Belief systems are what form the foundations of human societies and guarantee the development and advancement of human civilization. Although humans are generally deemed as rational, they are highly susceptible to irrationality. Humans’ propensity to irrational actions is what led to the need for the development of belief systems to guide their actions and steer them towards development and progress. Belief systems bind human society by giving the people a set of universal guiding principles to follow. Belief systems of societies are largely expressed through religious principles and philosophies and have been used to shape the nature of human interactions for years. Spiritual belief systems have developed throughout the years from rudimentary forms and to the different and intricate philosophies and systems in use in the contemporary world.
Evolution of Belief Systems
Belief systems usually answer complex questions about religion. These systems can be defined as a set of philosophies, tenets, and ways of thinking that help to explain the basic mysteries surrounding human existence and the universe as a whole. Such systems are majorly concerned with answering complex questions, such as where humans come from, what happens to them after death, as well as what the nature of human relations and interactions is. Nevertheless, some questions regarding religion lie outside the rational and dialectic purview of humans and have, therefore, baffled humans since time immemorial. Belief systems, therefore, come up with philosophies, mostly based on religion, to explain these mysteries. According to Allen et al., most of the major belief systems that have influenced the world have a religious background and were conceived during the Foundations Era (257). Essentially, religious belief systems are mainly concerned with the concept of shared human experiences. Religion is the shared reverence for the supernatural, sacred, or spiritual, as well as the symbols, rituals, and forms of worship associated with it (Allen et al. 257). It relies on numerous philosophies connected to supernatural and spiritual objects and deities to explain the mysteries of the world to humans.
Religion, like any other belief system, has evolved. Anthropology philosopher Edward Burnett Tylor argues that religion has evolved in three successive stages (Sovine 49). The first stage of evolution of religious belief systems was characterized by primitive forms of religion that were based on the belief in spirits and is generally termed as animism. Animism is an anthropological term coined by anthropology philosopher Edward Burnett Tylor, who defined the term as the general doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings in general and argued that all the natural objects, rather than just human beings, have souls (Wenzel 45). Animism espouses that objects, places, and creatures are alive and have souls, therefore, possess a unique spiritual essence. Additionally, animism, as a system of belief, was used by many indigenous peoples and is considered to be the earliest form of belief systems. Additionally, it espoused various belief systems that were based on different mythologies, rituals, and methods of worship that varied according to cultures. Different cultures believed in varied objects; for example, the Ojibwe communities of Canada had rock persons and bear persons, who they considered as gods (Wenzel 60). Additionally, the indigenous Kikuyu community of Kenya practiced a form of animism that included the worship of mountains, and huge forests, which the community believed were gods. Early humans used the belief system of animism as an evolutionary strategy to aid survival through the emphasis of cooperation (Sovine 51). Animism inculcated into the human psyche and mentality the importance of altruism and self-sacrifice elements, which are important for the survival of a group (Duiker and Spielvogel 206). With time, this religion transformed into ancestor worship, which was based on the belief system that ancestors knew all the answers to the mysteries of the world and could protect and guide the people in their interactions and relations (Duiker and Spielvogel 218). The ancestors were worshipped through the pouring of libations, both human and animal sacrifice, and incantations.
The belief system of animism and ancestral worship gave way to polytheism as the dominant belief system. According to Wenzel, polytheism originated from polydaemonism, which is the belief in many spirits (50). In the Neolithic era, many societies merged the numerous spirits into gods who represented numerous facets of everyday life. The gods were charged with the responsibility of controlling rain, war, peace, and agriculture, aspects that were at the very center of human civilization. Additionally, according to Sovine, the most prominent gods in the early societies were the Moon and Sun gods, who were worshipped in numerous ways and forms (55). The river-valley civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Indus Valley relied on religious belief systems for their development and cohesion. Faith was an important sphere of life in the river-valleys, and the gods were connected with the established political orders of the respective river-valley civilizations. Furthermore, the kings, Pharaohs, and leaders of these regions held religious titles, and most of them claimed to have a direct lineage to famous gods. Proper polytheism can be traced back to the Greek and Roman civilizations of yore. The Greeks and Romans had numerous gods who had responsibility and power over every aspect of human life. Greek polytheism is unique because its gods were anthropomorphic; had human qualities and temperaments (Sovine 55). The gods of the Greek controlled not only aspects of nature such as Poseidon Lord of the Sea but also abstract concepts, such as love whose god was Aphrodite. Greek gods were hierarchical as the religion was based on the assumption that some superior gods and goddesses lorded over less superior gods (Sovine 55). For example, among the Greek deities, Zeus was the leader of the lords though he was not almighty.
