I belong to a family whose male members - my great-grandfather, grandfather and father - were all either atheists or agnostics, so I must admit I was early influenced by my environment.
However, as is my want with abstract subjects, I soon became interested in its dynamics, a fascinating history full of beautiful acts of mercy, solidarity, inspiration and creativity - as well as terrible deeds of mindless bestiality that cost an untold number of human lives, and still exact a tribute today.
|In my high-school class I was known as a "mangiapreti" (priest-eater) because the weekly hour of religion was my occasion for heated debates with our teacher Don Lauretta, at that time also Chaplain at Milan's main jail of San Vittore (below). At right, I was depicted by a school-mate as burning him at the stake .|
Star-shaped San Vittore jail with its 6 'rays'
My caricature by Mario Poggio
|Although admittedly my point of view may not be totally unbiased, I shall try to present a brief historical picture of the development of religion over the centuries and millennias, ridden with power struggles that were not only religious but political and economical as well, based on my decades of readings (for a list of books, see another page) and thoughts on this controversial but to me extraordinarily interesting anthropological and sociological subject.
Paleolithic Age (300,000-10,000 years ago): Politheism, Animism, Shamans and Art
Imagine yourself, a barely human creature some 100,000 years ago, struggling to survive in a perceivedly hostile environment where nature seems bent on shortening your already short life with wild animals and difficult weather, while you eke out your, your family's and your followers' (clan) miserable existence in rough cave shelters, eating whatever food you manage to hunt or gather, raw until you discover how to make a fire.
At some point, you figure that maybe all these powerful, incomprehensible powers can be somewhat appeased, if not controlled, by bowing to their force and paying them homages and tributes.
Eventually in this non-intellectual world, you may need to produce a solid image that you can worship and offer to, and many early cultures hit on the idea of a pregnant woman's figure representing Mother Earth or the Earth Mother as the generous dispenser of nature's gifts, to be thanked as a helper in survival, alongside the hostile deities to be placated.
Palaeoanthropus palestinensis: skull of a hominid buried in the Es Skhul Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel (100,000 BC)
Upper Paleolithic Venus von Willendorf, estimated to have been carved 24,000–22,000 BC
All this resulted in cults venerating multiple deities, i.e. politheism.
Some time later, early man started to wonder about what happened after death, and speculated that 'something' of a dead person still survived and interacted with the living, alongside with the 'spirits' of natural forces and totem animals: a 'lower' form of divinity that nevertheless deserved respect and homage, i.e. animism.
This may have been followed by the notion that earthly remains had to be preserved in some way, the only safe place then being underground where food was stored to avoid loot by scavengers.
Burial of a Homo sapiens at Sungir, Russia (26,000-28,000 BC)
An interesting development of this phase was the appearance of totems - animals supposed to represent and protect the clan - and taboos - questionable habits that experience had shown might be detrimental to clan life and should therefore be avoided, surviving in later religions as moral precepts listed in commandments, etc.
As the size of clan people increased, the handling of cult rites was entrusted to 'specialists' - initially probably clan members who could no longer help in hunts due to some physical incapacitation: the shamans or medicine men, the ancestors of later priests.
The shamans may also have been responsible for the earliest form of human art: cave paintings.
Steppe bison from the Altamira cave,
Spain (15,000 BC)
Paleonthologists are divided as to the reasons that prompted such paintings: some consider them depictions of clan hunts, others see in them a form of exorcism to acquire power over intended preys - thousands of years later, religious buildings would have their interior walls similarly decorated for the benefit of their illiterate faithfuls, having realised that "a picture is better than a thousand words" .
Animism and shamanism still survive today in some regions of Africa, remote parts of Siberia and with Australian aborigines.
Neolithic Age (10,000-3,500 years ago): Agriculture and Animal Husbandry
The Fertile Crescent of Western Asia first saw the domestication of animals, starting the Neolithic Revolution between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago - there is evidence of fig cultivation in the Jordan Valley as long as 11,300 years ago, and of cereal production in Syria approximately 9,000 years ago, as well as in Anatolia 11,500-10,400 years ago:
Excavations at Göbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill), Örencik, SE Turkey)
A cultual site for the dead, near an area (Karaca Dag, Mount Masia)
which may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains.
This marked an epochal transition from the nomadic hunters-gatherers of Paleolithic times, meaning stable settlements that were later to become larger and larger: villages, and then cities.
