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A brief history of religion.[1]
Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
Were it not for religion’s influence, we would never approve of qualities such as: celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues. The delusive glosses of superstition and religion, can cause us to approve of such qualities despite the fact that they are neither useful nor agreeable.
His divinity is nowise beholden to him; because these acts of justice are what he was bound to perform, and what many would have performed, were there no god in the universe. But if he fast a day, or give himself a sound whipping; this has a direct reference, in his opinion, to the service of God. No other motive could engage him to such austerities.
David Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (§9.1.3)
When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, ’tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
Benjamin Franklin[2]

A religion is a systematic set of beliefs, rituals, and codifications of behaviour that make up a particular group's worldview (views about the world at large and humanity's place in the world). Typically, these beliefs and practices center around some aspect of the supernatural (also often referred to as the "divine"), most often expressed as some form of deity, i.e., one or more gods and goddesses.

To the extent that the system of beliefs and rules is codified, it is called dogma; different religions vary in how much dogma they include and how strictly they define it and enforce it. Religious mythology consists of the stories that develop, largely from oral tradition, to explain and describe the worldview of given religions. Religious beliefs tend to arise from humanity's attempts to explain their world, and where possible, to control it.

As a result, the distinction between a "supernatural religious belief" and superstition tends to be only in the bias of the one applying the label. In other words: "My religion's rituals and beliefs are real, yours are just silly superstition."

Definition and identification[edit]

An infographic exploring the sizes of various religions and religious denominations.
It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.
Carl Sagan, The Edge of Forever

Like "beauty" and "porn", it is very easy to recognize a given mainstream Western religion as a religion; the term "religion" was created originated to identify a distinctly Western phenomenon. As you move away from Western polytheist and monotheist religions into Eastern religions and some indigenous religions, the line becomes a bit blurred. Theravada Buddhism, for example is sometimes called a religion, other times a philosophy. Some religions have subgroups which are called denominations, such as Shiites and Sunnis.[3]

The following (incomplete) list includes things which academics look for in the attempt to define a set of beliefs and practices as a religion. Of course, for every rule, there are exceptions, but in general:

  • Religions are generally shared social systems. A solitary follower of a set of beliefs he or she made up is generally not considered part of a religion.
  • Religions have mythologies, often containing supernatural themes.
  • Religions address a person's path in life[4] through rites of passage, with examples including rites of marriage, coming of age, and death (funerary rites). Most religions have some form of rite for those who wish or are pressured to follow the religion more intimately (including priests, healers, monks, nuns, shamans, etc.)
  • Religions explore and attempt to answer life's unanswered questions (What happens before life and after death? What is the meaning of life? Where do lost socks go?[note 1] Where do all the toasters go?)
  • Religions generally address, or even attempt to explain, the allegedly burning questions about the beginning and ending of the world, even if their answer is "no one knows" or "look to science for answers".
  • Religions, being social, provide guidelines for morality or ethics and how to best live in the world. These views are usually supported by the mythology and holy texts and may be recorded as part of the dogma.
  • Beyond the rites of passage, religions generally have other ritual acts of worship, especially social ones.
  • Religions often lay out a set of taboos — "things which must not be done... ever. They are truly unthinkable." These are typically so ingrained with the culture at large that even in societies where two very different religions exist, the taboos are often the same. Homosexuality might be wrong, or a sin, but cannibalism is taboo.
  • Religions have often defined the calendar, intertwining with the needs of the agrarian, social, or business nature of any individual civilization. At harvest time, for example, many cultures had rites around death and harvest festivals (including praise or even sacrifices to the gods for their bounty). Major weather events like floods, hurricanes, or drought call forth religious ceremonial appeasements (by sacrifice or festival) to gods.

To what extent, if at all, each religion has the above features varies widely.

History of religion (including events and dates)[edit]

Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind those which are caused by a difference of sentiment in Religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing and ought most to be deprecated.
George Washington, 1792.[5]

In the beginning...[edit]

It is impossible to know when the human experience/sense of religion began. Archeological evidence suggests that the first primitive expressions of religious ideas date to the paleolithic era, 100,000 years ago. The most compelling evidence are burial sites which suggest a belief in some kind of "afterlife", as evidenced from items found with the deceased, paintings on the body, and placement of the body itself. As with most ancient archeological finds, not all experts agree about the significance.

