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There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. Broadly speaking, these models fall into three categories:

  • Models which see religions as social constructions;
  • Models which see religions as progressing toward higher, objective truth;
  • Models which see a particular religion as absolutely true;

The models are not mutually exclusive. Multiple models may be seen to apply simultaneously, or different models may be seen as applying to different religions.

The largest human gathering in history was religious. [1][2] Around 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela of 2001.

Religions as social construction

This group of models holds that religion is a social construction, rather than referring to actual supernatural phenomena, that is, phenomena beyond the natural world that we measure using the scientific method. Some of these models view religion as nonetheless having or having had a mostly positive effect on society, the individual, and civilization itself, and others view it as having or having had a mostly injurious or destructive effect. Many of these views have their origins in the field of the sociology of religion.

Often these models are adopted by non-religious or anti-religious people to explain religion in terms of purely natural phenomena, so that no supernatural explanations are necessary. In contrast, religious people believe that religion has both natural and supernatural explanations.

Religion as a Byproduct of Evolutionary Psychology

This model holds that religion is the byproduct of the cognitive modules in the human brain that arose in our evolutionary past to deal with problems of survival and reproduction. Initial concepts of supernatural agents may arise in the tendency of humans to "over detect" the presence of other humans or predators (momentarily mistaking a vine for a snake). For instance, a man might report that he felt something sneaking up on him, but it vanished when he looked around.[1]

Stories of these experiences are especially likely to be retold, passed on and embellished due to their descriptions of standard ontological categories (human, artifact, animal, plant, natural object) with counterintuitive properties (humans that are invisible, houses that remember what happened in them, etc.). These stories become even more salient when they are accompanied by activation of non-violated expectations for the ontological category (houses that "remember" activates our intuitive psychology of mind; i.e. we automatically attribute thought processes to them). [2]

One of the attributes of our intuitive psychology of mind is that humans are interested in the affairs of other humans. This may result in the tendency for concepts of supernatural agents to inevitably cross connect with human intuitive moral feelings (evolutionary behavioral guidelines). In addition, the presence of dead bodies creates an uncomfortable cognitive state in which dreams and other mental modules (person identification and behavior prediction) continue to run decoupled from reality producing incompatible intuitions that the dead are somehow still around. When this is coupled with the human predisposition to see misfortune as a social event (as someone's responsibility rather than the outcome of mechanical processes) it may activate the intuitive "willingness to make exchanges" module of the human theory of minds resulting in the tendency of humans to try to interact and bargain with their supernatural agents (ritual). [3]

In a large enough group, some individuals will seem better skilled at these rituals than others and will become specialists. As the societies grow and encounter others, competition will ensue and a "survival of the fittest" effect may cause the practitioners to modify their concepts to provide a more abstract, more widely acceptable version. Eventually the specialist practitioners form a cohesive group or guild with its attendant political goals (religion). [4]

Opiate of the masses model

In this model, held by individuals such as Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell, religion is seen as a tool concocted by the powerful to pacify and oppress the powerless. As Bertrand Russell wrote, "Religion in any shape or form is regarded as pernicious and deliberate falsehood, spread and encouraged by rulers and clerics in their own interests, since it is easier to control over the ignorant." In this model, the development of religion is seen as analogous to the growth of a cancer: and the most "developed" religion would be no religion at all.

"Theory of religion" model

Rodney Stark & W. S. Bainbridge's put forward the following theory in their book "Theory of Religion" and subsequent works. According to the theory, religions are simply cults that become mainstream. They define cults as "deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices" that is as new religious movements that unlike sects have not separated from another religious organization. They say cults are introduced into a society in two ways, innovation and importation. Innovation happens when an individual starts a new cult within a society, usually because he or she had a purported revelation. Importation occurs when a group that is accepted and established in one society is brought into another society.

As to the development of the cults, the authors present four models: the Psychopathological Model, the Entrepreneurial Model, the Social Model and the Normal Revelations model.

Psychopathological model: religions are founded during a period of severe stress in the life of the founder. The founder suffers from psychological problems, which they resolve through the founding of the religion. (The development of the religion is for them a form of self-therapy, or self-medication.)

Entrepreneurial model: founders of religions act like entrepreneurs, developing new products (religions) to sell to consumers (to convert people to). According to this model, most founders of new religions already have experience in several religious groups before they begin their own. They take ideas from the pre-existing religions, and try to improve on them to make them more popular.

