Whether you go to mosque on Fridays, attend synagogue on Saturdays or pray in church on Sundays, religion has likely touched your life in one way or another. Even if the only thing you've ever worshipped is your La-Z-Boy recliner and big-screen TV, your world has nevertheless been shaped by the religious beliefs and practices of others.
People's faiths have influenced everything from political systems and great works of art to the clothes they wear and the foods they eat. Religious beliefs have also torn nations apart and inspired acts of violence, and until just 300 years ago, they also played a significant role in scientific discovery [source: Bowker].
Religion's impact on society is nothing new. Every civilization, from the Mayans to the Celts, has had some sort of religious practice. In its earliest forms, religion provided societies with a safe system in which they could reproduce and raise their young. For some, it also helped to explain a seemingly complex world [source: Bowker].
Evidence of religion has been found as far back as the Neolithic Age, and although religion has evolved greatly since the primitive rites of that time, no religion ever really dies [source: Stark]. Some, like Druidism, continue to this day, while others, such as the Ancient Greek and Roman religions, live on as aspects of newer religions like Christianity and Islam.
Despite the ancient beginnings of the following 10 faiths, you'll find that many of them share remarkable similarities to the major religions practiced today.
10: Sumerian Religion
Although evidence indicates that humans may have practiced religion as early as 70,000 years ago, the earliest concrete evidence of an organized religion comes from around 3500 B.C.E., when the Sumerians of Mesopotamia built the world's first cities, states and empires [sources: Vogt, Stark]. From thousands of clay tablets found in the region considered the cradle of civilization, we know the Sumerians were a polytheistic people who likely relied on religion to explain phenomena they couldn't otherwise understand.
The Sumerians' many gods tended to be associated with astronomical bodies and were perceived to control natural forces: The rising and setting of the sun was ascribed to the sun god Utu's blazing chariot. The stars were the cows of Nanna, the moon god, walking across the sky, and the crescent moon was his boat. Other gods represented things like the ocean, war and fertility.
Religion was a central part of Sumerian life: Kings claimed to be acting on divine orders and thus carried out both religious and political duties, and sacred precincts featuring temples and giant terraced platforms known as ziggurats dotted the landscape and were believed to be the gods' dwelling places.
9: Ancient Egyptian Religion
For evidence of religion's influence on Ancient Egyptian life, one needs to look no further than the thousands of pyramids famous in the region. Each structure represents the Egyptian belief that a person's life would continue even after death.
The Egyptian kingdom of the Pharaohs lasted from about 3100 to 323 B.C.E. and was eventually categorized into 31 separate dynasties. The Pharaohs, known as "god-kings" because of their status as gods, used religion to bolster their power and bring the citizens under their control. If a Pharaoh wanted to win the respect of more tribes, for example, all he needed to do was adopt their local god or gods as his own.
While the sun god Re (or Ra) was the chief god and creator, the Egyptians recognized hundreds of other gods, perhaps as many as 450, with at least 30 of those being major ones [source: Stark]. With so many gods, the Egyptians lacked any true coherent theology, but they were nevertheless linked by a shared belief in the afterlife, especially after their discovery of mummification. Manuals called "coffin texts" gave those who could afford it guidance in funeral arrangements that would guarantee their immortality. The tombs of the very wealthy often contained jewels, furniture, weapons and even servants for an abundant afterlife.
8: Greek and Roman Religion
Like Egyptian religion, Greek religion featured many different gods. Although the 12 Olympian deities are the most widely recognized, the Greeks had several thousand local deities as well [source: Bowker]. When the Romans took over, these gods were simply adapted with different names: Zeus became Jupiter, Venus became Aphrodite and so on. In fact, so much of Roman religion was acquired from the Greeks that the two are often lumped together under the umbrella term of Greco-Roman religion.
For the most part, the Greek and Roman gods were viewed as being jealous and angry, explaining why people performed many sacrifices in hopes of persuading the gods to refrain from doing harm, rather than granting some favor.
Along with the sacrificial rites, which were a primary form of Greek and Roman worship, both religions placed a high importance on festivals and rituals. In the city of Athens, at least 120 days out of the year were devoted to festivals, and in Rome, few activities were carried out without first performing some religious ritual to gain the gods' approval [source: Bowker]. Similarly, the Greeks and Romans relied to a large extent on divination, or the interpretation of signs believed to come from the gods. Special classes of people read these signs based on observations of things like bird calls, weather events or animal entrails. Ordinary citizens could also question the gods directly at sacred places called oracles.
