Why we should question the origin of religion is as much a philosophical question as it is a religious one. We first must decide whether God created man or the other way around. If man created God then there is not much to argue as all of religion would be strictly man's own invension. If God created everything, including man, then the problem becomes which religious system best reflects this God.

The history of man's religions presented on the timeline page along with much of human history.  From that presentation it is clear that religion is old. In November 2011 National Geographic ran an article about Göbekli Tepe, a place in Turkey thought to be the oldest religious site yet discovered. The size and the age of the find has caused a rethinking of their theories of the formation of human societies. Human societies burst on the scene rather suddenly and they have been theorizing for years as to how, where and why this occurred. The article allowed that it was possible that societies formed around religious ideas rather than the orher way around.  This begs the question as to what do we actually know about the subject.

It is popular in our post-modern age to deny the existence of objective truth, that is truth that is considered universally true. This is actually odd coming as it does after a scientific age were all truth claims were thought to be adjudicated by scientific observation. (This extreme position is actually known as Scientism.) Both of these positions are philosophical claims and both miss the mark. In essence the post-modernist claims that we cannot actually know anything and the scientist claims we can only know what we can measure. Both of these philosophies make mankind the center of all reality and the final arbitrator of truth, if it exists. The scientist only knows what he sees and the post-modernist cannot know anything at all. (The Anthropologist works more by abductive reasoning than experimental methods and so he is always a bit uncertain.)

Science would seem to militate against post-modernism as anything that is measurable and repeatable (established scientifically) would seem to be true for at least to those who repeatedly measured it. Science would seem to demonstrate that there are objective truths as least as they relate to the physical universe.

Friedrich Nietzsche once noted that "there is no such thing a science 'without any presuppositions.'... A philosophy, a 'faith', must always be there first, so that science can acquire from it a direction, a meaning, a limit , a method, a right to exist.' (in Spencer, p 153)

Nietzsche, well on his way to our current postmodernism, tries to eliminate all presuppositions. In doing so he also eliminates all standards of behavior and all notions of consistency that form the vary nature of science. But in this initial observation I find that we agree: Science is not free of presuppositions. These are certain basic principals that are really taken without proof. The existence of these principles, known as axioms, were acknowledged in my education but seem no longer to be mentioned. It is becoming increasingly popular to label these initial assumptions as a world view but they really amount to a faith statement. The scientific world view that is presented most commonly today is naturalistic, it is therefore only that which can be measured and observed that is considered true. The post modernist still cannot know. The social scientist is unsure.

Some historians of science such as Thomas Kuhn point out that ...a scientist's world view influences not only what he investigates but also how he interprets what he investigates. (Nicholi p 7)

This naturalistic world view is seen by many to, a priori, eliminate from consideration all things spiritual. This has not always been the case. Many scientists of earlier times were people of faith. Sir Isaac Newton for example was a Christian who studied the Bible daily and left writings related to the Bible and Biblical texts as well as physics and calculus. They came at their science from a Christian world view. That God is predictable and consistent and the world He created reflects this consistency. So it appears that some look at creation and say: "surly there is a God of order" and many of the most vocal in the scientific community look at the same universe and say "surely there is not a god but there is order." The postmodernist must conclude that there is no order, or at least none that can be determined.

We find in the writings of the likes of Sigmund Freud:

... the individual crates for himself the God "whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection." In summary, "the defense against childish helplessness is what lends its characteristic features to the helplessness which he has to acknowledge-a reaction which is precisely the formation of religion." (Sigmund Freud in Nicholi p 44)

Freud believed that as the population at large become more educated that they would give up their notion of God and religion. This is in spite of that fact that the notion of religion is universal in human societies. But at the same time he worried that with the lack of a religious impetus to behave civilly that perhaps man would not, but that is another discussion. Suffice it to say that there have been many of Freud's ilk that have worried like this because they rightly observe that religion is deeply coupled with social behavior in fact proper social behavior is a major theme in all religious schools.

The real problem in our thinking, however, comes when setting science against religion.

Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism. (King p 63)

Science, if it is solely the observation of physical reality, can never lead us to moral truth. It can take us to the moon and beyond but is silent on how to treat our neighbor. It seems likely the post-modernism leads to nihilism as well as there would seem to be unable to acknowledge a moral anchor there either.

As we proceed we need to be careful to watch our initial assumptions. Either assuming God away in the beginning or assuming that we can never actually know anything in the final analysis.

In anthropology, were we often find those who study religion a classifications system based on the number and sorts of gods that are worshiped is is often used to divide religions along conceptual lines. Classifying and organizing is what the social sciences do well so it is perhaps good at this point to define some of these broad terms.

