It seems to be a currently popular New Atheist talking point that religion is and has always been a means for the elite to control and manipulate the masses. But it's nonsense. We don't even know how old religion is -- it appears to be more than 30,000 years old, judging from artifacts which have been found. How much older than that? Nobody knows. (Some say that recently-found 70,000-year-old artifacts show the presence of religion, but that's controversial.) And you know that for that entire time it's been systematic manipulation? I don't think so. Writing which has been discovered so far goes back less than 6000 years. When we think about human behavior before that, to a very great extent we are poking around in the dark and guessing -- much the same way that we are only guessing when we try to understand what may be going on the minds of other species.
How old is religion? We don't know. When it began, was human society organized into anything which could be called elites and masses? Sing it with me, children: we don't know.
"Religion is and has always been a means for the elite to control and manipulate the masses." That sounds as if religion has always been controlled by elites who themselves don't believe in it. As if it has always been a con, a lie. That fits in very well with the New Atheist black-and-white, atheism-good, religion-bad dichotomy. But is it justified in any way by the actual history and prehistory of religion? No doubt, there has been a very cozy relationship between religious authority and political power for a very long time. No doubt today much of this relationship is maintained in a cynical way by powerful elites. Some neoconservatives, not all of them, are atheists who think that religion, while not for them, is good for the masses, or at least good for keeping the masses in line. But the thing is, we're very far from being able to prove that all of the elites who say that they have religious beliefs are insincere. The fact that a religion is very beneficial for someone does not prevent that person from believing in it. Robert Musil thought that the very opposite was true, and it's not an entirely daffy thought.
As far back as ancient Rome we have records of people having said cynically that religions in which they themselves clearly did not believe were good for controlling the masses. But not any longer ago than that. As far back as back as ancient Greece there is evidence that a few people were atheists, but not any longer ago than that, and it was not more than a handful of ancient Greeks.
We can't make the mistake of assuming that there were always people like us. We have to reckon with the possibility than religion may be much, much older than atheism. We can reasonably conjecture that religion is more than 30,000 years old, and ask how much older it might be. We can reasonably conjecture that atheism is more than 2500 years old, and guess about how much older it might be. But there's a real possibility that for tens of thousands of years, maybe for hundreds of thousands of years or even millions of years, ALL of our ancestors believed in gods.
Cities began to develop thousands of years ago -- how many thousands? And all the people said: We don't know. And all the people said: We don't know. But in the remains of the oldest cities we've found, 10 or 12 thousand years old, a big honkin' temple always seems to have been in the middle of town, suggesting that priests and kings were one and the same category. But it doesn't follow from that that the priest/kings were manipulating people, or that they didn't believe in the religions which they preached. That's a premature conclusion, the evidence for it is entirely lacking. And as I mentioned above, religion seems to be much, much older than city life. We don't know very much at all about how human -- or humanoid -- or primate societies may have been organized when religion first arose, inasmuch as we entirely lack such crucial pieces of the puzzle as when religion arose, to name just one.