History of Religion

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Religious History

There were a great many different religions followed in the ancient and medieval time periods. Some of them are still practiced today; others are not. It is hard even to know what religion is, but we see religion as any tendency to change your own behavior in accordance with supernatural forces.

Most people in the ancient and medieval world believed that there were many unseen spirits affecting how things happened. The earlier faiths all thought that there were many gods, each responsible for different things: a god of the sky, a god of water, a god of love, and so forth. Egyptian, Sumerian, Chinese, Indian, African, Greek, Roman, and German religions all had their gods organized this way, even though they had different gods. This is called polytheism (poll-ee--THEE-is-em).

But, beginning about 1350 BC in Egypt, there was a movement toward monotheism, or just believing in one god (often with a lot of weaker helper gods or angels). Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharaoh, may have been one of the first powerful people to push this idea. By 1100 BC or so (maybe), we see the Jews practicing monotheism.

Around the same time, Zoroastrianism swept West Asia with the same idea, adding a strong notion of dualism, with the world divided into good and evil.

Five hundred years later, about 500 BC, Buddhism swept India. This was a time of great religious change not only in India, but in East Asia too, with the rise of Taoism and Confucianism.

In the first century AD, Christianity began to spread monotheism to the Mediterranean and Europe, although Judaism suffered from the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. By the 500s AD, Buddhism spread all over China. And in the 600s AD, Islam replaced Christianity and Zoroastrianism as the main religion followed in the Mediterranean, West Asia, and much of Africa. By the 1200s, Islam had reached India as well.

African Religion
(with Egyptian Religion)
West Asian Religion
Chinese Religion
Greek Religion
German Religion
Teachers' guides on religion
Religion-related gifts

Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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