Question: "What is the origin of religion?"
Answer: From the earliest times, humans have looked around and above them and wondered about the world, the universe, and the meaning of life. Unlike animals, humans have a built-in desire to understand how we got here, why we are here, and what happens after we die. Adam and Eve knew God personally (Genesis 3) and spoke of Him (4:1). Their children brought sacrifices to the Lord (4:3-4). And during the time of their grandchildren, “men began to call on the name of the LORD” in corporate worship (4:26).
In all of history and in every culture, people have felt a need to worship what they perceive to be the source of life. The Bible explains why—we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We were created to be in relationship with our Creator. The rituals and practices of religion began as an expression of the creature’s desire to worship the Creator.
Biologist Julian Huxley dismissed the existence of religion as a vestige of past ignorance and superstition: “Gods are peripheral phenomena produced by evolution.” In other words, primitive man invented the idea of God in an ancient, superstitious time, and theism has no relevance in today’s society. Theories based on an evolutionary premise imagine that man’s belief in God was first expressed in animism, ghost-worship, totemism, and magic. Not all scholars have reached this conclusion, however. The Rev. Wilhelm Schmidt presents evidence of a monotheistic faith being the first religion practiced by men and offers many powerful arguments in support. For more information, see http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/cm/v14/n3/schmidt. Man began with a belief in one God, and then his theology degenerated into a belief in multiple gods.
The Bible says that after the flood God initiated the unconditional covenant between Himself and Noah and his descendants (Genesis 9:8-17). Men disobeyed God’s command to spread out and fill the earth, and they built a city and began making a monumental tower instead. God confused their language and forced them to disperse (Genesis 11:1-9). After that time, many polytheistic religions sprang up around the world. Later, God made Himself known to Abram and introduced the Abrahamic Covenant (circa 2000 B.C.).
After God redeemed Israel from Egyptian bondage, He gave them the Mosaic Covenant and later the Davidic Covenant. In all of these events, it is God who reached down to His people, drawing them into relationship with Him. This is unique in the history of world religions.
With regard to Christianity, God Himself was responsible for introducing the New Covenant—an unconditional promise to unfaithful Israel to forgive her sins on the basis of pure, undeserved grace through the sacrifice of the Messiah. This New Covenant also opened up the way for Gentiles to be saved. In all of this, it is God who initiates the relationship. Biblical religion is based on the fact that God reached down to us; it is not man’s attempt to reach up to God. Biblical religion is a response to what God has done for us, not a code of conduct that we must perform for God.
One reason we have so many different religions is the deception imposed on the human race by the enemy of our souls, who seeks glory and worship for himself (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Timothy 4:1). Another reason is man’s inherent desire to explain the unexplained and to make order out of chaos. Many of the early pagan religions taught that, to prevent disasters from befalling them, they needed to appease their fickle, petulant gods. Through the centuries, religion has often been hijacked by kings and rulers in order to subjugate their people in a state-run “church” system.
The true religion that God initiated thousands of years ago with Israel pointed forward to a coming Messiah who would provide the way for all people to be reconciled to their Creator. After Christ came, Christianity spread by word of mouth as the disciples of Jesus took the gospel to the world and the Holy Spirit changed lives. God’s Word was also preserved in writing and is available today throughout the world.