CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

History of Religion

Earliest Religions

It is difficult to determine when religions started in the history of mankind. It is probably safe to assume that the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees, 6 million years ago, were not religious. This is because a religion requires the ability to share a belief, and these species did not have the capability to speak. If this common ancestor had been religious, then we would likely see religion in chimpanzees, too — which we don’t.

When we move forward in time, we come to the Ardipithecus (4 million years ago), the Australopithecus (3 million years ago), the Homo habilis and Homo ergaster (2 million years ago), and finally to the Neanderthals (100,000 years ago) and our species. Now where did religion start?

It is hard to tell when an ancient species is religious. We mostly rely on

We will now trace these indicators through history.

Neanderthal Burials

Bodies that are not buried leave no archeological trace (bottom right in the picture).
Animals usually do not bury their dead. Likewise, early ancestors of humans did not bury their dead. From a materialistic perspective, there is no reason to bury a dead animal. It would just be a waste of time and effort. Bodies were probably just left to rot. Maybe they were at least removed from where the clan lived. The problem is that bodies left in the open air leave no archeological traces, and so we do not know about these practices.

Some of the earliest hint for an intentional burial stems from 200,000 years ago. In Atapuerca in Spain, over 32 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis were found at the bottom of a deep shaft. These bones might have arrived there by chance, or by an unrelated event, but one possible interpretation is that they were intentionally buried. Concentrated remains of Neanderthals were also found in La Quina and L’Hortus in France, and in the Krapina Cave in Croatia, dating to around 100,000 years ago.

These latter ones were defleshed — meaning that the flesh had been removed from their bones before their burial. It is not clear why this was done. It might have been a burial ritual, and thus the first evidence of religious thinking. However, it might as well just have been cannibalism.

Around 70,000 years ago, there are least two dozen examples of intentional Neanderthal burials in France, the northern Balkans, and the Near East (Israel and Syria), with more ambiguous examples in the Mezmaiskaya Cave in the Caucasus and at Teshik Tash cave in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border.

Neanderthals placed their dead in simple graves, with apparently no concern for grave goods or elaborate markers. On occasion we find limestone blocks within or atop the graves. The latest burial from the Neanderthals dates to around 35,000 years ago, and was found in St. Cézaire in France. After that, Homo sapiens superseded the Neanderthals 1.

We may interpret the burials as a concern for the spirits of the deceased or as a method to ease their transition to the underworld. However, burying the dead may also have had purely pragmatic reasons: Buried bodies don’t stink and they don’t attract big animals. Burial could also be an artifact of extrapolated empathy: I do not want to be eaten by wild animals, so I don’t want my family members to be eaten by wild animals — even if they are dead. Thus, it is difficult to determine whether these burials are evidence of religious thought.

As the British Archeology Magazine points out: We often forget that it is only in the modern, Western world that burial of the dead has been a more or less universal and commonplace practice. Not only in the earliest periods but throughout prehistory, humans disposed of the bodies of their loved ones by a variety of means, most of which have left no traces and can be only be guessed at by scholars today 1.

Human Burials

The earliest trace of an intentional burial by homo sapiens is found in the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. A number of men, women and children were explicitly deposited there in what we would interpret as a grave. This was around 100,000 years ago. In this burial, as well as in those that followed it, the bodies of the deceased were heavily colored with red ochre.

Several possible reasons for the ochre have been suggested. We can hypothesize that the ochre was part of a ritual — i.e., a behavior that serves no direct physical purpose, but which may have psychological, social, or spiritual purposes. Another possible reason is that the ochre deters scavengers. Some experiments suggest that the ochre has a particular taste, a smell, or bacterial properties that make it less attractive as food to animals 2.

In any case, the procedure testifies a certain care for the deceased. It serves no direct purpose for the living to color the bodies of the deceased. From a subsistence point of view, this is just a waste of time (and ochre). Hence, it is tempting to think that supernatural belief played a role. However, we may possibly never know for sure.

Grave goods

Humans buried some of their dead with red ochre as early as 100,000 years ago. When we scroll forward in time to 27,000 years ago, we find burials with grave goods — items that were deliberately placed with the dead. In many cases, these are the bones of large herbivores such as aurochs, mammoth, bison or reindeer. These burial sites were discovered in Europe.

More spectacular still are burials in Sunghir, Russia, which were accompanied by several thousand mammoth ivory beads, several hundred fox teeth pendants and a panoply of ivory artefacts. At Arene Candide Cave in Italy, a young male — the Italians call him “The Prince” — was buried with a cap of mammoth ivory beads, four enigmatically-shaped, holed and incised antlers known as “batons”, a flint blade sourced from over 100 km away, and several other valuable possessions. Interestingly, all people who have been found buried in this way had some pathologically malformed body: deformed spines, bone disease, short limbs, or other disabilities. This, in addition to the fact that we have found only very few of these burial sites compared to the population of humans at the time, suggests that burial was never the norm for “ordinary” people. We have to assume that most people were just disposed of in ways that are now archaeologically invisible. 1

Still, grave goods pose a conundrum: Why would people spend time and effort to collect items to place with their dead? This does not serve any earthly purpose. Hence, it is commonly assumed that this was done for ritual or religious reasons. It is tempting to think that people gave the goods as gifts to the deceased for an afterlife.

Venus figurines

The Roman Goddess Venus. Yes, I know. Sandro Botticelli
Between 35,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago, people produced what we call “Venus figurines”. These are statuettes of women that vary in size between 4cm and 25cm. They are roughly diamond shaped, with a small head without facial details, big breasts, a large belly and wide hips, large thighs, and small or absent feet. Over a hundred of such figurines have been found in the area of Europe and Eurasia. They were carved from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known.

The oldest known figurine is the “Venus of Hohle Fels”, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk around 35,000 years ago. The youngest is the “Venus of Monruz”, from about 11,000 years ago. These figures have no known connection to the Roman goddess Venus — the name was just given because archeologists conjectured that they would represent a beauty ideal. Interestingly, the figurines are shaped consistently across tens of thousands of years. It is also striking that representations of the female form make up the great majority of unearthed sculptures from the past 30,000 years. Some of the Venuses were found in graves. Remarkably, some of the Russian figurines were deliberately broken; while the “Black Venus” of Dolni Vestonice had been repeatedly stabbed by some sharp implement 1.

Venuses seem to represent something imaginary or symbolic, because women usually have feet and faces. Since the figurines have no practical use in the context of subsistence, archaeologists speculate that they may be emblems of security and success, fertility icons, or representations of a mother goddess. Carving Venuses looks like an endeavor with no practical use — which is what atheists commonly associate with religion. However, they could also just be works of art, representing an ancient beauty ideal. Finally, they could also be biased representations of reality. Much like children draw people with only heads and legs, ancient people could have drawn women with only hips and breasts.

Local Spirits

The early religions were most likely animist: People believed that the physical objects of nature had a spirit. They personified the local river, a particular mountain, or an apple tree. They would ask the apple tree spirit to produce many ripe fruits, then harvest the fruits, and apologize to the apple tree spirit for having taken away his apples (Y. N. Harari: “Sapiens”, p. 237).

However, once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people needed to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin [ibid]. This gave rise to the belief in more universal gods, such as the god of love, the god of war, or the god of wine. People probably continued to worship local spirits and ancestor spirits in parallel — and many religions today still do. We now trace this development over time in different parts of the world.

Australian Aboriginal Myths

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia was once a coastline.
In Eurasia, Venus figurines might be evidence for early religious traditions. In Australia, we have a completely different indication for religious tradition. The indigenous Australians arrived on the continent around 50,000 years ago, and evolved into different tribes, languages, and traditions. Different tribes have different mythological stories, and some of them have been recorded by modern linguists. Some of these myths tell the story of how geological features (such as a lake, a mountain, or a reef) came into existence. When we compare these stories to how the features really came into existence (based on geological evidence), we sometimes find a striking similarity.

For example, the Lake Euramoo myth goes as follows:

It is said that two newly-initiated men broke a taboo and angered the rainbow serpent Yamany, major spirit of the area ... As a result, the camping-place began to change, the earth under the camp roaring like thunder. The wind started to blow down, as if a cyclone were coming. The camping-place began to twist and crack. While this was happening there was in the sky a red cloud, of a hue never seen before. The people tried to run from side to side but were swallowed by a crack which opened in the ground. 3
In reality, Lake Euramoo came into existence by a volcanic eruption, and the myth can be interpreted in this way. Other myths talk about other features: Port Phillip Bay formed in the ice age by rising sea waters, and a myth describes it as once dry land. The Great Barrier Reef is an ancient coastline, and a myth describes the land between the ancient and current coastline. Lake Eyre nowadays never has water permanently, but we know that it once did. A myth describes the lake permanently filled, and the deserts around the lake as a continuous garden. All of these stories can be interpreted as describing some real geological phenomena. The stories describe some truth, and intertwine it with mythological content.

