Top Menu

The (True/False) Origin of (True/False) Religion

By Winfried Corduan –

You may; you may not. You may; you may not. Okay, you may—but only on my terms!”

How did religion begin? The above litany seems to characterize a contemporary approach to this question. Tomoko Masuzawa begins her acclaimed study, In Search of Dreamtime, with the declaration: “It has been some time since the question of the origin of religion was seriously entertained. Today, there is little sign of the matter being resuscitated and once again becoming the focus of the lively debate of old.”1 In fact, she alleges that there is a virtual prohibition on this topic, expressed by “the dictum, ‘Thou shalt not quest for the origin of religion.’”2

This attitude, as Masuzawa argues in her book, is decidedly peculiar since the early works that gave rise to the academic discipline of “comparative religion” devoted themselves precisely to the issue of how religion began, so that the field today seems to deny its very roots. Furthermore, she feels that this paradox is even more puzzling since, after all, religions themselves usually stress their own origin.

How can it be that an issue of this nature has become virtually taboo in the eyes of many today when it was such a passionate enterprise about a hundred years ago? Let me state the reality bluntly. There is good reason to believe that once actual data were collated on the subject, the non-Christian academy would rather not address the question any longer than face the conclusion that emerged. More specifically, once it became clear that the most plausible theory for the origin of religion was a monotheism that dovetailed the biblical picture of God, the academy preferred to drop the question rather than accept this answer. Or, as we shall see, in many cases they achieved the same result by redefining the question so as to avoid the unwanted conclusion.


In the nineteenth century, many scholars vied for the supremacy of their particular theories of the origin of religion. This was a time when European universities were seriously beginning to study the non-Western world, and, confronted with the many religions in the world, the question came up as to how it is that so many people have so many different beliefs, while also holding certain beliefs and practices in common. Given the exhilaration generated by Charles Darwin’s newly celebrated postulations on biological evolution, the idea of an evolution of religion immediately became a popular inspiration for scholarly theories. Most of what was written at that time shared the following assumptions:

  1. Undeveloped cultures today (so-called “primitive” cultures) reflect what all archaic (e.g., Paleolithic) human cultures must have been like.
  2. The human beings in these cultures are child-like, unintelligent, and superstitious. They are only capable of a very simplistic form of religion.
  3. There must be some, one, single phenomenon that started the religion; the less complex it is, the more likely is it a vestige of the original religion of humankind.
  4. Modern science has given us methods of understanding original human religions without having to accept any supernatural spiritual reality.
  5. From its infantile beginnings, religion evolved into an ever-increasingly complex set of beliefs and practices with the “great” monotheistic traditions as their crowning achievement.

More than anything, the debates at the time concerned the question of what exactly that first religion must have looked like. Did human beings first worship trees or rocks? The sun, the moon, or the stars? Spirits in the forest or the spirits of their ancestors? The sky or the earth? Or, did religion originate maybe not so much with objects of worship as with magic practices, attempts by human beings to control their environment through certain rituals? These and other ideas had their proponents, and various writers argued for their theory as the one that had the final explanation.

Let us just mention two examples. Max Müller, who is frequently thought of as the “father of comparative religion,” believed that archaic people derived their first ideas of gods from the natural phenomena they saw around them. As they were impressed by, say, the heavenly bodies or meteorological phenomena such as thunder and lightning, they expressed their awe in descriptive phrases. Then, through an accidental misunderstanding of what they had been saying, later generations turned the descriptive phrases into the names of gods. Think of yourself as walking through a forest and commenting on how beautiful it is; subsequently someone picks up on your statement and believes that you had talked about a god named “Beautiful.” Thus, in Muller’s view, religion began with an awareness of nature, followed by “a disease of language.”3

Or, to take another example, one of the most popular theories of the origin of religion was that of E. B. Tylor. Tylor believed that the origin of religion lay with the self-discovery among humans that they were not just material entities, but had souls. From there, according to Tylor’s theory, they inferred that (a) the souls of persons survive death, so that humans become ancestor spirits and that (b) all of nature is filled with personal spirits as well. Thus people began to venerate these spirits until eventually they started to worship some of the more exalted spirits as gods. This theory, called “animism,” became one of the most widespread ideas on the topic of the origin of religion.4

Let there be no doubt about this: the theorists of their day made highly persuasive cases for their work. As they advocated certain positions, they wrote lengthy discussions that integrated their philosophical commitments with their knowledge of other cultures and religions, and they produced studies that, once one made an initial commitment to their perspectives, made a lot of sense. One should not infer, just because they turned out to be wrong in their conclusions, that they did shoddy work.

Still, wrong they were. As detailed and careful as many of these studies were, they also had this in common: They began with the assumption of their own theory and then aligned the factual material in religion and anthropology with that theory, but they faltered at the fundamental question of whether the theory actually stood up to the facts. Once the facts were in, the picture would change dramatically.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, field scholars were accumulating vast reams of studies on traditional cultures and their religions. As they and others analyzed this material, one amazing fact emerged: the least developed cultures (those that supposedly represented the most archaic human condition) did actually believe in a monotheistic religion. What was thought to be the highest achievement of human religious development turned out to be the foundation on which all religion started.

Andrew Lang first publicized these findings at the turn of the century.5 What makes his disclosures so poignant is that Lang initially had no intention of promoting anything new, let along anything that would cause a virtual revolution in his field. He was a disciple of E. B. Tylor, a proponent of the theory that religion began with animism. But when Lang scrutinized various reports on some Australian aboriginal tribes, he noticed that those tribes that were the least developed in their general culture (hunter-gatherer societies subsisting on a stone-age level) practiced religions that focused on a high god in the sky. Lang felt himself obliged to conclude that the most archaic religion must have been an original monotheism. Insofar as people paid attention to Lang’s exposition—and few did—they alleged that the cultures in question must have been “contaminated” by monotheistic ideas from missionaries or other representatives of “higher” faiths. However, a close examination of the evidence made it clear that there could not have been any such external influence; these cultures turned out to be genuinely monotheistic in their own right.

The German ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt provided this insight with further intellectual support, and his name has become virtually synonymous with the theory of original monotheism.6 Schmidt not only demonstrated that the cultures in question were, indeed, the most archaic, but also that the same phenomenon that Lang discovered in Australia occurred in other parts of the world. Specifically, among the aboriginal people of the Philippines, Africa, and North America, it is again the least developed cultures that demonstrate the clearest idea of monotheism. Furthermore, the belief in God involved is not some vaguely formulated awareness of the divine, but the idea of a personal all-powerful, all-knowing creator God—in short, the concept of God as traditionally associated with biblical theism. By the method of the evolutionists of religion themselves,
it turned out that religion did not slowly evolve from infantile beginnings until finally arriving at monotheism, but, in fact began with an explicit monotheism.

Now, obviously, the story of the development of religion does not stop there since not every human being is a monotheist, to say the least. In fact, even traditional cultures that are not so far removed in advancement from the archaic cultures in question frequently manifest very few vestiges of theism. Before pursuing this thread, however, let me clarify the reaction to Schmidt’s conclusions in the scholarly world.


The debate on the theory of original monotheism came to epitomize the clash between theory and history. On the one hand, the theories of earlier scholars offered certain ideas deeply rooted in philosophical assumptions. On the other hand, Schmidt’s documentation led to factual conclusions that were unacceptable within those philosophical commitments. The evolutionary ideas were grounded in naturalistic models that explained religion without having to accept the reality of God. Original monotheism raised the issue of whether religious narratives in which human history begins with a self-revealing Creator-God might not be true, after all. So, should one sacrifice a good theory on the altar of  historical evidence?

I would imagine that most people who have not had exposure to recent writings in religion would think that there is very little question here. If the historical evidence points in one direction, let the theory follow the evidence wherever it leads. Unfortunately, that is not how these matters work in some circles today. The contemporary postmodern mindset has made it permissible to embrace a theory even though the facts may militate against it. So, Joseph M. Kitagawa seeks to remind us, as though it were something that everyone understands and accepts, that “the origin of religion is not a historical question; ultimately it is a metaphysical one.”7

I dare say that this kind of pronouncement may strike you as unintelligible. You may have thought that the question of the origin of religion was about something that happened at a time long ago when human beings first became conscious of God or spirits or maybe when they started to pray or practice rituals or whatever the first religion may have looked like. But not so for Kitagawa and many other scholars in religious studies today. They have turned this question into a metaphysical or psychological one. As Lawrence E. Sullivan boasts, there is now available “a more profound hermeneutics of religion,”8 a declaration that sounds weighty, but is really only a pretext to allow philosophical ideas to swallow up facts if expedience demands it. Masuzawa calls for a reopening of the question of religious origins, but then clarifies that she considers the issue to be about “the practice of knowledge and power, about the politics of writing,”9 not about anything factual or historical.10

And so, many writers today either dismiss the question of the historical origin of religion as inappropriate, or redefine it so as to sidestep the historical conclusions. Instead of actually addressing how and when human beings first found religious awareness, they expound on the nature of that awareness and call it “origin” from time to time, but only if there are no intimations of actual historical beginnings. Under the heading of “phenomenology of religion,” “history of religion” (a highly paradoxical label in this context), “psychology of religion,” or just plain “religious studies,” many writers advance interpretations of the nature of religious belief without engaging the historical bedrock questions that the religions actually do claim for themselves.


