The dominant evolutionary theories concerning the origin of religion go something like this: early “primitive” humans held to animistic beliefs. Animism is the belief that everything in nature—animals, trees, creeks, mountains, literally everything—possesses a soul or spirit. These basic beliefs evolved into fetishes—the idea that certain items and places were focal points of spiritual power. These fetishes led to idolatry. Such idolatrous worship became the gateway to polytheism—the belief that many of these spirits were deities. Polytheism morphed into henotheism—the belief that one particular deity ruled supremely over all other gods. Eventually henotheism evolved into monotheism. Thus anthropologists understand monotheism to have evolved from lower forms of religions, and that all religions are simply more or less complicated versions of animism. In his book In the Beginning: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism, Win Corduan argues that this paradigm is wrong—egregiously, spectacularly wrong. What is worse, he contends, anthropologists hold to the evolutionary paradigm knowing that the historical evidence is against it. This book is the story of the debates and disagreements that surrounded the historical search for the origin of human religion.
Many of the 19th century anthropologists and ethnologists were motivated by hostility to Christianity, an attitude they openly owned. They also viewed “primitive” people groups with a contempt that colored their assessment of these tribes or perhaps even blinded them of the true level of sophistication they exhibited concerning religion and morality. Early anthropological Darwinists were more dogmatic than scientific. “Primitive” groups were considered intellectually inferior, thus capable of holding only to childish beliefs in magic. The primary underlying dogma was that early humans were not capable of monotheism.
However, there were others who disagreed. Wilhelm Schmidt (and Andrew Lang) argued that the historical evidence presented a very different picture. Their findings revealed that “primitive” tribes consistently exhibited three qualities: monotheism, morality, and monogamy. However, the presuppositions and methodologies of the evolutionary anthropologists seemed to have blinded them to the evidence. Corduan concludes, “There is no question in my mind that one of the obvious reasons for the rejection of Schmidt is that what he found at the origin of human culture (as close as one can come to it) was marital faithfulness in monogamy, straightforward honesty, altruistic sharing while respecting another person’s property, and a general aversion to shedding human blood unnecessarily” (228). Corduan acknowledges the limitations of Schmidt’s research, but he also demonstrates that Schmidt’s conclusions have stood the test of time.
If there was a universal original monotheism, then what happened? By the time of enscripurated religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans—polytheism was the norm. Lang and Schmidt answered with the theory of degeneration. Monotheism deteriorated into polytheism and animism. The story of human religion is not one of evolution but erosion.
If you care about missiology, apologetics, anthropology, or theology of religions, then you are going to want to read this book.
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