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Why are there so many religions and gods all over the world? Come to think of it, when the idea spread, why did people develop different gods and beliefs rather than follow the same one?

If the idea of a god did develop independently, without any interference from different locations, how could the same patterns and concepts of a god, religion, heaven, and hell emerge?

Is the thought process of humankind that similar, or is this indication that God or a supernatural being exists?

closed as off-topic by Conifold, curiousdannii, Bertrand Wittgenstein's Ghost, Frank Hubeny, Eliran Jun 25 at 16:42

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    Is the question why religions are so similar, or why they are so different? And why taking without change or developing independently are supposed to be the only options? This does not even happen with hairstyles. Nothing develops "without any interference from different locations", people traded and fought wars, if nothing else. It doesn't mean they did not develop some things independently or did not change what they borrowed. "The same patterns" did not emerge, Buddhism has no heaven or hell, some versions do not even have god. – Conifold Jun 24 at 17:37
  • Mythological figures of dragons also appears in many cultures, apparently unrelated and without contacts one with the other: for instance, the European, the Chinese, the Aztec, the Native American. Does that mean that dragons exist? – Federico Poloni Jun 25 at 12:57
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    Not all religions share the same ideas of "god, ..., heaven, and hell". What gives you the impression? Neither is Christianity "all religions", nor do all variants of Christianity have a hell. – phresnel Jun 26 at 6:13
  • @FedericoPoloni No, just as the fact that "independent" cultures having different conceptions of a thing doesn't mean that thing (in some form of another) cannot exist. – luchonacho Jun 26 at 7:54
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This question is probably more aligned with history or anthropology than philosophy.

People began believing in gods thousands of years ago, long before modern transportation and communication. How was a person living in Africa supposed to know about the existence of a distant tribe that would one day evolve into the Mongols, let alone what god(s) the tribe believed in?

Even groups of people that live close together may be nevertheless separated by natural barriers (e.g rivers, mountains) and language/cultural barriers.

“If the idea of God did develop independently, without any interference from different locations, how could the same pattern and concepts of God and religion and heaven and hell emerge?”

Is there really a well defined pattern of belief in heaven and hell? Belief in an afterlife may be pretty common, and that afterlife can be perceived as good, bad, or somewhere in between. But I think Heaven and Hell is a concept more closely aligned with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism than Eastern religion, and I suspect Native American and Australian religions were also fairly divergent on that score.

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    But how did the idea of a "superior being" capable of understanding human thought, emotions and actions emerge? If the idea did not spread, why is it common among most of the religions? – jp_ Jun 24 at 15:48
  • @jp_ My answer has a suggestion of the common origin of the "desire to think" about gods. – luchonacho Jun 24 at 16:39
  • @jp_ I don't know know why there's a universal (or at least very widespread) belief in a superior being(s). But there are obviously natural forces that are far more powerful (i.e. superior) to us. Even many modern scientists view Earth itself as a living thing, so it may not be such a leap to view the entire universe as a living thing. – David Blomstrom Jun 24 at 17:26
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    @jp_ Antropomorphisation is a near universal human trait - humans see their environment essentially as other humans (which in turn probably comes from the human political instinct being ridiculously strong). We ascribe human traits to animals, plants and even meteorogical phenomena. And since we don't always predict them perfectly, it's clear that they must be better/stronger/smarter "humans" than us. And since we rely on them, we try to influence them (worship, swearing etc.). Sometimes we feel it actually has an impact, and a ritual is born. – Luaan Jun 25 at 10:36
  • @jp_: You should really rework your definition of "all religions" and "common". Not all religions have gods that know what you think, nor is it common. – phresnel Jun 26 at 6:15
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This is an answer from the point of view of the Catholic Church (but which might also represent other Christian denominations).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a document which summarises the beliefs of the Catholic Church, emerging from centuries of theological scrutiny [notice theology tag in the question]), states the following:

I. The Desire for God

27 The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.

28 In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behaviour: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being:

From one ancestor (God) made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For "in him we live and move and have our being."

Importantly, this desire for God is there from the beginning of human kind. As humans have been distributed all over the world, so different religions and belief spread throughout the world. The key is that those different gods represent idiosyncratic features of the satisfaction of a common desire, i.e. to seek [the true] God.

Moreover, according to Judeo-Christian religions (Judaism, Christianity, and some might even say Islam), God did not remain invisible all the time. He decided to revealed Himself to some individuals and groups. The Catechism states:

Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man.