Mana The word Mana entered English from the Oceanic languages (Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian). In its original context, mana can refer to a person who has authority or the power to exercise that authority.  Sometimes this power is considered mystical and sometimes not. In the context of the study of religion it might be defined as follows:
  1. A supernatural force believed to dwell in a person or sacred object.
  2. Power; authority.
Fetishism The word fetish is from the French fétiche; from Portuguese feitiço; from Latin facticius, "artificial" and facere, "to make."  The concept of Fetishism has its origins in the late 19th century with noted writer Charles de Brosses' theory of fetishism as a primary stage in the evolution of a religion, and from the advent of psychosexual/psychodynamic theories of society and individuals by (amongst others) Alfred Binet, and Sigmund Freud. (Wikipedia 9/15/07)

Fetishism then is the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects as a primary stage in the development of a culture or civilization.

Animism The term animism is derived from the Latin word anima meaning breath or soul.  In many religious systems all objects are thought to have a spiritual component. Animism is:
  1. The belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena.
  2. The belief in the existence of spiritual beings that are separable or separate from bodies.
  3. The hypothesis holding that an immaterial force animates the universe.
Polytheism The word Polytheism comes from the Greek words poly theoi, literally "many gods." Ancient Greek and Roman religions were polytheistic, holding to a pantheon of traditional deities.

Polytheism then is the worship of or belief in more than one god. Polytheism seems to be related to animism except the vague notion of the spirits have coalesced into more powerful gods and/or demigods.  In Polytheistic religions each god or demigod is responsible for a particular part of nature.

Henotheism Henotheism (Greek, heis theos "one god") is a term coined by Max Müller, to mean devotion to a single "God" while accepting the existence of other gods. Müller stated that henotheism means "monotheism in principle and a polytheism in fact." He made the term a center of his criticism of Western theological and religious exceptionalism (relative to Eastern religions), focusing on a cultural dogma which held "monotheism" to be both fundamentally well-defined and inherently superior to differing conceptions of God. (Wikipedia 9/15/07)
Monotheism The doctrine or belief that there is only one God usually to the exclusion of other gods.  In this we also include the Christian notion of the unity of God in three persons.

 

What is common to all of these terms is that they point us to an unseen realm of some sort. We do find that belief in some sort of a spiritual realm is universal in human cultures. (There are those who claim that there are or were pre-religious cultures but I have never seen them offer an example of one.) Additionally most religious systems do fit broadly into these categories however many of them are incompatible. (Also, missing for the above definitions are pantheistic and non-theistic religious systems.) Even though this table is not complete, it will have to do for the present. It is popular these days to ask, with Freud, the deeper question as to the the origin of these beliefs.

The origin of mankind's belief in God is only a mystery to those who question His existence. As is evident in the above table, many of these definitions really come from skeptics. In my youth, I recall that there were those who asked why it was that of all the animals, only man seemed to need religion. (There are also those who say this consciousness of the spiritual is all that separates mankind from animals. Here again asking the question in a different way changes the way one approaches it and the conclusions that are likely.) The very question presumes that man is in fact an animal, not that different from the rest, and that we know that the other animals do not have some form of religion. The latter assumption rather arrogantly assumes that we know the thoughts of the other animals or indeed that animals have thoughts that we could know. The former really has more to do with the nature of man than the nature of God or the nature of religion. The question tacitly assumes that man has evolved a little higher than the other animals rather than having been created a little lower than the angels as the Bible teaches (see Psalm 8.5). If man is the starting point the question of the origin of belief in God makes sense as god is, as Freud says above, the creation of man. If indeed there is a God then the question becomes what sort of God is there or perhaps how many gods there are. Religion then begins with God not man.

Still from the above definitions, limited knowledge of other religions and evolutionary assumptions about the nature of man, society and the world, many have postulated an evolutionary model of religion that is illustrated below. This model is supported by an evolutionary notion of societies; stone-age societies are thought to be less evolved, therefore they would have a less evolved religion. (This notion breaks down on many levels but we can note that many classify Shinto, the religion of Japan, as animistic so it would seem to follow that Japanese society is less evolved.) In this model all religions are, at their root, based on magic and superstition. The question mark on top of the figure indicates that, with Freud, we do not know what the next evolutionary step would be. Again an implicit assumption is that there is really nothing to religion at all. That it is purely a creation of man; one which man will eventually outgrow.

