CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

History of Religion

Earliest Religions

It is difficult to determine when religions started in the history of humankind. 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 left in the picture).

in the Sahara in Morocco

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

A human buried with red ochre (about 4500 BC, from Menneville/France) CC0 Vassil
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.

Australian Aboriginal Myths

Around 50,000 years ago, the first humans arrived in Australia. They 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
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia was once a coastline.
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.

Grave goods

In Eurasia, we find another development around 27,000 years ago: There are traces of 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.

In Sunghir, Russia, e.g., some burial sites contain 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 Venus of Willendorf/Austria (30,000 years old)

in the Natural History Museum in Vienna/Austria

The Roman Goddess Venus. Yes, I know. Sandro Botticelli
Between 35,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago, people in Eurasia 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 “Venus of Willendorf” (pictured right) is slightly younger, and dates to about 30,000 BC. 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 they lack 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.

American Religions

Around 15,000 BCE, some people from Eurasia arrived in the Americas, via what is today Alaska. Little is known about the religion of these people. 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.

Neolithic religions

Eurasia entered the Neolithic period around 10,000 BCE. It was the last period of the Stone Age, characterized by the development of farming, the domestication of animals, and the invention of metal tools. The first cities, states, and kingdoms emerged. By this time, the only human species was the Homo sapiens.

It is commonly believed that the Eurasian religions 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 CC-BY-SA Volker Höhfeld
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.
Megalithic Temples of Malta
The Tarxien Temples
The Mediterranean island of Malta is home to several prehistoric temples, built approximately between 3600 BC and 2500 BC. The Tarxien temple, e.g., (pictured) dates to 3150 BC, and contains depictions of domestic animals carved in relief. It was most likely used for animal sacrifice. Additionally, evidence of cremation has been found.
All of these might have been sites with religious purposes.

From local spirits to gods

Archeologists, anthropologists, and historians have long studied the gods that the ancient societies believed in. Evidence for such gods comes from artifacts, inscriptions, traces of religious buildings, paintings or painted objects, and, later, written records of beliefs. One pattern that emerges is that the earliest and smaller societies tended to be animist: People believed that the physical objects of nature had a spirit. They personified the local river, a particular mountain, or particular tree 4.

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 and more powerful gods 5, such as the god of love, the god of war, or the god of wine. This is what we observe in the Proto-Indo-European religions, which we discuss next.

Proto-Indo-European Religions

Assumed migrations of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (years CE)
The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) are a hypothetical prehistoric population of Eurasia. They 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 with 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 humankind: 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:

Many of these religions have written records, so that we know well what these people believed. As we have seen, the religions share a number of concepts. Most notably, all of them were polytheistic, meaning that they venerated several gods. 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, Yazidism, and Hinduism.

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.


The Iranian branch of the Proto-Indo-Europeans gave rise to Yazidism, a religion that survives to this day. The main beliefs include an absolute transcendental God and seven benevolent divine beings. Their chief is Tawûsê Melek, the “Peacock Angel”. 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 spirit in the Abrahamic religions), Yazidis are heavily persecuted in some Muslim countries.


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 migrated to Europe and Western Asia, the Near East saw its own development of cultures and religions. This development falls roughly in the time between 4000 BCE and 0 CE. Several traces survive from this time, in the form of artifacts, writings, archeological traces, and even buildings. From these, we have a certain understanding of how these societies functioned. We know, e.g., that the societies were typically structured in city states. We also have an understanding of the gods that these societies worshipped. The most important cultures were:
Ancient Egypt
The Great Sphinx of Giza, built 2500 BCE in Egypt CC-BY-SA Barcex
A Minoan snake goddess from 1600 BCE.

in the Heraklion Museum in Crete/Greece

with the ancient Egyptian religion, the pyramids, the Sphinx, and pharaohs. The most important gods were Osiris (a god of fertility, life, and death) and Amun-Ra. The latter resulted from a merger of Amun (the patron god of Thebes) and Ra (the sun god).
Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq)
with the Assyro-Babylonian religion, the Sumerian religion, and the Mesopotamian religion. These religions associated gods with the Sun, Moon, and planets.
South-West Iran
with the Elam civilization, which knew a goddess of the Earth, a goddess of love, and several gods that were most likely imported from the Mesopotamian religions.
The Levant (present-day Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria)
with the Canaanite religion. The Canaanites worshipped the god El Elyon and his sons, the Elohim, the goddess Anat, and Hadad, the storm god. One of the sons of El Elyon would later become the main god of Judaism.
Anatolia (present-day Turkey)
with the Hittite religion and Hurrian religion. These religions were influenced by the Proto-Indo-European religions.
Cyprus and Crete
with the Minoan religion. This religion worshipped primarily female gods (one of which is pictured).
These societies shared a number of religious beliefs, which we detail next.

