Since the dawn of mankind, humans have tried to make sense of their world, especially when faced with unknown phenomena such as ‘what causes storms’, ‘what happens to us after we die’, and ‘how was the world formed’? It is plausible that from such questions, our first primitive religions were formed. The earliest evidence of a religious practice can be traced back 100,000 years ago when we began to bury our dead. Although we cannot define this as the origin of faith, it does suggest that at the dawn of humanity, we had begun to consider some kind of afterlife. Over time, this religious practice gave rise to a new ideology which spread across the continents, known today as ‘Animism’. This emerging faith was the root belief system that would evolve and branch out into numerous other ideologies all over the world. The journey of these evolving religions can be broken down into three classic periods. It should be noted that these periods are not indicative of a new ideology improving upon previous faith systems. Religions change over time, they go extinct, and they split into distinct traditions. They adapt to their environment, they construct their environment in part, all just like organic evolution does.
Period 1: Animism (100,000 BCE – Present)
Humans began to believe that natural constructs (e.g. plants, animals, rocks and wind) possessed a spiritual essence. These spirit entities were believed to have powers and temperaments that influenced our everyday world. By worshiping these divine beings, it was believed we could maintain harmony with this spirit world and gain favours from them.
Period 2: Polytheism (15,000 BCE – Present)
The roots of Polytheism may lie in the Epipaleolithic era. Linguists and historians have defined a hypothetical language family called Nostratic, which seems to have influenced all the African and Eurasian dialects. Many of the words that can be reconstructed involve nature gods (such as mother earth and father sky). This suggests that the nature spirits of animism had evolved into a new generation of Gods (giving abstract beings of thunder and water a more human form). During the Neolithic revolution, civilisations began to emerge requiring new areas of expertise (e.g. lawmaking, metallurgy, agriculture and commerce). It was the descendants of the Nostratic Gods (e.g. the Indo-Europeans and Sumerians) who took on the role of guide and leader to the civilised world.
Typically these divine beings were divided into several classes, overseeing the heavens, the mortal realm and the underworld. Each deity possessed their own powers, religious practice and domain (e.g. trading, diplomacy, war craft etc). Man could either worship one or all of these beings, gaining favour from them via offerings, prayer and even sacrifice.
Period 3: Monotheism (1348 BCE – Present)
In the Bronze Age, a new movement took shape that prioritised one God over all other deities. This system is known as Monotheism – a belief in one Supreme Being. In 1348 BCE, the pharaoh Akhenaten, raised a lesser known God called ‘Aten’ to supreme status, downplaying the role of all other Egyptian deities. A little later in Iran, Zoroaster (a Persian priest) claimed ‘Ahura Mazda’ to be the one supreme deity. This newly emerging system posited that one creator god had formed the known universe, and was totally self-sufficient, capable of ruling over all other domains. This idea became prominent in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism.
Most monotheistic systems tend to be exclusive in nature, which meant the gods of the Old world had to be purged from mans consciousness. As a consequence, monotheistic religions displayed less religious tolerance than polytheistic religions, resulting in many wars and political disputes.