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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
13 Oct 2003

From Many Gods to One?

by Matthew M. Anger

Church Organ

Monotheism and the Religious Evolution Debate

For well over a century, liberal intellectuals have bullied the common man with anti-religious propaganda. At the heart of their argument is the claim that all spiritual beliefs are a product of social evolution. Our belief in God, the theory goes, grew out of a blind, instinctive impulse and expressed itself in crude forms of worship which developed at a remote point in man's past. This concept is shot through with obvious fallacies. Yet it remains a stock-in-trade argument imposed on students in secular schools, and (since the 1960s) on a growing number of Catholics.

In discussing "comparative religions," evolutionists refer to monotheism, the worship of a single, all-powerful divinity, to distinguish it from polytheism, the worship of multiple divinities as found in pagan cultures. The materialistic development of religions was first popularized by Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the French Positivist thinker. He argued that advanced human cultures had progressed from crude views of divinity, passing through three theological stages-fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism. Needless to say, these stages were not representative of a supernatural reality. They were simply man's imaginative response to inexplicable phenomena of the natural world. Comte's view received further impetus in the last century with James Frazier's popular but inaccurate work, The Golden Bough, which is still in print. The idea of "religious progress" has dovetailed nicely with the long-reigning Darwinian views of human physical evolution.

While the polytheism discussed by the older evolutionists ceased to be a factor in Western culture centuries ago, it has seen a resurgence in the form of Wicca and esoteric New Age revivals of primitive cults. Such neo-paganism, however, is artificial and the product not so much of pre-Christian belief as of a knee-jerk anti-Christian reaction. In addition to the fad of "primitive" spirituality there are the subtle inaccuracies of "liberal Christianity." This is a heterodox outlook which originated in the Protestant sects and worked its way into Catholic thinking in the Twentieth Century. Like the materialists of Comte's school, liberals came to view religion not as an objective tie of man to God, but as an ever changing subjective "relationship" which is developing and, in some vague way, progressing towards gradual perfection. Even if the liberal admits to the existence of a Creator, man's relationship with Him is distant enough to render dogma unnecessary. In that sense, the religious evolutionary argument is a convenient postscript for the individual who lacks moral and doctrinal precision (yet prefers the emotional comforts of belonging to a "church").

In contrast with this sort of guesswork, objective scientific study indicates that polytheism—as found in socially advanced cultures like Greece and Rome—was not an early stage of human development at all, but an actual degeneration of man's earliest religious beliefs. This "original revelation" was handed down from Adam and thence passed on by Noah to his descendents after the Deluge. Monotheism is natural to man while polytheism represents a spiritual and moral corruption as people gradually turned away from God's teachings. By the time of the first written records, all peoples, with the exception of the Hebrews, had lapsed into false views of the Divinity. However, remnants of the original revelation were to be found in isolated primitive tribes scattered across the globe, some of whom maintained fairly unspoiled monotheistic practices until modern times. It is the thorough documentation of these practices which forms the scientific rebuttal of evolutionist claims.

The Evidence of Archaeology and Anthropology

Catholic scholar Christopher Dawson identifies the three main influences which form and modify human culture: genetics, environment, and function or occupation. "But in addition to these there is a fourth element...which is peculiar to the human species and the existence of which frees man from the blind dependence on material environment which characterises the lower forms of life." 1 He is referring to human thought, which manifests itself in its highest and most revealing form in religion. That leads us to the definition of religion itself. Dawson insists on precision, and is not satisfied with such hazy descriptions as the "worship of natural forces" or even a "belief in spiritual beings." Rather, he says that wherever "man has a sense of dependence on external powers which are conceived as mysterious and higher than man's own, there is religion, and the feelings of awe and self-abasement with which man is filled in the presence of such powers is essentially a religious emotion, the root of worship and prayer." 2 This worship is based on belief in an objective supernatural reality.

By contrast, Comte claimed that proof of man's earliest religious ideas was to be found by examining the fetish-worship of the African tribes. In order to understand the development of humanity one therefore had to start with examples of men at the most primitive level. Catholic historian John T. Driscoll replied that "this argument can be inverted. For if the customs of savages may be found among civilized races, evident traces of higher ideals are also found among savages." 3 That is the starting point for the reasoned refutation of materialistic religious development.

Our knowledge of the thought and religious life of the earliest men can be derived from two sources: 1) the religion of contemporary primitives, as observed by ethnology and cultural anthropology; and 2) correlation of these facts with evidence of absolute primitives, discovered by the first European explorers, and as later found in prehistoric remains.