Religions in the Near East

The Pyramid Text in Teti pyramid in Saqqara, Egypt, from around 2400 BCE in Egypt CC0 LassiHU
The Ancient Near East saw a development of several religions. Since writing was invented during this period, many societies wrote down their religious beliefs. The Pyramid Texts, for example, (one of which is pictured on the right) 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.

From such sources, we know that 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. Most of these societies were polytheistic, i.e., they venerated several gods. Some of them were henotheistic, meaning that they worshipped a single god but acknowledged the existence of others. One of the prevalent gods across all ancient Near-East societies was Tammuz, the Sumerian god of food and vegetation. 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.
Sexual rites
in which strangers engage in sexual contact in a religious context, in some cases for pay (“sacred prostitution”).
as the attempt to predict the future by analyzing the clouds, the body parts of an animal, the flight of birds, smoke, or dreams.
as the attempt to change the fate by invocations, conjurings and Talismans.
These are elements that we observe also in today’s Indigenous 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 exist to this day. The latter would later give rise to the Abrahamic religions, i.e., Christianity, Islam, the Bahai Faith and Spiritualism.

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 main deity was El Elyon, with his consort Asherah, and their divine sons, the Elohim.

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. There was an entire pantheon of gods, some of which were El Elyon and Asherah (from the Canaaite religion), Baal, and Yahweh.

One common assumption among scholars (the Kenite Hypothesis) is that the veneration of Yahweh originated in a region just south of Israel 6, and was brought North by migrants, merchants, or prophets. The Hebrew Bible (the holy scripture of Judaism) hints at this provenance [Bible/ Deuteronomy 33:2, Judges 5:4, Isaiah 63:1, Habakuk 3:3]. Scripture from Canaan (the Ugaritic texts, dating to 1200 BCE) tells us that Yahweh was originally considered a son of El Elyon 7. Again, the Hebrew Bible contains passages that can be read in this way: Deuteronomy 32:8-9 talks of the “Most High” (El Elyon) who divides people into nations, and gives a share to Yahweh. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that this passage originally talks of one share for each of the sons of El Elyon, with Yahweh being one of them 8. Even though this formulation was later changed in order to avoid reference to several gods, Yahweh is still mentioned as one of those who obtain a share from the “Most High”. Psalm 82:1-8 presents Yahweh as presiding the council of the gods, and Yahweh as saying that all members of that council are sons of the “Most High”. Psalm 86:8 again acknowledges the other gods, even though it says that Yahweh is unique among them. As for Asherah, figurines discovered in Kuntillet Ajrud, an archaeological site dating back to the 8th century BC, seem to suggest that she was considered the consort of Yahweh 7. The Hebrew Bible appears to corroborate that view, when it condemns the practice of associating Asherah to Yahweh [Bible / Deuteronomy 16:21-22] 8.

El Elyon and Yahweh were later fused into one god 8 (traces of this fusion, where both names are used, remain in [Bible / Exodus 6:3, Genesis 18:18-23, Psalm 97:9]). The word “El” was interpreted as meaning “God”, and “Yahweh” was then the name of that god. All the attributes of El Elyon were attached to Yahweh. Most notably, Yahweh received the property of being the creator of the universe from El Elyon 7. Yahweh thus rose in importance in the pantheon.

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 exiled. They developed the belief that Yahweh was not just the most important god, but also the only existing god. All other gods were abandoned. Asherah, originally the consort of Yahweh, was associated with the god Baal 7 9 (e.g., in [Bible / Judges 3:7, 1 Kings 18, 2 Kings 23:4]) and abandoned with him.

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 will now discuss these religions in detail. We further discuss the Abrahamic God in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.


As we have discussed, the Israelites derived their religion from the Canaaite religion. The Israelites merged the Canaaite god El Elyon with his son Yahweh. When the Israelites were pushed into exile by the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BCE, they came to believe that Yahweh was not only the most important god, but the only god. The other gods were abandoned. While in exile, the Israelites collected, consolidated, and modified their scripture to be in line with this view. 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 supernatural
Judaism holds that there is exactly one God. He created the universe. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell. There is a special link between the Jewish people (the “Children of Israel”) and the god. (Thus, the god shares properties with the local spirits, in that he centers his interest on a particular part of land.) Finally, Judaism holds that there will be a leader (a “Messiah ”) who will bring global universal peace.
Moral framework
One of the basis of Jewish ethics are the Ten Commandments, a list of moral principles that God supposedly handed down to the prophet Moses. They forbid disrespect to the parents, killing, adultery, stealing, false testimony, and coveting someone else’s house, wife, animals, or slaves. Another important principle is the Golden Rule, as formulated, e.g., by Hillel the Elder: What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. Kindness, compassion, justice, truth, and peace are other recurring concepts.
Judaism knows a wide range of observances, which include prayers to the god, religious clothing (most notably the kippah, a skullcap worn by men), weekly rest on Saturdays (Shabbat), dietary laws, male circumcision, and various festivals.
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.

