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Anthropology: Tracing the Origin and Evolution of Religion

If I were to describe our world, I would start by calling it a melting hotpot. A hotpot brimming with differences, peculiarities, and divisions. Don’t get me wrong here though. The intention to use such terms to highlight this variation is not necessarily negative. Sometimes, different is interesting, intriguing and good. Coming back to the world, it is a melting hotpot of races, ideologies, religion, cultures, languages, beliefs and what not. 

Today however, more than ever, this world stands polarized like never before. Right against the left, the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, faith against science, superstition against reason, traditions against modernity, conservatism against liberalism, chauvinism against feminism, religionism against atheism, regionalism against globalization – the list is never ending. What’s central to all of this is the concept of ideology or belief which is based upon the unconditional acceptance of something that may exist or is true without needing any evidence. If I may take the liberty without hurting sentiments, a layman may also describe this concept of belief as nothing but a mere figment of imagination. Thus one can safely assume that sometimes, the whole system of belief that polarizes the world is nothing more than a figment of imagination. The very imagination which has costed mankind several lives, resources and given us glorious tales of war, murder and deceit to assert itself superior over the others’. Forgive me for my too straightforward deductions here, it’s a disciplinary hazard as I direct all blames to the economists all over the world who have very conveniently devised splendid models based on nothing but assumptions and deductions. 

So coming back to the polarized world, we have talked about innumerable factors which divide mankind and being able to pinpoint a singular reason that led to the genesis of it all is a task even the Gods in the Sky would not reach a consensus on. So I being my human self, would start talking about the factor which I believe existed even before the world was evolved enough to feel any other difference – Religion. Derived from the Latin word Religio, it means “restraint” and is an organized system of beliefs and practices revolving around, or leading to, a transcendent spiritual experience. There is no culture recorded in human history which has not practiced some form of religion. How did the concept of religion emerge ? Was it always in its present form ? If not, how and why did it change/evolve ? How did religion manage to be associated with extremism and conservatism ? Why did such a pristine personal thing become the reason for bloodshed and warfare ? In this article, I would attempt to touch upon the genesis of religions across the world as well as the religions as they exist today.

Timeline of Religious Evolution

Here’s a brief overview of the timeline of religious evolution as well as evidence that has emerged since the beginning of time.

  • Nonhuman religious behavior – Primates like common chimpanzees and bonobos who lived between 6-8 million years ago can be considered the closest relatives to humanity. According to Barbara J King, “while non-human primates are not religious, they do exhibit some traits that would have been necessary for the evolution of religion. These traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realization of “self”, of “continuity”. Burial practices, which are the most significant indicator of religion/ritual, seem to be absent among the Neanderthals. 
  • Prehistoric Evidence of Religion – The exact time when humans first became religious remains unknown. However, research in evolutionary archaeology shows credible evidence of religious-cum-ritualistic behaviour from around the Middle Paleolithic era (45000-200000 years ago). The earliest evidence of religious thought is based on the ritual treatment of the dead. Ritual burials represent an awareness of life and death and a possible belief in the afterlife. Philip Lieberman states “burials with grave goods clearly signify religious practices and concern for the dead that transcends daily life.” The earliest evidence for treatment of the dead comes from Atapuerca in Spain. At this location, the bones of 30 individuals believed to be Homo heidelbergensis have been found in a pit. The earliest known burial of modern humans is from a cave in Israel located at Qafzeh. Human remains have been dated to 100,000 years ago. Human skeletons were found stained with red ochre. Use of symbols is another important indicator of religious practices. Archeologist Steven Mithen contends that it is common for religious practices to involve the creation of images and symbols to represent supernatural beings and ideas. Some of the earliest evidence of symbolic behavior is associated with Middle Stone Age sites in Africa. From at least 100,000 years ago, there is evidence of the use of pigments such as red ochre. Pigments are of little practical use to hunter gatherers, thus evidence of their use is interpreted as symbolic or for ritual purposes. According to Matt Rossano, author of “The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion”, “it is universal among human cultures for the color red to represent blood, sex, life and death.” Upper paleolithic cave art provides some of the most unambiguous evidence of religious thought from the paleolithic. Cave paintings at Chauvet depict creatures that are half human and half animal.
  • Origin of Organized Religion – Organized religion traces its roots to the Neolithic revolution that began 11,000 years ago and evolved independently across the world. The invention of agriculture transformed many human societies from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary lifestyle. The consequences of the Neolithic revolution included a population explosion and an acceleration in the pace of technological development. While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer of wealth or maintain peace between unrelated individuals. Organized religion emerged as a means of providing social and economic stability in the following ways:
    • Justifying the central authority, which in turn possessed the right to collect taxes in return for providing social and security services.
    • Bands and tribes consist of a small number of related individuals. However, states and nations are composed of many thousands of unrelated individuals. Jared Diamond,author of  Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues that organized religion served to provide a bond between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to enmity. According to him, the leading cause of death among hunter-gatherer societies is murder. 
    • Religions that revolved around moralizing gods may have facilitated the rise of large, cooperative groups of unrelated individuals. 

