Hegel in his famous book "Phenomenology of the Spirit" describes the evolution of the human mind. I am wondering if any philosophers have described the evolution of religions and where the idea come from and how that idea evolves into a religion and end up becoming a religion like modern Christianity. Could you share some of the opinions and thoughts on this?

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    If you want a description of the history of religions in Hegelian terms then you should go to the source, his own Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion and other works, see Hegel's Philosophy of the Historical Religions by Labuschagne and Slootweg for references and commentary. Just make sure you do not confuse Hegel's philosophical fiction with the actual history, "idea evolving into a religion" is not a template historians would endorse.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 0:51
  • Just googling, I found this book. Note I don't know anything about Schelling as a philosopher, but it seems he had a strong interest in mythology: amazon.com/… Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 0:55
  • I don't want it to be specifically about Hegel. The issue is that I never heard any philosopher try to describe what the evolutionary stages of religion or mythology might be.
    – Sayaman
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 0:59
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    this is an anthropology question, not a philosophy question Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 4:07
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    There's a whole area of expertise in philosophy called Philosophy of Religion. But as Swami says if what you're asking is how religion as part of society evolves through history, it belongs to anthropology. If that's not what you're looking for I advice you to make it clear in the question. Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 9:59

4 Answers 4


How religions and religious practices evolve/start is hotly debated. If you ask a religious member they will give you a very different answer than an atheist.

The first person that I heard talk about how religions have evolved to their current state was from a youtube video of Bret weinstien. Bret Weinstien said something along the lines of: religious practices and stories, whether true or not, give you an advantage, and bad religious practices and stories we lose over time. ..I am not sure if this originally bret weinsteins idea, but I have had difficulty finding other people who talk about this. (To add, I think a lot of atheists would argue that we have a difficult time of letting bad religious practices go.)

I put a link below to a podcast where Weinstein talks about religion and gives an example about porcupines, at exactly the 1 hour mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6G59zsjM2UI&t=1h00m03s&app=desktop

here is a subreddit about that podcast https://www.reddit.com/r/samharris/comments/6z3d6r/bret_weinstein_explains_jordan_peterson_vs_sam/

..I'd be interested in learning what other people think about how religions have evolved to the state they are in today. I find it interesting, hopefully someone else will add different names and ideas to this so I can learn more on this


So much about the development of religions has been shaped by politics. Consider how, exceptionally politically/militarily unified ancient China and ancient Rome, were very religiously diverse - China had three state religions, and Rome still has the nearly 2000 year old Pantheon for celebrating rights to gods without dedicated temples in Rome. Versus, politically fragmented Holy Roman Empire, and ancient India, which were had relatively unified religions, Christendom and Vedic Hinduism (nb for instance the near extinction of Buddhism in continental India). China suppressed one of the three independent schools of logic. Christianity suppressed hermetic ankorite practices, and the hesychasm chanting practices. And The Needham Question draws attention to how key technologies of the modern era are from China, but they did not pursue exploration and trade, Europe did. Separating religious & political developments is impossible.

The Varieties Of Religious Experience is an important early text in comparative religion, that focused on immediate religious experiences, excluding theology and institutions. So that is one route, though what experiences people are likely to have must be shaped by the latter (consider the surge in reports of alien abductions after the Close Encounters film, vs say describing angels).

Serious grounding for comparative religion starts with Durkheim founder of academic sociology, and The Elementary Forms Of Religious Life. Durkheim had to get out of the Abrahamic-world idea that there was a linear development from hunter-gatherer traditions to monotheism, because increasing amounts were known about Confucianism & Buddhism & Vedic Hinduism, with extensive texts, complex theologies, and continued practice of them in industrialised modern areas. Durkheim settled on this definition:

"A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." — Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Book 1, Ch. 1

It is important to note this idea of binding moral communities together by adherance to sacred values they hold to be inviolable or nearly so, applies also to ideas like habeus corpus and free speech. The distinction between politics and religion is again fuzzy.

Nietzsche clearly understood that the end of the sway of Christianity was not just of importance to individuals, but a challenge to social cohesion. I like this discussion of James C Scott's idea that both political and religious ideas can be knowledge in so far as they are 'metis', a Greek word for craft knowledge gained through practice rather than theory (it's interesting to add the Native American Ghost Dance and Boxer Rebellion, as using the same methodology as the Congolese gri-gri example given, despite vast cultural discontinuities).

Biologist Robert Sapolsky has a fascinating survey of the possible biological drivers, and evolutionary reasons for religious behaviour. His discussion of Martin Luther is really compelling. Jewish dietary laws, and Romany hygiene laws, are examples of binding a community with adherance to behaviours with biological benefits. Bret Weinstein challenged Richard Dawkins on whether, by his own theories it was more likely New Atheism is a parasitic meme-complex than for all religious practice to be, given that over time in biology parasites evolve towards symbiosis, and religious behaviour is among the oldest human practices.