Different groups of people are associated with Judaism:
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.
Some Israeli politicians use Judaism to justify and drive the Israeli settlements in Palestine, a topic that we discuss in the Chapter on Islam.
By making the mistake of proclaiming a Messiah to come, Judaism has given rise to an infinite number of people who all claim to be that Messiah.
the Candid Atheist


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 followers believed that Jesus did not remain dead, but was resurrected by God, and lived for several days before ascending to Heaven. Jesus' 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 4. Today, Christianity has around 2.4 billion adherents, mainly in Europe, the Americas, and subsaharan Africa.

We discuss Christianity in detail in the Chapter on Christianity.

The supernatural
Like Judaism, Christianity holds that there is exactly one God, and that he created the universe. Different from Judaism, Christianity holds that Jesus is the son of that god, that he was crucified and then rose from the dead. Christianity also believes that God is a triune godhead of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible (s.b.) was written by men, but inspired by the god. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell.
Moral framework
Christianity inherited the Ten Commandments from Judaism. However, Jesus urged compassion in the application of the law, and put particular importance on the instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
Christianity has largely disposed of the practices of Judaism, with the exception of prayers to the god, and marker of life events, most importantly baptism.
There are three major Christian denominations: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (which includes Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, and others). These differ mainly in 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 the Mormons, with 15m adherents. Another such group are Jehova’s Witnesses, with 8m 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 10. The Council of Constantinople, in 360 CE, declared the trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit. 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). His revelations 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 1.8 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 supernatural
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam holds that there is exactly one God (Allah), and that he created the universe. However, unlike in Christianity, the God is not triune, and has no offspring. Allah spoke to the Prophet Mohammed, and these words are recorded in the Quran (s.b.), which is thus literally the word of the god. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell.
Moral framework
Islamic ethics derives from the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. It focuses on kindness, charity, honesty, justice, and the respect for parents and elders.
The Five Pillars of Islam are the declaration of faith (“there is no deity except God and Mohammed is the messenger of God), daily prayer, almsgiving, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca (the city in Saudi Arabia where Mohammed spent part of his life). Male circumcision is also practiced. Dietary laws proghibit the consommation of pork and alcohol.
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 in various translations to English.

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. His main message was that different religions all share core principles, since they were revealed to different peoples at different times by prophets of the same god. Alí-Mohammed 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 5-8m adherents, spread all over the world.
The supernatural
The three principal teaching of the Bahai Faith are the unity of God (there is exactly one god), the unity of religion (all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same God), and the unity of humanity (all humans have been created equal, and diversity of race and culture are worthy of appreciation and acceptance). After death, humans are resurrected (although not physically) and judged for their actions.
Moral framework
The Bahai Faith emphasizes obedience to the law of one’s country. Beyond that, the faith prohibits gossipping, consuming drugs or alcohol, begging, gambling, homosexuality, cruelty to animals, defamation, assault, adultery, arson, murder, and theft.
The Bahai Faith knows prayer and fasting during a 19-day period of the year.
The Covenant of Baháʼu'lláh established rules for holding the community together, and for resolving disagreements. The Bahai Universal House of Justice has the final say on any dispute, and there are to this date 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 in English.


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.
The supernatural
For Spiritism, the soul continues to exist after death as a spirit, and it is possible to communicate with these spirits. There is a god, often referred to as “infinite intelligence”.
Moral framework
Spiritualism emphasizes personal reponsbility for one’s actions, as well as the Brotherhood of Man. 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.
The most important practice of Spiritualism is the communication with the spirits of the dead, often in organized sessions called séances.
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 , 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. 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. The book is available online in English. “The Gospel According to Spiritism”, another work by Kardec, is pictured on the right. Other important works are those of Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier, who reportedly wrote over 400 books by help of the spirits. Later, the Spiritualists' National Union of Great Britain, and the National Spiritualist Association of the US codified the principles of the faith in different declarations of principles.

