Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

The Original Religion of Man

WHAT WAS THE FIRST RELIGION of man? Answers to this question differ widely and depend very much on what view is taken of man's origin. Those who go to the early chapters of the Bible as their source point out that the teaching given there is quite categorical. Religion was not invented, evolved, or discovered by man. From the day of his creation man knew the one Creator-God who had made him, and from the time of his fall man worshipped this God through sacrifice. Monotheism and the practice of animal sacrifice -these, they say, are clearly shown by the Bible to be the twin characteristics of original religion. God was God, and sinful man could not approach him in his own righteousness.

In support of this view it is often pointed out that the most ancient literature of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Hindus, and the traditions of many races agree that the first men brought animals to represent and substitute for them in their worship of God. As we shall see in chapter 3, there came a time when Buddha in India, Confucius in China, and the Greek philosophers reacted against the animal sacrifices of a corrupt priesthood, and the main non-Christian world religions were built on other premisses. At this stage, however, we are not concerned with the merits or demerits of animal sacrifice. What we are discussing is basically a matter of history, and obviously the evidence provided by the Bible about Man's original religion must be taken seriously.

There is, however, another answer to the question which denies all this. It starts with the view that man evolved from a pre-simian ancestor. Since animals have no religion, there must have been, it is said, a long ascent through apish chatter and fear of the dark unknown to what Bouquet calls 'Animatism', a 'belief in a vague potent, terrifying inscrutable force'.[1] Animatism developed into Animism, the spirit-fearing religion of most isolated tribal people. Then came the Polytheism immortalized in the Greek mythologies. Israel's glory, so this summary of the development of religion suggests, was that she was able to narrow down the many gods of the surrounding nations to one tribal god. And eventually the one Creator-God of the Hebrew prophets, together with the philosophical Monotheism of Plato, paved the way for higher religion.

This answer has held the field among many scholars since Darwin. Evolution was regarded as proved, and it was attractive to infer the evolution of religion from it. The only problem was how to fit the Bible into this scheme. This was neatly solved, however, by Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis which rearranged the Old Testament Scriptures in line with the evolution of religion theory.

After eighty years of intensive archaeological and comparative religion studies, Wellhausen's reconstruction is now under heavy fire from many directions. We now have examples of Monotheism and elaborate priestly religion from long before the time of Abraham. The theory of the upward evolution of religion is therefore being restated to push the emergence of Monotheism back into the shadows of pre-history. Led by Fr Wilhelm Schmidt of Vienna, anthropologists have shown that the religion of the hundreds of isolated tribes in the world today is not primitive in the sense of being original. The tribes have a memory of a 'High God', a benign Creator-Father-God, who is no longer worshipped because he is not feared. Instead of offering sacrifice to him, they concern themselves with the pressing problems of how to appease the vicious spirits of the jungle. The threats of the witch-doctor are more strident than the still, small voice of the Father-God.

We see, then, that the evolution of religion from a primitive Animatism can no longer be assumed as axiomatic and that some anthropologists now suggest that Monotheism may be more naturally primitive as a world-view than Animism. Their research suggests that tribes are not animistic because they have continued unchanged since the dawn of history. Rather, the evidence indicates degeneration from a true knowledge of God. Isolation from prophets and religious books has ensnared them into sacrificial bribery to placate the spirits instead of joyous sacrificial meals in the presence of the Creator. So the evidence of history brings us back to reconsider the biblical answer. This, as we have seen, states that the first man was created in the image of God; he was a Monotheist; and he practised animal sacrifice. But how, you may ask, can this be squared with evolution, the apish chatter, the cave-men, and the images of a thousand text-books?

Let us first remove some misconceptions and clear the ground a little to enable us to look again at man's early religious history. Christians have had much thinking to do since Darwin first propounded his views. Many battles have been fought over insignificant matters, but it is wise to note that even if it were conclusively proved that God created man by some process of mutations and selection, it would not follow that the process was a chance one. The Christian insists that, whatever methods were used, - and the scientists should be encouraged to find out what they were - God planned the creation of man and he carried it out in accordance with his own purposes.

Science's function is to describe processes, but it cannot pronounce on the purpose of things. Physicists and biologists have a right to say that in looking at matter and life scientifically no evident purpose is discovered. They overstep their limits if they go on to require faith in pure chance as opposed to faith in a Creator. In any decision which may have to be made between faith in God or in 'blind chance' the science of evolution is strictly neutral, and cannot be anything else.

