[p. 25>] The theory has often been put forward that religion evolved slowly over many millennia, beginning with very primitive ideas and gradually developing into today’s concepts. Wrapped up in this theory, and an important element in the thinking of many atheists, is the idea that monotheism (belief in one God) is a comparatively recent refinement. In the nineteenth century, two anthropologists, Sir Edward Tyler and Sir James Frazer, popularized the notion that the first stage in the evolution of religion was animism (which involved the worship of spirits believed to inhabit natural phenomena), followed later by pantheism (the idea that everything is divine), polytheism (belief in a multitude of distinct and separate deities) and eventually by monotheism.1
However, recent studies in anthropology have turned this scenario on its head and show, for example, that the hundreds of contemporary tribal religions (including many which are animistic) are not primitive in the sense of being original. Writing from long experience in India, and after extended studies of ancient religions, the modern scholar Robert Brow states, The tribes have a memory of a “High God”, who is no longer worshipped because he is not feared. Instead of offering sacrifice to him, they concern themselves with the pressing problems of how to appease the vicious spirits of the jungle.’2 Other research suggests that tribes ‘are not animistic because they have continued unchanged since the dawn of history’ and that The evidence indicates degeneration from a true knowledge of God.’3 After working among primitive tribes for many years, one modern expert says, The animism of today gives us the impression of a religion that carries the marks of a fall,’4 while another bluntly refers to ‘the now discredited evolutionary school of religion’ as being ‘recognized as inadmissible’.5
[p. 26>] The evidence of modern archaeology is that religion has not evolved ‘upwards’, but degenerated from monotheism to pantheism and polytheism, then from these to animism and atheism, a finding confirmed by the Scottish academic Andrew Lang in The Making of Religion: ‘Of the existence of a belief in the Supreme Being among primitive tribes there is as good evidence as we possess for any fact in the ethnographic region.’6 In History of Sanskrit Literature, the Oriental expert Max Muller, recognized as the founder of the science of the history of religions, came to the conclusion: ‘There is a monotheism that precedes the polytheism of the Veda; and even in the invocations of the innumerable gods, the remembrance of a God, one and infinite, breaks through the mist of idolatrous phraseology like the blue sky that is hidden by passing clouds.’7 In The Religion of Ancient Egypt, Sir Flinders Petrie, universally acknowledged as one of the world’s leading Egyptologists, claimed, ‘Wherever we can trace back polytheism to its earliest stages, we find that it results from combinations of monotheism.’8 In Semitic Mythology, the Oxford intellectual Stephen Langdon, one of the greatest experts in his field, said, ‘In my opinion the history of the oldest civilization of man is a rapid decline from monotheism to extreme polytheism and widespread belief in evil spirits. It is in a very true sense the history of the fall of man.’9
These statements make it clear that the scenario suggested by Tyler and Frazer will not fit the facts. There is no convincing evidence for any development in nature religions from animism through polytheism to monotheism. The idea that religion itself is something man invented has proved just as baseless. When the British naturalist Charles Darwin went to Tierra del Fuego in 1833, he believed that he had discovered aborigines with no religion at all. There are atheists today who still lean heavily on this, in spite of the fact that a scholar who went to the region after Darwin, and spent many years learning the language, history and customs of the Fuegians, reported that their idea of God was well developed and that he found ‘no evidence that there was ever a time when he was not known to them’.10
The same overall picture emerges in studies centred on the traditions of the oldest civilizations known to man: original belief in a ‘High God’, followed by degeneration into polytheism, animism and other corrupt religious notions.
To trace all the currents in the ebb and flow of man’s religious thinking over the centuries is beyond anyone’s ability, but it is possible to track down some of the people whose ideas not only made a marked [p. 27>] contemporary impact but still affect the way many people think today on the issue of the existence of God. In this and the next eleven chapters we will make a high-speed pass over the last 2,500 years or so and identify some of the most influential characters and concepts. One point before we begin: animism, pantheism, polytheism (and some of the other `-isms’ we shall touch on as we go along) are usually treated as facets of theism, but for the purpose of this book I want to draw the line elsewhere and to treat them as aspects of atheism, on the grounds that they fail to square with the definition of God proposed in the introduction….
1) See especially James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890), which examined the development of human thought with reference to magic, religion and science.
2) Robert Brow, Religion: Origins and Ideas, Tyndale Press, p.11.
4) Johann Warneck, The Living Forces of the Gospel, Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, p.99.
5) Edward G. Newing, ‘Religions of Pre-literary Societies’, in The World’s Religions, Norman Anderson, Inter-Varsity Press, pp.11-12.
6) Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion, Longmans & Green, p.18.
7) Max Muller, History of Sanskrit Literature, 559.
8) Flinders Petrie, The Religion of Ancient Egypt, Constable, p.4.
9) Stephen Langdon, Semitic Theology, 5 in Mythology of All Races, Archaeological Institute of America, p.xviii.
10) Edward G. Newing, ‘Religions of Pre-literary Societies’, in The World’s Religions, 14.
John Blanchard, Does God Believe In Atheists? 2nd Edition (Darlington England; Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2011), 25-27, footnotes 640.