A strongly nature-based religion, Druidism emerged from the practices of shamanism and sorcery in prehistoric times. Originally, it was practiced all across Europe, but it became concentrated in the Celtic people as they moved toward the British coast. It's still practiced today among small groups.
A major theme of Druidism is that all actions should be guided by doing no harm, even to oneself. Aside from harming the Earth or others, the Druids hold that there is no sin. Similarly, there is no blasphemy or heresy, since the gods are considered to be immune to human harm and capable of defending themselves. According to the Druids, humans are just a small part of the Earth, which in turn is a single living being inhabited by gods and spirits of all kinds.
Although early Christians attempted to suppress Druidism due to its polytheistic pagan beliefs and accused its followers of practicing cruel sacrifices, the Druids were actually a peaceful people who worshipped more through meditation and reflection than sacrificial acts. Any sacrifices were usually done on animals, which were then used for food.
As a religion focused around nature, Druidism's ceremonies are organized around the two solstices, the two equinoxes and the 13 lunar cycles.
Somewhat similar to the pagan faith of Wicca, Asatru is the worship of the pre-Christian gods of northern Europe, and it has its origins in the beginnings of the Scandinavian Bronze Age around 1000 B.C.E. [source: Losch]. Asatru takes many of its beliefs from the ancient Nordic religions of the Vikings, and many of its followers, or Asatruar, continue to reenact Viking activities like sword fighting and divining.
The religion's central values are wisdom, strength, courage, joy, honor, freedom, vigor and the importance of ancestry. Like Druidism, Asatru is nature-based and organizes worship around the changing of the seasons.
Asatru belief holds that the universe is divided into nine worlds, with Asgard being the realm of the gods and Midgard (Earth) the home of mankind. Connecting these nine worlds is the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The chief god and creator of the universe is Odin, but as the protector of Midgard, the god of war Thor is also highly revered: It was his hammer that many Vikings painted on their doors to ward off evil. The hammer, or Mjollnir, continues to be worn by many Asatru believers in the same way that Christians wear the cross.
Technically not a single religion, the term Hinduism actually refers to a number of similar beliefs and practices that originated in India.
One of the oldest living religions, Hinduism's roots can be traced back to about 3000 B.C.E., although some of its believers contend it has existed forever [sources: Losch, Toropov]. The religion's sacred scriptures are contained in the Vedas, the oldest known religious writings in any Indo-European language. They were compiled between about 1000 and 500 B.C.E. and are regarded by Hindus as the eternal truth [source: Losch].
An overarching theme of Hinduism is the quest for "moksha," the idea of karma and the belief in reincarnation. According to Hindu thought, humans have an eternal soul that is continually reborn in many forms according to their actions in previous lives. Karma describes the consequences that result from these actions, and Hinduism teaches that individuals can improve their karma through prayer, sacrifice and various other forms of spiritual, psychological and physical disciplines. Ultimately, by following the right paths, a Hindu may be released from rebirth and achieve moksha.
Unlike other major religions, Hinduism claims no founder and cannot be traced to any specific historical event. It also lacks any formal theology defining a god. Today, nearly 900 million people worldwide consider themselves Hindu, with the vast majority of those living in India [source: Central Intelligence Agency].
Buddhism, which developed in India around the 6th century B.C.E., is similar to Hinduism in many respects [source: Toropov]. It's based on the teachings of a man known as Buddha, who was born as Siddhartha Gautama and raised as a Hindu. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in the concept of reincarnation, karma and the idea of achieving complete liberation -- in this case known as "Nirvana."
According to Buddhist legend, Siddhartha had a very sheltered early life and was stricken to discover that people experienced things like grief, poverty and sickness. Upon meeting a group of people seeking enlightenment, Siddhartha began searching for a way to end human suffering. After much fasting and meditation, he was able to escape the eternal cycle of reincarnation. It was this attainment of "bodhi," or "enlightenment" that led to his being known as Buddha, or "the Enlightened One."
Underpinning all of Buddhist thought are the Four Noble Truths:
- All existence is pain.
- All pain is caused by human cravings.
- Detachment from craving will end pain.
- There is an eightfold path that leads to the end of pain.
