Origin of Religions

The subject of the origin of religions is not free from debate. Perspectives differ along presuppositions. Even the scientific versions are not beyond dispute. Novel discoveries are forcing us to re-examine these scientific theories of religion that were considered to be axiomatic.

Much of the problem involved in the study of pre-literary religions arises because of the lack of sufficient historical information dating back to the time when religion began. What all we have that can give actual information dares from the literary period (c. 3000 BC) — the time when the great civilizations were rising and priesthood was being developed with the building of temples, idols, altars, and scriptures.

Archaeological findings dating to the time before the literary period do give some idea, but the interpretations cannot be considered conclusive, since they lack absolute evidence – i.e., evidence that proves the interpretations as being beyond doubt. A stone ‘altar’ might not have really been an altar after all. Though the various religious scriptures give some idea of the kind of religion practiced by their respective adherents, each of them differ in at least some way from each other in their descriptions of the origin of religion.[i]

Robert Brow cannot be considered wrong when he answers the question “What was the first religion of man?” with the statement: “Answers to this question differ widely and depend very much on what view is taken of man’s origin.”[ii] A polytheistic view, for instance, would opt for a polytheistic approach to religious history. An evolutionist would view religion as an evolved or evolving system.

The disagreement among the accounts intensifies the problem even more. Formerly, most would have chosen to cling fundamentally to their own religious tradition; but with the advent of Darwinism and the new ideological shift it provided, the intellectual climate was challenged. Darwin’s naturalistic evolutionism provided a newer perspective and way of approach. Herbert Spencer applied the idea of evolution not just to biology but also to psychology, sociology, religion, and ethics. Thus the evolutionary process of religion was charted as from animism to polytheism to monotheism, pantheism, and monism.

The evolutionist viewpoint begins with the view that man evolved from a pre-simian ancestor. And so, since animals have no religion, a long period of apish chatter and fear of the unknown marked the trail towards the first religion “animatism”. “Animatism,” a “belief in a vague, potent, terrifying inscrutable force”[iii] preceded “animism,” the spirit-fearing religion of tribals. Out of animism arose polytheism, when the nature-spirits began to be attributed with personality—intellect, emotions, and volition. Evolutionists believe that a certain form of polytheism divided the many gods hierarchically: one god was exalted above all the other gods in some way. Then each tribe began giving allegiance to a particular tribal god until monotheism was formed. Some philosophers (especially in India) began so deep an inward search that they ended up in abstractions concluding that Truth was beyond the domain of senses and could only be realized through self-abnegation. Pantheism and monism arose as a result.

The scientific garb worn by evolutionism greatly attracted and influenced scholars of most disciplines. It appeared to be proved, factual, and correct. In the west, the struggle to resolve the conflict between science and religion was tentatively solved by Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis, which attempted to interpret the Pentateuch to fit in with the evolutionary theory of history. Wellhausen’s theory has now, however, been discredited and discarded by most scholars.

The archaeological findings and writings of early historical period give evidence of a monotheistic religion with priestly practices. Wilhelm Schmidt of Vienna and anthropologists led by him have shown that hundreds of tribes around the world do not follow animism as their original religion. But most of them have a faint picture of a ‘high-god,’ a benign father-creator-god, who seems to be almost forgotten, so transcendent and so alienated that he is no longer feared. In place of him have come spirits that are dreaded and sought to appease. In other words, animism was not preceded by animatism, but it was preceded by monotheism. Religion has not evolved; it had degraded.

The hypothesis of evolution is also not beyond controversy. It has both scientific and rational as well as historical problems involved in it. That is one of the reasons why we can contend that the biblical answer is not to be so easily dismissed as outdated.  It has already been shown how anthropological researches have indicated that monotheism may be more naturally primitive as a world-view than animism. Thus, it is arbitrary to just state that religion has evolved, without considerations for other viewpoints and evidences.

The multiplication of evidence against the theory that religion originated in the fear of the dark unknown, feeling of dependence, and apish chatter and evolved into animism, polytheism, and consequentially, monotheism and monism; and the growing evidence in support of religion as having first started as monotheism and later degraded to polytheism, animism, and pantheism forces us to reconsider the biblical vantage point.

