CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

History of Religion

Earliest Religions

It is difficult to determine when religions started in the history of humankind. It is probably safe to assume that the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, alive roughly 6 to 7 million years ago, was not religious. This is because, in our definition of the word, a religion is a set of beliefs that contains supernatural statements. Since these species did not have the capability to speak , they could not form or share such statements.

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 sapiens .

Now, where did religion start?

It is hard to tell when an ancient species had religion. Archaeologists mostly rely on

We will now trace these indicators through history.

Neanderthal Burials

Bodies that are not buried often leave no archeological trace (bottom left in the picture).

in the Sahara in Morocco

Animals usually do not bury their dead. Likewise, evidence suggests that early human ancestors did not either. The problem is that bodies left in the open air often leave no archeological traces, and so we do not know about these practice s.

Some of the earliest evidence for intentional burial is from 400,000 years ago. At the archaeological site of Atapuerca in Burgos, Spain, 28 individuals of Homo heidelbergensis were found at the bottom of a deep shaft . These bones might have arrived there by chance, but given that it is unlikely that 28 people fell simultaneously into the cave, scientists assume nowadays that they were intentionally buried1. Concentrated remains of Neanderthals were also found in La Quina and L’Hortus in France, and in the Krapina Cave in Croatia, dating to around 100,000 years ago.

These latter ones were defleshed — meaning that the flesh had been removed from their bones before their burial. One may think that this was done for cannibalism, but the cut marks are much different from those that indicate that a corpse was butchered for meat. It is thus tempting to imagine that the bodies were defleshed for ritual reasons.

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 ).. Neanderthals placed their dead in simple graves , with apparently no concern for grave goods or elaborate markers . On occasion we find limestone blocks within or atop the graves , which could have been used to mark the grave -- although this is difficult to prove. The latest buria l from the Neanderthals that has been found dates to around 35,000 years ago, and was found in St. Cézaire in France. After that, Homo sapiens superseded the Neanderthals 2.

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

As the British Archeology Magazine points out: We often forget that it is only in the modern, Western world that burial of the dead has been a more or less universal and commonplace practice. Not only in the earliest periods but throughout prehistory, humans disposed of the bodies of their loved ones by a variety of means, most of which have left no traces and can only be guessed at by scholars today2.

Human Burials

A human buried with red ochre (about 4500 BCE, from Menneville/France) CC0 Vassil
The earliest trace of an intentional burial by homo sapiens is found in the Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel . A number of men, women and children were explicitly deposited there around 100,000 years ago. In this burial, as well as in those that followed it, the bodies of the deceased were heavily colored with red ochre3.

Several possible reasons for the ochre have been suggested. We can hypothesize that the ochre was part of a ritual — i.e., a behavior that serves no direct physical purpose, but which may have psychological, social, or spiritual purposes. Another possible reason is that the ochre deters scavengers. Some experiments suggest that the ochre has a particular taste, a smell, or bacterial properties that make it less attractive as food to animals4.

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

Australian Aboriginal Myths

Around 50,000 years ago, the first humans arrived in Australia. They split into different tribes, languages, and traditions. Different tribes have different mythological stories, and some of them have been recorded by modern linguists. Some of these myths tell the story of how geological features (such as a lake, a mountain, or a reef) came into existence. When we compare these stories to how the features really came into existence (based on geological evidence), we sometimes find a striking similarity.

For example, the Lake Euramoo myth of the Dyirbal people goes as follows:

It is said that two men broke a taboo and angered the rainbow serpent Yamany, major spirit of the area ... As a result, the camping-place began to change, the earth under the camp roaring like thunder. The wind started to blow down, as if a cyclone were coming. The camping-place began to twist and crack. While this was happening there was in the sky a red cloud, of a hue never seen before. The people tried to run from side to side but were swallowed by a crack which opened in the ground.5
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia was once a coastline.
In reality, Lake Euramoo came into existence by a volcanic eruption, and the myth can be interpreted in this way. Other myths talk about other features: Port Phillip Bay formed in the ice age by rising sea waters, and a mythological story describes it as once dry land. The Great Barrier Reef is an ancient coastline, and a myth describes the land between the ancient and current coastline 6. All of these stories can be interpreted as describing some real geological phenomena. The stories describe some truth, and intertwine it with mythological content.

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

Grave goods

In Eurasia, we find traces of burials from around 34,000 years ago with grave goods — items that were deliberately placed with the dead. In many cases, these are the bones of large herbivores such as aurochs, mammoth, bison or reindeer.

In Sunghir, Russia , e.g., some burial sites contain several thousand mammoth ivory beads, several hundred fox teeth pendants and a panoply of ivory artefacts7. 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 possessions82.

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

Venus figurines

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

The oldest known figurine is the “Venus of Hohle Fels”, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk around 35,000 years ago. The “Venus of Willendorf” (pictured right) is slightly younger, and dates to about 25,000 BC9. The youngest is the “Venus of Monruz”, from about 11,000 years ago. These figures have no known connection to the Roman goddess Venus — the name was just given because archeologists conjectured that they may have represented a beauty ideal. Interestingly, the figurines are shaped consistently across tens of thousands of years. It is also striking that representations of the female form make up the great majority of unearthed sculptures from the past 30,000 years. Some of the Venuses were found in graves2.

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

From local spirits to gods

Archeologists and historians have long studied the gods that the ancient societies believed in. Evidence for such gods comes from artifacts, inscriptions, architecture, paintings or painted objects, and, later, written records of beliefs. One pattern that emerges is that the earliest and smaller societies tended to be animist: People believed that the physical objects of nature had a spirit. They personified the local river, a particular mountain, or particular tree10.

However, once kingdoms and trade networks expanded, people tended to contact entities whose power and authority encompassed a whole kingdom or an entire trade basin. This gave rise to the belief in more universal and more powerful go ds11, such as the god of love, the god of war, or the god of wine. This is what we observe in the American religions, which we discuss next.

American Religions

Humans arrived in the Americas from Eurasia more than 15,000 years ago, via what is today Alaska . Different cultures rose in different parts of the continent.
Olmec culture
The Olmec culture flourished between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE in central America. Sculptures, architecture, and artifacts remain from this time. Based on these, researchers believe that the Olmecs worshipped numerous high gods that controlled the universe. Since their names are unknown, they are referred to as God 1 to God 10. The most recognizable ones are the Olmec Dragon (God 1, possibly for the earth, water, fire) and the Olmec Bird Monster (God 3, possibly for the heavens). The Olmec polities numbered a few thousand people at most, and they thus had likely no elaborate religious bureaucracy of priests12.
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. The Mayas wrote down their beliefs in hieroglyphic books that survive to this date. There are also books written by the Maya themselves and the Spanish at the time of the colonization13. From this, we know that the Mayas believed in several gods, each representing a different part of life: the creator god Itzamna, the sun god K’inich Ahau, the Night Jaguar who represented the journey of the sun, as well as storm gods, controlling thunder, lightning and the rains. There was a moon goddess, a maize god, and a feathered serpent god, Kukulkan, who controlled rain. These gods had to be pleased so Maya communities made regular offerings to them, in the form of animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices14. The Mayas built several pyramid-shaped temples in honor of the gods, some of which survive until today (pictured). The Mayas also incorporated several European elements into the local religious beliefs. 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 Chac13.
Aztec culture
The Aztecs dominated Central America between 1300 CE and 1600 CE. From Spanish accounts, we know that they had a god of war (Huitzilopochtli), a sun god (Tonatiuh), a rain god (Tlaloc), and, like the Maya, a Feathered Serpent God. Human sacrifice, particularly by offering a victim’s heart to Tonatiuh, was commonly practiced, as was bloodletting. The Aztecs had a large professional priesthood to that end15.
Inca culture
Machu Picchu, an Inca city from the 15th century CE in today’s Peru
The Inca empire lasted from roughly 1200 CE to 1500 CE in Western South America. 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). The Incas practiced divination, and knew the practice of sacrifices, of both animals and humans. Priests worked in all important shrines and temples.16
North American cultures
In North America, the indigenous tribes typically each had their own localized religious beliefs . The tribes believed in one or several gods, and/or in spirits. Common to all of them was the absence of a distinction between the sacred and the worldly: natural entities such as mountains, springs, lakes, and clouds can be considered sacred as well. Participation in common ceremonies was considered more important than belief. The traditional beliefs were usually passed down face-to-face to the next generation.17
The Europeans arrived first in 1492 CE, and then in greater numbers. Finally, their culture came to dominate the local cultures. Today, the indigenous religions have often been overridden by Christianity. A notable exception are the Maya people, who exist as a large ethnolinguistic group in central America to this date, with their own religious beliefs18.

