An Overview of the World's Religions


It should be kept in mind at all times that no religion is monolithic. The summaries that follow are just that: summaries. Each religion has numberless sects and differences of opinion over doctrine, politics and just about anything one can think of. Therefore, understand that the summaries are merely guidelines, giving a general overview of the religion, describing what the majority of that religion's adherents would agree is part of that religion. For more in depth analysis, it is recommended that the reader check a library and examine the relilgious writings and descriptions of each religion in depth.

High God Concept

The term "High God" is used by historians and anthropologists to designate the supreme deity found in many polytheistic religions. How is this "High God" understood? He is usually described as being located somewhere beyond the sky; utterly transcendent, he is removed from the world that he originally created - hense the term "high". It is, to some extent, almost deistic in its concept.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, there is an African proverb that describes the High God as follows:

"God is on high and man is below. God is god and man is man. Each is at home; each in his own house."

Generally speaking, the High God has been conceived of as masculine by primitive societies. Furthermore, he is considered to be the sole creator of heaven and earth. But after creating the universe, he withdrew from what he had made and went somewhere else to live.

No images are made of the High God, and there is little if any religious activy associated with him. Essentially he is unworshipped: few if any prayers or sacrifices are given. Why? Because he either 1) no longer cares or 2) because he already hears and sees everything and therefore there is no reason to talk to him.

If the High God is ever invoked, it is only under the most extreme of circumstances, and there is no great expectation by anyone that such a prayer will be heard or reacted to.

Usually, the name and myth of the High God are secret and revealed only to initiates. Frequently he is referred to as Father. He is generally conceived in one of three ways; either as 1) a transcendent principle of divine order; 2) a senile or impotent deity who has been replaced by a set of other, more active and involved gods; or finally 3) he has become so remote, having removed himself so far from human affairs, that he is all but forgotten.

Massive evidence, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, has been collected among many peoples since the discovery in the 19th century of an unsuspected belief in "one supreme being, All-Father" among the Kurnai in Australia. This discovery revolutionized modern scholarly understanding of primitive religion in two ways:

First, many of the peoples which had been thought to have no concept of religion at all were discovered instead to embrace belief in a single, all powerful deity. In fact, such peoples actually had a sophisticated religion, but it simply lacked public rituals. The theology in such cases was esoteric and in general it was something that was not to be spoken of to outsiders.

Many reports, therefore, of primitive religions, had been limited to the observation of the external details of cult practice, but the existence of the High God challenged the adequacy of such reports and suggested that, in many cases, if the observer himself had not been initiated his report was not to be trusted.

Secondly, and of even greater significance, the discovery of the High God concept among primitive peoples challenged the popular 19th century theory of the evolution of religion from animism (belief in souls in humans and other aspects of nature) to polytheism to monotheism. Instead, a devolutionary approach seemed to be the more reasonable.

Obviously, the question arises, why and how do so many disparate and unrelated tribes and groups have such a similar and basic belief about a High God? Two things come to mind as Christians. One, and perhaps the most obvious, would be the thought that at one time, since all human beings are descended from Adam (and then, later, from Noah), in the hoary mists of antiquity, there was a time when belief in only one God was universal, since Adam and later Noah had immediate contact with and knowledge of Him.

A second, and less obvious reason for it derives from general revelation. Paul writes in Romans of the sense that all human beings have of the divine, and that therefore all human beings are without excuse - that is, none can legitimately say to God "I didn't know; I didn't hear". The Psalmist writes that "the heavens declare the glory of God."

In the same way that the laws of physics are universal and universally known, at least on a basic level, so too, morality and the concept of God are likewise universal and universally known, at least on a primitive level. In the same way that all societies have families and regulations for sexual conduct, forbidding adultery, or forbidding murder and stealing, so too, no more nor less than gravity is a universal concept, so the knowledge of God is also universal. Because he designed and built this universe, because human beings are created in the image of God, it is impossible to escape some basic, simple knowledge of him. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, "God has set eternity in the hearts of men."

Primitive Religions

Primitive religion is a name given to the religious beliefs and practices of those traditional, often isolated, preliterate cultures which have not developed urban and technologically sophisticated forms of society. The term is misleading in suggesting that the religions of those peoples are somehow less complex than the religions of "advanced" societies. In fact, research carried out among the indigenous peoples of Oceania, the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa has revealed rich and very complex religions, which organize the smallest details of the people's lives.