The states born out of the Neolithic revolution, such as those of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were theocracies with chiefs, kings and emperors playing dual roles of political and spiritual leaders. Anthropologists have found that virtually all state societies and chiefdoms around the world have been found to justify political power through divine authority. This suggests that political authority co-opts collective religious belief to bolster itself.

The organized religion went through several transitions in the course of history. Religious wars comprise a hefty bulk of the world history that we read today. 

  • Ancient world history was lost in the struggle of discovering the first signs of emergence, evolution towards what we call modern man, transition from savagery to barbarism, establishment of contact by humans across the world for shelter, food and trade. Therefore, this prehistoric stage concerned itself mainly with survival. In ancient times, religion was indistinguishable from what we call mythology today. It consisted of rituals centered around higher supernatural entities which were believed to have created the world. This period saw several texts which can be considered religious. The Pyramid Texts from ancient Egypt, the oldest known religious texts in the world, date to between 2400-2300 BCE.  The earliest records of Hinduism are the Vedas, composed around 1500-1200 BC. Other religious texts found around this time are the Upanishads, the Dead Sea Scrolls (representing texts of Hebrew Tanakh) and Zoroastrian Avesta. 
  • The transition to Medieval stage saw a series of accomplishments in terms of settlements, discoveries and trade. This period also saw the emergence of religions as they exist in the present form today – Christianization of the West, Islamification of the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe and India and the spread of Buddhism in the East. This period witnessed religious conflicts and religious supremacy in the region started to be a symbol of power. Territorial conquests often resulted in mass change of religious inclinations. No extra marks for guessing the “peaceful” nature of such a change !! The Muslims came into conflict with Zoroastrians during the Islamic conquest of Persia (633-654); Christians fought against Muslims during the Byzantine-Arab Wars (7th– 11th C), the Crusades (1095 onward), the Reconquista (718-1492), the Ottoman wars in Europe (13th century onwards) and the Inquisition; Shamanism was in conflict with Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and Christians during the Mongol invasions (1206-1337); and Muslims clashed with Hindus and Sikhs during the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent. It wouldn’t be wrong to say people were high on both bloodshed and religion. This period was mostly in the barbarian stage of evolution and people were experimenting with all kinds of faith-based models, including mysticism. 
  • By the 16th century, Europe had sufficiently entered the “civilized” stage of evolution and took it upon their own selves to civilize the rest of the world. I mean the third world “barbaric countries” with lots of resources and wealth that “natives” didn’t know how to use. So as long as the coffers were brimming, intentions were neat (mostly). This fetish for civilization saw the spread of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to the Americas, Australia and the Philippines. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century played a major role in the rapid spread of the Protestant Reformation. The 18th century saw the beginning of secularisation in Europe, gaining momentum after the French Revolution 1789 and by the late 20th century religion had declined in most of Europe.
  • At the dawn of the new millennium, people further diversified their religious quests when, in 2000, people used the internet to discover and follow their religious beliefs and, in 2000, an independent website called Beliefnet was made which delivered content related to spirituality, health, wellness etc.

