Did Religion Come from God or Us? Interview with Winfried Corduan (Part 2)
*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, check out this conversation with Win Corduan. For part 1, click here.
Q: What are some of these early cultures that we find original monotheism in?
First, I’ll mention that since these are the less developed cultures that got pushed out and displaced, they have adapted closely to their specific environment. So, now, if I tell you that some of the Eskimo cultures and pigmy tribes in Africa are some of the oldest cultures, it is true that they are very different from each other.
Nonetheless we see original monotheism in these earliest cultures. I quote from Wilhelm Schmidt in my book In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism:
“To begin with Africa, we find him [the Supreme Being] among the Boni Negrillos of the east, the Anongo and Nkule of the west, the Batwa in Urundi, the Bgielli of the Cameroons, the Batwa of Ruanda, and the Bambutti (Efe and Bakango) of the Ituri.” We can also talk about the Andamanese, the Semang, and the Negritos of the Philippine Islands; the San people of Africa, the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, and the southeastern Australian indigenous people; the Samoyeds, the Koryaks, and most of the Eskimos.
Now, let me be clear that I worship Yahweh God of the Bible, not the God of Islam, Reform Judaism, Zoroastrianism, etc. because their attributes are different from Yahweh. Even though there is a historical line, they have changed God’s attributes so that it’s not necessarily the monotheism of the Bible any longer.
Q: So, do cultures tend toward or away from monotheism?
Monotheism per se is not an appealing worldview. And that’s why it gives way to polytheism and animism in so many contexts. I can pray to a Creator God, live according to His will, and grow closer to Him. But then my child gets sick. Meanwhile, people are knocking on my door, saying that for $25 they can perform a religious ritual by which the gods will make my child healthy. That sort of manipulatable deity (e.g., of polytheism) is going to be a lot more appealing than the unchanging God of monotheism.
This is why it’s so easy in monotheistic religions to come up with saints, holy men, etc. All the great monotheistic religions have at least groups that smuggle in gods under the heading of saints or angels. You have it in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and in theistic Hinduism.
Q: So, instead of cultures evolving toward monotheism, the natural tendency is away from purity and toward more ritual and idolatry. That makes sense. When did you first say to yourself, “Wow, the evidence for original monotheism is strong”?
In Germany at the high school, we still had religion instruction and it was still more or less conservative. Given my background in the Baptist church, I wasn’t learning anything new as we worked through the Old Testament. We were divided into Protestants and Catholics. One day, the Protestant teacher must have been sick, so the Catholic priest was teaching both groups. He started to tell us about people in faraway places who know about God. He explained that they don’t tell you about it, but if you stay with them for a long time, you find out that they believe in one true God. I was floored. Now I realize the Catholic priest must have read Wilhelm Schmidt. That was the first time I heard about it.
When I was in college, I read a book which mentioned Schmidt and got me interested in exploring the topic. And, when I started teaching world religions, this was an obvious thing I needed to research. But the aha moment came there in high school when the Catholic priest taught me something I didn’t know already.
“One cannot get around the fact that the first religion of human beings was monotheism, the recognition and worship of one God” – Winfried Corduan
 Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013), 177.
 Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013), 3.