The Evolutionary Theory of Religion

In part of his introduction to religion, Winfried Corduan briefly discusses the evolutionary theory of religion – a theory which more than a few people believe today.  Corduan gives three theoretical and methodological assumptions of the evolutionary theory of religion:

1) Religion is an aspect of human culture, which must be understandable without reference to actual supernatural powers….

2) Religion began on a very primitive and childlike level from which it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity….

3) Religion as practiced among the least developed cultures in the world today must be closest to the religion of early human beings….

Corduan explains those three points a bit, then summarizes by giving an outline of this evolutionary theory:  A) Primitive forms of religion: Mana and magic; B) Animism – visualizing spiritual forces in terms of personal spirits; C) Polytheism then Henotheism; D) Monotheism; E) (the next evolutionary stage).

Corduan then critiques this evolutionary theory of religion(s):

“The biggest problem with the evolutionary model of religion is that the kind of development it describes has never been observed.  Certainly there is a lot of change in the religious life of many cultures.  But the changes may occur anywhere along the line and can proceed in either direction.  We have no record of any culture moving precisely from a mana- [magic] like beginning to a monotheistic culmination, incorporating all stages in proper sequence, or anything even close to it, and the same thing is true for any of the variations of the evolutionary model.  In fact, there is no region in the world where such a sequence is demonstrated by successive different cultures either.”

“The only place that we see it is as a presupposition that scholars continue to bring to the study of a particular religion, …when they just assume that a supposedly lower stage must have preceded an allegedly higher stage.”

“…There are many examples of cultures moving backward or forward in their spiritual development.  Just consider these facts: Japan is a modern, highly industrialized country, but its religion, Shinto, is for the most part animistic, at best polytheistic in nature.  On the other hand, a Bedouin in the Syrian desert, living in a tent as he keeps his camels, may be a strong monotheist.  There definitely is no universal, let alone normative, pattern of upward development in any culture.”

Corduan says quite a bit more, which I don’t have the space to note here.  The main point is a good one, however: though the evolutionary theory of religion(s) is accepted and presupposed by many people today (in biblical studies and school classrooms), it is suspect and very much open to critique.  In fact, as Corduan notes, it has enough holes and inconsistencies in it that it isn’t really a viable position to hold.  But more on that later….

For more info, see the intro to Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions by Winfried Corduan (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

shane lems

2 Replies to “The Evolutionary Theory of Religion”

  1. This was the text for a class I took on world religions. I appreciated the Christian analysis. Highly recommend it. I think my edition is older though as the cover is different.


    1. Thanks for the note, Laura. I just got it to prepare for teaching a Sunday school class on different religions. I haven’t read it all, but it does so far look like a good resource! Thanks for the thumbs up; makes me more interested to read through it! (I think there is an updated edition…)



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