The Catholic Church teaches that all people have a God-given religious impulse. This quality drives man to seek ultimate happiness, which is found in God alone. As the Catechism says, “The desire for God is written in the human heart” and only in God will man “find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27).
This impulse, however, is not always a reliable guide for man, who suffers the consequences of original sin. Despite the Church’s teaching that reason alone can come to some knowledge of God and his attributes (cf. Dei Filius 3 and Rom. 1:20ff), Pope Pius XII recognized that “men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful” (Humani Generis, 2).
The religious impulse accounts for the universal experience of religion among the world’s cultures at all times and in all places. Nevertheless, because of man’s darkened reason, his ability to know God’s plan for him is obscured and limited. However, man is not left hopeless. The Scriptures teach that “In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Eph.1:8-10). In sum, “God comes to meet man” (CCC 50).
God’s Gift or Human Invention?
Christianity’s excitement lies in its affirmation of God’s progressive revelation of himself in human history: first, to the Jews in the Old Testament—and through them to all nations—and finally in Jesus Christ, who became a man, definitively dispelling the cloud of ignorance that had plagued mankind since the Fall.
The “scandal of particularity” marks Christ’s Incarnation. He became a man of a specific culture, in a particular place, during a historical time. Those who were left without knowledge of the promised Christ before his Incarnation as well as those presently waiting to hear the gospel have yet to experience this unshackling of the religious impulse.
St. Paul affirms reason’s limited ability to know God, but he continues by explaining the effects of the religious impulse uninformed by God’s revelation. He writes,
For although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. (Rom. 1:21-25)
To put it plainly, when man’s religious impulse is left alone to run its course, it tends to stray from true knowledge of God even though it may retain much of what is good and holy.
The Catholic, biblical view of religion acknowledges the human religious impulse as a gift from God and affirms creation as a stepping stone to some knowledge of God. However, many naturalistic theories of religion strip the religious impulse of its divine origin and make man’s wonder at creation the basis of his religious beliefs. In this manner, religion becomes something purely human and religious belief an expression of man’s creativity. On the other hand, the Church defends religion as something essentially human without reducing it to man’s own genius. Thus, we see emerging two competing ideas of the nature of religion.
One idea contends that this phenomenon is man’s attempt to reach up to God. That is, mankind wishes for something greater than himself, and so forms—unconsciously or otherwise—a worldview complete with rituals, a moral code, and beliefs in order to make sense of his place in the world and make peace with the “big questions” such as the meaning of life, death, and suffering.
The second view considers God to be the driving force of religion. In this view, God is the one who reaches down to man, reveals the purpose of human life and the structure of the world, and provides knowledge of how to respond to his call to happiness. So we are left with these two paradigms of religion: Either it is ultimately, to borrow the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “God in search of man,” or man in search of God. Religion is either made from above or all “made up.”
Stages of Belief
The notion persists popularly and in the minds of many scholars that religion is simply the product of man’s imagination. College courses all around the world and public-TV specials teach the beliefs of specific religions with the presumption that religion is no more divine than one of Michelangelo’s frescoes: beautiful, yes; inspiring, without a doubt; but finally subject to the limits of human talent.
There are many naturalistic theories of religion. Each one shares the belief that religion follows a pattern of development commensurate with biological evolution. In most of its forms, this evolutionary theory is decidedly and entirely antithetical to Christian belief. Basically, it explains religion in terms of a historical progression from more primitive stages to more sophisticated stages, which culminate in either monotheism or something altogether “beyond” organized religion. This contrasts with St. Paul’s view, in which polytheism represents a digression from monotheism.
The evolutionary theory of religion remains the assumption of most religious scholars, but few agree on the details. Even the early 20th century, scholars who laid the theory’s foundation had their peculiarities. For instance, E.B. Tylor, in his book Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom, proposed that animism was the first stage of religion. Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, however, insisted on the primacy of the magical stage of religion or manaism. Nevertheless, one can discern shared contours in each particular theory. What follows is a basic synthesis of the evolutionary theory of religion.
Stage One: Manaism
The evolutionary theory considers mana to be the most primitive state of religion. Mana is a word borrowed from Polynesian cultures which refers to the spiritual energy inherent in the world, much like the “Force” in Star Wars (though with considerably less marketing power). Manaism is characterized by magical thinking and is thought to come prior to formal religion. People in this stage aim to harness mana in a positive manner through the use of rituals, and they believe that certain objects may be endowed with a particularly high concentration of this spiritual force. Such an object—dubbed a fetish—is venerated and may be a chain of animal skulls, bones, or something similar. Practitioners of mana attempt to manipulate this force in order to achieve some goal.
Stage Two: Animism
Animism moves beyond the diffuse, amorphous mana to believing that personal spirits are infused throughout the world and often, like mana, concentrated in specific objects or centered on specific places. Hence there might be a spirit who inhabits the local river. Achieving a harmonious relationship with it might involve a particular ritual aimed at placating the divinity before one fishes. The person who does not respect the domain of the nature spirit is liable to unfortunate consequences. Animists attempt to appease the spirits and to maintain proper relationships.