EvelutionModel

In this evolutionary model we see these religious systems going from a complex notion of many spirits and/or many gods to a simpler, perhaps more refined, notion of a single God. The Evolutionary model sees all religion as man trying to come to grips with the world around him and trying to explain the unexplainable. In many of the religious systems that would fit at the bottom of the pyramid, the primary aim is to appease the spirits so that the hunt will go well, the crops will come in or so that the spirits will otherwise let people get on with their lives. This is in contrast to the Monotheistic notion that it is mankind that needs to be conformed to God's laws. The driving force of this evolutionary development in this religious realm is man's intellect. As man comes to an increasing understanding of the world around him, he realizes that the rain does indeed fall on the just and the unjust irrespective of the spirit realm. (This is actually closer to our ordinary use of the term evolution then it is to biological evolution. A business model, say, will evolve in response to market pressure. It is not unthinking random acts that cause the business to change directions however. If the leadership does not respond they can still go broke by not changing in response to the external force. In the case of the business, the evolutionary process requires the intelligence of man for the business to survive. Similarly, a society that moves from the 'stone-age' to technological advancement makes that move because of the industry of its members and the available resources.)

The theory of Biological evolution actually goes the other way. Life is said to have evolved from the simple to the complex. From nonliving to living. Guided only by chance. This is not a really compelling argument against the evolutionary model for philosophy but I think it is an observation that is worth a mention as the use of the term evolution is not consistent and indeed takes on religious overtones with Randomness becoming the god. The notion that evolution requires intelligence to work does not play well with naturalists or in fundamental Christian circles. The naturalists do not want to believe in God at all and the fundamentalists do not want to believe in evolution at all. Still many authors (notably Richard Swinburne and Paul Copan) have used the notion that evolution needs guiding intelligence to work as an argument for the existence of God.

If we agree that religions or religious traditions actually do change we see that the motion is in the opposite direction than would be implied by the evolutionary model. A simple faith often becomes more complex. We see this in the Bible story; the simple relationship Adam and Eve had with God becomes a religion based on sacrifices by Genesis 4 and a host of laws (613 in all) by the end of Deuteronomy. We see this in Judaism as we move along in history. In the Torah we read "do not boil a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus 23.19b)." This command provides the basis for separating meat and dairy in the Jewish dietary laws. Because man needs to clarify what is actually meant by this we see this rather simple command becomes paragraphs in the Mishnah (circa 200) and pages in the Talmud (circa 400). The simple goes to the complex in man's attempt to understand. In fairness to the Jews, this illustration does not impact the Jews understanding of God—it goes more to their understanding of obedience. Religion generally can become more about observance than a theological understanding of God or even our relationship with Him.

If God is the starting point, the creator of all and the sole object of our religious devotion then another theory, that is actually more viable, emerges. That is Original Monotheism; the following figure based on Corduan (1998: p 35) and it illustrates what is meant.

OriginalMonotheism

At the top of the figure we have the original relationship that man had with God. Perhaps as mankind spread through out the earth the varying traditions that would still be considered monotheistic survive. We even see some possible candidates for monotheistic belief apart from the main story in the Bible. Abraham acknowledges Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High in Genesis 14. Moses father-in-law Jethro was Priest of Midian. Outside the Bible, there is evidence that most cultures at one point in the past worshiped a single creator God with animal sacrifices (much as Noah did in the Bible story).

The division between the top and bottom of the figure is not as arbitrary as it might at first appear. In general the Monotheistic traditions have mankind conforming to God's laws rather than man working some magic to placate the spirits or otherwise control nature.

The theory of Original Monotheism is often credited to Catholic missionary and anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt. Schmidt developed a method that is now what we call Cultural Anthropology to determine which cultures were actually the oldest. Applying his methods he discover that the earliest cultures worshiped a sky god, the creator of all things. According to Cordaun (1998: p. 33) Schmidt himself credited the theory to Andrew Lang who was primarily a poet and collector of folk tales. Neither of these were the first to believe that religion began with God, but they provided the modern (in the early 1900's) scholarly defense of the idea. The notion of a falling away from belief in one God is also evident in Jewish tradition as we can see from the writings of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon):

In the days of Enosh, the people deviated, and the counsel of the wise people degenerated into stupidity. Enosh himself was amongst those who deviated. Their mistaken reasoning was that since God created the skies and spheres as part of nature, and placed them high up [in the skies], and gave them dignity, and that they are servants who serve Him, it would be appropriate to laud, glorify and honour them as well. It is the will of the Almighty to make great and to dignify those who make Him great and honour Him, in the same way that a king wants to honour the servants who serve him - such is the honour of a king. Once this matter was decided upon, they proceeded to build temples to the stars, to bring sacrifices to them, to laud and glorify them verbally and to bow down to them, in order to attain [by these means] the will of the Creator by their opinions, which were evil. This was the core of idolatry, but the knowledgeable worshippers did not deny the existence of God by saying that only such-and-such a star exists. (see Rambam: Laws of Idol Worship 1:1)

