Religions: a long history, a huge influence: Religions have been a dominant force in human history. But how did they start? What aspect of human nature requires religion? What are the positive and negative aspects of religion? What does the Ancient Wisdom have to say about religions?

The oldest religious temple in the world discovered so far was found at Gobekli Tepi in south-eastern Turkey in 1994. This enormous structure has been dated back 12,000 years, ie dating back to the close of the last Ice Age!

Before then, there is abundant evidence of ‘folk-religion’ amongst cave dwellers and indigenous people, including our own Australian Aboriginal peoples, going back at least 40,000 years and almost certainly much longer amongst early humans.

Since then, of course, we now have a multitude of religions and they have all had a dramatic influence on the development of society, science, culture, art, and architecture throughout the world.

Religions: Who believes What? There are an estimated 10,000 distinct religions worldwide, but about 84% of the world’s population is affiliated with one of the five largest religions, namely Christianity, Islam,  Hinduism, Buddhism, or forms of folk religion. The religiously unaffiliated includes those who do not identify with any particular religion – Atheists and Agnostics. While the religiously unaffiliated have grown globally, many of the religiously unaffiliated still have various religious beliefs.

The study of religion encompasses a wide variety of academic disciplines, including theology, comparative religion, and social scientific studies.

Religions: Definitions: There is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion. It may be defined as a cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, prophesies, ethics, or organizations, that claims to relate humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements.

Religions: What Are They About? Different religions may or may not contain various elements ranging from the divine, sacred things, faith, a supernatural being or supernatural beings, or “some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life”. Religious practices may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of deities), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trances, initiations, funerary services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture.

Religions have sacred histories and narratives, which may be preserved in sacred scriptures, and symbols and holy places, that aim mostly to give a meaning to life.

Religions may contain symbolic stories, which are sometimes said by followers to be true, that have the side purpose of explaining the origin of life, the universe, and other things. Traditionally, Faith, in addition to Reason, has been considered a source of religious beliefs.


Functions of Religions: Inspirational and Mystical:

  • Fulfil human yearning to regain Unity with God/the All.
  • Understand the Cosmos and our place within It.
  • A pathway to connection with divinity.
  • Explain the unexplainable.
  • Fear of the unknown and an attempt to explain it.
  • Help us to understand/manage a dangerous and unpredictable world.
  • Give comfort for what happens after-death.
  • Give a sense of meaning to life and suffering.
  • Fulfil a deep-seated urge in humanity for an explanation of our yearning for higher truths.
  • Comfort in extreme situations in life.
  • Explain nature. Creation stories.
  • Reverence for the unseen powers of nature.

Functions of Religions: Social:

  • Social and legal control through divinely sanctioned laws.
  • Control of fertility and kinship groups through religiously sanctioned marriage and guidelines for sexual behaviour.
  • Men controlling women by religious laws.
  • Stratification of society, eg caste system (India), feudal system (Europe).
  • Establishment of a religious elite class and hierarchy.
  • Control of social groups by class, gender, etc through religious sanctions.
  • Provide a moral framework for society.
  • Social aspects of religion, eg psychological support in a group of like-minded people.
  • The human tendency to anthropomorphise what we cannot explain . We tend to see the unseen in human terms, for example, the image of God as an old man with a white beard. Cognitive theorists call this HADD – Hypersensitive Detection Device, or, the tendency to detect human agency, and hence human cause, behind any unexplained event.

Functions of Religion: Political:

  • A potent political control mechanism.
  • Power over others through fear of the supernatural.
  • A reason for wars and conquest of others and depriving them of their resources.
  • Establishment of a class of religious professionals who act as intermediaries between the divine and ordinary people and who are richly supported by other sectors of society.
  • ‘Politicomorphism’: the divinization of earthly politics, ie. political realities are reflected in religious myths. For example, religious dogma reflects and legitimizes the political structure of the time. To this day this is one of the central features of nearly every religious system in the world, eg. hierarchical structure of the gods reflects hierarchical structure of society and is closely associated with those in power, eg. the head of the Church of England is the Queen of England.

Different Types of Religion: Religions can be categorized broadly into different types:

  • Monotheistic,
  • Polytheistic,
  • Henotheistic,
  • Pantheistic,
  • Folk Religions.
  • Animist Religions.

Monotheism: Monotheism has been defined as the belief in the existence of only one god that created the world, is all-powerful, and intervenes in the world. A broader definition of monotheism is the belief in one god. A distinction may be made between exclusive monotheism, and both inclusive monotheism and pluriform (panentheistic) monotheism which, while recognising various distinct gods, postulate some underlying unity.

Monotheism is distinguished from Henotheism, a religious system in which the believer worships one god without denying that others may worship different gods with equal validity, and Monolatrism, the recognition of the existence of many gods but with the consistent worship of only one deity.

