What was the first religion? Monotheism. Yep.
Many of you were probably told in school that it was something like animism, ancestor worship, or shamanism, which then evolved over time into the religions we have today. It’s a gut punch to the Christians in the room, if they take the Bible seriously. After all, anthropologists declaring definitively that monotheism is only the last in a long line of religious development can be downright disturbing.
However, you may be shocked to learn that this “religious evolution” idea is over 130 years old and was vigorously and successfully challenged over 100 years ago! With no substantive response!
In fact, the best evidence actually points to the following conclusion:
Monotheism, or the acknowledgement and worship of one supreme creator god, is humanity’s oldest religion!
Of course, today, not all monotheistic religions are alike, so it would be naive to think that the oldest monotheism of ancient hunter-gatherer societies was somehow the same across all continents and all times. Islam and Judaism, after all, are both monotheistic, but both worship very different gods with distinct characteristics.
Christians should know that proving Original Monotheism does not necessarily mean all hunter-gatherers worshipped Yahweh, the God of the Bible, per se. However, the case for an Original Monotheism is a powerful aid in developing Christian apologetics in the fields of anthropology, ethnology, and historical analysis.
Evidence for The Oldest Monotheism
Many of us in the West are familiar with the three main monotheistic world religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Most of us Westerners, however, may not be familiar with other monotheistic religions around the world like Baha’i, where God manifests Himself in a succession of prophets starting with Abraham, or Zoroastrianism, in which Ahura Mazda created the world and works in it through his Spenta Mainyu, or Holy Spirit.
Even fewer people in the West have ever considered that there is a single creator god found buried in the traditions of the world’s religions … perhaps some that you wouldn’t expect!
- In Traditional African Religion, a Creator God of the sky established the world and a moral order; the people must navigate these expectations while also considering the wills and actions of natural spirits and spirits of the dead.
- Traditional Native American Religions similarly have a Supreme Being with few distinguishing characteristics and layers of natural and ancestral spirits below.
- By the time of the writing of the oldest Rig-Vedas in Hindu, the original sky god, Dyaus Pitar (literally ‘Sky Father’), was diminished in importance. He is only mentioned six times in the Rig-Vedas.
- Viracocha, the original creator god of the Incan pantheon, was nearly forgotten. Then, Pachacuti (Incan king, 1438 to 1471 AD), disenfranchised with the Incan sun god Inti, revived the worship of this old original god amongst the elites of society.
- The Santal, an ancient people nestled in Calcutta, India and fiercely independent of the Hindu culture, had Thakar Jiu, their original creator god.
- Ancient Chinese religion, as told in the Chinese Classics, was primarily directed at Shang Di, the Lord of Heaven. (Introduction, Part 1, Part 2)
The case of the Sky Father in the oldest Rig-Vedas is particularly interesting as well, given the Hindis’ ancestors (the Proto-Indo-Europeans) migrated across Asia and Europe, spreading their culture, language and religion far and wide. From Ancient Rome to Sumeria to India, scores of pantheons of gods terminate with a semi-retired creator god hidden in the background.
We can talk about how this came to be and what we should do about this god another time. For now, the interesting thing about all this is the fact that when you dig down deep into the earliest religious traditions from all over the world, you stumble upon a creator God who lives in the sky.
There is not enough time or space on this blog to rehash the entire case for monotheism. After all, there are more than 200 years of research in archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, and analysis through which to sort. I will give you the basics here, but if you prefer it in video format, watch this awesome documentary by Michael Jones over at Inspiring Philosophy’s Youtube channel. He covers much of the same material I do here.
E. B. Tylor’s Animism Theory
The prevailing understanding of the development of religion in today’s Western civilization is rooted in a Darwinian perspective espoused by the anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917). During Tylor’s time, Darwin’s theories of human descent were spreading through academia. Many anthropologists and ethnologists took a worldview that some humans are evolutionarily “more advanced” than others and incorporated that view into their study of indigenous peoples all over the world.
With this presupposed Darwinian understanding of “primitive” cultures, and with the expansion of Western anthropology and ethnology in the late 1800s, white men spread across the globe, documenting and cataloguing the beliefs and lifestyles of isolated tribes and developing theories of how they came to be.