It also meant finding new ways for reckoning the passage of time, theretofore based on the cycles of the Moon - agriculture requires seasonal activities, which can be more accurately based on Sun movements: the winter solstice, marking the beginning of a new yearly cycle, soon became an important feast in most cults. Approximately 5,000 years ago, early man devised a way to place large stones (megaliths) in positions aligned to regularly repeating events like the seasons, lunar phases, solar cycles and so on.
Some of the 3,000 menhirs (long stones) at Carnac (Brittany, France, 4500 BC)
Stone circle at Stonehenge (Wiltshire, England, 3,000-2,000 BC)
A particularly poignant burial of an embraced human couple was discovered in 2007 at Valdaro near Mantua. Later, special containers were devised to hold human remains or ashes, and tombs became more and more elaborate and imposing, signifying not only a homage to the buried but visible symbols of their power and affluence - some being included among the "7 Wonders of the Ancient World".
Villanovan cinerary urn (8,000-6,000 BC) - Figurine from Sha’ar Hagolan (6,000-5,500 BC)
Pyramids (2,500 BC) - Etruscan "Lioness" tomb (520 BC) - The Maussolleion (350 BC, model)
The Valdaro Lovers
(ca. 4,000 BC)
Bronze (3,500 years ago) and Iron (1,400 years ago) Ages: Politheism with God Couples
The number of Neolithic-inherited deities had by now become unwieldly, and some sort of hierarchy was in order: around 2,000 BC many regions of the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent saw the appearance of 'god couples' overshadowing the other gods: Osiris and Isis in Egypt, Baal and Ishtar in Assyria, later Zeus and Hera in Greece, known as Jupiter and Juno to the Romans.
Osiris/Isis - Baal/Ishtar - Zeus,Jupiter/Hera,Juno
The first attested attempt at 'simplifying' still further an overcrowded pantheon was made by Pharaoh Amenhotep/Amenophis IV of the 18th dynasty in Egypt: changing his name to Akhenaten, he tried to establish the sun god Aton as the only god for his people - probably also spurred by the need to counteract the financial and political supremacy of Thebe's Amon priests - and founded the new capital city of Akhetaten at today's Amarna.
After his death, his successor Tutankhaten soon changed his name to Tutankhamon, the old order was restored, the new capital razed to the ground and his predecessor's name and effigies erased - power politics had prevailed.
Some centuries had to pass before two other similar attempt were made.
Akhenaten (1391-3/1388-51 BC)
Synchretism and Significant Aspects
As religions passed their original national boundaries through conquest and spread to other regions, often they did not totally replace previous cults but were partially mixed with them, i.e. exhibiting synchretism.
Other frequent developments that occurred over time is the gradual appearance of significant aspects like:
- Sects: variants of a mainstream religion.
- Prophets: the writers/originators/inspirers of Sacred Texts and/or Sects.
- Sacred Texts: body of writings to preserve the original oral teachings, and a vehicle for their further diffusion. Their basic problem is that most were laid down in writing well after - even centuries - the events they refer to.
- Shrines/Temples/Churches/Sanctuaries: places of religious worship.
- Rites: ceremonies for acceptance into the body of followers, before/on entering a shrine, purification, homage to a deity.
- Hierarchy: a multi-layered structure of officials over the officiants.
- Dietary prescriptions: what foods to avoid.
- Missionaries: the propagators of religion in foreign lands.
- After-life beliefs: what happens after death.
- Calendar: the reckoning of time, usually moon-based (lunar) in older faiths.
All the above aim to form a system of morals and/or a set of rules that believers should adhere to.
Followers of non-mainstream variants of a religion, offering even radically different interpretations of the established doctrine - were often being fought as heretics, the fight occasionally developing into extremism and fanaticism.
Major World Religions
A brief and simplified synopsis of the world's most widely followed religions, listed below in chronological order of appearance.
Distribution of major world religions (from Religious Tolerance)
For semplicity's sake, I am listing as "sects" their major subdivisions/denominations/affiliations, and "prophets" their main testimonials. Most of the dates listed below are not totally reliable - they are a constant source of debate among scholars.
Placing the cursor over the italicised terms in the following text and tables offers a brief explanation of their meaning.