Roman civilization also practiced polytheism as its religious system of belief. The Roman religion was heavily influenced by the Greeks, with whom the Romans interacted frequently. The Romans believed that the god and goddesses Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva were the supreme and were more powerful than all the other Roman gods (Duiker and Spielvogel 210). Besides, this community believed that its empire was founded by the actions of the gods, Mars, and Rhea Silvia, Vestal Virgin (Wenzel 53). This belief inculcated the devotion of the Romans to the gods. Apart from polytheism, the Roman Kingdom had other religious belief systems, such as Christianity and Judaism, which were largely monotheistic.
Monotheism is the last step in the evolution of religious belief systems as of today. Monotheism is the belief in one supreme God and provides the basis for the foundation of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim system of belief. The concept of monotheism espouses the belief in the existence of one God – the all-powerful, all-knowing God who created the universe. The history of monotheism can be traced to the 2000 BCE Hebrews, who first came up with the religious belief systems known as Judaism (Allen et al. 260). Judaism had a relatively strong foundation and support base during the Roman Empire, more so among the present day, the Middle East region. During the same period, 2000 BCE, Buddhism developed from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, in India, and it spread quickly in Asia. Soon, it became a major religion in China and India. Hinduism began as an offshoot of Buddhism between 500 BCE and 300 BCE, largely due to the decline of Buddhism in India (Sovine 57). Christianity, too started as a reformation offshoot of Judaism and grew to become an independent religion with its own set of belief systems. Christianity later spread through cultural interactions in all most all parts of the world. In Africa, Christianity was imposed on most of the Indigenous African populations during the colonialism age. However, the bulk of the religious principles of Christianity are borrowed from numerous belief systems, such as Judaism and Buddhism, due to the early interaction between the three belief systems.
Six hundred years after the establishment of Christianity, the Islamic belief system begun from the preaching and teachings of Prophet Muhammad in Mecca. Prophet Muhammad taught that the message of God had been distorted by the numerous religions already in existence and that he had been sent by Allah to correct the distorted message (Sovine 58). The religion went on to spread to many parts of the world.
In China, the belief systems of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism emerged during the Warring States Period from 403 BCE to 221 BCE. The Warring States Period in China was generally chaotic and characterized by warring states and therefore, hugely influenced the formation of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism (Wenzel 56). The belief systems formed in this period through cultural diffusion spread throughout China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Numerous religious belief systems, such as Rastafarianism, have since been developed in the contemporary world and are all based on monotheism.
Similarities and Differences between Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity
Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are among the most popular religious beliefs in the contemporary world. They are all based on monotheism and share various principles, teachings, and philosophies. For example, the three religions share the concept of divinity. Allah, God, and Buddha are divine beings considered as the creator, preserver, and destroyer of life in Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism respectively (Allen et al. 324). The three religions have the concept of life after death with Islam and Christianity espousing the concept of resurrection, while Buddhism espouses reincarnation. Moreover, the three faiths of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam had main preachers who helped spread and teach the various philosophies underpinning the religions. Christianity had Jesus Christ, Islam Prophet Muhammad, and Buddhism Gautama Buddha (Allen et al. 324). Furthermore, the three religions have their core teachings published in holy books such as the Bible, Tripitaka, and Quran. Lastly, the religions preach about the universality and equality of everyone before God and provide a set of morals and commandments by which devotes are supposed to adhere to.
