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For the journal of that name, see History of Religions (journal). For the academic study of religion in general, see Religious studies.
History of religions
founding figures

Comparative religion
Neurotheology / God gene

Ancient Near East
 · Ancient Egypt
 · Semitic
 · Vedic Hinduism
 · Greco-Roman
 · Celtic  · Germanic
Axial Age
 · Vedanta  · Shramana
 · Dharma  · Tao
 · Hellenism
 · Monism  · Dualism
 · Monotheism
Renaissance · Reformation
Age of Reason
New religious movements
 · Great Awakening
 · Fundamentalism
 · New Age

 · Judaism
 · Christianity
 · Islam
 · Bahá'í Faith
 · Hinduism
 · Buddhism
 · Jainism
 · Sikhism
 · Ayyavazhi
 · Taoism
 · Wicca

The history of religion refers to the written record of human religious experiences and ideas. This period of religious history begins with the invention of writing about 5,200 years ago (3200 BCE). The prehistory of religion relates to a study of religious beliefs that existed prior to the advent of written records. The timeline of religion is a comparative chronology of religion.

The word "religion" as it is used today does not have an obvious pre-colonial translation into non-European languages. Anthropologist, Daniel Dubuisson writes that "what the West and the history of religions in its wake have objectified under the name 'religion' is ... something quite unique, which could be appropriate only to itself and its own history".[1] The history of other cultures' interaction with the religious category is therefore their interaction with an idea that first developed in Europe under the influence of Christianity.[2]

History of study[edit]

The school of religious history called the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule was a 19th-century German school of thought which was the first to systematically study religion as a socio-cultural phenomenon. It depicted religion as evolving with human culture, from primitive Polytheism to ethical monotheism.

The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule appeared at a time when scholarly study of the Bible and church history was flourishing in Germany and elsewhere (see higher criticism, also called the historical-critical method). The study of religion is important because it has often shaped civilizations' law and moral codes, social structure, art and music.


The 19th century saw a dramatic increase in knowledge about other cultures and religions, and also the establishment of economic and social histories of progress. The "history of religions" school sought to account for this religious diversity by connecting it with the social and economic situation of a particular group.

Typically, religions were divided into stages of progression from simple to complex societies, especially from polytheistic to monotheistic and from extempore to organized. Religions can be classified as circumcising and non-circumcising, proselytizing (attempting to convert people of other religion) and non-proselytizing. Many religions share common beliefs.


The earliest evidence of religious ideas dates back several hundred thousand years to the Middle and Lower Paleolithic periods. Archaeologists refer to apparent intentional burials of early homo sapiens from as early as 300,000 years ago as evidence of religious ideas. Other evidence of religious ideas include symbolic artifacts from Middle Stone Age sites in Africa. However, the interpretation of early paleolithic artifacts, with regard to how they relate to religious ideas, remains controversial. Archeological evidence from more recent periods is less controversial. A number of artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic (50,000-13,000) are generally interpreted by scientists as representing religious ideas. Examples of Upper Paleolithic remains associated with religious beliefs include the lion man, the Venus figurines, cave paintings from Chauvet Cave and the elaborate ritual burial from Sungir.

In the 19th century, various theories were proposed regarding the origin of religion, supplanting the earlier claims of Christianity of urreligion. Early theorists Edward Burnett Tylor and Herbert Spencer proposed the concept of animism, while archaeologist John Lubbock used the term "fetishism". Meanwhile, religious scholar Max Müller theorized that religion began in hedonism and folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt suggested that religion began in "naturalism", by which he meant mythological explanation of natural events.[3] All of these theories have since been widely criticized; there is no broad consensus regarding the origin of religion.

Religion at the neolithic revolution[edit]

Through the bulk of human evolution, humans lived in small nomadic bands practicing a hunter gatherer lifestyle. The emergence of complex and organized religions can be traced to the period when humans abandoned their nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyles in order to begin farming during the Neolithic period. The transition from foraging bands to states and empires resulted in more specialized and developed forms of religion that were reflections of the new social and political environments. While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs are adapted to smaller populations.

Neolithic religions[edit]

The religions of the Neolithic peoples provide evidence of some of the earliest known forms of organized religions. The Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, in what is now Turkey, was home to about 8,000 people and remains the largest known settlement from the Neolithic period. James Mellaart, who excavated the site, believed that Çatalhöyük was the spiritual center of central Anatolia.[4] A striking feature of Çatalhöyük are its female figurines. Mellaart, the original excavator, argued that these well-formed, carefully made figurines, carved and molded from marble, blue and brown limestone, schist, calcite, basalt, alabaster, and clay, represented a female deity of the Great Goddess type. Although a male deity existed as well, “…statues of a female deity far outnumber those of the male deity, who moreover, does not appear to be represented at all after Level VI”.[5] To date, eighteen levels have been identified. These careful figurines were found primarily in areas Mellaart believed to be shrines. One, however – a stately goddess seated on a throne flanked by two female lions – was found in a grain bin, which Mellaart suggests might have been a means of ensuring the harvest or protecting the food supply.[6]

The Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt are one of the oldest known religious texts in the world dating to between 2400-2300 BCE.[7][8] Writing played a major role in sustaining organized religion by standardizing religious ideas regardless of time or location.