Some important findings include:

  • 230,000 BCE – Pontnewydd Neanderthal cave burial in Wales.[6]
  • 98,000 BCE – Neanderthal burial sites
  • 25,000 BCE – Burials showing indications of more ceremony in the ornamentation, painting with red ocher

The earliest evidence of organized religions dates to the Neolithic era.[7] There is great debate whether religion allows the expansion of social groups from bands to tribes to chiefdom,[8] or if the opposite is true — a set level of social structure is necessary to allow a religion to grow. It is undeniable that virtually every society larger than a tribe had a complex religious structure that either empowered the leadership or was itself the governance of the chiefdom.[9] Control of a society appears to have been largely dependent upon control of the religion and of the associated worldview.

Important Neolithic religious sites and dates include:

  • 9100–7000 BCE – Göbekli Tepe,Wikipedia generally accepted as a site of worship — the oldest such site found to date
  • 3100 BCE – Stonehenge: initial construction begun

The next major step in the development of religions was writing. With writing came more complex ideas about the world, as well as codification of ethical systems and standardization of mythologies. And with writing came the first holy texts.

Religions with written texts:

  • 3000–2000 BCE – Sumerians and Akkadians in Ancient Mesopotamia
  • 3100–332 BCE – Ancient Egypt
  • 2400 BCE – The oldest known religious texts, the Pyramid Texts, were written
  • 2000 BCE – the Epic of Gilgamesh, and by extension the story of Noah, was first written.
  • 1700–1100 BCE – the Rigveda of Hinduism
  • 1200 BCE – possible date of the oldest fragments of the Torah (generally assumed to be the poetry within the Torah). (The first known mention of "Israel" as a nation occurs on the Merneptah Stele, dated to 1203 BCE.)
  • 1000 BCE – Avesta, one of the earliest texts of Zoroastrianism

It almost goes without saying that once rules are codified, it becomes easier to control people's behaviors based on those rules; once myths are codified, it can be easier to see your god as the only god, and your "myths" as the only acceptable Truth. This would be especially true for the monotheistic religions in the ancient Near East, where in the name of their God, wars were fought over whose Truth would reign supreme.

Chimps have been observed engaging in strange rituals, treating specific trees as a sort of "shrine" by stacking rocks around it (and throwing rocks at it). Scientists believe this may be evidence of ritualistic behavior amongst chimpanzees, and thus have implications for the evolutionary origins of religion.[10] Chimps have also been observed engaging in strange dancing around fire, perhaps in reverence of it.[11] However, studying potential animal "spirituality" is unlike the study of human religion, because unlike humans, you can't exactly ask animals what they're doing or thinking. There is a risk of anthropomorphizing animals that we should be mindful of here.[12]

Religion in the West[edit]

For the last thousand years, religious life practice in the West has predominately involved the Middle Eastern Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the latter two claiming the most followers in recent millennia. These religions have traditionally demanded — at least in theory — that their adherents form a tight and at least somewhat homogeneous bloc, professing or following a non-negotiable set of principles handed down by one or more prophets and/or by some magisterium. When adherents have disagreed on matters of belief or of ceremonial[note 2] detail, it has led to splintering of religions into different denominations and sects.

When the Enlightenment came along sometime in the 17th or 18th centuries and the old theological basis of Christianity came under more rigorous questioning, many within the church responded by emphasizing its social role of caring for the needy and aiming to better the world. This eventually gave rise to the tradition of the Social Gospel[13] (which remains influential today in the mainline Protestant traditions) and to Liberation theology (which operates [sometimes with Vatican disapproval] specially in the Roman Catholic Church).

