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February 12, 2010

Monotheism and the Origin of Religion

by Alden Bass

The God of the Bible is God over the whole Earth — Jew and Gentile, Christian and pagan, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and atheist. He created the world and everything in it, and all of man’s history traces back to that singular event. Christians assert this as an absolute truth, though not everyone agrees. Evolutionists and atheists have long struggled to solve the problem of the origin of religion, specifically of monotheism — the belief that God is One. According to David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia, approximately 85 percent of the world’s population believes in some sort of god (of the remaining 15 percent who are atheists and agnostics, 14 percent reside in communist countries), and 53 percent of the world’s population is monotheistic, claiming to derive their faith from Abraham (Christians, Jews, and Muslims). Such a ubiquitous belief demands an explanation, yet evolutionists are at a loss to explicate the origin of this pervasive phenomenon.

As long as there has been religion, there have been those who have attempted to explain its origin naturalistically. The rise of monotheistic religion generally has been described as an evolution, an outgrowth, of some more primitive religious belief that parallels the evolution of man. This theory was discussed most thoroughly in the years directly after Darwin published Origin of Species and Descent of Man, but it has been a source of controversy since at least the second century. The Roman philosopher Celsus, who was rabidly anti-Christian, set out to prove that the monotheism of the Jews began as pagan polytheism. “Those herdsmen and shepherds who followed Moses as their leader, had their minds deluded by vulgar deceits, and so supposed that there was one God” (as quoted in Origen, 1972, p. 405). Erasmus, writing during the Reformation, suggested that many heathen customs had been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. David Hume, in Natural History of Religion (1757), and Voltaire’s Essay (1780), similarly denied revelation a place in the history of religion. It was not until the nineteenth century and the arrival of the German rationalists that the theory reached its full-grown proportions. Max Müller, orientalist and philologist at Oxford, was chief among them, with his theory that religion originated with “a henotheistic Nature Worship, degenerated into Polytheism, sank into Fetishism, and then rose in some cases to new forms of Pantheism or Theism” (Zwemer, 1945, p. 33). Tylor, a colleague of Müller’s at Oxford, rejected this, and claimed that animism, the worship of spirit beings, was the well-spring from which all other religion flowed; Herbert Spencer, the English sociologist and close friend of Charles Darwin, readily accepted this evolutionary hypothesis in his Principles of Sociology (1877). Others thought totemism (the belief that there existed a mythical relationship between man and certain plants or animal), to be the original source of religious beliefs. Similar theories were submitted, though the aforementioned were the most popular.

The scholars’ theories enjoyed the spotlight only for a few years, however. Like Darwin, they made assertions, expecting the hard evidence to confirm their theories at a later date. The various hypotheses were advanced because the materialists thought such to be the only possible explanation for the rise of religion; supernatural revelation was not an option for them. But the theories they proposed have subsequently fallen out of favor because proof was lacking. Despite the most rigorous scholarship, the sciences of anthropology and archaeology failed to yield proof for any of the various concepts. As a result, modern anthropologists generally avoid the question altogether by stating that the mystery is unsolvable. Ninian Smart, in The Religious Experience of Mankind, took this approach when he wrote:

"Neither can we know how man first experienced the holy. It may have been that men, in becoming aware of themselves through the power of speech and in discovering their capacity to change the world…also felt a sense of rupture from the natural world about them" (as quoted in Hanington, 1992, p. 20).

Others persist in the belief that monotheism evolved. Mark Smith, professor of Bible and Near Eastern studies at New York University, published a book in 2001, describing the original Jewish pantheon of gods and its eventual development into monotheism. Thus, the evolutionary model survives and thrives today, despite nearly one hundred years of evidence to the contrary.

This contrary evidence is the result of the research of both believers and nonbelievers. As far back as the second century, the monotheistic roots of world religion were defended. In his hortatory address to the Greeks, Justin Martyr used their own prophets and poets to show that Greek religion was fundamentally the worship of the One God. He quoted the great poet Orpheus of the sixth century B.C. as saying, “Look to the one and universal King — One, self-begotten, and the only One, of whom all things and we ourselves are sprung… And other than the great King there is none” (1972, p. 279). Likewise, the ancient Sibyl, considered a prophetess, said: “There is one only unbegotten God, Omnipotent, invisible, most high, All-seeing, but Himself seen by no flesh” (p. 280). These are the most ancient sources he mentioned, but he also included Homer, Sophocles, and Plato.

More recent scholarship has vindicated Justin Martyr’s thesis. George Rawlinson, professor of ancient history at Oxford, affirmed that a

"historical survey has shown us that in the early times, everywhere, or almost everywhere, belief in the unity of God existed — barbarous nations possessed it as well as civilized ones — it underlay polytheism that attempted to crush it — retained a hold on language and thought — had from time to time its special assertors, who never professed to have discovered it" (as quoted in Jackson, 1982, pp. 5-6).

Sir Flinders Petrie, dubbed “the father of modern Egyptology,” wrote in agreement:

"Were the conception of a god only an evolution from such spirit worship, we should find the worship of many gods preceding the worship of one god…. What we actually find is the contrary to this, monotheism is the first stage traceable in theology…" (1908, pp. 3-4).

Stephen Langdon, also of Oxford, concluded:

"I may fail to carry conviction in concluding that both Sumerian and Semitic religions [which he considered to be the oldest historical civilizations—AB], monotheism preceded polytheism…. The evidence and reasons for this conclusion, so contrary to accepted and current views, have been set down with care and with the perception of adverse criticism. It is, I trust, the conclusion of knowledge and not of audacious preconception" (as quoted in Custance, p. 113, emp. added).

To quote all the authorities that have come to this conclusion would be tedious (and has been done many times over), but the message is clear. Evolutionists would do well to take the advice of one their own, Robert Lowie of the American Museum of Natural history, who said: “The time has come for eschewing the all-embracing and baseless theories of yore to settle down to sober historical research” (as quote in Zwemer, p. 59). Every culture in the world originally worshipped only one God. This holds true for the ancient Chinese, Native Americans, the Australian Aborigines, the Bushmen of the Congo, as well as the better-documented civilizations of the Old World (cf. Fraser, 1975, pp. 11-38). The significance of this is twofold: evolutionists cannot explain the rise and degeneration of the world’s religions from monotheism to various other types of worship, such as polytheism, pantheism, animism, and totemism. Second, the Genesis record, which states that all men originally knew God, but then rebelled against Him and were scattered over the Earth, is validated. That God was involved in the lives of all His people at one time cannot be doubted, and is confirmed both by revelation and by the science of anthropology.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For an expanded treatment of this topic, see The Origin of Religion by Samuel Zwemer (1945), and Origin and Growth of Religion by Wilhelm Schmidt (1931).]


“Brief Summary of World Religious Statistics” (no date), [On-line], URL:

Custance, Aurthur (1976), Evolution or Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Fraser, Gordon Holmes (1975), “The Gentile Names of God,” Symposium on Creation V, ed. Donald Patten (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Hanington, Greg (1992), “Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of Religion,” Creation Ex Nihilo 14[3]:20-21.

Jackson, Wayne (1982), Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).

Justin Martyr (1972), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Origen (1972), Fathers of the Third Century, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Petrie, Flinders (1908), The Religion of Ancient Egypt (London: Constable).

Smith, Mark (2001), The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University).

Zwemer, Samuel (1945), The Origin of Religion (New York: Loizeaux Brothers).