Neolithic religions

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

Few reliable facts are known about the religion of these people — also because writing was not yet available. We only know of several places that could have served as places of worship:

Göbekli Tepe
Carvings at Göbekli Tepe CC-BY-SA Volker Höhfeld
Göbekli Tepe is a site in Southern Turkey, close to the border with Syria. It dates to the 10th-8th millennium BCE. Its most impressive feature are remains of circles of massive T-shaped stone pillars. More than 200 pillars in about 20 circles are currently known. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m and a weight of up to 20 tons. Many pillars have carvings of animals. The site is often called “the world’s first temple”, because it shows no evidence of domestic structures (although that has recently been challenged)19.
Çatalhöyük is a settlement in Southern Turkey that existed from approximately 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. The site comprised elaborate shrines with complex paintings, installations, and sculptures20. The inhabitants buried their dead in their own houses, often in tightly flexed positions, and together with red ochre21. Some of the dead had their skulls removed20. All of this may have served religious or ritual purposes — although we do not have certainty on this assumption.
Stonehenge is a site in South England. It is mainly known for its ring of standing stones. The stones were erected between 3100 BCE and 1600 BCE, i.e., in the Bronze Age. There are two types of stones: bluestones (weighing 2-5 tons) and sarsen stones (weighing 25-30 tons). The sarsen stones came most likely from a site 25km away — while the bluestones were brought in from a site hundreds of kilometers away22 These stones may have served ritual purposes, but we have no certainty on this. Newgrange in Ireland is a comparable site, dating to 3200 BC.
Megalithic Temples of Malta
The Tarxien Temples
The Mediterranean island of Malta is home to several prehistoric temples, built approximately between 3600 BC and 2500 BC. The Tarxien temple, e.g., (pictured) dates to 3150 BC. The discovery of altars and carvings of animals onto the stone walls has given rise to the hypothesis that the temple was used for animal sacrifice23.
All of these might have been sites with religious purposes.

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)
Several languages in Europe and South-West Asia share surprisingly similar words. 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 communality, as well as shared stories across these cultures, 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 BCE24. Different hypotheses for the homeland of the PIEs have been put forward, and one of them locates it in the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. What is known is that the PIEs later migrated to Europe in the West and to India in the South. The most important descendant cultures were: Successors of all of these cultures (except the Hittites) exist to this day in their respective lands.

The Indo-European Religions

The Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) gave rise to several descendant cultures across Europe and South Asia. Based on commonalities between mythological stories across these cultures, we can hypothesize that the PIEs shared the following types of gods with their descendant cultures252627: 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 in28: In addition to these commonalities, each descendant culture developed its own stories and deities. The Roman goddess of wisdom, for example, was Minerva (she adorns the cover page of the Atheist Bible). 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 see later) influenced each other, and gave rise to mixed systems in Greece, Anatolia, and Persia. Most of the original Indo-European religions died out with the rise of Christianity and Islam between 500 CE and today. However, the Vedic culture gave rise to Hinduism, which is the dominant religion on the Indian subcontinent to this day. The Persian culture gave rise to Zoroastrianism and Yazidism, which also both still exist. Zoroastrianism may have 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 Iranian branch of the Proto-Indo-Europeans gave rise 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 environs of Mosul in Kurdistan in today’s Iraq, forged by a man called Sheikh Adi29. 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 spelled Tawûsê Melek), who is worshipped in the form of a peacock (symbolizing the diversity of the world)29. Since many outsiders believe that the Peacock Angel is identical to the devil (an evil spirit in the Abrahamic religions), 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 century30. Most of the Yazidi community in Turkey, emigrated to Germany in the second half of the 20th century29. Today, Yazidism is practiced by about 1m people in today’s Iraq and Kurdistan, and by several tens of thousands of adherents in Germany.
The supernatural
The supreme creator god Xwedê made the world and then ended his involvement with it, leaving it in the control of seven divine beings. The chief among them is Malak Ṭāʾūs. Humans descend from a single pair, Adam and Eve, with Yazidis specifically descending from Adam, and the rest of humanity from Eve. Yazidism believes in a rebirth after death.29
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.31
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.31 Possibly as a consequence of centuries of persecution, Yazidis seek to keep themselves segregated from other communities2930.
Possibly due to continuous persecution, Yazidis are immensely secretive about their traditions and religious beliefs, which they pass on mainly orally. Two short books, Kitāb al-jilwah (“Book of Revelation”) and Maṣḥafrash (“Black Book”, also spelled Mishefa Resh), form the sacred scriptures of the Yazidis. 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, but that their contents do in fact reflect authentic Yazidi oral tradition.29 Both are available online.
I was, am now, and shall have no end.
Malak Ṭāʾūs in the Kitāb al-jilwah


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

at the Zoroastrian House of Singapore

Zoroastrianism is a direct descendant of the Persian branch of the Proto-Indo-European religions. This branch was influenced by the Elam civilization, which inhabited the area before the arrival of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The resulting religion held that there were many gods, ruled by Ahura Mazda. This god protected humanity from the dark forces, which were led by the spirit-deity Angra Mainyu. Priests sacrificed animals to appease Ahura Mazda.

In this environment, the Prophet Zoroaster (also called Zarathustra or Zartosht) was born between 1500-1000 BCE. Zoroaster was appalled by the animal sacrifices. 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, who did not require blood sacrifices but only ethical behavior to protect humanity from Angra Mainyu. Zoroaster was able to convince the 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 Muslim Arab Invasion in 651 CE, Zoroastrians were persecuted, the faith suppressed, and their religious sites destroyed. 32 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 is Ahura Mazda, with its evil opponent Angra Mainyu. The other gods who were previously worshipped are mainly spirits of the supreme god. Ahura Mazda created the world. After death, the human soul goes to heaven or hell depending on how the person behaved during their life time.32
Moral framework
Zoroastrians shall pursue good thoughts, good words, 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, to make the wicked righteous, and to make the ignorant learned.32
Zoroastrianism knowns ritual worship of Ahura Mazda in services, where milk, bread, and water are offered to the deity, and religious texts are recited33.
The main scripture of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta – prayers and hymns ascribed to Zoraster, which were put into writing during the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE)34. It is available online.
Zoroastrianism bears striking similarities to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which developed in the Near East: Ahura Mazda is omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal, endowed with creative power, and he created the world – just like the Abrahamic god. Zoroastrianism also advances the concepts of individual responsibility for salvation, judgment after death, and a 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 also in the Abrahamic religions. Both systems have a sacred lawgiver (Zoroaster and Moses), and both 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 each other. Since Zoroastrianism precedes 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 at 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.33 One interesting difference to Christianity and Islam is that in Zoroastrianism, hell is not an eternal punishment. Ahura Mazda, as Ultimate Goodness, would not let any of his creations suffer eternally, and would eventually liberate them32. The Christian and Muslim god does not share this concern for his creations.
Truth is best of all that is good.
Zoroaster in the Avesta

The Ancient Near East

A detail of the text in the Unas Pyramid from around 2300 BCE in Egypt CC0 Toth
While the Proto-Indo-Europeans migrated to Europe and Western Asia, the Near Eas t (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. Several traces survive from this time, in the form of artifacts, writings, archeological traces, and even buildings. Furthermore, writing was invented during this period . The text in the Pyramid of Unas, for example, (pictured on the right) stems from 2300 BCE and describes beliefs about the Pharaoh, the gods, and life after death.

