The Reasons to Believe (RTB) Voices blog has been publishing well-researched and dynamic articles from our Scholar Community for the past four years. In honor of the turn of the year, we would like to celebrate by highlighting an article that impacted both our team and the greater RTB community. Enjoy!
—The scholar department team at RTB
According to the Bible, every human being on planet Earth is a descendent of Noah and his family (Genesis 9:18-19). If this is true, evidence should be found among ancient cultures for the God of the Bible. It will come as a surprise to many, but that is precisely what is found in the lore of the most ancient cultures of the world. Yet this fact remains unknown to most, even in Christian circles.
Figure 1: Samoyed Nenets child, Northwest Russia. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Research Reveals Monotheism
In the late 1800s, evolution was all the rage, and scholars sought to apply Darwinian principles in several fields of endeavor. Among these were the origin and diversity of life, the social sciences, and the origin of religion. While many scholars presupposed the evolutionary development of religion from animism or polytheism to monotheism through intermediate stages, Andrew Lang, Wilhelm Schmidt, and others showed that monotheism was, in fact, the earliest form of human religion. In religious and cultural studies, original monotheism is the theory that affirms that the earliest religion of humanity was monotheistic in nature.
In The Making of Religion author Andrew Lang, writing in the late 1800s, affirmed that the supreme god among Australian tribes was regarded as an “all-seeing, all-knowing, creative, and potent moral being.”1 As a specific example, Lang describes the beliefs of the Australian Kurnai tribe. The Kurnai refer to their god Mungnan-ngaur (meaning “Our Father”) as one who destroyed the earth by water but then ascended to the sky where he remains. Mungnan is immortal, and his precepts include listening to the older men, sharing with and living peaceably with friends, refraining from promiscuous behavior, and obeying food restrictions.2
Lang concluded, “there are two chief sources of religion, (1) the belief, how attained we know not, in a powerful, moral, eternal, omniscient Father and Judge of men; (2) the belief in a human afterlife.”3 Lang’s work contradicted the prevailing evolutionary theories of religion and was received with either skepticism or silence.4
In the 1900s, ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt identified the people groups and tribes having the oldest, least materially developed culture. The oldest tribes that remain on earth tend to be geographically isolated by mountain ranges, seas, island locations, rivers, or primeval forests. They are food-gatherers at the initial economic development stages who have not exploited farming or breeding animals. They possess only primitive housing, clothing, and tools, and lack more advanced cultural elements such as farming, weaving, pottery, or metallurgy.5
Figure 2: Wilhelm Schmidt. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Examples of the tribes Schmidt identified as possessing the earliest, least advanced human culture include the Andamanese and Semang of Asia, the Bushmen of Southern Africa, the Tierra del Fuegians of South America, the Samoyeds and Koryaks of Northern Russia, the indigenous people of the Arctic Circle, the Algonquin and Sioux of North America, and many tribes in Australia.6 Schmidt reasoned that the tribes possessing the most ancient human culture would also have the most ancient notions of religion.
Schmidt collected the early reports of explorers, missionaries, and ethnologists and found among these tribes consistent belief in a supreme being greatly resembling the God of the Bible. When their oldest tribal legends were considered, the results were astounding. Among these tribes, the supreme being is referred to as “father,” “my father,” or “our father” and held in great reverence and affection; other names include the “one above,” “divine sky lord,” “great and supreme spirit,” “slayer in the sky,” and “overseer.” Regarding his character and attributes:
- He is the creative power of the universe.
- He is the giver of the moral law and is incapable of evil.
- His moral code includes the prohibition of murder, adultery, fornication, and the requirement of honesty, and to help those in need.
- He is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Though these tribes would not use these words specifically, their descriptions imply such.
- He is prayed to and worshipped. In many of these tribes, sacrifices are offered to this god.
Moreover, the tribes of the earliest culture affirm the reality of the afterlife, with many believing there will be no childbearing. Many of these tribes believe their God to be eternal.7 Naturally, Schmidt’s work was met with criticism. But as Winfried Corduan (perhaps the foremost living expert on original monotheism) concludes, the theory of original monotheism remains unrefuted.8
Accounting for Original Monotheism
How is it possible that these preliterate, geographically distanced, indigenous tribes possess such an advanced theistic view of God, very similar in many ways to the God of the Bible? The most logical answer to this question seems to be that the God of the Bible revealed himself (Romans 1:20), and the memory of him has been carried forth. We find among these ancient tribes precisely what we would expect if all the people of the earth trace their origin back to Noah and his family, to whom God revealed himself (Genesis 9:1-17). The knowledge of God spread from that point forward.
Why has Schmidt’s work largely been ignored or unread? Schmidt was criticized for the verbosity of his writings and for the fact that he was a Catholic priest. But his critics did not enter the dialogue free of worldview bias and presuppositions, which included antisupernaturalism.9 Corduan concludes, “the obvious reason for the rejection of Schmidt is that he found at the origin of human culture . . . marital faithfulness in monogamy, straightforward honesty, altruistic sharing while respecting the other person’s property, and the general aversion to the shedding of human blood unnecessarily. And, of course, . . . submission to the will of one God.”10
1. Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900), xv.
2. Lang, The Making of Religion, 181.
3. Lang, The Making of Religion, 301.
4. Wilhem Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories (Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing, 2014), 13.
5. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, 251-55.
6. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, 257-61.
7. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, 267-82.
8. Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), 298.
9. Corduan, In the Beginning God, 224-26.
10. Corduan, In the Beginning God, 227.