The interesting thing is now that these geological phenomena took place up to 10,000 years ago. If the stories really describe these phenomena, then the stories must have been handed down from generation to generation for 10,000 years. Assuming that the addition of mythological content happened early on, this would mean that the Australian indigenous people had mythological stories 10,000 years ago.

Australia is pretty remote from everywhere else, and extremely sparsely populated. This entails that a particular indigenous culture could persist with absolutely no influence from other cultures for thousands of years. Most likely, the cultures changed little, or not at all, during this time.

Neolithic religions

The Neolithic period of human history ranged from 10,000 BCE to roughly 3000 BCE and counts as the last period of the Stone Age. It was characterized by the development of farming, the domestication of animals, and the invention of metal tools. The main development happened in the Middle East, Egypt, Europe, South and East Asia, and Central America. The first cities, states, and kingdoms emerged. By this time, the only human species was the Homo sapiens.

It is commonly believed that religion in the modern sense evolved during this period. However, few reliable facts are known — also because writing was not yet available. We only know of several places that could have served as places of worship:

Göbekli Tepe
Carvings at Göbekli Tepe Berthold Steinhilber
Göbekli Tepe is a site in Souther Turkey, close to the border with Syria. It dates to the 10th-8th millennium BCE. Its most impressive feature are remains of circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m and a weight of up to 20 tons. Many pillars have carvings of animals. It is speculated that the site may have been one of the earliest temples yet discovered.
Çatalhöyük is a settlement in Southern Turkey that existed from approximately 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. The inhabitants buried their dead in their own houses, often tightly flexed and placed in baskets. In some cases, the heads were severed and placed in other parts of the settlement. Excavations found around 2000 figurines and several murals. Predominant images include men with erect phalluses, hunting scenes, red images of wild cattle, and deer, and vultures swooping down on headless figures. Female figurines have been found within bins used for storage of cereals, and have been interpreted as deities that protect the grain. Heads of animals, especially of cattle, were mounted on walls. All of these items and practices are commonly interpreted as evidence for religious belief — although we do not have certainty on this assumption.
Stonehenge is a site in South England. It is mainly known for its ring of standing stones. The stones were erected between 3100 BCE and 1600 BCE, i.e., in the Bronze Age. However, already in 8000 BCE, people erected four pine posts that were around 0.75 metres in diameter. These, as well as the stone circle, may have served ritual purposes, but we have no certainty on this. Newgrange in Ireland is a comparable site, dating to 3200 BC.
All of these might have been sites with religious purposes.

American Religions

The earliest trace of religious activity in Central America dates to the Olmec culture, which flourished between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE. The Olmecs believed in several gods, and their rulers derived their legitimacy from them.

Chichen Itza, built by the Mayas between 900 CE and 1200 CE in Mexico, was a temple to a feathered serpent god
The Maya culture flourished between 2000 BCE and 1500 CE in Central America. The Mayas had an elaborate system of beliefs, priests, rituals, sacrifices, and divination. Their calendar and the prediction of apocalypse in the year 2012 briefly made headlines in the Western world in that year. They believed in ancestors spirits, mythical heroes, goblins, dwarfs, demons, spooks, animal persons, and several gods. The Mayas built several pyramid-shaped temples, some of which survive until today (pictured). They also wrote down their beliefs in scriptures that still exist.

The Inca empire lasted from roughly 1200 CE to 1500 CE in Western South America. The Incas believed in gods that lived in 3 different realms (heaven, the surface of the Earth, and the inner Earth), with gods for the moon and the sun, weather phenomena, the sea, or wisdom. The Inca also practiced human sacrifices.

The Aztecs dominated Central America between 1300 CE and 1600 CE. They believed in several gods, and often adopted gods of other regions into their beliefs. They divided the cosmos into the upper world and the underworld, and had gods associated to each. As the previously mentioned indigenous populations, they practiced religious festivals and human sacrifices.

In North America, the indigenous tribes typically each had their own religious beliefs. The tribes believed in one or several gods, and/or in spirits. The spiritual culture included dances, rituals, and the use of herbal drugs. The traditional beliefs were usually passed down face-to-face to the next generation.

The Europeans arrived first in 1492 CE, and then in greater numbers. Finally, their culture came to dominate the local cultures. Today, all of the indigenous religions have been overridden nearly completely by Christianity.

Proto-Indo-European Religions

Migrations of the Proto-Indo-Europeans Dbachmann @ Wikipedia
The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) lived around 4000 BCE in the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. They later migrated to Europe in the West and to India in the South. This migration has been traced back through common linguistic and genetic traits. Most of what we know about their culture stems from the analysis of the descendant cultures. These are the ancient Greek culture, the ancient Roman culture (speaking Latin), the ancient Indian culture (which used Vedic Sanskrit as language), the ancient Celtic culture (in Europe), the Illyrian culture (on the Balkans), the Germanic culture, the Norse culture (in Scandinavia), the Hittites culture (in today’s Turkey), the ancient Persian culture (in today’s Iran), and the ancient Slavic cultures (in Eastern Europe). Since these descendant cultures had writing, we know their stories. We can then use this data to find commonalities between the stories, and deduce that these must have been shared by the PIEs.

Based on these commonalities, it is commonly assumed that the PIEs practiced a polytheistic religion that had moved away from local spirits, and invented universal gods. It centered most likely on sacrificial rites, probably administered by a priestly caste. Common elements of the PIE religions are:

A sky father
Zeus in Greek, Jupiter in Latin, Dyáus Pita in Sanskrit, and Dei-pátrous in Illyrian.
A goddess of the dawn
Eos in Greek, Aurora in Latin, Ushas in Vedic.
A river goddess
This goddess was called “Danu”, and she gave her name to the rivers of Dnieper, Dniester, Don, and Danube, as well as to rivers in Celtic areas.
Divine twins
Germanic and Indian cultures both believed in twin brothers as the progenitors of mankind: Manu in Indic and Mannus in Germanic, with his brother Yemo in Indic and Ymir in Germanic. Romans seemed to continue this tradition in the myth of the founding of Rome by the twin brothers Romus and Remulus. Other PIE cultures have male horse twins: Polydeukes and Kastor in Greek, Castor and Pollux in Latin, the twins of Macha in Irish, Hengist and Horsa in Old English, Lel and Polel in Slavic.
A sea god
Apam Napat in Vedic, Nechtan in Celtic, Nethuns in Etruscan, and Neptun in Latin.
Triple goddesses of fate
Norns in Norse mythology, Moirai in Greek mythology, Sudjenice of Slavic folklore, Ursitoare in the folklore of Romania, Deives Valdytojos in Lithuanian mythology, and several triple goddesses in Celtic mythology.
One common myth to almost all descendant cultures is a battle ending with the slaying of a serpent or dragon. This idea can be found in

Another common story is the kidnapping, imprisonment, or abduction into the netherworld of the sun god. This concept is mirrored in the Vedic story of Vala as well as in the Greek stories of Persephone, Dionysus and Triptolemus. The Norse, likewise, had the story of the Sun and the Moon being swallowed by the demon wolves Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, while in Hinduism, the Sun and the Moon are swallowed by the demon serpents Rahu and Ketu.

The PIE culture gave rise to a number of other cultures and belief systems, which we detail next.

Descendants of the PIE Religions

Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom

in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris/France

The Proto-Indo-Europeans emerged around 4000 BCE from a region that is today in Ukraine. Their religion gave rise to a number of related religious systems, with the most notable ones being:

These mythologies share a number of concepts. Most notably, all of these religions were polytheistic, meaning that they venerated several gods. Many of these religions have written records, so that we know well what these people believed. Most of these religions died out with the rise of Christianity and Islam between 500 CE and today. Some of them, however, gave rise to today’s Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.