This revelation was progressive in the sense that He revealed only parts of Himself at a time. For instance, God chose Abraham in order to build a "chosen people", which later on gave rise to Judaism. According to Christianity, God's self-revelation was fulfilled (i.e. finished) in Jesus Christ, giving rise to Christianity.

The above is an example of why there are different religions and "different gods", according to one Christian tradition.

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If there are no gods (or effectively no gods, i.e. absolutely no interaction, indirect or otherwise)

Who invented Calculus? Newton, of course. ...and Leibniz.

This is likely a common occurrence, although that's somewhat disputed.

There's only one Calculus, though, because there are things we all agree on, like 1+1=2. Calculus arises from this common foundation, and as such there is no room for dispute.

Gods and religion, however, have no such universal backing. Quran, Torah, Bible - similar, sure, but in the end are built on foundations of a much different character.

This leaves room for disagreement, for twists and turns, for sects and cults to naturally arise when one says "this is divine" and another says nay.

In short, two main reasons:

  1. If you've thought of something, so have a thousand other people

  2. No agreed-upon "arbiter of truth" results in offshoots, which can then evolve and become almost unrecognizable

If there is a single god

See reason #2 above. There can be divine signs for days, but it would be amazing if 100% of humans even agreed on whether it's a sign or not.

If there are multiple gods

Well, then it just makes good sense there would be multiple religions, now doesn't it?

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  • There is a school of thought sometimes called the Perennial Philosophy, which holds that all religions and all philosophies are reflections of a singer greater truth, which cannot be fully contained by any of them. An obvious ancestor of this theory is Plotinus' Neoplatonism (and, if you accept Plotinus' arguments, the work of Plato himself). The best-known recent exponent in the English-speaking world was probably Aldous Huxley. According to that point of view, the commonalities in religion are (largely) significant, whereas the differences are accidents of culture and history.

  • Anthropologically and sociologically speaking, there are some major structures that appear again and again in religions all across the world. It may be difficult to determine whether these are innate, or culturally transmitted, but what is notable is that they often cross the boundaries of any given religion. These include polytheistic, ancestor-venerating, Goddess worshipping, monotheistic, non-theistic, mystical and messianic. For instance, Buddhism is an abstract, non-theistic religion, but Amida Buddhism is messianic, and the concept of the bodhisattvas resembles polytheism. Similarly, Christianity is a messianic, monotheistic religion, but the veneration of the Virgin Mary resembles goddess worship, and the veneration of the saints resembles polytheism and/or ancestor-veneration. In the same way, there are mystical forms of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam (Sufism), Hinduism and Judaism (Kabbalah).

  • Some religions are clearly related, influenced by, or descended from each other. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Rastafarianism all trace back to a single Biblical patriarch, Abraham, and members of Latter Day Saints, Seventh Day Adventist and Santeria religious communities all consider themselves to be followers of the Christian religion. Buddhism grew out of Hinduism, and later developed into Zen. The Roman pantheon was transparently influenced by the Greek one.
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This is more of a question of psychology than it is philosophy, or even anthropology. The origins of this phenomenon come from man's evolved tendency to assume agency.

Consider in prehistoric times when early man hears a twig breaking, or something rustling in a forest. If he assumes it's a tiger and runs away, he survives whether or not there was actually a Tiger there. If he assumes it's nothing and the tiger eats him, he dies.

What this means is that when we 'hear things', 'hear someone', and this spurs action it's actually beneficial in terms of life outcomes. And so given that fact, our psychology would have evolved to assume agency where there actually is none. And so today what we see are people who attribute things to either living, or celestial beings, when in reality it's nothing.

So if you go back far enough the concept of a creator came from nothing more than people attributing agency to the creation of the universe (or world). The universe is an effect, effects have causes, causes can't come from nothing, therefore an agent created this, therefore God.

From that point on all it takes for new kinds of Gods and religions to arise are new people or communities with different ideas about creation and theology.

So you could say that religion and God are actually unnecessary by-products of one of our important survival instincts.

Going a bit further than that (I've studied religion fairly extensively), I'd argue that the different kinds of religion that have arisen essentially represent the various metaphysical possibilities that people could conjure up.

e.g. God, Many Gods, No God

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If you focus on religion-as-theism then the differences in nature, number, power, very existence of god(s) will ever be greater than the commonality. If OTOH you focus on religion-as-spirituality the commonality jumps out and the differences vanish.

Some examples from across world religions and teachers.