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. Saṃsāra, 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 around 1.3 billion followers, Hinduism is the dominant Indian religion, and the third largest religion in the world.
The supernatural
Hinduism centers on the concepts of Saṃsāra (a supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death), Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness), Dharma (the principle of righteousness), and Brahman (the highest Universal, the Ultimate Reality in the universe). One of the creation stories of Hinduism holds that the universe was once a dark ocean, on which the god Vishnu floated on a serpent. Vishnu gave rise to the god Brahma, who created all living beings.
Moral framework
Hindu ethics is derived from the Vedas, and focuses on the avoidance of injury, stealing, and lying, and on the encouragement of patience, charity, and self-control.
The four classical spiritual paths in Hinduism are Karma Yoga (path of action), the Jnana yoga (path of knowledge), Rāja yoga (path of meditation) and Bhakti yoga (path of loving devotion to a personal god). These have given rise to a wide variety of rituals in different interpretations of Hinduism, which can include worshipping, bathing, yoga, meditation, chanting, pilgrimage, festivals, and rites of passage. Many Hindus embrace vegetarianism, and a large majority eschews beef meat11.
There exists a plethora of different interpretations of Hinduism11. Around 7% of Hindus 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.

61% of Hindus believe that these deities are different manifestations of one Supreme Being. This supreme being is thus a godhead of the different deities.

29% believe that there is only one god. Finally, a small minority of Hindus believe that there is no god at all. They are sometimes called atheist. However, these interpretations still believe in the supra-system that ensures Saṃsāra and Karma. Hence, these belief systems are not atheist in the sense of this book.

For Hinduism, the most important texts are the Veda scriptures. These were probably compiled from oral traditions by priests and poets between 1750 and 500 BCE. The most recent part of the Vedas are the Upaniṣad, and these are summarized in the Brahma Sūtras. The two major epics of Hinduism are the Rāmāyana (from the 8th to 4th centuries BCE) and the Mahābhārata (from the 4th century BCE to the 3rd century CE). Part of the latter is the “Song by God”, the Bhagavad Gita.

The Dharmasūtras are a type law books. Those that survive are Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasishtha, all dating to the first millenium BCE. From the Dharmasutras were derived the Dharmashastras, which are more concrete moral frameworks. The best known ones are the Manusmṛiti (the “Laws of Manu”, the oldest and traditionally most important one12), the Yājñavalkya Smṛti, the Nāradasmṛti, and the Viṣṇusmṛti, all dating to the first millenium CE. Still today, the Laws of Manu are considered fundamental by some politicians1314, judges1516, and Web sites17. Many of the sacred texts of Hinduism can be found online in an English translation.

One of the more controversial aspects of Hinduism is the caste system. In such a system, the society is stratified into social classes (4 general castes and the avarnas), which dictate the professions a person can work in as well as aspects of their social lives, including whom they can marry. The avarnas were historically considered “untouchable”. The caste system was actively enforced during the British occupation of India, in particular starting from 1860 18. The British translated the Laws of Manu, and enforced castes as they read them in these laws. This has given support to the idea that the caste system persists mainly due to the British.

And indeed, the Hindu society exhibited a much more diverse and flexible notion of caste than the British implemented. That said, the notion of caste was not invented by the British: It appears, together with the prohibition of inter-marriage, across the Dharmasūtras and Dharmashastras. These predate the British occupation by hundreds or thousands of years. In fact, the British made a U-turn in 1920, when they introduced affirmative action for the avarnas. This principle appears also in India’s constitution of 1950, and in subsequent laws 19. Thus, affirmative action has been in place much longer than British implementation of the caste system. And yet, the Indian society remains stratified into castes, with 68% of Indians belonging to the modern equivalent of avarnas (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, and Most Backward Classes)11. When Hindus converted to other religions, they kept their caste, so that the caste system applies nowadays to all of India, regardless of religion. Marriage across social classes remains a taboo 1911. All of this indicates that the caste system has deep roots in the Hindu society, culture, and religion.


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. He taught that humans suffer because of earthly desires. The goal of Buddhism is to liberate people from this suffering, by following ethical principles, meditation, and a middle way between extreme asceticism and hedonism. This is, according to Buddhism, the path to enlightenment, i.e. the liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Buddhism is an Indian religion. Today, it has around 500m adherents, mainly in Mongolia, China, and South-East Asia.
The supernatural
The Heavenly Kings are revered as gods in variants of Buddhism

