The history of religion
refers to the written record of human religious experiences and ideas. This period of religious history typically begins with the invention of writing
about 5,000 years ago(3,000 BCE) in the Near East. The prehistory of religion relates to the study of religious beliefs that existed prior to the advent of written records. The timeline of religion
is a comparative chronology religion.
Prehistory of religion
The earliest evidence of religious ideas dates back several hundred thousand years to the Middleand Lower Paleolithic
periods. Archeologists 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 regards 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
Through the bulk of human evolution, humans lived in small nomadic bands practicing a hunter gatherer lifestyle. The religious practices of hunter gatherers revolve around shamanism, ancestor worship and animism. 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.
Humans began domesticating crops and animals around 10,000 BCE chiefly in the Near East
but independently in a number of locations around the world. The invention of Agriculture during the Neolithic revolution was a major event in human history. The increased productivity provided by farming and the relative security of food surpluses allowed these communities to expand. Crop production led to the emergence of the first villages, chiefdoms, states, nations and empires. The societies born out of the neolithic revolution were characterized by high population densities, complex labor diversification, trading economies, centralized administrations and political structures, hiearchical ideologies and depersonalized systems of knowledge.
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.
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. 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.
Invention of writing
Following the neolithic revolution, the pace of technological development intensified. As human society became more complex, more sophisticated accounting systems became necessary. Writing was invented in either Sumeria or Ancient Egypt by 3000 BCE as a means of recording recording accounting transactions. Subsequently writing would be used to record myth. The first religious texts mark the beginning of religious history
. The Pyramid Texts
from ancient Egypt are one of the oldest known religious texts
in the world dating to between 2400-2300 BCE.
Writing played a major role in sustaining organized religion by standardizing religious ideas regardless of time or location.
The "Axial Age"
, in his Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte
(The Origin and Goal of History
), identified a number of key Axial Age thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophy and religion, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy
a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found very little recorded proof of extensive inter-communication between the ancient Near East
. Jaspers held up this age as unique, and one which to compare the rest of the history of human thought
to. Jaspers' approach to the culture of the middle of the first millennium BCE has been adopted by other scholars and academics, and has become a point of discussion in the history of religion
In its later part, the "Axial Age" culminated in the development of monism and monotheism, notably of Platonic realism and Neoplatonism in Hellenistic philosophy, the notion of atman in Vedanta Hindu philosophy, and the notion of Tao in Taoism.
Newer present-day world religions
established themselves throughout Eurasia
during the Middle Ages
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
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 and Ottoman wars in Europe; Christians were in conflict with Jews during the Crusades, Reconquista 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 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.
during the 15th to 19th centuries resulted in the spread of Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa
, the Americas
and the Philippines
. The 18th century saw the beginning of secularisation
in Europe, rising to notability in the wake of the French Revolution
In the 20th century, the regimes of Communist Eastern Europe and Communist China were explicitly 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. 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.