Zoroastrianism is a direct descendant of the Proto-Indo-European religions. It is practiced today by about 100,000 adherents, mostly in Iran. Adherents believe in one universal, transcendent, supreme god, Ahura Mazda, or the “Wise Lord”. This belief was codified by the religious philosopher Zoroaster (aka. Zarathustra), in the 2nd millennium BCE — thousands of years before Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed set foot to this world. In addition, in a classical dualist mindset, Zoroastrianism knows Ahura Mainyu, a deity that is the evil opposing force of Ahura Mazda.

The Ancient Near East

While the Proto-Indo-Europeans started their migrations from Eurasia, the Near East saw the development of their own cultures and religions. This development falls roughly in the time between 4000 BCE and 0 CE. The region comprised the following areas and cults:
The Pyramid Texts, the possibly oldest religious text, from 2400 BCE in Egypt Chipdawes @ Wikipedia
Ancient Egypt
with the ancient Egyptian religion, the pyramids, the Sphinx, and pharaohs. This religion merged several religions, and also merged their gods. For example, the gods Ra and Amun were syncretized into a single god, Amun-Ra.
Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq)
with the Assyro-Babylonian religion, the Sumerian religion, and the Mesopotamian mythology. These religions associated gods with the Sun, Moon, and planets.
South-West Iran
with the Elam civilization.
The Levant (present-day Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria)
with the Canaanite religion and Judaism. The Canaanites worshipped the god El Elyon and his sons, the Elohim, the goddess Anat, and Hadad, the storm god.
Anatolia (present-day Turkey)
with the Hittite mythology and Hurrian mythology. These mythologies were influenced by the Proto-Indo-European religions.
Cyprus and Crete
with the Minoan religion. This religion worshipped primarily female gods.
The ancient Near Eastern societies were typically structured in city states, and each city state had a dominating regional cult for the god of that state. The states were theocracies, i.e., the deity was officially recognized as the civil ruler and official policy was governed by officials regarded as divinely guided. The religious beliefs were also frequently written down. The Pyramid Texts, for example, stem from 2400 BCE and are possibly the oldest known religious texts in the world. They accompany the grave of the pharaoh, and explain how he will rise to heaven. This includes the use of ramps, stairs, ladders, and most importantly flying.

We detail some of the beliefs of the near-eastern religions next.

Religions in the Near East

The Great Sphinx of Giza, built 2500 BCE in Egypt Barcex @ Wikipedia
A Minoan snake goddess from 1600 BCE.

in the Heraklion Museum in Crete/Greece

The Ancient Near East saw the development of several related religious systems. Since writing was invented during this period, we have a better idea of what these people believed. In general, these societies were polytheistic, i.e., they venerated several gods. One of the prevalent gods across all ancient Near-East societies was Tammuz, the Sumerian god of food and vegetation. Egypt and Greece were Henotheistic societies, meaning that they worshipped a single god but acknowledged the existence of others. All of these societies believed in the descent to the underworld after death.

Other common elements were:

for purification and cleansing.
in the form of plant and animal sacrifice, libations (pouring water), and rarely (but prominently in mythology) human sacrifice.
Sacred prostitution
the attempt to predict the future by analyzing the clouds, the body parts of an animal, the flight of birds, smoke, or dreams.
the attempt to change the fate by invocations, conjurings and Talismans.
These are elements that we observe also in today’s tribal religions. The ancient Near Eastern religions and the Indo-European religions influenced each other, and gave rise to mixed systems in Greece, Anatolia, and Persia. The Near Eastern ones also gave rise to Judaism, which would later give rise to Christianity and Islam.

The Mesopotamian religions, under influence from Zoroastrianism, gave rise to Yazdanism, the pre-islamic religion of the Kurds. The main beliefs include an absolute transcendental God, a cyclic nature of the universe, and seven benevolent divine beings that defend the world from an equal number of malign entities. Their chief is Melek Taus, the “Peacock Angel”. Yazdanism (in the form of Yazidism), is practiced by about 1m people in today’s Iraq and Kurdistan. Since many Muslims believe that the Peacock Angel is identical to the devil (an evil character in the abrahamic religions), Yazidis are heavily persecuted in some Muslim countries.

If the Roman Empire had selected Mithraism as the official state religion, rather than Christianity, you’d be a Mithraist instead of a Christian. I’d still be an atheist.

Abrahamic Religions

Abrahamic religions

The Canaaites lived in what is today Israel since 8000 BCE. They worshipped a pantheon of different gods, in the tradition of the Ancient Near East religions. The Israelites emerged as a separate culture, probably from the Canaaites, around 1000 BCE. Their culture was characterised by the lack of pork remains (whereas pork formed 20% of the Philistine diet in places), an abandonment of the Canaanite custom of having highly decorated pottery, and the practice of circumcision. By 1000 BCE, the Israelites had established a kingdom in the region, called Israel.

The religion of the Israelites, like the Canaanite faith from which it evolved and other ancient Near Eastern religions, was based on a cult of ancestors and worship of family gods. Its major deities were El, Yahweh, his consort Asherah, and Baal. The cult of Yahweh seems to have originated in a region just south of Israel, and was brought north by migrants or merchants. When the kingdom of Israel began, El and Yahweh had become fused into one god. Furthermore, Asherah did not continue as a separate state cult, leaving only Yahweh and Baal as gods. The kings promoted their family god, Yahweh, as the god of the kingdom, but beyond the royal court, religion continued to be both polytheistic and family-centered as it was also for other societies in the ancient Near East. In 722 BCE, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, and many Israelites fled to Judah, just south of Israel. In 605 BCE, Judah (with Jerusalem) was conquered by Babylonia, and many Israelites were taken captives. They concluded that Yahweh must have been angry at them because they worshipped Baal, and started worshipping Yahweh alone.

Progressive Secular Humanist
This was the hour of birth of the religion of Judaism. Judaism would later give rise to Christianity. Both would later serve as the basis for Islam. Based on these (and other religions), the Bahai Faith was born in the 19th century. Around the same time, Spiritualism saw the light of day. These religions are grouped together as the abrahamic religions, because they are all influenced by Judaism, and Judaism traces its origin to Abraham, a mythological ancestor. The abrahamic religions share the following beliefs:
  1. There is exactly one god.
  2. Abraham was a prophet of that god.

We discuss the Abrahamic God in detail in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.

By making the mistake of proclaiming a second Messiah to come, Judaism has given rise to an infinite number of people who all claim to be that Messiah.


In 605 BCE, Jerusalem was conquered by Babylonia. Many Israelites fled the region. During their time in exile, they consolidated their identity and religion. In particular, they decided to abandon the god Baal and worship the god Yahweh alone. This constitutes the beginning of the religion of Judaism, characterized by the belief in a single god and a system of ritual practices and laws. Its adherents were the Jews. In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who invited the Jews to come back to Jerusalem. Since then, the region had had a turbulent history with conquests from various sides. Today, Judaism is the oldest abrahamic religion, and counts about 14m adherents. Around 5m of them live in Israel, 5m in the United States, and the others are dispersed in the world, mainly in European countries.
Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem/Israel, where the first temple once stood
The beliefs of Judaism include:
  1. There is exactly one god.
  2. Abraham was a prophet of that god.
  3. The Torah (s.b.) is the word of this god.
  4. There is a special link between the Jewish people (the “Children of Israel”) and the god. In this sense, the god shares properties with the local spirits, in that he centers his interest on a particular part of land.
  5. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell.
Judaism comes in different interpretations, and the main differences are between conservative strains and reform/liberal strains.
The holy scripture of Judaism is the Hebrew Bible. It consists of 24 books, which include the five books of the Torah. Scholars hold that the Hebrew Bible was compiled from multiple fragments, written by different authors. The fragments were written at different points of time between the 8th century BCE and the 1st century BCE. The Hebrew Bible can be found online. It is interpreted in the Midrash, a large body of scriptures.

Another important scripture is the Talmud. It is a 6000 page tractate dating back to 500 BCE, and consists of the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Talmud can be found online.

The name “Jew” is sometimes used for three different groups of people:
Adherents of Judaism
An adherent of Judaism is a person who believes in the tenets of the Jewish religion, as outlined above.
Jewish people
The Jewish people are an ethnicity, i.e., they share genes. Many Jewish people are adherents of Judaism. However, some are atheists, and others have adopted another religion. Vice versa, under rare circumstances, a non-Jewish person may convert to Judaism.
Israelis are the citizens of the state of Israel. The majority of these are ethnic Jewish people. However, not all Israelis are Jewish people: around 20% of Israelis are Arabs. The majority of Israelis follows Judaism. However, around 20% of Israelis are Muslims. Vice versa, not every follower of Judaism is Israeli. Only around half of the world’s adherents of Judaism live in Israel.