The broader definition of monotheism characterizes the traditions of Bábism, the Bahá’í Faith, Balinese Hinduism, Cao Dai (Caodaiism), Cheondoism (Cheondogyo), Christianity, Deism, Eckankar, Hindu sects such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, Islam, Judaism, Mandaeism, Rastafari, Seicho no Ie, Sikhism, Tengrism (Tangrism), Tenrikyo (Tenriism), Yazidism, and Zoroastrianism.

Elements of pre-monotheistic thought are found in early religions such as Atenism (Ancient Egypt), Ancient Chinese religion, and Yahwism (Israel).

Polytheism: is the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals. In most religions which accept polytheism, the different gods and goddesses are representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles, and can be viewed either as autonomous or as aspects or emanations of a creator deity or transcendental absolute principle (monistic theologies), which manifests immanently in nature. Most of the polytheistic deities of ancient religions, with the notable exceptions of the Ancient Egyptian and Hindu deities, were conceived as having physical bodies.

Polytheism is a type of theism. Within theism, it contrasts with monotheism, the belief in a singular God, in most cases transcendent. Polytheists do not always worship all the gods equally, but they can be henotheists, specializing in the worship of one particular deity. Other polytheists can be kathenotheists, worshiping different deities at different times.

Polytheism was the typical form of religion during the Bronze Age and Iron Age up to the development of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which enforce strict monotheism. It is well documented in historical religions of Classical antiquity, especially ancient Greek religion and ancient Roman religion, and after the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism in tribal religions such as Germanic paganism or Slavic paganism. Important polytheistic religions practiced today include Chinese traditional religion, Hinduism, Japanese Shinto, and various neopagan faiths, such as Wicca and Asatru.

Henotheism: is the worship of a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities. Examples of Henotheism:

Zoroastrianism: Ahura Mazda is the supreme god, but Zoroastrianism does not deny other deities.

Hinduism: many deities, but praises them successively as the “one ultimate, supreme God”, alternatively as “one supreme Goddess”, thereby asserting that the essence of the deities was unitary, and the deities were nothing but pluralistic manifestations of the same concept of the divine (God).

Greek classical religion: “all divinities were interpreted as aspects, particles or epithets of one supreme God“

Early Judaism: Rabbinical Judaism as it developed in late antiquity is emphatically monotheistic. However, its predecessor—the various schools of Hellenistic Judaism and Second Temple Judaism, and especially the cult of Yahweh as it was practiced in ancient Israel and Judah during the 8th and 7th centuries BC—have been described as henotheistic.

Folk Religion: Folk religion, popular religion, or vernacular religion comprises various forms and expressions of religion that are distinct from the official doctrines and practices of organized religion. The precise definition of folk religion varies among scholars. Sometimes also termed popular belief, it consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of a religion, but outside official doctrine and practices.

Examples folk religions such as Shenism and Taoism. Shenism describes Chinese mythology and includes the worship of Shen (spirit, god, awareness, consciousness) which can be nature deities, Taizu or clan deities, city gods, national deities, culture heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors. Taoism is sometimes classified as a Chinese folk religion.

There are also folk versions of Christianity, Folk Islam: has been described as the Islam of the “urban poor, country people, and tribes”, in contrast to orthodox or “High” Islam Sufism and Sufi concepts are often integrated into Folk Islam.

Animism: is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Potentially, animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and perhaps, even words—as animated and alive.

Animism is the world’s oldest religion. Animism predates any form of organized religion and is said to contain the oldest spiritual and supernatural perspective in the world. It dates back to the Palaeolithic Age, to a time when humans roamed the plains hunting and gathering, and communing with the Spirit of Nature.

Animism is a term for the belief system of many indigenous peoples, especially in contrast to the relatively more recent development of organised religions. Although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, “animism” is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’ “spiritual” or “supernatural” perspectives. The animistic perspective is so widely held and inherent to most indigenous peoples that they often do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to “animism“, or even “religion“.

Pantheism: means that ‘God is All’ or ‘All is God’. God and the Universe are one and the same – nothing exists outside of God’s necessary existence. What we call the world and what we call God are not independent or discreet. Rather the world is God’s self-expression. It is God’s essence realised and experienced. Examples:

Hinduism, especially the Vedanta tradition, which holds that the Brahmin (Absolute reality) alone is real and everything else is illusion.

Buddhism: all phenomena have their being in a single reality;

Taoism:the divine principle is the ground of all being;

Jewish mysticism the concept of Tzimtzum or divine withdrawl, the belief that God had to make room within himself to allow for the universe to come into being;

Christianity: mystical thinkers such as Meister Eckhart;

Philosophy: Benedict Spinoza: one substance displaying infinite attributes;

Science: Albert Einstein, Nicolai Tesla, Carl Jung, Carl Sagan.