There are several differences between Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. Islam espouses the concept of the existence of only one God, who is indivisible. While in Christianity there is only one God, it is claimed that He exists in the trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Buddhism, on the other hand, does not teach the belief in a deity, whether single or numerous, but is focused on the importance of enlightenment and how it is attained. According to Kristine (59), Buddhism teaches about karma and reincarnation principles, which conflict with the doctrine of death and resurrection espoused by both Christianity and Islam. Besides, Buddhism does not concern itself with teachings of the beginning, creation, or the end of the world. On the other hand, the creation story and doomsday teachings form integral parts of the belief system of Christianity and Islam.
Factors Influencing Evolution of Religious Belief Systems
Various factors influenced the evolution of religious belief systems. These include access to resources, organizational structure, and gender roles among others. The exposure of religious belief systems to various forces, whether external or internal, can either promote or impede the generation of new ideas, leading to the deterioration of established religions. Access to resources is vital for the spread and evolution of a religious belief system and lack, therefore, can lead to the loss of religion. For example, financial and human resources are needed to ensure that religious beliefs are integrated into the psyche of society. The classical Maya religion disappeared suddenly due to an acute lack of financial resources to ensure its further spread and evolution (Kristine, 60). Organizational structure is also key to the success and development of any belief system, whether political or religious. Religions morph upon modification in their organizational structure (Sovine 57). Proper religious organizational structure promotes hierarchical leadership, which is essential for decision making and solving disputes. The Catholic Church, for example, has evolved since the Roman Empire due to its clear organizational structure. A lucid organizational structure is essential in ensuring the psychological survival of the devotees of any religion as it ensures that there are successful communication and persuasive dissemination of religious ideas.
Gender roles massively influence the evolution and development of religious belief systems. The success of every faith is based on its successful conversion of new faithful and spread of its teachings and practices. Therefore, for the success of a religious organization, vital positions have to be granted to those people who can ensure its propagation. When most of the religious beliefs, such as Islam and Christianity, were at their nascent stage of development, they relied on men to ensure the spread of their messages because, in those periods, religious beliefs were spread mainly through religious wars, such as jihad, in which mostly men participated. The concept of entrusting the senior-most leadership roles to the male gender has been constantly carried forward throughout the evolution of almost all major religious belief systems. In a way, the biased allocation of roles impacted the place of women in societies where these religions had a massive influence. Besides, most religious teachings require women to be subservient and defer to their male counterparts. Most contemporary religious belief systems have relegated the feminine gender to mere worshippers, and this in itself is a controversial topic.
The political environment is a key factor in the evolution and development of religious belief systems. A right political environment that supports a particular religious belief ensures not only the spread but also the development of that particular religion. A good example is found in the rapid spread and development of Christianity during the Roman Empire. After starting as a reformation offshoot of Judaism, Christianity quickly gained the support of Constantine, who was a Christian. Constantine, not only provided financial and military support to the Christian religion but also imposed Christianity in Rome, therefore, facilitating the spread of the religion.
Belief systems are the sinews that hold society together. They provide answers to the mystics that befuddle humanity. Religious belief systems incorporate the use of spirits and gods to control human interaction, relations, and behavior. Additionally, they give society a sense of unity behind a single purpose and deity. The numerous religions in the contemporary world all have their respective philosophies, teachings, and tenets that form their belief systems.
Allen, Matthew, et al. HIST110: The Pre-Modern World. Cengage Learning Australia, 2012.
Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History: Volume 1: to 1800. 8th ed., Cengage Learning, 2016.
Sovine, Melanie L. “Studying Religious Belief Systems in Their Social Historical Context.” Appalachia and America: Autonomy and Regional Dependence, edited by Allen Batteau, University Press of Kentucky, 1983, pp. 48–67. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130j75j.7
Wenzel, Kristen. “The Religious Belief System: A Further Refinement on the Defined Relationship between Religion and Society.” Sociological Analysis, vol. 32, no. 1, 1971, p. 45., DOI:10.2307/3709993