The Nativity Church in Bethlehem/Palestine, where Jesus is assumed to be born
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish preacher who lived lived 7-2 BCE to 30-33 CE in what is now Israel. Jesus had a number of followers, but was crucified by the Romans. His ideas were picked up by Paul the Apostle, who consolidated them in numerous writings. Gradually, the new religion split from Judaism, and became Christianity — one of the big abrahamic religions. The central tenets of Christianity are the belief in a single god (the Yahweh from Judaism), in Jesus as the resurrected son of God, and in divine judgement for the life after death. In a crucial departure from Judaism, Christianity holds that God is the god of the entire human race (not just Jews), and that this insight has to be spread to other people (Y. N. Harari: “Sapiens”, p. 242). Today, Christianity has around 2.2 billion adherents, mainly in Europe, the Americas, and subsaharan Africa.

We discuss Christianity in detail in the Chapter on Christianity.

The beliefs of Christianity include:
  1. There is exactly one god
  2. Abraham was a prophet of that god.
  3. Jesus is the son of that god.
  4. The Bible (s.b.) was written by men, but inspired by the god.
  5. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell.
There are three major Christian denominations: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (which includes Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, and others). These differ mainly in small theological details. For example, Catholicism believes that the bread at mass is literally converted into the body of Christ, while Protestants believe that this happens only symbolically. Most Christian denominations believe that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit form a godhead, called the trinity. However, some variants of Christianity do not share this belief. One of the largest such groups are Jehova’s Witnesses, with 8m adherents. Another such group are the Mormons, with 15m adherents.
Christians took over the Hebrew Bible from the Jews, and added a new part, the “New Testament”. The new part consists of 27 books. These books were written by Paulus and an unknown number of other, anonymous authors. Some of the books were written during the 1st and 2nd century CE, i.e., several decades after the life of Jesus. Not all books were considered “canonical”, and there was dispute as to which books should be in the New Testament and which should not. The decision of which books should be in the New Testament was finally made at the Canon of Trent in 1546 for the Catholics, and at other councils for the other denominations of Christianity. The Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament) and the New Testament make up the Bible, the holy book of Christianity. It can be found online.

Additional Christian beliefs were written down in scriptures called “creeds”, “professions of faith”, or “catechisms”. Different such scriptures are valid for different denominations. The Nicene Creed, from 325 CE, codified beliefs in Heaven, sins, Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus as the son of God 4. The Council of Constantinople, in 360 CE, declared the trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit. A declaration from 1854 states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived without the original sin. Other beliefs were declared at other points of time and are valid for different denominations. For Catholicism, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” defines the complete belief system explicitly. It can be found online.

The Book of Mormon is the holy book of Mormonism. It was written in 1830 by the American Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that the book was based on ancient native American sources. However, the book contains a number of anachronisms (e.g., horses, which were brought to America by the Europeans), so that this hypothesis finds no acceptance outside the Latter Day Saint movement.

Over 90% of Christians admit that they have never read the Bible
...which is ironically one of the ways in which you become an atheist.


The Taj Mahal in Agra/India, a tomb built in 1632 and one of the masterpieces of Muslim art
The Prophet Mohammed lived from ca. 570 CE to 632 CE in what is today Saudi Arabia. At the age of 40, Mohammed reported divine revelations from God. He began teaching belief in a single god, called Allah (in continuation of the Jewish god Yahweh and the Christian god). These beliefs were later consolidated in a book called “the Quran”. Mohammed attracted much opposition, but also many followers, and by the time of his death, he had founded the religion of Islam. Its main beliefs are the unity of God and the prophethood of Mohammed, as well as a system of laws that regulate many aspects of daily life. Islam is an abrahamic religion. Its adherents are called Muslims. Today, there are around 1.6 billion Muslims, mainly in Northern Africa, the Near East, and central Asia.

We discuss Islam in detail in the Chapter on Islam. For security reasons, this chapter is not available here.

The beliefs of Islam include:
  1. Allah is the only god, identical to the Abrahamic God of Christianity and Judaism. However, unlike in Christianity, the god is not triune.
  2. Allah spoke to the Prophet Mohammed, and these words are recorded in the Quran.
  3. The Quran is thus the word of God.
Islam is divided into the denominations of Sunnis (90% of Muslims) and Shia, as well as some minor denominations. The distinction is made on which Hadiths (s.b.) are considered authentic. Each denomination is again divided into schools, of which there are 8 in total.
Mohammed told his revelations to is followers. After his death, the verses were collected and written down in a book called the Quran. The Quran can be found online.

The Hadiths are stories about the life of the prophet, which serve as a guide to interpret the Quran. The Hadiths were first transmitted orally, and then written down in the centuries after Mohammed’s death. Since the Hadiths were not standardized, they grew steadily and became contradictory. Today, there are several books of Hadiths, some of which are regarded as more authoritative than others, depending on the denomination of Islam.

Bahai Faith

The Bahai Gardens in Haifa/Israel, where the Bab is buried
In the 19th century, Siyyid Alí-Mohammed was a preacher in Persia. He called himself “the Bab”. The Bab taught belief in a single God, initially in continuation of Islam. He was executed in 1850, but said to miraculously survive the firing squad. He was executed again, and killed. His teachings were continued by Mírzá Husayn Alí Núrí, called Bahá’u’lláh, and consolidated into the Bahai Faith. The religion is considered an abrahamic religion. Today, it has around 5m adherents, spread all over the world.
The beliefs of the Bahai Faith include:
  1. the unity of God (that there is only one God who is the source of all creation).
  2. the unity of religion (that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same God).
  3. the unity of humanity (that all humans have been created equal, and that diversity of race and culture are seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance).
Since the Bahai Faith is a rather young religion, there are no discernible variants of the religion.
The sacred texts of the Bahai Religion are the writings of their prophets and their institutions. The most important work is the “Book of Certitude”, which was written by Baha’u’llah in 1861. The book can be found online. For interpreting this book, the Bahai Religion has established the “Universal House of Justice” with elected members. Its decisions can be found online.


Spiritualism takes inspiration from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and the teachings of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), who developed methods to contact the spirits of the dead. In 1848, Kate and Margaret Fox (aged 12 and 15 at that time) reported to have contacted the spirits. In the sequel, other people also reported such encounters, and the movement gained followers. Kate and Margaret Fox later admitted that their contacting the spirits was a hoax, but the movement continued unabated. In addition to the spirits of the dead, Spiritualism believes in a single god (in most cases the Abrahamic one). This makes it an abrahamic religion for the purposes of this book. Today, the number of adherents of different variants of Spiritualism is estimated in the millions, with 20 million being a possible number 5.
The beliefs of Spiritualism include:
  1. The soul continues to exist after death as a spirit.
  2. It is possible to communicate with these spirits.
  3. There is a god, often referred to as “infinite intelligence”.

Since Spiritualism rose in the century after the Enlightenment, the prevalent variants of this religion defend the equality of genders, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of cruel punishments, freedom of thought, and the abolition of the death penalty.

Spiritism is particularly prevalent in Brazil.
Spiritualism is not globally organized. Adherents practice various blends of Spiritualism with other religions, most notably Christianity. One of the more codified versions of Spiritualism is Spiritism. It was founded in 1857 by Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, under the codename “Allan Kardec”. It adds, to the beliefs above, the idea of reincarnation, the identification of the god with the Abrahamic God Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book / § 625 & § 38, and the existence of extraterrestrials (ibid / § 55).
There are a number of books written by different Spritualists, which adherents may take as guidance. For Spiritism, the quintessential books are the ones by Allan Kardec. They are available online. Of these, the “Spirits’ Book” is the most fundamental one. It is a collection of several hundred questions, which Kardec submitted to several people who could purportedly communicate with the spirits, and for which he collected, consolidated, and interpreted the answers. Other works are those of Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier, who reportedly wrote over 400 books by help of the spirits.

Indian Religions

Indian Religions

The Indus Valley in North-West India was the center of the civilization of the Harappan people, from 3300 to 1300 BCE. Excavations have given indications that these people may have worshipped a mother goddess, and may have had nude male deities and sacrifice rituals. Some of the god figurines are sitting in Yoga posture. Cultural influences came from the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the Dravidians. The Dravidians worshipped village deities, anthills, snakes and other forms of guardian deities, and had female priestesses. This tradition of worship continues until today in some places in the South-East of India, Northern India, and Sri Lanka.

