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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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A critical awareness of religion as a peculiar
phenomenon of human behavior first appears, so far
as the extant evidence shows, in the writings of the
Greek philosopher Xenophanes (sixth century B.C.). As
the following fragments disclose, Xenophanes had
perceived the ethnic relativity of the personification
of deity, as well as its innate anthropomorphism:

Mortals think that the gods are born, and wear clothes like
their own, and have a voice and bodies. But if oxen and


horses or lions had hands and could draw with them and
make works [of art] as men do, horses would draw the shapes
of gods like horses, oxen like oxen; each would make their
bodies according to their own forms. The Ethiopians say
that their gods are flat-nosed and black; the Thracians that
theirs are grey-eyed and have red hair

(Kirk and Raven,
pp. 168-69).

Sometimes this critical attitude was even more radical
and involved the rejection of orthodox religious con-
cepts; thus, about 450 B.C., Anaxagoras shocked con-
servative opinion in Athens by declaring that the sun
and moon were red-hot stones, which meant that they
could not be divinities. About 300 B.C., Euhemerus of
Messene explained the origin of the gods in a so-called
“Sacred History” which was really a fictitious
travelogue adapted for the presentation of his theory.
He told how he had visited a majestic temple of Zeus,
built on an island in the Indian Ocean, where he had
found an inscription concerning the exploits of Zeus,
and of Uranos and Kronos whom Greek tradition
regarded as divine rulers of the universe before Zeus.
According to his account of the inscription, it was
recorded that these gods were originally great kings
of remote antiquity who had subsequently been deified.
Other deities were similarly accounted for, including
Aphrodite, who, first of courtesans, had been deified
by her lover Cinyras, king of Cyprus. This theory,
though a fantastic explanation of the Greek deities with
which it deals, did unwittingly touch upon a process
that has operated to produce deities in various reli-
gions; for example, Imhotep, the architect of the Step
Pyramid (ca. 2780 B.C.) at Saqqara in Egypt, who was
venerated for his wisdom and ability, was eventually
transformed into a healing-god in Greco-Roman Egypt.
In more sophisticated forms, “Euhemerism” has often
recurred in modern theories about the origin of reli-
gion, notably in the ancestor-worship thesis held by
the sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

The Latin poet Lucretius (first century B.C.) ex-
plained the origin of religion along other lines. A
follower of the philosopher Epicurus, whom he
regarded as the true savior of mankind since he had
exposed the pernicious nature of religion, Lucretius in
his De rerum natura taught that men had dreamed of
gods, to whom they attributed omnipotence and
immortality. Unable to account for natural phenomena,
especially in its more terrifying aspects, men had gone
on to ascribe all such things to the gods, whom they
consequently feared and sought to propitiate. Lucretius
did not deny the existence of gods, but he held that
they had no contact at all with the world and mankind.
Lucretius anticipated by some seventeen centuries the
view of David Hume, expressed in The Natural History
of Religion
(1757), that religion stemmed from human
needs and fears.

The critical attitude towards religion, evident in
these attempts to find rationalistic explanations of it,
represented the views of an intellectual minority in
Greek and Roman society. Other attempts of a theo-
logical kind were also made in the ancient world to
account for the beginnings of religion. But these efforts
took the form of naive cosmogonies, notably in Egypt
and Mesopotamia, which severally presented some
particular god as the creator of the universe, including
other gods and mankind, and told how this creator-god
arranged for mankind to build temples and serve the
gods. There was also a movement towards syncretism,
which in the Greco-Roman world found such notable
expression as the attempt of Apuleius (second century
A.D.) to see the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was
worshipped under different names by other peoples,
as the principle of all life (The Golden Ass, XI. 305).