Over time, these scientists found themselves grappling with an astonishing discovery: the most isolated hunter-gatherer societies from all parts of the world had a highly developed system of moral beliefs and a supreme god from whom all these moral expectations came!
Shocking, I know.
This discovery of a supreme god, creator of all things and originator of moral duties, amongst the most “primitive” people groups worldwide was unnerving to the prevailing Darwinian worldview. After all, it was supposed, monotheism is too high and complex a concept for “primitive” peoples and must therefore be a later development, growing out of polytheism or some other way. (ugh… sarcasm)
Perhaps it was racism. Perhaps evolutionary thought diminished these men’s opinions of what “primitive” people could possibly believe. For whatever reason, anthropologists took this data coming in from all parts of the globe and developed theories favoring other various types of beliefs as the oldest religions found among older cultures of indigenous tribes. Initially, candidates for the first religion included fetishism, shamanism, earth magic, etc.
E. B. Tylor’s theory was that animism was the first religion. In his multi-volume work Primitive Culture, Tylor tried to reconstruct the thinking that preliterate humans engaged in what would eventually lead to the first religion. Tylor imagined a hypothetical human that developed an awareness of an immaterial part of themselves (presumably from (a) the difference between the living and the dead, and (b) wondering at the source of dreams). This hypothetical human would then come to the conclusion that they had what we would call a soul or spirit.
From there, this hypothetical person would then reason that if they had a soul or spirit, other things like animals, plants, and even inanimate objects might have this spiritual aspect. Tylor then went on to extrapolate how this initial human belief evolved over time into making idols. They would favor certain spirits by turning them into gods, developing a pantheon, and then eventually selecting one of them as their supreme god and attributing to that deity the creation of all things.
While this theory took the academic world by storm and received near universal praise, it is crucial to note the presumptiveness of this approach just on its face.
- Tylor’s theory presumes that the first religion was the most simple form, perhaps even lacking essential elements. This is not a sound presumption, as it precludes many other viable theories and is akin to concluding that the first car must have lacked wheels, because it would have been a ‘simpler’ form of car.
- Tylor also assumes the people in his hypothetical thought process could not reason in a different way from the initial realization that they had a soul. What if they simply said, “Why do I have a soul?” or “Who made all this?” or “Why am I like this?” It seems quite forced to postulate that an intelligent human being (whose brain structures have been the same as ours for over 200,000 years!) would make the kinds of mental steps Tylor proposes they took.
My simple observations are just the tip of the iceberg.
Even after eventually buckling under the weight of its assumptions and its successful refutations using new evidence, Tylor’s theory nevertheless continued its “rock star” status in the minds of Western academia as if nothing was wrong with it. It fit so perfectly into the Darwinian paradigm that it became almost unassailable in the scientific literature. In fact, Tylor’s theory is taught today in our modern education system and is displayed prominently in our Western textbooks!
Andrew Lang’s Refutation of Tylor
However, Tylor’s protégé, Andrew Lang (1844-1912), who initially espoused and defended Tylor’s theory, eventually began calling attention to its defects. As more data came in from around the world, especially concerning the beliefs of the aboriginal Australians, he pointed out that:
- Certain people on the simplest level of material culture had some of the highest moral standards found anywhere in the world, and
- Those standards were based on their belief in a single God who created them, watched over them, gave them His laws, and enforced them.
Though many in Tylor’s camp held that any monotheistic tendencies among indigenous arose from contact with Western missionaries, Lang pointed out that these Australians had concealed their beliefs from newcomers, only revealing these beliefs in stoic coming-of-age ceremonies for the young men entering manhood. These people also distanced themselves from other tribes who had animistic tendencies, claiming that those tribes had drifted away from the One True God.
Lang also pointed out that to claim that indigenous peoples were so naïve, so weak-minded that they would give up all of their traditional beliefs just because some white Christian missionaries showed up bordered on hubris and smacked of racism. These hunter-gatherer tribes had been maintaining their way of life for thousands of years before encountering any missionaries; why assume they’d throw away all their closely-held beliefs just because someone told them about Jesus?
