Comparative Religion/History of religion

"Where does religion come from?" "How did it develop?"

The origin of religion is uncertain, but it has been suggested that it evolved for the nurture of children.[1] That is to say it is probably a mechanism which helps us survive and thrive as human beings within a community founded on shared beliefs, traditions and practices.

Apart from any consideration of "what the true religion is," or "what is true in any given religion," we can reasonably ask what the source of the religious impulse is. That is actually within the purview of the first book in this series but here we want to look at what the religions themselves say about the subject. How would any particular individual answer the question, "How did we begin to relate to the divine?"

What is the myth of religion?

But before we look at this concept of myth, let's take a brief look at the actual historical entity we call religion (at least, as much as we think we know about that history.) I will follow the Random House Timetables of History as a guide to organize this discussion.

There is a good bit of controversy about how religion "got started". With the current dialog about the neuronal area in the brain dubbed the "God center" it is possible that it, in fact, was always there, as long as there has been humans. Until recently, it has been assumed that religion appeared and developed with agriculture as fertility cults centered around the worship of an Earth mother, but that hardly explains the elaborate burial procedures used by prehistoric hunter and nomad societies. We must admit that we simply do not know how or where religion started.

Stone AgeEdit

Religious behaviour is thought to have emerged by the time of the Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age) more than 30,000 years ago. but behavioural patterns such as burial rites that might be characterized as religious reach back at least 300,000 years, with the first appearance of our near cousins Homo Neanderthalensis and our own direct Homosapiens ancestors . Religious behaviour may be ritual, spiritual, mythological or magical in character, often a combination of ideas and beliefs typically regarding absent ancestors and the impending cycles of the natural world, may have had separate histories of development during the Middle Palaeolithic before combining into "proper religion" of kingdoms and empires.

Ancient ReligionEdit

Until about 12,000 years ago around 10,000 BC (Before the Common Epoch - meaning the modern calender date that Dennis the Dwarf miscalculated to be the birth of Christ) stone-age people survived in small groups. As the warmer Holocene period began, agriculture and complex societies emerged, empires flourished. About 5000 years ago, writing was invented and recorded history began. about 4000 years ago in Persia (Mesopotamia) Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of confusing gods into two easily understood opposing forces - chaos and wisdom. We can not now know for sure if ancient historical characters ('ancient' means mentioned in writing) such as Zoroaster were real people, the name of a group of scholars or a fictional composite to explain the fusion of several schools of thought.

Past assumptions are quickly being eliminated by new information. We do know that priesthoods developed early in Egypt and Mesopotamia to officiate in the worship of gods who supposedly presided over local regions. These religions had intricate rituals, associated artistic and architectural traditions, and concepts such as divine kingship. Worship of nature deities was a feature of the Mediterranean world and Mesopotamia before the third millennium BC.

About 1772 BCE the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi developed written law which he had inscribed on stone pillars or 'Stele' in every important settlement. This legal code is one of the oldest deciphered writing of significant length found anywhere in the world. The authority of the Code of Hammurabi is based on his having been appointed and instructed by the prevailing regional gods and consists of 282 laws, with scaled punishments, adjusting "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (lex talionis) so that severity of punishment depended on social status such as slaves, women, free men or noble lords[2]

Bronze Age ReligionsEdit

Mesopotamian religion had developed into its classical form in the early dynastic period. It recognized four major gods: Anu, the god of heaven; Enlil, the god of wind; Enki, the god of water; and Ninhursag, the goddess of birth. Divination was practiced as part of the religious rituals.

Egyptian religion reflected the stability of life in the Nile valley in the early dynastic period. A belief in an afterlife was well established by that time and was extended to include people other than royalty with the decline of the Old Kingdom.

Invasions of warrior, Aryan cultures following 2000 BC, caused changes in the great religions of the Near East including the development of ecstatic sacrificial cults but, despite that and the brief incursion of the interesting monotheistic religion sponsored by the Pharaoh Akhenaton, Egyptian religion remained quite hardy and virtually unchanged. Nevertheless, this historical matrix provided the cultural ground from which the ethical monotheism of the Israelite tribes grew. Whatever the initial events, this is the fertile ground from which Judaism, Islam, and Christianity grew.