The establishment of Christianity as the official reli-
gion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century re-
sulted in the forcible suppression of paganism. Until
that final victory was achieved, Christian thinkers had
been obliged to find answers to pagan criticism of their
faith. One of their chief points of concern was the
newness of Christianity compared with the great
antiquity of the pagan cults. This objection was met
by the formulation in the third and fourth centuries
of a philosophy of history, to which Julius Africanus,
Eusebius of Caesarea, and Augustine of Hippo made
the most notable contributions. By taking over the
Hebrew scriptures as their own legitimate heritage,
Christians were able to show to their own satisfaction
that their religion could be traced back to the very
Creation. This philosophy of history, together with
their exclusive soteriology, provided medieval Chris-
tians with a completely adequate account of the origin
of religion, since for them there was only one true
religion, and that was their own. Of the other religions
which they knew, they had sufficient explanations:
Judaism was due to the culpable obduracy of the Jews
in rejecting Jesus as the true Messiah and persisting
in the now-superseded Old Covenant, which the com-
ing of Christ had made obsolete; the broken cults of
Greece and Rome had been inventions of the Devil
and the sinful blindness of men; the new religion of
Islam was a false heresy. Of the great religions of Asia,
such as Buddhism, medieval Christians had scarcely any
knowledge, and these religions had no part in their

The Renaissance and maritime exploration, from the
fifteenth century onwards, gradually changed the
parochial outlook of medieval Christendom. The new
interest in ancient Greece and Rome, which charac-


terized the Renaissance, meant that the pagan gods
were no longer regarded as devils. Their antique statues
were now admired, and the Renaissance artists were
eager to make these deities subjects of their paintings
and sculptures, while scholars familiarized themselves
and others with their legends. Maritime exploration,
and the trade and colonization which resulted from
it, brought contact with the great civilizations of Asia
and their religions, together with knowledge of the
primitive peoples of Africa, Australasia, and the
Americas. All this new information gradually stirred
the minds of educated men in Europe, making them
aware of the diversity and complexity of the cultures
of mankind, many of them far older than that of Chris-
tian Europe and of equal achievement in many things.
The effects of this new knowledge and interest, so far
as the evaluation of religion is concerned, began to
find notable literary expression during the eighteenth

In 1724 a Jesuit priest, Joseph François Lafitau,
published a book in Paris entitled Moeurs des sauvages
amériquains comparées aux moeurs des premiers temps.

It was significant for the thesis which its author had
formulated from what he knew of the religions of the
American Indians, of pagan antiquity, and of his own
Catholic Christianity. By comparing these faiths, he
was led to conclude from certain basic similarities
which he discerned, that all religions had stemmed
from one original revelation. Another attempt to ex-
plain the origin of religion, or its common primitive
form, was made in 1760 by Charles de Brosses in a
work entitled Du culte des dieux fétiches ou parallèle
de l'ancienne religion de l'Égypte avec la religion actu-
elle de Nigrite.
His definition of fetishism, which he
regarded as the common primitive form of religion,
is imprecise; but the following statement is significant:
it defined fetishism as “the cult of animals or of
inanimate earthly beings” (j'appelle en général de ce
nom toute Religion qui a pour objet de culte des
animaux ou des êtres terrestres inanimés
). Another
notable effort at explaining the origin of religion, or
at least a significant part of it, was made by Charles-
François Dupuis in his Origine de tous les cultes (1795).
He maintained that Christ, Osiris, Bacchus, and Mithra
were only allegorical personifications of the sun and
its annual career. Of interest, too, is the view of
Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who in his Scienza
noted that rituals concerning birth, marriage,
and death constitute a common factor in all religions.

These eighteenth-century interpretations were
characterized by the rationalizing spirit of the age; but
as yet scholars lacked the linguistic equipment to read
the religious literature of the ancient civilizations,
except that of Greece and Rome and that of the
Hebrew people. This equipment was, however,
gradually being provided. Already, by the end of the
century, knowledge of Sanskrit and Avestan Persian
had been acquired by European scholars, and during
the first half of the next century much progress was
made in the deciphering of the lost languages of
ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. This philological
interest soon found expression in the study of religious
origins, most notably in the work of Friedrich Max
Müller (1823-1900), who came to Oxford as a young
man to translate certain ancient religious texts of India
for the East India Company, and settled there as Pro-
fessor of Comparative Philology. Müller greatly pro-
moted the comparative study of religion, especially by
his initiating of the celebrated series of translations
entitled The Sacred Books of the East. The origin of
religion he traced to the mind of man:

No doubt there existed in the human mind, from the very
beginning, something, whether we call it a suspicion, an
innate idea, an intuition, or a sense of the Divine. What
distinguishes man from the rest of the animal creation is
chiefly that ineradicable feeling of dependence and reliance
upon some higher power, a consciousness of bondage from
which the very name of “religion” was derived

(Chips from
a German Workshop,
2 vols., London [1867], I, 239).

