How do we explain the origin of religion?

The Bible is clear that there is one God and He is the Lord God Almighty but how are to explain to origin of religions outside of Judeo-Christianity? When I was briefly YEC I was able to explain this with the corruption of generations after Adam and Eve but now as I have returned to EC I have been trying to wrap this issue around my mind. If Adam and Eve were among other humans when the Fall took place (assuming that they are a literal historical couple I personally believe) then how do we explain to origin of religion outside of the worship of Yahweh? I bring this up as I have been reading “God: A Human History” by Reza Aslan and in the first chapter it talks about in the caves of France, within the Les Trois-Freres cave it has a series of ancient art works which are religious in nature and within a cave structure which can be described as a “sanctuary” a large image of a being which is called the Sorcerer is painted on the wall and is believed to be among the very first images of a god. image%20of%20God
So thus, how are we to explain the origin of religion within our evolutionist thinking while also keeping true to what the Bible says?

Humans - ever since we have been given the capacity for spiritual thoughts and sensitivities have been drawn to the notion that there is something outside of us, beyond us, greater than us. That this should manifest itself in all manner of various polytheisms is highly plausible. And once we have dispensed with the silly notion that each religion must be either completely false or completely true, we can celebrate and shamelessly co-opt the best of all of them - as in fact religions (including Christianity) still do today. Pagans got some things right and probably no great religion has ever existed that didn’t have a substantially valuable corpus of wisdom to offer. No major religion gets everything 100% right (including any of the myriad versions of Christianity). All of us still grow - and if we learn from the past we have a chance to grow in positive directions. All of this exists happily within the reasonable theistic, and Christian worldview. I’m with C.S. Lewis on all this.

If there is a light of truth, its going to attract moths. So even the kookiest of us here (as believers drawn toward Christ, or even as unbelievers drawn towards angrily reacting against Christian shortcomings) - we’re all flittering about that central light in our particular era now. This is all within the realm of “progressive revelation”. And even though, as Christians, we point to Christ as the pinnacle revelation, that doesn’t mean our discipleship in that regard doesn’t continue to evolve and grow (we hope!) under the guidance of His Spirit.


From the beginning God has revealed Himself to man; first to Adam, then to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. Finally He sent his son, Jesus, who died and was resurrected, for our salvation.

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I agree that the question is compelling, though I might rephrase to say “distinct from us” rather than outside of us. But beyond and greater than us? Well at least complimentary to us and possibly completing us. An essential part of being human is to recognize that much of what we become aware is preselected and preprocessed before we become consciously aware of it. What is it which takes care of so many details so that we can seemingly float above the mundane, capable of analyzing what we observe and speculating what might have significance for us? In trying to understand what we observe we intuitively project aspects of our own nature into the environment. So the spirit of the animals we kill to survive can be placated and venerated for its gifts.

But the most provocative mystery is what it is which preselects and processes so much of our experience. Just as people have projected their own nature onto other creatures in their transactions with them, so I think people have projected their own nature onto that which supports us and makes our nature possible. And as you say, there clearly is something distinct from us which makes our way of being possible. Addressing this being that is beyond us is felt to be every bit as important for us as our ancestors who felt compelled to thank and venerate the spirits of the creatures which gave themselves up for our survival. When something is essential and it is beyond your power to provide it yourself, veneration and gratitude is evoked.

Unlike the spirits of other animals the mystery of what supports us and essentially made us possible is something that continues to demand our veneration. This far I can travel with you. But I don’t literally place it outside my body and the rest of the world. It is a mystery deserving of respect and gratitude, but I don’t assume any tradition has gotten it completely right, which I see you also concede:

I appreciate your modesty in regard to your own faith, refraining from claiming a privileged place. We are all in the same boat when it comes to the mystery of what makes us possible. So I can’t give myself over to displacing my own uncertainty onto you and other believers, and I certainly see nothing to get angry about. At least you are not in denial regarding the mystery, waving it away as some future accomplishment for science to dispatch in due time, as seemingly are so many non-believers. Anyone who takes the mystery seriously and feels the tug of veneration is at risk of looking silly, but at least they haven’t surrendered their humanity.

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According to my worldview, YHWH is not the only god, he is just the only one who should be worshipped. The other gods seek worship just as much as YHWH, but only he is impassioned.

This statement is a good indication of why we have so many religions - they are man’s imperfect interpretation of the spiritual world. @Sealkin, like many others, interpret the first commandment as monotheism. I, and many others, interpret it as a warning that there are many gods and we need to be careful as to which one we serve.

For me, it is the multiple voices from the spiritual world that have helped to create the many religions, both polytheist and monotheist. This is a message taught be Jesus, but few Christians accept the concept of multiple gods, even though Jesus clearly says there are.

He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err. (Mark 12:27).

The religions that have ignored these “other gods” have been blind-side by those who usurp God’s position over time. Moses was fooled by a usurper and this kept him and many that followed him from the promised land. It was Joshua that recognized the voice of the true God and was allowed to lead the people.