Religions: Positives:

  • Provide moral framework for society: a purpose and reason for doing the right thing. Punishment by God(s) if we do the wrong thing.
  • Charitable work in the community.
  • Provides the basis for social change.
  • Gives positive goals in life.
  • Sense of community: gives people a sense of belonging.
  • Major inspiration to the arts and architecture.
  • Inspires people to compassion, giving, humanitarian service, sacrifice for others.
  • Encourages altruistic behaviour and social justice, such as overcoming barriers based on race, social position, gender, etc.
  • Health: people with religion have much better mental health than those who don’t.
  • Economics: Christians own most of the world’s wealth. Protestantism and Capitalism. Jain Sect.
  • Festivals and positive aspects of religious Ritual.

Religions: Negatives:

  • Wars
  • Violence and terrorism of many types.
  • Discrimination based on caste, Gender, and Religion.
  • Dogmatism and of religious thinking.
  • Establishment of powerful religious hierarchies and all the evils this can bring.
  • Extremism.
  • Superstitions.
  • Intolerance and denigration of the truth of another’s religion.
  • Fundamentalism.
  • Political and Social Control.
  • Sexual Abuse.
  • Economic Abuse.
  • Break up families: Plymouth Brethren, Commonwealth Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Bogus combinations of Science and Superstition, eg. Scientology.
  • Encourages Faith and Superstition over Reason.
  • Sacrifice: both animal and human.

Religion: a Perspective from the Ancient Wisdom: Of all the divisive forces rampant throughout history, religion has been amongst the most potent. Dogmatic belief in what men believe to be right, has caused them to unleash terrible suffering on the fellow humans in the name of their God(s).

From the persecution of the Christians in Rome, through to the Spanish Inquisition, to a world threatened by dogmatism and terrorism today; it seems that the greatest evils in the world have been wrought by men with an outraged sense of virtue.

Amid the clash of contending ideas, how often do we pause to consider what religion really represents? The word ‘Religion’ itself gives the key to its true meaning for the salvation – not the ruination – of Humanity. The great Roman orator, statesman, and scholar, Cicero, tells us that the word is derived from the Latin word, ‘Relegere’, which means, ‘To gather together that which once was one’ (from his De Natura Deorum II xxviii, 72).

Far from being a cause of strife, the ancient wisdom perceived religion as an ultimately unifying force.

The Ancient Wisdom teaches us that in the distant past a direct knowledge of the Unity of all things was the common property of mankind.

The Men (ie Humanity=Men and Women) of those early eras were in unconscious harmony with the kingdoms of Nature both above (angels, gods, etc) and below (animals, plants, minerals, elementals) them in a similar fashion as we see amongst the animals, plants, and the natural environment of our world today.

Just as each of us emerges from the playgrounds of childhood to adult responsibilities, Man of the distant past fell necessarily into greater materiality as he grew in experience which clouded his vision of the Oneness of Universal nature.

Foreseeing this event and its potential disasters for fledgling humanity, high intelligences descended to earth to instruct man in the arts of civilization and the mysteries of the Oneness which later found outward expressions as religions.

These events have been celebrated in the worlds mythology and religions which tell of Golden Ages of the distant past when God, or the Gods, moved freely amongst men, guiding, instructing and ruling them.

Just as parents must relinquish their direct responsibility for their children if they are to grow successfully to adults, the Gods have long since left direct and open communication with Humanity.

Nevertheless, their emissaries/students/servants and those great man and women who have been worthy of direct knowledge or visions of the Universe-as-it-is-in-Itself, have been active amongst the world’s peoples throughout the ages bringing the message of brotherhood which forms the basis of all the world’s great religions.

They have repeatedly encouraged man to self-consciously rediscover the Unity which is his natural heritage and the fulfilment of what it means to be truly Human. Through the power of their example, they point to the royal road of such understanding which lies within; to Unity with the Inner-God which is at the core of us and which is an inseparable part of the infinite Universe.

Let us celebrate the opportunities life offers us for learning in the true and original sense of ‘religion’, adding our effort ‘to gather together that which once was One’ for the sake of our brothers and sisters, and the future of our world.

From G de Purucker:

“…sooner or later mankind as a whole will once again become keenly conscious of the fact that there exists in the world a wisdom which once was the common property of the human race over the earth, and which…is what (students of the Ancient Wisdom) call by various names, such as the Esoteric Tradition or the Esoteric Philosophy, or the Wisdom of the Gods, and in modern times by the term Theosophy.

It is only this Wisdom, which is Knowledge of things-in-themselves, which can adequately feed the hunger of the human intellect and supply the spiritual and ethical needs of the human heart.”

–from The Esoteric tradition Vol.1 page 366.

If you wish to contact the author, please email: