Rarely does a book come along which forces a reader to completely rethink how they’ve viewed a whole slew of interrelated topics. Winfried Corduan’s latest work on the origin of religion is just such a book. I’ve waited some time to finish writing the review simply because it’s taken a while to reflect upon its content and reread and absorb many of the arguments to support the conclusions Corduan provides. Here, I offer some thoughts which can only touch upon the wealth of information in this fantastic book.
Winfried Corduan’s central thesis is simply stated:
Regardless of how one explains the origin of human beings, one cannot get around the fact that the first religion of human beings was monotheism, the recognition and worship of one God.
The way Corduan defends this claim is initially through analysis of competing claims of major thinkers in the past and present on the origin of religion. He then provides a positive case for original monotheism.
Critical Examination of Competing Views
Corduan surveys a number of major thinkers in anthropology who have proposed various ways that religion may have arisen and developed. A central thought throughout many of these thinkers is the notion that cultures, like organisms, evolve. Thus, the thought was that the earliest stages of religion would be “primitive” while later stages of religion would be more complex and perhaps people would even move beyond religion.
The various theses Corduan examines are each interesting in their own light. Max Müller’s theory that mythology is corruption of human language is wonderfully imaginative, though ultimately bereft of real evidential backing. E.B. Tylor’s application of Darwinism to the development of religion remains highly influential but also provides insight into how a paradigm may corrupt and even create evidence. Andrew Lang set the stage for later thought about how religion may have developed, but unfortunately his theory suffered from assumptions that anyone not “developed” like the Europeans was clearly inferior or lower on the evolutionary scale. Thus, his theory suffered from its own brand of self-confirmation and key blind spots.
A telling critical insight Corduan provided which applies to many of the evolutionary perspectives on the origin of religion is that the field evidence gathered for these hypotheses operated under a critical assumption: “nineteenth-century anthropology proceeded on the premise that the ancient past has preserved itself. We can still see it in full bloom in the cultures of tribal people. Human beings who are now living on a stone-age level must have preserved stone-age culture, they argued.
But of course this doesn’t follow at all. It is perfectly possible for such “stone age” societies to in fact be extremely complex and advanced. In fact, Corduan provides much evidence to suggest that this is exactly the case. Highly complex rituals and traditions are often found in these allegedly primitive societies. Moreover, many of these societies show kinds of vestiges of original monotheism, which itself provides counter-evidence to the hypothesis that these societies support the notion of evolution of religion.
A Case for Original Monotheism
Corduan’s case for original monotheism incorporates many aspects of Wilhelm Schmidt’s work. Thus, he dedicates a few chapters to analysis and defense of Schmidt’s theories. Schmidt’s theories are based off of his analysis of how cultures shift. Corduan provided fascinating and practical examples to look at how cultural movement works. One application of this to the origin of religion is that societies shift and push competing cultures either to adapt and integrate or to be pushed more to the fringes. Early settlers are often supplanted by later explorers who stayed in one place and developed before moving on. Allegedly primitive societies are often found in the deserts or at the outskirts of society because they were the first to move on and thus developed only as they settled in ever-distant areas. However, this cannot be used to support the notion that a “stone age” level of a society today entails the preservation of cultural behaviors and practices from such a time period.
The shifting of cultures through “culture circles” thus is used to evaluate how religion may have developed and moved across the Earth. Most importantly, Schmidt worked with the anthropological data that other researchers used, but he approached it without the dogmatic stance that the development of religion must have been Darwinian. This assumption led many other researchers to reject or downplay aspects of the observational evidence because they did not fit the theory. Schmidt discovered, however, that a number of cultures had vestiges of monotheism from earlier times. This resulted in Schmidt hypothesizing that one possible explanation for the shared original monotheism of these cultures could have been an actual deity.
Corduan then provides analysis of a number of critical responses to Schmidt as well as more modern evolutionary or simply agnostic approaches to the origin and diversification of religion. Finally, he surveys a number of world religions to see if aspects of original monotheism may still be found therein.
Other avenues are opened as Corduan analyzes specific cultures, such as Egypt or China, and finds that Egypt’s brief affair with “monotheism” may not have been as significant as some take it or that China’s modern religious thought perhaps reflects an original monotheism beneath the surface.
The application of various aspects of anthropological research and the rejection of agnostic approaches to the origins of religion also open up new avenues for research and exploration. If we don’t assume that we can’t know something, how might we approach the project of discovering how religion may have originated and spread? Corduan, of course, provides Schmidt’s theories as one way, though he also integrates insight even from those scholars with whom he disagrees. Thus, he provides a rather integrative approach to the question.
The analysis of various anthropologists who have thought on issues of the origins of religion also open up new ideas to explore, books to read, and evidence to consider.
Avenues for exploration like this are found throughout the book in droves. I mean that: there is so much in this book that makes me want to know more, to learn more. That is coupled with the fact that it made me realize, again, how little I do know regarding entire fields of research and study. In the Beginning God is a call not only to re-evaluate one’s presuppositions, but also a vast treasury of topics to explore.
Of course another extremely interesting thought to examine is that if monotheism were the original religion of people of all sorts, might this have implications for apologetics? Ultimately, Corduan answers in the affirmative. He argues that at least some aspects of this study point to the existence of a monotheistic deity as a possible explanation for the data. He does not think that the anthropological study provides a comprehensive case for the Christian truth, but he does ultimately argue it can be one factor among many to show the truth of Christianity.
A Final Defense
The immediate reaction of some might be that Corduan’s bias yields his results. Similarly, in Schmidt’s time, some alleged that missionary influence led to the purported evidence for original monotheism. However, it should be clear that although everyone has a bias, the evidence presented by Corduan seems impossible to dismiss as simply the wishes of a theist. Rather, he has provided sound reasons for thinking that original monotheism is a relevant hypothesis which perhaps outstrips its opponents in terms of explanatory scope.
In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism is a simply incredible read. Each new layer of the text provides new insights and discoveries, each of which builds off the body of the text already perused. Corduan has provided critical insight into the state of modern anthropology regarding the origins of religion. He has also established original monotheism as a significant rival theory to those schools of thought. The book will shift paradigms, cause wonder, and provide resources for you to explore and engage with wonderfully exciting topics. Corduan has truly created a masterwork, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Sigmund Freud, Totemism, and the origin of religion- Who cares about facts?– I analyze some of Corduan’s comments regarding Sigmund Freud’s theorizing about the origin of religion.
Sunday Quote!- Is Monotheism from Egypt?– I provide a brief quote from Corduan’s book and note how it may interface with some theories related to the source of monotheism.
Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2013).
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