The Origins of Religion and its Implications for Christianity

I’m new to the forum, so please excuse me if this is a repeat post at all. I’m looking for help and/or advice. I’m reading a book (“The Source” by James Michener) in which the author posits in the form of a fictional story, that religion is “developed” in a similar way to the way in which humanity developed agriculture, or housing, or culture itself over the course of millennia. The author’s depiction here seems to line up with what anthropologists/sociologists/historians and archaeologists say (more or less). For some reason, though I knew this, it has hit me as particularly significant at this moment.

I always pictured some kind of “relational thread” connecting the one true God whom I and other Christ followers believe in, with the God who related to “Adam and Eve”—whether they were literal, representative or metaphorical. But, if religion “developed” among humans in the same way that agriculture did, then what are the implications for our faith? How can I reconcile a developing language of faith, religion and the supernatural with a God who I have always believe revealed Godself to humanity from the very beginning?

If God did not reveal Godself until God’s relationship with Abraham, then what are we to believe about the biblical accounts of God’s relationships with Adam, Eve, Cain & Abel,…Noah…???

I’m finding myself in a bit of a “mini-crisis” here on this, so any help would be greatly appreciated. How do you reconcile the idea of “developing religion” with the Biblical message? Or do you? Do you dismiss those social scientists who hold this view? If so, how do you look at the historical evidence on this topic?

Do you have links to articles and/or books that may be helpful on this topic? I have always had a high view of the authority of scripture, though I also firmly believe that “all truth is God’s truth.” I have always believed that if there is an apparent problem between science and the scriptures, then the problem must actually be with me and/or my interpretation…so please help me out.

Thanks so much in advance

Daniel Zylstra

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Religion refers to human constructs for relating to the divine. Just because humans developed religion(s) at some point(s) in time doesn’t necessarily imply that the God they developed ways of relating to was also a human construct. If you believe in divine revelation, you believe in divine revelation. Obviously humans would have had to evolve the requisite capacities to relate to God before he could enter relationship with them.

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Hi Daniel,
Welcome to the forum! You raise some good questions here, so don’t worry about possible repetition – that’s what we’re here for.

I can see why this would be troubling for you, but I don’t quite get how it follows that, as you say

I don’t think I’d equate a “development of religion” (or maybe “evolution” would be a better word) with the idea that God didn’t reveal himself to anyone before Abraham, unless you see the first part of Genesis as entirely symbolic, which I don’t, personally. At the same time, I wouldn’t dismiss social scientists (as science and religion aren’t at war) – just suggest that they don’t have the complete picture, anymore than they would have the complete picture on how prayer works or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There’s only so much of God’s revelation to his people that can be viewed scientifically or academically – for the rest, I think that’s why we have the Bible. Not to calculate the age of the earth or to act like a science book, but to tell us what science can’t tell us.

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. As a Christian myself who upholds Scripture as God’s Word to humans, my understanding on the origin of religion is this. That God did reveal Himself to Adam and Eve when they walked into the Garden and formed a relationship with Him. After the Fall The decedents of Adam go around the world and encounter other people who have developed either primative animal or ancestor worship or nature worship. While religion may have sprung up out of early humans superstition, God revealed Himself to Adam, Noah, Abram and other’s throughout history. I also am open to the idea of along with superstition, the ignorance of who God truly is (i.e. apostasy of God-worshippers) and even satanic deception on being the formation of religions outside of Judeo-Christianity.

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Me too. I am also open to the idea that the true God revealed himself and related to other humans at different points in history, it’s just the Hebrew story is the one we have and the one we (as Christians) have read our own story into. And of course, I believe the Incarnation and death and resurrection of Jesus are historically pivotal events in the relationship of God with humanity. But if God really loves the whole world and can be found by those who earnestly seek him, that makes me think he has been found throughout history by people other than Jews.

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I started with science as part of the way I perceive and understand reality, and so I read the Bible with that as my interpretive filter from the beginning.

Evolution as a TOE is rather dubious. Not everything evolves. Sometimes someone just has a flash of inspiration.

Then religion just joins the other developments which only show a readiness for God to communicate with us. But there is a flawed premise in all of this. The idea that religion existed as something separate and distinct from everything else. The specialization of human activities into religion, science, history, law and entertainment really only happened much later in our history.

I mean what evidence do they have really? LOL The fact that neanderthals buried their dead? Give me a break! Not only are there some solid practical reasons for doing this but quite a few animals do this – and no religion is involved whatsoever! So there is no need to take what they say at face value like they necessarily have some superior connection to the truth. Check out their so called evidence and arguments and evaluate them for yourself.