In the meantime, economists noted that marketsWikipedia created jobs and profits, and postulated the operation of a supernatural Invisible Hand. Capitalists, often loosened from traditional religion by secularised Protestantism, latched onto this new mythology[14]and superstitiously determined that a creator seemed worthy of worship, erecting temples — banks and stock exchanges[15] — and developing the hagiography of captains of industry and of monopolists and the iconography of idols like the Bull[16] (syncretistically adopted from earlier religions like those of Crete[17] or of Mithras[18]) and the Bear,[19] white knights,[20] and unicorns.[21]

More recently, with the continued decline of the organized form of some of the Abrahamic religions, many fairly non-religious people have (again) adopted a more individualistic approach to life philosophy, assembling a "personal philosophy" that combines religious, philosophical, and moral concepts that they think or feel works well for them. Others cobble together more explicitly religious ideas and practices along the same lines; this can be labelled variously neopaganism, New Age, or cafeteria Christianity — depending on the source of the ideas.

Other groups:

  • atheists
  • those that identify with a particular religion but do not believe in the god
  • those who "worship" non-traditional, apparently non-religious ideas or isms (such as consumerism[22])
  • those who have forgone any overt expression of religion at all

form a growing part of Western culture.

Perhaps as a direct response to the growth in atheism and to the swarms of those who choose to leave formal religion, coupled with a stronger-than-ever reliance on science, a minority (in the US, a very loud, powerful minority) of people have chosen to insert their heads where the sun don't shine and to attempt to ignore the decline in religiosity, still pretending that "atheism is declining", and insisting that everyone accept every teaching of their religion (and no-one else's) as absolutely true. Such people have become known as fundamentalists — see for example Wahhabism.

Religion in the East[edit]

People in southern Asia have tended to follow various dharmic religions,[23] such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Dominant religions in eastern Asia include Buddhism (insofar as it counts as a religion), Shinto (insofar as it counts as a religion), and Taoism. Western Asia gave birth to the dominant Abrahamic faiths. Twentieth-century Oceania invented cargo cults.

Globalization and religion[edit]

The 20th century saw booms — both in the West and in the East — in so-called new religious movements (NRLs), some of which have more religious elements than do others. (Modern, capitalistic, and secularized Japan and Anglo-America have proven particularly productive of new ideas/heresies in this respect.) In parallel, some of the recently-converted fringe missionary areas previously proselytised by Islam or by Christianity have either developed syncretic[24] new religions or have latched onto and re-exported "pure" and sometimes extreme forms of their parent-religions. (Individuals and peoples more recently converted can have greater ardency for their new true faith.) Thus, for example, Latin America can combine Marxism with social Christianity in potent brews, Africa gave birth to the Lord's Resistance Army and features a morally stricter Anglicanism than does England, while Indonesia, one of the last major frontiers of the advance of Arab-style monotheism, can foster particularly fundamentalist Islam.

Religion and science[edit]

Historically, many religions, such as Islam and Christianity, have asserted control over people, wealth, and cultural memes. As a result, when science has improved its explanations of reality, the two bodies often experienced friction.

Any religion that requires its followers to accept the Truth of a holy book, religious leader, or set of mythology above "what science says" will necessarily conflict with science. A religion that pushes "faith" over exploration, consideration, thought, and (of course) study, will likely conflict with science, because those methods of reason often lead to an overall skeptical position.

The scientific method states that studies should use methodological naturalism and assume that observations have empirical and natural causes. Consequently, science cannot verify a supernatural belief or claim that all supernatural events are impossible.

The histories of both Christianity and Islam include moments where they have been the developers of new thought, science, and knowledge, and conversely, there are many times when they have attempted to severely suppress science, philosophy, and freethinking.

Throughout the rest of the world, religions have generally encouraged naturalistic explorations and explanations, found successful ways to integrate the two, or accepted them as different answers for the same question(s). It is difficult for most who grow up in a Western Abrahamic tradition to imagine a religion which does not, at some level, rely on supernatural or miraculous explanations.

Many modern theists adopt Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), which suggests that religion and science contribute to different areas and should not inform or criticize each other.

Below are some examples of clashing and cooperating views of religion and science.