The Aryan invaders of India carried with them the seeds of the religion that would be embodied in the collection of sacred hymns called the Vedas. This was a complex, polytheistic religion that would develop into the Hindu religion.

During the period of the Judges, a strong emphasis toward purity in the monotheistic religion of Israel developed, reinforcing the resistance of outside influences and the tendency to add deities to the traditional faith.

Around 1000 BC, a secular philosophy emerged in China that set the stage for the major religious systems with their deemphasis of the supernatural. The Rigveda developed in India around this time, as did the Shinto religion in Japan.

The constant invasion of Greece by the northern tribes kept the religious thought there in flux and would lead to a flexible philosophical outlook that would foster the development of the brilliant 5th century Greek culture with its complicated pantheon of gods associated with Olympus.

Religion and RulersEdit

Religion is closely associated with absolute social control and rigid hierarchy, often ruled by a supposedly deified hereditary single ruler such as 'A King appointed by God' (winning power by force clearly 'demonstrated' God's will)

  • For example, A Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher from the Zhou Dynasty (c. 722–481 BC) proposed terror be used to win wars and impose without fighting. Before hiring a general the King is said to have challenged him to convert a harem of concubines into soldiers. when first ordered to face right, they giggled. In response, General Sun Tzu is supposed to have ordered the execution of the king's two most favoured concubines,because, if juniors did not obey, it was because their superiors were weak.

Alternatively people who were able to correctly predict astronomical events might be seen as magicians - able to bring the same order to human life.

  • For example, the concept of caste in India was elaborated around 700 BC by the Vedic tradition in order to organize division of labour and secure power in the hands of a ruling elite, the priestly caste of Brahman.

Nevertheless the period of time from 800 to 200 BC, called the axial age, saw a remarkable flowering of religious and philosophical thought. Buddhism and Jainism were significant offspring of Brahmanism. Zoroastrianism developed in Persia. Both Taoism and Confucianism became established in China. Greek philosophy began with Thales and his contemporaries and thrived through the time of Aristotle.

Iron Age ReligionsEdit

The establishment of the Roman Empire set the stage for the Christian religion which began as a sect of the Jewish religion but quickly found its independence and thrived during the early years of persecution to become one of the most influential movements in Western civilization.

The complex doctrine of the Christian church developed, in large part, in response to emerging traditions outside the mainstream church including Gnosticism, Manichaeanism, Mithraism, and Montanism, and in response to legalistic tendencies within the mainstream church that tended to draw the adherents back into the parent Judaism. Constantine (c. 285 - 337) adopted Christianity as his own religion (possibly in addition to other religious affiliations) and provided religious freedom to all religions. Theodosius the Great (c. 379 - 395) then made Christianity the Roman state religion. Finally safe from outside attacks the Christian church then turned inward to begin a history of, often violent, internal disputes.

During this same time period - roughly the first 500 years AD, Buddhism's power increased, turning back to influence the parent religion, Hinduism and also moving into China to claim adherents there and to affect the traditional Chinese religions and philosophies. By 700, Buddhism was firmly established in China and Japan.

Islam appeared in the early 7th century and quickly grew. By 700 AD, it had spread across the Middle East. By the year 1000, it had reached India and Spain. Like Christianity, it had to deal with internal schism which have yet to be resolved.

In the centuries before the turn of the first millennium, the church became more and more political. The competition between the Eastern and Western churches led to a widening rift. The papal support of Charlemagne's empire gave the church greater prestige but individual clergy became more and more disreputable, which would eventually lead to the monastic Cluniac reform movement which emphasized clerical discipline.

The Dark AgesEdit

During this time, the Sufi movement was founded in the Islamic society, emphasizing an austere mysticism in response to the rational idealism of orthodox Islam.

In the Americas, Mayan religion reached its zenith as a complex, hierarchical system.

