Did Monotheism Evolve from Primitive Religions?

When studying the history of religion, the question sometimes arises whether religion has evolved over time. Did religions start out as primitive, then slowly develop into more complex beliefs? Did religion start out as animism or polytheism, then change to monotheism? Did primitive peoples start with beliefs that had mysterious spiritual forces acting like people, such as Greek gods, then slowly develop, along with society, toward a complex monotheistic god?  The general accusation is that religions such as Christianity grew over time out of more simple, early religious beliefs, as sort of social Darwinism in the religious realm.

The solution, of course, is to studying the beliefs of indigenous  peoples.  In The Religions of the American Indians (A. Hultkrantz; M. Setterwall, trans., Los Angeles; University of California Press, 1979) the author surveys the beliefs of native tribes before westerners influenced them. A couple of significant findings are worth noting.

First, the tribes had some significant variation in their beliefs.  Therefore we must be very cautious when trying to make statements that apply to every single one of these people groups. This alone will sink the questions at hand, for with a variation of beliefs comes a great hindrance to the idea that they all evolved in the same direction toward one type of religion.

Second, and more importantly, some of the so-called “primitive” religions are quite complex and similar to how the Bible presents God. As Hultkrantz puts it, “Characteristic of the Fuegian religion is the position of the Supreme Being, which is in many respects a central one.”(p.18) The author goes on to list the characteristics of how this people group viewed the Supreme Being, who had the following characteristics:

  • the old, eternal one
  • unchangeable
  • invisible
  • ruler of the world
  • grantor of life and death
  • provides food for man’s sustenance
  • not present in mythology
  • establisher of ethics
  • presides over rituals in the tribe
  • ruler of all existence
  • receiver of prayers
  • able to respond to tribal needs, such as food, weather, and health
  • owner of all that exists

Granted, there are differences in Christianity and what this particular group believed about the Supreme Being, such as whether God created the world. But the list above is sufficient to support that early peoples were sometimes complex monotheists. It is also sufficient to prove the point made in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and divine nature, so that they are without excuse.

The divine attributes in the list above reads surprisingly similar to that found in many Christian theology texts. The Christian texts go much further in defining God, of course, but that the list parallels Christian theology is undeniable.

The support for the Biblical view is further supported in Hultkrantz’ work. The author states that a single supreme God is “a well-known theme” in the history of the religions that were studied (p.22). The Algonkin tribes even list the Supreme Being as “He who created us through his thought.” (p.23).

A wise person would do well to believe what Romans 1 has already told us, that by nature mankind knows that there is a ruler of the world, He gives us ethical laws, and that violating these laws is a crime against Him.



About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Theology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Did Monotheism Evolve from Primitive Religions?

  1. John Branyan says:

    This was a fascinating discovery that I stumbled over last year. Always thought monotheism was ‘evolved’ from primitive animism. Turns out, that isn’t the case at all.

    You might check out “In The Beginning God: A Fresh Look at The Case for Original Monotheism” by Corduan Winfried.

    The notion that monotheists were the result of later civilization doesn’t hold water.

  2. Denzil - Life Sentences says:

    Interesting idea that religion evolves. It suggests that later religions might be superior in some way to earlier religions. Whereas I think Christianity could still learn things from apparently simple and more animistic religions

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