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History of religions

Related subjects: General history

Background Information

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History of religions
founding figures

Comparative religion
Neurotheology / God gene

Ancient Near East
 · Ancient Egypt
 · Semitic
 · Vedic Hinduism
 · Greco- Roman
 · Celtic  · Germanic
Axial Age
 · Vedanta  · Shramana
 · Dharma  · Tao
 · Hellenism
 · Monism  · Dualism
 · Monotheism
Renaissance · Reformation
Age of Reason
New religious movements
 · Great Awakening
 · Fundamentalism
 · New Age

 · Judaism
 · Christianity
 · Islam
 · Bahá'í Faith
 · Hinduism
 · Buddhism
 · Jainism
 · Sikhism
 · Ayyavazhi
 · Taoism
 · Wicca

The History of religions (Religiongeschichteschule, school of religious history) was a 19th century German school of thought which was the first to systematically study religion as a socio-cultural phenomenon. It depicted religion as evolving with human culture, from primitive polytheism to ethical monotheism, a view that is now considered ethnocentric.

Religiongeschichteschule appeared at a time when scholarly study of the Bible and church history was flourishing in Germany and elsewhere (see Higher criticism, Historical-critical method).


The nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in knowledge about other cultures and religions, and also the establishment of economic and social histories of progress. The "history of religions" school sought to account for this religious diversity by connecting it with the social and economic situation of a particular group.

Typically religions are divided into stages of progression from more simple to more complex societies, especially from polytheistic to monotheistic and from extempore to organised. (There are now claims "that religion evolved from polytheism to monotheism has now been discredited" p. 1763 Man, Myth and Magic 1995)

Thus, the starting point is the tribal band whose religion is animistic and involves shamans and totems. Since the group is tribal, there is no permanent sanctuary. Cultic rites centre on identification with wild animals and appeasing spirits, often of the hunted.

As society developed into chiefdoms and small kingdoms, religious rites began to serve different functions. Agriculture became important and so fertility gods were introduced (often female, as it is the woman who has the power to produce life). The status of the "big man" (or chief) was supported with mythic tales of heroes and demigods, from whom he may be descended.

When these small kingdoms merged into larger groups (often through conquest), different cults merged. The conquest of one group by another is therefore recorded in an epic tale of the conquest of the conquered group's god by the victor's (e.g. some Hinduism and the Babylonian Marduk). Another solution was to syncretise different religious traditions, for example, the Romans' identification of their Gods with the Greeks and the Greeks' adoption of Anatolian myths and characters.

Finally, the growth of the city state brought about progression to the most "civilised" level of religion, ethical monotheism. Students of the history of religions often learnt that this began in Egypt with Akhnaten and grew through 7th century BC Judaism, Persian Zoroastrianism and Greek Philosophy to endow Western society with the most progressive form of religion. The historical basis of this — that religion moved from polytheism to ethical monotheism — is now doubted, as is the ethnocentrism that made Western society the most civilised.

Nevertheless, it is still widely held that ethical monotheism (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism) was encouraged by the growth of city states. This was partly due to the role of a hierarchical society with a god-like absolute ruler. A more powerful social force was the isolation of the individual as he moved from the clan to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. Questions of justice and value that had been previously answered by the family and small tribe were now to be pursued independently. The relative anonymity of the city afforded the opportunity for not only "sin" but also loneliness. Ethical monotheism answered society's need for a moral guide and motivation, whilst a unique personal God who was sovereign over all areas of life answered people's feelings of isolation and powerlessness.

Good examples of this are the prophetic literature of the Jewish Tanakh (Old Testament), especially Isaiah, and the wisdom literature of the ancient near east dealing with apparently unjustified suffering. This includes Job, in the Judaeo-Christian Bible, and " The Dialogue of Pessimism", a Babylonian text.


Development of new religions

Shamanism and ancestor worship

  • Prehistoric religion
  • Shamanism
  • Animism
  • Ancestor worship
  • Tribal religion
  • African traditional religion
  • Australian Aboriginal mythology
  • History of Shintoism


  • Ancient Near Eastern religion, Egyptian mythology
  • Historical Vedic religion
  • Ancient Greek religion, Ancient Roman religion
  • Germanic paganism, Finnish Paganism, Norse paganism
  • Maya religion, Inca religion, Aztec religion
  • Neopaganism, Polytheistic reconstructionism



  • Zoroastrianism
  • Gnosticism


New religious movements

  • History of Ayyavazhi
  • Rastafari movement
  • History of Wicca
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