back out into space.
All that was needed, to get from the actual observations, to the credenda of a typical ancient religion, was for the story-teller to personify the objects involved. And that's a very common technique in story-telling.
Thereafter, the survivors would have diligently watched the sky, nervously looking for any indication of another episode. This could have been the beginning of the discipline of astronomy. A more careful inspection of the night sky revealed objects moving with respect to the firmament, which could have been misinterpreted as remnants from the impact. They were given the names Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, & Saturn (i.e., the gods in ancient times). Note that the Sun and the Moon were not really gods in the same sense, despite being a good deal more conspicuous. But having already been observed, the Sun & Moon were not possible fragments from the impact, while the planets, which could have actually gone unnoticed prior to the obsession with celestial events, might have been "discovered" after the asteroid impact, and thus were possible fragments (i.e., gods).
To keep track of objects moving with respect to the firmament, they had to start making star maps. The oldest known permanent structure built by people was the temple complex at Göbekli Tepe, which was begun before . Some researchers believe the monuments depict celestial alignments in .6 No star maps were made before , suggesting that this is when astronomy began.
The significance goes far beyond idle star gazing, or even the superstitions so inspired. Wheat recovered from storage containers at Göbekli Tepe was found to be genetically different from wild wheat, and similar to modern cultivated wheat. So it seems that hunter-gatherers built the temple complex, and then they started cultivating wheat to get better yields from the surrounding fields. This is contrary to the dominant view in anthropology, which assumes that people started farming first, and within the context of the community that was so formed, the sophistication of religious thought became possible. But the evidence from Göbekli Tepe is that there was a star gazing tradition already 1500 years old at that point, which had matured into an obsession worthy of the construction of monuments. The elaborate effort attracted pilgrims from hundreds of kilometers away, who brought offerings. It also created a sedentary population that began cultivating crops. They might have even invented animal husbandry, if they wanted to save some of the wild game offerings for later, and if the animals started breeding in captivity. So society didn't get organized around the utility of farming and herding, which established the context in which religion could emerge — rather, hunter-gatherers had spiritual beliefs that were the organizing principles of early societies. Indeed, paleolithic cultures that have survived into modern times are not too primitive for the sophistication of spiritual inquiry — they are fully immersed by it. They just haven't learned to farm yet, because they haven't seen the need to build temples too big to carry around with them.
The two essential ideas here — that the gods were originally just extraordinary people, versus the gods originally being fragments of an asteroid impact — are not mutually exclusive. It's possible that an event in inspired superstitions, which thousands of years later were transferred to extraordinary people. In other words, in there might have been a very ancient tradition that the gods had once visited the Earth, and had left behind some progeny, and there might have been a few extraordinary people running around, who thought that they could get away with claiming to be the divine progeny. So there were two layers of superstition: one originating from the asteroid impact, and the other being the reformulation of it into living gods.
Still, spiritual thought cannot simply be "explained away" just by showing possible material origins — spirituality has a utility that would be there regardless of how we got to it. Anthropologists deny that utility, seeing religion as pure superstition, which perhaps society would do better to abandon. They're right that there is a lot of mysticism in religion, and that this can distract people from the essence of living. But they're wrong if they think that a religion has to be superstitious — the present work doesn't invoke any magic to describe the human condition. Furthermore, anthropologists underestimate the utility of spirituality. We need a framework for organizing our thoughts. So it doesn't matter to us how we came upon these ideas. It just matters that we did. The wake-up call in didn't send us down a path we wouldn't have found otherwise. It just accelerated the process, though now we have to weed out the artifacts picked up during the wake-up.