This background gave rise to three different religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Later, Sikhism would join them. These religions are grouped together as the Indian Religions. They share the belief in a supra-system that takes care of the following:

  1. Samsara, the repeating cycle of birth, life and death. The human soul is reborn (reincarnated) after death as a new being. Man’s goal is to break this cycle of reincarnation and to achieve a state called Nirvana.
  2. the principle of Karma, i.e., the idea that good deeds entail future happiness, and bad deeds entail future suffering.
On the background of this supra-systems, gods may or may not be worshipped. Sikhism has one god. Hinduism encompasses a variety of beliefs that can include no god, one god, or several gods. Buddhism may or may not worship gods, depending on the denomination. Jainism does not have gods.
There is a timeless, non-located realm of pure Being containing no self and no others — only unconditional fulfillment, contentment, intimacy and peace. It is completely still there, unfathomably deep and silent, eternal, immaculate, undisturbed. Only love survives there — nothing else.
an anonymous description of Brahman


A Hindu ritual at the Ganges river in Varanasi/India
The documented history of Hinduism begins with the writing of the Vedas, four canonical collections of hymns composed in archaic Sanskrit. These hymns were composed over hundreds of years between 1750 and 500 BCE (the Vedic Period) by rishis (inspired poets) and the Brahmin (priests). The central concepts of these scriptures are the Satya (which can be interpreted as the “absolute truth” or “reality”) and the Rta (the principle of natural order). From around 850 BCE, this religion evolved into the earliest variants of today’s Hinduism. Many social groups brought their local beliefs in line with the Vedic beliefs by identifying their local gods with the Vedic gods — a process called Sanskritization. Today’s Hinduism comes with a system of gods (or manifestations of gods or god), spiritual beliefs, laws and prescriptions of daily morality, societal norms, and rituals, but shows a large diversity in beliefs and practices. With 1 billion followers, Hinduism is the dominant Indian religion, and the third largest religion in the world.
The beliefs of Hinduism include
  1. the existence of Samsara, a supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death.
  2. the principle of Karma, i.e., the idea that good deeds entail future happiness.
  3. the principle of dharma, which can be understood as the importance of righteousness.
  4. the principle of maya, the insight that humans are often misled by illusions and misconceptions.
  5. the concept of Brahman, the highest Universal, the Ultimate Reality in the universe.
There exists a plethora of different interpretations of Hinduism. Some of these interpretations revere several deities. These can act independently, have different genders, have different roles, have divine children, have different names, and are called on different occasions.

Some of Hinduism’s interpretations assert that these deities are gods in their own right. Other interpretations assert that these deities are just different aspects of one Supreme Being, “like a single beam of light separated into colors by a prism”. This supreme being is thus a godhead of the different deities.

Again other interpretations of Hinduism do not worship different deities at all, but only one god. Again other interpretations assert that there is no god at all. They are sometimes called atheist. However, since these interpretations still believe in the supra-system that ensures Samsara and Karma. Hence, these belief systems are not atheist in the sense of this book.

Hinduism uses several sacred texts, the oldest of which are the Veda scriptures. These were probably compiled from oral traditions by priests and poets between 1750 and 500 BCE. They include the Vedas and the Upanishads, and, by some accounts, the Bhagavad Gita and Agamas (ibid). These texts can be found online. The Bhagavad Gita are part of the Mahabharata, a larger work that is attributed to Vyasa, a mythical sage. The Laws of Manu are said to come directly from the first human being, Manu. They can be found online. It is disputed to what degree the Laws on Manu reflect the “true Hinduism”. However, we find that de facto, these laws often correspond to popular opinion. We will thus refer to these laws in this book as part of Hinduism.
We’re Hindus. Your theological and philosophical distinctiveness will be added to our own. Your god will be added to our pantheon. Resistance is futile.
Jayesh Lalwani on


The tree under which the Buddha reportedly found enlightenment

in Bodhgaya/India

In around 500 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama (aka. the Buddha) began teaching his philosophy in India, on a generally Hindu background. The Buddha is believed to have achieved enlightenment (i.e., liberation from the cycle of rebirth). His followers believe that they can achieve enlightenment, too. Buddhism is an Indian religion. Today, it has around 500m adherents, mainly in Mongolia, China, and South-East Asia.
The beliefs of Buddhism include
  1. the existence of Samsara, the supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death.
  2. the principle of Karma, i.e., the idea that good deeds entail future happiness.
  3. the principle of dharma, which can be understood as the importance of righteousness.
  4. the principle of maya, the insight that humans are often misled by illusions and misconceptions.
  5. the Four Noble Truths (a theory concerning the concept of rebirth).
  6. the Eightfold Path (a moral framework for righteousness).
  7. the belief that Buddha has achieved enlightenment (i.e., liberation from the cycle of rebirth).
The Heavenly Kings are revered as gods in variants of Buddhism

in the Longhua Temple in Shanghai/China

Gods play a smaller role in Buddhism, since they are in any case subject to the above supra-system. Some variants of Buddhism know no gods at all. Others do, for example the Four Heavenly Kings.
There are two main schools of thought in Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, and relatively conservative. The Mahayana school is more liberal. It uses an additional set of scripture, the Mahayana sutras, which stem from early Buddhism after Buddha’s time.
Buddhism spans a wide variety of sacred texts, which were written in different languages at different points of time, and which have different importances for different denominations of Buddhism. The authoritative texts are generally assumed to the be teachings of Buddha. The teachings have been transmitted orally and in written form, and have been compiled to canons in the years after Buddha’s death. The oldest of these is the Pali Canon. Some of its books are available in English online. For a newer reference, one can look to the Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. His teachings are online.
Many flavors of Buddhism do not have gods. Therefore, many people think that Buddhism is not a religion. In the words of a Buddhist taxi driver I met in Perth,
Buddhism is not a religion. It is a system of ethics. It forbids, for example, to kill, to steal, and to lie. It also comprises the idea of karma: if someone does something bad, then this will entail some dire consequences later. In other words: what goes round comes round.
The idea that what goes round comes round is not a supernatural claim: it is falsifiable. It also happens to be false, but this is irrelevant here.

Beyond that, Buddhists usually also incorporate the idea of samsara, the repeating cycle of birth, life and death (reincarnation), and/or Nirvana into their faith. This is mostly done so that the idea of Karma can be upheld even if it does not work in this life (it will work in the next). Samsara and Nirvana are supra-systems, and thus supernatural elements. Thus, as soon as these elements are added (as they usually are), Buddhism is a religion. If they are not, Buddhism is just a moral framework combined with the theory that bad deeds make you pay.


Jainism developed in India somewhere between 700 and 500 BCE, in rejection of the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. It is a religion that emphasizes non-violence, self-control, multiplicity of viewpoints, and righteousness, and does not have gods in the Western sense. Vardhamana Mahavira was one of the earliest teachers of Jainism. Today, Jainism has around 6m adherents, of which 4m live in India. It is an Indian religion.
The beliefs of Jainism include
  1. the existence of Samsara, the supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death.
  2. the principle of Karma, i.e., the idea that good deeds entail future happiness.
  3. Tattva, a metaphysical belief system concerning the human soul.
  4. the theory that the universe was never created, nor does it cease to exist. It was just always there, and will always be.
  5. the instruction to control harmful states of mind such as desire, anger, pride, greed, etc.
  6. non-violence, asceticism, and self-control, which lead to the liberation of the soul.
  7. non-absolutism, i.e., the instruction to recognize and consider all possible points of view.
  8. a moral framework that comprises non-violence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, and non-attachment.
Jainism has no creator god, but believes that the human souls can become spirits.
Jainism is divided into two major denominations, Digambara and Svetambara. They differ in their monastery traditions, and in the beliefs about the mother of Mahavira.
The teachings of Mahavira were originally passed on orally. Between the 6th and 3rd century BCE, the teachings were canonicalized as the Jain Agamas, which comprise 14 books.


