Theories of the Origin of Religion

Updated on March 23, 2018

Evolution of Religion

The origin of religion has been a primary concern of the following sciences:

  • Comparative philology
  • Sociology
  • Psychology.

Each of these disciplines has developed its own theories, and within each discipline a multiplicity of theories.

The following are selected as the most representative and the most influential theories in each of the special areas.

Comparative philology, through one of its most illustrious investigators, Max Muller (1823-1900), founded the study of comparative religion. The central thesis of Muller's theory is that religion arises out of myths and cults which were based upon an original personification of natural phenomena. This theory is supported primarily by philological considerations derived from a study of Sanskrit and Vedic literature. According to Muller the personification of the sun, sky, mountains, and rocks was the foundation of the earliest known cults. This is the "physical" stage of religion. The "anthropological" stage is next.

This second stage is the development of ancestor worship out of the original nature worship. Muller's third stage is designated ·'psychological."

In this stage man further refines his ideas of the controlling forces of the universe to a nonphysical and nonhuman theistic conception. The major monotheistic traditions are representative of this last stage in religious development.

Sociology was used by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) to explain the origin of religion. The gods were derived from early savage experiences of ghosts who were thought to be the heroic ancestors of a particular tribe or group. The hero god was thus the earliest deity to be worshiped.

Spencer and his followers substantiated their theory by reference to contemporary primitive traditions and an analysis of the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek mythology. According to Spencer, man's first reaction to the experience of ghosts is one of fear, and therefore fear is the fundamental cause of all religious life. In general, this sociological theory of origin holds that Muller's second stage (ancestor worship) is actually the first stage of religion.

Portrait of Herbert Spencer.
Portrait of Herbert Spencer. | Source

All other forms grow out of this primary religious experience. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his Primitive Culture (1889) sought to enlarge Spencer's categories and establish the belief in souls as the origin of religious feeling. Once the belief in souls is achieved (largely through the experience of dreams, visions, and hallucinations), it is extended to all objects, animate and inanimate. As reason refines this belief, there is a slow development toward monotheism. This early belief in the universality of souls is called animism. Other sociological investigators further expanded Tylor's thesis to include a pre-animistic stage in which there was a general belief in a universal potency inherent within all things.

This universal potency is called mana. Sociological data a re emphasized by Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) in The Golden Bough. The positivists, under the leadership of men such as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), saw religion originating in totemic rites which were designed to promote the social solidarity of a given clan or tribe. With the advance of time the totems (originally simply the symbol of the social group) are intellectualized and spiritualized into gods. The most generally accepted sociological theory of origin is probably that put forward by E. B. Tylor in Primitive Culture.

Psychological theories of the origin of religion take their departure from the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). His general position on religion is found in The Future of An Illusion (1928) and Moses and Monotheism (1939). Religion, according to Freud, "is a universal, obsessional neurosis of mankind," which operates as an escape mechanism for our infantile jealousies and is born of a wish for protection from the terrors of life and nature. All forms of worship and all dogmatic beliefs are wish projections. God is the rationalization of the father ideal and is consequently a purely human creation. Since the earliest time, man has felt the force of the father image and has consequently believed in some kind of god; he will not relinquish this belief until he recognizes that it constitutes a false security which expresses rather than cures neurosis. When this recognition comes, religion will vanish and its place will be taken by science and the controlling intellect. Many psychologists disagree with Freud's analysis, but his influence has been prodigious upon those who seek to explain the origin of religion in purely psychological terms. In all cases psychological theory takes its cue from the emotional problems of men.

In general, the above-listed sciences of religion have thrown little light on the real origin of religious life. Actually, of course, the beginning of religion, like the beginning of science, music, and so many other human activities, is lost in man's unrecorded past. The particular theory of origin held by any given individual or school is important as a structure of interpretation and a possible indication of the meaning of certain beliefs and practices. In late years most of the reputable scientists of religious life have been content to eschew speculative theories of origin in favor of empirical descriptions and analyses. The most notable lapse from this attitude is among the psychiatrists and psychologists.

© 2011 Religulous


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    • profile image

      luwo siansaka 

      11 months ago

      Nice researcher

    • profile image

      emmanuel sunday 

      2 years ago

      really enlightening, this explains a few misunderstanding.

    • profile image

      Attah yakubu kasimu 

      2 years ago

      this is a very good research

    • profile image

      arthan kapita 

      2 years ago

      This is one of the most relevant things in human living.

    • profile image

      violet kangwa 

      5 years ago

      very helpful information for US the religious studies scholars....

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I thank you for this answer

    • profile image

      Dr. G.S. Wilson 

      6 years ago

      The reading of the article above raised more questions than the answers I was seeking for. Religion is more ancient than some of the present day utilities of practical things that we (men or women) invent or create for our needs. Can you say the same thing regarding Religion? It is a traditional belief that holds the view that Religion/s originate in the liberality of a God who wishes to render a revelation of his character, desire and His will and his plan for this world. The prophet who had this vision of God endeavors to transmit it to the King or the society, the subjects of his kingdom. Then came the day when there was no King, no Kingdom and Temple-and-priest system. Atheism and Marxan political and economic theories about society entered the void, and then what a mess. Atheism matured enough to enter into the void with courage. Confusion set in, we are still searching or waiting for the new discoveries. Higgs bosson has introduced the final discovery of life, the god-particle. What is next?

    • starneri profile image

      Robin Pado 

      7 years ago from Philippines

      Nice work! I can imagine how hard you've researched about this topic. I gave you a thumbs up!

    • Religulous profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      I would hope that you're not relying on a few webpages on the internet to learn enough to graduate.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      These contents are not sufficient for graduate

    • profile image

      Sankananji Sichivula 

      8 years ago

      This is a well researched and helpful information more especially for teachers majoring in religious studies.


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