Why would you believe that? I believe in an historical Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah. I may treat some of the story elements as symbolic or a take into account the change of the meaning of words as our awareness of the universe has increased.

A little bit of both. If you look at the actual evidence their ideas are founded on, you may not find them very convincing. But where there is actual verifiable evidence then I would certainly adjust my thinking to fit these findings.

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I have no answer to most of your questions. I’m not a Christian but I do take the question of what it is that supports God belief seriously. Anthropologically, I think you have to given its widespread and ancient prevalence. I suspect it has played an important role in our becoming modern humans, and may serve an important role still. I reject the idea that religion was a scam created by those in the know to subjugate the masses. I also reject the idea that religion is simply a mistake or a holdover from a time when we were less bright. Answers like those show the question hasn’t been considered seriously.

Welcome to the forums by the way. I like your questions and hope you’ll stick around.

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Welcome, and great questions.

The way I conceptualize this is that God has always been trying to reveal himself to creation, and at some point we began to have the capacity to notice and respond. It would be hard to pinpoint that to a moment in history and specific location. I suppose I think of it as a gradual process. Perhaps why Genesis 1-11 seems so ancient, even primordial, is that it may have something to do with the big picture of this emergence of our awareness of and relationship with God.

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I like what Tim Keller says, that Christianity is not a religion, it’s a Person. Becoming a Christian is not simply affirming some things – it takes literally a miracle to soften a stoney heart and to open blind spiritual eyes and unstop deaf spiritual ears. A Christian has to at least recognize that their desires have changed and are in accord with their Father’s, if they have indeed been adopted by him. Obedience should also be a result, not that we won’t ever fail, but we should be dismayed when we do.

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Thank you all for your responses! A lot of good stuff to think about here and such a quick response! I really appreciate it!

So, here’s what I think I’m hearing: there are roughly three main scenarios here:

  1. The social scientists have it at least partly right: as humankind evolved they developed the capacity to understand “religious” concepts. What many social scientists miss it the possibility that God communicated to human beings on a level correspondent with their ability to understand all the way along. Thus, while animistic religious ideas evolved (for example) God somehow connected in God’s self-revelatory way with humans on a level that they could understand, making them aware, in the first place, of the existence of the divine and secondly aware of that Divinity’s involvement in life.

  2. The social scientists (in general) have it completely wrong…after all their evidence for the development of religion is pretty scanty…particularly in the pre-writing eras. And, even after writing is developed oral culture was often predominant still for many years, in many parts of the world, and for the oral culture we really have no definitive “proof” of what people believed, so we just can’t know that they didn’t have a relationship with a monotheistic God, a lá Yahweh.

  3. God did reveal God-self to a literal representative Adam and Eve who then carried that faith out into the wide world after the fall, but who found some forms of other religions already developed. These other forms of religion remained predominant while the faith that Adam and Eve brought was sometimes a very thin thread, but always a “remnant”. These other religions may have also been willful walking away from the God they knew, and/or demonic influence partnering with people who didn’t want to know the one true God.

  4. The social scientists have it totally correct, and religion developed and/or evolved along with agriculture and everything else (as a wholistic whole—to be redundant), and religion really is a human construct—God is created in our image, rather than the other way around.

The last one there is one I cannot accept because of my faith…I do believe in a God who is really there apart from us, and that God reveals God-self to us…so I have to be aware of it, but I can’t accept it for myself.

The other three scenarios (or variations thereof) I could see being tenable options for a person of faith like myself, though I don’t want to be too dismissive of the efforts of many generations of social scientists either.

All-in-all thank you again! Some great answers here that have been really helpful in my thinking!

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So Adam and Eve is basically a first contact story. Who or what contacted them, I think, is assumed to be the great creator of everything only because that is part and parcel of the God genre at that time. That is the part I think to be in error. I think our conscious minds became as flexible as they are by being split off from the totality of our consciousness. Religion, I think, arose to maintain a link to that fuller being which we recognize ourselves to most often be separated from.

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From my perspective I have no issue with believing that the original human belief was probably an animism, where nature itself was worshipped. From studying the ANE, I see that the gods of these peoples became more and more transcendent, and less and less anthropomorphic as time went on, whilst the religions of Babylon, Assyria and Greece became more and more monotheistic in later periods.