While I love to accept flattery just as much as the next person, make no mistake that there is a limit to this modesty just as there must be for any such things as opinions or convictions to exist. Truth exists - and exists outside of and independently of us, which means that some people and some religions can be closer to it and others farther away from it. The only “modesty” involved here is the concession that we are all works in progress and that nobody has completely arrived. That doesn’t mean that some can’t be a lot closer overall than others.

James tells us that those with perfect religion are those who can control their tongues and that feed the orphans and widows. Paul also suggests a “measuring stick” for different sets of customs and practices (Col. 2:23) by asking what value they have toward helping us to check our own self-indulgences. So there are some religions that must count as the most evil and abject failures to be scorned and put behind us (e.g. Naziism) – which isn’t to say that Germans of that era got nothing right. Nobody is so brilliant or so purely evil as to be able to get everything wrong. Even the Nazis purported to disdain things like pornography or smoking. But a few incidental truths here and there do nothing to mitigate a central evil. So Evil itself cannot even manage to be pure - given that its beggarly existence is only there as a perversion of that which is good. But that does not mean that we should fail to repudiate it with as much hatred as we can muster - not hatred for those enslaved to it, but hatred for the evil itself.

This notion of a truth outside ourselves (I think I’ll still push that distinction, your objection to it duly noted) is one of the reasons why science is increasingly so important today. It shares in this notion that we are beholden to a reality that will stubbornly persist through all and despite all our attempted projections on it or manipulations of it. The domain of what is in our heads turns out to be a very small and humble domain indeed. Reality, and of course ultimately God, do not come or go away at the whim of my own mind or even our collective cultural mind (as they must if they are nothing more than a human construct). That, I suggest, is a truth that the ancient religions mostly captured (something beyond us) that we should not lose today. As you say, veneration and gratitude are evoked.

All that said, your suggestion about the importance of what is in us also finds echoes in the Christian message: “the kingdom of heaven is among you” … “where two or three are gathered, there I am…”. So what goes on inside us is indeed a kind of “holy of holies” if you will. So neither what’s in our heads/hearts, nor what is outside of them can be discarded as unimportant. In Micah 6:8 (the Old Testament, no less!) we read that amidst all the sacrifices, feasts, religious rites, there is really only this required of us: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. If religion was purely an external thing [our heads don’t matter - only external reality (God) matters], then the author could have left off with all the justice and mercy bit and just said: follow God and do as you’re instructed. Because after all, shouldn’t that then take care of the “justice and mercy” part? But no; apparently, with regard to justice and love, we have been given some innate sense that is not rendered null or void by any alleged fall or any alleged “re-creation” of Genesis 3 (as if evil could ever countermand what was declared in Genesis 1-2: a thoroughly unscriptural proposition if there ever was one). We have a conscience - suppressed or ignored as it may often be, and we are expected to use it. So God does expect us to use our heads and to evaluate for ourselves as best we can the quality of our actions. Do they serve the causes of justice and mercy? Are the powerless adequately cared for? Many religions fail these criteria in various degrees - and to make this personal, this includes many Christian religions - more personally my flavor of Christianity - and most personally: it comes down to me as needing to acknowledge that I am subject to this scathing judgment. Our practices are not removed from God’s Old Testament declarations of exasperation - even hatred - for love feasts, sacrifices, and rites if we are neglecting the weightier matters of justice and love in our communities. When our religion has turned inward on itself and become a matter of self-indulgence, then the most beautiful Sunday morning worship songs are fatally turned into rank and loathsome hypocrisy. No religion is immune.

While I see the point of view you say, my opinion is a more conservative Biblical historical Christian view and that there is only one God and one God alone, there are other spiritual forces out there that claim to be “God” there is only one true deity and that is the LORD.

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Fair enough.

I think that too. There is a truth of the matter and our various conceptions of it will fit better or less well accordingly. My own test for it would be the inner coherence that ensues, the harmony we feel ourselves to be in with the Other. What is a human or cultural construct is the limited means by which we can name it, and no naming will be perfect. Of course some descriptors will have a longer history and greater following, though even there as you also note the agreement isn’t as thorough going as one might like to find even among Christians.

Nicely put in that passage of the OT.

Nicely put by you.

That is the burden you bear through association, the price of community. You make me question my unwillingness to take on the same burden but I’m sure there is also a sweetness to standing together and confessing a shared veneration for that which makes us possible - even if in the eyes of the nothing-but-ists you will look silly. I can see that. You seem to bear your burden well.

(Genesis 1:26) "Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image…”

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Hoe does one explain the origin of religion?

Since The Biblical Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in the pantheon of religions, the best place to begin is Why is there Religion or the Spiritual? The best answer to this is that because humans are spiritual beings, who know that life is more than survival. We know that life is precious, but also there is something more than life, Who is Good and Powerful.