Hinduism (1,500 BC)
|God(s)||Trimurti plus hundreds of others.|
|Sects||Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Jainism, Bali Hinduism, Raja Yoga|
|Sacred texts||Vedas (mid 2nd-mid 1st millennium BC), Upanishads (1st millennium BC)|
|Admission||Jatakarman for male newborns, Namakaranam|
|Purification||Water ablutions: Punyahavachanam|
|Homage||Puja (offerings of water, ghee and food, burning of incense, prayers, chants)|
|Dietary precepts||Beef prohibited, lactovegetarian diet encouraged|
|Missionaries||Brahmin priests (only in the 20th century to expatriate Hindus)|
|After-life beliefs||Reincarnation (until moksha is achieved)|
|Estimated followers||1,100 million|
The Om/Aum mantra
in Devanagari script
Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva
Hinduism is the descendant of the Indo-Aryan Vedism of Northern India (ca. 1750-500 BC), and is considered the first attested organised religion, its more formalised beginnings dating to 500 BC.
Judaism (1,490 BC)
|Prophets||Moses, Isaiah, Elijah|
|Sects||Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews)|
|Sacred texts||Torah (1,312 BC).
Tanakh (450 BC).
Talmud (from 70 AD)
|Admission||Brit milah of 8-day-old male newborns by a Mohel|
|Confirmation||Bar mitzvah for males of 13 and 1 day, Bat mitzvah for females of 12 and 1 day|
|Purification||Water ablutions: washing of hands, full immersion.|
|After-life beliefs||None for Sadducees, resurrection at the return of the Messiah for Pharisees|
|Calendar||Lunisolar, from 3761 BC (God's creation of the universe)|
|Estimated followers||14.5 million|
Star of David
Moses and the tables
of the 10 commandments
According to the Genesis, one day Abraham was urged by God to leave his house in Ur of the Chaldees and settle in a land which was already inhabited by the descendants of Canaan, but soon a famine forced him to leave for Egypt where his descendants lived for generations until Moses - possibly in 1,446 or 1,250 BC - convinced them to return to the land of Canaan despite the Pharaoh's opposition.
After wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years, eventually the Jews reached Canaan - it took them several years to resettle their briefly ancestral land, occupied in the meantime by other polytheistic populations from which they absorded some cults, to the chagrin of prophets like Isaiah who chastised them for not worshipping the single God of Moses.
Initially the land was subdivided among their 12 tribes as Moses had willed. In about 1,026 BC a Kingdom of Israel was established under Saul (then David and Solomon), to split later in 928 BC into a northern Kingdom of Israel (conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC) and a southern Kingdom of Judah (conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC).
It was only then that the Jews finally turned fully monotheistic: in trying to justify their defeat and slavery, they reasoned in a rather twisted manner that Jahweh had deliberately empowered King Nebuchadnezzar II in order to punish them for their obstinacy and relustance !
The deported Judean Jews returned to Jerusalem in 539 BC after the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia. The area was later conquered by Alexander the Great in 333 BC, and by the Roman Republic in 63 BC, to be broken up and set up as a Roman client state with Herod as king until Emperor Hadrian suppressed their last revolt in 135 AD, a time that marked the beginning of the Jewish diaspora to other lands.
Possible routes of the Exodus (traditional in black) - The Twelve Tribes of Israel - Kingdoms of Israel (928-722 BC) and Judah (928-586 BC)
Since 140 BC, the Jewish society divided between 'progressive' Sédûqîm ("Sadducees") and 'conservative' Parišayya ("Pharisees") from the priestly and aristocratic families.
Judaism was the first religion to introduce a weekly day of rest (Shabbat) in remembrance of God's creation.
Its dietary precepts, later mostly adopted by Islam, too, reflect the precautions necessary in a hot climate, where some animals are more liable to diseases and the blood of butchered animals putrefies quickly.
More details on another page
Shintoism (660 BC)
|God(s)||Izanagi, Izanami, Kami, Emperor|
|Purification||Water ablution: harae.|
|Dietary precepts||Meat not allowed|
|Synchretisms||Shamanism - Taoism and Bhuddism after the 6th century AD.|
|Estimated followers||4 million.|
Torii, the gate
to a Shinto shrine
Shinto temple at Kyoto
Shindo/Shinto or Kami-no-michi is the indigenous religion of Japan, the archipelago created by the gods Izanagi and Izanami. Izanagi is killed by Kagu-Tsuchi, but returns to the land of the living and Amaterasu is born from his left eye, Tsukuyomi from his right eye, and Susanoo from his nose.
