Religion—How Did It Begin?
THE history of religion is as old as the history of man himself. That is what archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Even among the most “primitive,” that is to say, undeveloped, civilizations, there is found evidence of worship of some form. In fact The New Encyclopedia Britannica says that “as far as scholars have discovered, there has never existed any people, anywhere, at any time, who were not in some sense religious.”
2 Besides its antiquity, religion also exists in great variety. The headhunters in the jungles of Borneo, the Eskimos in the frozen Arctic, the nomads in the Sahara Desert, the urban dwellers in the great metropolises of the world—every people and every nation on earth has its god or gods and its way of worship. The diversity in religion is truly staggering.
3 Logically, questions come to mind. From where did all these religions come? Since there are marked differences as well as similarities among them, did they start independently, or could they have developed from one source? In fact we might ask: Why did religion begin at all? And how? The answers to these questions are of vital importance to all who are interested in finding the truth about religion and religious beliefs.
Question of Origin
4 When it comes to the question of origin, people of different religions think of names such as Muḥammad, the Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. In almost every religion, we can find a central figure to whom credit is given for establishing the ‘true faith.’ Some of these were iconoclastic reformers. Others were moralistic philosophers. Still others were selfless folk heroes. Many of them have left behind writings or sayings that formed the basis of a new religion. In time what they said and did was elaborated, embellished, and given a mystic aura. Some of these leaders were even deified.
5 Even though these individuals are considered founders of the major religions that we are familiar with, it must be noted that they did not actually originate religion. In most cases, their teachings grew out of existing religious ideas, even though most of these founders claimed divine inspiration as their source. Or they changed and modified existing religious systems that had become unsatisfactory in one way or another.
6 For example, as accurately as history can tell us, the Buddha had been a prince who was appalled by the suffering and deplorable conditions he found surrounding him in a society dominated by Hinduism. Buddhism was the result of his search for a solution to life’s agonizing problems. Similarly, Muḥammad was highly disturbed by the idolatry and immorality he saw in the religious practices around him. He later claimed to have received special revelations from God, which formed the Qur’ān and became the basis of a new religious movement, Islām. Protestantism grew out of Catholicism as a result of the Reformation that began in the early 16th century, when Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church at that time.
7 Thus, as far as the religions now in existence are concerned, there is no lack of information regarding their origin and development, their founders, their sacred writings, and so on. But what about the religions that existed before them? And the ones even before those? If we go back far enough in history, we will sooner or later be confronted with the question: How did religion begin? Clearly, to find the answer to that question, we must look beyond the confines of the individual religions.
8 The study of the origin and development of religion is a comparatively new field. For centuries, people more or less accepted the religious tradition into which they were born and in which they were brought up. Most of them were satisfied with the explanations handed down to them by their forefathers, feeling that their religion was the truth. There was seldom any reason to question anything, nor the need to investigate how, when, or why things got started. In fact, for centuries, with limited means of travel and communication, few people were even aware of other religious systems.
9 During the 19th century, however, the picture began to change. The theory of evolution was sweeping through intellectual circles. That, along with the advent of scientific inquiry, caused many to question established systems, including religion. Recognizing the limitations of looking for clues within existing religion, some scholars turned to the remains of early civilizations or to the remote corners of the world where people still lived in primitive societies. They tried to apply to these the methods of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and so forth, hoping to discover a clue as to how religion began and why.
10 What was the outcome? Suddenly, there burst upon the scene many theories—as many as there were investigators, it seemed—with each investigator contradicting the other, and each endeavoring to outdo the other in daring and originality. Some of these researchers arrived at important conclusions; the work of others has simply been forgotten. It is both educational and enlightening for us to get a glimpse of the results of this research. It will help us to gain a better understanding of the religious attitudes among people we meet.
11 A theory, commonly called animism, was proposed by the English anthropologist Edward Tylor (1832-1917). He suggested that experiences such as dreams, visions, hallucinations, and the lifelessness of corpses caused primitive people to conclude that the body is inhabited by a soul (Latin, anima). According to this theory, since they frequently dreamed about their deceased loved ones, they assumed that a soul continued living after death, that it left the body and dwelt in trees, rocks, rivers, and so on. Eventually, the dead and the objects the souls were said to inhabit came to be worshiped as gods. And thus, said Tylor, religion was born.
12 Another English anthropologist, R. R. Marett (1866-1943), proposed a refinement of animism, which he called animatism. After studying the beliefs of the Melanesians of the Pacific islands and the natives of Africa and America, Marett concluded that instead of having the notion of a personal soul, primitive people believed there was an impersonal force or supernatural power that animated everything; that belief evoked emotions of awe and fear in man, which became the basis for his primitive religion. To Marett, religion was mainly man’s emotional response to the unknown. His favorite statement was that religion was “not so much thought out as danced out.”
13 In 1890 a Scottish expert in ancient folklore, James Frazer (1854-1941), published the influential book The Golden Bough, in which he argued that religion grew out of magic. According to Frazer, man first tried to control his own life and his environment by imitating what he saw happening in nature. For example, he thought that he could invoke rain by sprinkling water on the ground to the accompaniment of thunderlike drumbeats or that he could cause his enemy harm by sticking pins in an effigy. This led to the use of rituals, spells, and magical objects in many areas of life. When these did not work as expected, he then turned to placating and beseeching the help of the supernatural powers, instead of trying to control them. The rituals and incantations became sacrifices and prayers, and thus religion began. In Frazer’s words, religion is “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man.”
14 Even the noted Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), in his book Totem and Taboo, tried to explain the origin of religion. True to his profession, Freud explained that the earliest religion grew out of what he called a father-figure neurosis. He theorized that, as was true with wild horses and cattle, in primitive society the father dominated the clan. The sons, who both hated and admired the father, rebelled and killed the father. To acquire the father’s power, Freud claimed, ‘these cannibalistic savages ate their victim.’ Later, out of remorse, they invented rites and rituals to atone for their action. In Freud’s theory, the father figure became God, the rites and rituals became the earliest religion, and the eating of the slain father became the tradition of communion practiced in many religions.
15 Numerous other theories that are attempts to explain the origin of religion could be cited. Most of them, however, have been forgotten, and none of them have really stood out as more credible or acceptable than the others. Why? Simply because there was never any historical evidence or proof that these theories were true. They were purely products of some investigator’s imagination or conjecture, soon to be replaced by the next one that came along.
A Faulty Foundation
16 After years of struggling with the issue, many have now come to the conclusion that it is most unlikely that there will be any breakthrough in finding the answer to the question of how religion began. First of all, this is because bones and remains of ancient peoples do not tell us how those people thought, what they feared, or why they worshiped. Any conclusions drawn from these artifacts are educated guesses at best. Second, the religious practices of today’s so-called primitive people, such as the Australian Aborigines, are not necessarily a reliable gauge for measuring what people of ancient times did or thought. No one knows for sure if or how their culture changed over the centuries.
17 Because of all the uncertainties, the book World Religions—From Ancient History to the Present concludes that “the modern historian of religions knows that it is impossible to reach the origins of religion.” Regarding the historians’ efforts, however, the book makes this observation: “In the past too many theorists were concerned not simply to describe or explain religion but to explain it away, feeling that if the early forms were shown to be based upon illusions then the later and higher religions might be undermined.”
18 In that last comment lies the clue as to why various “scientific” investigators of the origin of religion have not come up with any tenable explanations. Logic tells us that a correct conclusion can be deduced only from a correct premise. If one starts off with a faulty premise, it is unlikely that one will reach a sound conclusion. The repeated failure of the “scientific” investigators to come up with a reasonable explanation casts serious doubts on the premise upon which they based their views. By following their preconceived notion, in their efforts to ‘explain religion away’ they have attempted to explain God away.
19 The situation can be compared to the many ways astronomers prior to the 16th century tried to explain the movement of the planets. There were many theories, but none of them were really satisfactory. Why? Because they were based upon the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe around which the stars and planets revolved. Real progress was not made until scientists—and the Catholic Church—were willing to accept the fact that the earth was not the center of the universe but revolved around the sun, the center of the solar system. The failure of the many theories to explain the facts led open-minded individuals, not to try to come up with new theories, but to reexamine the premise of their investigations. And that led to success.
20 The same principle can be applied to the investigation of the origin of religion. Because of the rise of atheism and the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution, many people have taken for granted that God does not exist. Based on this assumption, they feel that the explanation for the existence of religion is to be found in man himself—in his thought processes, his needs, his fears, his “neuroses.” Voltaire stated, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”; so they argue that man has invented God.—See box, page 28.
21 Since the many theories have failed to provide a truly satisfying answer, is it not time now to reexamine the premise upon which these investigations were based? Instead of laboring fruitlessly in the same rut, would it not be logical to look elsewhere for the answer? If we are willing to be open-minded, we will agree that to do so is both reasonable and scientific. And we have just such an example to help us see the logic behind this course.
An Ancient Inquiry
22 In the first century of our Common Era, Athens, Greece, was a prominent center of learning. Among the Athenians, however, there were many different schools of thought, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics, each with its own idea about the gods. Based on these various ideas, many deities were venerated, and different ways of worship developed. As a result, the city was full of man-made idols and temples.—Acts 17:16.
