Below is my answer to the Quora question “Why does the human mind invent so many lies to protect humans from seeing reality, and to facilitate the lives of humans?“
The second half of the question answers the first half. Let me explain, with a little help from ideas I found in a book by Yuval Noah Harari.
The reality that human beings had to protect themselves from was extinction. It was inevitable if we didn’t band together. A single human being is only too easy to kill. He or she can be hunted down by predators, succumb to harsh weather, perish for want of resources.
There is strength in numbers — every animal species that survived the ravages of evolution proves this. A pack hunts better than a lone wolf, a herd of wild buffalo is more formidable before a hunting lion than an individual grazing alone.
But even at their maximum, there was a limit to how large a collective could be — a few hundred at most. Any larger and animal groups begin to fragment into smaller ones. More often than not, it is simply a matter of the leader (the alpha male / the queen bee) being unable to influence large numbers of individuals on account of the hierarchy breaking down under the pressure of a huge collective.
Among human beings, this problem was solved by making ideas the core of groups instead of individuals. Ever since we started to talk, we also started to tell stories. For example, a certain group of early humans might start defining itself as the people of the river. They would sit together telling and hearing how the river loves them and how they are the chosen ones. They might start marking their bodies with symbols of the river tribe to recognise each other. These tribes would grow in size as more tribes met them and assimilated into their belief system by learning the story and acquiring the symbols. Rituals might mark this way of being — things like rites of passage, titles that define an individual’s place in a society, codes of conduct that tell people how best to behave with each other.
In the long run, human communities grew far larger than any other in the animal kingdom. Today, such tribes have millions of members spread all over the world. By merit of knowing, telling, and belonging in the same stories, members of these tribes (Christianity / Islam / Hinduism) can cooperate with their communities even if they have physically never met. The very sight of a Cross, or a Quran, or the Om symbol is enough to inspire feelings of solidarity in people for tribe-members who might otherwise have been absolute strangers living on the other side of the planet.
The stories that early man told kept them together yes, but they also kept others out because their stories were different. Sometimes, tribes merged into each other (like how Christmas came to be associated with the birth of Jesus Christ despite being a pagan festival) or learnt the art of co-existence. At other times, the stories ended up being rigid and exclusivist and conflict broke among their followers. Some of these wars are being fought around us even as I type.
Humankind is a work in progress. It is not what it once was, and if we survive the ravages of time, it won’t always be what it is today. To make our way further, we need new stories. It is entirely possible that the stories that we find at odds with each other right now, might fuse into each other and become new ones. But if they don’t we can always make up new ones.