Hinduism

The pontiff Sankara acharya said :

It is not necessary (for a Hindu) to believe in many some or one god but it is necessary to believe in the afterlife (ie spirit) and in the karmic law

Christianity

In different ways and forms the gospels repeatedly assert

The sin (blasphemy) against the Father can be forgiven and against the Son but never against the holy spirit

Socrates

In one of the rare admissions to his specialness attributed it to his daemon ie spirit.

Moonhawk

The American Indian moonhawk said:

The white man's god is a noun whereas our (native American) god is a verb.

Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein was writing the Tractatus in the face of death during WWI. he said:

Perhaps the nearness of death will bring me the light of life. May God enlighten me. Through God I will become a man. God be with me. Amen.

It's ironical how spirit-ual in source is this favorite of the logical positivists!

In short God /gods are are not the common factor to the world's religions; the call of the spirit – spirit-uality – is.

Douglas Harding

A very succinct non-sectarian rendering of how ridiculous it is to think of oneself as a thing in a world of things rather than the ground of consciousness on which all things have their being is Douglas Harding's On having no head. IOW Harding makes a powerful case that we are fundamentally spiritual beings not material bodies.

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This is indeed a far more anthropological problem than philosophical: how did it come to be that way?

There can hardly be definitive answers to such questions. There may be evidence to believe one way or another, but often the same evidence may be interpreted in the opposite ways.

  • One, the most 'basic' view is that there were actually an ancestor religion (or myth system) from which all others descended. Over time, they diverged a lot, but the common root explains the similarities. But while there are obviously related branches (like Abrahamic religions), this is not believed to be generally true for the whole planet.
  • Another view is that all the remarkable similarities (which are evident on the fundamental level, despite huge variety of detail, even between very unrelated populations) can be explained by the fact that all humans have fundamentally similar psychology. Because we think of ourselves and hence of the world in a similar way, this gives rise to similar beliefs. This somewhat Freudian approach was popularised by Joseph Campbell in his seminal book.
  • Then came structuralists and argued that what matters is the social order and kinship. Our understanding of the world is largely based on the way we understand our societies, which is driven by the way we understand our immediate relations (such as families). Thus the variety (and similarity) of beliefs can be determined (or at least, correlated) by the structures of our societies. And even though there is quite a variety of them, there are fairly universal patterns as well.

Of course, all of this can be fit under the umbrella 'God created us all this way' (so that we are predisposed to believe in god(s)), like in luchonacho's answer, but like any such conjecture, it always explains everything - and nothing.

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More philosophically than theologically, the need for the supernatural arose as an answer to natural phenomena in the presence of ignorance. (I am making a distinction between questions of 1) why/how is there fire in the sky (lightning) and, 2) why/how am I and is there a purpose.)

Folks once thought that sneezes were the dispelling of the malevolent god from our bodies by the benevolent Prime god. Hence, we say "bless you."

The term 'god' is relatively modern but the concept exists in all cultures and ethnic groups be they multiple with individual traits or a singular uber one with all the traits. They are different as the people are distinct but similar as they answer the same questions. They disappear from common understanding into myths as the phenomena is understood internally by that enclosed group of people or until they communicate with others who bear the clarity.

Sometimes the characteristic of the 'god' changes or the 'god' is misused as some people try to manipulate the behavior of or subjugate others.

The thought process of humans are similar: we consider something to be true (not necessarily real or factual), and if it has value, we interpolate and extrapolate and fill-in holes of inconsistencies based on the extent of our knowledge. Since there are many aspect of life, there are many ways for that thought process to manifest itself. The idea of a malevolent force that causes me to fail even when I am capable and use effort is the trickster: Loki, Anansi, Lucifer or Murphy (to the secular folks). You know, the devil caused the glass to fall off the counter. Not the wind, a tremor, gravity, all of which are difficult to perceive, or me for bumping the wall that shook the counter that moved the glass to a position where gravity toppled the glass.

There will always be an un-caused cause, the ultimate beginning, ie., what is the singularity (the cause) that went bang (the effect) that itself has no cause, therefore we will always have a need for the answer, God. :-)

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Same reason why there are many languages: religions originate in various cultures independently and also tend to diverge where there is no sufficient central authority. Same as for the language, is must be some force keeping all in the same belief and persecuting heretics. Such a force is often missing, not strong enough, or does not reach far enough, while in general there is no lack of trying.

This is from the atheistic viewpoint. From the religious one, God so decided: "Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.", Matthew 24:11-27. So they will rise and will deceive, nothing to do. We do not know the actual goals of the God, leave alone the motivations.

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