in the Longhua Temple in Shanghai/China

As Hinduism, Buddhism knows the concepts of Saṃsāra (a supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death), Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness), and Dharma (the principle of righteousness). It aims to liberate adherents from the cycle of rebirth to achieve a state called Nirvana. Gods play a smaller role in Buddhism, since they are in any case subject to these supra-system. The universe did not come into existence, but always existed. Some variants of Buddhism know no gods. Others do, for example the Four Heavenly Kings, which are pictured right.
Moral framework
The Noble Eightfold Path emphasizes compassion, and prohibits lying, injury, stealing, adultery, and killing. It also promotes watching over one’s mind and one’s desires. The Five Precepts prohibit killing, theft, adultery, lying, and alcohol. Buddhism prohibits the killing animals, too, and is thus committed to vegetarianism.
Common Buddhist practices include hearing the words of the Buddha, ritual prayer, prostration, offerings, pilgrimage, and chanting.
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 (Mahayana) branch of Buddhism. His teachings are online in English.
Many flavors of Buddhism do not have gods. Therefore, one can posit that Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a system of ethics. It forbids, for example, to kill, to steal, and to lie. Buddhism combines this system with the idea of karma: if someone does something bad, then this will entail bad 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 Saṃsāra (the repeating cycle of rebirth) and Nirvana (the liberation from that cycle) into their faith. In this way, the idea of Karma can be upheld even if the consequences for one’s actions do arrive in this life (they will arrive in another one). Saṃsāra and Nirvana are supra-systems in the sense of this book, and thus supernatural elements. As soon as these elements are included in the faith (as they usually are), Buddhism is a religion in the sense of this book. If they are not, Buddhism is just a moral framework combined with the theory that bad deeds make you pay.


Jainism traces its origin to 24 Tirthankaras (supreme teachers). The last of these, the Mahavira, is a historical figure of India from the 6th century BCE. Jainism emphasizes non-violence, self-control, multiplicity of viewpoints, and righteousness. It does not have gods in the Western sense. Today, Jainism has around 5m adherents, of which the majority lives in India. It is an Indian religion.
The supernatural
Jainism shares the concepts of Saṃsāra (the supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death) and Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness) with Hinduism and Buddhism. It also holds that the universe was never created. It was just always there, and will always be. Jainism believes that the souls of the Tirthankaras have liberated themselves from the cycle of rebirth, and have become spirits (Jinas).
Moral framework
Jain ethics is centered on the instruction to accept a plurality of views (Anekāntavāda), to eschew violence (Ahimsa), and to avoid attachment to worldly possessions (Aparigraha). Its moral framework (the “Five Vows”) comprises non-violence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, and non-attachment to worldly possessions. The non-violence is strict, and extends also to animals and plants: most Jains are vegetarians, and many refrain from eating onions or garlic, as eating those vegetables kills the plant that produces them.
Jainism has a strong tradition of ascetism. Fasting happens primarily during festivals. Beyond that, Jainism knows meditation, ceremonial baths, and the worship of the Jinas.
Jainism is divided into two major denominations, Digambara and Śvētāmbara. They differ in their monastery traditions, in the beliefs about the mother of Mahavira, and in the scripture they accept as canonical.
The teachings of Mahavira were originally passed on orally as the “Jain Agamas”. In the 4th and 5th century BCE, the Śvētāmbara community started canonicalizing these oral traditions, leading to a collection of 45 texts. However, these efforts were rejected by the Digambara community, which holds that the original Jain Agamas were lost, and that the best surviving summary of them are the Ṣaṭkhaṅḍāgama (Six Part Scripture) and the Kaşāyapāhuda (Treatise on the Passions), written by monks in the 2nd and 3rd century CE.


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 supernatural
Sikhism shares the concepts of Saṃsāra (the supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death) and Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness) with Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In addition, it believes in a unique god, who created the universe. Salvation comes from the grace of this god.
Moral framework
Sikhism teaches that egoism is harmful, and can be overcome by serving humanity (e.g., through charity). It also prohibits cutting hair, intoxination, superstition, material obsession, sacrifice of creatures, non-family-oriented living, bragging, priests, and extramartial relations.
Sikhism knows the recital of hymns, the remembrance of the name of God through recitation, festivals, and pilgrimage.
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 in English. There are some other scriptures, but these are not universally acknowledged among Sikhs.

East Asian Religions

Chinese Folk Religion

Some of the earliest written traces of religion in China date from the 2nd millennium BC, and are recorded in writings on oracle bones. They mention a mythological god-like emperor called Shàngdì (not to be confused with the Abrahamic god, who came to be called Shàngdì as well when Christianity arrived in China). The oldest known compilation of such myths is found in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (Shanhai Jing), which dates to the 4th century BCE. These stories are part of a larger corpus of myths, which involve gods, emperors, wise men, immortals, spirits, local deities, dragons, humanoid animals, unicorns, and magical objects.

These stories constitute basis of the so-called Chinese Folk Religion. It groups a wide range of interpretations, all of which 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. To this date, 20% of China’s population practice such folk religion20.

The supernatural
Chinese folk religions believe in the existence of the “shen” spirits. After death, the person lives on as a shen. Tian can be understood as the supreme god, and is often used synonymously with Shangdi, but there are also other gods. As for the origin of the universe, several cosmogonic mythologies describe how matter came into existence from matter-less obscurity through a spontaneous self-driven process. The demi-god Pangu is then commonly portrayed as the first living being. He separated Heaven and Earth. When he died, his body turned into rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and everything else. Among the remains of Pangu was the goddess Huaxu, who gave birth to the twins Fuxi and Nüwa. These married and gave rise to humanity.
The Chinese Folk Religion involves the worship of local gods or the spirits of a certain aspect of nature (for example water gods, river gods, fire gods, mountain gods), or of gods that are common ancestors of a village, a larger identity, or the Chinese nation (Shennong, Huangdi, Pangu). The religion also knows festivals.
This temple in Hangzhou/China reveres Laozi, Buddha, and Confucius together (figures left to right)
Chinese Folk Religion is not an organized religion with a written credo. Nor is membership in the religion formally established. Rather, the religion is a wide collection of local beliefs, which vary in the spirits, gods, and rituals. Chinese Folk Religion is also practiced in a continuum with Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The founders of these three religions are sometimes revered all together in the same temple (pictured right).
The Chinese Folk Religion can draw on a large collection of books with mythical stories. Most important among these are the Four Books and Five Classics, which date to the centuries before our era.


Confucius, in a temple in Shanghai/China
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived 551-479 BCE. He taught proper respect for the spirits of the ancestors, continuous self-improvement, righteousness, humaneness, and the upholding of social norms. After Confucius' death, his ideas were further developed by the Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mèngzĭ), leading to the philosophy we know as Confucianism.
Confucius was focused on leading a good earthly life, and was not much concerned with supernatural entities. 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). This makes it possible to follow the philosophy of Confucianism as a purely inter-human ethical framework. Such an interpretation of Confucianism is a moral framework in the sense of this book, and not a religion. It can be practiced in conjunction with a religion, or without a religion. Consequently, Confucianism is not recognized as a religion on its own in China21. The Catholic Church shares this view: After a centuries-long debate (the “Chinese Rite Controversy”), Pope Pius XII decided in 1935 that Confucianism is compatible with Catholicism 22.

At the same time, there is an interpretation of Confucianism that knows gods, spirits, prayer, and worship23. This interpretation derives its beliefs from sayings of Confucius that acknowledge the existence of the spirits of the ancestors (Analects / 2:24, 6:22, 8:21), encourage us to worship them (Analects / 3:12, 2:5), and talk of prayer (Analects / 3:13, 7:35), and punishment from Heaven (Analects / 6:28). This interpretation of Confucianism is a religion in the sense of this book, and we shall call it Religious Confucianism. It combines the philosophy of Confucius with supernatural elements from the Chinese Folk Religion. A Confucian Church of that religion existed for a brief time in China, founded by Kang Youwei at the beginning of the 20th century. This church was dissolved in the 1920s, and it lives on as the Confucian Academy in Hong Kong, the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia, and various smaller churches. Temples of Religious Confucianism exist in various countries, including in China.

The supernatural
Religious Confucianism knows Hàotiān (also called “Heaven”, or “Tian” as in the Chinese Folk Religion) as the supreme deity who governs the gods, created the universe, and rules all things23. Religious Confucianism also holds that the ancestors live on as spirits, in particular also Confucius himself.
Moral framework
In Confucianism (religious or philosophical), the four virtues that adherents shall achieve are loyalty, filial piety, contingency, and righteousness. The Five Constants, towards which adherents shall strive, are benevolence, justice, proper rite, knowledge and integrity. Concerning knowledge, Confucianism 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).
Religious Confucianism places much importance on worshipping the spirits of the ancestors, and in particular the spirit of Confucius23. The religion also knows ceremonies for birth, reaching maturity, marriage and death, as well as festivals.
Confucianism (both as a philosophy and as a religion) is often practiced in combination with the Chinese Folk Religion, Taoism, and/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 philosophy of Confucianism, without any religious belief.
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 in an English translation. Another important work is the “Book of Mencius”. Together with the Analects, it is part of the “Four Books and Five Classics”, which are important also for the Chinese Folk Religion. Contemporary edicts on moral questions come, e.g., from the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia.


The symbol of Taoism is the Ying and Yang.

in a Taoist temple in Hangzhou/China

The first written source of Taoism (or Daoism) is a book called “Tao Te Ching”, which dates at least to the 4th century BCE. It is attributed to Laozi, a (possibly mythical) Chinese philosopher and poet. The Tao Te Ching emphasizes 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. In the later centuries, Taoism was developed into the religion that we know today: 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. Taoism is practiced mainly in China and Taiwan, with around 180m adherents.

The supernatural
There is an underlying order of the universe, called “Tao”. The universe is dominated by two opposing forces, the Ying and the Yang. The universe came into existence by a succession of abstract steps: The Tao gave birth to unity, unity gave birth to duality, duality gave birth to trinity, and Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures [Tao Te Ching / 42]. There are several deities in Taoism, most notably the ancestor god Hongjun Laozu, and the “Three Pure Ones”. Adherents shall aim to become one with the Tao, which means liberating themselves from selfishness and desire. When they die, their spirits live on. Adherents strive to achieve immortality.
Moral framework
Adherents shall strive towards the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, humility. The Five Precepts of Taoism correspond to the Five Precepts of Buddhism: No murdering, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no false speech, and no taking of intoxicants.
Adherents practice an array of methods such as meditation and ritual exercises in order to approach the Tao. Taoism also knows festivals, fortune-telling, and mediumship (contacting the spirits of the deceased). Variants of Taoism burn paper models of cars, money, or other items to sustain the spirits of the deceased.
Taoism blends with the background of Chinese Folk Religion. It is also sometimes practiced together with Buddhism and/or Confucianism.
Taoism is based on the above-mentioned Tao Te Ching. It is available online in an English translation. Of equal importance to Taoism is a book called “Zhuangzi”, which dates also to the centuries before our era. It contains (often humorous) stories, fables, and anecdotes that encourage spontaneousness, non-action, and a simple and natural, yet flourishing life. The Taoist Canon “Daozang” was established between 400 CE and 1447 CE, and consists of around 1,400 texts.


Shintoism emerged roughly 600 BCE from local mythical beliefs in Japan. Shintoism believes in spirits and gods called “kami”, which inhabit all things, including forces of nature and prominent landscape locations. Shintoism is inherently linked to Japan and the Japanese people. It is practiced mainly in that country, and by most of the population (of 120m people), although to varying degrees. Exact numbers are difficult to establish, and Shintoism blends seamlessly with Buddhism in Japan.
The supernatural
The spirits and gods called “kami” reside in all things. The universe came into existence when Heaven and Earth separated, and the first kami emerged. Other kami followed, and two of them, a brother and a sister, created the land of Japan. After death, the human soul becomes a kami.
Moral framework
There is no codified moral framework of Shintoism. Traditional values revolve around honesty, hard work, and thanksgiving to the kami.
Adherents worship the kami in public shrines and household shrines, by prayers and offerings. Other common rituals include dances, rites of passage, and seasonal festivals. Particular emphasis is on the notion of purification, with ritual baths to that effect.
Shintoism exists in numerous variants, of which Shrine Shinto is the most prevalent one.
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.

New Belief Systems

New Religious Movements

New Religious Movements are all those religious movements that are not yet old enough to be called a religion. 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. Larger UFO religions are Scientology, and Raëlism, with tens of thousands of adherents each.
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 Indigenous 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 numerous 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 incorrect, 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 reported 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 and the US.
A Wiccan ritual altar with candles, chalice, and ceremonial blade CC-BY RaeVynn Sands, candle shortened
The supernatural
Wiccan beliefs about gods vary, and can encompass belief in one, two, more, or no gods. A prevalent interpretation is dualist: it puts forward a Horned God and a Mother Goddess as main deities, with practitioners believing that these had been the ancient deities worshipped in the Stone Age, whose veneration had been passed down in secret to the present. Gardener taught that, after death, the human soul goes to a place called Summerland, before being reincarnated on Earth. Central to Wiccan belief is the spiritual connection to nature. Furthermore, Wiccans believe that nature can be influenced through magical rituals.
Moral framework
The Wicca moral framework is harm-based and egalitarian, and thus liberal: “Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: an it harm none, do what ye will” (“if it harms no-one, do what you want”). The Law of Threefold Return says that whatever good or bad actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force.
Rituals play an important role in the Wicca Faith. Many rituals take place in the frame of seasonal festivals at the full moon: a magic circle is cast, an altar with magic tools is set up in the circle (pictured), and adherents pray to the gods.
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” (available online). The “Charge of the Goddess”, too, is an important inspirational poem by Doreen Valiente, one of Gardener’s High Priestesses (available online).
The word “witchcraft” usually evokes 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.” 24. Thus, for the public perception of Wiccans, the choice of the word “witchcraft” was arguably suboptimal. It could have been easier to choose some term with positive connotation, such as “spiritual nature lovers”. Then again, the identification with a shunned term can have a costly signaling effect that proves one’s seriousness in the faith.


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. After initial success, 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. Scientology is organized in the Church of Scientology, which suggests that the number of adherents is in the millions 25. The American Religious Identification Survey found that the number of American Scientologists dropped to 25,000 in 2008 26.
The supernatural
Scientology holds there is a Supreme Being called God or “Author of the Universe”. It also believes that the human is an immortal spiritual being. The human mind is inhabited by engrams (harmful memories) that affect life negatively. Scientology seeks to eliminate these engrams, to lead the adherent to a state of perfect happiness called “Clear” 25. The engrams are the spirits of extraterrestrials that were dropped onto Earth and then killed by the galactic ruler Xenu 27.
Moral framework
Hubbard’s “Way to Happiness” lists 21 precepts, which are: 1.take care of yourself, 2. be temperate, 3. don’t be promiscuous, 4. love and help children, 5. honor and help your parents, 6. set a good example, 7. seek to live with the truth, 8. do not murder, 9. don’t do anything illegal, 10. support a government designed and run for all the people, 11. do not harm a person of good will, 12. safeguard and improve your environment, 13. do not steal, 14. be worthy of trust, 15. fulfill your obligations, 16. be industrious, 17. be competent, 18. respect the religious beliefs of others, 19. try not to do things to others that you would not like them to do to you, 20. try to treat others as you would want them to treat you, 21. flourish and prosper 28.
The main practices of Scientology are auditing and training. In auditing, a member of the Church asks the audited person, group, or himself questions in order to locate and treat areas of spiritual distress 25. In training, members follow courses delivered by the Church 25.
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 to the public 27.
Scientology has attracted criticism for several reasons:
One reproach to Scientology is that the church would exist mainly to make money 27. To remain in the Church, and to work towards the “Clear” status, adherents have to constantly purchase services and items: books, auditing services (up to 1000 USD per hour), and training sessions, according to ex-adherents 27. Virtually all important products and services of the Church are for-pay. Hubbard used Church funds to build massive personal private residences, and the current head, David Miscavige, possesses several multi-million-dollar mansions 27.
Fair Game Policy
Another reproach is that the “Fair Game policy” of the Church would encourage Scientologists to harass, discriminate against, injure, and (in Hubbard’s words) trick, sue, lie to, or destroy any person critical of the Church 27. Indeed, the Church has conducted “criminal campaigns of vilification, burglaries and thefts ... against private and public individuals and organizations”, according to a court verdict 29, most notably an infiltration into and thefts from 136 government agencies, foreign embassies and consulates in “Operation Snow White” 30, in which Hubbart’s wife and ten other Scientologists were convicted 27.
Policy of Disconnection
“Disconnection” is the severance of ties to people who are antagonistic to Scientology or its tenets 31. According to the former head of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs, the Church requires severance of all ties between a Scientologist and a friend, colleague, or family member deemed to be antagonistic towards Scientology 32. This can result in the loss of friends, family, and in some cases even children, who are still members of the Church of Scientology 27.
These phenomena exist also in other religions: As for the profit making, the Catholic Church is one of the richest non-governmental organizations on Earth. Protestant televangelists make millions of dollars from televised masses and supposed healings. As for the Fair Game policy, critics of Islam are persecuted in much of the Muslim world, and can be sentenced to death in 8 of them. Even in the Western world, vocal critics of Islam run the risk of being killed by Islamist terrorists. As for the policy of disconnection, most major religions shun or even persecute apostates. In what concerns these similarities, Scientology has thus well advanced on its path from New Religious Movement to a religion.


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.
There are no codified or uniform beliefs of adherents of spirituality. Typical beliefs include:
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”.

In some cases, the people who say they are “spiritual” are in fact adherents 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. 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. Still today, some people believe in the existence of God without the attributes that the Abrahamic religions ascribe to him.
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. (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.

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 fruit of the Abrahamic religions, not a precursor to them.

Metaphysical Philosophies

Some Ancient 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 are 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.

Indigenous Religions

Indigenous Religions

Indigenous religions are religions that are bound to a particular society, not codified in scriptures, not institutionalized, and smaller in scale. Such religions usually lack boundaries between the sacred and secular aspects of life. These religions include thousands of distinct religious traditions, especially in Africa, Asia, and the Arctic Circle. 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

In some cases, the original beliefs of indigenous religions 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 Indigenous religions number in the millions.
Some beliefs of such religions are:
Ancestor veneration
i.e., 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.
i.e., 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.
i.e., the belief that certain people (the shamans) have access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits. Shamans typically enter into a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing.
i.e., 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 humankind to today. In this discussion, we have never made reference to the intervention of the Abrahamic god. Where is 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. Judaism did not exist, and nor did Christianity or Islam. 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 traces of worship of God are found 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 was considered a son of El. Later, the religious interpretations merged Yahweh and El. 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 1,5% of the existence of humanity, and in the last 10% of human religious activity. He is a rather young god.

The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Founding of Religions


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  25. Scientology: “What is Scientology?”, 2023
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  32. Mike Rinder: “Scientology Disconnection”, 2016