The religions of archaic cultures - the cultures of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic ages - are also referred to as primitive. The available evidence for prehistoric religions is so limited as to render any reconstruction highly speculative. Scholars such as Mircea Eliade, however, have emphasized the importance of contemporary fieldwork in recapturing a sense of the religious life of early humankind. However, the assumption that today's primitives will necessary reflect early primitives is speculative at best.

Since the seventeenth century scholars have speculated on the problem of the beginnings of human culture by making use of the empirical data collected about religious belief and practice among the non-Europeans of the New World, Africa, Australia, the South Pacific, and elsewhere. Religion has therefore become one piece in the puzzle that shaped current ideas about the origins of human consciousness and institutions. Both as a human experience and as an expression of that experience, Religion has been viewed as a model of human consciousness, most clearly seen in primitive cultures. It is significant that the first systematic treatise in the discipline of anthropology, Edward B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871), had Religion in Primitive Culture as its subtitle, and that the first person to be appointed to a professorial chair of social anthropology in Britain was Sir James Frazer, author of the monumental study of comparative folklore, magic, and religion, The Golden Bough.

Theories Of Primitive Religion

Theories of the nature of primitive religion have moved between two poles: one intellectualistic and rational, the other psychological and irrational. Tylor and Frazer, who saw primitive religion as characterized preeminently by a belief in magic and unseen forces or powers, represent the intellectual or rational position. Tylor, for instance, based his interpretation of primitive religion on the idea that primitive people make a mistaken logical inference-an intellectual error. He thought that they confuse subjective and objective reality in their belief that the vital force (soul) present in living organisms is detachable and capable of independent existence on its own. Dreams, he thought, might be a basis for this error. Tylor's definition of primitive religion as animism, a belief in spiritual beings, expresses his interpretation that the basis of primitive religion is the belief that detached and detachable vital forces make up a suprahuman realm of reality that is just as real as the physical world of rocks, trees, and plants.

An opposing interpretation of primitive religion comes from an experimental and psychological approach to the data. R. H. Codrington's study The Melanesians (1891), in which he described the meaning of mana as a supernatural power or influence experienced by the Melanesians, has provided a basis for other scholars to explain the origin and interpretation of primitive religion as rooted in the experience by primitive peoples of the dynamic power of nature. The most prominent interpreter of this point of view was the English anthropologist Robert R. Marett. Variations of this theory may be seen in the works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl, who distinguished between a logical and prelogical mentality in analyzing the kind of thinking that takes place through this mode of experience, and the writings of Rudolf Otto, who described the specific religious meaning of this mode of human consciousness.

Another rationalist approach to primitive religion is exemplified by Emile Durkheim, who saw religion as the deification of society and its structures. The symbols of religion arise as "collective representations" of the social sphere, and rituals function to unite the individual with society. Claude Levi-Strauss moved beyond Durkheim in an attempt to articulate the way in which the structures of society are exemplified in myths and symbols. Starting from the structural ideas of contemporary linguistics, he argued that there is one universal form of human logic and that the difference between the thinking of primitive and modern people cannot be based on different modes of thought or logic but rather on differences in the data on which logic operates.

Religious Experience And Expression

Whichever approach - psychological or intellectual - is accepted, it seems clear that primitives experience the world differently than do people in modern cultures. Few would hold that that difference can be explained by a different level of intelligence. Levi-Strauss believes that the intellectual powers of primitive peoples are equal to those of humans in all cultures and that differences between the two modes of thought may be attributed to the things they think about and concern themselves with. He refers to primitive thought as concrete thought, meaning that such thought expresses a different way of relating to the objects and experiences of the everyday world. This form of thinking, he says, expresses itself in myth, rituals, and kinship systems, but all of these expressions embody an underlying rational order.

Mircea Eliade expressed a similar position. For him, primitive cultures are more open to the world of natural forms. This openness allows them to experience the world as a sacred reality. Anything in the world can reveal some aspect and dimension of sacredness to the person in primitive cultures. This mode of revelation is called a hierophany. In Eliade's theory, the revealing of the sacred is a total experience. It cannot be reduced to the rational, the irrational, or the psychological; the experience of the sacred includes them all. It is the way in which these experiences are integrated and received that characterizes the holy. The integration of many seemingly disparate and often opposed meanings into a unity is what Eliade means by the religious symbol.

A myth is the integration of religious symbols into a narrative form. Myths not only provide a comprehensive view of the world, but they also provide the tools for deciphering the world. Although myths may have a counterpart in ritual patterns, for primitive peoples they are autonomous modes of the expression of the sacredness of the world.


One of the most pervasive forms of religious behavior in primitive cultures is expressed by rituals and ritualistic actions. The forms and functions of rituals are diverse. They may be performed to ensure the favor of the divine, to ward off evil, or to mark a change in cultural status. In most, but not all, cases an etiological myth provides the basis for the ritual in a divine act or injunction.

Generally, rituals express the great transitions in human life: birth, puberty, marriage, and death. These passage rites vary in form, importance, and intensity from one culture to another because they are tied to several other meanings and rituals in the culture. For example, the primitive cultures of south New Guinea and Indonesia place a great emphasis on rituals of death and funerary rites. They have elaborate myths describing the geography of the land of the dead and the journey of the dead to that place. Hardly any ritual meaning is given to birth. The Polynesians, on the other hand, have elaborate birth rituals and place much less emphasis on funerary rites.

Almost all primitive cultures pay attention to puberty and marriage rituals, although there is a general tendency to pay more attention to the puberty rites of males than of females. Because puberty and marriage symbolize the fact that children are acquiring adult roles, most primitive cultures consider the rituals surrounding these events very important. Puberty rituals are often accompanied with ceremonial circumcision or some other operation on the male genitals. Female circumcision is less common, although it occurs in several cultures. Female puberty rites are more often related to the commencement of the menstrual cycle in young girls.

In addition to these life-cycle rituals, rituals are associated with the beginning of the new year and with planting and harvest times in agricultural societies. Numerous other rituals are found in hunting-and-gathering societies; these are supposed to increase the game and to give the hunter greater prowess.

Another class of rituals is related to occasional events, such as war, droughts, catastrophes, or extraordinary events. Rituals performed at such times are usually intended to appease supernatural forces or divine beings who might be the cause of the event, or to discover what divine power is causing the event and why.

Rituals are highly structured actions. Each person or class of persons has particular stylized roles to play in them. While some rituals call for communal participation, others are restricted by sex, age, and type of activity. Thus initiation rites for males and females are separate, and only hunters participate in hunting rituals. There are also rituals limited to warriors, blacksmiths, magicians, and diviners. Among the Dogon of the western Sudan, the ritual system integrates life-cycle rituals with vocational cults; these in turn are related to a complex cosmological myth.

Divine Beings

Divine beings are usually known through the mode of their manifestation. Creator-gods are usually deities of the sky. The sky as a primordial expression of transcendence is one of the exemplary forms of sacred power. Deities of the sky are often considered to possess an ultimate power.

The apparent similarity in form between the supreme sky deities of primitive cultures and the single godheads of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism has led some Western students of religion to speak of a "primitive monotheism." By this they were suggesting a devolution of religion rather than the more rationalistic evolution of religion from polytheism, through henotheism (the presence of several gods, but with one dominant), to monotheism. The most avid proponent of the primitive monotheism was Wilhelm Schmidt, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest who was also an ethnologist. In his view the original sacred form was a creator-god of the sky. This original and first revelation of deity was lost or obscured by the attention evoked by other lesser sacred beings, and throughout the history of human culture this original creator-sky-god has been rediscovered or remembered in the monotheistic religions. This position has been largely rejected by contemporary scholars.

Allied to and existing within the same sphere as the sky-god are the manifestations of divine presence in the sun and the moon. The symbolism of the sun, while sharing the transcendent power of the sky, is more intimately related to the destiny of the human community and to the revelation of the rational power necessary to order the world. Sun-deities are creators by virtue of their growth-producing powers, whereas the sky-god creators often create ex nihilo ("out of nothing"); they do not require human agency in their creative capacities, and in many instances they withdraw and have little to do with humankind.