23 In about the year 50 C.E., the Christian apostle Paul visited Athens and presented to the Athenians a totally different point of view. He told them: “The God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples, neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives to all persons life and breath and all things.”—Acts 17:24, 25.
24 In other words, Paul was telling the Athenians that the true God, who “made the world and all the things in it,” is not a fabrication of man’s imagination, nor is he served by ways that man might devise. True religion is not just a one-sided effort by man to try to fill a certain psychological need or quell a certain fear. Rather, since the true God is the Creator, who gave man thinking ability and power of reason, it is only logical that He would provide a way for man to come into a satisfying relationship with Him. That, according to Paul, was exactly what God did. “He made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, . . . for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us.”—Acts 17:26, 27.
25 Notice Paul’s key point: God “made out of one man every nation of men.” Even though today there are many nations of men, living all over the earth, scientists know that, indeed, all mankind is of the same stock. This concept is of great significance because when we speak of all mankind’s being of the same stock, it means much more than their being related just biologically and genetically. They are related in other areas as well.
26 Note, for instance, what the book Story of the World’s Worship says about man’s language. “Those who have studied the languages of the world and compared them with each other have something to say, and it is this: All languages can be grouped into families or classes of speech, and all these families are seen to have started from one common source.” In other words, the languages of the world did not originate separately and independently, as evolutionists would have us believe. They theorize that cave-dwelling men in Africa, Europe, and Asia started with their grunts and growls and eventually developed their own languages. That was not the case. Evidence is that they “started from one common source.”
27 If that is true of something as personal and as uniquely human as language, then would it not be reasonable to think that man’s ideas about God and religion should also have started from one common source? After all, religion is related to thinking, and thinking is related to man’s ability to use language. It is not that all religions actually grew out of one religion, but the ideas and concepts should be traceable to some common origin or pool of religious ideas. Is there evidence to support this? And if, indeed, man’s religions did originate in one single source, what might it be? How can we find out?
Different yet Similar
28 We can get the answer in the same way that linguistic experts got their answers about the origin of language. By placing the languages side by side and noting their similarities, an etymologist can trace the various languages back to their source. Similarly, by placing the religions side by side, we can examine their doctrines, legends, rituals, ceremonies, institutions, and so on, and see if there is any underlying thread of common identity and, if so, to what that thread leads us.
29 On the surface, the many religions in existence today seem quite different from one another. However, if we strip them of the things that are mere embellishments and later additions, or if we remove those distinctions that are the result of climate, language, peculiar conditions of their native land, and other factors, it is amazing how similar most of them turn out to be.
30 For example, most people would think that there could hardly be any two religions more different from each other than the Roman Catholic Church of the West and Buddhism of the East. However, what do we see when we put aside the differences that could be attributed to language and culture? If we are objective about it, we have to admit that there is a great deal that the two have in common. Both Catholicism and Buddhism are steeped in rituals and ceremonies. These include the use of candles, incense, holy water, the rosary, images of saints, chants and prayer books, even the sign of the cross. Both religions maintain institutions of monks and nuns and are noted for celibacy of priests, special garb, holy days, special foods. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it serves to illustrate the point. The question is, Why do two religions that appear to be so different have so many things in common?
31 As enlightening as the comparison of these two religions turns out to be, the same can be done with other religions. When we do so, we find that certain teachings and beliefs are almost universal among them. Most of us are familiar with such doctrines as the immortality of the human soul, heavenly reward for all good people, eternal torment for the wicked in an underworld, purgatory, a triune god or a godhead of many gods, and a mother-of-god or queen-of-heaven goddess. Beyond these, however, there are many legends and myths that are equally commonplace. For example, there are legends about man’s fall from divine grace owing to his illicit attempt to achieve immortality, the need to offer sacrifices to atone for sin, the search for a tree of life or fountain of youth, gods and demigods who lived among humans and produced superhuman offspring, and a catastrophic flood that devastated nearly all of humanity.
32 What can we conclude from all of this? We note that those who believed in these myths and legends lived far from one another geographically. Their culture and traditions were different and distinct. Their social customs bore no relationship to one another. And yet, when it comes to their religions, they believed in such similar ideas. Although not every one of these peoples believed in all the things mentioned, all of them believed in some of them. The obvious question is, Why? It was as if there was a common pool from which each religion drew its basic beliefs, some more, some less. With the passage of time, these basic ideas were embellished and modified, and other teachings developed from them. But the basic outline is unmistakable.
33 Logically, the similarity in the basic concepts of the many religions of the world is strong evidence that they did not begin each in its own separate and independent way. Rather, going back far enough, their ideas must have come from a common origin. What was that origin?
