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What Is the Oldest Religion? Q&A with World Religions Scholar Winfried Corduan

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Why is it important to ask, “What is the oldest religion?” In the Bible, we see hints that the very first religion was based on experience with one God (monotheism), but is there good evidence to support this?

So, what is the oldest religion? Some scholars will answer by picking what appears to be the oldest major religion still practiced today, but it is possible to trace religion even further back by looking at the oldest cultures and exploring their religious practices. I spoke with world religions scholar Winfried Corduan about what form of religion we find the further back we go. His answer? We find “original monotheism.”

Here’s my 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: When exploring what is the oldest religion, we find a lot of resources implying a natural process of religious “evolution,” sort of like Darwinism applied to religion, making God largely superfluous. 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 it comes to most scholars of religion] 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.


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


Q: When it comes to finding what is the oldest religion (or form of religion), how do we go back and find 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.


“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? What is the oldest type of religion we find?

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.”


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.

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.[1]

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.


“That sort of manipulatable deity 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[2]


[1] Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013), 177.

[2] Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2013), 3.