Guru Nanak Dev lived 1469-1539 CE in India. He was born to a Hindu family, but knew about Islam, which had arrived in India at the time. He concluded that “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”, and started teaching his vision of God. These teachings gave rise to Sikhism, the latest of the large Indian religions. Nanak Dev was followed by 10 other gurus. The central principle of their teaching is the oneness of God. Today, there are around 25m Sikhs, with most of them living in Punjab in Northern India.
The beliefs of Sikhism include
  1. Samsara is the repeating cycle of birth, life and death.
  2. Good deeds entail future happiness (Karma).
  3. There is only one god, God.
  4. God created the universe.
  5. Maya, i.e., temporal illusion, is the main hindrance on the way to God.
  6. Egoism is harmful, and can be overcome by serving humanity (e.g., through charity).
  7. Cutting hair, intoxination, superstition, material obsession, sacrifice of creatures, non-family-oriented living, bragging, priests, and extramartial relations are all prohibited.
Despite Sikhism’s objection to castes, the Sikh people are separated into castes.
The main scripture of Sikhism is the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a book written by the Guru Arjan in 1604, and can be found online. There are some other scriptures, but these are not universally acknowledged among Sikhs.

East Asian Religions

Chinese Religions

The earliest traces of religion in China go back to Fu Xi, a mythic Chinese hero. Together with his sister Nü Wa, he is credited with the creation of humanity and the invention of hunting, fishing, cooking, and writing. The earliest religious texts date from around 2700 BCE.

These beginnings evolved into a large variety of so-called Chinese folk religions. This is a group of religions that are characterized by the worship of “shen”. The shen are spirits and sometimes deities in the sense of this book, and they can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors, and deities of the kinship.

This temple in Hangzhou/China reveres Laozi, Buddha, and Confucius together (figures left to right; click to enlarge)

On this background, two more specific belief systems emerged between 700 BCE and 500 BCE: Taoism and Confucianism. These often blend with Buddhism, and the founders of these three religions are sometimes revered all together in the same temple (pictured on the right). Hence, it is difficult to establish how many adherents Confucianism or Taoism have, or whether they can be classified as separate religions at all. Since most adherents acknowledge the existence of deities, they are often grouped together with the general background of Chinese folk religion, with around 400m adherents in total.


The symbol of Taoism is the Ying and Yang.

in a Taoist temple in Hangzhou/China

Taoism is said to have originated with the Yellow Emperor, a legendary Chinese sovereign whose reign is dated to the 3rd millenium BC. The concepts of Taoism were then formalized by Laozi, a (possibly mythical) Chinese philosopher and poet, who is dated to around 600 BCE. His writings, the Tao Te Ching, emphasize action through non-action, naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity, and the “Three Treasures” compassion, moderation, and humility.

The central concept of Taoism is Tao, which is often translated as “the way”, and is understood as the underlying natural order of the universe — a supra-system in the terminology of this book. Taoists aim to “become one with the Tao”, and this path often leads through meditation. Taoism acknowledges the existence of deities, as well as of the spirits of the dead. Maybe its most known symbol is the Ying and Yang. The religion is often practiced on top of the Chinese folk religions.

The beliefs of Taoism include:
  1. There are several deities.
  2. The universe is dominated by two opposing forces, the Ying and the Yang.
  3. There is an underlying order of the universe, called “Tao”.
  4. Adherents shall aim to become one with the Tao, which means liberating oneself from selfishness and desire.
  5. Adherents shall strive towards the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, humility.
  6. Humans are reborn in a cycle of life and death. That said, Taoism concentrates on the current life, and is less interested in what happens after death 6.
Variants of Taoism believe that the human spirit lives on in another parallel world, and adherents burn paper models of cars, money, or other items to sustain the spirits of the deceased in that other world.
Taoism blends with the background of Chinese religions. It is also sometimes practiced together with Buddhism and/or Confucianism.
Taoism is based on the Tao Te Ching — a book that is dated to the late 4th century BCE, and that is traditionally attributed to Laozi. The Tao Te Ching, as well as other holy writings, such as the The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts, can be found online.


Confucius, in a temple in Shanghai/China
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived 551-479 BCE. He developed a new philosophy (later to be known as Confucianism), based on Buddhism and Taoism. Confucianism teaches proper respect for the gods, continuous self-improvement, righteousness, humaneness, and the upholding of social norms. Confucianism is often practiced on top of the Chinese folk religions.
The beliefs of Confucianism are:
  1. Heaven (“Tian”) is a supra-system that represents the general order of the universe.
  2. The goal of adherents is to become one with the Tian through the contemplation of its order.
  3. The Five Constants, towards which adherents shall strive, are humanness, justice, proper rite, knowledge and integrity.
  4. The four virtues that adherents shall achieve are loyalty, filial piety, contingency, and righteousness.
  5. Confucianism also emphasizes critical analysis (Analects / 9:8, 7:28), learning (Analects / 8:13, 7:22, 2:15), and the ability to admit what one does not know (Analects / 2:17).
Confucianism is focused on leading a good earthly life, and is not much concerned with supernatural entities or the afterlife. While Confucius did not deny the existence of spirits, he refused to say much about them (Analects / 7:21, 17:17). He also refused to talk about what happens after death, asking: “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?” (Analects / 11:12).
Confucianism is practiced often in conjunction with different Chinese religions, Taoism, or Buddhism. The religions blend into each other, so that it is difficult to distinguish the belief systems, or to partition the adherents. Some people also practice just the moral framework of Confucianism, without its gods.
Confucianism is based on the “Analects of Confucius”, a collection of sayings and ideas that were supposedly written down by Confucius’ followers. The Analects probably stem from around 475 BCE-221 BCE. The text can be found online. The Analects form part of the “Four Books and Five Classics”, a larger collection of texts that were ascribed to Confucius. Contemporary edicts come, e.g., from the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia, one of the two branches that formed after the dissolution of mainland China’s Confucian Church.
Some people practice just the moral component of Confucianism. If someone understands Confucianism as a purely inter-human ethical framework, then their interpretation of Confucianism is a moral framework in the sense of this book, and not a religion.

This made Catholics wonder whether Confucianism (as a secular ethical system) was compatible with Christianity. Pope Benedict XIV said that no, but Pope Pius XII released, on December 8, 1939, a new decree, known as Plane Compertum, which declared Confucianism compatible with Catholicism.

Usually, however, Confucianism is not combined with Christianity, but with Chinese folk religion. As for Confucius himself, he encouraged people to worship the spirits (Confucius: Analects / 6:22, 3:12, 3:13), and talks of punishment from heaven (ibid / 6:28). These statements are supernatural, and this variant of Confucianism is thus a religion in the sense of this book.


Shintoism emerged roughly 600 BCE from local mythical beliefs in Japan. Shintoism worships a variety of gods, the “kami”, mostly in public shrines. The word “kami” can also refers to divinity in general, which manifests itself in rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places, or even people. The religion also incorporates a belief in the mythical creation of Japan, in which a male and a female goddess were asked by the other gods to create a new land, which would then become Japan. Shintoism is focused on rites, and imports values from Confucianism and Buddhism Religious Tolerance: Shinto. Today, the religion has around 100m adherents, mainly in Japan.
The beliefs of Shintoism include:
  1. There are several gods, the “kami”.
  2. The gods reside in all things, but humans can interface with them at special places. These are shrines, but also particular mountains, rivers, or other natural formations.
  3. A male and a female goddess were asked by the other gods to create a new land, which would then become Japan.
  4. After death, the human soul goes to a place called yomi.
Shintoism exists in several variants, of which Shrine Shinto is the most prevalent one. Folk Shinto is another variant, which knows gods and spirits, divination, and shamanic healing. Sect Shintos are variants of Shintoism that have their own founder and traditions within Shintoism. There is also a variant of Shintoism that is practiced exclusively by the imperial family of Japan.
The rituals and beliefs of Shintoism were first codified in the 8th century CE in a collection called Kojiki. It is accompanied by a slightly newer work, the Nihon Shoki. These books describe the history of Japan, mixed with mythological content. They can be found online.

Recent Religions

New Religious Movements

New Religious Movements are all those religious movements that are not yet old and large enough to be called a religion. Contemporary new religious movements often re-use elements of existing religions, focus on the self, work towards converting others to their faith, and sometimes exist in a state of tension with the mainstream society. Currently, the main avenues of such movements are:
UFO religions
These believe in extraterrestrials. Typically, adherents believe that the extraterrestrials are interested in the well-being of humanity. The most populous UFO religion is Scientology, with around 1m adherents, followed by Raëlism with 100,000 adherents.
Neopagan religions
These religions claim to derive from pre-Christian (“pagan”) beliefs in Europe. Common features of such religions are polytheism (reverence for several gods), animism (belief in spirits in physical objects), and pantheism (the belief that the universe is identical with divinity). One of the largest such groups are the Wicca, with around 1m adherents.
Syncretic religions
These are religions that blend one or several existing religions into a new religion. In the context of the New Religious Movements, this concerns mostly combinations of Christianity with tribal religions, or Eastern Asian religions with Western interpretations.
Rejection of Religion
Quite a number of modern belief systems reject religion as dogmatic. Spirituality seeks a personal interaction with God without religion. Deism posits that God created the universe, but then retired. Metaphysical philosophies hold that “God” is just a different name for a metaphysical phenomenon, such as the first cause of the universe.
There are thousands of such belief systems worldwide, with a combined number of adherents in the millions.