Secondly we should note that the question of the original religion of man has nothing to do with the stock questions about Adam and Eve and Cain's wife. The first three chapters of Genesis indicate that the human race in the theological sense (of true man in the image of God and in communion with him) stems from a first man, Adam, and his wife, Eve. On purely scientific grounds there can be no objection to this origin of our race from one first pair. The question is not regarding the fact of an original pair, but their spiritual nature.

As we have said, the first true man is, according to the Bible, a Monotheist, and when he falls into sin he seeks restoration through animal sacrifice.[2] The theory of the evolution of religion suggests that man is an animal taking a long time to become divine. The Bible describes a human couple made in the image of God, who degenerated into what we are now. The question at issue is the real nature of man, not the names of Adam and Eve.

There is one more piece of ground to clear before we begin our dig down through the mound of religious history. Even though we may accept that the Bible is right in saying that early man was a Monotheist and practised animal sacrifice, we should not expect pre-history to give us any proof of this type of religion. Whether animals were sacrificed to God or not cannot be known from their bones. God required altars to be of earth or uncut stones,[3] whereas elaborate altars indicate a developed priestly system. Since earth crumbles and stones are used in building, most of the early altars will be unrecognizable even if they are found. Nor does the true Monotheist use idols or images. Idolatry always indicates that Monotheism has degenerated into polytheistic confusion. The fact that the dead were buried in various ways does not affect the evidence either way. We should not therefore expect any evidence of religion till it is well past the original stage. By the time a professional priesthood develops, and temples, idols and elaborate altars leave their archaeological evidence, literature has begun and we are on surer ground.

As we consider some of the evidence which illustrates the biblical view of the origin of religion it would be foolish to claim the case is proved. Since we hale no way of examining the religion of the first true man, and actually true religion is never examinable, the matter is unlikely ever to be proved either way. All we can do is to show that an original Monotheism gives an explanation of many historical facts which are very intractable on the evolution of religion hypothesis.

If we could look down on the ancient world about 1500 BC we would see ordinary men and women still offering animal sacrifice as their normal way of approaching God or the gods. The earliest literature of India, the Sanskrit Vedas, picture the nomadic Aryan tribes who fought their way eastwards across the Indus and Ganges plains.

The head of the tribe offered animal sacrifice with the same simplicity as Abraham. When they settled in India the Aryans developed a regular priesthood, and the Vedas are the hymns which the priests chanted as the sacrificial smoke ascended to God. The hymns address God under various names such as 'The Sun', 'The Heavenly One' and 'The Storm', but the interesting thing is that, whatever name they gave to God, they worshipped him as the supreme Ruler of the universe. This practice is called Henotheism. God has several names, just as Christians today have several names for God, but the names do not indicate different gods. They are different facets of one God. Henotheism changes into Polytheism when the names of God are so personified that various gods are separated, and they begin to disagree and fight among themselves. The later Vedic literature has certainly become polytheistic by, say, 1000 BC, but the earliest Aryans must have been Monotheists.

The original Creator-God of the Aryans was known among all the Indo-European nations. His first name was Dyaus Pitar ('Divine Father') which is the same as the Greek Zeus Pater, the Latin Jupiter or Deus, the early German Tiu or Ziu, and Norse Tyr. Another name was 'The Heavenly One' (Sanskrit Varuna, Greek Ouranos), or 'The Friend' (Sanskrit Mitra, Persian Mithra). By metaphor and simile other names were added. God is called 'The Sun', 'The Powerful One', 'The Guardian of Order'. The sacred fire (Sanskrit Agni, Latin Ignis, Greek Hagnos), common to all early sacrificial worship, had a peculiar fascination and was soon endowed with divine qualities. Gradually story-tellers embellished their tales with love and jealousy and war and drunkenness and so the mythologies appeared. The earth became God's bride, attracted worship to herself as 'The Queen of Heaven', and added sex to worship in her fertility cults. Where there are no written scriptures, and no prophets to apply God's truth, degeneration into Polytheism is the rule of religion. Even the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam, and the Christian church, all give evidence that a pure Monotheism can quickly be corrupted. The emergence of mythological Polytheism among the Greeks and Aryans is proof of the inventiveness of the bards, but no evidence against a primitive Monotheism.