Examples of science-friendly attitudes within religion[edit]

  • In the Middle Ages, the Muslim world had a renaissance due to their open-mindedness towards science. Indeed, they preserved and expanded upon the knowledge acquired by the ancient Greeks. They, for instance, discovered algebra, which means 'restoration' in Arabic, even though they solved problems verbally rather than symbolically.
  • Roger Bacon, a Catholic friar, was one of the people who formalized the scientific method itself.
  • Gregor Mendel, a Catholic Augustinian friar, founded the scientific study of geneticsWikipedia by experimenting with pea plants.
  • Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, developed the Cosmic Egg (or the Primeval Atom) hypothesis, which was a forerunner to the modern-day Big Bang theory from Einstein's general theory of relativity.
  • Several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglican priests, such as William Buckland, Joseph Townsend, William Conybeare, and Adam Sedgwick, made important contributions to modern geology. This came at a time when deep time was still a controversial idea.
  • In the modern era, many Christian denominations accept modern science and its ramifications. In any single situation where science and religion seem to overlap, the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) attempts to shield believers with plausible anchors for growing cognitive dissonance.
  • The Roman Catholic Church's acceptance of theistic evolution, admittedly with Adam and Eve involved somewhere in the fall. Most mainstream Protestant religions do not have any problem with evolution. (See Acceptance of evolution by religious groups.)
  • The Bahá'í Faith has a tenet expressly concerning the "unity between science and religion". The tenet doesn't go so far as to claim they are the same thing, but insists one is worthless without the other.

Examples of anti-science attitudes within religion[edit]

  • The execution in 1600 by burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, found guilty by the Roman Inquisition of (among other heresies) suggesting that extra-terrestrial worlds might exist.
  • The Roman Catholic Church's 1633 persecution and arrest of Galileo, who harmed nothing but a geocentric worldview (and insulted the Pope in doing so, arguably worsening his position).
  • Opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution, by Protestant fundamentalists among his contemporaries and in modern times.

Fundamentalism and science[edit]

In the 1920s, the fundamentalist movement within Christianity became more popular. One of its core tenets presented the Bible as literal truth. This is really the first time any Christian or Jewish denomination stated such a premise – prior to that, most religions and the religious understood that not all things in their holy books were meant to be literal; there were myths, exaggerations for effect, aggrandized history, and poetic symbolism.[25]

The basic idea behind the rise of literalism and formal fundamentalism is a growing fear that, as science disproves small details of the Bible such as the confusion of the value of pi, science will erode the "Truth" value of the Bible, and soon people will jump, not from doubting mathematical falsities, but to far more important matters of faith, such as the Divinity of Jesus, and — most importantly — the moral authority of the people preaching said "Truth". This fear that science can and will directly challenge the value of the Bible has led to an effective War on Science, especially culminating in a battle against evolution and, as a backlash, increasing rates of atheism.[citation needed]

Examples of religion-friendly findings within science[edit]

  • Religion and spirituality have been correlated with lower rates of heart disease and chronic pain.[26]
  • Global studies have found that countries with more religious people often also have more faith in science, while many other countries are neither religious nor welcoming to science and technology.[27]
  • Highly religious people are more likely to donate money or volunteer time to organizations, despite the fact that they earn less on average.[28]
  • Religiously devoted people are less likely to use substances or suffer from substance addiction.Wikipedia[29][30]

Examples of anti-religion findings within science[edit]

  • Patients who undergo surgery and know they would receive prayer are more likely to experience complications, compared to patients who undergo the same surgery and are informed that they may or may not receive prayer.[31]

Religions as conspiracies[edit]

Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory,[citation NOT needed] and religions provide a happy hunting-ground for conspiracists. Thus Papists have deliberately corrupted and distorted the True Faith. Or the existence of heresies prove the secretive machinations of satanic forces. Or one can blame International Jewry (conveniently conflated with Judaism) or Islamic terrorism (conveniently conflated with Islam) for all things nefarious. Or pagan revivals are aiming to demolish the Abrahamic religions in order to pave the way for the return of pre-Abrahamic faiths. Or religion in general just provides a cheap, easy, user-funded way for THEM to control self-policing beliefs, attitudes, morals, and behaviors amongst the trusting believing sheeple-flock.[32][note 3]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Note that religion previously provided answers to questions that today, science explains. "What is thunder?" "Why is there a drought?" See god of the gaps for more on this.
  2. As in the case of the Old Believers vs. the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century.
  3. Naturally, that last one is really popular among antitheists.