Different Religions Around the World

Buddhism – Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash
  • Atheism – It refers to either the absence of a belief in the existence of deities or to an active belief that deities do not exist. This belief system rejects theology as well as the constructs of organized religion. It was first self-applied during the Age of Enlightenment in 18th century France. The French Revolution was driven by the prioritization of human reason over the abstract authority of religion. This prompted a period of skeptical inquiry, one in which atheism became an important cultural, philosophical, and political entity.
  • Hinduism – One of the oldest religions in the world,  it developed between 15-5 C BC. combines several ancient traditions and beliefs. The oldest scripture of Hinduism is the Rig Veda, which is believed to be about 3,500 years old. However, archaeologists have found bull and cow motifs, which are sacred animals in Hinduism, dating back to around 7,000 BCE during a time when an ancient civilization inhabited the area near the Indus River.
  • Buddhism – “It is both a religion and a philosophy. The traditions and beliefs surrounding Buddhism can be traced to the original teachings of Gautama Buddha, a sagely thinker who is believed to have lived between the fourth and sixth centuries BCE. The Buddha lived and taught in the eastern part of ancient India, providing the template for a faith based on the ideas of moral rectitude, freedom from material attachment or desire, the achievement of peace and illumination through meditation, and a life dedicated to wisdom, kindness, and compassion. It’s a central religion in most of east and south east Asia. Today, roughly 7% of the world practices some form of Buddhism, making it the fourth largest of the world’s religions.”
  • Christianity – “ It is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah (the savior of humanity foretold in the Torah, the primary scriptural doctrine of the Jewish faith). Christian scripture incorporates both the Torah (referred to by Christians as the Old Testament) with the story of Jesus, his teachings, and those of his contemporaneous disciples (the New Testament). These form the Bible, the central text of the Christian faith. Christianity began in Jerusalem as an outgrowth of Judaism that considered Jesus the Christ (meaning “anointed one”). This idea and its adherents spread rapidly through ancient Judea around the first century CE, then throughout the ancient world.”
  • Confucianism – was a dominant form of philosophy and religious orientation in ancient China, one that emerged from the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius. With an emphasis on family and social harmony, Confucianism was a distinctly humanist and even secularist religious ideology. Confucianism had a profound impact on the development of Eastern legal customs and the emergence of a scholar class.
  • Judaism – is one of the oldest monotheistic world religions, among the first ethnoreligious groups to move away from idolatry or paganism and toward the recognition of a single deity. Judaism is said to have begun with the figure of Abraham, a man living in the Land of Canaan — a geographical expanse likely encompassing portions of Phoenicia, Philistia, and Israel. In the Tanakh — the body of Jewish scripture which includes a foundational text called The Torah, and later supplemental texts called the Midrash and the Talmud — it is said that God spoke to Abraham and commanded him to recognize the singularity and omnipotence of God. Abraham accepted, becoming the father not just of Judaism but of the various monotheistic (or Abrahamic) religions that followed.
  • Bahai – This faith is essentially a spiritual ideology that teaches the value of all religions, espousing the importance of universal equality and unity. Bahá’u’lláh, the founding figure in the Bahá’í faith, officially established his ideology in 1863 in Persia (or modern-day Iran). As something of a hybrid of other faiths, Bahá’í grew out of the tradition of Babism, which itself emerged from an Islamic denomination called Shaykhism. The central governing body of the Bahá’í faith, a nine-member council called the Universal House of Justice, operates from Haifa, Israel. Today, the Bahá’í faith has somewhere between five and seven million adherents around the world.
  • Islam – It is a monotheistic religion that — like Christianity and Judaism — traces its roots to the Garden of Eden, Adam, and the prophet Abraham. Islam teaches that Allah is the only God and that Muhammed is his messenger. Islam holds that God spoke to Muhammed through the archangel Gabriel some time around 600 CE, delivering the revelations that would form the Quran. This primary text of the Islamic faith is believed by adherents to contain the exact words of God and therefore provides a full and nonnegotiable blueprint for how to live.
  • Shinto – religious tradition native to Japan. Initially an informal collection of beliefs and mythologies, Shinto was less a religion than a distinctly Japanese form of cultural observance. 
  • Sikhism – is a monotheistic faith emerging from and remaining concentrated in the Punjabi region that traverses Northern India and Eastern Pakistan. The Sikh religion came into focus during the late 15th century and draws its tenets of faith, meditation, social justice, and human equality from a scripture called the Guru Granth Sahib.
  • Zoroastrianism – “It is considered one of the world’s oldest religions, and some of its earliest ideas — messianism, posthumous judgment, and the duality of heaven and hell — are believed to have informed the evolution of Judaism, as well as Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam. Its founding figure, Zoroaster, was an innovative religious thinker and teacher who is believed to have lived between 700 BCE and 500 BCE in Persia (modern-day Iran). Its primary text, the Avesta, combines the Gathas (Zoroaster’s writings) with the Yasna (the scriptural basis of Zoroastrianism). Zoroaster’s influence loomed large in his time and place. In fact, Zoroastrianism was soon adopted as the official state religion of the Persian Empire and remained so for nearly a thousand years.”

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