The Vikings also reached a peak around 1000. They worshipped a pantheon of gods similar to the Germanic who were called the Aesir and were lead by Odin.


After 1000, the church consolidated its power to judge the morality of secular political entities. Scholasticism appeared in both the Christian and the Muslim communities with a revival of interest in philosophy and especially Greek and Aristotlean thought. The First Crusade (1096–1099) captured Jerusalem and established Frankish kingdoms in the Near East.

The popular Mahayana form of Buddhism and the monastic Zen form appeared and developed in China and Japan.

During the years from 1250 to 1400, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scot, and William of Ockham brought European scholasticism to its zenith. The papacy of Boniface VIII marked the peak of papal power. After the move of the papacy to Avignon in 1305, the power of the papacy declined. The seeds of the Protestant Reformation were evident in the writings of people like William Langland and John Wycliffe who criticized the clergy for its corruption while advocation spiritual and social equality.

The first printed Bible was produced in 1456.

The Spanish Inquisition was instituted in 1478. Among its targets were Jews, Muslims, and Catholic intellectuals. The church also condemned the practice of witchcraft in 1484 and the manual of persecution of witches, the Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1487.

Modern Religious ThoughtEdit

Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church in protest to corrupt practices in the Catholic Church in 1517. He was excommunicated in 1520. In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, he argued for justification by faith alone. He translated the Bible into the German vernacular around 1525.

In 1534, Henry VIII assumed full control over the Church of England in 1534.

John Calvin began his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland in 1541, teaching the doctrine that God had elected who would and would not be saved from the beginning (predestination).

The Council of Trent instituted the Catholic counter-reformation in 1545-1547.

Sikhism was founded by Nanak around 1519.

Francis Bacon wrote his masterwork on the scientific method, Novum Organum, in 1620. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) championed the cause of science and ran afoul of the church, spending his last years of life in house arrest. René Descartes (1598–1650) developed many of the method that would allow for a mathematical evaluation of physical phenomenon. A materialistic view of nature was developing that would lead to a serious confrontation with the church in later years. Still, at this time, the scientific community generally supported an unassailable belief in God.

George Fox founded the Quakers in 1652.

The later part of the 17th century saw a great increase in scientific and philosophical investigations along with a sharp split between people like Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Bishop George Berkeley, who were strict empiricist who believed that knowledge could only be gained by experience; and people like Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza, rationalists who believed that knowledge of the world could be derived by deductive reasoning.

Hundreds of years of war in Europe, ostensibly due to differences in religious belief, caused thinkers to ponder ways to approach religion that would lead to a more peaceful society - in that, they began to look at and study religion from a strictly secular angle.

David Hume (1411-1776) pointed out the flaws in scientific thinking and came to the conclusion that we can't really know anything, much less anything about God.

The RenaissanceEdit

Philosophers in 18th century Europe were beginning to predict or, even, call for the demise of religion.

Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Auguste Compte (1798–1857) sought to replace Christianity with a secular religious priesthood based on positivism.

Universal EducationEdit

Mormonism was founded in New York state in 1830 by Joseph Smith. Modern Adventism, precursor of the Seventh Day Adventists sect was founded in 1831 by William Miller.

Felicite Lamennais, in Thoughts of a Believer (1834) argued for separation of church and state and criticized the Catholic Church for its interference in politics.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1904-1872) advocated humanistic atheism and influenced Karl Marx (1818–1883) who viciously attacked religion as the "opiate of the masses". Marx predicted the immanent demise of religion.

Mírza Husayn 'Alí, 19 years after Ali Muhammad in the year 1863, founded the Baha'i Faith. Ali Muhammad's followers were told of the coming of Mírza Husayn 'Alí and were instructed to follow His religion.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the ideas of Marx, Freud, Compte, Darwin and others posed very serious critiques to religion. In particular, the idea of evolution provided an alternative to the religious idea of the intelligent creator. It was demonstrated that nature might be self organizing to a certain extent.

The T'ai-p'ing Rebellion in China in 1850 was very much influenced by Protestant Christian teachings regarding equality and communal economics.