  2. From Benjamin Franklin to Richard Price, 9 October 1780 National Archives.
  3. Focus on Islamic Issues - Page 15, Cofie D. Malbouisson - 2007
  4. See the Wikipedia article on journey.
  5. From George Washington to Edward Newenham, 20 October 1792. National Archives.
  6. The Cave Men of Ice Age Wales
  7. Compare: McMahon, Robin (2011). "10: Diversity and the evolutionary tree of religion". On the Origin of Diversity. Croydon, Surrey: Filament Publishing Ltd. p. 73. ISBN 9781905493876. Retrieved 2017-06-05. "Organised religion traces its roots to the Neolithic revolution, which began 11,000 years ago." 
  8. Compare: McMahon, Robin (2011). "10: Diversity and the evolutionary tree of religion". On the Origin of Diversity. Croydon, Surrey: Filament Publishing Ltd. p. 73. ISBN 9781905493876. Retrieved 2017-06-05. "[...] While bands and small tribes often possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer of wealth or maintain peace between related individuals. Organized religion emerges as a means of providing social and economic stability through justifying the central authority [...]. Organised religion served to provide a bond between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to enmity. [...] Religions that revolved around moralising gods may have facilitated the rise of large cooperative groups of unrelated individuals." 
  9. Compare: McMahon, Robin (2011). "10: Diversity and the evolutionary tree of religion". On the Origin of Diversity. Croydon, Surrey: Filament Publishing Ltd. p. 73. ISBN 9781905493876. Retrieved 2017-06-05. "Anthropologists have found that virtually all state societies and chiefdoms [...] around the world [...] justify political power through divine authority." 
  10. Chimps may be performing rituals at "shrine trees" - Smithsonian Magazine
  11. What do chimp temples tell us about the evolution of religion? - New Scientist
  12. "Animal cognition" - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  13. See the Wikipedia article on Social Gospel.
  14. Nelson, Robert Henry (2010). "1: Tenets of Economic Faith". Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780271038612. Retrieved 2019-02-14. "The Jewish and Christian bibles foretell one outcome of history. If economics foresees another, it is in effect offering a competing religious vision. [...] for many thinkers [...] their belief system results not in a Judeo-Christian heresy, but in an entirely new and seccular religion - although one that draws many of its themes from the biblical tradition, now typically reworking them in a less direct and mostly implicit fashion. [...]" 
  15. Heine, Heinrich (1859) (in German). Sämmtliche Werke. 6 (5 ed.). Philadelphia: John Weik & Company. p. 264. Retrieved 2019-02-14. "Paris, wie Sparta, hat seinen Tempel der Furcht, und das ist die Börse [...]. (Paris, like Sparta, has its temple of Fear, — it is the Bourse.)" 
  16. See the Wikipedia article on Bull market.
  17. See the Wikipedia article on Minoan religion.
  18. See the Wikipedia article on Mithraism.
  19. See the Wikipedia article on Bear Market.
  20. See the Wikipedia article on White knight (business).
  21. See the Wikipedia article on Unicorn (finance).
  22. Nock, Peter (2014). "Introduction - Religion and Industry". Consumerism versus Spirituality (Revised ed.). Andrews UK Limited. ISBN 9780957465718. Retrieved 2017-06-25. "Modern society is regaled with the gospel of consumerism, as distinct from the gospel of salvation, through faith in Christ." 
  23. See the Wikipedia article on Dharmic religion.
  24. See the Wikipedia article on Syncretic religion.
  25. A lecture by Prof. Keith Ward (29 October 2009): "God, Science and the New Atheism"
  32. Dyrendal, Asbjørn (2020). "Conspiracy theory and religion". In Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter. Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. Conspiracy Theories. Routledge. ISBN 9780429840586. Retrieved 1 June 2020. "Conspiracy theory about religion typically focuses on ingroup/outgroup dynamics in complex socio-political situations. [...] That 'religion' also carries connotations of being a unifying discourse (or coherent set of beliefs) organised in communities and controlled by institutions, can go some way to legitimating fantasies of hidden, organised conspiracy. From another angle, 'religion' covers strategies for legitimising and delegitimising claims to authority, moral behaviour and ideas about what is the correct relation to other social groups, and may thus be used as a resource in both the promotion and arrest of conspiracy beliefs."