All of the other religions except Judaism worshiped many gods because this is how they saw Reality. YHWH revealed Godself to Abraham as the One true God. The Greeks later saw Reality, Being, as One also.

Humans with the ability to think know that they are not alone in the universe. Religion takes many forms, but it is part of the human understanding of Reality because we know that we are not the ultimate form of reality.

I’m currently investigating the origins of Islam. Whilst I think Islam very likely has its origins in late antique apocalypticism and the wars in Arabia following the Najran massacre, I do see it as a real possibility that all this was masterminded by God in order to fulfil his promise to Hagar in genesis 21

Genesis 21:17-18 (NIV2011)
17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.
18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

There is nothing in this promise that says or implies that God would establish a religion through Ishmael, which would directly contradict Judaism and Christianity, and set up a rivalry that imperils the peace of the Mideast and the world.

Hagar is not even mentioned in the Quran.

I mean establish a nation, ie the early Islamic caliphate. I don’t think Muhammad was inspired by God, I think he was used, as God used the Assyrians and Babylonians

My investigation of Abram in my second book, Torn Between Two Worlds: Wisdom and Rhetoric, I discovered a very interesting history linking Islam to Judaism and Christianity. But it is not what what most people think.

Abram was a spiritual pioneer, attempting to live a just life but without the benefit of even the 10 Commandments to guide him. His life story in the Bible is one of success and failure as his journey progresses. When ever Abram “goes south” in the story is when he moves away from his God, having been fooled by the adversary. When he heads north he is back on the path that God has chosen for him.

One other detail that has lost significance for us over time is the importance of a name and its meaning. Names were not given lightly, especially to key personalities. We have read often in the bible that children have been given names from angels of god before they were born. So, when a name like this is changed, we cannot trivialize it and we need to search for the reason for the change.

And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. Genesis 17:4-6 (KJV)

There is no indication in the bible where the name Abram came from and why the child was named so, but we do have an idea of what it means: Exalted Father . The addition of the sound [hei] changes the meaning to just Father or Father of Many. [I] For some, this change may seem benign, but let’s look at it closely. “Exalted Father” is a name of honor for a spiritual leader in God’s plan with no built-in connotations or goals. Changing it to “Father of Many” puts pressure on Abram to procreate, and this is what happens. He seeks other women to fulfill the destiny of this new name. It somehow cheapens the miracle of him finally having Isaac in his and Sarai’s old age, as with the New Testament miracle birth of John the Baptist in the barren years of Elizabeth.


It was the adversary who changed his God-given name from Abram to Abraham. It was the adversary that convinced Abraham to father Ishmael by making him doubt God’s promise and in my mind, cheapening the miracle birth of Isaac. Isaac was the intended line that God planned, and Ishmael is not. Ishmael ends up being the father of Islam while Isaac is the father of Christianity.

Food for thought in your investigation of Islam.

Genesis 17 directly contradicts your assertion here. At the beginning of the chapter God (not the Adversary) changes Abram’s name to Abraham “… for I have made you a multitude of nations.” (Emphasis here added to ‘multitude’). So it would appear that this is more than just Israel that God is speaking of here.

And indeed when we go back to read the account regarding Ishmael, we are reminded that there too it is the Lord’s hand (and not the Adversary) that strengthens Hagar and gives her a promise too. So … many nations indeed! You seem over-eager to give the Adversary credit for things that Scriptures do not credit him for. In fact (since ‘two nations’ hardly seems like a multitude yet), the Christian may well see in this an anticipation of all nations streaming to God (Isaiah 49, and of course then … Christ). The Adversary (true to his name) had nothing to offer in all of this but resistance. To be confused as to whether the true author or the obstructionist should get credit for any of this is not an ambiguity that one gets from scriptures!

Again how can God use a person to create a false religion, which is what Islam is?

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. Genesis (17:1)

Mervin, This happened before Moses received the 10 Commandments where we are told:

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3)

The food for thought here is to consider the Lord who has to tell Abram who is, could just as easily have been the adversary, usurping God’s position. Consider how God spoke to Abram and consider that Abram did not have the wisdom from 1 John 4 to test the spirit that was speaking to him.

This goes a long way to explain why this god would want Isaac dead, and why God needed send an angel to stop Abram from doing it.

Yes, Isaac is the line that God promised, and Ismael was not, even though he was the oldest son of Abraham. Ishmael is the father of the Arabs, a great nation, and Isaac is the father of the Jews, another great nation. Jesus is the alpha and omega of Christianity, while Mohamed founded Islam.

I know the old testament by itself can be a bit more ambiguous regarding the status of all those “in God’s council” including the adversary - ambiguities that you seem to revel in filling with all manner of wild fancies. But since we don’t see Jesus or Paul (or any other apostle) buddying up to Satan as a friend who just happens to be a bit contrarian, I think we are shown only one response to give to this foe: “just say no”. Jesus doesn’t dabble with or consider the merits of the temptations in the desert. They (and the Adversary) are all sent packing after Christ has faced them all.