What are the origins of religion? Why are so many people so religious, while others are so hostile toward religion? Why are there so many religions in the world, and why are they so different from each other?
Traditional practitioners of religion generally believe that their religion is the true religion and that all other religions are distortions of the truth. Take the two largest religions: traditional Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Christians believe that the first people to live in the world knew Jesus and that Moses and the prophets foretold the birth and mission of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying that Moses and the prophets wrote about him. Traditional Muslims believe that Allah is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Muslims believe that the first people to live in the world knew Allah and that Moses and the prophets (including Jesus) all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, the message that is written as the Quran. Traditional Muslims say firmly that Jews and Christians follow distorted messages from the prophets of Allah but that the Quran is the true and timeless message from Allah.
When I went to college, I learned about a different approach to the history of religion. This could be called the evolutionary approach. According to this approach, primitive humans did not understand the world and were in awe of its workings, from the violence of thunderstorms to the regular growing of crops. What they did not understand they attributed to spirits, and they came to believe that powerful but invisible spirits filled the world. Over time, they began to worship some of these spirits as gods. Heroes from earlier times were also remembered and worshiped as gods. Each culture had its own gods, although they often would borrow gods from one another. Over time, different cultures began to think that their god was better than all the other gods. They would consider success—in warfare, in agriculture, in business, or in any other sphere—as proof that they were honoring the strongest of the gods. After many generations, some cultures began to develop monotheism—the belief in one god. Monotheism appeared briefly in Egypt but was rejected. It appeared in Israel as monotheistic Judaism, and it appeared in Persia as monotheistic Zoroastrianism. Christianity and Islam then developed from these two monotheistic religions, gaining the power to share their beliefs with other civilizations and convert them. Finally, during the Baroque period of European history, thinkers in what they called the Enlightenment developed deism. Deists believe that a god created the world and established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living. However the god of the deists is not presently active in the world. This god has been compared to a watchmaker who assembles the watch, winds the spring, and leaves it to run on its own. Deists do not believe in miracles. They do not believe that worship or prayer have any value. Their focus is largely on learning and following the moral teachings established by god at the beginning of time. Today many atheists and agnostics consider themselves the heirs of deism, the final step in the evolution of religion which began with primitive people who do not understand the world but ends with scientific people who both understand and control their world.
Both views of religion are internally consistent, so which one is more likely to be true? Has religion evolved from primitive times to the present, or has religion de-evolved from a shared set of beliefs to many different forms of religion? Which position is best supported by the evidence that is available?
Many of the indigenous religions of Africa and the South Pacific islands have a core of monotheism with a twist: practitioners of these religions believe that a single powerful god made the world and all that exists. They also believe that this god is no longer involved in the world. Whether this god lost interest in the world or whether this god is angry that people have broken the moral laws, the god is no longer available to people of this world. Many other spiritual beings have arisen, though, to watch over people. They exist to hear and answer the prayers of people, to grant good things to people who worship them and who live moral lives but to bring trouble to those who do not worship the lesser gods and do not live by the moral code. Early Chinese texts also indicate that monotheism was believed by the earliest Chinese writers. The multitude of gods in Chinese thought developed largely from the belief that ancestors remained spiritually present after death to watch over the families, rewarding them for holding to the old ways and punishing them for developing new ways. Monotheism changed to polytheism as these glorified ancestors took the place of gods. Advantage: de-evolution.
The moral code of the world’s religions is remarkably similar wherever it appears. The basic rules about honoring the divine and being kind to other people are found in every religion. The Golden Rule—to treat others as you want to be treated—is expressed in every religion. Traditional believers see this as proof that the one true God put his Law in the hearts of people everywhere. Those who favor the evolution of religion search for details to prove diversity rather than a common set of teachings. They point to details—some religions permit and encourage the abandonment of unwanted babies and of the elderly while others condemn those acts as murder—but the former group views the death of the weak as a kindness to them and not as cruelty. Those who abandon their parents in such cultures hope that their own children will abandon them when they can no longer take care of themselves. The pursuit of kindness remains their motivation. Advantage: de-evolution.
Ever since the start of the so-called Enlightenment, self-labeled progressives have prepared the world for the end of religion. Science and education will end our silly superstitions, they say, and humanity will fulfill its destiny by forsaking primitive beliefs for modern and enlightened thoughts. Their announcement of the death of religion has been badly premature. Even in the atheist state of the Soviet Union, Christianity remained alive but largely hidden for seventy years. When the Soviet Union ended, the churches reopened. Humanity has not outgrown its need for a god; science and technology have brought world wars and polluted environments and the possibility of destruction of life on this planet, but religion brings hope that God remains in control of the world he made. The failure of religion to disappear—its continued importance in the lives of most humans—indicates that people are not evolving away from primitive superstitions that led to religion. Some may drift away, and their drifting may take them different directions, but religion continues to be meaningful and significant in the twenty-first century. Advantage: de-evolution.
Those who announce the evolution of religion and its eventual demise search through the holy books of religion—especially the Bible—seeking evidence that religion has developed over time. They point to scattered verses, taken out of context, to try to prove that ancient Israel changed from polytheism to henotheism (“My god is better than your god”) to monotheism. With their bits of evidence, they tell themselves that they have won the debate, just as other people are convinced they can prove that Paul McCartney died in 1965 or that Elvis Presley is still alive. This debate will not end in the foreseeable future, because both sides have a deeply held conviction—one might say, a religious faith—that they are right and the other side is wrong. Only in time will the final verdict be known. J.