According to Müller, the first form of religion was
henotheism or cathenotheism, which signified a vague
conception of deity that found expression in the
attribution of divine qualities to whatever manifesta-
tion of power an individual happened to be concerned
with on a particular occasion. From such a primordial
conception both polytheism and monotheism later
derived. Mythology also greatly occupied the attention
of Max Müller, particularly that of the Indo-European
peoples, which he sought to interpret by means of
comparative philology. To him mythology was “a dis-
ease of language.” He believed that the various names
for God could be traced back to a common origin in
human speech. It was from the names given to gods
and goddesses, according to him, that the various con-
ceptions stemmed; thus, if the sun was deified and the
name for “sun” in a particular language was masculine,
the sun-god was thought of as a male being and actions
and conduct appropriate to a male being of super-
natural power were ascribed to him. Hence, in process
of time, there developed the complex mythologies
found in most religions.

Although the influence of Max Müller was consid-
erable, comparative philology was generally con-
sidered as having only a limited use for research into
the origins of religion—it should be noted that the
method has been vigorously employed in the last two
decades by Georges Dumézil in investigating the reli-


gions of the ancient Indo-European peoples, but his
interpretations have also encountered much opposition
(see Bibliography: “Dumézil, Georges,” in Dictionary
of Comparative Religion
). The development of
anthropological or ethnological studies next seemed to
provide the opportunity of reaching back to the begin-
nings of religion. This anthropological approach was
also inspired, as was so much nineteenth-century
scientific thinking, by the evolutionary principle which
had been so impressively employed to account for the
origin of the natural species. Increasing acquaintance-
ship with the so-called “primitive” races of the world,
which resulted from exploration and colonization,
seemed to provide evidence of what human culture
must have been like in the remotest antiquity; there
was a natural tendency to equate culture that was
comparatively primitive by nineteenth-century stand-
ards with what was chronologically primitive.

A leading exponent of the anthropological approach
to the origins of religion was Sir Edward B. Tylor, who
published in 1871 in England a great work entitled
Primitive Culture which was widely influential. In this
work Tylor set forth, as the “minimum definition” of
religion, the theory of Animism. The term was derived
from the Latin words animus and anima, which
denoted life, soul, spirit, concepts closely associated
with the life-breath (Greek pneuma) that animates the
body. Tylor explained how the idea of an anima first
came to be formed:

It seems as though thinking men, as yet at a low level of
culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological
problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the
difference between a living body and a dead one; what
causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death? In the second
place, what are these human shapes which appear in dreams
and visions? Looking at these two groups of phenomena,
the ancient savage philosophers probably made their first
step by the obvious inference that every man has two things
belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom. These two
are evidently in close connexion with the body, the life as
enabling it to feel and think and act, the phantom as being
its image or second self; both, also, are perceived to be
things separable from the body, the life as being able to
go away and leave it insensible or dead, the phantom as
appearing to people at a distance from it

(Primitive Culture,
I, 428).

From this initial concept of an animating principle
within man, according to Tylor, religion derived. For
primitive man was led on to conclude that all natural
phenomena, endowed with apparent vitality and
movement, such as trees, streams, fire, the sun, moon,
and stars, also possessed souls or spirits. Hence primi-
tive man populated the natural world with a vast host
of spirits, some friendly and some inimical to himself.
Since certain forms of natural phenomena manifested
great and terrifying power, these forms, thus personi-
fied, became the great gods or daemons whom he
sought to appease. It was from such primitive
polydaemonism or polytheism, so Tylor maintained,
that subsequent rationalization produced the idea of

Tylor was able to cite an impressive amount of
anthropological material in support of his thesis, and
Animism as an explanation of the origin and evolution
of religion became widely influential. It inevitably
encountered criticism, most notably from a later holder
of Tylor's Chair of Anthropology at Oxford, namely,
R. R. Marett, who argued that Tylor's theory pre-
supposed an awareness of personality that was unlikely
to have existed at the selected primordial stage of
human culture. Marett sought for an even earlier and
more primitive stage, such as was indicated by the idea
of mana, i.e., an impersonal supernatural power
envisaged by certain savage peoples, with which con-
temporary anthropologists had become much con-
cerned. According to Marett,

The question is whether apart from ideas of spirit, ghost,
soul, and the like, and before such ideas have become
the dominant factors in the constituent experience, a
rudimentary religion can exist. It will suffice to prove that
supernaturalism, the attitude of the mind dictated by awe
of the mysterious, which provides religion with its raw
material, may exist apart from animism, and, further, may
provide a basis on which animistic doctrine is subsequently

(The Threshold of Religion, 1914).