One of the prominent fountainheads of this movement was Rudolf Otto, a German scholar who published a work entitled The Idea of the Holy, in which he focused on the non-rational side of religion. He advocated the view that religion began with a subliminal awareness, a feeling of awe and wonder that he called “the Holy,” and that this feeling takes precedence over the rational and objective content of religion. Thus, he emphasized the subjective side of religion to the point of claiming that a historical origin of religion, such as the idea of a primeval monotheism, would make true inward religious experience impossible.11 Only by beginning with a subjective starting point could one really do justice to the nature of religion. Wilhelm Schmidt rightly observed what anyone else can see by looking at Otto’s exposition, namely, that “he makes not the faintest attempt at proving any of his propositions whatsoever.”12 But what makes Schmidt’s observation so poignant is that, whereas one might conclude that it reveals a serious defect in Otto’s scholarship,13 in the postmodern framework of today it may not make the least bit of difference because historical evidence may not be relevant.

Now, before going further with this matter, let me remark that we can learn much from Otto’s analysis, and that the same thing will apply to some of the other writers we will mention momentarily.14 There is no need to throw out everything they are saying. For example, when Otto describes the feeling of fear that can overcome a people as they contemplate the presence of God, he is taking cognizance of an important part of religious experience. No question, there is a non-rational, subjective side of religion, and we can learn a great deal about ourselves as religious human beings by studying it. Still, that fact by itself has nothing to say about the origin of religion. We still want to know: when and how did that feeling originate? Otto made it appear as though we have to choose between the two: historical origin or personal experience. But surely we can learn about religious experience while also maintaining that there is a historical origin for religion!

Just as the late nineteenth century held a plethora of theories on the evolutionary origin of religion, so the twentieth century has given us a cornucopia of attempts to describe religion from a non-rational perspective. Some of them were hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular, most notably among them perhaps the spiteful fabrications of Sigmund Freud, who contended that religion is the outgrowth of serious human maladaptions, such as the desire to kill one’s father while simultaneously yearning for an ideal father—and one’s mother.15 Other interpretations have been more sympathetic. Freud’s student, C. G. Jung, posited that our religious images are the manifestations of ancient images, which he called archetypes, that inhabit our unconscious.16 Mircea Eliade, a Romanian scholar, depicted religion in terms of the specific times, places, and objects that evoke a sense of the sacred in us: the sky, a holiday, a church sanctuary, baptismal water, and so forth. He called these occasions “hierophanies,” which means “manifestations of the sacred.”17

As many insights as these theories may provide (and as is true for all human wisdom, none are without flaw, but none are without any truth either), and despite protestations by Kitagawa, Sullivan, and others that they have a better way of understanding the question, inquiring minds still want to know how religion started. Describing a subjective state that religious people share is all very well, if the descriptions happen to be accurate, but it does not hide the fact that the true question of origins still goes begging. Masuzawa grumbles that “anyone who has occasion to teach ‘religious studies’ in an undergraduate curriculum has likely found in the audience an alarming receptivity to the notion of religion as origin, source, or center related.”18 But perhaps what she finds alarming is actually reassuring, namely that, outside of a small academic circle, people are not yet prepared to let meaningful questions about a supernatural reality beyond themselves be transformed into preordained statements about themselves or society.


So, what happened in the early days of human religion? The picture that emerges from the anthropological data obviously does not yield the same details as the story in the Bible, but the basic motif is the same. We do not find the garden or the serpent or the forbidden fruit, but we do find human beings in a state of moving away from the God they once knew. Simply put, people turned their backs on the one God who created them. As the book of Romans states, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Instead of continuing to focus on God, they started to focus on spirits, magical forces, and increasingly elaborate rituals.

