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Did Religion Come from God or Us? Interview with Winfried Corduan (Part 1)

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He has his bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), his master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and his PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His master’s thesis was on apologetics to atheists, and his doctoral dissertation was on apologetics to Buddhists. In 2014, he co-authored The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw with Norman Geisler. Daniel works as editorial director for the Renew Network. His passion is to help people understand that they can totally trust Jesus. He plays guitar and piano and occasionally enjoys writing songs. daniel@renew.org

*Editor’s Note: Where did religion come from in the beginning? Was it something that humans created which later evolved into belief in one supreme God (monotheism)? Or is it possible that monotheism was the original religion which later religions deviated from? I recently caught up with a dear friend and exceptional scholar named Winfried Corduan. One of Win’s research interests is the concept of original monotheism. This is the belief that the earliest religion was based on the belief in one God. However, many scholars of religion teach that monotheism came much later in religion’s development (i.e., the evolutionary view of religions). With so many scholars holding to the evolutionary view, can there be good evidence for original monotheism? To find out, listen in on this conversation with Win Corduan.

Q: Why does it matter whether religion came from God or from us?

Well, for one thing, there is a big leap in the Bible between Noah and Abraham. We start with one God, and then we jump to Abraham in a very polytheistic world. According to the Bible, it started with monotheism. So, if religion came from God, then it helps demonstrates the veracity of the Bible. Original monotheism is consistent with the teaching of the Bible.

Q: You Google “Where did religion come from?” and the first entry is a BBC article called “How and why did religion evolve?” It seems to assume from the outset that religion is a process of evolution, not something created in the beginning by God. Is that what most scholars of religion believe happened?

I think the more common belief among the actual practitioners would be that religion began with God or the gods. Go to your average church, and, if they haven’t been corrupted by some pseudo-scholar pastor, they would answer, “In the beginning, God created…” Even people who don’t necessarily take the Genesis account literally would probably say that God wasn’t created and that He’s always been there, and so religion came from Him.

But when it comes to most scholars of religion, the assumption is that religion is a product of evolution [the belief that religion started with animism, evolved into polytheism, eventually evolving into monotheism]. The evidence for original monotheism doesn’t even get a hearing. There’s not even particular interest in the question, although some scholars will emphasize the psychological needs that they believe brought religion in.

When the main original monotheism scholar Wilhelm Schmidt is brought up, it’s always emphasized that he was a Catholic thinker and thus biased. Of course, nobody reads his actual work, which fills twelve volumes averaging some 700 pages each. When the first volume first came out, it was maybe 200-300 pages, written in French for missionaries. It eventually grew, but people ignored even the original, simple stuff.

Q: Is there good evidence for an evolutionary view of how religion began?

You can put up a scheme that is relatively coherent and self-consistent by making an assumption—the assumption being that, just as with animals and plants, evolution must have taken place in human culture. You can view the various stages of religion based on this presupposition. So, you see animists, and then animists with a God, and you can say, “Oh, look; there’s the progression.”

It is true that sometimes you can see developments in places where there was polytheism (like ancient Israel in Egypt), but then conversion to monotheism. So, if you want to narrow your scope and come with a presupposition of evolution, you’re going to find evidence of development in that one direction in various places.

What you cannot find anywhere is any culture giving evidence of going through all the mandatory evolutionary stages.

Q: How do we go back and what the earliest cultures believed about God or gods?

You have to cherry-pick based on your chosen scheme, unless you come up with a way to sequence the age of different cultures. So, how do we sequence the age of different cultures? There are some obvious signs in the cultural artifacts that we can go by in determining whether a culture probably came earlier or later. When we see musical instruments, metal forging, etc., we can ask, is that something the first humans did right away, or is it something that more likely came along later?

Then, of course, you also have the comparative relative chronology. You never have dates, but you can tell when one group must have superseded another. People with guns are more likely to have won battles than people with bows and arrows. People who do pottery are more likely to have superseded people with big pieces of wood with holes dug in them. Decorations on pottery are probably later than pottery without decorations. The idea is that we can see the sequence of cultures where one culture is evidently older than another.

This is particularly interesting with regard to mythology. When you have several groups sharing a myth, but three of the four have made different additions, then the one with the simplest, unadorned version is probably the original one.

So, we’re not totally in the dark as to how we determine which cultures are more likely to present original human culture.

Q: When we look at the very earliest cultures, what do we see?

In short, we find monotheism. We find a straightforward set of ethical beliefs, which means there is no stealing, lying, etc. A code of ethics with private property. Conversely, many of the barbaric rituals you see in various predeveloped cultures are missing in the least developed ones.

Very interestingly, there is usually monogamy too. Monogamy is actually one of the big reasons some people didn’t like Schmidt’s theories. Some of the influential anthropologists had sexual lifestyles which made them not want to hear what a German Catholic priest had to say. So, the rejection of original monotheism is also connected to the morality that is exhibited in those cultures.

As for these least developed cultures, we see that not only do they believe in one God, but they actually worship him. That’s in distinction to those who believe in a monotheistic God who is remote and where the greatest amount of attention goes to the ancestors. Now, we need to be careful not to expect a pure monotheism without angels and demons. They may venerate some ancestors, but in these earliest cultures, angels and ancestors are not really at the center of their religious beliefs.

(For Part 2, click here.)