The Religion of Adam

What we now call the Christian religion existed amongst the ancients, and was from the beginning of the human race, until Christ Himself came in the flesh; from which time the already existing true religion began to be styled Christian.

— Saint Augustine, Retractationes, I, xiii, 3

Most modern historians of religion disagree with Augustine. The very title of Religion in Human Evolution, the recent magisterial magnum opus of that archon of latter day sociology of religion, the late Robert N. Bellah, aptly indicates their perfectly contrary hypothesis: that monotheism is a late development in a long process of evolution from early and metaphysically confused animism, nature worship, magic, ancestor worship, or the like. Their presumption seems to be that early man was rather dim, compared to themselves, and that any abstract notion he had not derived rather immediately from the rudimentary components of his everyday life was quite beyond him.

But this is of course only a prejudice. As Paul Radin pointed out in Primitive Man as Philosopher, we have on the contrary good reason to think that our earliest ancestors were just as intelligent and percipient as we are.

In his own masterful review of the discipline of the history of religion, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, Wilhelm Schmidt demonstrates by a survey of the most primitive cultures all over the globe that the first religion of man is in fact monotheism.

Almost the whole of his book is taken up with a history of his own discipline, explaining how each theory of the origin of religion gave way to the next over the last 200 years, evaluating the methods, proposals and arguments of the various scholars and their schools, and testing them against the facts. He finds they fall all short, because they almost all fail to examine the historical evidence furnished by the most primitive tribes. He does not dispute that there has been evolution in religion, but insists that an assessment of the most primitive societies indicates that it rather started with monotheism than ended with it.

Only in the last few pages of the book does he provide a précis of the religion of early man as it is still to be found in cultures which have changed the least since human beginnings. Despite their complete and quite distant geographical separation, these cultures manifest a remarkable unanimity of doctrine: they are without exception monotheistic, believing in a Most High God, who is the God of all gods. While they often to be sure credit the existence of all manner of supernatural beings, they all who do believe also that such beings are the creatures and subjects of a High God, than whom there is no greater.

What then is the religion of Adam? Here follows an outline of Schmidt’s last chapters, which describes the features that the religions of the most primitive peoples hold in common, and which lends remarkable support to Augustine’s thesis.

The Habitation, Form and Name of the Primitive Supreme Being

  1. Form
    • One class of testimonies suggest that the Supreme Being is without form.
    • A second class suggest that he is like a man.
    • The third suggests that he is white or shining or like fire in appearance.
  2. Habitation
    • Among most peoples it is said that he used formerly to live on earth with men, whom he taught all manner of good and instructed in their social and moral laws.
    • Among practically all peoples of the primitive culture [it] is propounded that he left the earth, generally because of some sin of mankind, and went up to heaven, where he now lives.
    • Lightning is very often represented as his weapon, thunder or the roaring and whistling of storm as the expressions of his anger.
  3. Name
    • “Father” is applied to the Supreme Being in all primitive cultures.
    • “Creator” is next most widely distributed.
    • Many call him by his abode: Sky or Heaven.
    • He is also known by names that connote his eternity: “the old one above,” “the primeval,” and so forth.
    • “The Ainu Supreme Being has three names, all of them beautiful: they are ‘Upholder’ [of the Universe], ‘Cradle’ [of the child], and ‘Inspirer and Protector.’”
    • “The Koryaks too have a long string of names for their Supreme Being: they call him Master, He Who Is, Overseer, Power, He Who Is Outside, and Universe.”

Attributes of the Supreme Being

  1. Eternity
  2. Omniscience
  3. Beneficence
  4. Perfect morality
  5. Omnipotence
  6. Creative Power

Relation of the Supreme Being to Morality

  1. Lawgiver
  2. Author of Moral Rewards and Punishments in this world and the next

It would seem that the First Things are first, not just in the science of metaphysics, but in the history of human understanding. 

13 thoughts on “The Religion of Adam

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  3. Joseph de Maistre, Rene Guenon, and Father Seraphim Rose, among many others, all argued (or argue) that it is a folly of ethnography to believe that the observation of existing primitives can tell us what our so-called primitive ancestors were like or what they thought. Existing primitives, according to Maistre and the others, are merely the final result of millennia of moral degeneration.

    • It is difficult for me to believe that any other cultures than the primitive are *not* the last result of millennia of moral degeneration. Indeed, it seems to be difficult for any cultures to believe they are not themselves degenerate.

      It would seem then that moral degeneracy is neither here nor there as a criterion of the fundamental original aspects of human cult and culture. Despite such undoubted degeneracy, we find that all primitive cultures hold to a high and pure monotheism. That monotheism is in later more developed cultures still almost always present, albeit often obscured by the cults of lesser deities and demons who, as more concerned with the administration of the details of quotidian human life, attracted idolatrous attention.

      Schmidt’s argument is not that there is no divergence among primitive cults, for while there is great thematic unanimity among them respecting the most basic religious notions, there is much divergence in the details of worship, of theogony, of cosmogony, and so forth. Despite these local variations of emphasis, the primitive cults are nowhere afflicted with the later magical or idolatrous accretions. Put another way, they diverge less than later cults. This has to indicate *something.*

      • All three of the named writers agree that modern culture is, itself, the result of centuries of moral decline, and qualifies as degenerate; their point in adducing cannibals and headhunters was invariably to suggest that there is not so great a distance between those activities and the violence of the modern regimes. A better word for the remotely ancestral people who figure in Maistre’s argument, Guenon’s, or Father Seraphim’s might be original or originary (or Adamic). We should not construe Adamic thought from the worldviews of any existing people.