From such sources, we have a certain understanding of how the ancient near-Eastern societies functioned. We know, e.g., that the societies were typically structured in city states , i.e., cities that were sovereign. Each city state had a dominating regional cult for the god of that state . The 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 guid ed. Most of these societies were polytheistic, i.e., they venerated several gods. Some of them were henotheistic, meaning that they worshipped a single god but acknowledged the existence of others. Most of these societies believed in another world after death, as we have seen in the example of the 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 between 3000 BCE and 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 that 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)35. The kings (pharaohs) were believed to be divine. Some of them were buried in the pyramids that we can still marvel at today, accompanied by grave goods and writings. The text shown above explains how the Pharaoh Unas will rise to heaven after his death. This includes the use of boats, ladders, and most importantly flying36.
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, who were succeeded by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Their cultures flourished between 4000 BCE and the Arab Conquest of the 7th century CE. The Sumerians were one of the civilizations that invented writing, and some of the texts (in Cuneiform script) exist to this day. From these, we know that the Mesopotamian cultures knew over 1000 gods, and that they believed that the land was infused with spirits.37.
South-West Iran
The Elam civilization flourished in what is South-West Iran today between 3200 BCE and 500 BCE. Their language was preserved in cuneiform script after their contact with the Sumerians. 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 Mespotamian religion.38 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, as well as from excavations of art, architecture, and artefacts. These include depictions of religious ceremonies and rituals such as the pouring of libations, making food offerings, processions, and feasts. The Minoans apparently worshipped a voluptuous female mother-earth goddess figure, as well as a male figure holding several animals39. 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 civilizations there were 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 was El Elyon (also called just “El”), next to Baal (the god of rainfall and fertility), Asherah (the consort of El), and Astarte (the goddess of fertility)40. The sons of El Elyon and Asherah were the Elohim41.
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 next .

Abrahamic Religions

Abrahamic religions

The Canaaites lived in the Southern Levant (today’s Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) since 8000 BCE. As we have seen, they worshipped a pantheon of different gods, in the tradition of the Ancient Near East religions. The main deity was El Elyon, with his consort Asherah, and their divine sons, the Elohim.

The Israelites emerged as a separate culture around 1250 BC E. They established a kingdom in the region, called Isra el. The religion of the Israelites, like the Canaanite faith from which it evolved and other ancient Near Eastern religions, was based on a cult of ancestors and worship of family gods. There was an entire pantheon of gods, some of which were El Elyon, Asherah, and Baal from the Canaaite religion.

A novel addition to the pantheon was the god Yahweh. One common assumption among scholars (the Kenite Hypothesis) is that the veneration of Yahweh originated in a region just south of Israel42, and was brought North by migrants, merchants, or prophets. Hints of this provenance can still be found in the Hebrew Bible, the holy scripture of Judaism (the descendent religion of the Israelite faith)[Bible: Deuteronomy 33:2, Judges 5:4, Isaiah 63:1, Habakuk 3:3]. Scripture from Canaan (the Ugaritic texts, dating to 1200 BCE) tells us that Yahweh was originally considered a son of El Elyon41. Again, the Hebrew Bible contains passages that can be read in this way: Deuteronomy 32:8-9 talks of the “Most High” (El Elyon) who divides people into nations, and gives a share to Yahweh[Bible: Deuteronomy 32:8-9]. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that this passage originally talks of one share for each of the sons of El Elyon, with Yahweh being one of them43. Even though this formulation was later changed in order to avoid reference to several gods, Yahweh is still mentioned as one of those who obtain a share from the “Most High”. Psalm 82:1-8 presents Yahweh as presiding the council of the gods, and Yahweh as saying that all members of that council are sons of the “Most High”[Bible: Psalm 82:1-8]. Psalm 86:8 again acknowledges the other gods, even though it says that Yahweh is unique among them[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 Yahweh41. The Hebrew Bible appears to corroborate that view, when it condemns the practice of associating Asherah to Yahweh[Bible: Deuteronomy 16:21-22]43.

El Elyon and Yahweh were later fused into one god43 (traces of this fusion, where both names are used, remain in the Hebrew Bible[Bible: Exodus 6:3, Genesis 18:18-23, Psalm 97:9]). The word “El” was interpreted as meaning “God”, and “Yahweh” was then the name of that god. All the attributes of El Elyon were attached to Yahweh. Most notably, Yahweh received the property of being the creator of the universe from El Elyon41. Yahweh thus rose in importance in the pantheon.

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. Its capital, Jerusalem, was destroyed, and the most influential citizens of the region were taken to Babylon as captives44.. In captivity, the clerics concluded that the destruction of Jerusalem was a punishment from Yahweh because they had worshipped also other gods44. Henceforth, they declared Yahweh the only existing god. All other gods were abandoned. Asherah, originally the consort of Yahweh, was associated with the god Baal4145[Bible: Judges 3:7, 1 Kings 18, 2 Kings 23:4] and abandoned with him.

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

  1. There is exactly one god.
  2. Abraham was a prophet of that god.

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


As we have discussed, the Israelites derived their religion from the Canaaite religion : They merged the Canaaite god El Elyon with his son Yahweh. When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 598 BCE, the clerics saw this as a punishment from Yahweh because they had worshipped other gods44. Hence, they came to believe that Yahweh was the only god . 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 were the 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 (334 BCE), was independent from 160 BCE on, and then taken by the Romans in 63 BCE. The Jews revolted several times, but were ultimately defeated in 136 CE, exiled, and prohibited to return. Since then, the Jews were scattered in a large diaspora, and 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. This amplified the migration of Jews to Israel, who were hoping to reestablish what they saw as the 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.46 The Jewish part declared statehood in 1948 as Israel. Ever since, Israel and the neighboring Arab states have been in conflict. Today, Judaism is the oldest Abrahamic religion, and counts about 14m adherents. Around 5m of them live in Israel, 5m in the United States, and the others are dispersed in the world, mainly in European countries.
Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem/Israel, where the first temple once stood, which was destroyed by the Babylonians
The supernatural
Judaism holds that there is exactly one God. He created the universe. The god is specifically concerned about the Jewish people. (Thus, the god shares properties with the local spirits , in that he centers his interest on a particular part of land.) Jews are called to worship him and to follow his laws in exchange for the good the god does to them47. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell. Finally, Judaism holds that there will be a leader (a “Messiah” yet to be born) who will restore the nation of Israel48.
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 the 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 the god, religious clothing (most notably the kippah, a skullcap worn by men), weekly rest on Saturdays (Shabbat), dietary laws, male circumcision, and various festivals.
Judaism comes in different interpretations, and the main differences are between conservative strains and reform/liberal strains.
The holy scripture of Judaism is the Hebrew Bible. It consists of 24 books, which include the five books of the Torah49. Scholars hold that the Hebrew Bible was compiled from multiple fragments, written by different authors. The fragments were written at different points of time between the 8th century BCE and the 1st century BCE. The Hebrew Bible can be found online. It is interpreted in the Midrash Aggadah, a large body of scriptures compiled between 200 CE and 1000 CE50.

Another important scripture is the Talmud , a comprehensive written version of the 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 be found online.