Taoism (550 BC)
|God(s)||Jade Emperor, the Three Pure Ones|
|Prophets||Laozi/Lao-Tzu/Lao-Tze (6th century BC)|
|Sects||Sianshi/Zhengyi school, Shangqing school, Lingbao school, Quanzhen School|
|Sacred texts||Tao Te Ching/Daodejing, Zhuangzi, I Ching, Daozang|
|After-life beliefs||Eternal in Tao|
|Synchretisms||Shamanic culture of northern China.|
|Estimated followers||2.7 million|
Taijitu, the Yin/Yang symbol
Laozi depicted as Daode Tianzun
|Taoism/Daoism is a Chinese philosophical, ethical, political and religious tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, balancing the opposite forces/principles of Yin (masculine) and Yang (feminine), Wu-wei, and Sanbao.|
Taoism includes techniques for achieving ecstasy, longevity or immortality - and exorcism. It should not be confused with its contemporary Confucianism, a similar ethical and philosophical system.
Buddhism (523 BC)
|Prophets||Gautama Siddharta the Buddha (the enlightened one)|
|Sects||Mahayana (India, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, etc.)
Theravada (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, etc.)
Tantrism (Tibet - Mahayana)
Chan (China - Mahayana)
Zen, Nichiren (Japan - Mahayana)
|Sacred texts||Pali Canon, Dàzàngjing, Daizokyo|
|Purification||Water ablutions (Japanese Buddhism only).|
|Homage||Hinduist puja (offerings of water, burning of incense, prayers)|
|Hierarchy||None (except in Tantrism: the Dalai Lama)|
|Missionaries||Dharmaraksita, Kasyapa Matanga, Marananta, Padmasambhava|
|After-life beliefs||Reincarnation (until nirvana is achieved).|
|Estimated followers||350-1,600 million|
(Wheel of Law)
|Siddhartha Gautama lived, taught and founded a monastic order between the 6th and 4th centuries BC in Northern India. Over time, his teachings spawned into variants based on Hinduistic sects that spread first to neighbouring and then to distant areas, with several local variations and schools.|
Buddhism is difficult to classify as either an atheistic, polytheistic or monotheistic religion/philosophy. However, its sects with Hinduistic synchretism have retained a polytheistic character.
Zoroastrianism (450 BC)
the personal spirit
Zoroastrianism (also called Zarathustraism, Mazdaism and Magianism) is an ancient monotheistic Iranian religion - once the state religion of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid empires.
A dualistic religion based on the eternal struggle between Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, i.e. good/evil, truth/falsehood.
Christianism (30 AD)
|God(s)||Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)|
|Sects||Coptic, Assyrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant & derivatives|
|Sacred texts||The Bible:|
- Old Testament (the Hebrew Torah)
- New Testament (the Gospels)
|Admission||Baptism of the newborns|
|Purification||Water ablution (hand dipped into holy water), confession of sins.|
|Homage||Sign of the cross, prayers.|
|Dietary precepts||Fasting during Lent, no meat on Fridays|
|Hierarchy||Pope/Patriarch, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops|
|Missionaries||Initially St.Paul to Asia Minor and Rome, then untold others to the rest of the world|
|After-life beliefs||Immortal souls (Paradise, Purgatory, Hell), resurrection on Judgement Day|
|Synchretisms||Hebraism, Graeco-Roman religion|
|Calendar||Solar, from 1 AD (birth of Jesus)|
|Estimated followers||2,039 million|
Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty)
|Jesus Christ (Jesus the anointed, the Messiah) is not the original name but a Greek adaptation of Yeshua ben Yosef (in Hebrew, spoken in Judea) or Yehoshua bar Yusuf (in Aramaic, spoken in Israel where Nazareth is located), the name of a man presumably born in the year 1 AD (son of carpenter Yosef/Yusuf and his wife Myriam) and died of crucifixion in the year 33 AD - historian Flavius Josephus includes references to Jesus and the origins of Christianism in book 18 of his 20 volumes of the "Antiquities of the Jews", written in 93-94 AD.|
Jesus was a Jew - probably a follower of the itinerant preacher Yohanan ha-mmatbil - who had no notion of inventing a new religion, only a variation of Judaism like others had done before - e.g. the Essenes - and after. He also preached itinerantly and gathered a community of followers - with 12 prominent figures among them, the Apostles - male and female, the latter including his supposed wife Myriam of Magdala - a hotly disputed issue to this day.
After his death on the cross (a 2013 study logically collating various literary sources pinpoints it to around 3:00 p.m on Friday, April 3, A.D. 33) and resurrection 3 days later on Pésakh, his followers continued his preachings to Jewish communities in Israel and elsewhere.
In 31–36 AD Saul of Tarsus, a Hellenised Jew and Roman citizen, on the way from Jerusalem to Damascus was struck by a vision that prompted him to convert to his previously persecuted Christianity, and become its most active missionary, first among Jews and subsequently among the "Gentiles", i.e. the non-Jews. For this, he was soon in conflict with James and former fisherman Shim'on Bar Yona.
Herodian Kingdom of Israel
(Roman vassal state, 37–4 BC)
|The Gospels were originally written in Greek - probably at Alexandria, hosting a substantial Jewish population - and Aramaic, later to be translated into Latin by the Illyrian priest Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus who also culled the 3 synoptic Gospels and the later John's Gospel from the myriad of the then circulating versions, the remainder being called apochripha and discarded. In addition to the 4 Gospels, the New Testament also includes the Acts of the Apostles and the 13 Epistles of Paul.|
Initially, the Christian hierarchy only included bishops. As the number of followers mounted, the bishops of major cities in the Roman Empire became increasingly influential, with Rome claiming supremacy as the city where allegedly the Apostle Peter came to preach and was crucified in 63-64 AD, being considered the Christian Church's first bishop and Pope.
Disputes soon ensued between bishops on major doctrinal points which led to various pre-Ecumenical and Ecumenical Councils to settle them. Nevertheless, major rifts and schisms developed over time:
- 1054: the Orthodox schism of Eastern churches (conflict between the Roman Pope and the Patriarch of Costantinople).
- 1378-1417: the Western or Papal Schism, with 2 competing Popes (one in Rome, the other in Avignon, France).
- 1517: the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland.
- 1533: the Anglican schism of the Church of England (conflict between the Pope Clement VII and Tudor Henry VIII on the latter's marriage annulment).
The Bible was fully translated into High German by Martin Luther in 1534 and into Modern English in 1611, both superseding previous partial translations.
Although a monotheistic religion, some Christian sects show traces of polytheism, probably as synchretisms from the Greek and Roman religions, for instance considering:
- The single God becoming a tripartite God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) or more, given the importance attributed to the Virgin Mary.
- The ever-growing number of worshipped semi-divine Saints and Beati, and their relics.
Islam (622 AD)
|Prophets|| Muhammad, Moses, Jesus|
|Sects||Sunni, Sh'ia, Isma'ilism|
|Sacred texts||The Quran|
|Admission||Circumcision of male newborns|
|Purification||Water ablutions (wudu) or tayammum in the absence of water.|
|Homage||5 daily prayers facing the direction of Mecca.|
|Hierarchy||Caliph (Sunni), Imam (Sh'ia)|
|Missionaries||The Dawah organisation. From the 7th century Islam spread rapidly from the Arabian Peninsula|
to the rest of the world through Muslim conquests and subsequently with traders and explorers.
|After-life beliefs||Immortal souls (Paradise, Hell), resurrection on Judgement Day|
|Calendar||Lunar, from 622 AD (year of the Hijra)|
|Estimated followers||1,570 million|| |
Calligram of Allah - Calligram of Quran
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Muhammad preaching his final sermon,
(medieval Persian astronomy book)
Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib ibn Hashim (Mecca, ca. 570-632) was the founder of Islam.
After the death of Muhammad, a power struggle broke out among his followers: the Sunnis believe that Muhammad did not appoint a successor to lead the Muslim community before his death, and after an initial period of confusion, a group of his most prominent companions gathered and elected Abu Bakr Al Siddiq as the first Khalifah of Islam; on the other hand, the Sh'ia believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first Imam and the rightful successor.
While the lack of a structured hierarchy may seem a positive aspect, it has in effect prevented any adjustment of Islamic Law to changing times, and caused its sticking to the letter of the Quran - the fact that the latter may be read ONLY in its original Arabic version and cannot be translated poses some questions about its comprehensibility by people whose native language is different (e.g. in Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.) and who have to learn its teachings through a Mawla.