Stage Three: Polytheism
The third stage of the evolutionary theory is polytheism, the belief in many gods. This transition is said to occur as people become more concerned with abstract principles like justice or liberty. Ideas are personified in the form of a particular god who is attached to the specific idea or principle. In polytheism, rituals serve to appease the gods. The word “worship” can be applied accurately to the ritual activity of the adherents because they recognize the god’s divinity and supremacy. One example of this would be the Roman god Bacchus (or Dionysus), patron of wine and culture. The worship of Bacchus—the Bacchanalia—was frantic and uninhibited like the principle of freedom with which the god was associated. Polytheism nevertheless offers a dim reflection of divine love, for the spiritual beings are conceived as persons.
Stage Four: Henotheism
The fourth stage is henotheism, wherein the adherent admits the existence of multiple gods but gives allegiance to one principle god. Some say this is the position of the early Israelites. For instance, the first of the Ten Commandments “You shall not have other gods besides me” (Ex. 20:3) does not deny the existence of other gods but enjoins upon the Israelites exclusive worship of the Lord. Certainly, some Israelites were henotheists, which is different than saying the official or canonical version of early Judaism was henotheistic. Still, many point to the following passage as an example of henotheism.
Jephthah sends messengers to the Ammonite king asking, “Should you not possess that which your god Chemosh gave you to possess, and should we not possess all that the Lord, our God, has cleared out for us?” (Judg.11:24). It is possible to interpret this passage a classic statement of henotheism: They have their god, but we have our God, the Lord. However, an alternative interpretation holds that Jephthah’s supposedly henotheistic view is simply a diplomatic maneuver in order to convince Chemosh’s followers to keep to their territory and allow the Israelites freedom to possess their own land. In this view, Jephthah’s message aims at a peaceful coexistence between the Amorites and Israelites. The statement, then, alludes to a belief in Chemosh in a non-confrontational way to accomplish the diplomatic end.
Stage Five: Monotheism
The final evolutionary stage is monotheism, the belief in one God. In monotheism, a belief shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, God is conceived as the all-powerful Creator who is the source of a moral code. Interestingly, the great monotheistic religions all believe that God has revealed himself to humanity. Of course they differ on the meaning and nature of this revelation, yet each recognizes that religion is a top-down affair, not a bottom-up attempt to reach God.
. . . And Beyond
Finally, we could note that some scholars have posited stages of religious development beyond monotheism: the abolishment of religion and the move beyond belief in God to secular humanism or atheism. Others have posited that the step beyond monotheism is something like Zen Buddhism, which relies on human wisdom and personal insight instead of an external divinity.
Why It Doesn’t Add Up
So what are the assumptions of the evolutionary theory of religion and what do they imply? For starters, evolutionary religion implies that God does not reveal himself to humanity. The fundamental presupposition is that religious development is merely a consequence of the evolutionary progress of man himself. Religions evolve as man evolves and the particular stage of religion is coextensive with the evolutionary stage of man.
This evolutionary theory of religion does not stand up to scrutiny, however: A progression from manaism to monotheism has never been recorded or observed in any culture. Instead, the theory rests on the bold assumption that today’s primitive cultures—such as the Australian Aboriginal—reflect chronologically ancient cultures. I call this assumption bold because, as many Christian critics of the evolutionary theory have observed, just because a culture is technologically primitive does not necessarily mean its religion is primitive. As the Evangelical Winfried Corduan notes, “[In the evolutionary theory] a traditional culture is considered reflective of early human culture because of its supposed primitiveness, but it is called ‘primitive’ only because someone has decided that it must be reflective of early human history” (Neighboring Faiths 32).
Thus, a second major difficulty for the evolutionary theory is that it commits the fallacy of begging the question: It assumes what it sets out to prove. The scholars who defend or assume it take the theory as their starting point and then strain the data to fit the model.
Why (and How) We Believe
If these are the difficulties with the evolutionary theory, what are the alternatives? The answer, not surprisingly, can be found in the work of a Catholic, the 19th-century scholar and priest Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954). Schmidt’s theory, called original monotheism, locates the ultimate source of religion in God. (For more on his studies in anthropology and ethnology, see “A Dim Memory of Eden,” page 26).
A critique of the evolutionary theory does not deny that each of these stages of religion has at one time or another flourished. Even today there are many cultures that are animistic. Think of India: On the face of it, Hinduism is certainly polytheistic. The question simply concerns whether religion evolves from manaism to monotheism or whether polytheism and other “more primitive” forms of religion represent so many “devolutions” from God’s original plan.