What the Primitives Teach Us

Study of contemporary primitives reveals one basic fact. Atheism is not a natural condition to any race or tribe of mankind. It very literally has to be beaten into people as it was in Communist Russia. On the contrary, every people has historically followed some religion. It is further documented that the more primitive the group, the more pure the religious dimension tends to be. Dawson says that the hunter-gatherers

are in no sense pre-religious or a-religious. They are on the contrary more religious than the peoples of the higher cultures, since the essential religious attitude—the sense of dependence on mysterious external powers—is stronger with them than it is in the case of civilised societies.4

While the accidentals (names, linguistic conventions, etc.) vary from tribe to tribe, all hunter-gatherers essentially practice the same religion. What is more astonishing is that these groups are scattered in remote areas and thus have no contact with one another. This surprising dispersed world-wide unity suggests that common religious concepts are derived from a common origin. Study of these tribes reveals certain interesting points. Firstly, their religion is qualitatively high in its tenets. Secondly, despite their lack of economic and social development, their religion is fully interwoven with their mundane tasks. The primitives do not limit themselves to the practices of earthly living only. They practice their religion and hand it on formatively to their children. In fact, their belief is central to the individual's passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Rather than displaying a cleavage between spiritual belief and daily life, the religion of the hunter-gatherer gives meaning to all that they do.

The archaeological remains of the Neanderthal show that even the earliest man practiced intricate burial rituals. They certainly believed in an afterlife. Likewise, sacrifice as a mode of worship amongst primitives is ubiquitous. Being food-gatherers they naturally consider whatever edibles they find as something provided by their Heavenly Father. Custom, having the force of religious law, compels them to offer the first portion to their Provider. Contrary to the idealized nature-worship as misconstrued by modern secular anthropology, such primitives acknowledge their dependence on nature but at the same time it is seen as something "partly external and foreign." Indeed, Dawson explains, such hunters do not single out natural forces to be worshipped as do the more advanced pagan peoples. They comprehend a universal force behind nature. For example, the Tlingit Indians of Alaska see the Supreme Being as a pure spirit who knows all things.

Primitive Monotheism Documented

As the same time that Comte and other evolutionists were theorizing ex nihilo, an English contemporary was actually recording what he saw while living among the primitives of Oceania. Edward Horace Mann, a British government employee, was appointed colonial administrator of the Andaman Islands in 1858. Taking the time to master the native tongue of the aborigines, Mann published a grammar and vocabulary. Following his retirement and return to England, he wrote The Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands (printed by the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1885). The book received generous accolades for its scientific detail. Among other things, Mann found among the Andamese

knowledge of, or belief in, a Supreme Being, whom they call Puluga. Of him they say that he is invisible, was never born and is immortal, and that by him the world and all objects, animate or inanimate, were created, excepting only the powers of evil. He is regarded as omniscient... and is angered by the commission of certain sins.5

The Oceanian aborigines were found to have had more than merely vague intimations of immortality. They believed that this Supreme Being "is the Judge from whom each soul receives its sentence after death." 6

At the resurrection they will be reunited and live permanently on the new earth... All will then remain in the prime of life, sickness and death will be unknown, and there will be no more marrying or giving in marriage. The animals, birds and fish will also reappear in the new world in their present form. This blissful state will be inaugurated by a great earthquake, occurring by Puluga's command... There is no trace to be found of the worship of trees, stones or other objects, and it is a mistake to suppose that they adore or invoke celestial bodies... No reason is given for the formation of the earth's surface, except that it was according to the will of Puluga, the creator of all.7

From his knowledge of Andaman culture and their marked resistance to foreigners, Mann judged it improbable that their legends were the corrupted product of interaction with Christian missionaries. At the same time, it is the missionaries who have left us with invaluable records of primitive peoples and their beliefs. A more recent account from another part of the world is provided by Fr. E. de Viron, a Catholic priest who operated a parish in Ngoma in Rwanda. One of the groups in that country are the Pygmies. At the end of his assignment, de Viron drew up a report which was published at Rome in 1974. In it he writes:

Among this people has been handed down from remote times the idea of one, transcendent God. This idea is found among other African peoples and it places them far above other peoples, even among the great ancient civilizations... This God is called Immana. Everything concerning him is found in the traditions, crystallized in the 'documents' kept intact in the archives of the memories of generations and generations. This is proved by the names of persons, by the forms of current language, and by the proverbs and exclamations...8