Sikhism (1469 AD)
The Khanda (kettle and sword)
Sikhism is a religious movement started in the Indian state of Punjab by Guru Nanak at the end of the 15th century). The Khalsa (Community of Sikhs) observes the 5 K precepts:
The 5 Khalsa Ks: Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (wooden comb), Kara (iron bangle), Kirpan (sword), Kachera (shorts)
The Harmandir Sahib golden Gurdwara (shrine),Amritsar, 1604
Bahá'í (1844 AD)
|God(s)||Same God of all religions|
|Prophets||Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad Shírází the Bàb, Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá|
|Sacred texts||Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Kitáb-i-Íqán, |
|Purification||Water ablutions (washing of the hands and face).|
|Homage||3 daily obligatory prayers|
|After-life beliefs||Immortal souls (Paradise, Hell), resurrection on Judgement Day|
|Synchretisms||Hebraism, Christianism, Islam|
|Estimated followers||7 million|
Universal House of Justice, Haifa
Bahá'í is a religious movement started in Islamic Persia by Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad Shírází (the founder of Bábism), who in 1847 claimed to be the Qá'im or Mahdi . It continued with Mírzá Husayn-`Alí Núrí and his son Abdu'l.
Extinct Religions, Conversions/Resistances and Non-Religions
Religions are intimately intertwined with the culture and civilisation in which they develop, so when the latter are taken over by another, e.g. through conquest, they often disappear altogether and are replaced by the conqueror's - this has happened several times during history, even to long-established, important cults:
- In Europe: Greek, Roman, Scandinavian religions - replaced by Christianism.
- In the Middle East: Egyptian, Assyrian/Babylonian, Iranian religions - replaced by Islam.
- In the Americas: Mayan, Aztec, Inca religions - replaced by Christianism.
Conversion to a new faith is either accepted for conviction and/or convenience, or imposed forcibly by a new ruler. It has been far less successful in the Far East, probably because of only partial conquests made there and more deeply-rooted local religions.
Resilient minority religions like Judaism have survived also possibly due to the geographical dispersion of its followers - which stimulated clinging to their original identity among often hostile foreigners - and local convenience: since money-lending was long considered a sin for Christians, it was mostly left to the Jews to practice - which determined the emergence of a strong Jewish presence in finance and banking - as well as other marginal occupations like rag-trading, which eventually led to their prominence as furriers in some Catholic cities.
The 'Age of Enlightment' of the late 18th century and the subsequent rise of science caused in many a deep mistrust in and refusal of religion, determining the steady increase in the number of people professing themselves either atheists (not believing any god exists) or agnostics (asserting they cannot know if any god exists), totalling nowadays an estimated 1,000 million.
A new religion usually starts out with someone - a prophet, a sage, a seer - who offers a new set of answers to man's eternal questions about the unknown, often as a variant of another, already existing religion/cult/faith.
He/she then gathers a following of believers whose numbers may increase due to various reasons: acceptance and popularity, proselitism, protection/support by those in power, etc.
As the numbers increase, the need usually arises for:
- The assembly of a body of sacred texts, in many cases long after the oral traditions they represent - which creates problems of interpretation and credibility.
- The formalisation of rites of worship and the establishment of festivities.
- The development of a hierararchy of official authorities.
- The erection of places of worship.
Thus a new cult is born, unsurprisingly retaining many aspects of the previous cults it replaces (synchretism), and itself subject to the appearance of further variants.
In addition to satisfying the above needs, most religions share common traits like:
- The use of water and prayers in various rites.
- The re-use of previous places of worship - hallowed ground seems to retain its meaning and importance over generations - and their orientation eastwards, in the direction of the rising sun.
An organised church is not only a body of doctrine officials and faith followers, but often becomes mutually influential with power and politics and occasionally in competition and at odds with them: in the course of history, many heads of state have tried to guide and even determine its rulers, and viceversa so have done the heads of many churches - to the point of causing wars, untold grief and numberless casualties.
The basic lessons that I learned:
- Humans tend to explain through religion and mysticism what they cannot otherwise understand .
- In the West, new religions soon experience many more internal power struggles than in the East, possibly due to the penchant for analytical approach to problems inherited from the Greeks as opposed to the synthetical approach preferred in the Far East.
- Intolerance, extremism and phanaticism are the worst possible poisons of the human intellect, in this and any field of endevour .