Buddhism avoids paying much attention to deities, but places great importance on self-discipline, meditation and compassion. It is through these avenues that its followers achieve the equivalent of a spiritual union with higher powers. As a result, Buddhism is sometimes regarded more as a philosophy than a religion [source: Losch].
Yet another religion with its origins in India, Jainism holds achievement of spiritual freedom as its main purpose. It's derived from the lives and teachings of the Jinas, spiritual teachers who have achieved the highest level of knowledge and insight. By following the guidance of the Jinas, Jains can achieve freedom from their material existence, or karma. As in Hinduism, this escape of reincarnation is called "moksha."
According to the Jains, time lasts forever and consists of a series of upward or downward movements that last for millions of years. During each of these periods, there are 24 Jinas. Only two of these teachers are known from the current movement: Parsva and Mahavira, who lived in the 9th and 6th centuries B.C.E., respectively. In the absence of any supreme gods or a creator god, Jains revere the Jinas.
Unlike Buddhism, which discourages suffering, the focus of Jainism is asceticism, or self-denial. The Jain way of life is guided by the "Great Vows," which promote nonviolence, honesty, sexual abstinence, detachment and not taking anything that isn't given. Although these vows are followed strictly by the ascetics, common Jains follow them to the best of their ability under their own circumstances, with the goal of progressing along the 14-stage path of spiritual progress.
Although other religions have had fleeting periods where they worshipped only one god, Judaism is regarded as the world's oldest monotheistic faith [source: Toropov]. A Covenant religion based on what the Bible describes as agreements made between God and several of the religion's founding fathers, Judaism is one of three religions that traces its lineage to the patriarch Abraham, who lived during the 21st century B.C.E. [source: Losch]. (The other two are Islam and Christianity.)
According to the Torah, the Five Books of Moses found in the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people are descendants of Abraham and will one day return to their birth country of Israel. For this reason, Jews are sometimes known as the "chosen people."
At the heart of Jewish faith are the Ten Commandments, representing a solemn covenant between God and the Jews. Along with 613 other commands found in the Torah, the Ten Commandments guide Jewish life and thought. By following the laws, Jews display their adherence to the will of god and strengthen their place in the religious community.
Although modern-day realities have led to a division of thought among followers of Judaism about how strictly the laws should be followed, they remain united by their strong faith in God and his Commandments, their group identity and their desire to return to the Promised Land. For all Jews, life is perceived as a ritual in honor of the Creator.
Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, who is believed to have lived between 1700 and 1500 B.C.E. [source: Losch]. His teachings are in the form of 17 metrical psalms called Gathas, which make up the Zoroastrian sacred scripture known as the Zend Avesta.
A key aspect of Zoroastrian belief is that of ethical dualism, the ongoing struggle between good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu). Consequently, personal responsibility is of great importance to Zoroastrians since their fate depends on the choice they make between the two forces. Followers believe that upon death, one's soul is led to the Bridge of Judgment, where it will either be led to paradise or to a place of torment, depending on whether good or evil deeds predominated.
Since choosing positively is not that hard to do, Zoroastrianism is generally regarded as an optimistic faith: Zarathustra is supposedly the only baby who laughed at his birth instead of crying [source: Bowker].
Currently, Zoroastrianism has one of the smallest numbers of believers among the major world religions, but its influence has been widely felt. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all been shaped by its tenets [source: Losch].
For more articles, quizzes and image galleries on religion and culture, check out the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
- 10 Incredible Religious Monuments
- Top 10 Archaeological Finds of the 21st Century
- 10 Famous Cultural Anthropologists
- Travel the World: Temples
- Great Temples from Around the World
- Ancient Religions Puzzles
More Great Links
- Bowker, John. "World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained." DK Publishing. 2006.
- Central Intelligence Agency. "The World Factbook." (Nov. 3, 2010) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html
- Losch, Richard R. "The Many Faces of Faith: A Guide to World Religions and Christian Traditions." Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002.
- Stark, Rodney. "Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief." HarperCollins. 2007.
- Steele, Philip. "Mesopotamia." DK Publishing. 2007.
- Toropov, Brandon and Father Luke Buckles. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Religions." Alpha Books. 1997.
- Vogt, Yngve and Alan Louis Belardinelli. "World's oldest religion discovered in Botswana." Afrol News. Dec. 1, 2009. (Nov. 3, 2010) http://www.afrol.com/articles/23093