Religious rituals, traditions and taboos can sometimes look random and insane to those who don't follow that particular holy scripture. Sometimes it can look like God was just making a bunch of shit up to see if people would comply.
But some of these traditions came from a time when they afforded real practical benefits, and not just because people decided to do whatever a book told them to do. For example ...
#5. Animal Sacrifice Made Herding Easier
We don't care how open-minded you are, if you came home one day and found your roommate wearing a black robe and ritualistically sacrificing a goat in your living room, you'd get the hell out of there. If there's one thing that marks a religion as being primitive or savage or just "weird," it's a guy in face paint chanting while he stabs a sheep in the heart.
This is pretty creepy, too.
So Why Do They Do It?
On the surface, it seems like animal sacrifice is a pretty pointless, even counterproductive ritual for ancient humans to develop. If we've just managed to domesticate some walking milk factories that are great for pulling plows, then what's the point of killing a bunch of them?
Well, apparently it's a holdover from when humans first learned the art of selective breeding. If you're an upstart farming civilization, you can't just get a bunch of animals together and let them breed willy-nilly. To maintain a strong herd, you need to weed out the undesirables and thin the herd so that they don't overrun the place. Academics who study this kind of thing note that communities that practice animal sacrifice usually do it at the time of year when it's ideal to cull the herd (that is, to kill off some of the male animals so you don't have to feed them through the winter).
"Tons of sex, or death? Can't we compromise?"
As another expert explains, it also forced ancient herders to get good at selective breeding. One thing these ceremonies all have in common is that they demand a perfect animal -- which requires figuring out how to consistently make them. Which is to say, it's easier just to make a ritual out of something like this than it is to exhaustively explain to each new generation of illiterate farmers how herd culling works.
So the next time you're invited to an awkward animal sacrifice, it should put you at ease to know that you're witnessing part of a long agrarian tradition, no matter how creepy the guy looks wearing a goat skull on his head.
On a related note ...
#4. Pork and Beef Taboos Saved Lives
We think it's so weird that Hindus consider cows sacred that we sarcastically refer to things as "sacred cows" when we mean that a person or subject is arbitrarily off-limits to criticism. In the West, we tend to only think of cows as sacred because you can get like a hundred quarter-pounders off one. Again, it seems like such an arbitrary thing to prevent people from chowing down on them, yet there are more than 800 million people in India who would think you were some kind of weirdo if you so much as showed up to their house in a Hamburglar costume.
"Wait, you're all Hindu? Guess I'll have to eat these steaks by myself ..."
Not that they're the only ones -- we could say the same for pigs in the Middle East. They're famously off-limits to practitioners of Judaism and Islam, despite the fact that they are also Earth's most delicious animal. Hell, we can prove scientifically that pigs are good food: They're one of nature's most efficient plant-to-meat factories, converting 35 percent of the plants they eat into meat, as opposed to the measly 7 percent that cows give us. With all their benefits over other forms of livestock, it seems like they were designed by God expressly to wind up on our plates ... but more than a billion people aren't allowed to eat them. Were their religious leaders just being dicks?
So Why Do They Do It?
Indians used to eat beef, once upon a time. But India has a unique climate. They get monsoons -- periods of very intense rain that turn the ground into a sludge. That made cows really important as beasts of burden, as they're the best to farm that kind of environment. So important, in fact, that going ahead and eating them instead of strapping a plow to them could have been a death sentence for your family.
You can take my burgers after you take my goddamn life, you bastards!
So some researchers now think that for Indians who may have been short-sighted and started craving hamburgers as soon as the monsoon season went away, it was easier to reign in those desires when it was decreed that the cow was a sacred animal. It's literally your proverbial "teach a man to fish" scenario, applied to a T-bone.
Likewise, archaeology shows us that pigs actually were raised for meat in the Middle East centuries ago. As agriculture began to develop, it changed the ecosystem. As difficult as it is to imagine, the Middle East used to be heavily forested, but after the population exploded, humans changed the environment. Since pigs are much harder to raise in a desert (they require a lot of mud and water to thrive), the practice of trying to fatten up a pork dinner became a serious burden.
Would you give up pork without a divine declaration?
So whether you believe that the bacon ban was a decree from God or just shrewd farmers, either way, those who kicked pigs to the curb thrived much better in the arid climate. That is, they did it for the same reason that humans ultimately do everything: Because it worked.
#3. Ritual Laying on of Hands Strengthens Communities
Sadly, a whole bunch of the world's religious ceremonies are off-limits to you if you don't like people touching you. Baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, exorcisms ... all require the "laying on of hands," the power of the spirit flowing through the paws of other practitioners. Hell, even the magical tree-worshiping religion in Avatar required everybody to join hands:
Alhough this may have been because the artists were tired of drawing two hands for every Na'vi.
So Why Do They Do It?
Experts say it actually doesn't matter what group it is, from co-workers at an office to members of a sports team -- touching releases chemicals that help us bond to others. Specifically, a friendly touch releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and blocks the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, hugging someone isn't just a signal that you like them -- it actually makes them like you, by forcing the release of their trust chemicals.
"Yes, that's it. Feel all the red flags going off in your head melt away."
It makes sense -- as a baby, you had to have a way to know how to trust the huge, scary beings looming over your crib, despite not knowing their language. Touch was the only language you knew -- a hug or cuddle or caress were your signals to trust before your brain had developed enough to detect things like dishonesty or anger. In infancy, it's all about forming bonds. And what was important in infancy is just as important in a ritualistic setting (or basketball game, or mosh pit) -- touching strengthens those chemical bonds within the group. We're all in this together, we're all in the same group, we all trust each other.
Obviously, it has to be a loving touch if you want that oxytocin release -- you'd be able to tell right away the difference between a laying on of hands and a grab from an angry Centurion.
When you regained consciousness, of course.
And speaking of the laying on of multiple hands ...