Enter Wilhelm Schmidt
As Lang developed his own theory of original monotheism to counter Tylor’s animism, a man named Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1955) entered the fray. A German teacher, linguist and priest, Schmidt fell in love with the languages and anthropology of Oceania, Australia, and Southeast Asia.
As a member of the Society of the Divine Word, whose main purpose was to send and support missionaries all over the world, and by way of his teaching post at the University of Vienna, Schmidt had access to thousands of missionary and anthropological reports from around the world. Compiling over 40 years of data, Schmidt published a massive, 12-volume, 11,000 page work entitled Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (The Origin of the Idea of God), in which he defended his theory of original monotheism using a methodology he and Fritz Graebner developed for determining the oldest cultures in the world (Kulturkerise, or Culture Circles).
Historically, the critiques of his work are shallow and fleeting. These critiques are outlined and analyzed one after another in Dr. Winfred Corduon’s book “In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism” (2013).
The majority of Schmidt’s opponents dismissed his work out-of-hand primarily due to his status as a Jesuit priest, implying bias. Additionally, most of the early critiques focused on the first two volumes (and sometimes only on the first couple chapters!) of Schmidt’s Der Ursprung and ignored the rest. In addition, Schmidt had a habit of immediately documenting objections to his work and incorporating them swiftly into his other published works, complete with refutations using evidence and meticulous analysis of his opponents’ arguments.
Most of Schmidt’s responses to these challenges went unanswered.
Schmidt’s tendency to successfully and forcefully defend his positions also caused an interesting shift in strategy by critics to avoid his conclusions as he continued to develop more and more evidence confirming his theory of original monotheism. For instance,
- Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) escaped Schmidt’s theories by paradoxically insisting the study of the origins of religion is not a historical question at all but a metaphysical one (apparently ignoring the definition of the word “origin”)!
- Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) rejects Schmidt’s work as irrelevant, insisting inquiry into the historical facts of religious origins is completely outweighed by a purely psychological methodology, contending the current subjective experiences of those being studied is the only thing that matters in the origins debate while at the same time declining to provide evidences for his speculations.
- The French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) contended that all religions developed from group ceremonies where the clan itself became a totem, which was then personified in various ways; his arguments rested on demonstrably erroneous assumptions concerning how ancient peoples lived and worshipped.
So That’s It, Then! We Teach Monotheism as the Oldest Religion, Right?
Unfortunately, because of the harsh, knee-jerk dismissal of Schmidt’s and others’ work in academia and despite Schmidt’s efforts to defend his theory, original monotheism was largely ignored. This continues even today. Encyclopedia Britannica’s online entry on Culture Circles preemptively dismisses the theory for you. The entry consists of just two paragraphs – the first describing the basics of the method and the other declaring its ‘resounding rejection’ by academics in the mid-20th century.
In the meantime, an unscientific and tragic phenomenon in modern anthropology has occurred. Due to the unsuccessful refutation of original monotheism and the lack of viable alternative theories, anthropologists embraced the conclusion that monotheism is the original religion and all other religions are degradations of the same, right?
Of course not.
The study of the origins of religion has simply halted, and has for decades. In the words of Tomoko Masuzawa in his book In Search of Dreamtime: The Quest for the Origin of Religion (1993), on page 1:
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. Looking back upon the bold speculations of their forefathers, contemporary scholars of religion seem to consider themselves to be in a new phase of scholarship, having learned, above all, not to ask impossible question[s]… Such is the present-day assessment of these “theories,” and if we still study these ideas today, it is supposed to be only in order to assist their more decorous – and more secure – second burial.
Because of this, our textbooks still teach Tylor’s 130-year-old untenable theory that all religions grew out of animism.
But if Schmidt was right…
If Schmidt’s theories are unrefuted in any consequential way, and the idea of a single supreme creator god really is the oldest religion, shouldn’t we see evidence of this?
Shouldn’t we see Original Monotheism’s later development into the religions we see and study today?
Hence, this blog. Stay tuned. 🙂