      • Schmidt’s survey is indicative, rather than definitive. The generalized cult of the primitives points back toward the religion of Adam, but nowise anywhere quite constitutes it. We could say the same for later cults – with, of course, one important exception.

        Of note, in re the quote of Augustine above: the Essenes – whose cult shares many features in common with Christianity, and who disappeared from history at Pentecost, leading many to suggest that Christianity was first a motion of that sect – believed strongly that they alone preserved intact the ancient religion of Israel, which was the true religion of Adam.

  4. Voegelin wrote of the “compactness” of myth and of the “differentiations” of subsequent theology and philosophy. The “differentiations” are also “leaps in being,” or in consciousness whereby the beneficiaries achieve greater articulation in the knowledge of themselves and their place in the cosmos. And that is good. It might be, however, that there is a kind of “immunity” in “compactness” to error and misconstruction, which goes missing in the “differentiations.” When original “compactness” is un-packed, the parts can become dissociated from the whole. This group of men becomes obsessed with this part, and that group with that part, and soon they are in a bloody dogmatomachy. Such dissociation explains the relation of liberalism to Christian morality. It also suggests the actual primitiveness of liberalism, which rejects the “compactness” wherein and wherethrough Adam or Orpheus or Ash and Embla saw God, the Universe, and Everything, while obsessing over the fetishized parts.

  5. Most primitive cultures believe in a supreme deity–that is, a deity who is stronger than the other deities or who gave birth to the other deities–but this does not make them monotheist. It is the equivalent of claiming that ancient Greeks were monotheist because they called Zeus the “father of gods” and he lived up in the sky, or that Hndus are monotheists because some of them believe, abstractly, that different gods are manifestations of each other.

    There are a few anthropologists who have tried to make this argument, but it generally requires stretching and being very generous with our interpretation of “monotheism” to include people who believe, quite openly, in many deities–most hunter-gatherers seem to believe in some form of animism, whereby almost anything, from inanimate objects to trees to animals, wind and rain all have spirits, with no real differentiation between the nature of these spirits and the nature of the spirits of the beings they worship, except that the former are often sacrificed to the latter, so that the more powerful spirits may absorb the energy of the less powerful spirits.

    Occasionally I have encountered anthropologists making a show out of a minor point of a primitive myth that has some parallel to Christianity at the beginning of a section on religion, which they then follow with a long section on myths and practices that look nothing at all like monotheism. Take the Aztecs, who, IIRC, had one of these shining white savior myth figures, but also believed in a multitude of gods and in the necessity of human sacrifice in order to stave off the end of the world.

    It sounds like you have been reading summaries that count up the parallels but don’t take seriously the rest of the chapter.

    • Schmidt has of course considered the first order objection you adduce:

      That the Supreme Being of the primitive culture is really the god of a monotheism and that the religion which includes him is genuinely monotheistic – this is the position which is most attacked … To this attack we may reply that there is a sufficient number of tribes among whom the really monotheistic character of their Supreme Being is clear even to a cursory examination. …

      Among other races, the fact of their monotheistic belief has been obscured. This is partly due to crosses with later forms, partly to differentiation, partly to other causes, all of which can be discovered only by exact historical analysis.

      It is particularly characteristic of the Arctic primitives to differentiate a divine protector of beasts, both wild and tame. Originally it was none other than the Supreme Being who was lord of the beasts they hunted … Owing to the remarkable breadth which the concept of the Supreme Being has among them (for he includes in his sphere the sky, air, water and often the whole of nature) other differentiations, corresponding to different parts of the universe, have also taken place. …

      Another pluralizing of superior beings is brought about by the problem of the origin of evil, with which even these men of primeval days wrestled. The Supreme Being is everywhere represented among them as absolutely good, having nothing to do with evil either in conduct or in the outer world. Evil therefore must have another vehicle or originator; and he, especially in the mythology of the North American primitives and of those of the Arctic, is opposed to the Supreme Being; his origin, however, remains darkly mysterious.

      Yet another source of a multiplicity of superior beings is the family relationships of the Supreme Being, when he appears with a wife and children. But here we must make the following observations. In the first place, there is a number of peoples of the primitive culture who give their Supreme Being neither wife nor children, and even think it shocking or absurd to inquire if he has them. Such peoples are to be found in each of the several primitive circles [of cultures] and generally are the most ancient races of those circles; this is sufficient to make it probable in a high degree that this is the more nearly original state of things. … But in the case of the Supreme Being having acquired a wife and children, we can prove that these are later accretions from solar or lunar myths … Thus the high probability already mentioned, that the Supreme Being of the primitive culture had originally neither wife nor child, rises to certainty.

      If we wish to estimate at its real value the objection which has been raised against the existence of a true monotheism, we must also inquire in what relation to the Supreme being the other superior beings stand, when we find any such. If they are more or less clearly stated to have been created by him, and consequently have acquired their attributes and powers from him; or, still more, if their occupations and positions are assigned to them by him; but most of all if the Supreme Being still oversees and regulates the exercise of these functions, then we must declare such a religion to be still completely monotheistic. Such superior beings do not deserve the title of gods.

      – Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, Page 262 ff.

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