Urmonotheismus (German for "primeval monotheism") or primitive monotheism is the hypothesis of a monotheistic Urreligion, from which non-monotheistic religions degenerated. This is diametrically opposed to the evolutionary view of religion, another hypothesis which holds that religion progressed from simple forms to complex: first preanimism, then animism, totemism, polytheism and finally monotheism (see Anthropology of religion).
It was first defended by Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), in his Der Ursprung der Gottesidee appearing from 1912, opposing the "Revolutionary Monotheism" approach that traces the emergence of monotheistic thought as a gradual process spanning the Bronze and Iron Age Religions of the Ancient Near East and Classical Antiquity.
Alleged traces of primitive monotheism were located in the deities Assyrian Ashur and Marduk, and Hebrew YHWH. Monotheism in Schmidt's view is the "natural" form of theism, which was later overlaid and "degraded" by polytheism.
Schmidt's hypothesis was controversially discussed during much of the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Schmidt adduced evidence from Native American mythology, Australian aborigines and other primitive civilizations in support of his views. He also responded to his critics. For instance, he rejected Rafael Pettazoni's claim that the sky gods were merely a dim personification or embodiment of the physical sky, saying in "The Origin and Growth of Religion," "The outlines of the Supreme Being become dim only among later peoples." He adds that "a being who lives in the sky, who stands behind the celestial phenomena, who must 'centralize' in himself the various manifestations [of thunder, rain, etc.] is not a personification of the sky at all." According to Ernest Brandewie in "Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God," Schmidt also claims that Pettazoni fails to study Schmidt's work seriously and often relies on incorrect translations of Schmidt's German. Brandewie also says Pettazoni's definition of primitive ethical monotheism is an "arbitrary" straw man argument, but he says Schmidt went too far when he claimed that such ethical monotheism was the earliest religious idea.
By the 1950s, the hypothesis of primitive ethical monotheism was rejected by the academic establishment, so its proponents of Schmidt's "Vienna school" rephrased it to the effect that while ancient cultures may not have known "true monotheism", they at least show evidence for "original theism" (Ur-Theismus, as opposed to non-theistic animism), with a concept of Hochgott ("High God", as opposed to Eingott "Single God"). Christian apologetics in the light of this have moved away from postulating a "memory of revelation" in pre-Christian religions, replacing it with an "inkling of redemption" or virtuous paganism unconsciously anticipating monotheism. That said, E. E. Evans-Pritchard noted in "Theories of Primitive Religion," first published in 1962, that most anthropologists have abandoned all evolutionary schemes like Schmidt and Pettazoni's for the historical development of religion, adding that they have also found monotheistic beliefs existing side-by-side with other religious beliefs.
- Deus otiosus
- Mircea Eliade
- Prehistoric religion
- The Primordial Tradition
- Sky father
- Dhavamony, Mariasusai (1973). Phenomenology of religión. Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana. pp. 60–64. ISBN 88-7652-474-6.
- Pettazzoni, Raffaele (April 1958). "Das Ende des Urmonotheismus". Numen (in German) 5 (2).
- High Gods in North America, 1933
- "The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories," 1931
- Schmidt, "The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories," New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1972, page 211
- Brandewie, "Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God," Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983, page 251
- Brandewie, pages 44 and 119
- Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, "Theories of Primitive Religion," New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, pages 104-105