When did a human being first utter the name of a god, whether in fear or awe or love? When did a tribe or clan of humans first gather together in doing something - a dance, a chant, a sacrifice - which met no earthly need for food or shelter, but presupposed the existence of forces and beings invisible to the ordinary eye?
We do not know for sure, but we can say that such practices are now as universal as the human race, and by all evidence go back deep into the prehistory of humanity.
In this article I will look at religion historically, not theologically. Many religions have their own stories of the first humans, the first contacts between humans and transcendent powers, and the ways in which acts of worship were prescribed by the gods or God. Here my intention is to look at the common human experience behind all the stories.
Theories of the Origins of Religion
The nineteenth century was a golden age of the quest for origins. Alongside the Darwinian search for the "origin of species" were probes after the origins of human social institutions, including religion. On the evolutionary model of simpler forms before greater, it was at first universally supposed that religion would have begun with something very crude and elementary, only over long aeons of time to develop into the complex diversities of faith of later societies, including our own. Thus the pioneer anthropologist Edward B. Tylor proposed that religion started in "animism," a belief in souls separable from the body first suggested by the experience of dreams, in which one apparently left one's body during sleep to travel to far places and even meet persons deceased on the plane of waking life. From this it was easy to extrapolate the existence of souls in other entities such as the moving wind and sun and to elaborate doctrines of ancestrism and the afterlife.
The English anthropologist R.R. Marett traced religion even further back to the "pre-animist" stage of "animatism," the veneration and generation of sheer impersonal, supernatural power, the energy known by such names as mana or wakan. Sir James Frazer, in his much-cited work The Golden …