Let me explain this process just a little more since on the surface it seems such a counterproductive thing to do. Why would anyone leave the worship of an infinite all-powerful being for the sake of devoting oneself to finite, capricious spirits? One would think that the religion of the true God is preferable to a religion based on ritual and fears. But here’s the thing: human beings like to be able to shape their own lives; they want to do things about their lot in life, avert misfortunes, or bring about success. With an infinite God, one can pray, beseech, entreat, worship, make offerings, bribe, or flatter, but one cannot coerce him into doing something that he is not intent on doing. On the other hand, the world of spirits and other spiritual forces is usually understood as something that a human being can directly influence. The spirits will not always do what a person wants them to, but more often than not such a failure is the fault of the person, not of the spirit. If only he or she had done the right thing, the spirits would have had to cooperate. So, for example, if my child should be sick, I can pray to God and hope that he will hear my prayers, but I cannot ultimately influence the outcome, and so my actions are not what make the decisive difference. On the other hand, if I determine that my child’s illness is caused by one or more evil spirits, I can do a lot of things, such as exorcise the spirits or find some means of preventing the spirits from returning. That way, I can become an active participant in the healing of my child.

So, the earliest story of religions mirrors a fundamental theological reality: that we are all in a state of alienation from God, and that this alienation manifests itself in our desire to be our own gods, to be in charge of our destiny, and to encounter the spiritual world on our own terms. We want to dictate to God how he should relate to us, and when God does not conform to our prescriptions, we go elsewhere. This is the pattern that emerges from the early history of human religion. To be sure, no tribal culture actually exists in a pre-fallen state; we are all already under the curse of sin. Still, in these earliest cultures we see a religion directed to God, but, in the process of trying to manipulate their world, human beings created religions that supposedly enabled them to change their own fortunes.

From that decisive moment of turning away from God and toward one’s own practices, it makes sense to look at the many natural patterns that have influenced the development of religions around the world. Agrarian cultures tend towards a fertility-oriented religion; societies dominated by warfare and hunting will emphasize these features in their religions as well. Here, too, only the particular evidence for any given region or people will suffice to explain specifically what happened. Theories must still take a back seat to the facts, and the facts demonstrate that religions changed—dare one go so far as to say “evolved”—in many different ways. Nevertheless, those later patterns of change are only modifications of the initial change, the reversal away from God and to oneself.

I do not believe that the question of the origin of religion will fade away. Even though at present certain scholars may either try to ignore it altogether or try to bury it in postmodern obfuscations, human beings will always want to know how it all began. And then, there will always be the truth that “In the beginning, God . . .” AJ

Winfried Corduan is professor of philosophy and religion at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana. He is the author of the book Neighboring Faiths (IVP).

1 Tomoko Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime: The Quest for the Origin of Religion (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993), 1. 2 Ibid., p. 2.

3 Max Müller, Natural Religion (New York: AMS Press, 1975; originally published in 1889).
4 E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom (2 vols.; London: Murray, 1929, originally published in 1872.)

5 Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion (New York: Longmans Green, 1898).

6 Wilhelm Schmidt, Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 12 vols. (Münster: Albrecht, 1926-1955) and the abridged version: The Origin of Religion: Facts and Theories. (London: Methuen, 1931).

7 Joseph M. Kitagawa, The History of Religions: Understanding Human Experience (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 23.
8 Lawrence E. Sullivan, “Supreme Beings,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, 16 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 14:178.

9 Masuzawa, Dreamtime, 8.
10 Even Raffaele Pettazzoni, whose work overlapped with Schmidt’s to some extent, was not immune. Even though, like Schmidt, he undertook immense factual studies, he still held that one ought to achieve “balance” between theory and history. See his Essays on the History of Religions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1954).
11 Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford, 1931), 135.
12 Schmidt, Origin and Growth, 142. Otto does make reference to the theory or original monotheism as espoused by Schmidt and Lang (and subscribed to in this book). He even acknowledges that there are some instances of God-awareness in primitive societies where the monotheistic beliefs are not the result of influences from other theistic religions, such as Christian missionaries. But he credits them to “anticipations and presentiments rather than survivals” (Otto, Holy, p. 134). Unfortunately for his case, as we mentioned in chapter two, these cultures are at the lowest level of development, and subsequent ones show a decrease in God-awareness rather than an increase, so they can hardly be “anticipations” of future developments.
13 Having made this serious, and I believe valid, charge against Otto at this point, I wish to hasten to say that in other respects Rudolf Otto was a fine scholar who produced a number of studies that are both rigorous and insightful. Even The Idea of the Holy, apart from Otto’s claims concerning religious origins, has much to offer as an analysis of religious experience.
14 We should certainly not rule out that there is a non-rational, psychological side to religion and religious experience. I personally make cautious use of some of the conclusions of Otto, Eliade, and Jung in my upcoming A Tapestry of Faiths: Christianity Among the World’s Religions (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
15 Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1948).
16 C. G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (New York: Doubleday, 1964).
17 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1959).
18 Masuzawa, Dream Time, 4.

2376 Lakeside Drive
Birmingham, AL 35244