William Booth founded the Salvation Army in 1865 in response to the squalor he witnessed in London.

The doctrine of papal infallibility was one result of the first Vatican Council in 1869-1870. In 1871, Johann von Dolinger was excommunicated for opposing the same doctrine.

Max Muller addressed the royal Institute of London on the "science of religion" in 1870.

Eastern and Western thought began to mix in earnest with the Hindu reforms of Ramakrishna (1836–1886) and the Theosophical Society founded in New York in 1875 by Helene Blavatsky.

In the United States, the Jehovah's Witnesses were founded by Charles Russell (1852–1916) and Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910).

Although the spirit of Antisemitism has been around for a long time, the ideology of Antisemitism developed as an outgrowth of various nationalistic sentiments in the late 1800s. It was popularized in La France Juive by Edouard Drumont in 1886.

James Frazier published his anthropological treatise on religion, The Golden Bough, in 1890. He speculated that there is, in human history, a natural development from nature magic, through religion, to scientific thought.

William James (1842–1910), in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described religion on the basis of observable religious behavior and posited that religion could have either healthy or unhealthy expression.

Freud's total rejection of religion as a juvenile defense mechanism was a major factor in the split between him and his protege Carl Jung.

The Pentecostal movement began in America around 1902.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) championed global unity and nonviolent civil disobedience while the Vienna Circle (1927–1938) championed the strict empiricism called positivism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) sought a secular version of Christianity.

The World Council of Churches met in 1948.

The Christian church began to search for means toward unity in the Ecumenical Movement, which began in 1961-1962. The Catholic Church tried to reconcile internal differences during the Vatican Council of 1962.

The United States Episcopal Church began to allow the ordination of women as priests in 1976.

The mass suicide of the People's Temple cult in Guyana in 1979 drew international attention.

The Chinese government allowed the reopening of many Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim churches in 1981.

Carol Tavris brought up some serious critiques of scientific research from a woman's studies perspective in "The Mismeasure of Woman" in 1992.

So, this is my first story and it's called the history of religion. I have another story to tell about history, this one a bit more personal.

When I was in high school, the history class I was in was taught, as history, that Catherine the Great of Russia died trying to have sex with a horse. It seems, the horse fell on her. I later found that "in fact" the incident did not even occur and the story seems to be a rumor started by the French who were the enemies of Russia during this period of history.

My point is that history is not necessarily fact. The old dictum, "History is written by the victor," applies here, which does not, at all, make history useless, but it is important how it is used. History is useful in so much as it helps us to understand the present and predict the future. The past is gone and, in many ways, we can never be sure what, exactly, has happened then, but as long as we keep in mind that any particular history is a best guess given what we have to decipher it, we are usually okay.

So with that caveat in place, let us continue.

References: Blaffer,Sarah (2009)Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding Belknap Press of Harvard University ISBN 9780674032996

Hotz, Robert Lee (1997) Brain region may be linked to religion. The Seattle Times, Wed. Oct. 29, 1997. The Seattle Times Company: Seattle, WA

Jones, Charles B. (2007) Introduction to the Study of Religion (lecture series). The Teaching Company: Chantilly, VA

Ramachandran, V. S. (1998) "God and the temporal Lobes of the Brain" A talk given as part of the program Human Selves and Transcendental Experiences: A Dialogue of Science and Religion Presented at U.C. San Diego, January 31, 1998

Random House (1991) The Random House Timetables of History: over 5,000 major events from ancient times to present. Random House, Inc.: New York, NY


Form a timeline of your own personal religion. How did you come to believe what you believe about things like death, God, spiritual things, morality, etc.? How certain can you be about the truth of these events? You may be able to talk to others (parents, teachers, etc.) and compare their memories about the events with your own.


  1. Blaffer Hrdy, Sarah (2009). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Belknap Press of Harvard University. ISBN 9780674032996. 
  2. Review: The Code of Hammurabi, J. Dyneley Prince, The American Journal of Theology Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jul., 1904), pp. 601–609 Published by: The University of Chicago Press. URL: