The Atheist Bible, CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

History of Religion

Earliest Religions

It is difficult to determine when religion first appeared in the history of humankind. It is probably safe to assume that the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, alive roughly 6 to 7 million years ago, was not religious (at least not in the way we define religion here). This is because, in our definition of the word, a religion is a set of beliefs that contains supernatural statements. Since this common ancestor did not have the capability to speak, they would not have been able to form or share such complex ideas. Furthermore, if this common ancestor had been religious, then we would likely see religion in chimpanzees, too — which we don’t.

As we move forward in time, new genera of hominids appear on the scene, like Ardipithecus (6-4 million years ago)and Australopithecus (4-2 million years ago), followed by the earliest species of the genus Homo, like Homo habilis (2.4 to 1.4 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.6 million to 250,000 years ago) ), Homo neanderthalensis (400,000 to 40,000 years ago) and our own species, Homo sapiens .

Now, when did religion first appear? It is hard to know for certain. Archaeologists mostly rely on

We will now trace these indicators through history.

Neanderthal Burials

Bodies decompose over time and usually leave no archeological trace (bottom left in the picture).

in the Sahara in Morocco

Most animals do not bury their dead, and it’s likely that our early human ancestors did not either. The problem is that bodies decompose over time, and so we do not know much about early burial practices, or lack thereof.

Some of the earliest evidence for intentional burial dates to 400,000 years ago. At one of the archaeological sites at Sierra de Atapuerca in Burgos, Spain, 28 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis were found at the bottom of a deep shaft. While these bones might have arrived there by chance, it is unlikely that 28 people fell simultaneously into the cave. All were found within the same layer of earth, alongside a quartzite hand axe, suggesting to archaeologists that they were intentionally buried1.

Concentrated remains of Neanderthals have also been found at the sites of La Quina and L’Hortus in France, and at Krapina Cave in Croatia, each dating to at least 100,000 years ago. A number of the remains at the latter showed signs of defleshing prior to burial. One may think that this was done for cannibalism, but the cut and scrape marks on the bones were much different from those that indicate that a corpse was butchered for meat. In light of this, it is tempting to speculate that the bodies were defleshed for ritual reasons.

The evidence for intentional burial becomes stronger as we advance in time. 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). The Neanderthals placed their dead in simple graves, with apparently no concern for grave goods or elaborate markers. On occasion archaeologists have found limestone blocks within or atop the graves that may have been used as a marker, although this is difficult to prove.

The youngest Neanderthal burial found as of yet dates to around 35,000 years ago, and is located in St. Cézaire, France. After this time, the Neanderthals were superseded by Homo sapiens2.

While we may interpret these burials as a concern for the spirits of the deceased or as a method of easing their transition to the underworld, burying the dead may also have been done for a purely pragmatic reason: the odor of decomposition was less noticeable and therefore didn’t attract predators or scavengers. Burial could also have been 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. In the end, it is difficult to determine with absolute certainty whether these burials are evidence of religious thought.

As an article in 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 only be guessed at by scholars today”2.

Human Burials

A human buried with red ochre (about 4500 BCE, from Menneville, France) CC0 Vassil
To date, the earliest trace of an intentional burial by Homo sapiens is found in the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. There, around 100,000 years ago, a number of men, women and children were purposefully interred, their bodies heavily colored with red ochre3.

Several possible reasons for the ochre have been suggested. It has been hypothesized that the ochre was placed on the bodies as part of a ritual — i.e., a behavior that serves no direct purpose other than psychological, social, or spiritual. Another possible reason for the ochre is that it deters scavengers. Some experiments suggest that ochre may have a particular taste, smell, or bacterial property that makes it unattractive to animals4.

In any case, the treatment testifies to a certain level of care for the deceased. It serves no physical purpose for the living to color the bodies of those who have passed on. 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.

Grave goods

Another development took place around 34,000 years ago in Eurasia: There are 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, for example, one burial site contained several thousand mammoth ivory beads, several hundred fox teeth pendants and a panoply of ivory artefacts5. 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 possessions62.

But grave goods pose a conundrum: Why would people spend time and effort to collect and place items with their dead? Since this action does not literally serve the deceased, it is commonly assumed that it 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 (25,000 years old)

in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria

The Roman goddess Venus, for reference CC0 Sandro Botticelli
At the same time that grave goods appear to have become more common, people in Eurasia began to produce 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 across 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-known ceramics.

The “Venus of Hohle Fels”, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk around 35,000 years ago, is so far the oldest figurine to have been found. The “Venus of Willendorf” (pictured right) is slightly younger, and dates to about 27,000 years ago7. 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 given to them because archeologists conjectured that they may have represented a beauty ideal. Interestingly, the figurines are shaped consistently across tens of thousands of years. It is also striking that the great majority of unearthed sculptures from the past 30,000 years are representations of females.

Venuses seem to represent something imaginary or symbolic, in part because they lack feet and faces. And since the figurines have no practical use in the context of subsistence, archaeologists speculate that they may have been emblems of security and success, fertility icons, or representations of a mother goddess. This is further supported by their occasional presence in graves2. However, they could also just be works of art, representing an ancient beauty ideal. They could even be biased representations of reality. Much like children’s drawings show people with only heads and legs, the figurines show women with only hips and breasts.

From local spirits to gods

As we advance in time, we find that the societies worshipped gods. Evidence for such gods comes from artifacts, inscriptions, architecture, paintings or painted objects, and, later, written records. One pattern that emerges in studying these materials is that earlier (and smaller) societies tended to be animist: People believed that the physical objects of nature, such as a local river, a particular mountain, or a particular tree, had a spirit8. They also often personified these objects.

However, once trade networks expanded and societies grew larger and more socially and politically complex, people began to believe in spirits or entities whose power and authority encompassed a wider territory . This gave rise to the belief in ever more universal and more powerful gods9. Some of these beliefs evolved into the indigenous religions that still exist today in Africa and Australia, and which we will discuss later. Others gave rise to the East Asian Religions and the Indo-European ones. The development can also be found in the Americas.

American Religions

Humans arrived in the Americas from Eurasia more than 15,000 years ago, via what is today Alaska. From there, peoples spread down and across North America, and all the way to the very tip of South America. These migrations gave rise to the following cultures:
Aztec culture
The Aztecs dominated Northern Mexico between 1300 CE and 1600 CE from their capital city of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). Second only to the Inca at the time of European conquest, the Aztecs ruled over an expansive empire. From Spanish accounts we know that the Aztecs worshipped a god of war (Huitzilopochtli), a sun god (Tonatiuh), a rain god (Tlaloc), and, like the Maya, a Feathered Serpent God (Quetzalcóatl). Human sacrifice, particularly in the offering of a victim’s heart (usually a prisoner of war) to Tonatiuh, was commonly practiced, as was bloodletting. 10.
Other North American cultures
Other indigenous tribes in North America typically had their own localized religious beliefs in which they worshipped one or several gods and/or spirits. Common to all, however, was the absence of a distinction between the sacred and the worldly: natural entities such as mountains, springs, lakes, and clouds were considered sacred as well. Traditional beliefs were usually passed down through oral storytelling to the next generation.11
Olmec culture
The Olmec culture, which flourished between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE in central America, if often considered to be one of the first complex civilizations of Mesoamerica. Based on the remains of sculptures and architecture, as well as other artifacts dating to this time, researchers believe that the Olmecs worshipped numerous gods that controlled the universe. Since their names are unknown, they are referred to as Gods 1 through 10. Some of the most iconic ones are the Olmec Dragon (God 1, possibly the god of the earth, water, and fire) and the Olmec Bird Monster (God 3, possibly the god of the heavens). The Olmec polities numbered a few thousand people at most, and they thus had likely no elaborate religious bureaucracy of priests.
Maya culture
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 . In combination with architecture and archaeological artifacts, much of what we know about Maya religion comes from the Maya themselves, in the form of hieroglyphic writings that survive to this date. There are also books written by both the Maya and the Spanish at the time of the colonization12.

From these writings, we know that the Maya believed in several gods, each representing a different part of life, including the creator god Itzamna, the sun god K’inich Ahau, and the Night Jaguar, who represented the journey of the sun. There was also a moon goddess, a maize god, and a feathered serpent god, Kukulkan, who controlled the rain. The Maya believed that the gods needed to be pleased, and so made regular offerings to them in the form of animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices13, as well as “self-sacrifice” by bloodletting14. The Maya also built several pyramid-shaped temples in honor of the gods, some of which survive to this day (pictured).

After colonization, the Maya incorporated several elements of European religion into their local, religious belief system. One example is the horse of the first European explorer, Hernán Cortés, which became one of the principal gods of the Maya under the name of Tzimin Chac12.

Inca culture
Machu Picchu, an Inca city from the 15th century CE in today’s Peru
In Western South America, the Inca empire ruled an expansive territory reaching up and down the Andes Mountain chain from roughly 1200 CE to 1500 CE. From Spanish accounts, we know that the Inca worshipped a sun god (Inti), a female moon god (Mama Quilla), a creator god (Viracocha), and a rain god (Apu Illapu) among others. The Incas practiced divination, and the sacrifice of both animals and humans.15
The Europeans arrived first in 1492 CE, and then in greater numbers. Through colonization, genocide, and assimilation, the practicing of indigenous religion has declined. A notable exception are the Maya people, who exist as a large ethnolinguistic group in central America to this date, with their own religious beliefs 16.

Neolithic religions

During the time humans spread over the Americas, Eurasia entered the Neolithic period (in 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. It was also around this time that the first cities, states, and kingdoms emerged.

Little information is known about the religions of this time, in part because the beliefs were not preserved in writing (writing did not enter the picture until roughly 2000 BCE). To date, archaeologists have identified only a few neolithic sites that could have served as places of worship.

Göbekli Tepe
Carvings at Göbekli Tepe CC-BY-SA Volker Höhfeld
Göbekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Southern Turkey, close to the border with Syria, dating to the 10th to 8th millennium BCE. Its most impressive feature is the remains of more than 200 massive T-shaped stone pillars arranged in roughly 20 circles. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m and a weight of up to 20 tons, and many have carvings of animals. Göbekli Tepe is often called “the world’s first temple” because the site shows no evidence of domestic structures (although that has recently been challenged)17.
Çatalhöyük was a settlement in Southern Turkey that existed from approximately 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. The site included elaborate shrines with complex paintings, installations, and sculptures18. The inhabitants buried their dead inside their houses, often in tightly flexed positions, together with red ochre19. Some of the deceased were buried with their skulls detached from their bodies18. These burial practices may have served religious or ritual purposes — although we cannot know this with any true certainty.
Stonehenge, an archaeological site in South England, is mainly known for its ring of standing stones erected between 3100 BCE and 1600 BCE (i.e., in the Bronze Age). There are two types of stones: bluestones (weighing 2 to 5 tons) and sarsen stones (weighing 25 to 30 tons). The sarsen stones were most likely brought to the site from 25km away, while the bluestones were sourced from hundreds of kilometers away20. These stones may have served a ritual purpose, 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 between approximately 3600 BC and 2500 BC. One such temple, the Tarxien temple (pictured), dates to 3150 BC. The discovery of altars and the carvings of animals on the stone walls at the site have given rise to the hypothesis that the temple was used for animal sacrifice21.

The Indo-Europeans

Distribution of the Indo-European languages todayCC-BY-SA Hayden120M
One hypothesis about the origin and migrations of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (years CE)
To understand how religion evolved after the Neolithic age in Europe and Asia, it is helpful to look at today’s cultures there. Today, several languages in Europe and Southwest Asia share surprisingly similar lexicons. For example, the English word “mother” is mōdar in Gothic, māter in Latin, metēr in Ancient Greek, mātṛ in Sanskrit, mātar in Persian, mati in Slavic, móteris in Lithuanian, mātīr in Gaulish (Celtic), mayr in Armenian, and motër in Albanian — while it is Hahaoya in Japanese. This linguistic commonality, coupled with similar myths and shared genetic traits across these populations, have led researchers to postulate a common ancestor culture: the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs). It is hypothesized that the PIEs originated between 8000 BCE and 3000 BCE22. Different hypotheses as to the homeland of the PIEs have been put forward, one of which locates it in the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. What is known for certain is that the PIEs later migrated west to Europe and south to India.

The most important descendant cultures of PIEs were:

Descendants of these cultures (with the exception of the Hittites) exist to this day in their respective lands.

The Indo-European Religions

We have seen that the Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) gave rise to several descendant cultures across Europe and South Asia. Based on commonalities in mythological stories among these Proto-Indo-European descendent cultures, we can hypothesize that PIEs shared with them the following gods 232425: The Indo-Europeans (and most likely also the PIEs) also shared mythical stories. One such story is about a thunder god (or a human associated with it) who slays a serpent or dragon. This idea can be found in26: In addition to these commonalities, each descendant culture developed its own stories and deities. One example is Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, who adorns the cover page of this book. She may correspond to the Greek goddess Athena but has no counterpart in the other Indo-European religions.

The Indo-European religions and the Ancient Near-East religions (which we shall discuss later) influenced one other, giving rise to mixed systems in Greece, Anatolia, and Persia. Most of the original Indo-European religions were overpowered after the rise of Christianity and Islam in the first centuries CE. However, the Vedic religion gave rise to Hinduism, which is the dominant religion on the Indian subcontinent to this day, while the ancient Persian religion gave rise to Zoroastrianism and Yazidism, which also both still exist. Zoroastrianism may have itself inspired Mithraism, a religion that enjoyed some popularity in the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

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 symbol of Zoroastrianism is the Faravahar, a human figure combined with wings.

at the Zoroastrian House of Singapore

By the second millennium BCE, descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans had arrived in Persia. Their religion was influenced by the Elam civilization, which inhabited the area before their arrival. This religion held that there were many gods, all ruled by Ahura Mazda, who protected humanity from the dark forces led by the deity Angra Mainyu. To appease Ahura Mazda and ensure his protection, priests practiced animal sacrifice.

It was under these circumstances that the Prophet Zoroaster (also called Zarathustra or Zartosht) was born sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Zoroaster was appalled by the animal sacrifices. One day, he had a vision of Ahura Mazda, who told him that the priests had misunderstood the divine truth and were worshipping false gods. There was only one god worthy of worship, Ahura Mazda, and he did not require blood sacrifices to protect humanity from Angra Mainyu, only ethical behavior. Zoroaster was able to convince King Vishtaspa of his newly found faith. Other adherents followed, and by the time of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE), Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia.

After the Arab conquest of Iran in 651 CE, Zoroastrians were persecuted, the faith suppressed, and their religious sites destroyed.27 The faith survived, though, and it is practiced today by around 100,000 adherents, mostly in India, Iran, and North America.

The supernatural
The supreme god of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda, and his evil opponent is Angra Mainyu. The other gods who were previously worshipped were incorporated into the faith mainly as spirits of Ahura Mazda. It is believed that Ahura Mazda created the world and that after death, the human soul goes either to heaven or hell, depending on how the person behaved during their lifetime.27
Moral framework
Zoroastrians are expected to pursue good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. The latter means telling the truth at all times, practicing charity to all, showing love for others, and moderation in all things, especially in diet. Three core values of behavior are to make friends of enemies, the wicked righteous, and the ignorant learned.27
Zoroastrians practice ritual worship of Ahura Mazda in services where milk, bread, and water are offered to the deity, and religious texts are recited28.
The main scripture of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta – prayers and hymns ascribed to Zoroaster, which were later put into writing during the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE)29. It is available online in English translation.
Zoroastrianism bears striking resemblance to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which also developed in the Near East. The creator of the world, Ahura Mazda is omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, and endowed with creative power – just like the Abrahamic god. Zoroastrianism also advances the concepts of individual responsibility for salvation, judgment after death, and heaven and hell. While the Abrahamic religions are monotheistic and Zoroastrianism is dualist (with a good god and a bad god), the opposition of a good god and a devil can nevertheless be found in the Abrahamic religions. Both systems have sacred lawgivers (Zoroaster and Moses) who received their revelation on a mountain. In both systems, humankind descends from a single couple who were chased away from a paradise on Earth because they listened to the evil spirit (Angra Mainyu and the devil, respectively). It is thus generally accepted that Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions influenced one another.

Since Zoroastrianism predates Judaism (and thus the Abrahamic religions), it is generally assumed that most concepts went from the former to the latter. However, it is not clear when the tenets of Zoroastrianism were fully codified. Thus, the Abrahamic religions may have influenced Zoroastrianism as well. What is clear, though, is that the religious systems borrowed heavily from each other.28 One interesting difference is that in Zoroastrianism, Hell is not an eternal punishment as it is in Christianity and Islam . Ahura Mazda, as Ultimate Goodness, will not let any of his creations suffer eternally 27. The Christian and Muslim god , however, does not appear to share this concern for his creations.

Truth is best of all that is good.
Zoroaster in the Avesta


The Persian descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans gave not just rise to Zoroastrianism, but also to Yazidism, a religion that survives to this day. It includes Proto-Indo-European elements , as well as elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It emerged as a distinct community in the middle of the 12th century in the area around Mosul in what is today Iraqi Kurdistan, forged by a man named Sheikh Adi30. The main beliefs of Yazidism include an absolute transcendental God who created the world and then left it to seven benevolent divine beings (angels). Their chief member is Malak Ṭāʾūs (also called Tawûsê Melek), who is worshipped in the form of a peacock (symbolizing the diversity of the world)30. Since many outsiders conflate the Peacock Angel with the Abrahamic figure of the devil, Yazidis have been heavily persecuted, most notably during the Armenian genocide in 1915 and during the reign of the Islamic State in the early 21st century31. Most of the Yazidi community in Turkey emigrated to Germany in the second half of the 20th century to escape persecution30. Today, Yazidism is practiced by about 1 million people in today’s Iraq and Kurdistan, and by several tens of thousands of adherents in Germany.
The supernatural
According to Yazidi belief, the supreme creator god Xwedê made the world and then ended his involvement with it, leaving it in the control of seven divine beings led by Malak Ṭāʾūs, the Peacock Angel. Similar to the Abrahamic creation story, all humans descend from a single pair, Adam and Eve. However, Yazidis believe themselves to have descended from Adam, while the rest of humanity is descended from Eve. Yazidism also incorporates belief in transcendence, and holds that there is a rebirth after death.30
Moral framework
The Yazidi moral system centers on the principles of justice, truth, loyalty, mercy, and love. A Yazidi may not marry a non-Yazidi, and one can be Yazidi only by birth .32
Yazidis pray daily, and fast on three days per year, in December. The society is partitioned into castes, which do not intermarry. Yazidis pilgrimage the tomb of Sheikh Adi in Lalish in Northern Iraq.32 Possibly as a consequence of centuries of persecution, Yazidis seek to keep themselves segregated from other communities 3031.
Possibly due to continuous persecution, Yazidis are immensely secretive about their traditions and religious beliefs, which they pass on mainly orally. Two short books, the Kitāb al-jilwah (“Book of Revelation”) and the Maṣḥafrash (“Black Book”, also spelled Mishefa Resh), form the sacred scriptures, though it is now widely suspected that both volumes were compiled by non-Yazidis in the 19th century and then were passed off as ancient manuscripts. However, their contents do in fact reflect authentic Yazidi oral tradition.30 Both are available online in English translation.
I was, am now, and shall have no end.
Malak Ṭāʾūs in the Kitāb al-jilwah

The Ancient Near East

A detail of the text in the Unas Pyramid from around 2300 BCE in Egypt. It explains how the Pharaoh Unas will rise to heaven after his death. This includes the use of boats, ladders, and most importantly, flying33 CC0 Toth
While the Proto-Indo-Europeans migrated to Europe and Western Asia, the Near East (i.e., the region that corresponds roughly to the modern Middle East) saw its own development of cultures and religions. This development falls roughly in the time between 4000 BCE and 0 CE. Our knowledge of this period comes from archaeological traces in the form of artifacts, architecture, burials, etc., as well as from writing, which was invented in the Near East at this time. A text recovered from the Pyramid of Unas in Egypt (pictured on right), for example, dates back to 2300 BCE and details beliefs about the Pharaoh, the gods, and life after death.

From such sources, we have a decent understanding of how the ancient near-Eastern societies functioned. We know, for example, that the societies were typically structured in city-states, i.e., cities that were sovereign, with a religion organized around a regional god. The city-states were typically 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 , though some were henotheistic, meaning that they worshipped a single god but acknowledged the existence of others. Most of these societies believed in another world after death, as we have seen in the example of the Unas Pyramid text.

The most important cultures were:

The the Egyptian sky goddess Nut as the earth god Geb reclines beneathCC0 British Museum
The Ancient Egyptian civilization flourished from 3000 BCE until the Sasanian-Persian conquest of Egypt in 618 CE. We know about the religion of this civilization from symbols and scenes depicted on tombs and temple walls, and from ancient writings on walls and papyrus scrolls, many of which were found in the pyramids. Important gods were Isis (the Queen of Gods), Osiris (the god of wisdom), Ra (the sun god), Horus (his son), Anubis (the guide of the underworld), Nut (the sky goddess), and Seth (the god of evil)34. The kings (pharaohs) were believed to be divine and many of them were buried in the pyramids, accompanied by grave goods and writings. .)
A Babylonian goddess dubbed the “Queen of the Night”CC-BY-SA Gennadii Saus i Segura
Mesopotamia is the region of the Tigris–Euphrates river system in present-day Iraq. It was first settled by the Sumerians around 4000 BCE. Their civilization flourished for over two thousand years before the Akkadian Empire grew to command greater influence over the region. From 1792 BCE on, the region was ruled by Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, before being conquered by the Hittites and then the Kassites. Babylon ruled again from 7th century BCE on, before it fell to the Persian Empire in 539 BCE. The Sumerians were one of the first civilizations to invent writing, and some of the texts (in Cuneiform script) still exist to this day. From these, we know that the Mesopotamian cultures knew over 1,000 gods , and that the Mesopotamians believed that they were co-workers with the gods 35.
Southwest Iran
The Elam civilization flourished in what is today Southwest Iran between 3200 BCE and 500 BCE. Their language was preserved in text after their contact with the Sumerians brought with it Cuneiform writing. The Elamite knew around 200 gods, including Kiririsha (a mother goddess), Pinikir (the queen of heaven), Nahhunte (the god of justice, fair trade, and contracts), and Ismekarab (the goddess of the underworld). Some gods were also imported from the Mesopotamian religions, for example the war god Nergal. 36 The interplay with the Iranian branch of the Proto-Indo-Europeans gave rise to Zoroastrianism.
A Minoan Snake Goddess from 1600 BCE.

in the Heraklion Museum in Crete/Greece

The Minoan civilization flourished on the (nowadays Greek) island of Crete between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE. We know about their culture from accounts by the surrounding cultures such as Egypt, as well as from excavations of art, architecture, and artifacts. These include depictions of religious ceremonies and rituals such as the pouring of libations and the making food offerings as well as processions and feasts. The Minoans apparently worshipped a voluptuous female mother-earth goddess figure, as well as a male figure who holds several animals37. The role of the so-called Minoan Snake Goddess (pictured) remains unclear.
The Levant
The Levant comprises present-day Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. One of the major early civilizations of the region was the Canaanites (with the Phoenicians as a subgroup), who flourished between 1600 BCE and 1100 BCE. We know about their culture both from archeological excavations and from writings in cuneiform, Egyptian, and Phoenician. The principal god of the Canaanites was El Elyon (also called just “El”) . Others were Baal (the god of rainfall and fertility), Asherah (the consort of El), and Astarte (the goddess of fertility)38. The sons of El Elyon and Asherah were gods known as the Elohim39.
One of the Elohim would later merge with his father, El, and embark on a career as the main god of Judaism — a process that we discuss later in this chapter.

Indian Religions

Indian Religions

The Indus Valley in North-West India was the center of the civilization of the Harappan people, which flourished between 2500 and 1700 BCE. One branch of the descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the Aryans, arrived in the valley around 1500 BCE. They spoke Sanskrit, an Indo-European language40. Between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE, the Aryans composed the Vedas – a collection of poems and hymns that praised a large number of gods 41. The Vedas were the basis of Vedism, the oldest religion in India for which there exists written materials. Vedism incorporated Indo-European and Persian religious concepts with elements from the local Harappan belief system. The Vedic Society was stratified into four castes: priests, warriors, traders, and servants. The religion was polytheistic, and Indra was its most important god. Ceremonies centered on the ritual sacrifice of animals to please the gods. During the early 1st millennium BCE, these rituals became more complex, and thus the Brahmins (priests) rose in status and importance. In this way, Vedism evolved into Brahmanism 42.

The emphasis on ritual (and the growing power of the Brahmins) caused a questioning of traditional Vedic thought by the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. The Upanishads were written around this time as appendices to the Vedas. Three important concepts were developed42:

  1. Brahman, a supreme existence or absolute reality that cannot be comprehended by humans.
  2. Saṃsāra, a repeating cycle of birth, life, and death in which the human soul is reborn (reincarnated) after death as a new being.
  3. Karma, the idea that good deeds entail future happiness and bad deeds entail future suffering.

These new concepts, the questioning of traditional Vedic thought, and the opposition to the dominance of the Brahmins led some reformers to found their own religions, most notably Buddhism and Jainism. Brahmanism itself evolved into Hinduism. Later, Sikhism evolved from Hinduism. These religions are grouped together as the Indian Religions. They share the belief in a supra-system that ensures Samsara and Karma.

Within the Indian religions, gods may or may not be worshipped. Sikhism, for example, has one god, while Hinduism encompasses a variety of beliefs that can include no god, one god, or several gods. Similarly, Buddhists may or may not worship gods depending on the interpretation. Jainism does not have gods.


A Hindu ritual at the Ganges River in Varanasi, India
During the 1st millennium BCE, Brahmanism evolved into Hinduism43. The new religion was characterized by the concepts of reincarnation, Karma, and the idea that liberation from the cycle of reincarnation can be achieved by meditation42. At the same time, the importance of ritual sacrifice (and, hence, of Brahmins) decreased[Baghvita Gita: 11:55]. Devotion to the gods became more prominent, most notably to Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna (the latter two both incarnations of Vishnu), Shiva (creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe), Lakshmi (the goddess of fortune), and Ganesha (the elephant-god and god of wisdom). The Vedic god Indra lost importance. Hinduism thus continuously evolved from previous religious convictions, without a known founder or founding date (much like did Shintoism, Yazidism, and the Chinese Folk Religions).

Hinduism soon spread through South-East Asia. Its dominance was challenged in the 13th century CE by the Muslim conquest of the region and the associated rise of Islam. However, Hinduism remains to this day the dominant Indian religion, and, with 1.3 billion followers, it is the third largest religion in the world.

The supernatural
Hinduism centers on the concepts of Samsara (a supra-system with a repeating cycle of birth, life, and death), Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness), dharma (the principle of righteousness), and Brahman (the ultimate reality). Possibly due to its long history, the absence of a central founding figure, and its geographic extent, the religion encompasses a wide range of mythological stories. One of the creation stories of Hinduism holds that the universe was once a dark ocean in which the god Vishnu floated on a serpent. Vishnu gave rise to the god Brahman, who created all living beings.
Moral framework
The “10 Yamas” (or “restraints”) of Hinduism are nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, marital fidelity, kindliness, equanimity, patience, perseverance, moderation in food, and cleanliness[Shandilya Upanishad: Chapter 1].
Hindus practice a variety of rituals, which can include worship44, bathing, yoga, meditation, chanting, pilgrimage, festivals, and rites of passage (e.g., for marriage and birth). Many Hindus embrace vegetarianism, and a large majority eschew the consumption of beef, as the cow is traditionally seen as sacred44.
There exists a plethora of different interpretations of Hinduism44. Around 7% of Hindus revere several deities. These deities can act independently, have divine children, have different genders, roles, and names, and are called upon on different occasions.

61% of Hindus believe that these deities are all manifestations of one Supreme Being. In other words, this supreme being is 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. While they are sometimes referred to as atheist, this interpretation still believes in the Hindu supra-system that ensures Samsara and Karma. Hence, this interpretation is not atheist in the sense of this book.

For Hinduism, the most important texts are the Veda scriptures, which were most likely compiled from oral traditions by priests and poets between 1500 and 1200 BCE41. The most recent addition to the Vedas are the Upanishads, 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), which tell stories of gods, kings, and wars. Included in the latter is the “Song by God”, also known as the Bhagavadgita.

Hinduism has an entire body of jurisprudence called the Dharma-shastra. Among these books, the Manusmṛiti (the “Laws of Manu”) is the oldest and traditionally most important 454647. Still today, the Laws of Manu are considered fundamental by some politicians4849, judges5051, and most of Google’s top-ranked English-language Hindu Web sites 5253545556.

Many of the sacred texts of Hinduism can be found online in English translation.

Hinduism inherited its caste system (stratified social classes) from Vedism. The class to which a person is born dictates the professions they can work in, their dress code57 as well as aspects of their social lives, including whom they can marry. At the bottom of the system are the avarnas (also called dalits), which were historically considered “untouchable”. Though it predates the British occupation of India, the system was actively enforced by the British, in particular beginning in 186058. The British translated the Laws of Manu and enforced castes as they understood them. This has given support to the idea that the caste system persists in India mainly due to the British.

And indeed, prior to occupation, Hindu society exhibited a much more diverse and flexible notion of caste than the British implemented: there was a bewildering multitude of castes instead of the four that the British recognized, and the caste system itself held less importance than the British accorded it58. That said, the notion of caste was not invented by the British: It appears across authoritative Hindu scripture[Bhagavadgita: 1.40-43, 4.13, 18.41-44][Laws of Manu: 1.87-91] that predates the British occupation by hundreds or thousands of years.

In 1920, the British made a U-turn on their prior enforcement of the caste system and introduced affirmative action for the avarnas. This principle also appears in India’s constitution of 1950 and in subsequent laws59. Thus, affirmative action has been in place 100 years now, while the British enforcement of the castes lasted 60 years. And yet, Indian society remains stratified into castes, with 68% of the population belonging to the modern equivalent of avarnas (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and so-called “Other Backward Classes”, and “Most Backward Classes ”)44. Though many Hindus converted to other religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism, they retained their caste designation. Hence, the system largely applies to all Indians today, regardless of religion, and marriage across social classes remains a taboo5944.

Every selfless act is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. Brahman is present in every act of service. All life turns on this law O Arjuna. Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life. But those who realize the Self are always satisfied. Having found the source of joy and fulfillment, they no longer seek happiness from the external world. They have nothing to gain or lose by any action; neither people nor things can affect their security. Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work, one attains the supreme goal of life.
Bhagavadgita, Chapter 3:15-19


The location where the Buddha reportedly found enlightenment

in Bodhgaya, India

Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family in present-day Nepal in the 5th century BCE. Like India, the region was Hindu at the time. Siddhartha’s privileged life insulated him from the harsh realities of life. The legend has it that, one day, he ventured outside the royal compound for the first time and encountered an aged man, a sick man, and a dead man. Shocked by their suffering, he decided to dedicate his life to asceticism and meditation. On the brink of starving himself to death, a milkmaid offered him some milk rice. Through this action he came to see that neither luxury nor asceticism leads to liberation. Instead, it must be the middle way.

Sitting under a tree near Bodh Gaya (pictured), he finally had the illumination that humans suffered because they did not recognize the transient nature of life . In this moment he became “the Buddha” (the Enlightened One) and began teaching that humans suffer because of earthly desires. The goal of Buddhism is to liberate people from this suffering by following ethical principles, mental discipline, and a middle way between extreme asceticism and hedonism. This is, according to Buddhism, the path to enlightenment, the liberation from the cycle of rebirth60. Today, Buddhism has around 500m adherents, mainly in Mongolia, China, and Southeast Asia.

The supernatural
The Heavenly Kings are revered as gods in variants of Buddhism

in the Longhua Temple in Shanghai, China

As in Hinduism, Buddhism recognizes the concepts of Samsara (a supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life, and death) and Karma (the idea that an unethical life causes one to be reborn under bad conditions, possibly in the underworld). Buddhists believe that the universe did not come into existence, but always existed. Buddhism teaches that humans suffer because of greed, delusion, and hatred and that whoever realizes this and frees themselves from these evils will achieve enlightenment, i.e., liberation from the cycle of rebirth – a state called Nirvana61. Gods play only a minor role in Buddhi sm, since they are in any case subject to the supra-system of Samsara. Some variants of Buddhism know no gods, while others do, such as the Four Heavenly Kings (pictured right).
Moral framework
The Buddha proposed the Noble Eightfold Path to achieve enlightenment, which emphasizes the “right speech”, the “right actions”, the “right livelihood”, and the “right concentration”61. From these were derived the “Five Precepts”, which prohibit killing, theft, adultery, lying, and the consumption of alcohol62.
Common Buddhist practices include meditating on the qualities of and honoring the Buddha or a Buddha-figure, by making offerings, for example. They also include pilgrimage and prayer, sometimes with prayer wheels61.
The oldest Buddhist scripture is the Pali canon, a collection of the sayings of the Buddha that was likely compiled sometime during the first century BCE63. It is known also as the Tipiṭaka or Tripiṭaka because it consists of three parts: the Vinaya Piṭaka, which contains the rules the Buddha laid down for monks and nuns, the Suttaṅta Piṭaka, which contains the Buddha’s discourses, and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, which comprises the psycho-ethical teachings of the Buddha. The Dhammapada is a particularly well-known collection of sayings of the Buddha, and part of the Suttanta Piṭaka. The Pali canon is available online online in English translation. For a newer reference, one can look to the Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. His teachings are also online in English.
There are two main schools of thought in Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, and more conservative. The Mahayana school uses an additional set of scripture, the Mahayana sutras, which stem from early Buddhism after Buddha’s time. Mahayana Buddhism is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, and it tends to be more diverse61.
Many variants of Buddhism do not have gods. Therefore, one could posit that it is not a religion, but rather a system of ethics. Buddhism forbids, for example, to kill, steal, and lie, and combines this ethical system with the idea of Karma: if someone does something bad, then this will entail bad consequences later. In other words: what goes around comes around.

The idea that what goes around comes around (in this life) is not a supernatural claim: it is falsifiable because it makes predictions. These predictions happen to be false, but there is no better proof for falsifiability than actual false predictions. To remedy these false predictions, Buddhists usually also incorporate the idea of Samsara (the repeating cycle of rebirth) into their faith. In this way, the idea of Karma can be upheld even if the consequences for one’s actions do not arrive in this life (they will arrive in another one). Adding in the concept of Samsara makes the claim of Karma unfalsifiable. Samsara itself is a supra-system in the sense of this book, and thus a supernatural element. Its inclusion in the faith makes Buddhism a religion in the sense of this book.

No one saves us but ourselves,
No one can and no one may.
We ourselves must walk the path
Buddhas merely teach the way.
By ourselves is evil done,
By ourselves we pain endure,
By ourselves we cease from wrong,
By ourselves become we pure.


Inside the Jain Temple of Singapore
Jainism traces its origin to 24 Tirthankaras, or supreme teachers. There is little historical evidence that these teachers were real people with the exception of the last: the Mahavira. The Mahavira was born in Northeast India in the 6th century BCE to a royal family, and lived as an ascetic. He gave Jainism its current form. Like Buddhists and Hindus, Jains believe in reincarnation. By behaving well, and being devoid of passions like anger, pride, and greed, one can escape reincarnation so that the immortal soul lives forever in a state of bliss. Unlike some variants of Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism does not recognize any gods. Today, the faith has around 5 million adherents, the majority of whom live in India64.
The supernatural
Jainism shares with Hinduism and Buddhism the concepts of Samsara and Karma . It also holds, like Buddhism, that the universe was never created. It was just always there and will always be. Unique to Jainism is the belief that the souls of those who have liberated themselves from the cycle of rebirth will become spirits (Jinas). Jinas are worshipped as a perfect role-models for Jains to aspire to. However, they are not gods: they have no power to intervene in the universe.64
Moral framework
Jain ethics is centered on the “Five Vows” of non-violence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, and non-attachment to worldly possessions. The non-violence extends also to animals: Jains are vegetarians and avoid any actions or jobs that cause harm to animals.64
Jains worships the Tirthankaras in temples. The faith knows pilgrimages, almsgiving, meditation, and fasting during festivals.64
The teachings of the Mahavira were originally passed on orally by his disciples as the “Jain Agamas”. At the time, the teachings could not be written down because Jain monks and nuns were not allowed to possess religious books as part of their vow of non-acquisition. However, a famine around 350 BCE killed many of those who had memorized the texts. To save the teachings, the Jain community began canonicalizing these oral traditions, resulting in a collection of 45 texts.64 Another important text is the Tattvārtha-sūtra, which was written between the 2nd- and 5th-century CE. It is accepted by all denominations of the faith65, and is available online in English translation.
Jainism is divided into two major denominations: Digambara and Śvētāmbara. They differ in their scripture. The Śvētāmbaras believe that the teachings of the Mahavira were collected correctly while the Digambaras believe 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. Digambaras believe that in order to achieve liberation, one must renounce all possessions, including clothing. Therefore, Digambara monks live naked. Since women are not allowed to be naked in public, this obliges them to be first reborn as a man in order to achieve liberation. The Śvētāmbaras believe that women can achieve liberation without this detour.64
All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away.


The Central Sikh Temple in Singapore
Guru Nanak was born in 1469 CE in the Punjab region, in today’s Pakistan. He was born to a Hindu family but was familiar with Islam, which had arrived in region by the 12th century CE. From 1496 to 1526, Nanak traveled through India, Tibet, and Arabia to study spiritual matters and to debate with the learned men he met along the way. During his travels he developed his own view on spiritual fulfilment, which draws on ideas from both Hinduism and Islam: humans are born and reborn in a cycle of reincarnation, but they can escape this cycle by the grace of God.

When Nanak returned from his journey, he was able to attract many followers in his native Punjab region. He died in 1539, but his ideas were continued by nine subsequent gurus (spiritual leaders), the last one of whom died in 1708. During this time, Sikhism established itself as a religion. Throughout its history, the Sikh community has had to defend itself, violently at times, against Hindu, Muslim, and British rulers. The youngest of the large Indian religions, Sikhism has around 25 million adherents, mostly in Punjab.66

The supernatural
Sikhism shares with Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism the concepts of Samsara and Karma . In addition, Sikhs believe in a singular god who created the universe. Liberation from the cycle of rebirth comes from the grace of this god, and people can become close to this god through worship, living a good life, and contemplation.66
Moral framework
The “three duties” of Sikhism are to keep God in mind at all times, to live an honest life, and to care for others (e.g., through charity). To live an honest life means to work hard and avoid crime, gambling, begging, and alcohol.66
The most important spiritual practice of Sikhism is worshipping God – either in private or in public services. Public worship includes prayer, the recital of hymns, and listening to the words of the scripture. It is usually concluded by a free meal for the community. The traditional outfit of the Sikhs comprises the “5Ks”, which are Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kaccha (a special cotton underwear), and Kirpan (a steel sword).66
The main scripture of Sikhism is the Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of the sayings of the first five gurus. It was written by the fifth guru, Guru Arjan, in 1604, and can be found online in English translation. The 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh , declared that he had no human successor, and that, henceforth, the book should take the role of the gurus — as it duly did at his death in 1708.66
God is beyond the world of the Vedas, the Koran and the Bible. [He] is immanent and manifest.

East Asian Religions

Chinese Folk Religion

In China, the earliest traces of religious belief dates back to the Yangshao culture, which prospered between 5000 to 3000 BCE in the Yellow River Valley. At the site of Banpo Village in modern Shaanxi Province, 250 tombs were found containing grave goods, which have been interpreted as belief in life after death. Archeological findings also suggest that the Yanshao people worshipped personifications of nature , and then of concepts like “wealth” or “fortune”.

Over the following several thousand years, these religious beliefs became more complex. Amulets and charms indicate a belief in ancestor spirits. By the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), people believed in a “king of the gods” named Shangti (not to be confused with the Abrahamic god, who came to be called Shàngdì when Christianity arrived in China in the 16th century CE). There were also a number of lesser gods, in particular Nuwa (a goddess part woman and part dragon who molded human beings from the mud of the Yellow River) and Fuxi (Nuwa’s brother and husband, the god of fire, and the teacher of human beings). 67

This time period was also characterized by the nascence of written Chinese literature: stories of gods, emperors, wise men, immortals, spirits, local deities, dragons, humanoid animals, unicorns, and magical objects68. These stories constitute the basis of the so-called Chinese Folk Religion, which groups together a wide range of beliefs, all of which are characterized by the worship of “shen”. The shen are spirits or deities in the sense of this book. They can be nature deities, city deities, national deities, cultural heroes, demigods, and ancestors .

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 spirits, gods, and rituals. Today, about 20% of China’s population practice this folk religion69.

The supernatural
Chinese Folk Religion holds that a person lives on as a shen after death70. There are also gods: Tian can be understood as the supreme god, and is often used synonymously with Shangdi, but there are also other gods (most notably the twins Nuwa and Fuxi). As for the origin of the universe, the demi-god Pangu is commonly portrayed as the first living being. It is believed that he separated Heaven and Earth , and when he died, his body turned into rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and everything else.71
Moral Framework
Chinese Folk Religion is focused on the family above all else. Ancestor worship is a consequence of this focus.72
Adherents of Chinese Folk Religion may variously observe geomancy (in the form of Feng Shui, a practice that aims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their environment), seek fortunetelling, worship the god of wealth, and engage in amuletic practices73. The religion worships shens, animal totems, and local gods. Astrology and communication with the ancestor spirits are also widely practiced. 72
Although not strictly speaking scriptures of the Chinese Folk Religion, the ancient Chinese literature is intimately linked the faith72. The oldest work is the I-Ching (the Book of Changes), which dates to the first millennium BCE and deals with divination74. Another important work is the Shanhai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”), a fabulous account of animals and geography, which dates to 400 BCE72.
This temple in Hangzhou/China reveres Laozi, Buddha, and Confucius together (figures left to right)
Chinese Folk Religion is 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). 72
The Superior Man studies in order to assemble facts, he questions others to gain sagacity, he makes forgiveness his life’s motto, and kindness the essence of his conduct.
I Ching, Hexagram 1


Confucius, in a temple in Jiading in Shanghai, China
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher born in 551 BCE, during the so-called “Spring and Autumn Period” of Chinese history, in the State of Lu (in the present-day Shandong province in northeast China). He was born as Kong Qui but came to be addressed as “Kong Fuzi” (“Master Kong”), which was then latinized to “Confucius” by 16th-century CE Christian missionaries. Confucius was involved in the local government of Lu, and attempted to teach the ruling class that observing a moral code would result in a more effective and just government. His main idea was that if people were taught to behave virtuously, society would govern itself without the need for an oppressive government. However, the upper class was not interested in his teachings. He resigned from his position and founded a school in which to teach his philosophy.

Virtue, for Confucius, was foremost filial piety but also benevolence (as expressed by the Golden Rule “Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do unto you”), pursuit of knowledge, loyalty to the government, integrity, and the practice of religious ritual (not because this would make any difference to any god, but because Confucius believed that following such rituals helped people keep their ego in check). After Confucius' death in 479 BCE, his ideas were further developed by the Chinese philosopher Mèngzĭ, latinized as Mencius . Confucianism did not meet much success until it was made the national Chinese philosophy under Wu the Great in the second century BCE. Since then, Confucianism has been the dominant philosophy of China.75

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 disinterest in the supernatural 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 China76. Interestingly, 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 Catholicism77.

At the same time, there is an interpretation of Confucianism that believes in gods and spirits, and practices prayer and worship78. 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 refer to prayer[Analects: 3:13, 7:35] as well as 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.

While Confucianism as a religion existed in China well before the 20th century, all of its structures were dissolved with the rise of Communism. Today, it lives on through the Confucian Academy in Hong Kong, the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia78, and various smaller churches and temples across East and Southeast Asia, including China (pictured right). Confucianism is one of the 6 religions recognized in Indonesia, with an estimated number of adherents in the tens of thousands.

The supernatural
Religious Confucianism believes in Hàotiān (also called “Heaven”, or “Tian” in Chinese Folk Religion) as the supreme deity who governs the gods, created the universe, and rules all things78. Religious Confucianism also holds that the ancestors live on as spirits, in particular Confucius himself.
Moral framework
In Confucianism (religious or philosophical), the four virtues that adherents shall strive for are loyalty, filial piety, self-restraint, and righteousness. The Five Constants towards which adherents shall strive are benevolence, justice, proper rite, knowledge, and integrity. Confucianism also values critical analysis[Analects: 9:8, 7:28] and learning[Analects: 8:13, 7:22, 2:15].
Religious Confucianism places much importance on worshipping the spirits of the ancestors, and in particular the spirit of Confucius 78. The religion also has ceremonies for birth, maturity, marriage, and death, as well as festivals.
Confucianism (both as a philosophy and as a religion) is frequently practiced in combination with Chinese Folk Religion, Taoism, and/or Buddhism, and so it is difficult to differentiate the belief systems of the religions 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 written down by Confucius’ followers, probably around 475 BCE-221 BCE. The text can be found online in English translation. Another important work is the “Book of Mencius”. Together with the Analects, it is part of the “Four Books and Five Classics”75 of Confucianism. The Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia issues contemporary edicts on moral questions.
The noble man seeks within himself [what] the common man seeks in others.


The symbol of Taoism is the Yin 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 (also spelled Lao-Tzu), a mythical Chinese philosopher. Legend has it that Laozi grew impatient with the corruption he saw in Government and decided to go into exile. As he was crossing the border to leave China, the gatekeeper stopped him, and asked him to write a book for him before he left civilization forever. Laozi agreed, wrote the Tao Te Ching, and then disappeared forever.79 In reality, the Tao Te Ching is a collection of writings by many different people. It contains short, enigmatic paragraphs of advice on life as well as poetic descriptions of the nature of the universe.80

By the second century CE, Taoism had developed into the religion that we know it as today. The central concept of Taoism is the Tao, which is often translated as “the way”, and is understood to be the underlying natural order of the universe — a supra-system in the sense of this book. Taoism emphasizes doing what is natural and “going with the flow” in accordance with the Tao79. Another important concept in Taoism is Yin and Yang – the idea that nature is filled with complementary forces that fit together and work in harmony (like masculine and feminine, action and inaction, wet and dry, etc.). Taoists aim to achieve harmony with nature, and meditation is often considered the path through which to achieve this balance. .80 Today Taoism is practiced mainly in China and Taiwan, and has around 180 million adherents.

The supernatural
In Taoism, there is an underlying order of the universe, called “Tao”, or the Way. The universe is dominated by two opposing forces, the Yin 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”. Taoism also acknowledges the existence of the spirits of the dead. Through meditation and self-improvement, adherents aim to attain spiritual immortality – the state where the death of the body has no impact on the continued life of the soul as a spirit.80
Moral framework
Taoism teaches not to initiate action but to wait for events to make action necessary, and to avoid being pushed into action by desires and compulsions. Beyond that, it disapproves of killing, stealing, lying, and promiscuity, and promotes altruistic, helpful and kindly behavior .80
Adherents practice an array of methods such as meditation, Feng Shui , fortune telling, and the reading and chanting of scriptures80. Modern variants of Taoism burn paper models of cars, money, or other items (Joss paper) to sustain the spirits of the deceased.
Taoism blends with the background of Chinese Folk Religion, to a degree that it is hard to distinguish the two. It is also sometimes practiced together with Buddhism and/or Confucianism.
Taoism is based on the Tao Te Ching. It is available online in English translation. Another important work is the Chaung-Tzu (also spelled Zhuangzi). It is attributed to an author of the same name, who lived from 369 to 286 BCE. He held that things should be allowed to follow their own course and that no situation should be valued over any other.81 The Daozang (also called Tao Tsang or Daoist Canon) is a large collection of Taoist texts that was compiled between 960 CE and 1279 CE82. It consists of three parts called “grottos”. The third grotto is the “Spirit Grotto” (also called Dongshen, Sanhuangjing, or Book of Three Emperors) and it contains the “The Ultra Supreme Elder Lord’s Scripture of Precepts” (Number 0809, Book 18), a short summary of Taoist morals. It is available online in Chinese and in English.
The sage produces, but does not own, acts but does not claim, accomplishes but does not take credit. And because he does not take credit, the credit does not go away.


Shintoism emerged in the first millennium BCE from local mythical beliefs in Japan, and it is inherently linked to Japan and the Japanese people. Shintoism believes in spirits and gods, called “kami”, which inhabit all things, including forces of nature and prominent locations on the landscape. The kami appreciate our interest in them, and if they are treated properly, they will intervene in our lives for our benefit. Hence, people pray to the spirits, worship them in shrines, and appease them with rituals.

When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century BCE, Shintoism adopted many Buddhist concepts, and both religions were embraced in conjunction by the Japanese emperor. The kami were correlated with Buddhist deities, or with transformations of the Buddha himself. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 CE, however, advanced Shintoism as the native, official, and superior religion of Japan and separated it from Buddhism. The emperor was declared the descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, with a divine right to rule over not only Japan but the whole world. This claim was later retracted after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War. At this time, state Shintoism was dismantled, religion and state were separated, and Shintoism was cleansed of the political, nationalistic, and militaristic elements it had acquired.83 Today, Shintoism is practiced mainly in Japan, and by most of the population (of 120 million people people), although to varying degrees, and in a seamless blend with Buddhism.

The supernatural
Shintoism holds that the kami reside in all things. After death, the human soul joins with the collective kami of its ancestors. Shintoism also knows gods, most notably the divine siblings Izanami and Izanagi who created the land of Japan. 84.
Moral framework
The moral framework of Shintoism is influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism.
Adherents worship the kami in both public and household shrines, and through prayers and offerings. Other common rituals include dance, rites of passage, and seasonal festivals. Particular emphasis is on the notion of purification, for which there exist a variety of rituals .83
Shintoism exists in numerous variants, of which Shrine Shinto is the most prevalent. It is said to be closest to the traditional form of Shintoism as it first appeared in the first millennium BCE.83
The myths of Shintoism derive from oral traditions that were codified in two books: the Nihon Shoki, published in 720 CE, and the Kojiki, written by an official of the Empress Gemmyo between 708 and 714 CE. An additional source, the Kogoshui, was written around 807 CE by Imibe-no-Hironari, who collected oral traditions omitted from the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki85. These sources can be found online in English translation.
The two deities, Izanagi and Izanami, standing upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven, pushed down the jeweled spear and stirred with it, [...] and drew the spear up, the brine that dripped down from the end of the spear was piled up and became an island. This is the Island of Onogoro [of Japan]. Having descended from Heaven onto this island, Izanagi asked his younger sister Izanami: “In what manner was your body made?” She answered saying: "My body was made by growing, but there is one part that has not grown continuously.” Then said Izanagi: “My body was made by growing, but there is one part that has grown that is superfluous. Therefore, would it be good to graft this part of my body that has grown superfluously into the part of your body that has not grown?” “It will be good”, Izanami replied. [...] Having made this agreement, [...] Izanami said: “O beautiful and lovely young man!” And Izanagi replied: “O beautiful and lovely virgin!” [...] After each had finished their prayer, they began the work of procreation, and she gave birth to a son named Hirudin.

Indigenous Religions

Indigenous religions

Indigenous religions (also called “tribal”, or “ethnic” religions) are religions that are bound to a particular society. They are typically not codified in scriptures nor institutionalized, and smaller in scale. This distinguishes them from more widespread, institutionalized religions that are also bound to a particular ethnicity, such as Hinduism, Shintoism, and Judaism.

Indigenous religions evolved without a clear boundary from prehistoric belief systems. They are frequently linked to a geographic heartland, and explain the world and its origins based on the characteristics of that region. They value not individual spiritual experiences, but ritual activities that bind people to the community: dances, ritual traditions, and the use of costumes, masks, and sacred artifacts.86 Today there are thousands of distinct religious traditions spread across the world, though most prominently among Indigenous communities in Africa, Asia, Australia, the Americas and the Arctic Circle .

The Inuksuk is a symbol from the Indigenous Canadian Inuit population that can be used to mark places of reverence87

in Canada

In some cases, the traditional beliefs of Indigenous religions have been submerged by the dominant organized religion — often by colonization, violent conquest, or genocide. 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 hundreds of millions86.

Some beliefs of Indigenous religions include86:

African Indigenous religions

Africa is home to a large number of indigenous religions, which have evolved gradually since prehistoric times. The religions are bound to the history of each people or tribe. Nevertheless, most of them believe in a creator god, who shares many characteristics with the Abrahamic god: he (or she) is good, compassionate, just, and loving to all people, and can respond to human requests. Different from the Abrahamic religions, and like Deism, however, the African religions hold that God withdrew from the day-to-day affairs of humans and left that task to a group of lesser spirits.

During the spread of Islam that started in the 8th century CE, the northern part of Africa has become mainly Muslim. The African religions still exist in this region, but beneath the surface. The southern part of Africa has mostly become Christian as a consequence of the colonization by European powers and their missionary work. Still, African religions continue to be practiced there to this day.88

The supernatural
Most African Indigenous religions believe in a supreme God, who created the world, as well as in spirits. Some spirits are associated with objects and phenomena of nature (the sun, thunder, mountains, earthquakes, etc.). Others are remnants of human beings after death. All humans become spirits after death, and they go to a place that is imagined like the real world (with mountains, forests, etc.). There is neither reward for a good life on earth nor punishment for an evil life. The living can ask the spirits of the dead to relay their requests to God. 88
Moral framework
Marriage and having children are considered a religious duty. Moral offenses include disrespect toward elderly people, sexual transgressions (incest, rape, intercourse with children, adultery, and homosexual intercourse), murder, stealing, robbery, telling lies, deliberately causing bodily harm, and the use of sorcery and witchcraft. Such acts are punished by making the offender and his or her family feel shame or ostracism, or pay a fine; sometimes the offender is beaten or stoned to death. 88
People express their belief in and awareness of God through prayers, invocations, sacrifices and offerings, praise songs, and dedication of children to God. Divination, traditional healing, and magic rituals are also common. Life events (such as birth, initiation, marriage, and death) are celebrated with rites. For initiation, some peoples practice circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy (female genital mutilation) for girls. 88
Today, Africa’s religions co-exist, and in some cases have merged with, Christianity and Islam. When African people were brought to the Americas as slaves, several syncretic religions resulted from the merger of African religions and Christianity. One such syncretic religion is Candomblé, which is particularly popular in Brazil. Candomblé believes in one all-powerful God, called Oludumaré, who is served by lesser deities. 89

Australian Indigenous Religions

Around 50,000 years ago, the first humans arrived in Australia. These were the ancestors of the people we know today as the Aboriginals . The Aboriginals are spread across the continent, with different tribes, languages, and traditions . Their religions are indigenous beliefs. Central to these beliefs is “the Dreaming”, a mythological period of time that had a beginning but no foreseeable end, during which the natural environment was shaped by the actions of mythic beings. In Aboriginal thinking, everything that now existed was fixed for all time in the mythic past, and all that the living were asked to do, in order to guarantee the continuance of their world, is obey the law of the Dreaming.

Starting from the 18th century, the Aboriginals were suppressed, driven into the bush, placed in reserves, forcibly assimilated, and killed in large numbers by the European colonizers.90 However, their culture has survived. Today, there are around 1 million Australian Aboriginals, and many of them follow their indigenous belief systems.

The supernatural
In the Aboriginal religion, the all-powerful spirits that shaped the world during the Dreaming continue to exist. Some of them entered some physiographic feature, were metamorphosed as hills or rocks, or turned into various creatures or plants. Humans are connected to the spirits through totems.90
Moral framework
The Aboriginal religions reserve superior rights of men over women and of older men over younger men. Apart from that, it places a high value on personal autonomy.90
The Aboriginal religions know elaborate rituals, which involve dance, music, and chants.90
Aboriginal history has been passed down through storytelling, with different tribes having different mythological stories . Some of these are stories of how a certain geological feature (such as a lake, a mountain, or a reef) came into existence. When comparing these stories to what geological evidence tells us, we sometimes find a striking similarity. For example, the Lake Euramoo myth of the Dyirbal people, recorded in 1972 by linguist Robert Dixon, goes as follows:
“It is said that two newly-initiated men broke a taboo and angered the rainbow serpent Yamany, [a] 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.” 91
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia was once a coastline.
In reality, Lake Euramoo came into existence by a volcanic eruption, and the Dyirbal myth can be understood in this way. There are many aboriginal myths across Australia that tell the history of natural features on the landscape: Stories of Port Phillip Bay describe it as once dry land (the bay formed in the ice age due to rising sea level), while myths of The Great Barrier Reef describe it as the land between the ancient and current coastlines (it is, in fact, an ancient coastline)92. The interesting thing is that these geological phenomena took place up to 10,000 years ago, suggesting that these stories have been handed down from generation to generation for 10,000 years.

Abrahamic Religions

Abrahamic religions

By the time the Aboriginals had consolidated their beliefs in Australia, the Vedas of Brahmism were written in India, the Chinese folk religion developed its pantheon in China, and Zoroaster formulated his beliefs in Persia, another important branch of religions was born in the Middle East. Between 1600 BCE and 1100 BCE, the civilization of the Canaanites flourished in the Southern Levant (today’s Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) . In the tradition of the Ancient Near East religions, they worshipped a pantheon of different gods, as we have already seen93. Their main deity was El Elyon, along with his consort Asherah and their divine sons, the Elohim.

The Israelites first appeared in the region as a separate culture around 1250 BCE. By 1082, they had established a kingdom called Israel. Like the Canaanite faith, the religion of the Israelites was based on a cult of ancestor worship and worship of family gods. There was an entire pantheon of gods, including some drawn directly from the Canaanites such as El Elyon, Asherah, and Baal94.

A novel addition to the Israelite pantheon was the god Yahweh. One common assumption among scholars (the Kenite Hypothesis) is that the veneration of Yahweh originated in Sinai, just south of Israel95. It was brought north by migrants, merchants, or prophets. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible seems to hint at this provenance of Yahweh in multiple places, saying that “the Lord came from Sinai, [...] from the South, from his mountain slopes”[Bible: Deuteronomy 33:2, Judges 5:4, Isaiah 63:1, Habakuk 3:3]. We can learn more about the origins of Yahweh from the Ugaritic texts, clay tablets dating to 1200 BCE: Yahweh was originally considered a son of El Elyon39. Again, the Hebrew Bible contains passages that can be understood 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[Bible: Deuteronomy 32:8-9]. The Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient Jewish religious manuscripts, dating to the 1st century BCE) show that this passage originally talks of one share for each of the sons of El Elyon, with Yahweh being one of them96. Other passages of the Hebrew Bible confirm this view: Psalm 82:1-9 presents Yahweh as presiding over the council of the gods, with Yahweh himself saying that all members of the council are sons of the “Most High”[Bible: Psalm 82:1-8]. Psalm 86:8, too, acknowledges the existence of the other gods[Bible: Psalm 86:8]. 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 Yahweh39. The Hebrew Bible appears to corroborate that view: it condemns the practice of associating Asherah to Yahweh, which indicates that she was indeed associated to him[Bible: Deuteronomy 16:21-22]96.

Over time, El Elyon and Yahweh were fused into one god96. The word “El” was interpreted as meaning “God”, and “Yahweh” was then the name of that god. Traces of this fusion, where both the name “El Elyon” (“the Most High”) and the name “Yahweh” are used to refer to the same god, remain in the Hebrew Bible[Bible: Exodus 6:3, Psalm 97:9]. All the attributes of El Elyon were thus attached to Yahweh. Most notably, Yahweh received the property of being the creator of the universe from El Elyon39. Yahweh thus rose in importance in the pantheon of the Israelites.

In 722 BCE, Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and many Israelites fled to Judah , just south of Israel. In 598 BCE, Judah was conquered by Babylonia and the temple in its capital, Jerusalem, was destroyed. The most influential citizens of the region were taken to Babylon (close to present-day Baghdad, Iraq) as captives94. In captivity, the Israelite clerics concluded that the destruction of Jerusalem was a punishment from Yahweh for worshipping other gods94. Henceforth, they declared Yahweh the only god, and all other gods were abandoned. Asherah, the consort of Yahweh, became associated with the god Baal3997[Bible: Judges 3:7, 1 Kings 18, 2 Kings 23:4] and was abandoned alongside him. All traces of the other gods were removed from the Hebrew Bible — although, as we have seen, some have remained.

This was the hour of birth of Judaism. As the first of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism would later give rise to Christianity, and both would later serve as the basis for Islam. Based on these (and other religions), the Bahai Faith and Spiritualism arose in the 19th century. 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 Canaanite religion, merging the Canaanite god El Elyon with his son Yahweh. When Babylon destroyed the temple of Jerusalem in 598 BCE , the clerics saw this as a punishment from Yahweh because they had worshipped other gods94. Hence, they came to believe that Yahweh was the only god, and the other gods were abandoned. The Israelites then 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 are called Jews .

In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who invited the Jews to come back to Jerusalem. The region was then taken by the Greeks in 334 BCE, independent from 160 BCE on, and then taken by the Romans in 63 BCE. The Jews revolted several times against Roman authority but were ultimately defeated in 136 CE and exiled from Israel. The Jewish people scattered in a large diaspora (mainly Europe, North Africa, and, later, Russia and the Americas), and were often subjected to persecution in their Christian host lands. This culminated in the Holocaust in the early 20th century when Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews. Partly in response to these persecutions, the Zionist movement rose in the 19th century to lobby for the establishment of a Jewish state in the historical land of Israel. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many Jews emigrated to what they saw as their Jewish homeland. This led to tensions with the native Palestinian Arabs, and the United Nations finally partitioned the region into a Jewish and an Arab sector.98 The Jewish sector declared statehood in 1948 as Israel. Ever since, Israel and the neighboring Arab states have been in conflict. In particular, some Israeli politicians use Judaism to justify and drive the Israeli settlements in Palestine, a topic that we discuss later.

Today, Judaism counts about 14 million adherents. Around 5 million of them live in Israel, and another 5 million in the United States. The rest are dispersed throughout the world, mainly in Europe.

Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, where the first temple once stood before it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 598 BCE
The supernatural
Judaism holds that there is exactly one god, and that he created the universe. This god is specifically concerned about the Jewish people . Thus, he shares properties with the local spirits, in that he centers his interest on a particular group of people. In exchange for the good the god does for them, Jews are called to worship him and to follow his laws99. Judaism holds that after death, humans go to either heaven or hell. This applies to both Jews and non-Jews[Talmud: Mishneh Torah/Sefer Hamada/Teshuvah/3:3]. Finally, Judaism holds that there will be a leader (a “Messiah”, yet to be born) who will restore the nation of Israel100.
Moral framework
One of the bases 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 one’s parents, killing, adultery, stealing, false testimony, and coveting someone else’s house, wife, animals, or slaves. Another important principle is the Golden Rule: 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 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 has several different interpretations on the spectrum from the liberal to the orthodox. Reform Judaism is the most liberal Jewish Movement. It seeks to adapt Jewish tradition to modern sensibilities, emphasizes social justice, and grants personal choice in matters of ritual observance. Conservative Judaism is a midpoint on the spectrum between Orthodox and Reform Judaism. It adopted certain innovations (such as gender-egalitarian prayer), but maintains the traditional line on other matters(such the prohibition of marriage with adherents of other faiths). Finally, Orthodox Judaism pursues the strictest understanding of Jewish law. Its adherents do not drive on Shabbat days, and follow the food restrictions of Kosher law. Among the Orthodox Jews, the Haredi Jews (also called Ultra-Orthodox Jews) are the most stringent in their commitment to Jewish law and tend to have the lowest levels of interaction with the wider non-Jewish society. The men usually wear distinctive black hats. The Hasidic Jews are a subgroup of the Haredi Jews, who practice direct communion with the divine through ecstatic prayer.101
The holy scripture of Judaism is the Hebrew Bible. It consists of 24 books, which include the five books of the Torah102. Scholars hold that the Hebrew Bible was compiled from multiple fragments, written by different authors at different points of time between the 8th and the 1st centuries BCE. The Hebrew Bible can be found online in English translation. The teachings of the Hebrew Bible are interpreted in the Midrash Aggadah, a large body of scriptures compiled between 200 and 1000 CE103.

Another important scripture is the Talmud, a comprehensive written version of Jewish oral law and the subsequent commentaries on it. It was finished in 500 CE and consists of the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Talmud can also be found online in English translation.

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, tracing their history back to a common ancestor. Traditionally, Jewish identity was passed down through blood from mother to child. Many Jewish people are adherents of Judaism. However, some are atheists, and others have adopted another religion. While a non-Jewish person may convert to Judaism, this remains a rare occurrence, perhaps because male converts have to undergo circumcision104.
Israelis are the citizens of the present-day state of Israel. The majority of Israelis are ethnically Jewish, though not all. Around 20% of the population are Arab.105. Just as not every Israeli is Jewish, not every follower of Judaism lives in Israel. Only around half of the world’s adherents of Judaism live in Israel.
What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Law; the rest is just commentary.
Hillel the Elder


The Nativity Church in Bethlehem, Palestine, where Jesus is assumed to have been born.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish preacher who lived from around 7 to 2 BCE to around 30 to 33 CE in what was then Roman Israel. He preached the imminent establishment of God’s kingdom and promised inclusion in this kingdom for the poor, the weak, and the sinners. He emphasized devotion to God, observance of the law, and purity of intention106. According to the Biblical account[Bible: Matthew 26:57–67], his claim of being the Messiah and the son of God angered the Jewish priests of Israel. They asked the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus for blasphemy and treason. He complied, and Jesus was crucified. After his death, many of Jesus’ followers believed that he was resurrected by God, and lived on Earth for several days before ascending to Heaven106. 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. In a crucial departure from Judaism, Christianity holds that God is the god of the entire human race (without a special link to the Jews), and therefore this insight should be spread to other people 8.

In 321, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, and Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE. It then became the dominant religion across Europe and was brought to the Americas and elsewhere with colonization, beginning in the 15th century100. Today, Christianity has around 2.4 billion adherents, mainly in Europe, the Americas, and sub-Saharan 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, and that his death atones for the sins of humanity100. Most Christians also believe that God is a triune godhead of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and that 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”[Matthew 22:34-40].
Following Paul’s interpretation that Jewish law was less important after Jesus' resurrection107, Christianity has largely disposed of the practices of Judaism (circumcision in particular). However, Christianity still practices prayers to the god, and marks life events with rituals, most importantly baptism for birth.
There are three major Christian denominations: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (which includes Anglicanism and Pentecostalism, among others). These variants differ in their organization, rituals, and theological details. For example, the Orthodox Church holds that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”, while Catholicism says that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”108. 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 15 million adherents, who believe that God exists in three distinct entities as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Another such group are Jehovah’s Witnesses, with 8 million adherents, who believe that Jesus is God’s creation.
Christians adopted the Hebrew Bible and added a new part, known as the “New Testament”. The New Testament consists of 27 books written by Paul the Apostle and an unknown number of other, anonymous authors, mainly during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE109 . 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 in English translation.

Additional Christian beliefs were written down in scriptures called “creeds”, “professions of faith”, or “catechisms”. The Nicene Creed, from 325 CE, for example, codified beliefs in heaven, sins, Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus as the son of God110. In 360 CE, the Council of Constantinople declared the trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other beliefs were declared at other points of time and by different denominations. For example, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” explicitly defines the complete belief system of Catholicism. It can be found online in English. The Book of Mormon, in comparison, is the holy book of Mormonism. It was written in 1830 CE by the American Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that the holy book was based on ancient native American sources111. However, the book contains a number of anachronisms, such as the presence of horses in North America prior to colonization 112 (while horses were brought to the Americas by the Europeans), so that this hypothesis finds no acceptance outside Mormonism.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.


The Taj Mahal, a tomb built in 1632 in Agra, India, is one of the masterpieces of Muslim art.
The Prophet Mohammed lived from 570 CE to 632 CE near the city of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula. At the age of 40, he reported divine revelations from God and began teaching belief in a single god, called Allah (a continuation of the Jewish god Yahweh and the Christian god). Mohammed’s teaching attracted much opposition from the polytheistic Meccans, and he fled to Medina in 622 CE. From there, he and his adherents conducted raids on Meccan caravans and, eventually, Mecca attacked Medina in 624 CE. However, Mohammed and his followers won the war and returned to Mecca victorious in 630 CE. Around this time, other tribes started adhering to his teachings, and by the time of his death in 632 CE, Mohammed had become the most powerful ruler in all of Arabia. His revelations were consolidated in a book called “the Quran” between 644 CE and 656 CE.

Directly after Mohammed’s death, the newly united Islamic tribes attacked the Byzantine and Persian empires. By 750 CE, Islamic rule (and faith) stretched from Portugal to northwest India. Today, there are around 2 billion Muslims (adherents of Islam), mainly in Northern Africa, the Near East, and central Asia.113 We discuss Islam in detail in the Chapter on Islam.

The supernatural
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam holds that there is exactly one god (Allah), and that he created the universe. However, similar to Judaism and 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, which is thus literally the word of the god (which distinguishes the Quran from the Bible, which is considered divinely inspired but written by humans). 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 respect for one’s parents[Quran: 17:23], fairness[Quran 17:35] (especially towards orphans),[Quran 17:34], and the prohibition of adultery[Quran: 17:32], unjust killing[Quran 17:33], and lying[Quran 17:34]. The Sharia codifies these sources and others into a comprehensive legal framework.
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 Mecca113. Similar to Judaism, male circumcision is also practiced. Dietary laws prohibit the consumption of pork and alcohol.
Mohammed told his revelations to his followers, and 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 interpreting the Quran. The Hadiths were first transmitted orally, and then compiled by scholars in the centuries after Mohammed’s death114. Today, there are several books of Hadiths by different scholars, some of which are regarded as more authoritative than others, depending on the denomination of Islam.

Islam is divided into the major denominations of Sunni (about 90% of Muslims) and Shia (about 10% of Muslims), as well as a few other minor denominations. Shia and Sunnis differ on whom they consider the legitimate successor of the Prophet Mohammed (Abu Bakr for Sunnis, or ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib for Shias). Whabism and Salafism are two particularly conservative sub-denominations of Sunni Islam. Sufism is a branch of Islam that is today mainly Sunni, and that emphasizes a mystic approach to religion.
Some interpretations of Islam are extremist. They nourish Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other such groups that engage in often deadly violence for what they consider a defense of Islam. As a result, many in the Western world regard Islam as a terrorist ideology. Others argue that Islam is an inherently peaceful religion in line with Human Rights, which is misunderstood by conservative adherents, and abused by extremists. In reality, there are a variety of interpretations of Islam, which range from the liberal to the conservative and the extremist . In this book, we will argue that it is not up to an atheist to determine which is the true interpretation of the faith. All the atheist can do is acknowledge that there are different interpretations of the religion, and that each variant has its adherents. In the Chapter on Islam, we will examine these variants in detail, list the arguments that adherents and opponents of each variant bring forward, and evaluate the compatibility of these variants with Humanist values.
To Allah alone belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth. He forgives whoever He wills, and punishes whoever He wills. And Allah is all-forgiving, most merciful.

Bahai Faith

The Bahai Gardens in Haifa, Israel, where the Bab is buried
In 1844, the Persian Siyyid Alí-Mohammed became convinced that he was the divine messenger awaited by Shia Islam. He called himself “the Báb” (literally: “the gate”), and taught that God would soon send another prophet who would be the latest in a line of prophets including Moses, Muhammad and Jesus Christ. This teaching contradicted the Islamic doctrine that Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam, and the Persian authorities set out to execute the Bab by firing squad in 1850. However, the shots only shredded the ropes that suspended him from the wall, and he survived. He was suspended again and killed, but his survival of the first execution was considered miraculous by his adherents. Two years after his death, one of the Bab’s adherents, the Persian Mirza Husayn Ali, had a vision that he was the chosen one promised by the Bab. He started calling himself “Baháʼu'lláh” (“the glory of God”), and taught that all religions are successive revelations by the same god. His teachings gave rise to the Baháʼí Faith, an Abrahamic religion with around 6 million adherents spread all over the world.115
The supernatural
The Bahai Faith teaches the oneness of God (there is exactly one god), the oneness of religion (all major religions have the same spiritual foundation), and the oneness of humanity (all humans have been created equal, and diversity of race and culture are worthy of appreciation and acceptance). After death, the human soul goes to heaven or hell, depending on the behavior during lifetime. Both are non-physical realms.116
Moral framework
The Bahai Faith prohibits slavery, asceticism, mendicancy, monasticism, penance, the use of pulpits and the kissing of hands; prescribes monogamy and the equality of sexes; condemns cruelty to animals, idleness and sloth, backbiting and calumny; interdicts gambling, the use of opium, wine and other intoxicating drinks; prohibits murder, arson, adultery and theft; obliges adherents to engage in some profession, and to educate their children; and prescribes obedience to one’s government[The Most Holy Book: Synopsis and Codification, D].
The Bahai Faith practices obligatory daily prayers, meditation, rites for marriage and death, worship events on holy days, and fasting during a 19-day period of the year[The Most Holy Book: Synopsis and Codification, D].
The Bahai community has established the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel, with elected members. It legislates on issues not already addressed in the Baháʼí writings, providing flexibility for the Baháʼí Faith to adapt to changing conditions. Partly thanks to this institution, there are to this date no discernible variants of the Bahai Faith.
The authoritative texts of the Bahai Religion are the writings of its prophets and the messages of the Universal House of Justice117. Important works by the Bahaullah are the “Book of Certitude” (which can be found online in English translation) and the “Most Holy Book” (also available online in English translation), which defines laws and practices. The decisions of the Universal House of Justice, too, can be found online in English.
It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.


Spiritualism started in 1848 in New York when Kate and Margaret Fox (aged 12 and 15 at the time) reported that they were able to contact the spirits of the dead, who would respond to their questions with mysterious knockings. Following their claim, others also reported such encounters and the movement gained followers. Though the Fox sisters later admitted that they produced the knockings themselves, and other mediums were exposed as fraudulent as well, the movement continued unabated. The 1850s saw the establishment of the first Spiritualist churches (mainly in the US and the UK) and the codification of the faith based on what the spirits purportedly said.

In addition to the spirits of the dead, Spiritualism believes in a single god, inherited from Christianity.118 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 a large Spiritualist community in Brazil.

The supernatural
For Spiritualism, the soul continues to exist after death as a spirit, and it is possible for the living to communicate with these spirits. Spiritualists also believe in a singular god, often referred to as “infinite intelligence”, who created the world.
Moral framework
Spiritualism emphasizes personal responsibility for one’s actions and honors the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you118. Spiritualism rose in the century after the Enlightenment, and so its adherents fortuitously found that the spirits favored the equality of genders and the abolition of slavery119.
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.
Although there are churches of Spiritualism, the religion is not globally organized and 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 the Frenchman Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, under the pseudonym “Allan Kardec”120. It adds, to the beliefs of Spiritualism outlined above, the idea of reincarnation, the identification of the god with the Abrahamic God, and the existence of extraterrestrials.
There are a number of books written by different Spiritualists that adherents may take as guidance. For Spiritism, the quintessential books are by Allan Kardec. Of these, the “Spirits’ Book”, written in 1857 CE, is the most fundamental one. It is a collection of responses to several hundred questions, which Kardec proposed to people who could purportedly communicate with the spirits, and for which he consolidated and interpreted the answers120. The book is available online in English translation. “The Gospel As Explained by Spiritism”, another work by Kardec, is pictured on the right. Other important works are those of Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier, who lived 1910-2002 in Brazil. 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 principles118.
So are there two general elements in the universe: matter and spirit? — Yes, and over everything is God, the Creator and author of all.
the spirits in Allan Kardec’s “Spirits’ Book”

New Belief Systems

New Religious Movements

New Religious Movements are religious movements that are not yet old enough to be called a religion. New religious movements often reuse elements of existing religions, focus on the self, work towards converting others to their faith, and sometimes exist in a state of tension within mainstream society. Currently, such movements can be broken down into four primary categories:
UFO religions
These new religious movements believe in extraterrestrials. Typically, adherents assert that the extraterrestrials are interested in the well-being of humanity. The two largest UFO religions are Scientology and Raëlism, with tens of thousands of adherents each, mainly in the Western world.
Neopagan religions
These religious movements 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 1 million adherents.
Syncretic religions
These are religions that blend one or more existing systems of belief into a new religion. While this can be said of many religions, 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 spiritual life philosophies reject religion as dogmatic. These systems are technically still belief systems in the sense of this book, as they postulate the existence of the supernatural. For example, Spirituality seeks a personal interaction with God without religion, Deism posits that God created the universe, but then retired, and 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 argued that the “witches” who were persecuted in Europe during the Middle Ages were in fact merely women who practiced pre-Christian pagan traditions. In the 1920s, the English Egyptologist Margaret Murray was one of the most prominent advocates of the witch-cult hypothesis. The theory is considered incorrect today, but it resonated with followers of the occult revival of the late nineteenth century. 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 humankind’s connection to it.

In the 1940s, the English anthropologist Gerald Gardener reported to have been initiated to witchcraft by a group of “hereditary witches”, i.e., witches who have supposedly passed on the secrets of witchcraft through the generations. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act (which made it a crime to claim that someone had magical powers) was repealed in England, and Gardener and others started publishing books on their ideas, and thus, the new religious movement of the Wicca was born.121122 The movement generally emphasizes the link between nature and humans. Today, the Wicca have several hundred thousand 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
The prevalent interpretations of Wicca are dualist: they put forward a Horned God and a Mother Goddess as main deities. After death, the spirit is reborn and will meet again those with whom it had close personal ties in previous lives. Once the spirit has absorbed everything that can be learned through repeated incarnations, it remains in a blissful realm called Summerland. Central to Wiccan belief is the spiritual connection to nature. Furthermore, Wiccans believe that nature can be influenced through magical rituals.122
Moral framework
The Wicca moral framework is harm-based, meaning that it permits actions as long as they do no harm to someone else. Accordingly, magic may only be performed when it does not harm others. In addition, adherents believe in the Law of Threefold Return, which states that whatever good or bad a person does will return to that person with triple force.121 Wiccans believe that people should strive to live in harmony with others and with themselves, and with the planet as a whole.122
Most Wiccan rituals take place within the frame of seasonal festivals during the full moon. They take place usually at night and are lit evocatively by candles if indoors or by the moon, bonfires, or lanterns if outside. A magic circle is cast, an altar with the tools of magic is set up in the circle (pictured), and adherents pray to the gods and perform magic.
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 yet 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 rediscover and reestablish the presumed ancient European pagan rites. The most influential book was Gardener’s 1954 book “Witchcraft Today” (available online). The “Charge of the Goddess” is an important inspirational poem by Doreen Valiente, one of Gardener’s followers (available online).
The word “witchcraft”, which Wiccas use, usually evokes negative connotations, against which the Wicca community has had 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 honor, 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.”123. 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.
Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: an it harm none, do what ye will.
the Wiccan Rede


One of the first churches of Scientology, in New York, U.S.
After the Second World War, the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard became interested in mental health. He wrote a book called “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”, in which he argued that the human analytical mind is inhibited by memories of traumatic experiences (which he called engrams). To rid the mind of these memories, Hubbard proposed a process called auditing, a type of counseling in which engrams are identified, recalled, and ultimately extinguished. Once someone rid themselves of all engrams they would reach a state that Hubbard called “clear”. His theories became popular but were opposed by the American Medical Association for being unscientific.

As the theory proposed in the Dianetics book developed, practitioners began to report puzzling memories from their previous lives. This led Hubbard to postulate the existence of an immortal essence (the “thetan”) that existed across repeated incarnations. With this, the religion of Scientology was born, and organized by Hubbard in the Church of Scientology124125

The Church of Scientology has always been controversial. It has been accused of being a cult, its practitioners investigated for practicing medicine without a license, and its leaders charged for tax fraud. Controversy around the church peaked in 1979, when senior members of the church infiltrated government offices in order to make copies of official documents about the church. After the arrest and conviction of the office’s leadership, the church was reorganized. Nevertheless, it is still known for aggressively defending its founder and program in courts against critics.

Hubbard died in 1986, but the church continues to exist in Australia, Europe, and the US. In the US, the number of adherents was estimated in 2008 to be around 25,000 126.124125

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, and that the human mind is inhabited by engrams (harmful memories) that affect life negatively. The engrams are considered to be the spirits of extraterrestrials that were dropped onto Earth and then killed by the galactic ruler Xenu127. Scientology seeks to eliminate these engrams , to lead the adherent to a state of perfect happiness called “Clear”128.
Moral framework
Hubbard’s “Way to Happiness” lists 21 precepts, among which are the prohibition of promiscuity, theft, and murder, and the promotion of truth, industriousness, love, care for one’s family, support of the government, and care for the environment.129.
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 eliminate the engrams128. In training, members follow courses delivered by the Church128.
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 Hubbard. He followed this up in 1952 with “Scientology, a religious philosophy”, which formalized the teachings of the movement. Other teachings and practices of Scientology are secret to the public127.
Scientology has attracted criticism for several reasons:
One reproach to Scientology is that the church exists mainly to make money127. Contrary to most other religions, Scientology makes none of its scriptures available online for free, and the more advanced scriptures are not publicly available at all (not even as books for purchase). Indeed, virtually all important products and services of the Church are for-pay. According to ex-adherents, 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 127. Hubbard himself appears to admit his financial motives for the foundation of Scientology, when he wrote in 1949: I'd like to start a religion; that’s where the money is!130 And indeed, Hubbard used Church funds to build massive personal private residences. The current head, David Miscavige, possesses several multi-million-dollar mansions 127.
Fair Game Policy
Another point of criticism is the “Fair Game policy” of the Church, in which adherents are encouraged to harass, discriminate against, injure, and (in Hubbard’s words) trick, sue, lie to, or destroy any person critical of the Church127. Indeed, the Church has conducted “criminal campaigns of vilification, burglaries and thefts ... against private and public individuals and organizations” critical of Scientology, according to a court verdict131. Most notable was “Operation Snow White”, where members of Scientology infiltrated 136 government agencies, foreign embassies, and consulates in order to retrieve official documents about the church132. Hubbard’s wife and ten other Scientologists were convicted for their role in these infiltrations127.
Policy of Disconnection
“Disconnection” is the severance of ties to people who are antagonistic to Scientology or its tenets133. 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 the Church134. This can result in the loss of friends, family, and in some cases even children 127.
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, while Protestant televangelists make millions of dollars from televised masses and supposed healings. As for the Fair Game policy, critics of Islam are persecuted in many Muslim countries 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.
We welcome you to Scientology. We only expect of you your help in achieving our aims and helping others.

Non-religious Spirituality

There is no precise definition of the term “spirituality”. In this book, we mean by spirituality a belief system that emphasizes personal and individual experiences with the supernatural135. This is not to be confused with Spiritualism, which aims to contact the spirits of the dead. Non-religious spirituality (“spiritual but not religious”, SBNR) is a belief system that emphasizes an immediate and spontaneous experience of the supernatural, but rejects existing religions with their rites136137, prayers, services, communities, and scripture138. SBNR adherents may take inspiration from the Abrahamic religions, the East Asian Religions, or the Indian Religions, but distance themselves explicitly from organized religion. They see religion as dogmatic, organized, historically burdened, precisely defined, morally restrictive, and with a claim to universality, and non-religious spirituality as a purely personal relationship with God or the supernatural. Around 22% of Americans are categorized as SBNR138.
By definition, there are no codified or uniform beliefs of SBNR adherents. They are united only in their belief that there is something spiritual beyond the natural world (i.e., something supernatural in the terminology of this book), and by their rejection of religion. Beyond that, they may believe138: SBNR adherents aim to be connected with their true self, with something bigger than themselves, and/or with nature. For these aims, they meditate, “look inside” themselves, or spend time in nature.
There is no official scripture of spirituality. Individual groups, or individual adherents, may or may not use scriptures.
Some people use the term “spiritual” simply synonymously with “religious” — possibly when they feel the term “religious” has negative connotations while the term “spiritual” does not. Other people are explicitly spiritual and religious, meaning that they seek a personal relationship with the supernatural inside their religion. In some cases, people who say they are “spiritual” are in fact adherents of what this book calls “Christianity Light”. Other spiritual people seek a connection with the supernatural outside existing religions — these are SBNR adherents in the sense of the definition above. For the purposes of this book, both religions and non-religious spirituality are belief systems.

Metaphysical Philosophies

Some Ancient Greek philosophers had very abstract concepts of God, the universe, and metaphysics. Parmenides of Elea, for example, proposed a single substance comprising all of reality139 . Heraclitus of Ephesus, for his part, conceived of a “logos”: a rational, natural, universal “thought” through which the universe came into being and by which it is maintained140. Likewise, in modern times, some people hold very abstract ideas of God. These ideas often evolved with inspiration from, but in 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 assert 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.

In this book, we use the term “metaphysical philosophies” to group together a set of worldviews that hold that “God” is a name for a metaphysical phenomenon. These philosophies do not believe in a personal god as a conscious entity, which distinguishes them from Deism. They also do not believe in interactions with the supernatural, which 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 statements , which makes 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 on such philosophies in the Chapter on the God of Gaps, the Chapter on Proofs for Gods, and the Chapter on Truth.

It is wise to listen, not to me but to the Logos, and to confess that all things are one.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, in Fragment 50 of his writings


Thomas Paine was a Deist.

in the Montsouris Park, Paris, France

Deism is a philosophy that originated in Europe in the 17th century. Deists rejected Christian dogmata, keeping only the idea of an impersonal god. According to the Deists, God created the world and then left it to operate under the natural laws he had devised. 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 flourished during the Age of the Enlightenment and became the dominant religious attitude among Europe’s educated classes in the late 18th century. It was also accepted by many upper-class Americans of the same era, including the first three U.S. presidents.141 Still today, some people believe in the existence of God without the attributes that the Abrahamic religions ascribe to him.

The supernatural
Deism rejects religious dogma, religious practices (with the exception of worshipping God), as well as reports of miracles. Deism believes in a single god who created the universe, gave humans the ability to reason, and then stopped interacting with the world. Deism holds that this belief is natural, and comes from reason alone.141
Moral framework
The early Deists accepted the moral teachings of the Bible141, though that may no longer be true for today’s Deists. They make instead take inspiration from Thomas Paine, who said: The world is my country, and to do good is my religion142.
Deists reject all religious practices, with the exception of worshipping God.
There are no official scriptures of Deism. Deists may take inspiration from the writings of philosophers such as Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, John Toland, Thomas Paine, or David Hume. Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” , for example, contains a detailed critique of Christianity in favor of Deism . It is available online in English.
Deism believes in a single god (as opposed to several gods or no god), and 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, an idea inherited from the Abrahamic religions. (The Indian religions, in contrast, 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, in which God does not interact with this world. For the purpose of this book, such variants will be categorized as Spirituality and not as Deism. Other variants of Deism are very close to Christianity in that they hold God as 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”. Other variants of Deism hold that God is not a conscious being, but rather 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 corrupted141 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 cultures that take little or no inspiration from today’s major religions do not know the Deist god. Instead, they believe in spirits of nature. For example, Australian Aborigines, have animist beliefs, not Deist beliefs, and they have most likely held some version of these beliefs for tens of thousands of years. In sum, all data points we have are about animist, ritual, and spiritist traditions, not deist ones. The idea of a single god who created the universe and then retired without leaving any other gods or spirits in charge became popular only in the 17th century in Europe. Based on this, it is clear that Deism is a fruit of the Abrahamic religions, not a precursor to them.

You desire to know something of my religion. I have [...] doubts as to Jesus' divinity; though [...] I think it needless to busy myself with this question now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.
Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790


Humanism, the particular brand of atheism that this book espouses, is not a religion because it lacks belief in the supernatural. It is listed here mainly for comparison.
The first humanist thoughts were formulated in Ancient Greece, where the philosopher Epicurus taught that the goal of human life is happiness, that this requires the absence of pain, and that the gods are of no relevance in this endeavor. These notions were rediscovered during the Renaissance in Europe and gave rise to humanism as a philosophy that centers on humans, their needs, and their dignity. (Such thoughts can also be found in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mencius.)

Humanism shares the concept of human dignity with Christianity. However, the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century in Europe and America caused a questioning of the traditional Christian narratives (most notably, the Prussian astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbits around the Sun, and not vice versa). Deism reduced the Christian god to a mere creator of the universe . The Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century continued to emphasize reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge (instead of religious revelation and conviction) and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and the derivation of governmental authority from the consent of the governed – concepts that had few parallels in Christianity at that time. Atheism became more accepted in the latter half of the 19th century in Europe, and philosophers started openly considering moral frameworks without reference to God, religion, or revelations.

These currents nourished a philosophy that today we call Secular Humanism (or Humanism for short, with a capital H): the combination of the moral and philosophical values of the Enlightenment with atheism. In the 20th century, Humanism was codified in several manifestos, and Humanists formed organizations in several countries, all of which operate under the umbrella of Humanists International. However, many people may share the values of Humanism without adhering to such an organization, or without even knowing that these values are called “Humanism”. Therefore, the number of adherents is difficult to estimate.
The supernatural
Humanism is atheist and holds that the natural world is all there is. For Humanists, it is up to people to give meaning to their own lives, to develop moral frameworks, to shape their societies, and to discover truths. According to Humanism, the best means to these ends are science, rationalism, free enquiry, freedom of expression, and education.
Moral framework
The moral framework of Humanism is driven by empathy. It is harm-based and egalitarian: everybody shall have the same rights, and something should be forbidden only when it causes harm to someone else. This means that even though Humanism is non-religious, it nevertheless defends the freedom of religion. Beyond that, Humanist ethics is consequentialist: it does not aim at retribution, but at the prevention of harm. While Humanism first held an exclusive focus on humans, it later came to widely consider nature, animals, and the environment as worthy of protection. In what concerns government and politics, Humanism believes that these should be kept separate from religion and that all nations should be held accountable to Human Rights.
Humanists have no common practices, and they typically mingle within their societies without any distinctive sign. Some Humanist organizations offer non-religious rites of passage for marriages and deaths.
Humanist philosophy has been condensed into different documents, most notably the Secular Humanist Declaration of 1980143, the 1996 minimal statement on Humanism144, the Amsterdam Declaration of 2002145, and summaries by the American Humanist Association (2003)146 and the British Humanist Association (2020)147 (all of which are available online in English). That said, loyal to its principle of constant search for truth, Humanism continues to evolve and adapt.
Humanism: the philosophy that it is our fellow humans that matter and not some fictional beings.
the Candid Atheist
The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Founding of Religions


  1. Eudald Carbonell and Marina Mosquera: “The emergence of a symbolic behaviour: the sepulchral pit of Sima de los Huesos, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain”, in Comptes Rendus Palevol, 2006
  2. British Archeology Magazine: “Origins of Burial”, Issue 66, August 2002
  3. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: “Qafzeh: Oldest Intentional Burial”, 2022
  4. Lyn McFarlane: “Red Ochre Experiments”, 2009
  5. Lea Surugue: “Why This Paleolithic Burial Site Is So Strange (and So Important)”, in Sapiens, 2018
  6. Ligurian Archaeological Museum: “The Prince of Arene Candide”, 2023
  7. World History Encyclopedia: “Venus Figurines”, 2017
  8. Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind, 2011
  9. The Economist: “Big people, big gods”, 2019-03-21
  10. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Aztec religion”, 2023
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Native American religion”, 2023
  12. John Eric Sidney Thompson: Maya History and Religion, 1990
  13. BBC: “What did the ancient Maya believe?”, 2023
  14. Alexus McLeod: “Sacrifice - A Maya Conception of a Misunderstood and Underappreciated Component of Well-Being”, Science, Religion and Culture, 2019
  15. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Inca Religion”, 2023
  16. Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian: “Living Maya Time”, 2023
  17. Lee Clare: “Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. A brief summary of research at a new World Heritage Site”, in German Archeological Institute, 2020
  18. Ian Hodder: “Çatalhöyük in the Context of the Middle Eastern Neolithic”, in Annual Review of Anthropology, 2007
  19. E.M.J. Schotsmans et al: “New insights on commemoration of the dead through mortuary and architectural use of pigments at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey”, in Nature, 2022-03-08
  20. English Heritage: “Building Stonehenge”, 2023
  21. World History Encyclopedia: “The Megalithic Temples of Malta”, 2021
  22. Mark Damen: “The Indo-Europeans and Historical Linguistics”, in Utah State University, 2019
  23. Rolf Noyer: “PIE Dieties and the Sacred”, in University of Pennsylvania, 2023
  24. Ranko Matasović: “A reader in comparative Indo-European Religion”, in University of Zagreb, 2023
  25. J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams: The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, 2006
  26. Wikipedia: “Trito (Proto-Indo-European mythology)”, 2023
  27. World History Encyclopedia: “Zoroastrianism”, 2019
  28. Jewish Encyclopedia: “Zoroastrianism”, 1906
  29. World History Encyclopedia: “Avesta”, 2020
  30. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Yazidi”, 2023
  31. Oxford Research Encyclopedia: “Yazidis”, 2023;jsessionid=CE94019399D5207444DAB4FF9CBBECB8
  32. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan: “ The Yazidi—Religion, Culture and Trauma”, in Advances in Anthropology, 2017
  33. Translation of the Unas Pyramid Texts
  34. Dirk Laukens: “Religion In Ancient Egypt”, 2015
  35. World History Encyclopedia: “Mesopotamia”, 2023
  36. World History Encyclopedia: “Elam”, 2020
  37. World History Encyclopedia: “Minoan Civilization”, 2018
  38. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Canaan”, 2023
  39. Quartz Hill School of Theology: “B425 Ugarit and the Bible”, 2022
  40. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Hinduism”, 2023
  41. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Veda”, 2023
  42. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Vedic Religion”, 2023
  43. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Hinduism”, 2023
  44. Pew Research: “Religion in India - tolerance and segregation”, 2021-06-21
  45. Naseera N. M. and Moly Kuruvilla: “The Sexual Politics of the Manusmriti: A Critical Analysis with Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Perspectives”, in Journal of International Women’s Studies, 2022
  46. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Manu-smriti”, 2023
  47. Indian Express: “Explained: What is the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text recently under controversy?”, 2022-08-27
  48. Times of India: “Thol Thirumavalavan booked for remarks on Manusmriti”, 2020-10-24
  49. Indian Express: “Bihar Education Minister says Ramcharitmanas, Manusmriti spread hate, BJP hits back”, 2023-01-25
  50. Frontline/The Hindu: “Supreme Court judge S. Abdul Nazeer’s recent speech raises eyebrows”, 2022-01-17
  51. The Hindu: “HC judge’s remark on Manusmriti draws criticism from women’s groups”, 2022-08-12
  52. “Manusmriti the Laws of Manu – Introduction”, 2023
  53. “Vegetarianism and Meat-Eating in 8 Religions ”, 2007
  54. “Manu Smriti Quotes - Teachings from Manusmriti”, 2023
  55. “Women”, 2023
  56. “Vedic Teachings About Womanhood”, 2015
  57. B. R. Ambedkar : The Annihilation of Caste, 1936
  58. BBC: “What is India’s caste system?”, 2019-06-19
  59. The Economist: “Indian reservations”, 2013-06-29
  60. World History Encyclopedia: “Buddhism”, 2023
  61. BBC: Buddhism, 2023
  62. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Sila”, 2023
  63. Encyclopedia Britannica: Pali Canon, 2023
  64. BBC: “Jainism”, 2009
  65. JainPedia: “Tattvārtha-sūtra”, 2023
  66. BBC: “Sikhism”, 2011
  67. World History Encyclopedia: “Religion in Ancient China”, 2016
  68. “Chinese mythology”, 2017
  69. Pew Research: “Adherents of Folk Religions”, 2015-05-02
  70. ”Encyclopedia
  71. ”
  72. SonOfChina: “What is Chinese Folk Religion?”, 2021
  73. Chunni Zhang, Yunfeng Lu, He Sheng: “Exploring Chinese Folk Religion: Popularity, diffuseness, and diversities”, in Chinese journal of Sociology, 2021
  74. “I-Ching”, 2023
  75. World History Encyclopedia: “Confucianism”, 2020
  76. CFR: “Religion in China”, 2020-09-25
  77. “Chinese Rites Controversy”, 2023
  78. Confucian Academy: “FAQ”, 2023
  79. World History Encyclopedia: “Taoism”, 2016
  80. BBC: “Taoism”, 2009
  81. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Zhuangzi”, 2023
  82. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Daozanǵ”, 2023
  83. BBC: “Shinto”, 2011
  84. World History Encyclopedia: “Shinto”, 2017
  85. World History Encyclopedia: “Izanami and Izanagi”, 2012
  86. “Indigenous Religions”, 2023
  87. Government of Canada: “Inukshuk”, 2022
  88. “African Religions”, 2018
  89. BBC: “Candomblé”, 2009
  90. Britannica: “Australian Aboriginal peoples”, 2023
  91. Robert Dixon: The Dyirbal language of North Queensland, 1972
  92. Nick Reid and Patrick Nunn: “Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level”, in The Conversation, 2015
  93. Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Gods and Goddesses of Canaan”, 2009
  94. “Kingdom of Israel”, 2018
  95. Joseph Blenkinsopp: “The Midianite–Kenite Hypothesis Revisited and the Origins of Judah”, in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2008
  96. John Day: “Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature”, in Journal of Biblical Literature, 1986
  97. Judith M. Hadley: The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah, 2000
  98. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Israel”, 2023
  99. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Jewish beliefs”, 2009
  100. World History Encyclopedia: “Jesus Christ”, 2021
  101. “The Jewish Denominations”, 2023
  102. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Hebrew Bible”, 2023
  103. “Midrash”, 2023
  104. BBC: “Converting to Judaism”, 2011-07-12
  105. Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics: “Population of Israel on the Eve of 2023 ”, 2022-12-29
  106. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Jesus”, 2023
  107. BBC: “The basics of Christian history”, 2009
  108. Thomas E. FitzGerald: “Eastern Christianity”, in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2005
  109. ”Encyclopedia
  110. Nicene Creed
  111. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Book of Mormon”, 2023
  112. Book of Mormon Central: “Why Are Horses Mentioned in the Book of Mormon?”, 2016-04-11
  113. World History Encyclopedia: “Islam”, 2019
  114. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Hadith”, 2023
  115. BBC: “Bahai”, 2014
  116. “What Bahá’ís Believe”, 2023
  117. “Authoritative Writings and Guidance”, 2023
  118. BBC: “Spiritualism”, 2023
  119. Katie Keckeisen: “Beyond The Veil: “Spiritualism in the 19th Century”, 2018
  120., 2023
  121. “Wicca”, 2018
  122. BBC: “Wicca”, 2012
  123. BBC: “Secret life of modern-day witches”, 2012-08-20
  124. “Scientology Church”, 2019
  125. “Scientology”, 2018
  126. New York Times: “In Pasadena, a Model for Scientology’s Growth Plan”, 2010-11-09
  127. Taylor C. Holley: “Auditing Scientology: reexamining the Church’s 501 (c)(3) tax exemption eligibility”, in Texas Tech Law Review 54, 2021
  128. Scientology: “What is Scientology?”, 2023
  129. L. Ron Hubbard: The Way to Happiness - A Common Sense Guide to Better Living, 1980
  130. Lloyd A. Eshbach: Over My Shoulder - Reflections On A Science Fiction Era, 1983
  131. United States of America v. Jane Kember, Morris Budlong, Sentencing Memorandum, 1980
  132. United States of America v. Mary Sue Hubbard, et al., 1977 Grand Jury Criminal Indictment, 1978
  133. Scientology: “What is Disconnection?”, 2023
  134. Mike Rinder: “Scientology Disconnection”, 2016
  135. Psychology Today: “Spirituality”, 2023
  136. Harvard Divinity Bulletin:“ Spiritual but not Religious”, 2010
  137. Linda Mercadante: “Spiritual Struggles of Nones and ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’ (SBNRs)”, in Religions, 2020
  138. Pew Research: “Spirituality among Americans / Who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans?”, 2023-12-07
  139. World History Encyclopedia: “Parmenides”, 2011
  140. World History Encyclopedia: “Heraclitus of Ephesus”, 2010
  141. Encyclopedia Britannica: “Deism”, 2023
  142. Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason, 1794
  143. Council for Secular Humanism: “A Secular Humanist Declaration”, 1980
  144. Humanists International: “Minimum Statement on Humanism”, 1996
  145. Humanists International: “Amsterdam Declaration”, 2002
  146. American Humanist Association: “Humanism and its Aspirations”, 2003
  147. Humanists UK: “Humanism”, 2020