In the early 20th century, the so-called witch-cult hypothesis gained popularity in England. It says that the witches who were persecuted in Europe in medieval times were in fact women who practiced pre-Christian pagan traditions. In the 1920’s, the English Egyptologist Margaret Murray was one of the most prominent advocates of that theory. The theory is nowadays considered wrong, but it gave rise to a small movement of people who wanted to revive these pagan traditions. These people understood the word “witchcraft” not as the power to do miracles, let alone as something connected to the devil, but as ancient pagan wisdom about nature and man’s connection to nature. In the 1940’s, the English anthropologist Gerald Gardener claimed to have met practicing witches, and he began initiating others. In 1951, the Witchcraft act was repealed in England, and Gardener and others started publishing books on their ideas — the new religious movement of the Wicca was born. The movement generally emphasizes the link between nature and humans. Today, the Wicca have around 1m adherents, mainly in the UK, Australia, and the US.
“Do you want to be a witch?” — a popularized introduction to the Wicca faith.
The beliefs of the Wicca Faith include:
  1. There is a male god and a female goddess
  2. After death, the human soul goes to a place called Summerland, before being reincarnated on Earth.
  3. Ancient witchcraft was not something bad, but a sign of a closer relationship with nature.
  4. Nature can be controlled through magic, i.e., through willpower.
  5. The Wicca moral framework is liberal, saying “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: an it harm none, do what ye will”.
The Wicca Faith is a rather individualist religious movement, and hence it exists in many variants. Some variants acknowledge the existence of more deities than the two gods, others see the main gods as godheads of the other deities, and again others postulate the existence of one godhead that incorporates all other deities, including the two main ones.
Wicca has no central scripture. It is based on the writings of Gerald Gardener and other 20th century writers, who sought to re-discover and re-establish the ancient European pagan rites. The most influential book was probably Gardener’s 1954 book “Witchcraft Today”, followed by his 1959 work “The Meaning of Witchcraft”.
The word “witchcraft” evokes very negative connotations, against which the Wicca community has to constantly defend itself. In the words of a Wiccan: “We don’t do anything sinister like Devil worship and we don’t make human or animal sacrifices. We honour, revere and give thanks to nature. We celebrate the seasons. It’s not all blood and gore. In spring, we celebrate life and rebirth then in the winter, decay and death to make way for new life.” 7. Thus, the choice of the word “witchcraft” was quite possibly suboptimal. It could have been easier to choose some word with positive connotations, such as “nature lovers”, or “nature seekers”.


One of the first churches of Scientology, in New York/US
In 1950, the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbart became interested in mental health. He wrote a book called “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”, and founded the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation. He was subsequently convicted of teaching medicine without a license, and the foundation went bankrupt. In 1952, Hubbart reframed his ideas as a religion, writing the book “Scientology, a religious philosophy”. Today, Scientology is a new religious movement with around 1m adherents (mainly in the US).
The beliefs of Scientology include:
  1. An intergalactic ruler called Xenu brought people to Earth around 75 million years ago.
  2. Humans have souls that can be reincarnated.
  3. The human mind stores subconscious harmful thoughts, the “engrams”. Scientology aims to eliminate these.
  4. Auditing is a practice that helps people become aware of their potential and libertate themselves from engrams.
  5. The Thetan is the true identity of the person, intrinsically good and powerful.
There is no god in Scientology.
Since Scientology is controlled by a central organization, and since deviation is shunned, there are no variants of this new religious movement.
One of the main scriptures of Scientology is the book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”, written in 1950 by L. Ron Hubbart. He followed up in 1952 with “Scientology, a religious philosophy”, which formalized the teachings of Scientology. Other teachings and practices of Scientology are secret, and the organization uses law suits against people who make them public. I could not find either of the books online.
Scientology is a new religious movement on the verge of becoming a religion. It does not have the legal status of a religion in many countries, because there is resentment against the movement. The following reasons are brought forward:
  1. The system encourages adherents to break contact with their family and friends unless these are also members of the system.
  2. The system aims to convert mankind to this belief system, and all means seem welcome to that end.
  3. The Church of the system makes a huge amount of money from its adherents.
  4. The system traps its adherents and punishes those who wish to escape it.
These tenets are incompatible with the Humanist value of Freedom of Religion. As a Humanist, one can thus only warn against such a system. There are other reasons to be careful with Scientology, which we discuss later in this book.

That said, the above tenets are not only the beliefs of Scientology. They are also the tenets of historical and contemporary variants of Christianity or its scripture:

  1. The system encourages adherents to break contact with their family and friends unless these are also members of the system: Jesus tells us to follow him and to leave our family behind (Bible / Lukas 14:26). In Christianity, this tenet is less visible, because most Christians are born to Christian parents. But that does not change the tenet. Indeed, in some denominations, people leaving Christianity face severe social pressure.
  2. The system aims to convert mankind to this belief system, and all means seem welcome to that end: Jesus says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” [Bible / Matthew 28:18-20]. Interestingly, the agreement of the recipient of this baptism is not mentioned. Throughout the centuries, and still today, this commandment has fueled Christian missionary activities, both peaceful and violent.
  3. The Church of the system makes a huge amount of money from its adherents: The Catholic Church is one of the richest non-governmental organizations on Earth, as we discuss in the Chapter on the Founding of Religion. Protestant televangelists make millions of dollars from televised masses and supposed healings.
  4. The system traps its adherents and punishes those who wish to escape it: Christianity historically punished apostasy by death, as requested in the Old Testament (Bible / Deuteronomy 13:6-10) and re-affirmed in the New Testament (Bible / Romans 1:25-32). Throughout the centuries, thousands of people have been executed for heresy. The Catholic Church abolished the penalty for heresy only in 1965.
Thus, the reproaches towards Scientology are no different from the reproaches that one can make towards historical and contemporary variants of Christianity. I have come to this conclusion after discussing with a Scientologist: The coercion in Scientology and Christianity is maybe different in degree, and Christianity has lost much of its coercive force through the secularisation, but the two are not different on principle in this respect. Other religions also use techniques of coercion: Islam also wants to convert mankind to their system. The scriptures of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism all discriminate against apostates and critics. Some interpretations of Islam even put apostates to death, and this is actually the law in a number of countries. These variants of Islam are arguably more brutal than Scientology. Thus, while Scientology does have dangerous aspects, it is not the only religion that deserves criticism in Humanist eyes.


There is no precise definition of the term “spirituality”. In this book, we mean by “spiritual belief system” a belief system that emphasize personal and individual experiences with the supernatural. This is not to be confused with Spiritualism, which aims to contact the spirits of the dead. Spiritual belief systems became popular in the 20th century in the Western world, quite possibly as a consequence of the loss of authority of the Christian Churches.
Spiritual believers often assert that they have no specific beliefs. However, if one asks them what distinguishes them from atheists, then beliefs about the supernatural will come to light. Typical beliefs are (from Wikipedia/Spirituality and linked articles):
There is no official scripture of spirituality. Individual groups, or individual adherents, may or may not use scriptures. Some adherents may draw inspiration from spiritual life advice books. These typically date from the 20th or 21st century.
There are different types of Spirituality. Some people use the term “spiritual” simply equivalently with “religious” — possibly because the term “religious” has negative connotations, while the term “spiritual” does not. Often, these people are Christians. In these cases, “spiritual” is just a synonym for “Christian”.

Quite often, the people who say they are “spiritual” are in fact practitioners of what this book calls “Christianity light”: they believe in the abrahamic god, are culturally influenced by Christianity, and appreciate (but do not necessarily venerate) Jesus. For example, such people will say they are not strictly Christian, but they still believe in the loving, omnipotent deity who kick‐started the universe — possibly because they have been brought up in a Christian environment and thus cannot imagine any other god. Thus, the boundary between this type of Spirituality and Christianity light is fuzzy.

Again other people are spiritual with only weak links to Christianity or none at all. They may take inspiration from the East Asian Religions, from the Indian Religions, or from meditation practices.

What is common to all flavors of Spirituality is the idea of personal and individual experiences with the supernatural. Furthermore, Spirituality distinguishes itself explicitly from religion. While religion is portrayed as dogmatic, organized, historically burdened, precisely defined, morally restrictive, and with a claim to universality, spirituality is portrayed as a purely personal relationship with God or the supernatural. For the purposes of this book, both religions and Spirituality are belief systems.


Thomas Paine was a Deist.

in the Montsouris Park/Paris

Deism is a philosophy that originated in the 17th century in Europe. Deists rejected Christian dogmata, and kept only the idea of an impersonal god. Deism rejects revelation as a source of religious knowledge and asserts that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe. Deism florished during the Age of the Enlightenment. It also gave rise to atheism . Today, many people believe in the existence of God without the attributes that the abrahamic religions ascribe to him. These people are technically Deists according to the definition of the word.
Deism is a belief system that includes the following tenets:
There are no official scriptures of Deism. Deists may take inspiration from philosophers such as Thomas Paine or David Hume. One of the quintessential works in the history of modern Deism is “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine. Some of the founding fathers of the United States were also close to Deism: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison.
Deism believes in a single god (as opposed to several gods or no god). It sees God as the origin of the universe. Thus, Deism posits a one-time interaction of the god with the physical universe, and assumes that the world has a beginning. This idea was inherited from the abrahamic religions, as the Indian religions make no such claim (and neither does science).

Some modern variants of Deism hold that people can have a personal relationship with god. These viewpoints are different from classical Deism, where God does not interact with this world. For the purpose of this book, such viewpoints will be categorized as Spirituality and not as Deism. Other variants of Deism are very close to Christian ideas. They hold that God is a loving entity who takes interest in the well-being of humanity. These variants of Deism are closer to what this book calls “Christianity Light”. Again other variants of Deism hold that God is not a conscious being, but a name for a metaphysical phenomenon. We categorize these beliefs not as Deism, but as metaphysical philosophies (see below).

Historically, most deists saw religions as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They believed that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general. Historically speaking, there is no evidence for this hypothesis. From what we can tell, religious rites have been popular in all major cultures throughout all of traceable history. Even today’s pre-scientific cultures, which have not yet been “spoiled” by the major religions, do not know the deist god. They rather believe in spirits of nature. Australian Aborigines, too, have animist beliefs, not deist beliefs. They have most likely held these beliefs for tens of thousands of years. Thus, all data points we have are about animist, ritual, spiritist, and religious traditions, not deist ones. The idea of a single god who created the universe and then retired became popular only in the 17th century in Europe. Based on the data points we have, Deism is a consequence of the abrahamic religions, not a precursor to them.

Deism explicitly rejects the concept of religion as dogmatic and preachy. In any case, Deism does not have enough adherents to qualify as a religion. Thus, for the purposes of this book, both religions and Deism are belief systems: They are sets of tenets about the supernatural.

Metaphysical Philosophies

Some Greek philosophers had very abstract concepts of God, the universe, and metaphysics. Heraclitus, e.g., conceived of a “logos”, a supreme rational principle. In modern times, likewise, some people hold very abstract ideas of God. These ideas often evolved with inspiration from, but explicit rejection of, the abrahamic religions. In this book, we group these philosophies together as “Metaphysical Philosophies”.
Metaphysical Philosophies (in the sense of this book) are belief systems that say that “God” is just a different name for a metaphysical phenomenon. This phenomenon can be one or several of the following:

The god of metaphysical philosophies is thus an abstraction in the sense of this book. Metaphysical philosophies do not believe in gods in the usual sense.

Different metaphysical philosophies are inspired by different thinkers. The works of Deism may be relevant.
In this book, we use the term “metaphysical philosophies” to group together a set of world views that hold that “God” is a name for a metaphysical phenomenon. These philosophies do not believe in a personal god as a conscious entity. This distinguishes them from Deism. They also do not believe in interactions with the supernatural. This distinguishes them from Spiritualism.

Metaphysical philosophies do not have enough adherents to be called a religion. They are also quite diverse. The only thing they share is that they posit some unfalsifiable statement about the universe. This can be:

These claims are non-falsifiable and escape science on principle. They are thus supernatural claims. This makes the metaphysical philosophies belief systems in the sense of this book — albeit very reduced belief systems. The supernatural element of metaphysical philosophies entails that adherents of such philosophies will hesitate to call themselves atheists.

These supernatural elements distinguish metaphysical philosophies from mere re-definitions of words. For example, some people hold that the word “God” is just a different word for the concept of “love”. Love is nothing supernatural. The same goes for the identification of the word “God” with “the universe” — as in some interpretations of Pantheism. The universe is nothing supernatural. Thus, the identification of “God” with “love” or “the universe” is just a play on words. Metaphysical philosophies, in contrast, make an additional metaphysical claim. This makes them belief systems in the sense of this book.

We discuss an atheist view such philosophies in the Chapter on the God of Gaps, the Chapter on Proofs for Gods, and the Chapter on Truth.

Tribal Religions

Tribal Religions

Tribal religions are religions that are usually bound to a particular ethnicity, not codified in scriptures, not institutionalized, and smaller in scale. Furthermore, such religions usually lack boundaries between the sacred and secular aspects of life 8. These religions include thousands of distinct religious traditions [ibid] of peoples who are pre-literate or less advanced technologically than Western cultures [ibid]. They are usually called “indigenous”, “tribal”, or “ethnic” religions — even if Hinduism, Shintoism, and Judaism are also mainly bound to a particular ethnicity.

The Inuksuk is a symbol from the indigenous Canadian Inuit population with possibly spiritual meaning

in Canada

Tribal religions can be found in all parts of the world, most notably in Africa, Asia, and the Arctic Circle. In some cases, the original beliefs have been submerged by the dominant organized religion. However, in many other cases, the traditional beliefs continue in defiance of (or in combination with) the organized religions. Together, the adherents of the tribal religions number in the millions.

Some beliefs of such religions are:

Ancestor veneration
a belief in the continued existence of the dead. People ask the dead to intercede on behalf of the living, or perform rituals to care for their continued well-being in the afterlife.
non-scientific procedures to ward off evil. Some cultures practice rituals or dances that are believed to have a magic effect, or use traditional medicine.
A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.
the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.


Where is God?

In this chapter, we have discussed the history of religions from the early hours of mankind on. In this discussion, we have never made reference to the intervention of God. Where is the abrahamic god?

Humanity came into existence roughly 200,000 years ago. During most of this time, we see no traces of religion. The first traces of religion appear roughly 30,000 years ago. Still then, there are no traces of the abrahamic god. There were no churches, and no crosses. In the writings of the time, we find no references to God. The Bible did not yet exist, and neither did the Talmud or the Quran. People mostly worshipped a female deity. Most societies were polytheistic. People simply did not know about the abrahamic god.

The first appearance of God is around 3000 years ago in the Middle East. At that time, the god that would become the abrahamic god was known as Yahweh. He was worshipped along with the gods El, Asherah, and Baal. Yahweh and Asherah were a couple. Later, the belief in the other gods was abandoned, and what remained was belief in Yahweh: Judaism was born. 1000 years later, Christianity came into existence, and the New Testament was written. 600 years later, Islam arrived, and the Quran was written. At that time, all of today’s major abrahamic traditions were in place.

Thus, God appeared around 3000 years ago — in other words, in the last 0,00002% of the time of the existence of the universe, in the last 0,000007% of the time of the existence of Earth, in the last 1,5% of the existence of humanity, and in the last 10% of human religious activity. He is a rather young god.

Not all religions are the same!

This book presents several dozen religions. All of them are presented in the same fashion — mainly from a historical point of view. This may seem unjust to a believer, for whom one particular religion stands out — their own.

The problem is that this applies to every religion. Every adherent believes that their own religion stands out. The other religions are usually either unknown, or assumed to be somehow equivalent to one’s own religion. Therefore, this book cannot favor one religion over the others.

The same is true for the atheist point of view in general. For the atheist, all beliefs are equally mythological. They are all just stories that people made up over time.

The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Founding of Religions


  1. British Archeology Magazine / August 2002 / Issue 66
  2. Red Ochre Experiment
  3. Robert Dixon: The Dyirbal language of North Queensland, 1972
  4. Nicene Creed
  6. Sarah Kessler: “What Does Taoism Teach About Life After Death?”, 2020-10-04
  7. BBC: Secret life of modern-day witches, 2012-08-20