The Evolution of Religion


The word religion describes a collection of beliefs, practices and codes of behavior that are held by a group of people. It has been the subject of debates and discussions for millennia, especially since the emergence of modern social science, such as history, archaeology and anthropology. These developments enabled a deeper understanding of the wide range of cultural traditions around the world and helped to give a firmer basis for discussing religion in general. The evolution of the concept of religion has also been the subject of a variety of philosophical approaches, from those of the idealist philosopher Friedrich Hegel to the positivistic and materialist Auguste Comte.

Many people believe in more than one religion and some are atheists, or do not believe in the existence of gods. Others are very active in their religious practice and consider it an essential part of their life. The number of people who define themselves as religious in some way is currently estimated to be more than 6.2 billion.

Anthropologists believe that religion arose in prehistoric times as humans tried to control uncontrollable parts of the environment, such as the weather or the success of hunting. They sought to influence the natural world through magic, or manipulation, and to supplicate by giving offerings to gods and goddesses. Early religious ideas may have included totems or ancestor worship as well as the creation myths of their particular culture.

In the 1700s and 1800s, social and political philosophers such as Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx studied religion and its impact on human society. Smith’s idea of the “natural religion” emphasized the role of nature and a belief in an afterlife; Rousseau emphasized human free will, while Marx was concerned about how social stratification perpetuates inequality.

A broader view of religion was provided by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, who believed that religion is a projection of aspirations. This was an idea developed by earlier Greek thinkers, such as the Xenophanes of Miletus.

The modern era saw the development of sociology, psychology and other social sciences that gave rise to new insights into religious beliefs and behaviors. These insights were augmented by the growth of scholarly studies such as history, archaeology and ethnology.

The most common characteristics of religions that can be found in any culture are the notion of salvation, sacred rites and rituals, sacred texts or writings, a sacred place or object, codes of ethics and a priesthood or clergy to administer the religious beliefs and practices. There are some scholars who would add a fourth C to this model, for community, but it remains a controversial notion. For some, the fact that the definition of what constitutes a religion shifts according to one’s perspective shows how constructed and contested the concept is. In this respect, it is like other abstract concepts used to sort cultural types, such as literature, democracy or culture itself. The disputed nature of religion makes it difficult to create a definition that is objective.