To define this pre-personalized stage in the evolution
of religion, Marett invented the term “Animatism.”

The greatest name in this early anthropological quest
for the origin and essential nature of religion is that
of James George Frazer (1854-1941). His output of
important works was prodigious. His magnum opus
entitled The Golden Bough comprises twelve volumes,
an index and bibliographical volume, and a volume
called Aftermath. The influence which he has had on
modern thinking about religion has been very great;
although many of his interpretations are now out-
moded, his works remain a treasury of information
about the religious customs and beliefs of mankind. In
The Golden Bough (The Magic Art, 3rd. ed., I, 222)
he set forth his definition of religion as being “a
propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man
which are believed to direct and control the course
of nature and of human life.” He held that man's
knowledge of God was inferential, being derived “ei-
ther by meditating on the operations of his own mind,
or by observing the processes of external nature...
it is the imperious need of tracing the causes of events


which has driven man to discover or invent a deity.”
However, Frazer regarded religion as representing the
second stage in the evolution of man's relations with
the superior powers of the natural world. The first stage
he designated the Age of Magic, unknowingly devel-
oping an idea of Hegel's. The transition from the Age
of Magic to the Age of Religion he accounted for as

It becomes probable that magic arose before religion in the
evolution of our race, and that man essayed to bend nature
to his wishes by the sheer force of spells and enchantments
before he strove to coax and mollify a coy, capricious, or
irascible deity by the soft insinuation of prayer and sacrifice

(op. cit., I, 234).

Another notable contribution made by Frazer to the
study of religious origins was his exposition of the
economic factor in the evolution of religious ideas and
practices. He showed that man, as an agriculturalist,
became profoundly concerned with the annual life-
cycle of vegetation upon which his food supply
depended—with the drama implicit in the burying of
the seed-corn in the earth, its germination, the upward
surge of its new life in spring, its cutting down at
harvest and transformation into food. It was from man's
personification of the principle of vegetation, accord-
ing to Frazer, that the idea of a god who dies and
rises again originated, finding expression in such
celebrated deities as Attis, Adonis, Osiris, and Christ.
It may be noted that Paul Radin later (Primitive Reli-
gion: its Nature and Origin,
1937) also stressed the
importance of lack of economic security as a factor
in religious origination, and derived religion from

The tendency of the early anthropologists to seek
for evidence of the origin of religion in the supposed
attempts of primitive man to rationalize his experience
of the natural world produced yet another inter-
pretation. Andrew Lang (1844-1912), stressing the fact
that many “primitive” peoples believed in a supreme
creator-deity, a “High God” or “All-Father,” argued
that monotheism was the earliest form of religion and
that animism represented a degeneration from this
original conception. This idea of a primeval
monotheism found its most devoted exponent in Father
Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), who maintained his
case in a twelve-volume work, Der Ursprung der
(1926-55). He believed that this primeval
monotheism also involved a primeval morality which
included the practice of monogamy; he consequently
saw both polytheism and polygamy as degenerate
forms of the earlier faith and practice. Although this
interpretation was so obviously congenial to Christian
theology, Schmidt did not however posit an original
divine revelation for his primeval monotheism.

The data provided by anthropological research
impressed other scholars in the early years of the pres-
ent century with the importance of the factor of com-
mual or collective consciousness in primitive society.
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), preeminent among
French sociologists, saw in the institution of totemism,
then a popular topic of concern among anthropologists,
a concept of basic significance for understanding the
social origins of religion. He wrote accordingly:

The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore
be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and repre-
sented to the imagination under the visible form of the
animal or vegetable which serves as totem

Forms of the Religious Life
[1915], p. 206).