Different groups of people are associated with Judaism:
Adherents of Judaism
An adherent of Judaism is a person who believes in the tenets of the Jewish religion, as outlined above.
Jewish people
The Jewish people are an ethnicity , i.e., they share genes. Many Jewish people are adherents of Judaism. However, some are atheists, and others have adopted another religion. Vice versa, a non-Jewish person may convert to Judaism. This remains rare, possibly also because male converts have to undergo circumcision51.
Israelis are the citizens of the state of Israel. The majority of these are ethnic Jewish people. However, not all Israelis are Jewish people: around 20% of Israelis are Arabs52. The majority of Israelis follows Judaism. However, around 20% of Israelis are Muslims. Vice versa, not every follower of Judaism is Israeli. Only around half of the world’s adherents of Judaism live in Israel.
Some Israeli politicians use Judaism to justify and drive the Israeli settlements in Palestine, a topic that we discuss in the Chapter on Islam .
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 be born
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish preacher who lived 7-2 BCE to 30-33 CE in Roman Isra el. He preached the imminent establishment of God’s kingdom, and promised inclusion also for the poor, the weak, and the sinners. He emphasized devotion to God, observance of the law, and purity of intentions53. Jesus had a number of followers, and the Romans feared he could be seen as a messiah who would raise the Jews against the Romans48. Hence, they tried Jesus as a traitor and crucified him. His followers believed that Jesus did not remain dead, but was resurrected by God, and lived for several days before ascending to Heaven53. 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 Je ws), and that this insight has to be spread to other people10. In 321, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, and Christianity later became the state religion of the Roman Empire. It then became dominant in Europe, and was carried across the world by the colonizers starting from the 15th century48. 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. His death atones for the sins of humanity48. Christianity also believes that God is a triune godhead of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. 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”.
Following Paul’s interpretation that Jewish law was less important after Jesus' resurrection54, Christianity has largely disposed of the practices of Judaism, and circumcision in particular. However, Christianity knows prayers to the god, and markers of life events, most importantly baptism.
There are three major Christian denominations: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (which includes Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, and others). These 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”55. Most Christian denominations believe that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit form a godhead, called the trinity. However, some variants of Christianity do not share this belief. One of the largest such groups are the Mormons, with 15m adherents, who believe that God exists in three distinct entities as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Another such group are Jehova’s Witnesses, with 8m adherents, who believe that Jesus is God’s creation.
Christians took over the Hebrew Bible from the Jews, and added a new part, the “New Testament”. The new part consists of 27 books. These books were written by Paulus and an unknown number of other, anonymous authors. Some of the books were written during the 1st and 2nd century CE56 . The Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament) and the New Testament make up the Bible, the holy book of Christianity. It can be found online.

Additional Christian beliefs were written down in scriptures called “creeds”, “professions of faith”, or “catechisms”. Different such scriptures are valid for different denominations. The Nicene Creed, from 325 CE, codified beliefs in Heaven, sins, Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus as the son of God57. The Council of Constantinople, in 360 CE, declared the trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other beliefs were declared at other points of time and are valid for different denominations. For Catholicism, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” defines the complete belief system explicitly. It can be found online.

The Book of Mormon is the holy book of Mormonism. It was written in 1830 by the American Joseph Smith. Smith claimed that the book was based on ancient native American sources58. However, the book contains a number of anachronisms (e.g., horses59, which were brought to America by the Europeans), so that this hypothesis finds no acceptance outside the Latter Day Saint movement.

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 in Agra/India, a tomb built in 1632, 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, Mohammed reported divine revelations from God. He began teaching belief in a single god , called Allah (in continuation of the Jewish god Yahweh and the Christian god). His teaching attracted much opposition from the polytheistic Meccans, and he fled to Medina in 622 CE. From there, he and his adherents conducted raids at the Meccan caravans. Mecca eventually attacked Medina in 624 CE, but Mohammed could win the war and return to Mecca victoriously in 630 CE. 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 stretched from Portugal to the North-West of India, and it brought the faith along. Today, there are around 2 billion Muslims (adherents of Islam), mainly in Northern Africa, the Near East, and central Asia.60

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

The supernatural
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam holds that there is exactly one God (Allah), and that he created the universe. However, unlike in Christianity, and like in Judaism, 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 Mecca60. Male circumcision is also practiced. Dietary laws prohibit the consumption of pork and alcohol.
Mohammed told his revelations to his followers. After his death, the verses were collected and written down in a book called the Quran. The Quran can be found online in various translations to English.

The Hadiths are stories about the life of the prophet, which serve as a guide to interpret the Quran. The Hadiths were first transmitted orally, and then compiled by scholars in the centuries after Mohammed’s death61. 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 denominations of Sunnis (90% of Muslims) and Shia, as well as some minor denominations. The distinction is made on which Hadiths are considered authentic. Each denomination is again divided into schools, of which there are 8 in total.
Some interpretations of Islam are extremist. They nourish Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other groups that engage in killings and suicide attacks for what they consider a defense of Islam. Hence, some detractors in the Western world see Islam as a terrorist ideology. Liberal apologists, on the other hand, argue that Islam is an inherently peaceful religion in tune with the 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 extremist. In this book, we will argue that it is not up to an atheist to decide which is the true interpretation of the faith. As an atheist, one can only observe that there are different interpretations of the religion, and that each has its adherents. In the Chapter on Islam, we will study different moral questions (should apostasy be allowed, does Islam permit freedom of religion, etc.), see the arguments that different interpretations of Islam bring forward in favor or opposition, quantify the number of adherents of each position, and compare the positions to a Humanist answer.
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 that Shia Islam awaits. He called himself “the Báb ” (literally: “the gate”). The Bab taught that God would soon send another prophet. This teaching contradicted the Islamic doctrine that Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam, and hence, the Persian authorities set out to execute the Bab in 1850. The Bab was suspended from ropes against a wall and shot. However, the shots only shredded the ropes, and the Bab 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 his 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 6m adherents, spread all over the world.62
The supernatural
The Bahai Faith teaches the oneness of God (there is exactly one god), the oneness of religion (all major re ligions 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 non-physical realms that were called heaven and hell in previous religions.63
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 knows 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, with elected members, which has the final say on any dispute. Hence, there are to this date no discernible variants of the religion.
The authoritative texts of the Bahai Religion are the writings of its prophets and the messages of the Universal House of Justice64. Important works by the Bahaullah are the “Book of Certitude” (which can be found online) and the “Most Holy Book” (also available online), 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.
the Bahaullah


Spiritualism started in 1848 in New York, when Kate and Margaret Fox (aged 12 and 15 at that time) reported that they were able to contact the spirits of the dead. The spirits would respond to questions with mysterious knockings. Other people also reported such encounters, and the movement gained followers. Kate and Margaret Fox later admitted that they produced the knockings themselves, and other mediums were exposed as fraudulent as well, but the movement continued unabated. The 1850’s saw the establishment of the first Spiritualist churches, 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.65 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 community in Brazil.
The supernatural
For Spiritism, the soul continues to exist after death as a spirit, and it is possible to communicate with these spirits. There is a god, often referred to as “infinite intelligence”.
Moral framework
Spiritualism emphasizes personal responsibility for one’s actions, and honors the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like others to treat you65. 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 slavery66.
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. 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 codename “Allan Kardec”67. It adds, to the beliefs 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, which adherents may take as guidance. For Spiritism, the quintessential books are the ones by Allan Kardec. Of these, the “Spirits’ Book” is the most fundamental one. It is a collection of several hundred questions, which Kardec submitted to several people who could purportedly communicate with the spirits, and for which he collected, consolidated, and interpreted the answers67. The book is available online in English. “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. 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 principles65.
The[re] are the human hypocrites who represent a just God as being cruel and vindictive, and who imagine that they make themselves agreeable to Him by the abominations they commit in His name.
the Spirits in Allen Kardec’s “Spirits’ Book”

Indian Religions

Indian Religions

The Indus Valley in North-West India was the center of the civilization of the Harappan people, which florished between 2500 and 1700 BCE. One branch of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the Aryans, arrived in the valley around 1500 BCE. They spoke Sanskrit, an Indo-European language68. Between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE, the Aryans composed the Vedas – a collection of poems and hymns that praise a large number of gods69. The Vedas were the basis of Vedism, the oldest stratum of religious activity in India for which there exist written materials. Vedism incorporated Indo-European elements, Persian elements, and elements from the local Harappan beliefs. Society was stratified into four castes: the priests, warriors, traders, and servants. The religion was polytheistic, and Indra was the highest god. Ceremonies centered on ritual sacrifice of animals. During the early 1st millenium BCE, these rituals became more complex, and thus the Brahmins (priests) rose in status and importance: Vedism evolved into Brahamism70.