An Early Golden Age
34 Interestingly, among the legends common to many religions is one that says humankind began in a golden age in which man was guiltless, lived happily and peacefully in close communion with God, and was free from sickness and death. While details may differ, the same concept of a perfect paradise that once existed is found in the writings and legends of many religions.
35 The Avesta, the sacred book of the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion, tells about “the fair Yima, the good shepherd,” who was the first mortal with whom Ahura Mazda (the creator) conversed. He was instructed by Ahura Mazda “to nourish, to rule, and to watch over my world.” To do so, he was to build “a Vara,” an underground abode, for all the living creatures. In it, there “was neither overbearing nor mean-spiritedness, neither stupidity nor violence, neither poverty nor deceit, neither puniness nor deformity, neither huge teeth nor bodies beyond the usual measure. The inhabitants suffered no defilement from the evil spirit. They dwelt among odoriferous trees and golden pillars; these were the largest, best and most beautiful on earth; they were themselves a tall and beautiful race.”
36 Among the ancient Greeks, Hesiod’s poem Works and Days speaks of the Five Ages of Man, the first of which was the “Golden Age” when men enjoyed complete happiness. He wrote:
“The immortal gods, that tread the courts of heaven,
First made a golden race of men.
Like gods they lived, with happy, careless souls,
From toil and pain exempt; nor on them crept
Wretched old age, but all their life was passed
In feasting, and their limbs no changes knew.”
That legendary golden age was lost, according to Greek mythology, when Epimetheus accepted as wife the beautiful Pandora, a gift from the Olympian god Zeus. One day Pandora opened the lid of her great vase, and suddenly there escaped from it troubles, miseries, and illness from which mankind was never to recover.
37 Ancient Chinese legends also tell of a golden age in the days of Huang-Ti (Yellow Emperor), who is said to have ruled for a hundred years in the 26th century B.C.E. He was credited with inventing everything having to do with civilization—clothing and shelter, vehicles of transportation, weapons and warfare, land management, manufacturing, silk culture, music, language, mathematics, the calendar, and so on. During his reign, it is said, “there were no thieves nor fights in China, and the people lived in humility and peace. Timely rain and weather resulted in abundant harvest year after year. Most amazing was that even the wild beasts did not kill, and birds of prey did no harm. In short, the history of China began with a paradise.” To this day, the Chinese still claim to be the descendants of the Yellow Emperor.
38 Similar legendary accounts of a time of happiness and perfection at the beginning of man’s history can be found in the religions of many other peoples—Egyptians, Tibetans, Peruvians, Mexicans, and others. Was it just by accident that all these peoples, who lived far from each other and who had totally different cultures, languages, and customs, entertained the same ideas about their origin? Was it just by chance or coincidence that all of them chose to explain their beginnings in the same way? Logic and experience tell us that this could hardly be so. On the contrary, interwoven in all these legends, there must be some common elements of truth about the beginning of man and his religion.
39 Indeed, there are many common elements discernible among all the different legends about man’s beginning. When we put them together, a more complete picture begins to emerge. It tells how God created the first man and woman and placed them in a paradise. They were very content and very happy at first, but soon they became rebellious. That rebellion led to the loss of the perfect paradise, only to be replaced by labor and toil, pain and suffering. Eventually mankind became so bad that God punished them by sending a great deluge of waters that destroyed all but one family. As this family multiplied, some of the offspring banded together and started to build an immense tower in defiance of God. God thwarted their scheme by confusing their language and dispersing them to the far corners of the earth.
40 Is this composite picture purely the result of someone’s mental exercise? No. Basically, that is the picture presented in the Bible, in the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. While we will not go into a discussion of the authenticity of the Bible here, let it be noted that the Bible’s account of man’s early history is reflected in the key elements found in many legends. The record reveals that as the human race began to disperse from Mesopotamia, they carried with them their memories, experiences, and ideas everywhere they went. In time these were elaborated and changed and became the warp and woof of religion in every part of the world. In other words, going back to the analogy used earlier, the account in Genesis constitutes the original, crystal-clear pool from which stemmed the basic ideas about the beginning of man and worship found in the various religions of the world. To these they added their particular doctrines and practices, but the link is unmistakable.
41 In the following chapters of this book, we will discuss in greater detail how specific religions began and developed. You will find it enlightening to note not only how each religion is different from the others but also how it is similar to them. You will also be able to note how each religion fits into the time scheme of human history and the history of religion, how its sacred book or writings relate to the others, how its founder or leader was influenced by other religious ideas, and how it has influenced mankind’s conduct and history. Studying mankind’s long search for God with these points in mind will help you to see more clearly the truth about religion and religious teachings.
For a detailed comparison of the various flood legends found among different peoples, please see the book Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1988, Volume 1, pages 328, 610, and 611.
For detailed information on this subject, please refer to the book The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1989.