The Rambam, also known as Maimonides lived primarily in Spain between 1135 and 1204. We might expect this notion from within the Judeo-Christian tradition where the ancients were not as diplomatic as the Rambam: Psalm 14.1 tells us "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God." But, the story of man abandoning a close relationship with God is more common than that. Richardson (1984) tells many stories in Eternity in Their Hearts, of people groups who were prepared to hear the Christian gospel because their own religious tradition predicted that it would be coming. He talks of the many traditional religions that, even if they are not monotheistic now, have many indications that they once were. (Included in this is Hinduism which many think was once monotheistic, this is especially true of the Vedas which date from the time of Moses.)

What is interesting is that many of these cultures remember that the reason they do not now worship a single God is that they at one time stopped giving God the obedience due Him because he expected too much. Another common theme is that this God was dwelling in an inapproachable state and the local spirits were simply more approachable.

We see this 'falling away' in the Bible story as well. In the wilderness, the Israelites constantly stray in spite of miraculous provision. When the kingdom of Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon, due primarily to their idolatry, many would not go to Babylon and instead went down to Egypt. When they were confronted by the prophet Jeremiah about their unfaithfulness to God they said:

...We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. (Jeremiah 44.17)

We see here people who were from a monotheistic tradition explicitly abandoning it for perceived rewards of the worship of other gods. The reason they are doing this is the promise of prosperity.

Many religions promise some form of success or prosperity to the observant. This notion is related to the placation of the local spirits of animism. This sort of promise is not common in the Bible. More common is the sentiment expressed by Job:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; (Job 13:15a).

God is worshipped because God is God—not to curry favor—but because He is. The sacrifices outlined in the Torah are sacrifices of atonement to mend a relationship that is fractured not to ensure the harvest. Indeed there are sacrifices to open the harvest and some to close it but always they are to acknowledge that the harvest is from God. Obedience to God's law is measured more in the treatment of the weaker members of society that it is in bringing in the proper sacrifice at the proper time. Israel is promised prosperity in the Promised Land if they remain faithful—prosperity actually would be the natural outcome of observing the law. There is a difference between prosperity and wealth. The generosity prescribed in the Torah would not have concentrated wealth but would have provided for the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

As to the existence of God: The existence of God is assumed in the Bible. God is the first cause of all that exists. It is mankind that has walked away from God; God is not hiding. Paul tells us in Romans:

20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

 

21For 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. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1.20-22)

Gods apart from the God of creation are, as Freud says, the creation of man as are religious systems for a large part. God as the first cause should be discernable because of his creation. Some are sensitive to his presence and some are not. Perhaps belief does come down to faith after all but it is a faith supported by history, tradition and reason.


Footnotes:

 Richard Swinburne, who is an Orthodox Christian, used this argument in a lecture titled "Arguments for the Existence of God" I attended at an evangelical church. He was subsequently confronted by one of the associate pastors because that argument did not square with a literal interpretation of the Genesis account. He allowed that the Biblical creation story could be literally true and that no one actually knew. He made it clear that he believed that evolution would eventually be shown to be correct and that because it required the input of information to work did not preclude the existence of God.

Paul Copan makes a statement similar to mine in How do You Know You're Not Wrong? but does not elaborate as it is not the primary point of his book.


 Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. This view seems to have been held by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1922) when he said such things as "The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science..." He later repudiated this view.

In the weak sense, scientism is the view that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to any subject matter. (http://www.skepdic.com/scientism.html 10/23/11)


 Naturalism is a metaphysical theory that holds that all phenomena can be explained mechanistically in terms of natural (as opposed to supernatural) causes and laws. Naturalism posits that the universe is a vast "machine" or "organism," devoid of general purpose and indifferent to human needs and desires. (http://www.skepdic.com/naturalism.html 10/23/11)


 Abduction is a kind of logical inference, or arriving at a hypothesis by a method similar to "guessing". To abduce a hypothetical explanation a from an observed surprising circumstance b is to surmise that a may be true because then b would be a matter of course. Thus, to abduce a from b involves determining that a is sufficient (or nearly sufficient), but not necessary, for b.

For example, the lawn is wet. But if it rained last night, then it would be unsurprising that the lawn is wet. Therefore, by abductive reasoning, the possibility that it rained last night is reasonable.

We note that this is formally equivalent to affirming the consequent, which is logical fallacy. The point is that in the case of the lawn we should perhaps check the sprinkler settings.