The Search for the Primordium (Origin) of Religion

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The origin of religion is the concerted attempt to isolate a causal primary factor, source, and root of 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 origins of religion have 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 origins 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 was that the earliest unit would reveal insight into the origin of religion, how it was practiced by the earliest humans, and what beliefs these people had. The chronicle was contended to be a valuable method for historical theorists because it allows for different units and periods to be compared and contrasted. 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 as 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 an example of this universal rationality because it expressed timeless truths which he said were “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 begun studying and seeking for the origins of religion they observed a dynamism which needed 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 thus 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 example 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 4th century BC 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 onward have been hard at work in the pursuit of religion’s beginning point.

And as we will uncover further, theorists have viewed the data and evidence in dichotomous ways and proposed mutually exclusive theories. Some believed that religion had its roots in primitive animism, others in polytheism, and yet others in monotheism. We will look closely at these views and let the theorists speak for themselves.


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

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


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