Social model: religions are founded by means of social implosions. Members of the religious group spend less and less time with people outside the group, and more and more time with each other within it. The level of affection and emotional bonding between members of a group increases, and their emotional bonds to members outside the group diminish. According to the social model, when a social implosion occurs, the group will naturally develop a new theology and rituals to accompany it.

Normal revelations: religions are founded when the founder interprets ordinary natural phenomena as supernatural; for instance, ascribing his or her own creativity in inventing the religion to that of the deity.

Dogma selection model

In the dogma selection model, religion is a set of beliefs which allow humans to encode useful survival tips and social structures. For example, early populations may not have understood microbes (germs), but thinking of illness as being caused by invisible demons that can hop on nearby people and possess them also supplies a mental model that reminds one to stay away from people that are coughing. The demon is an abstraction or approximation of germs and their infectious nature.

Dogma that increases the survival of a group will spread using a kind of Darwinian selection process (see Natural Selection; meme). The most useful dogmas spread because they keep the population that espouses them alive to bear more children. Over time good ideas may "mutate" as new generations or tribal branches alter them and the best variations spread using the selection process described above. Of course sometimes religious doctrine goes awry and ends up in large numbers of deaths, but it is the net benefits that count in the end.

Religions as progressively true

In contrast to the above models, the following models see religion as "progressively true." Proponents of these models state that their models differentiate between major world religions and the cults and false religions which develop in the above ways. Within these models, and in contrast to cults, religions reflect an essential Truth to one degree or another. The development of religion is therefore the course of religions aligning themselves more completely with the Truth, as the benefits of the teachings of each religion take effect within the development of humanity across time and place, as well as dealing with drifts of the religions from their founding principles or standing in need of elaborating the same essential truth in a new specific way - but all in relation to the same mysterious God, that is that this progression is divinely based or directed, rather than simply the occurrence of good people in history.

1) Within these models, religions are developed by prophets and teachers who bring genuine insight to religious thought. This contrasts with the "useful lie" model above, which sees religious thought as merely random changes which spread according to their usefulness.
2) Within these models, prophets such as Jesus and Muhammad are seen as outsiders leading a divine rebellion against the dominant and corrupt power structures to rescue humanity from destruction. Religion is therefore "grass-roots" in origin, rather than "imposed by the powerful." This contrasts strongly with the Opiate of the Masses model which sees religion as originating with the rich and powerful as a means of controlling the powerless.
3) Within these models, prophets are seen as having genuine insight and wisdom. This contrasts with the "Theory of Religion" model, which ascribes religious birth and development to some psychological or moral pathology in religious leaders and believers.

Minor Progression

To a lesser degree of "progression in religion" is true within most of the religions - Judaism accepts a series of Prophets, progressively leading the Jews, from Abraham down through Moses down to Malachi: see the Nevi'im. Christianity accepts the same and adds Jesus. Islam accepts those of Judaism and Christianity and adds Muhammad. Hinduism identifies a series of Avatars, to use their own terminology, from Brahma through to Krishna. Buddhism identifies a separate series of earlier Buddhas. Zoroastrians also delineate earlier Saviors, or Saoshyants, who came progressively leading the people forward. There are other examples. However this is a minor recognition because the figures referred to are accepted within the religion, or are partial because their references to other religions are not systematic (Hinduism has some reference to Jesus Christ but little if any of Moses or Muhammad or even Buddha, cf Avatars.)

Bahá'í prophecy model

In the Bahá'í view, religion develops through a series of divine interventions from God, in the form of a Manifestation of God. Bahá'ís believe that God has sent a number of messengers in different times and cultures to bring divine revelation to humanity. Each of these messengers taught the truth of God, but later messengers provided more information to humanity, because humanity was ready to receive the more subtle teachings. Bahá'ís believe in Adam, the Jewish prophets, Jesus, and Muhammad, among others, as messengers of God. Bahá'í teachings also extend that progression indefinitely into the future. A particularized form of this is often present in other religions. The Abrahamic religions have a certain heritage and disputed progression among them (clearly if Judaism accepted Christianity as the right progression then it wouldn't stay Judaism as we know it for example - the same is true for most of the religions we have today.) The Dharmic religions similarly have a certain heritage and disputed progression. While often categorized as an Abrahamic religion, the Bahá'í faith claims to be a member of the progression of both Dharmic and Abrahamic categories and that other possible divine teachers may have appeared directly among other cultural traditions as among the Native Americans and Australian aboriginal peoples. For all culturally based categories of religions, Bahá'ís believe Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of Bahá'í Faith, has brought the latest revelation from God.