Turning to the biblical viewpoint, we see that God created the first man in His own image and likeness – i.e., as a rational, moral, volitional, and spiritual being – and began to have fellowship with him. Thus began the first religion as a relationship between God and man. The fall of man in disobedience to God’s commandment brought in the element of sacrifice. Later, descendents of Adam began to depart from the original concept of God, and the more they departed away the more distorted their conception of God, of human life, and human responsibility became. After the confusion of languages at Babel, people became divided rapidly into nations by languages and families (Gen.10: 5). Paul’s theological interpretation of this historical event was that God “made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth, and determined the times before appointed, and bounds of their habitations; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him.” (Acts 17: 26,27). This division of clans and communities prevented faster spread of religious degeneration as it had, earlier to the flood. Religious degeneration was also checked by the destruction of the tribe or ethnic group that degenerated in its morality. This is a well-witnessed fact of history. Immorality weakens a tribe to such an extent that it falls prey to invading tribes, thus bringing disaster on itself.

Signs of a system of sacrifice in pre-literary religion seem to be almost every where. But a clear interpretation of their purpose is not very easy. Only data dating from the literary period is of substantial help. Prehistory gives proof for none of the theories. That is to say, what may be considered as proof for one theory of religious history can also be interpreted as proof for an other. In addition, how do we even know that the objects had religious significance in the first place? And so whatever evidence we have dates from the time when religion had come a long way from its first and original state. By the time religion began, it had already developed a system of priesthood, place of worship, etc. therefore, since we can obtain no absolute proof for even our hypothesis of the origin of religion, we may, on recourse to reason opt for the biblical account as our starting point. Monotheism explains several historical facts that are intractable on the evolution of religion hypothesis.[iv]

Traces of the sacrificial system can be found in ancient religion. Sacrifice was a means of approaching God or gods. The nomadic Aryan tribes who invaded the Indus and Ganges plains brought along with them to India the practice of sacrifice. After their settlement in India they developed a regular priesthood, and the Vedas were born during this period. The Vedas are hymns chanted during the sacrifice. The hymns address God as ‘the sun,’ ‘the heavenly one,’ ‘the storm.’ And no matter whatever name was given to God, He was worshipped as the supreme ruler of the universe. This practice is referred to as henotheism. Later, henotheism changed into polytheism when the various names were personified to form various gods. And so, by 1000 BC, it is understood that the Vedic religion had become polytheistic; whereas, in its earliest forms it has an appearance of being monotheistic.

Attention may be focussed at the origin of the various names of God while discussing the origin of religions. The Creator-God has been called by various names in different nations. At first he was referred to as Dyaus Pitar (‘divine father’) which is the same as the Greek Zeus Pater, the Latin Jupiter or Deus, the early German Tiu or Ziu, and Norse Tyr. He was also known as ‘the heavenly one’ (Sanskrit Varuna, Greek Ouranos), or ‘the friend’ (Sanskrit mitra, Persian mithra). He was also, later, referred to as ‘the fire’ (Sanskrit agni, Latin ignis, Greek hagnos) which was crucial to the sacrificial event.

As time went by, stories and myths increased in these religions. Polytheism went rampant and deities were identified in the forms of terrestrial creatures. Sex was added to worship in the fertility cult with a host of superstitious beliefs. Monotheism having degenerated into polytheism, the religious situation got worse and worse until, finally, monotheism became almost untraceable.[v] However, monotheism didn’t totally vanish from the face of the earth. Some groups still worshipped the one true God.

Priests had become significant to religion because of the mediatory role they played between God and man. Ancient India, China, Egypt, classical Greece, Rome, and many other civilizations found priesthood emerging in their religions. The priests performed the religious rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices. Later, this priesthood degenerated into priestcraft with all its malicious and rapacious depravedness.  Rituals increased with time and apparent need. Writings, hymns, collections, etc., came into being. Thus originated religion, which still keeps going on.

We can summarize the account of the origin of religion by stating that it began, as far as it seems reasonable to assume, with the creation of man and his first understanding of God as the Almighty Creator God. This form of pure monotheism, however, began degenerating by the impact of sin into polytheism and other forms that expressed separation from God.