Jane Harrison, a classical scholar eager to use
anthropological material, produced a somewhat similar
theory of the emergence of the concept of a deity
(Dionysus) from the communal consciousness created
by ritual dancing in early Greece: “The leader of the
band of kouroi (κου̇ροι), of young men, the real actual
leader, has become by remembrance and abstraction
... a daimon, or spirit, at the head of a band of spirits,
and he brings in the new year at spring” (Ancient Art
and Ritual
[1918], p. 115).

The drawing of attention to the communal factor
in primitive religion was an understandable reaction
to the hitherto prevailing disposition to contemplate
the origin of religion in terms of individual ratiocina-
tion. Search now began to be made in other directions,
most notably in human psychology or in some supposed
precognitive stage in human development. Sigmund
Freud (1856-1939), whose pioneering work in psy-
chology and psychoanalysis has had such profound
influence on modern thought, sought to explain the
origin of religion or its primordial form in terms of
deep-seated psychological impulses, particularly in the
human male. To him religion was essentially “an infan-
tile obsessional neurosis” centered mainly on the primal
father-figure. In his Totem and Taboo (1918), Freud
propounded his thesis that “the beginnings of religion,
ethics, society, and art meet in the Oedipus complex.”
He imagined a primordial state of human society
composed of a “primitive horde,” dominated by a
father who kept all females for himself and repelled
his growing sons. The latter banded together to slay
their father, whom they both hated and admired. They
ate their victim, to identify themselves with him and
absorb his strength. After their parricide, remorse set
in and a sense of guilt formed. Rituals of expiation were
devised, centered on the totem as the “father substi-
tute.” Hence, according to Freud, the institutions of
primitive society, namely, totemism, incest, taboos,
exogamy, the ritual totem meal, originated from the
Oedipus complex. Although Freud took his ethnologi-


cal examples from Australian aboriginal society, his
reconstruction of this primeval drama had the sanction
of no archeological or anthropological evidence; how-
ever, its novel interpretation of the sex-instinct as the
source of religion caused much excitement and gave
it a publicity which it did not deserve on scientific
grounds. Among Freud's followers, the most distin-
guished was C. J. Jung (1875-1961), who developed
his own distinctive interpretation of man's mental and
emotional life. Jung defined religion as

a peculiar attitude of mind which could be formulated in
accordance with the original use of the word “religio,”
which means a careful consideration and observation of
certain dynamic factors, that are conceived as “powers”;
spirits, demons, gods, laws, ideals, or whatever name man
has given to such factors in his world as he has found
powerful, dangerous, or helpful enough to be taken into
careful consideration, or grand, beautiful, and meaningful
enough to be devoutly worshipped and loved

(Jung, p. 8).

Jung was, however, more concerned with the forms
in which religion has expressed itself than with its
origin. For him those forms expressed “the living proc-
ess of the unconscious in the form of the drama of
repentance, sacrifice, and redemption” (op. cit., p. 46).
He concentrated on the interpretation of myths as
expressions of the collective unconscious, discerning
therein certain “archetypes” or primordial images that
exercise a formative influence upon human thought and
behavior. The principal archetypes he named the
persona, the shadow, the anima and animus, the old
wise man,
the earth mother, and the self. For him, “The
religious myth is one of man's greatest and most
significant achievements, giving him the security and
inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness
of the universe” (Symbols of Transformation [1956],
p. 231).

These psychological interpretations of the origin of
religion, and its fundamental nature, placed the source
of religion below the level of the conscious self and
its ratiocination. Another notable endeavor of similar
intent, but of a very different approach, was made by
Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), a German philosopher of
religion, in his widely influential book Das Heilige
(1917), which was translated into English as The Idea
of the Holy
(1923). Otto was concerned to emphasize
the nonrational nature of religious experience. To this
end he postulated the existence within man of a sense
of the numinous, i.e., the ability to become aware of
the presence of an entity “wholly other” than all else
in the world of his experience. Otto derived the term
“numinous” from the Latin word numen, which
denoted a supernatural nonpersonalized being. Ac-
cording to Otto, the numinous presence is apprehended
under two different forms of manifestation, which he
distinguished as the Mysterium tremendum and the
Mysterium fascinans. The former aspect, as the desig-
nation indicates, causes terror in the one who appre-
hends it; but it is a terror induced by its “otherness,”
or uncanny, eerie nature. Yet, while the numinous
presence terrified, it could also fascinate, and strangely
attract to closer contact with itself. It was this sense
of the numinous, so Otto maintained, that constituted
the essence of holiness. Its presence made a place or
anything associated with it holy, and contact with it
had to be controlled by taboos. Otto accounted for the
various forms of primitive religion (e.g., daemonism,
totemism, worship of the dead) by the rationalization
of man's experience of the numinous. Otto's book
clearly reveals his theological interest in devising this
explanation of the origin of religion, and his work has
been much appreciated by theologians.

Of considerable significance, both in view of their
author's eminence as a philosopher and their intrinsic
percipience, are the statements of Alfred North
Whitehead (1861-1947) on the beginnings of religion
and its essential nature. He saw religion as stemming
fundamentally from personal experience:

Religion is what the individual does with his own solitari-
ness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final
satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God
the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.
... Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches,
rituals, bibles, codes of behavior, are the trappings of reli-
gion, its passing forms. They may be useful, or harmful;
they may be authoritatively ordained, or merely temporary
expedients. But the end of religion is beyond all this

(Whitehead, pp. 6-7).

The emergence of religion he described as follows:

Religion, so far as it receives external expression in human
history, exhibits four factors or sides of itself. These factors
are ritual, emotion, belief, rationalisation.... But all these
four factors are not of equal influence throughout all his-
torical epochs. The religious idea emerged gradually into
human life, at first barely disengaged from other human
interests. The order of the emergence of these factors was
in the inverse order of the depth of their religious impor-
tance: first ritual, then emotion, then belief, then rationalisa-

(op. cit., p. 8).

Whitehead saw the “great rational religions” as ex-
pressive of a universal religious consciousness, in con-
trast to religious consciousness at the tribal or social
level. This universality he identified with “the note of
solitariness” which he perceived as a basic factor in
“rational religion” (op. cit., pp. 37ff.).

More recently it has been proposed to trace the
origin of religion to a source hitherto unexplored,
viz., man's consciousness of time (cf. Brandon, 1959,
1965, 1966). Human time-consciousness is seen as


an essential factor of human rationality; for awareness
of the temporal categories of past, present, and fu-
ture is basic to the sense of self-identity. Time-con-
sciousness, moreover, has given mankind success in
the struggle for existence by enabling it to draw upon
past experience in the present, to plan for future con-
tingencies: no other animal possesses such an effective
sense of time. Man's awareness of time has, however,
had an ambivalent effect. By enabling him to anticipate
future events, it has made him aware of his own mor-
tality. Hence it has bred within him a sense of funda-
mental insecurity, which prevents him from immersing
himself wholly in the enjoyment of present experience
as other animals do. He knows that the passage of time
inevitably brings change, decay, and death. This time-
consciousness has emerged pari passu with the devel-
opment of the human mind; evidence of its operation
is to be found in the earliest remains of human culture.
Man's reaction to the prospect of his own demise has
taken the form of seeking security from death, or
beyond death, by attachment to what is deemed eternal
or unchanging. Thus in the earliest written documents,
the Pyramid Texts of Egypt (ca. 2400 B.C.), this urge
finds expression in ritual identification with the resur-
rected god Osiris or by joining the sun-god Rē on his
everlasting journey through the heavens. On analysis,
every religion is found to be primarily concerned with
offering to its devotees some form of post-mortem
security. This is the basic raison d'être of all religion,
to which all other concerns are subsidiary.

The purpose of this article has been to trace out
the history of ideas about the origin of religion where
those ideas have represented significant attempts to
appraise religion objectively. Some passing reference
was made to early Christian thought in this context,
since it was necessary to account for the apparent
hiatus in curiosity about the origin of religion that
occurs from the end of pagan Greco-Roman culture
until the Renaissance. The theologians and scholars of
most of the other great religions have also been con-
cerned with the origins of their own respective faiths;
but their thinking has generally been conditioned by
the assumption that their own faith is the true religion,
and that it had been divinely revealed to, or by, their
founder. Thus Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism,
Islam, and Manichaeism respectively trace their ori-
gins back to a unique founder, and by that very fact
claim to embody an exclusive revelation concerning
man and his destiny. The study of such claims, is,
however, the concern of the history and comparative
study of religions.