In summarizing this view, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith stated:

"The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society." (Shoghi Effendi in The Promised Day Is Come, preface) [3]

See Progressive Revelation for more information

A Study of History model

In A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, they experience a "schism in the soul," as the creative and spiritual impulse dies. In this environment of spiritual nadir, a few prophets (such as Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, and Christ) are given to extraordinary spiritual insight, born of the spiritual decay in the dying civilization. He describes such prophets as "surveyors of the course of secular civilization who report breaks in the road and breakdowns in the traffic, and plot a new spiritual course which will avoid those pitfalls."

Thus, he argues, the "high points" in secular history coincide with the "low points" in spiritual history, and vice versa. He notes that the call of Abraham followed the defiance of God by the self-confident builders of the Tower of Babel; that the mission of Moses was to rescue God's chosen people from the fleshpots of Egypt; that the prophets of Israel and Judah were inspired to preach repentance from the spiritual backslidings into which Israel lapsed in its 'land flowing with milk and honey' which Yahweh had provided for them; and that the Ministry of Christ, whose passion reflected the anguish of the Hellenic Time of Troubles, was the intervention of God Himself for the purpose of extending to the whole of Mankind the covenant he had made with Israel.

While these new spiritual insights allow for the birth of a new religion and ultimately a new civilization, they are ultimately impermanent. This is due to their tendency to deteriorate after being institutionalized, as men of God degenerate into successful businessmen or men of politics. He describes the worst corruption of all, however, as "idolizing the terrestrial institution in which the Church Militant on Earth is imperfectly though unavoidably embodied. A church is in danger of lapsing into this idolatry insofar as she lapses into believing herself to be, not merely a depository of truth, but the sole depository of the whole truth in a complete and definite revelation."

Of the possibility that a new religion may arise in Western civilization to finally establish a permanent kingdom of heaven, he concludes that it is unlikely or impossible. "The manifest reason is exhibited by the nature of Society and the nature of Man. For Society is nothing but the common ground between the fields of action of personalities, and human personality has an innate capacity for evil as well as for good. The establishment of such a single Church Militant as we have imagined would not purge Man of Original Sin. This World is a province of the Kingdom of God, but it is a rebellious province, and, in the nature of things, it will always remain so."

Religions as absolutely true

In the following models, religions are seen as absolutely and unchangingly True. They contrast with both the first group of models (which held religion to be false), and the second group (which held religion to develop over time).

Jewish model

Traditional Judaism teaches that God relates to humanity through a series of covenants, which are initiated by him, and in which God promises to perform certain acts on the condition that humans "keep their side of the bargain." Jews believe that they are bound by the Mosaic law, which includes the Ten Commandments and additional teachings, especially those found in Leviticus and the later Sanhedrin. All non-Jews are under the Noahide Laws, established by God after the global flood which wiped out antediluvian civilization. Those who fulfill their part of the covenant are granted the afterlife.

Exclusivist models

Many religions which claim an exclusive revelation from God assert that theirs is the "One True Religion," and all others are false, because they do not originate from the same source. Exclusivism can be seen in many religions, particularly in certain branches of Christianity and Islam. In such a model, the development of "True Religion" is inexorably tied to a single prophet and/or holy book, and all other religions are described as "non-religion," in that they originate either from human ignorance, or from the evil influence of deceivers, false prophets, or even Satan. However Judaism is alone in it's belief that both the written and oral Torah, the basis of Judaism, was in fact received by the whole jewish nation, not a single prophet, on mount Sinai by God himself.

Role of charismatic figures in the development of religions

Swami Vivekananda in London, 1896

Many religions have been deeply influenced by charismatic leaders, such as Jesus, Martin Luther, Saint Francis of Assisi, John Calvin, Joseph Smith, etc. These leaders are either the central teacher and founder of the religion (e.g. Muhammad, Jesus, or Gautama) or reformers or prominent persons. Failed or violent new religions were also founded by charismatic leaders, such as Jim Jones.

There is some similarity to the role played by charismatic figures in politics. See list of charismatic leaders.

See also


  1. Faces in the Clouds, Stewart Elliot Guthrie, Oxford University Press (1995).
  2., Functional Origins of Religious concepts, Pascal Boyer
  3. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer, Basic Books (2001)
  4. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Pascal Boyer, Basic Books (2001)


  • Robert William Fogel; The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism; 2000, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-25662-6
  • William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, New York: Broadway Books, 1997.
  • Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield, 1997, Banner of Truth, ISBN 0-85151-712-9. This is a reprint of the original work published in 1842.

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