The Concept of God, Nature, Fear, and Salvation in Pre-Literary Religions

As to what the pre-literary-era man conceived of God is also open to discussion as has already been seen. The evolutionist would say that God was once conceived of as the dark unknown, then as forces of nature, then as spirits, gods, and lately – towards the beginning of literature-- as the transcendent God. But the biblical perspective suggests something very different. Anyway, resorting to archaeological findings becomes necessary once information regarding pre-literary religion is sought.

The interpretation of archaeological findings is not so easy. Pre-literary and pre-history are synonymous since pre-historic period refers to the period before recorded history. The period of interpretation of pre-historic materials is the difficulty one faces when ascertaining whether an object was used for religious purposes or for something else. Pre-historic source materials include the following:[vi]
  1. Burial places and burial finds,
  2. Deposition of offerings,
  3. Representation of deities, spirits, and cultic figures (carved idols, reliefs, rock paintings, etc.),
  4. Remains of constructions with religious associations, such as altars, temples, or foundations of world pillars.
The pre-historic period has been divided into
  1. The Paleolithic – Old Stone Age. Historians consider the people of this period to be hunters, food-gatherers, and fishers.
  2. The Neolithic – New Stone Age (c. 10,000 BC). During this period the hunters began turning into farmers.
Viewing from the monotheistic viewpoint, we may infer that the people of the Paleolithic period regarded God as the one who protected them and helped them in their hunting episodes. Following the monotheistic theory (that religion degenerated from monotheism to all of its other forms), we may assume that this God of the hunters became very significant only to the utilitarianistic purposes of later generations. That is to say, He was worshipped not for relationship but for benefit. For example, bear skulls found in Drachenloch cave in Switzerland seem to indicate that the dead bears’ skulls were so buried in stone coffins because it was believed that the dead animal will return to life, or persuade its relatives to make themselves available to the hunter. If this plausible ‘cultic interpretation’ is true then it indicates not only how much the concept of God had fallen down but also how low the need of worship and its quality had come down.

From 30,000 – 10,000 BC spans the Upper Paleolithic Age. The way the bodies were buried during this period gives evidence of a clear belief in life after death. Also during this time the cult of the mother-goddess appeared. The idols have very distorted features with the breasts, hips, and sexual parts excessively enlarged. This emphasis on the private parts is a sure evidence of religion degenerating into a kind of naturalism – fertility cults. The concept of hunting magic might also have appeared during this period as is indicated by the cave paintings. If it was so the concept of a Transcendent, All-powerful, Sovereign God was delimited now to a power that could be tapped in by formulas.

It is certain that man was very fearful of natural forces that could be hazardous to his survival. And so he was turning more and more to the mercy of nature, which he personified in many forms.

Urarina shaman in the Peruvian Amazon, 1988.
The Neolithic Period  (from 10,000 BC) is the period during which objects of stones are not found as chipped but as grounded and polished. During this period, producing replaced hunting. Warm weather and fast melting ice characterize the climate.  Farming and village life are established. Pottery, weaving, and agriculture come to scene. Dogs and goats are domesticated. Death and burial beliefs appear. Graves have been found with gifts in them; probably, indicating a certain kind of belief in life after death. Fertility rites also abound. Temples appear with altars, vases, etc., inside. The megalithic monuments, dolmens, and menhirs indicate that the priesthood had also indulged in astrology and magic. Superstitions and religious rituals might as well have begun to abound with further leanings towards magic, taboos, totems, and witchcraft. The interpretations are, however, only probabilities.

The temples became the places of sacrifice. Salvation-beliefs may be divided into salvation-present and salvation-future. Salvation-present was survival-oriented and was sought by appeasing gods and goddesses and also by nature worship. Salvation-future was for the peace of the soul after death. The family members buried their dead one with gifts that would give him/her comfort. There are a varied possibilities of interpretations, however.

In short, pre-historic religion with its concept of God, fear, nature, salvation might be considered to be much superstitious and utilitarianistic arising from a fear of the natural forces and the instinct for survival. Anyway, we should not presume that our hypothesis is the final.

[i] A Lion Handbook,  The World’s Religions, (Oxford, 1992), pp. 28-32
[ii] Ibid., p.30
[iii] Ibid., p.30
[iv] Ibid., p. 32
[v] Ibid., pp. 32-33
[vi] Ibid., pp.22

© Domenic Marbaniang, ACTS Academy of Higher Education, Bangalore, February 2003.


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