This survey may appropriately close with a brief
account of what may be inferred about the earliest
form of religion evidenced by archeological data. For
all a priori theories about religious origins must
ultimately be checked against the earliest evidence that
archeology can provide.

It is, accordingly, significant that the so-called
Neanderthal or Mousterian Man, the immediate pre-
cursor of true man (Homo sapiens), buried his dead,
possibly providing them also with food. The burial of
the dead is exclusively a human custom, implying
special concern about death and the dead. Where
funerary provision of food and other equipment is
made, some idea of a post-mortem existence may be
reasonably assumed. Concern with death and the dead,
thus adumbrated by the practice of Neanderthal Man,
finds more elaborate expression in the burial customs
of Homo sapiens in the Upper Palaeolithic era (ca.
30,000-10,000 B.C.). And diversity of mortuary practice
then indicates also the existence of a variety of con-
cepts about death and post-mortem existence. Further
significant evidence is to be seen in the carved repre-
sentations, found on Palaeolithic sites, of women with
the maternal attributes grossly emphasized but the
faces left blank: such images surely indicate a concern
with fertility and birth. The celebrated cave-art of the
Palaeolithic era is also important in this connection;
for it is generally interpreted as magical in purpose,
being concerned with the promotion of successful
hunting and the fertility of the animals which furnished
the chief source of food for the community. Palaeo-
lithic archaeology suggests, therefore, that men at this
remote period were concerned with three issues of
basic significance: birth, death, and food. In dealing
with these issues, these remote ancestors had already
developed practices, compounded of religio-magical
elements, to assist their own practical abilities. How
far these practices involved the conception of deity
is necessarily unknown; but there is some possible
evidence of the deification of woman as the source of
life—a kind of Palaeolithic prototype of the Great
Goddess so prominent in the later religions of the
ancient Near East and India.

Future progress of prehistoric archaeology will
doubtless throw more light on the earliest forms of
religion, as it did in the 1960's at Çatal Hüyük for the
early Neolithic period. But it will surely never be able
to reveal the actual chronological origins of religion;
indeed, it is impossible to conceive of archaeological
evidence of any kind that could do so. Archaeology
has done invaluable service in indicating how man
endeavored to cope with the mysterious unknown that
surrounded and threatened him at the earliest known
stage of culture. But behind his crude religio-magical
practices, such as his burial of the dead, reside mental
and emotional factors which can only be surmised, not
reached by archaeological research. Attempts to un-


derstand these factors are likely to continue because
of the intrinsic interest and significance of the subject;
but the quest, by reason of its very nature, must
inevitably remain inconclusive.


There is no monograph on the subject, but information
will be found in the following works. E. Pinard de la
Boullaye, L'étude comparée des religions, 2 vols. (Paris,
1948); S. G. F. Brandon, Dictionary of Comparative Religion
(London and New York, 1970); M. Eliade, Patterns in Com-
parative Religion
(New York, 1958; also reprint); E. O.
James, Comparative Religion (London, 1938); L. H. Jordan,
Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth (London,
1908); C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven,
1958); G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philoso-
(Cambridge, 1960); G. van der Leeuw, La religion
(Paris, 1948); A. O. Lovejoy, “Religion and the Time-
Process,” American Journal of Theology, 6 (1902); A. de Waal
Malefijt, Religion and Culture (New York, 1968); F. M.
Müller, Chips from a German Workshop, 2 vols. (London,
1867); E. J. Sharpe, One Hundred Years of Comparative
(London, 1972); J. Wach, The Comparative Study
of Religion
(New York, 1958); A. N. Whitehead, Religion
in the Making
(Cambridge, 1927).

For the consciousness of time, see S. G. F. Brandon,
History, Time, and Deity (Manchester and New York, 1965);
idem, Man and his Destiny in the Great Religions
(Manchester, 1963); see also “The Origin of Religion,”
Hibbert Journal, 57 (1959); “Time and the Destiny of Man,”
Voices of Time, ed. J. T. Fraser (New York, 1966).


[See also Buddhism; Christianity in History; Death and
Immortality; Evolutionism; God; Islamic Conception; Myth;
Primitivism; 4">Religion, Ritual in; Sin and Salvation; Time.]