The Search for the Primordium (Origin) of Religion


The search for the primordium of religion is the attempt to isolate a causal primary factor, source, and root to religion (1). Scholars have referred to this causal primary factor as the primordium (the beginning point) of religion which is followed by developmental evolution of religion through a stage by stage process or sequence.

Numerous historical scholars and theorists of religion have looked far back as possible into the realm of prehistory as a means to seek after the primordium of religion. To some theorists, the origin of religion hzx been viewed as synchronous with the beginnings of humanity itself.

This developmental evolution of religion is referred to as a chronicle which presents itself as a narrative that accounts for the distinct stages of development from the time of origin to the present era (2). Depending on the theorist providing the chronicle, the range and scope of it will differ. Usually the chronicle is marked by successive periods, stages, and moments denoting temporal units, each of which is unique and represents distinct moments. Often scholars placed most value and primary interest on the earliest unit which they believed to be most informative in respect to religion’s primordium. The assumption is that the earliest unit reveals insight into the origin of religion, how it was practiced by the earliest humans, and what beliefs these people had. The chronicle was also believed to be a valuable method for historical theorists because it allowed for different units and periods to be compared and contrasted with each other. It acknowledges that reality is dynamic and that its dynamism can only be captured in linear or horizontal diagrams representing the passage of time.

Some theorists searching for religion’s primordium have reacted to Descartes’s and Kant’s views of reality being static and unchanging. Descartes, for example, set forth a system of universal knowledge that could apply universally and without doubt (from his principle of “a self that cannot doubt itself”). Descartes saw mathematics as an example of this universal rationality because it expressed timeless truths that are “pure from every taint of falsity and incertitude.” Kant was likewise convinced that mathematical and geometrical truths were absolute, universal, and unchangeable. These were not susceptible to the dynamics of time and change. But when scholars began studying and seeking the origin of religion they saw a dynamism and the need to account for time, change, and development.

The philosopher Georg Hegel was one such theorist who tried to portray the unfolding of consciousness within human history and developmental stages were given a place within the framework. Hegel wasn’t the first to propose this framework however. Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794), for instance, saw history as “the story of man’s progress from superstition and barbarism to an age of reason and enlightenment.” Even earlier, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of the fourth century BCE described reality as stream “into which one cannot step twice in the same place.” There were others too but it was Hegel who provided a philosophical respectability to a developmental view as constituting a conceptual framework. Scholars from the Enlightenment period onward have been hard at work in the pursuit of religion’s beginning point. These theorists viewed the data and evidence in different ways and proposed mutually exclusive theories. Some, like James Frazer, believed that religion had its roots in primitive animism, others in polytheism, and yet others in monotheism.


1. Capps, W. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 54.

2. Capps, W. Ibid. p. 54.



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