As a ‘Cradle Catholic’, my worldview ‘evolved’ (as I matured) in a way that agrees almost 100% with what you describe in your first 3 points, except I am more comfortable dispensing with the Fall--replacing Original Sin with Original Blessing. If you are not already acquainted with these two recognized anthropologist’s works, I highly recommend them:

  1. Simon Conway Morris “Life’s Solutions”
  2. Ian Tattersall “Masters of the Planet”

They maintain that, even before ideas were preserved in writing (or by reliable oral tradition) there is strong evidence, in the form of burial practices, that at least some Homo sapiens had a belief in an afterlife, the hallmark of most current (Western) religions. In a previous post, @mitchellmckain appears to discount this conclusion, but otherwise how can one account for the valuable (and useful) grave goods that are found only in Homo sapiens burials–e.g. ivory bead necklaces that required thousands of hours of crafting, or exquisitly-knapped flint blades?

It is more risky to impute a religious meaning to the outstanding paintings left by the Cro Magnon deep in the caves of France and Spain. The accurate portraiture of the animals these folks depended upon is in stark contrast with the stick figure portrayal of the human form and may hint at some animistic religious beliefs, but that IMHO is largely conjecture.
wishing you good fortune in your continuing search,
Al Leo

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I think it might’ve helpful to focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a defining moment in this quest

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Hi Dominee. I also read The Source…though years ago. I always enjoyed Michener (though he was typically quite wordy). You ask good questions. I think Michener writes from Michener’s personal perspective. But what do anthropologists etc say “(more or less)”? Neanderthal graves with flower remnants in them?

If nothing else, the signs of a religious impulse early on would be illustrative of the reality that we were made for a relationship with Someone higher…and have always tried to figure it out.

If you are in a mini-crisis over the particulars of the dawn of human history, well so is everyone else. There are lots of aspects of human history and prehistory that really fall into the speculative – including the depth and nature of early humans’ religious experiences.

God reveals Himself but He does it on His terms. Hard to know what we do not know here.

But from my POV, what we do not know does not negate the things that we DO know about such biblical events as the expectations of a Messiah to pay for the sins of the world, the settlement of Canaan by descendants of Abraham, the Sennacharib Prism, etc.

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Greetings and welcome. I suspect you’re from a CRC or RCA background with “Dominie” in the name–I’m from West Michigan, which has a large concentration of them, too. Great question–and like @bluebird, I think we all have deep questions about that. A Calvin College graduate and Christian, currently at Fuller Theological Seminary but also previously at Cambridge, studied the cognitive science of religion–a sort of mirror to that, it sounds like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfUbRn9H2ac&t=5s.

Rachel Held Evans, one of my favorite authors, also wrote about that struggle with “Faith Unraveled” in a more existential way, but her book published just before she died, “Inspired,” also discusses some ways she thinks inspiration came to us. I listened to it once on Audible, but have to do it again–it was fairly dense.

I look forward to other discussion on this topic.

Blessings!
Randy

Dear Daniel,
You make a very good observation here and I believe you are correct that very few Christians today look critically at the anthropological development of religion, by looking at all of the stakeholders. This is too big to unpack here, but I have taken it to heart, and place much weight on the words of the prophets and Jesus against the profiteers of church and religious structures. The story of Nicodemus is fascinating in that he was the only Pharisee that we are told of who was willing to give up his political status and follow the teachings of Jesus. How many ministers, priests or rabbis today face this dilemma?

Religion is not faith, it is a political, cultural construct, that has historically limited freedom of thought. The “faithful” have often given up their power to religious leaders, and rarely do they give it back.
Best Wishes, Shawn

Daniel, Religion expresses itself in burial rituals that signal hope of life after death, designation of sacred spaces like groves or mountain tops, and the population’s understanding of divine appointment. We discuss these topics and many more at the Facebook group The Bible and Anthropology.

Just because Religion ( = (reported) Revelation of God in heaven to humanity on earth) evolves over time does not mean God in heaven can’t exist and couldn’t develop His Message to humanity over time also

Supposedly, God’s revelation to humankind has been accumulating steadily since time immemorial, so we would expect some “evolution” or “unfolding development” of the (cumulative) Message?

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Dear Erik,
I have different definition of religion, historically it actually a social construct based on inspired words of the prophets or directly from God. If you look at it in this way, in relation to the development of the Jewish religion, you will see that well within 400 years of the last inspired texts (Malachi), the religion no longer reflected the teachings of the prophesied Messiah. Religion did not reflect faith.

Christianity followed the same path. Within 300 years, Roman Christianity no longer reflected the teaching of Jesus. This was corrected to some extent during the reformation. The Jews have been unable to make a similar correction because the religion is buried so deep in the culture. Christianity has the same issues. Living inside of this bubble, Christians cannot separate the culture from the faith, and this is why we have so many flavors trying to represent the Word.
Best Wishes, Shawn

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