What is the Origin of Religion?

imagesHow, or why, did religion originate? More to the point, did religion begin with God or man? It has become commonplace since the Enlightenment to understand the origin and development of religion in naturalistic terms: Religion is man-made. It is a crutch for the weak-minded. It is a feeling of absolute dependence. It is a projection of our father figure. It is the Mysterium Tremendum. It is rooted in universal archetypes of the human subconscious. Blah.  Even if some of these explanations were true (I’m inclined to agree with Rudolf Otto’s suggestion in his 1917 book The Idea of the Holy that our experience of the holy can be described in terms of fear and awe in the face of a wholly other being), they would not entail or prove that there is no God. We can’t assume that only a naturalistic explanation for the origin or religion will do since there is no God, and then conclude on the basis of this assumption that there is no God. This is the genetic fallacy: confusing the origin of a belief with its justification.

But, can we really explain the origin of religion in terms of man’s subjective states (whether conscious or unconscious). I think not. It is equally plausible (at the start of an investigation into our question) that man’s psychological states with respect to the divine may in fact be the effect, not the cause of, a religious reality.

What does the empirical evidence suggest? Following Winfried Corduan, the evidence suggests Original Monotheism: Religion begins with God.[1] Two lines of evidence support Original Monotheism:(1) the early scriptures of religions with roots in the ancient world are decidedly monotheistic, and (2) we find within virtually every religious culture vestiges of monotheism.[2]

Religion won’t go away because it is not man-made. Rather, the reality of God is prior to man and the foundation on which religion rests. And this means that man’s default position is not atheism, nor animism, fetishism, polytheism, or henotheism. Rather, it is monotheism.

More specifically, I say, it is Christian monotheism. Why? For many reasons: It is empirically verifiable, ethically normative, and existentially satisfying. And, in Christian monotheism alone do you get Jesus, and when you get Jesus you get everything: the Eternal Son who created and sustains the world and (in the same person) the fully human Son who offers a new way of life and takes away the sins of the world.

In fact, in a very real sense, Christianity isn’t a religion at all—but an invitation into a relationship with Jesus. As the Greek New Testament scholar J. B. Phillips puts it,

The Truth taught by Jesus Christ is the right way to live. It is not primarily a religion, not even the best religion, but God Himself explaining in terms that man can readily grasp how life is meant to be lived.[3]

Of course, in another sense, Christianity is a religion—but don’t be fooled by those who say it is a man-made religion or a crutch for the weak-minded. It is (as C. S. Lewis puts it) hard as nails. It bites. And it heals. The same cannot be said for naturalism nor naturalistic explanations of religion.



[1] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012, 2nd edition)., 40.

[2] For more on each of these two lines of evidence, see Ibid., 41-45.

[3] J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Touchstone, 2004 ed.), 89.

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