Moreover, no one denies that there are purely human elements in some religions. Many Christians take the simple view that Christianity and Judaism are the only religions in which God “reached down” and that other religions are simply man’s efforts to “reach up.” As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” In such a view, the restlessness of the human heart, the God-given religious impulse, is the driving force which compels man to conceive of God and worship him in some way. All men seek God, at least implicitly. For this theory, Christianity and Judaism have the advantage of God meeting man’s innate desire with his own grace and initiative while other religions are just the product of the religious impulse. However, Fr. Schimdt’s theory is more nuanced; it tries to show that all religions have a connection to an original monotheism. Original monotheism also accounts for the Second Vatican Council’s development of St. Justin Martyr’s idea of “seeds of the Word which lie hidden among” among the world’s unevangelized cultures (Ad Gentes 11).
Admittedly, other theories also consider God to be the ultimate author of religion and provide an alternative to a naturalistic evolutionary theory. Recently, the Evangelical scholar Gerald McDermott published a book called God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? In this work, McDermott draws on the work of Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria to show that God can use other religions for his own designs. Without betraying the truth and uniqueness of Christ, he is able to demonstrate the existence of a staggering amount of authentic knowledge about God within extra-biblical cultures.
Although Fr. Schmidt’s theory has not been well received by the secular academy or the discipline of cultural anthropology, original monotheism not only precludes the condescending attitude often taken by comparative religionists, it also values the true meaning of religion. As Pope Benedict observes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, “Religions do not aim merely to answer the question about our provenance; all religions try in one way or another to lift the veil of the future. They seem important precisely because they impart knowledge about what is to come, and so show man the path he has to take to avoid coming to grief” (2).
If religion is simply a human invention, given shape by our deep desires and formed solely from what is supposedly a purely human religious impulse, then what value does it have? Why believe when there is no reality corresponding to the proposition? Why sacrifice when one could indulge? Why evangelize when there is nothing that could change a person? Why pray if there is no one listening? The only good reason for believing anything is because it is true.
Religion, then, is not just about man’s wonder and psychological evolution. Undoubtedly, many religions have devolved from God’s original plan for mankind, introducing perverse human elements. Nevertheless, in each, some dim hope, some subtle truth remains, pointing to Jesus, the ultimate Source of Truth, and paving the way to the threshold of his one, holy, apostolic, and Catholic Church.
A Dim Memory of Eden: Original Monotheism
In original monotheism, the ultimate principle of religion is located in God. Nineteenth-century priest and scholar Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt recognized the problems with the evolutionary theory and learned from them. His aim was to discover which cultures really were the most primitive. In order to do this, he developed the method of ethnohistory, or what is now more commonly called cultural anthropology.
Through his research, he identified a number of stages in cultural development, establishing his methodology on the principle that particular cultural achievements occur only once within a certain region. For instance, it cannot be expected that a unique style of art, agricultural practice, or tool would have been simultaneously developed by two geographically separated cultures within a given region. Rather, by limiting our consideration to a certain region such as India or Africa, through ethnohistory, we can chronicle the technological advancement of cultures and determine which ones originated a cultural innovation and which ones borrowed it. In this way, the progression from the Stone Age to the Neolithic and beyond could be posited with reliable probability.
Through his study, Fr. Schmidt determined four cultural stages: primordial (hunter-gatherer societies), primary (nomadic cattle herders, hunters, and horticulturalists), secondary (agriculturalists), and tertiary (city builders). He learned that though there was some admixture of pagan practices and magic in the cultures he studied (such as the African pygmies, Australian Aborigines, and some Native American tribes), there nevertheless seemed to be a common theme underlying the religion of the most primordial cultures: namely, the idea of a single God, or what Fr. Schmidt termed “original monotheism.”
Fr. Schmidt’s original monotheism discerns a number of unique beliefs among the world’s most technologically primitive cultures. His research showed that the majority of these cultures recognize a single God. It is only in younger cultures that more than one god appears, which represents an aberration from the original monotheism.
Moreover, God is conceived as Father (though there are a few cultures among the horticulturalists in which God is feminine). God is also the “Skydweller,” an idea recognizing his transcendence. His dwelling place is not among humans but at the peak of a mountain or some other elevated place. God is also Creator, which is how primitive cultures know him. That is, there is a dim memory of our lost Eden among the world’s peoples. God is also the Superior One, the Everlasting One, the Omniscient One, the Omnibeneficent One, and the Almighty. Obviously, all of these terms are expressed in the specific culture’s own idioms, yet it is significant that Fr. Schmidt was able to show how these squared with many ideas supremely expressed in Christian theology.
If original monotheism provides an alternative to the evolutionary theory of religion, we must ask whether it makes sense. Theologically speaking, it makes a great deal of sense. Both the book of Genesis teaches and Pope Pius XII affirmed in Humani Generis that mankind originated from a single person, Adam. A cursory reading of the opening of Genesis proves the idea that God had a special, intimate relationship with our first parents. Is it any wonder that a faint memory of this original monotheism is retained in many of the world’s cultures?
God’s Rivals: Why God Has Allowed Different Religions by Gerald McDermott*
High Gods in North America by Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt
Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions by Winfried Corduan*
The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories by Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt
Primitive Revelation by Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt
Religions of the World by Fr. John Hardon, S.J.