Jonathan Haidt, especially in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, uses data to look at we use posthoc rationalising to make decisions which bind our communities together.

So in this picture what becomes of:

"if any philosophers have described the evolution of religions and where the idea come from and how that idea evolves into a religion and end up becoming a religion like Christianity" - op

I'd say it's rooted in 19th century and earlier ideas, of the supremacy of Western ideas because of the supremacy of Western technology. To examine how religions have evolved, we should look at the drivers, what they are for innpractice, and consider how they have adapted and become more sophisticated in terms of serving those purposes.

With 10% of people in the UK going to church regularly but 60% saying they are Christian (down 12% in a decade) at the last census, it could be argued Christianity here is not succeeding here. Research suggests more people in the UK may be attending mosques regularly, than church. A major dynamic is how theological reform happens in a religion, and I'd give an example of the Jewish idea of an Eruv as an example of more dynamic evolution of metis in Judaism than Christianity - it allows more flexible observation of the sabbath for othodox Jews if they live near their community, by refining the definition of a building compound. Holding the Ramadan fast in Islam has major binding impacts on that community. And there's a Jewish saying that 'It's not just that Jews keep the dietary laws, the dietary laws keep together the Jewish people'. Christianity has essentially dispensed with lent, and with not eating meat on Fridays, ended the prohibition on usury which was kept in Islam (& created a separate finance sector for). So is Christianity evolving, or slipping away? In terms of metis, surely the latter.


The great original study on the subject, written over a century ago, was The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by Sir James Frazer. He later published an abridged version, which is still a good solid read and has been reprinted innumerable times. In essence, religious beliefs and rituals were intertwined with magical beliefs and rituals. Among many topics he reserves chapters for the roles of Deity and the human soul in this world picture.

I would describe its subject matter as the archaeology and anthropology of religion. Others must surely have written on it since but, in my humble opinion, if they have not read Frazer then they will not know what they are talking about.

However he does not really go into how religions evolve over time and may split off or morph into new ones as, say, Brahminism became (subsumed into?) Hinduism or Judaism spawned Christianity. But I see that as more sociological than philosophical.

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    You might be interested to know Wittgenstein wrote 'The Mythology in Our Language: Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough' and a new edition is available as a free eBook here haubooks.org/the-mythology-in-our-language
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 13:30

Gobekli tepe has the oldest known temple. It contains a clear progression from animism to pantheonism. Religion finds its roots in techniques for self preservation. Think of the seemingly hardwired fear of the dark. Most humans find this to be a shared experience. Darkness was extremely dangerous to early humans because of predation and accidents. Darkness equals bad. Humans have physiological advantage in daylight over darkness. It is much easier to see predators and food sources and is therefore easier to survive in the light. Light equals good. Good and evil are interpretations of beneficial vs detrimental. Food sources utilized in daylight are good, monsters in the dark are evil. If we draw from modern experience of human nature and look at things like religious dietary restrictions, combined with scientific observation we find many explanation why "pork is evil" works toward self preservation. Deifying is the result over time because humans found a power structure in shamanic hierarchies. It is impossible to argue with assertions that "GOD" wants this or that if no "god" appears to the entire tribe and says as much to everyone. Religion is the evolution of survival to politics. When the tribe comes to a point where the survival techniques are so good there is no need for direction from "gods" there is a power vacuum. When the shaman is no longer a privileged position the nature of human narcissism can force the shaman to find ways to maintain power over others. When humans reach positions of ultimate power, like dictators, most humans would rather die than step down. Look at any revolution for evidence of this being mostly true depending on the individual. Dalai lama being an exception based on the individual belief structure morally prohibiting such as partisanship based on the probability of increasing suffering as a cost benefit analysis. Modern religion is a cult of personality situation that is no different than what is occurring in North Korea. Pope=supreme leader. In the case of North Korea, supreme leader is like Pharoah or living godking. Pope equates as the embodiment of god on earth, essentially an avatar of something beyond, while godking is the apex of the power structure. (This is my original idea as far as I know. Meaning that I personally have never heard it put this way. Not that no other person has made this statement before me. For example, I have been thinking that this was the natural progression since childhood as opposed to finding out about gobekli tepe and working backwards from there.)

  • Your reasoning is very 'Golden Bough', ie completely discredited by subsequent anthropology & research. How is Gobekli Tepe 'obviously' a development from animism? It isn't. It seems to show a stage between nomadic and settled, in which dwindling wild resources needed more work & negotiation to share & sustain, which process was conducted by building temples marking celestial events, and timing of community events like sowing & harvesting, & celebrations of.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 21:08

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