In the Beginning… The Origin of Religion


“Human existence is inexorably indebted to beginnings. Curiosity and mystery are timeless allies. Understanding is the resilient aspiration of all mortal inquiry” (AEM)

For centuries, the question of how and when religion began has been one the mind-boggling enigmas that has captivated the imagination of a multitude of inquisitive minds, especially in the field of comparative religions.[1]  Unfortunately, a final solution to this enigma has not been possible.  Neither history nor science has succeeded in their attempts to find the truth.  To our disappointment, no one really knows.

Fortunately, we are not left in a worthless limbo.  With different levels of precision, we have an idea of how many world religions started.   Thanks to a long history of research whose roots go back to the 19th century, we now have at our disposal a series of inter and cross-disciplinary hypotheses seeking to explain how some pre-historical efforts to connect with a Supreme Power might have started or – even with a little more precision – how particular religions might have begun in our seven continents.  Despite this knowledge, we still are clueless regarding how religion, as a pervasive and cultural human effort to develop a relationship with the divine mystery, started and developed.

Using as “informants” what world religions have been and have done for centuries, as finalized concrete products of a process,[2] and setting aside the idea that religion or religions originated out of a primitive mentality, faulty thinking, naiveté and/or human ignorance, I hereby outline some of the most popular, tentative proposals about the genesis of religion:[3]

  1. Everything is Alive and There is Life in Everything. As a result of dreams and visions of people who died, in primitive societies religion might have started as the belief that former family members, friends, warriors, and ancestors were alive in some form, in another world, and still connected with the physical world of those left behind.  The experience with the deceased in somewhat abstract terms, led many cultures  to conclude that the dead existed “spiritually” and that they had “souls” as well; somewhat they were alive in another dimension.   The same views were extended to animals, objects, plants, and other elements of nature; everything was alive and had a soul as well. As time passed by, this recognition led to the veneration of the dead and nature until they were worshipped as divine entities whom they would please in order to obtain favors.[4]  In the academic study of religion, this view is usually called animism.
  1. Dealings with the Mystical Powers of Nature. Another hypothesis argues that religion began with groups of people responding to what they heard, saw, felt, touched, and tasted in the natural world.  From their sensorial experience,  they assumed there were mystical forces behind anything that they interacted with.  As a fundamental piece of this evolving relationship, these pre-historical communities started personalizing the elements.  As an example of that, they gave names to the mystical powers of nature and attributed to them specific roles or functions until they became deities with the corresponding myths to explain who they were, what they did, and how they related to the physical world.  Natural phenomena became impersonal divine realities and/or expressions of specific gods or goddesses in charge.[5]
  1. Recognition of One Supreme, All-Powerful Deity. Some scholars affirm that, in some cultures, religion appears to have originated as a belief in one God, normally seen as above everything else and attributed perfect qualities. [6] Recognizing the centrality or uniqueness of this God, the belief in many gods and animism developed much later, as a normal part of the diversification process or even seen as a distortion.  For that reason, many decided to go back to monotheism. 
  1. Controlling the World of Nature. It has been said that once humanity failed to manipulate nature with magic, as a second stage of three-stage process, primitive societies resorted to the use of religion to achieve this goal, hoping that through its beliefs and rituals nature itself would also cooperate and submit to the will of humans.  Religion’s failure to control the elements was replaced by science, as the third stage of this linear understanding of humanity.  One could then say that religion came after the failure of magic, only to fail again.  It is the result of an evolutionary process, which is no longer relevant.
  1. Psychological Projections. Since humans are not just souls and bodies, but also composed of minds and emotions, religion might have originated as a result of human desires, wishes, and needs that needed satisfaction in the face of challenges or threats to their well-being.  Motivated by fear and guilt of the spirits or God or even death, the beliefs, symbols, and rituals people created became defense-mechanisms, media for self-protection, affirmation, and control.  Religion is simply a replica of self seeking to benefit the self.
  1. Social Organization, Identity, and Meaning. In response to a type of life that might come across as chaotic, shapeless, and meaningless, religion mediates people’s desire to have a structured, unified community to which they need to belong and out of which they may obtain answers to where they came from, who they are and where they are headed. self.  For centuries, all humans have longed for balance, harmony, and purpose in life.  The desire to be connected with something greater than ourselves might have served as a very strong motivator to seek a relationship with the powers that be millions of year ago or even today.
  1. The Overwhelming Enigma of Life and Death. Finally, and to give to our dialogue more philosophical and existential overtones, religion might have originated out of a profound reverence for the mystery and power of life and concerns for death, which inspired in people a sense of awe, humility, powerlessness, and submission to a perceived deeper reality.  We should not be surprise that such sentiments might have crossed the minds of many primitive cultures.

Although there might some other explanations one could add to this list of hypotheses, a few, tentative conclusions may be presented:

  1. Religion is as old as human existence. It does not come across like an after-thought, footnote or appendix in the course of human history.  The premise here is that men and women, because of their complex nature (comprised of emotions, souls and body)  have some sort of innate, intuitive  and/or spiritual tendency to response to the outside world in mystical ways.
  1. Religion must have started as a natural response to nature as an extension or projection of self and/or as the result of some kind of dynamic and complex dialogue between the inside of humans and what is outside.
  1. Religion must have started in different places at different times; a linear process presupposing one, single, pre-historical religion from which others branched out is unreasonable and simplistic. If this is so, it would perhaps be more appropriate to talk about “origins.”
  1. Religion originated as a result of a combination of several factors, difficult to single out. We now know that things in life are multi-factorial and that, at any given time, one factor or a combination of several could be more important than taking into consideration all the factors.
  1. Religion, in the interest of growth and survival, went through a necessary process of formalization and/or institutionalization.  It started out as a simple, informal phenomenon only to become something more structured, formal, and diversified, with all the possibilities and limitations associated with this process.

While we give embrace these and other reasonable conjectures, one thing will forever be the same or go unchallenged: the untamable, human spirit will continue to look for answers that, buried in the-now-gone past, still long to be creatively reimagined until that moment when the mystery of the beginning(s) of religion will no longer be a treasure to look for but an awesome discovery that will make all inquiries an issue of the past.


[1] For a working definition of the term religion and what religions do to make a relationship with the Sacred possible, please see my posts “What is Religion: Naming a Faith-Driven Experience” and “In Our Image and Likeness: How Does Religion Facilitate a Relationship with the Holy?”

[2] The majority of them follows patterns of expressive behavior that makes possible a comparative and contrasting analysis.

[3] Using common sense and drawing inferences from the beliefs, feelings, and actions of world religions, scholars have articulated and projected these hypothesis following an inverted, chronological order (a process from the present to the past).

[4] For instances, through sacrifices, offerings and other rituals.

[5] As an example of this worldview, the Afro-Caribbean Changó was seen as the god of thunder, just like Baal in Canaanite religions.

[6] The data used for the articulation of this view comes from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which are monotheistic.


About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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