Value of religion[edit]

Organized religion emerged as a means of providing social and economic stability to large populations through the following ways:

  • Organized religion served to justify the central authority, which in turn possessed the right to collect taxes in return for providing social and security services to the state. The empires of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were theocracies, with chiefs, kings and emperors playing dual roles of political and spiritual leaders.[9] Virtually all state societies and chiefdoms around the world have similar political structures where political authority is justified by divine sanction.
  • Organized religion emerged as means of maintaining peace between unrelated individuals. Bands and tribes consist of small number of related individuals. However states and nations are composed of thousands or millions of unrelated individuals. Jared Diamond argues that organized religion served to provide a bond between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to enmity. He argues that the leading cause of death among hunter gatherer societies is murder.[10]

Axial age[edit]

See also: Axial Age

The period from 900 to 200 BCE has been described by historians as the axial age, a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers. According to Jaspers, this is the era of history when "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently... And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today". Intellectual historian Peter Watson has summarized this period as the foundation of many of humanity's most influential philosophical traditions, including monotheism in Persia and Canaan, Platonism in Greece, Buddhism, Jainism in India, and Confucianism and Taoism in China. These ideas would become institutionalized in time, for example Ashoka's role in the spread of Buddhism, or the role of platonic philosophy in Christianity at its foundation.

Middle Ages[edit]

Present-day world religions established themselves throughout Eurasia during the Middle Ages by: Christianization of the Western world; Buddhist missions to East Asia; the decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent; and the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe and India.

During the Middle Ages, Muslims were in conflict with Zoroastrians during the Islamic conquest of Persia; Christians were in conflict with Muslims during the Byzantine-Arab Wars, Crusades, Reconquista, Ottoman wars in Europe and Inquisition; Shamans were in conflict with Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and Christians during the Mongol invasions; and Muslims were in conflict with Hindus and Sikhs during Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent.

Many medieval religious movements emphasized mysticism, such as the Cathars and related movements in the West, the Jews in Spain (see Zohar), the Bhakti movement in India and Sufism in Islam. Monotheism reached definite forms in Christian Christology and in Islamic Tawhid. Hindu monotheist notions of Brahman likewise reached their classical form with the teaching of Adi Shankara.

Modern period[edit]

European colonisation during the 15th to 19th centuries resulted in the spread of Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia and the Philippines. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century played a major role in the rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation under leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Wars of religion followed, culminating in the Thirty Years War which ravaged central Europe, 1618-1648. The 18th century saw the beginning of secularisation in Europe, gaining momentum after the French Revolution. By the late 20th century religion had declined in most of Europe.

In the 20th century, the regimes of Communist Eastern Europe and Communist China were anti-religious. A great variety of new religious movements originated in the 20th century, many proposing syncretism of elements of established religions. Adherence to such new movements is limited, however, remaining below 2% worldwide in the 2000s (decade). Adherents of the classical world religions account for more than 75% of the world's population, while adherence to indigenous tribal religions has fallen to 4%. As of 2005, an estimated 14% of the world's population identifies as nonreligious.

Development of "new religions"[edit]

The term new religious movement (NRM) can identify a religious faith or an ethical, spiritual, or philosophical movement of recent[when?] origin that does not form part of an established denomination, church, or religious body.

See also[edit]

Shamanism and ancestor worship[edit]



See also Monotheism, Abrahamic religions.


Main article: Monism


New religious movements[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel Dubuisson. The Western Construction of Religion. 1998. William Sayers (trans.) Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. p. 90.
  2. ^ Timothy Fitzgerald. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. Oxford University Press, 2007. pp.45-46.
  3. ^ "Religion". Encyclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana, 70 vols. Madrid. 1907-1930.
  4. ^ Balter, Michael (2005). "The Dorak Affair". The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhöyük: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization. ISBN 0-7432-4360-9. 
  5. ^ Mellaart, James (1967). Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. McGraw-Hill. p. 181. 
  6. ^ Mellaart (1967), 180.
  7. ^ Budge, Wallis. An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature. p. 9. ISBN 0-486-29502-8. 
  8. ^ Allen, James. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. ISBN 1-58983-182-9. 
  9. ^ Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. ISBN 0-8050-7520-8. 
  10. ^ Diamond, Jared. "chapter 14, From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy, The e". Guns Germs and Steel. ISBN 0-393-03891-2. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1994) excerpt and text search
  • Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Bowker, John Westerdale, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (2007) excerpt and text search 1126pp
  • Carus, Paul. The history of the devil and the idea of evil: from the earliest times to the present day (1899) full text
  • Eliade, Mircea, and Joan P. Couliano. The HarperCollins Concise Guide to World Religion: The A-to-Z Encyclopedia of All the Major Religious Traditions (1999) covers 33 principal religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Shinto, Shamanism, Taoism, South American religions, Baltic and Slavic religions, Confucianism, and the religions of Africa and Oceania.
  • Ellwood, Robert S. and Gregory D. Alles. The Encyclopedia of World Religions (2007) 528pp; for middle schools
  • Gilley, Sheridan; Shiels, W. J. History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present (1994) 590pp
  • James, Paul; Mandaville, Peter (2010). Globalization and Culture, Vol. 2: Globalizing Religions. London: Sage Publications. 
  • Marshall, Peter. "(Re)defining the English Reformation," Journal of British Studies, July 2009, Vol. 48#3 pp 564–586
  • Schultz, Kevin M.; Harvey, Paul. "Everywhere and Nowhere: Recent Trends in American Religious History and Historiography," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2010, Vol. 78#1 pp 129–162
  • Wilson, John F. Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History (2003) 119pp

External links[edit]

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