Fr. de Viron points out that superficial observers, such as tourists on safari or graduate students on field trips, see only such obvious corruptions as the "cult of the dead" and "mystical relations with spirits." On the contrary, his long sojourn with the Pygmies enabled him to penetrate the topic more deeply and to discern an important empirical fact: "their various practices do not wipe out faith and worship of Immana." 9

Polytheism as Religious Devolution

Both the primitive monotheist and the Christian view the phenomena of nature as God's creatures. On the other hand, where the light of revelation was obscured in whole or in part, people tended to deify things, such as the Moon and stars (lacking advanced scientific knowledge to explain the laws of nature). Polytheistic nature-worship is the mistaken application of a sound principle, an awareness of a mind or will behind the actions of the world around us. Even in polytheism there is an indication of a spontaneous religious sense which cannot be explained away by contemporary philosophy. The error of polytheism, however, lies in the fragmenting of that Will, which is found in all the operations of nature, into a plurality of divinities, each active and dominant within a province of its own. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this summary:

Polytheistic nature-worship is to be found among practically all peoples who have lacked the guiding star of Divine revelation. Such history of these individual religions... offers little evidence of an upward development towards Monotheism: on the contrary, in almost every instance of known historic development, the tendency has been to degenerate further and further from the monotheistic idea. There is, indeed, scarcely a Polytheistic religion in which one of the many deities recognized is not held in honour as the father and lord of the rest...10

The ancient Chinese religion was remarkably close to pure Monotheism. By contrast, the crude nature-worship of the Egyptians of later times was decidedly a corruption of quasi-Monotheistic beliefs while the Vedic religion of Indian later deteriorated into outright pantheism.


The examples of Mann and de Viron noted above are just a few of the many instructive reports published in the last century or so. Even agnostic writers, unable to ignore hard evidence, attest to the problems with the popular evolutionary hypothesis. Speaking of the evidence of early monotheism, The Religious Experience of Mankind (1969) admits to

a reversal of the usual position of those who have been influenced by evolutionary theory, who tend to equate 'later' religion with 'higher' religion, and who regard monotheism as the highest development of all... In any event it is a striking fact that many primitive cultures have a belief in some sort of High God...11

Such works acknowledge the tendency of primitives to maintain their monotheism in a more pure and elevated state, less mixed with the later growth of idolatry, magic and superstition. Monotheism characterizes the beliefs of food-gatherers, whereas deviant and degrading practices, such as human sacrifice and ritual perversion, are observed to have set in among the food-producers. Ironically, it is the primitives who are closer than the polytheists to the first tenet of religion in rendering homage to the Heavenly Father. "The most popular prayer in the world is addressed to 'Our Father who art in heaven'," says Mircea Eliade.12 It is also interesting to see how primitive accounts of Creation show clear parallels to the Book of Genesis. "The existence of such conceptions among folk as far apart as the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego [at the Southern end of Chile] and the Arctic is a significant indication that primitive religion... possesses sophisticated ideas about the beginning and creation of the world, and about a supreme architect of the world." 13 Such similarities cannot be easily written off as the happy coincidence of naturalistic development.

The religious evolution argument is increasingly challenged on an empirical level by objective anthropological and archaeological study, though it is still disseminated in a "popular" philosophical format. An example of this is the highly publicized Power of Myth series by pantheist Joseph Campbell. Nevertheless, careful correlation of ethnological and archaeological data makes it possible to ascertain a remnant of "original revelation," as given to our First Parents, and to explode the stale but persistent hypothesis put forth by Comte over a century and a half ago.


This essay is based on the lectures of Prof. Sidonius Lepsi, OCSC (1934-2000). Prof. Lepsi was an émigré from the former Communist state of Czechoslovakia, and spent his final years as an instructor at St. Mary's College. Working in the tradition of the Christopher Dawson, he applied himself to all levels of historical study, humbly imparting his encyclopedic knowledge to students and friends, always with the aim of furthering not only their understanding of the liberal arts but also their faith in God.

1 Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods, 1928, p. xvi.
2 Ibid, p. 22.
3 John T. Driscoll, "Fetishism," Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VI, 1911.
4 Dawson, p. 26.
5 Edward Horace Mann, The Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, p. 89.
6 Ibid, p. 90.
7 Ibid, pp. 94-5.
8 Quoted in Prof. Sidonius Lepsi, History 111, Course Introduction (I/b), p. 3.
9 Ibid.
10 Chales F. Aiken, "Monotheism," Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. X, 1911; for a more in-depth Catholic study see Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, 1931.
11 Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 1969, p.53.
12 Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 1958, p.38.
13 Smart, p.55.
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