The emphasis on ritual (and the growing power of the Brahmans) caused a questioning of traditional Vedic thought by the middle of the 1st millenium BCE. The Upanishads were written, appendices to the Vedas. Three important concepts were developed70:

  1. Brahman, the concept of a supreme existence or absolute reality that cannot be comprehended by humans.
  2. Saṃsāra, a repeating cycle of birth, life and death. The human soul is reborn (reincarnated) after death as a new being.
  3. the principle of Karma, i.e., 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 Brahmans led some reformers to found their own religions, most notably Buddhism and Jainism. Brahmism itself evolved into Hinduism. Later, Sikhism would join. These religions are grouped together as the Indian Religions. They share the belief in a supra-system that takes care of Samsara and Karma.

On this background, gods may or may not be worshipped. Sikhism has one god. Hinduism encompasses a variety of beliefs that can include no god, one god, or several gods. Buddhism may or may not worship gods, depending on the denomination. Jainism does not have gods.


A Hindu ritual at the Ganges river in Varanasi/India
During the 1st millennium BCE, Brahmism evolved into Hinduism. This was a gradual process, characterized by the spread of the concepts of reincarnation, karma, and the idea that liberation from the cycle of reincarnation can be achieved by meditation70. The importance of sacrifices (and, hence, of Brahmans) decreased. Devotion to the gods became more prominent, most notably to Vishnu, Rama and Krishna (both incarnations of Vishnu), Shiva (creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe), Lakshmi (the goddess of fortune), and the elephant-god Ganesha. In the 1st millenium CE, Hinduism spread through South-East Asia71. The dominance of Hinduism was challenged by the rise of Islam with the Muslim conquest of the region from the 13th century CE on. However, Hinduism remains the dominant Indian religion, and, with 1.3 billion followers, the third largest religion in the world. Like Shintoism, Yazidism, and the Chinese Folk Religions, Hinduism thus continuously evolved from previous religious convictions, without a known founder or founding date.
The supernatural
Hinduism centers on the concepts of Samsara (a supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death), karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness), dharma (the principle of righteousness), and Brahman (the 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, on which the god Vishnu floated on a serpent. Vishnu gave rise to the god Brahma, who created all living beings.
Moral framework
The “10 Yamas” of Hinduism are nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, marital fidelity, kindliness, equanimity, patience, perseverance, moderation in food, and cleanliness[Shandilya Upanishad: Chapter 1].
Hinduism knows a variety of rituals, which can include worshipping72, bathing, yoga, meditation, chanting, pilgrimage, festivals, and rites of passage (e.g., for marriage and birth). Many Hindus embrace vegetarianism, and a large majority eschews beef mea t, as the cow is traditionally seen as sacred72.
There exists a plethora of different interpretations of Hinduism72. Around 7% of Hindus revere several deities. These can act independently, have different genders, have different roles, have divine children, have different names, and are called on different occasions.

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

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

For Hinduism, the most important texts are the Veda scriptures. These were probably compiled by priests and poets between 1500 and 1200 BCE69. The most recent part of the Vedas are the Upanishads , and these are summarized in the Brahma Sūtras. The two major epics of Hinduism are the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata , which were both written in the centuries BCE, and which tell stories of gods, kings, and wars. Part of the latter is the “Song by God”, the Bhagavad Gita.

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 one737475). Still today, the Laws of Manu are considered fundamental by some politicians7677, judges7879, and Web sites80.

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

Hinduism inherited the caste system from Vedism: the society is stratified into social classes, at the bottom of which are the avarnas or dalits (untouchables). The class dictates the professions a person can work in, their dress code81 as well as whom they can marry. The caste system was actively enforced during the British occupation of India, in particular starting from 186082. The British translated the Laws of Manu, and enforced castes as they read them in these laws. This has given support to the idea that the caste system persists mainly due to the British.

And indeed, the Hindu society exhibited a much more diverse and flexible notion of caste than the British implemented : there was a bewildering multitude of castes instead of the 4 that the British recognized, and the castes had less importance than the British accorded it82. 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], which predates the British occupation by hundreds or thousands of years. In fact, the British made a U-turn in 1920, when they introduced affirmative action for the avarn as. This principle appears also in India’s constitution of 1950, and in subsequent laws83. Thus, affirmative action has been in place 100 years now, while the British enforcement of the castes lasted 60 years. And yet, the Indian society remains stratified into castes, with 68% of Indians belonging to the lowest strata of the system (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, and Most Backward Classes )72. When Hindus converted to other religions , they kept their caste, so that the caste system applies nowadays to all of India, regardless of religion. Marriage across social classes remains a taboo8372. All of this indicates that the caste system has deep roots in the Hindu society, culture, and religion81.

There is a timeless, non-located realm of pure Being containing no self and no others — only unconditional fulfillment, contentment, intimacy and peace. It is completely still there, unfathomably deep and silent, eternal, immaculate, undisturbed. Only love survives there — nothing else.
an anonymous description of Brahman


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 the suffering, he decided to dedicate his life to asceticism and meditation. He nearly starved himself to death, when a milkmaid offers him some milk rice. He came to see that neither luxury nor asceticism leads to liberation, and understood it must be the middle way instead. 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 things in life. At that moment, he became “the Buddha” (the Enlightened One), and he 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, i.e. the liberation from the cycle of rebirth84. Buddhism is an Indian religion. Today, it has around 500m adherents, mainly in Mongolia, China, and South-East Asia.
The supernatural
The Heavenly Kings are revered as gods in variants of Buddhism

in the Longhua Temple in Shanghai/China

As Hinduism, Buddhism knows the concepts of 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). Buddhism teaches that humans suffer because of greed, delusion, and hatred. Whoever realizes this, and frees themselves from these evils, achieves enlightenment, i.e., liberation from the cycle of rebirth – a state called Nirvana85. Gods play a smaller role in Buddhism, since they are in any case subject to the supra-system of Samsara. Some variants of Buddhism know no gods. Others do, for example the Four Heavenly Kings, which are pictured right. The universe did not come into existence, but always existed.
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”85. From these were derived the “Five Precepts”, which prohibit killing, theft, adultery, lying, and the consumption of alcohol86.
Common Buddhist practices include meditating on the qualities of Buddha, and honoring the Buddha or a Buddha-figure, e.g., by making offerings. They also include pilgrimage and prayer, sometimes by prayer wheels85.
The oldest Buddhist scripture is the Pali canon, a collection of the sayings of the Buddha that was compiled probably during the first century BCE87. It is known also as the Tipiṭaka or Tripiṭaka, because it consists of three parts: the Vinaya Piṭaka contains the rules which Buddha laid down for monks and nuns, the Suttaṅta Piṭaka contains the Buddha’s discourses, and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka comprises the psycho-ethical teachings of the Buddha. The Pali canon is available online in English. For a newer reference, one can look to the Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan branch of Buddhism. His teachings are online in English.
There are two main schools of thought in Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. 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 Mongolia85.
Many variants of Buddhism do not have gods. Therefore, one could posit that Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a system of ethics. It forbids, for example, to kill, to steal, and to lie. Buddhism combines this system with the idea of Karma: if someone does something bad, then this will entail bad consequences later. In other words: what goes round comes round.