The early Semites of Babylonia, Assyria, Syria and Phoenicia also practised animal sacrifice in their approach to God. Instead of adding mythological families and friends and enemies to the Creator, the Semites tended to nationalize him into a tribal deity. He was the one who helped the nation in war. The Babylonian Bel vied with the Syrian Rimmon, while the prophets of Israel had to keep pointing out that there could be only one Creator-God, not Ammon's Molech, and Moab's Chemosh, and Israel's Yahweh as one among many. Israel was always monotheistic, though she was often tempted to think of the Lord as a lord among many local lords (Canaanite Baal meant 'lord' or 'husband'). Much has been written about the names of God, but whether he was called Elohim ('The Mighty One') or Yahweh ('He was, he is, he will be') or Adhonay ('The Lord', with the sense of the German Führer), he was One. A thousand years later Muhammad proclaimed the same truth about Allah, though in Islam also 'The One' has many names. It is interesting that Islam, true to its Semitic origin, considered Allah as the conquering Arab tribal god.

The Semites were not the first rulers of the Middle East. An interesting people called the Sumerians had a City-state civilization which flourished before 2500 BC. They were related to the Indus Valley people of north India, whose great cities flourished till they were ousted by the invading Aryans about 1500 BC. Little is known about the religion of the Indus Valley people as their script has not yet been deciphered but, like the Sumerians, they were already Polytheists. Sumerian gods lied and fought and lusted against each other resulting in a gradual decadence and collapse of their civilization. They were an easy prey to Semites in the west, and invading Aryans in India, just as a later Hindu Polytheism was conquered by Islam in the eleventh century AD. We cannot prove the Sumerians were originally Monotheists before their decadence into crude Polytheism, but it could be argued that their science and civilization was the product of a time when they knew An, the one Creator-God of heaven. It is a fact of history that Polytheism has always weakened a nation, whereas Monotheism invigorates and unifies.

If this interpretation of history is correct then it is obvious that some of the Semites and Indo-Europeans must have retained a monotheistic faith when other nations had already long degenerated into Polytheism. The Egyptian priesthood, for example, continued the practice of animal sacrifice, but Polytheism predominated until Akhenaton reinstated a kind of Monotheism for a few years. The Minoan civilization of Crete also had animal sacrifice at the centre of its religion, but a degenerate view of the gods is evident before its overthrow.

The earliest religious history of China is very hard to study. The Chinese script, not being phonetic, gives us no linguistic clues to the names of God. In the sixth century BC the joint attack of Taoism and Confucianism virtually obliterated the ancient Chinese priestly and sacrificial worship. We can dimly trace, however, the supreme sky-god who was worshipped as Shang-ti or Hao-Tien. He was approached through the Kiao, Hsian and Hsien sacrifices. These were offered in the open air and, like the biblical sacrifices, included killing an animal, sprinkling its blood, and burning the carcass on an altar. In spite of successive waves of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and early Christianity, Chinese sacrificial worship continued in temples here and there until the Communists took over.

As I have already said, the case for an original Monotheism and worship through animal sacrifice, with subsequent degeneration into Polytheism, is by no means proved. To some extent it is still a matter of faith. But it is certainly much easier to fit it into the recurring cycles of history than a gradual upward evolution of religion. Where documented case-histories are available, as among the early Aryans and Hebrews, the evidence for degeneration rather than upward evolution of religion is very strong.[4]

Chapter 2...


1. A.C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion (Pelican, 1962), p.41.

2. Genesis 3:21; 4:4; 8:20.

3. Exodus 20:24-26.

4. David Hume appean to be the originator of the evolution of religion hypothesis in The Natural History of Religion (1757). For an account of how later scholars attempted to rearrange the biblical documents to fit this hypothesis, see The New Bible Dictionary (Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), pp. 959ff. Wilhelm Schmidt's work showing some of the evidence for original monotheism is available in translation in The Origin and Growth of Religion (Methuen, 1931). Unfortunately no subsequent studies of comparative religion have taken this evidence seriously. A standard work by Trevor Ling, A History of Religion East and West (Macmillan, 1968), with its excellent bibliography, is based entirely on Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis, and does not even consider the biblical alternative. For serious students it would be best to begin with a study of the first five books of the Bible, a modem translation of the Rig Veda and the Brahmanas, the works of Homer, and J.B. Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Oxford University Press, 1955). These give most of the textual material on which all theories of the origins of religion before the sixth century BC are based.

Chapter 2...