Topics: History Of Religion

History of Religion

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 of religion.

History of study

Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, school of religious history 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.

Religiongeschichteschule appeared at a time when scholarly study of the Bible and church history was flourishing in Germany and elsewhere (see Higher criticism, Historical-critical method).


The nineteenth 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 are divided into stages of progression from simple to complex societies, especially from polytheistic to monotheistic and from extempore to organised. (There are now claims "that religion evolved from polytheism to monotheism has now been discredited" p. 1763 Man, Myth & Magic 1995)

Thus, the starting point is the tribal band whose religion is animistic and involves shamans and totems. Since the group is tribal, there is no permanent sanctuary. Cultic rites centre on identification with wild animals and appeasing spirits, often of the hunted.

As society developed into chiefdoms and small kingdoms, religious rites began to serve different functions. Agriculture became important and so fertility gods were introduced (often female, as it is the woman who has the power to produce life). The status of the "big man" (or chief) was supported with mythic tales of heroes and demigods, from whom he may be descended.

When these small kingdoms merged into larger groups (often through conquest), different cults merged. The conquest of one group by another is therefore recorded in an epic tale of the conquest of the conquered group's god by the victor's (e.g. some Hinduism and the Babylonian Marduk). Another solution was to syncretise different religious traditions, for example, the Romans' identification of their Gods with the Greeks and the Greeks' adoption of Anatolian myths and characters.

Finally, the growth of the city state brought about progression to the most "civilised" level of religion, ethical monotheism. Students of the history of religions often learnt that this began in Egypt with Akhnaten and grew through 7th century BC Judaism, Persian Zoroastrianism and Greek Philosophy to endow Western society with the most progressive form of religion. The historical basis of this — that religion moved from polytheism to ethical monotheism — is now doubted.

Nevertheless, it is still widely held that ethical monotheism (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism) was encouraged by the growth of city states. This was partly due to the role of a hierarchical society with a god-like absolute ruler. A more powerful social force was the isolation of the individual as he moved from the clan to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Questions of justice and value that had been previously answered by the family and small tribe were now to be pursued independently. The relative anonymity of the city afforded the opportunity for not only "sin" but also loneliness. Ethical monotheism answered society's need for a moral guide and motivation, whilst a unique personal God who was sovereign over all areas of life answered people's feelings of isolation and powerlessness.

Good examples of this are the prophetic literature of the Jewish Tanakh (Old Testament), especially Isaiah, and the wisdom literature of the ancient near east dealing with apparently unjustified suffering. This includes Job, in the Judaeo-Christian Bible, and "The Dialogue of Pessimism", a Babylonian text.


The earliest evidence of religious ideas dates back several hundred thousand years to the Middle and 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.

In the 19th century, various theories were proposed regarding the origin of religion, supplanting the earlier claims of Christianity of urreligion. Early evolutionary biologists Edward Burnett Tylor and Herbert Spencer proposed the concept of animism, while biologist John Lubbock used the term fetishism. Meanwhile, early religious scholar Max Müller theorized that religion began in hedonism. Finally, folklorist Wilhelm Mannhardt suggested that religion began in "naturalism", by which he meant mythological explanation of natural events.[1] All of these theories have since been widely criticized; there is no broad consensus regarding the origin of religion.

Organized religion

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.

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.[2] 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. [3]

Neolithic religions

The religions of the Neolithic peoples provide evidence of some of the earliest known forms of organized religions. The Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk, 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 Catalhoyuk 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]

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 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.[7][8] Writing played a major role in sustaining organized religion by standardizing religious ideas regardless of time or location.

The "Axial Age"

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Karl Jaspers, 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, Greece, India and China. 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.this is a debatable account.

Middle Ages

Newer 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 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.

Modern period

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 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.


1. "Religion". Encyclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana, 70 vols. Madrid. 1907-1930.

2. Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. ISBN 0805075208.

3. Diamond, Jared. "chapter 14, From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy, The evolution of government and religion". Guns Germs and Steel. ISBN 0393038912.

4. Balter, Michael (2005). "The Dorak Affair". The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhöyük: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization. ISBN 0743243609.

5. Mellaart, James (1967). Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. McGraw-Hill. pp. 181.

6. Mellaart (1967), 180.

7. Budge, Wallis. An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature. pp. 9. ISBN 0486295028.

8. Allen, James. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. ISBN 1589831829.

Source: Wikipedia


Prehistoric Religion

300th to 51st millennium BCE


The earliest known superstantial evidence of possible religious practices. At Atapuerca in Spain, the bones of 28 individuals are found in a single pit. The concentration of human remains is thought to represent intentional or ritual burial.


Earliest undisputed evidence for intentional burial. Neanderthals are burying their dead at sites such as Krapina in Croatia.[1]


Human skeletal remains, buried at Qafzeh, Israel, are stained with red ochre and accompanied with a variety of grave goods.


Possible intentional burials with grave goods begin to appear in Iraq at Shanidar and in Israel.[1] Cut marks on buried Neanderthal bones from various (e.g. Combe-Grenal and Abri Moula, France) may imply ritual defleshing.


A giant stone in the African Kalahari desert resembling a python, accompanied by a hidden chamber and surrounded by broken spear heads, is possibly the site of ritual offerings and snake worship.

50th to 11th millennium BCE


The body of the a man known as Mungo Man at Lake Mungo in Australia is sprinkled with red ochre, possibly rituals transmited from Africa.


Elaborate burials, sculptures, and cave art.


Earliest known burial of a shaman.[2]


Göbekli Tepe (in modern Turkey) earliest known ritual complex, predates agriculture


The Neolithic Revolution following the adoption of agriculture results in population explosions around the world. The first cities, states and kingdoms begin to emerge. The first organized religions emerge as a response to the social, economic and political changes brought about by agriculture. The early states that emerged are theocracies in which the political power is justified by religion.

100th to 34th century BCE


Four to five pine posts are erected near the eventual site of Stonehenge.


The settlements of Catalhoyuk develop as a likely spiritual center of Anatolia. Possibly practicing worship in communal shines, its inhabitants leave behind numerous clay figurines and impressions of phallic, feminine, and hunting scenes.


Newgrange, the 250,000 ton (226,796.2 tonne) passage tomb aligned to the winter solstice in Ireland, is built.

33rd to 12th century BCE


The initial form of Stonehenge is completed. The circular bank and ditch enclosure, about 110 metres (360 ft) across, may be complete with a timber circle.


Sumerian Cuneiform emerges from the proto-literate Uruk period, allowing the codification of beliefs and creation of detailed historical religious records.

3000 : The second phase of Stonehenge is completed and appears to function as the first enclosed cremation cemetery in the British Isles.


Stonehenge begins to take on the form of its final phase. The wooden posts are replaced with that of bluestone. It begins taking on an increasingly complex setup --including altar, portal, station stones, etc-- and shows consideration of solar alignments.


The first of the oldest surviving religious texts, the Pyramid Texts, are composed in Ancient Egypt.


Minoan Civilization in Crete develops. Citizens worship a variety of Goddesses.


Earliest Vedas are composed.


Abraham is thought to have lived. Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is also thought to have been written.


Zoroaster (a.k.a. Zarathushtra), founder of Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion, is thought to have been born


The ancient development of Stonehenge comes to an end.

13th to 9th century BCE


Reign of Akhenaton in Ancient Egypt. He is credited with introducing Monotheism to religion


The time of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. The first books of the Torah are composed.


The Greek Dark Age begins.


Olmecs build earliest pyramids and temples in Central America.[3]


The first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch are written.


Parsva, the penultimate (23rd) Tirthankara of Jainism is born.

8th to 3rd century BCE


Early Brahmanas are composed.


The Greek Dark Age ends.


Earliest Confucian writing, Shu Ching incorporates ideas of harmony and heaven.


Mahavira, the final (24th) Tirthankara of Jainism is born.


Gautama Buddha, founder of Buddhism is born.


Confucius, founder of Confucianism, is born.[3]


Zoroastrianism enters recorded history.


Theravada Buddhism is introduced to Sri Lanka by the Venerable Mahinda.


The Third Buddhist council was convened.

2nd to 1st century BCE


Pompey captures Jerusalem and establishes Roman annexes Judea as a Roman client kingdom.


The early time-frame for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity.

1st to 4th century CE


The later time-frame for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity.


Time of the Crucifixion of Jesus.


Council of Jerusalem is held.


Siege of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple.


Manichaean Gnosticism is formed by profit Mani


Some of the oldest parts of the Ginza Rba, a core text of Mandaean Gnosticism, are written.


Classic Mayan civilization, Stepped pyramids are constructed.


The oldest known version of the Tao Te Ching is written on bamboo tablets.


The first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea, is convened to attain a consensus on doctrine through an assembly representing all of Christendom. It establishes the original Nicene Creed, fixes Easter date, recognizes primacy of the sees of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch and grants the See of Jerusalem a position of honor.


Theodosius the 1st declares Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.


The second Ecumenical Council, the Council of Constantinople, reaffirms/revises the Nicene Creed repudiating Arianism and Macedonianism.


Theodosius proscripted paganism within the Roman Empire.


The Synod of Hippo, the first time a council of bishops of early Christianity listed and approved a Biblical canon.

5th to 9th century CE


St. Jerome completes the Vulgate, the first latin translation of the bible.


The Western Roman Empire begins to decline, signaling the onset of the middle ages.


The Assyrian Church of the East formally separates from the See of Antioch and the western Syrian Church


The third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus, is held as a result of the controversial teachings of Nestorius, of Constantinople. It repudiates Nestorianism, proclaims the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos ("Birth-giver to God", "God-bearer", "Mother of God"), repudiates Pelagianism, and again reaffirmes the Nicene Creed.


The Second Council of Ephesus declares support of Eutyches and attacked his opponents. Originally convened as an Ecumenical council, it's ecumenicality is rejected and is denounced as a latrocinium by the Chalcedonian.


The fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon rejects the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, adopts the Chalcedonian Creed, reinstated those deposed in 449 and deposed Dioscorus of Alexandria, and elevates of the bishoprics of Constantinople and Jerusalem to the status of patriarchates.


The Oriental Orthodox Church rejects the christological view put forth by the Council of Chalcedon and is excommunicated.


The fifth Ecumenical Council, Second Council of Constantinople, repudiates the Three Chapters as Nestorian and condemns Origen of Alexandria.


Life of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.


Qur'an is completed.


The sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third Council of Constantinople, rejects Monothelitism and Monoenergism.


The Quinisext Council (aka "Council in Trullo"), an amendment to the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils, establishes the Pentarchy.


Kojiki the oldest surviving book and Shinto texts are written[3]


The latrocinium Council of Hieria supports iconoclasm.


The seventh Ecumenical Council, Second Council of Nicaea, restores the veneration of icons and denounces iconoclasm.

10th to 13th century CE


The Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches formally takes place.


The first Crusade takes place.


Sigurd I of Norway wages the Norwegian Crusade on Muslims in Spain, the Baleares, and in Palestine.


The Second Crusade is waged in response to the fall of the County of Edessa.


The Third Crusade, European leaders attempt to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin.


The Fourth Crusade takes place.


Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade sack the Christian Eastern Orthodox city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.


The Albigensian Crusade takes place in Occitania, Europe.


The Church attempts the Fifth Crusade.


The Sixth Crusade occurs.


Jerusalem is sacked again, instigating the Seventh Crusade.


The Eighth Crusade is organized.


The Ninth Crusade fails.

14th to 18th century CE


The Roman Catholic Church is split during the Western Schism.


African religious systems are introduced to the Americas, with the commencement of the trans-Atlantic forced migration.


Martin Luther, of the Protestant Reformation, posts the 95 theses.


The life of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism

19th to current century CE


The life of Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahá'í Faith


Aradia (aka the Gospel of the Witches) is published by Charles Godfrey Leland.


Becoming a place of pilgrimage for neo-druids and other pagans, the Ancient Order of Druids organized the first recorded reconstructionist ceremony in Stonehenge.


Rastafarianism, the Nation of Islam is founded.


Scientology is created.


Wicca, invented by Gerald Gardner.


Various Neopagan movements gain momentum.


The Church of All Worlds, the first American neo-pagan church, is formed by a group including Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, and Richard Lance Christie.


The Stonehenge free festivals are held.


Germanic Neopaganism (aka Heathenism, Heathenry, Ásatrú, Odinism, Forn Siðr, Vor Siðr, and Theodism) begins to experience a second wave of revival.


The Iranian Revolution results in the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran.


The Stregherian revial, the Arician Tradition is founded and "The Book of the Holy Strega" and "The Book of Ways" Volume I & II are published.


The Battle of the Beanfield forces an end to the Stonehenge free festivals.


European pagan reconstructive movements (Celtic, Hellenic, Roman, Slavic, Baltic, Finnish, etc) organize.


Pope John Paul II the most ecumenical Pope in history passes away.

Source: Wikipedia

History of Religion
Mungo man: The body of the a man known as Mungo Man at Lake Mungo in Australia is sprinkled with red ochre, possibly rituals transmited from Africa.
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