The idea that what goes round comes round (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). The collateral damage of this move is that the claim of Karma becomes unfalsifiable. Samsara itself is a supra-system in the sense of this book, and thus a supernatural element. As soon as it is included in the faith (as it usually is), Buddhism is 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.
the Buddha


Inside the Jain Temple of Singapore
Jainism traces its origin to sequential 24 Tirthankaras (supreme teachers ). There is little historical evidence for these teachers, except the last: the Mahavira was born in North-East India in the 6th century BCE to a royal family. He was an ascetic, and gave Jainism its current form. Like Buddhists and Hinduists, Jains believe in reincarnation and hope to escape it, so that the immortal soul lives forever in a state of bliss. This can be achieved by behaving well, and by being devoid of passions like anger, pride and greed. Jainism does not have gods. Today, Jainism has around 5m adherents, of whom the majority lives in India88.
The supernatural
Jainism shares with Hinduism and Buddhism the concepts of Samsara (the supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death) and Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness). It also holds that the universe was never created. It was just always there, and will always be. Jainism believes that the souls of those who have liberated themselves from the cycle of rebirth have become spirits (Jinas). Different from Hinduism and Buddhism, Jinas are worshipped as a perfect example for Jains to aspire to. However, Jinas are not gods: they have no powers to intervene in the universe.88
Moral framework
Jain ethics is centered on the “Five Vows”: 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 jobs that cause harm to animals.88
Jainism worships the Tirthankaras in temples. It knows pilgrimages, and fasting during festivals.88
The teachings of Mahavira were originally passed on orally by his disciples as the “Jain Agamas”. The texts 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 in around 350 BCE killed many of those who had memorized the texts. To save the teachings, Jain community started canonicalizing these oral traditions, leading to a collection of 45 texts.88
Jainism is divided into two major denominations, Digambara and Śvētāmbara. They differ in their scripture: the Śvētāmbaras believe that the sayings 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.88
Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being”. Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept.
Sam Harris in “Letter to A Christian Nation”


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 knew about Islam, which had arrived in Punjab 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. This led him to develop 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. They can get out of 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. Nanak died in 1539, but his ideas were continued by 9 other gurus (spiritual leaders), the last one of whom died in 1708. Sikhism established itself as a religion, and throughout its history, the community had to defend itself violently at times against Hindu, Muslim, and British rulers. Today, Sikhism is the latest of the large Indian religions, with around 25m adherents, mostly in Punjab.89
The supernatural
Sikhism shares the concepts of Samsara (the supra-system of the repeating cycle of birth, life and death) and Karma (the idea that good deeds entail future happiness) with Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In addition, it believes in a singular god, who created the universe. Liberation from the cycle of rebirth comes from the grace of this god. People can come close to the god by through worship, living a good life, and contemplation of the god.89
Moral framework
The “three duties” of Sikhism are: keeping God in mind at all times, living an honest life, and caring for others (e.g., through charity). The honest life means working hard, and avoiding crime, gambling, begging, and alcohol.89
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 usually finishes 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).89
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. 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.89
God is beyond the world of the Vedas, the Koran and the Bible. [He] is immanent and manifest.
Guru Granth Sahib

East Asian Religions

Chinese Folk Religion

In China, the earliest traces of religious belief can be found in the Yangshao Culture of the Yellow River Valley, which prospered between 5000-3000 BCE: At the site of Banpo Village in modern Shaanxi Province, 250 tombs were found containing grave goods, which we can interpret as a belief in life after death. Archeological findings point to the worship of personifications of nature. By the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) these religious beliefs had developed so that now there was a definite “king of the gods” named Shangti (not to be confused with the Abrahamic god, who came to be called Shàngdì as well when Christianity arrived in China). 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 (her brother and husband, the god of fire and the teacher of human beings). Amulets and charms indicate a belief in ancestor spirits.90 This development was accompanied by the nascence of written Chinese literature: stories of gods, emperors, wise men, immortals, spirits, local deities, dragons, humanoid animals, unicorns, and magical objects91.

These stories constitute basis of the so-called Chinese Folk Religion. It groups a wide range of interpretations, all of which are characterized by the worship of “shen”. The shen are spirits and sometimes deities in the sense of this book, and they can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors, and deities of the kinship. To this date, 20% of China’s population practice this folk religion92.

The supernatural
Chinese folk religions believe in the existence of the “shen” spirits . After death, the person lives on as a shen93. Tian can be understood as the supreme god, and is often used synonymously with Shangdi, but there are also other gods (most notably Nuwa and Fuxi mentioned above). As for the origin of the universe, the demi-god Pangu is commonly portrayed as the first living being. He separated Heaven and Earth . When he died, his body turned into rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and everything else. The two deities Fuxi and Nuwa were twins, who married and gave rise to humanity.91
Moral Framework
Chinese folk religion is focused on the family above all else. Ancestor worship is a consequence of this focus.
Chinese folk religion worships shens, animal totems, and local gods. Astrology and communication with the ancestor spirits are also widely practiced.
This temple in Hangzhou/China reveres Laozi, Buddha, and Confucius together (figures left to right)
Chinese Folk Religion is not an organized religion with a written credo. Nor is membership in the religion formally established. Rather, the religion is a wide collection of local beliefs, which vary in the spirits, gods, and rituals. Chinese Folk Religion is also practiced in a continuum with Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The founders of these three religions are sometimes revered all together in the same temple (pictured right).


Confucius, in a temple in Jiading in Shanghai/China
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who was born in 551 BCE , during the so-called “Spring and Autumn Period” of Chinese history, in the State of Lu (in the modern-day Shandong province in China’s North-East). He was born as Kong Qui, but came to be addressed as “Master Kong” (“Kong Fuzi”), which was then latinized by 16th-century CE Christian missionaries to “Confucius”. Confucius was involved in the local government of Lu, and attempted to teach the ruling class that observing a moral code would result in more effective and just government. However, the upper class was not interested. Confucius resigned from his position, and founded a school to teach his philosophy. His main idea was that if people were taught to behave virtuously, society would govern itself without the need for an oppressive government. 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 following religious ritual (not because that 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 Mencius (Mèngzĭ). 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.94
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 China95. 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 Catholicism96.

At the same time, there is an interpretation of Confucianism that knows gods, spirits, prayer, and worship97. This interpretation derives its beliefs from sayings of Confucius that acknowledge the existence of the spirits of the ancestors[Analects: 2:24, 6:22, 8:21], encourage us to worship them[Analects: 3:12, 2:5], and talk of prayer[Analects: 3:13, 7:35], and punishment from Heaven[Analects: 6:28]. This interpretation of Confucianism is a religion in the sense of this book, and we shall call it Religious Confucianism. It combines the philosophy of Confucius with supernatural elements from the Chinese Folk Religion. Confucianism as a religion existed in China before the 20th century, but all of its structures were dissolved with the rise of Communism. Today, it lives on as the Confucian Academy in Hong Kong, the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia97, and various smaller churches. Temples of Religious Confucianism exist in various countries, including in China (the picture on the right was taken in one of them). 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 knows Hàotiān (also called “Heaven”, or “Tian” as in the Chinese Folk Religion) as the supreme deity who governs the gods, created the universe, and rules all things97. Religious Confucianism also holds that the ancestors live on as spirits, in particular also Confucius himself.
Moral framework
In Confucianism (religious or philosophical), the four virtues that adherents shall 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. Concerning knowledge, Confucianism emphasizes 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 Confucius97. The religion also knows ceremonies for birth, reaching maturity, marriage and death, as well as festivals.
Confucianism (both as a philosophy and as a religion) is often practiced in combination with Chinese Folk Religion, Taoism, and/or Buddhism. The religions often blend together in practice, so that it is difficult to differentiate the belief systems, or to partition the adherents. Some people also practice just the philosophy of Confucianism, without any religious belief.
Confucianism is based on the “Analects of Confucius”, a collection of sayings and ideas that were written down by Confucius’ followers . The text can be found online in an English translation. Another important work is the “Book of Mencius”. Together with the Analects, it is part of the “Four Books and Five Classics”94. Contemporary edicts on moral questions come, e.g., from the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia.
The noble man seeks within himself [what] the common man seeks in others.


The symbol of Taoism is the Ying and Yang.

in a Taoist temple in Hangzhou/China

The first written source of Taoism (or Daoism) is a book called “Tao Te Ching”, which dates 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 leaving China, a 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.98 In reality, the Tao Te Ching is a collection of writings by many different people. It contains short, enigmatic paragraphs of advice on life, and poetic descriptions of the nature of the universe.99

The central concept of Taoism is Tao, which is often translated as “the way”, and is understood as the underlying natural order of the universe — a supra-system in the terminology of this book. Taoism emphasizes doing what is natural and “going with the flow” in accordance with the Tao98. Another important concept is the 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.).99

In the second century CE, Taoism was developed into the religion that we know today: Taoists aim to achieve harmony with nature, and this path often leads through meditation. Taoism acknowledges the existence of deities, as well as of the spirits of the dead.99 Taoism is practiced mainly in China and Taiwan, with around 180m adherents.

The supernatural
There is an underlying order of the universe, called “Tao”. The universe is dominated by two opposing forces, the Ying and the Yang. The universe came into existence by a succession of abstract steps: The Tao gave birth to unity, unity gave birth to duality, duality gave birth to trinity, and Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures[Tao Te Ching: 42]. There are several deities in Taoism, but these are gods of a particular role, rather than personal divine beings, and they have titles rather than names. In any case, they are subject to the Tao. . 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.99
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.99
Adherents practice an array of methods such as meditation, Feng Shui, fortune telling, and the reading and chanting of scriptures99. 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. It is also sometimes practiced together with Buddhism and/or Confucianism.
Taoism is based on the above-mentioned Tao Te Ching. It is available online in an English translation. Another important work is the Chaung-Tzu (also spelled Zhuangzi). It is attributed to an author of the same name, who lived 369-286 BCE. He held that things should be allowed to follow their own course and that no situation should be valued over any other.100
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.


Shintois m emerged in the 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 landscape locations. 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 took over many concepts from Buddhism, and both religions were embraced in conjunction by the Japanese emperor. The kami were identified 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, separate from Buddhism. The emperor was declared the descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, with a divine right to rule not only Japan, but the whole world. This claim to world rule was retracted after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War. State Shintoism was dismantled, religion and state were separated, and Shintoism was cleansed of the political, nationalistic and militaristic elements it had acquired.101 Today, Shintoism is practiced mainly in Japan, and by most of the population (of 120m people), although to varying degrees, and in a seamless blend with Buddhism.

The supernatural
The “kami” reside in all things. The divine siblings Izanami and Izanagi created the land of Japan. After death, the human soul joins with the collective kami of its ancestors102.
Moral framework
The moral framework of Shintoism is influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism. Shintoism emphasizes physical well-being, procreation, family solidarity, and subordination of the individual to the group102.
Adherents worship the kami in public shrines and household shrines, by prayers and offerings. Other common rituals include dances, rites of passage, and seasonal festivals. Particular emphasis is on the notion of purification, for which there exist a variety of rituals.101
Shintoism exists in numerous variants, of which Shrine Shinto is the most prevalent one. It is closest to the traditional form of Shinto that is said to date back to prehistoric times.101
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 in ca. 807 CE by Imibe-no-Hironari who collected oral traditions omitted from the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki103. These sources can be found online.

New Belief Systems

New Religious Movements

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


In the early 20th century, the so-called witch-cult hypothesis gained popularity in England. It says that the witches who were persecuted in Europe in medieval times were in fact women who practiced pre-Christian pagan traditions. In the 1920s, the English Egyptologist Margaret Murray was one of the most prominent advocates of that theory. The theory is nowadays considered incorrect, but it chimed well with the occult revival of the late nineteenth century. Adherents of the theory 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 nature. In the 1940s, the English anthropologist Gerald Gardener reported to have been initiated to the craft by group of hereditary witches. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act (which made it a crime to claim that someone had magical powers) was repealed in Englan d, and Gardener and others started publishing books on their ideas — the new religious movement of the Wicca was born.104105 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. When 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.105
Moral framework
The Wicca moral framework is harm-based: it permits doing whatever does not harm anyone else. Adherents believe in the Law of Threefold Return, which says that whatever good or bad actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force.104 Magic may only be performed when it does not harm others. People should strive to live in harmony with others and with themselves, and with the planet as a whole.105
Most Wiccan rituals take place in the frame of seasonal festivals at the full moon. They take place usually at night, lit evocatively by candles if indoors or by the moon, bonfires and lanterns if outside. A magic circle is cast, an altar with magic tools 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 again others postulate the existence of one godhead that incorporates all other deities, including the two main ones.
Wicca has no central scripture. It is based on the writings of Gerald Gardener and other 20th century writers , who sought to re-discover and re-establish the 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 High Priestesses (available online).
The word “witchcraft” usually evokes negative connotations, against which the Wicca community has to constantly defend itself. In the words of a Wiccan: “We don’t do anything sinister like Devil worship and we don’t make human or animal sacrifices. We 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.”106. 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/US
After the Second World War, the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbart became interested in mental health. He wrote a book called “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”, where 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, he proposed a process called auditing, a type of counseling, in which engrams are identified, recalled, and ultimately extinguished. Once people got rid of all engrams, they reached a state that Hubbart called “clear”. His theories became a popular movement, but were opposed as unscientific by the American Medical Association. As Dianetics developed, practitioners reported 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, organized by Hubbart in the Church of Scientology107108

The church has always been controversial. It was accused of being a cult, and investigated for practicing medicine without a license, and for tax fraud. Controversy 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. Hubbart died in 1986, but the church continues to exist in Australia, Europe, and the US. 109.107108

The supernatural
Scientology holds there is a Supreme Being called God or “Author of the Universe”. It also believes that the human is an immortal spiritual being. The human mind is inhabited by engrams (harmful memories) that affect life negatively. Scientology seeks to eliminate these engrams through auditing, to lead the adherent to a state of perfect happiness called “Clear”110. The engrams are the spirits of extraterrestrials that were dropped onto Earth and then killed by the galactic ruler Xenu111.
Moral framework
Hubbard’s “Way to Happine ss” lists 21 precepts, among which 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.112.
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 engrams110. In training, members follow courses delivered by the Church110.
Since Scientology is controlled by a central organization, and since deviation is shunned, there are no variants of this new religious movement.
One of the main scriptures of Scientology is the book “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health”, written in 1950 by L. Ron Hubbart. He followed up in 1952 with “Scientology, a religious philosophy”, which formalized the teachings of Scientology. Other teachings and practices of Scientology are secret to the public111.
Scientology has attracted criticism for several reasons:
One reproach to Scientology is that the church would exist mainly to make money111. Contrary to most other religions, Scientology makes none of its scriptures available online for free. 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. To remain in the Church, and to work towards the “Clear” status, adherents have to constantly purchase services and items: books, auditing services (up to 1000 USD per hour), and training sessions, according to ex-adherents111. Hubbard used Church funds to build massive personal private residences, and the current head, David Miscavige, possesses several multi-million-dollar mansions 111.
Fair Game Policy
Another point of criticism is the “Fair Game policy ” of the Church. It encourages Scientologists to harass, discriminate against, injure, and (in Hubbard’s words) trick, sue, lie to, or destroy any person critical of the Church111. 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 verdict113. 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 church114. Hubbart’s wife and ten other Scientologists were convicted111.
Policy of Disconnection
“Disconnection” is the severance of ties to people who are antagonistic to Scientology or its tenets115. 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 Scientology116. This can result in the loss of friends, family, and in some cases even children, who are still members of the Church of Scientology111.
These phenomena exist also in other religions: As for the profit making, the Catholic Church is one of the richest non-governmental organizations on Earth. Protestant televangelists make millions of dollars from televised masses and supposed healings. As for the Fair Game policy, critics of Islam are persecuted in much of the Muslim world, and can be sentenced to death in 8 of them. Even in the Western world, vocal critics of Islam run the risk of being killed by Islamist terrorists. As for the policy of disconnection, most major religions shun or even persecute apostates. In what concerns these similarities, Scientology has thus well advanced on its path from New Religious Movement to a religion.
I'd like to start a religion. That’s where the money is!
L. Ron Hubbart to Lloyd A. Eshbach, in 1949117


There is no precise definition of the term “spirituality”. In this book, we mean by “spiritual belief system” a belief system that emphasize personal and individual experiences with the supernatural.118 This is not to be confused with Spiritualism, which aims to contact the spirits of the dead. Spiritual belief systems enjoy some popularity in the Western world, quite possibly as a consequence of the loss of authority of the Christian Churches.
There are no codified or uniform beliefs of adherents of spirituality. Typical beliefs include:
There is no official scripture of spirituality. Individual groups, or individual adherents, may or may not use scriptures.
There are different types of Spirituality. Some people use the term “spiritual” simply equivalently with “religious” — possibly because the term “religious” has negative connotations, while the term “spiritual” does not. Often, these people are Christians . In these cases, “spiritual” is just a synonym for “Christian”.

In some cases, the people who say they are “spiritual” are in fact adherents of what this book calls “Christianity Light”: they believe in the Abrahamic god, are culturally influenced by Christianity, and appreciate (but do not necessarily venerate) Jesus. For example, such people will say they are not strictly Christian, but they still believe in the loving, omnipotent deity who kick-started the universe . Thus, the boundary between this type of Spirituality and Christianity Light is fuzzy.

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

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

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 reality119. Heraclitus of Ephesus conceived of a “logos”: a rational, natural, universal “thought” through which the universe came into being and by which it is maintained120. In modern times, likewise, some people hold very abstract ideas of God. These ideas often evolved with inspiration from, but explicit rejection of, the Abrahamic religions. In this book, we group these philosophies together as “Metaphysical Philosophies”.
Metaphysical Philosophies (in the sense of this book) are belief systems that say that “God” is just a different name for a metaphysical phenomenon. This phenomenon can be one or several of the following:

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

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

Metaphysical philosophies are quite diverse. The only thing they share is that they posit some unfalsifiable statement about the universe. This can be:

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

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

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


Thomas Paine was a Deist.

in the Montsouris Park/Paris

Deism is a philosophy that originated in the 17th century in Europe. Deists rejected Christian dogmata, and kept only the idea of an impersonal god. According to the Deists, God had 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. It was 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.121 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. It also rejects 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 hold that this belief is natural, and comes from reason alone.121
Moral framework
The early Deists accepted the moral teachings of the Bible121. That may no longer be true for today’s Deists.
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 powerful critique of Christianity in favor of Deism, and is available online.
Deism believes in a single god (as opposed to several gods or no god). It sees God as the origin of the universe. Thus, Deism posits a one-time interaction of the god with the physical universe, and assumes that the world has a beginning. This idea was inherited from the Abrahamic religions. (The Indian religions make no such claim, and neither does science).

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

Historically, most Deists saw religions as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They believed that this original pure religion had become corrupted121 by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general. Historically speaking, there is no evidence for this hypothesis. From what we can tell, religious rites have been popular in all major cultures throughout all of traceable history. Even today’s pre-scientific cultures, which have not yet been “spoiled” by the major religions, do not know the Deist god. They rather believe in spirits of nature. Australian Aborigines, too, have animist beliefs, not Deist beliefs. They have most likely held these beliefs for tens of thousands of years. Thus, all data points we have are about animist, ritual, spiritist, and religious traditions, not deist ones. The idea of a single god who created the universe and then retired without leaving any other gods or spirits in charge became popular only in the 17th century in Europe. Based on the data points we have, Deism is a fruit of the Abrahamic religions, not a precursor to them.

The world is my country, to do good is my religion.
Thomas Paine in “Rights of Man”


Humanism, the particular brand of atheism that this book advertises, is not a religion, because it lacks belief in the supernatural. We list it here mainly to show the similarities and differences to religion.

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 started questioning 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 emphasized the reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge (instead of religious revelation) and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, and the derivation of governmental authority from the consent of the governed – concepts that had little 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 we call today 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 got codified by several manifestos, and Humanists formed organizations in several countries, 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 Humanism, it is up to humans to give meaning to their own lives, to develop moral frameworks, to shape their societies, and to discover truth. 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. Humanist ethics is consequentialist: it does not aim at retribution, but at the prevention of harm. While Humanism centered first only on humans, it later came to consider also 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 held accountable to the Human Rights.
Humanists have no common practices, and they typically mingle in their society 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 1980122, the 1996 minimal statement on Humanism123, the Amsterdam Declaration of 2002124, and summaries by the American Humanist Association (2003)125 and the British Humanist Association (2020)126 (all of which are available online). 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 supernatural entities.
the Candid Atheist

Indigenous Religions

Indigenous Religions

Indigenous religions (also called “tribal”, or “ethnic” religions) are religions that are bound to a particular society, and smaller in scale. Such religions are typically not codified in scriptures and not institutionalized. This distinguishes the indigenous religions from other religions that are also mainly bound to a particular ethnicity (Hinduism, Shintoism, and Judaism), but that are larger in scale and codified. Indigenous religions center on the geographic region of the society, 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, costumes, masks, ritual traditions, and sacred artifacts.127These religions include thousands of distinct religious traditions, especially in Africa, Asia, and the Arctic Circle .

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

in Canada

In some cases, the original beliefs of indigenous religions have been submerged by the dominant organized religion. However, in many other cases, the traditional beliefs continue in defiance of (or in combination with) the organized religions. Together, the adherents of the Indigenous religions number in the hundreds of millions127.
Some beliefs of such religions are127:
Africa is home to many indigenous religions. Most African indigenous religions believe in a supreme God, who shares many characteristics with the Abrahamic god: he (or she) is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of all things who sustains, provides for, and protects creation with justice and mercy. Different from the Abrahamic religions, and like Deism, the African indigenous religions hold that God withdrew from the day-to-day affairs of humans. That task is left to a group of lesser spirits. These can be benevolent or malevolent, and can inhabit the sky, trees, mountains, etc. People can win and keep the favor of these spirits through good behavior. Today, Africa’s indigenous religions co-exist, and in some cases merge with, Christianity and Islam.

When African people were brought to the Americas as slaves, several syncretic religions resulted from the merger of different original African indigenous religions and Christianity. One of these mergers is Candomblé, a religion that is particularly popular in Brazil. Candomblé believes in one all-powerful God called Oludumaré who is served by lesser deities. Every person has their own individual deity who controls his or her destiny and acts as a protector. Worship takes the form of specially choreographed dances and hymns, which are designed to call the deities. (Some dances also served as martial arts, called capoeira.) Religious services are usually led by women, and it is the women who are responsible for ensuring the training of future priestesses. Candomblé practitioners were heavily persecuted in Brazil until the 1970s. Today, the religion has as many as two million followers.128

The Atheist Bible, next chapter: Founding of Religions


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