The manifestation and presence of the deity in the moon is different from that of the sun. Moon-deities are associated with a more rhythmic structure; they wax and wane, seem more vulnerable and more capable of loss and gain. Moon-deities are often female in form and associated with feminine characteristics. The moon-goddess is the revelation of the vulnerability and fragility of life, and unlike solar gods, her destiny is not the historical destiny of powerful rulers and empires, but the destiny of the human life cycle of birth, life, and death. Other places where deities show themselves are in the natural forms of water, vegetation, agriculture, stones, human sexuality, and so on.

The pattern of deities, of course, varies markedly among different types of societies. Hunting-and-gathering cultures, for example, not only have language and rituals related to hunting, but also often have a Lord, Master, or Mistress of Animals - a divine being who not only created the world of humans and animals but who also cares for, protects, and supplies the animals to the hunters. Religious cultures of this kind still exist among the Mbuti pygmies, the San of the Kalahari desert in Africa, Australian Aborigines, and Eskimo.

A somewhat more complex religious culture is found in early agricultural societies. It is commonly accepted that the earliest form of agriculture was both a feminine rite and a female right. This means that the gift and power of agriculture provided a means by which the sacredness of the world could be expressed in the femininity of the human species. Agricultural rituals became a powerful symbolic language that spoke of gestation, birth, nurture, and death. This development does not imply an early matriarchy nor the dominance of society by females. In agricultural societies males dominate in the conventional sense of the term, but the power of women is nevertheless potent and real.

In some cultures of West Africa three layers of cultural religious meaning may be discerned. One refers to an earlier agriculture, in which the feminine symbolism and power predominated. In the second the theft of the ritual and rights of agriculture is portrayed in masculine symbolism and language. By contrast, the equal cooperation of masculine and feminine in the power and meaning of cultural life is symbolized in the third level. In present cultures of this area the older layer can be seen in the Queen Mother, who is "owner of the land"; the second layer in the kingship system; and the third layer in the myths associated with egg symbolism, which on the cosmological level are a means of transmuting sexual tensions into practical harmonies.

Sacred Personages

Just as sacredness tends to be localized in the natural forms of the world in primitive religious cultures, sacred meaning is also defined by specific kinds of persons. On the one hand, sacredness may be located in and defined by office and status in a society. In such cases the role and function of the chief or king carries a sacred meaning because it is seen as an imitation of a divine model, which is generally narrated in a cultural myth; it may also be thought to possess divine power. Offices and functions of this kind are usually hereditary and are not dependent on any specific or unique personality structure in the individual.

On the other hand, forms of individual sacredness exist that do depend on specific types of personality structures and the calling to a particular religious vocation. Persons such as shamans fall into this category. Shamans are recruited from among young persons who tend to exhibit particular psychological traits that indicate their openness to a more profound and complex world of sacred meanings than is available to the society at large. Once chosen, shamans undergo a special shamanistic initiation and are taught by older shamans the peculiar forms of healing and behavior that identify their sacred work. Given the nature of their sacred work, they must undergo long periods of training before they are capable practitioners of the sacred and healing arts. The same is true of medicine men and diviners, although these often inherit their status.

Each person in a primitive society may also bear an ordinary form of sacred meaning. Such meaning can be discerned in the elements of the person's psychological structure. For example, among the Ashanti of Ghana, an individual's blood is said to be derived from the goddess of the earth through that individual's mother, an individual's destiny from the high-god, and personality and temperament from the tutelary deity of the individual's father. On the cosmological level of myths and rituals all of these divine forms have a primordial meaning that acquires individual and existential significance when it is expressed in persons.


Underlying all the forms, functions, rituals, personages, and symbols in primitive religion is the distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred defines the world of reality, which is the basis for all meaningful forms and behaviors in the society. The profane is the opposite of the sacred. Although it has a mode of existence and a quasi-reality, reality is not based on a divine model, nor does it serve as an ordering principle for activities or meanings. For example, the manner in which a primitive village is laid out in space imitates a divine model and thus participates in sacred reality. The space outside of the organized space of the village is considered profane space, because it is not ordered and therefore does not participate in the meaning imparted by the divine model.

This characteristic distinction between the sacred and the profane is present at almost every level of primitive society. The tendency to perceive reality in the terms provided by the sacred marks a fundamental difference between primitive and modern Western societies, where this distinction has been destroyed. The openness to the world as a sacred reality is probably the most pervasive and common meaning in all forms of primitive religion and is present in definitions of time, space, behaviors, and activities.

The sacred is able to serve as a principle of order because it possesses the power to order. The power of the sacred is both positive and negative. It is necessary to have the proper regard for the sacred; it must be approached and dealt with in very specific ways.

A kind of ritual behavior defines the proper mode of contact with the sacred. Failure to act properly with respect to the sacred opens the door to the negative experience and effects of sacred power. The specific term for this negative power among the Melanesians is taboo. This word has become a general term in Western languages expressing the range of meanings implied by the force and effects of a power that is both negative and positive and that attracts as well as repels.


Animism is the belief that a spirit or divinity resides within every object, controlling its existence and influencing human life and events in the natural world. Animistic religious beliefs are widespread among primitive societies, particularly among those in which many different spiritual beings are believed to control different aspects of the natural and social environment.

The British anthropologist Sir Edward B. Tylor developed the concept of animism in the late 19th century. Tylor regarded animism as the most primitive stage in the evolution of religion. He suggested that the contemplation of dreams and trances and the observation of death led primitive peoples to conceive of the soul and of human spirits, and that these spiritual conceptions were then projected onto the natural world. Although he developed no fixed evolutionary sequence, Tylor postulated that a belief in animism led to the definition of more generalized deities and, eventually, to the worship of a single god. This evolutionary view of religion has been rejected by many 20th-century anthropologists, who tend to stress the collective, social aspects of primitive religion.


Polytheism is the belief in and worship of many gods. It contrasts with monotheism, belief in one god, and pantheism, identification of God with the universe. In polytheism the gods are personified, distinguished by functions, related to one another in a cosmic family, and the subjects of myths and legends. The gods often, if not always, seem in many ways remarkably human, even to the extent of having jealousies and arguments. Worship in polytheistic societies often seems focussed on appeasing the gods - that is, in keeping them happy enough not to bother people.

The most well known polytheistic system is that which we know from the Greeks and later the Romans. The Roman system is derived from the Greek and a one to one correspondence can be made between Roman and Greek gods. To a large extent, the same can be said about the Roman and later Norse mythologies, or the Mesopotamian (first Sumerian, then Akkadian) and later Greek mythologies.


Atheism, from the Greek a ("without") and theos ("deity"), commonly and loosely refers to the theoretical or practical denial of the existence of a deity. The concrete meaning of atheism has varied considerably in history: even the earliest Christians were labeled "atheists" because they denied the existence of the Roman deities. In Western culture, where monotheism has been the dominant mode of religious belief, atheism has generally referred to the denial of the existence of a transcendent, perfect, personal creator of the universe. To be an atheist need not mean that one is nonreligious, for there are "high" religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, that do not postulate the existence of a supernatural being. Atheism should be distinguished from Agnosticism, which means that one does not know whether or not a deity exists.

Monotheism has been so basic to and compounded with Western moral and philosophical beliefs as well as political institutions that until recently atheism has been widely believed to be both immoral and dangerous to society. Plato not only viewed atheism as irrational but argued that certain atheists deserved the death penalty. When Christianity finally became the dominant religion in the West, atheism and heresy were thought to be worthy of exile or death because, as Thomas Aquinas argued, it was a much more serious matter to corrupt the soul than to damage the body. Atheism was also dangerous to the political authority of Western monarchies that claimed to rest upon divine right. Even during the Enlightenment when the divine right of kings was challenged and religious toleration defended, John Locke, a staunch advocate of toleration, denied free speech to atheists on the grounds that they undermined and destroyed religion. It was not until 1869 that atheists were permitted to give evidence in an English court of law, largely as a result of the efforts of Charles Bradlaugh, who for a long time had not been permitted to take his seat in the House of Commons because of his beliefs.

The believability of atheism seems directly proportionate to the growth of the sciences and the emergence of humanism since the Renaissance. In the 19th century the biological sciences seemed to make theological explanations of the origins of the universe and of the emergence of humankind unnecessary. Particularly important were the writings of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, which established that attempts to prove the existence of God from the world order were invalid. In the mid-19th century, explicitly atheistic and humanistic systems of philosophy appeared. Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche were not only atheists but also militant critics of religion generally and of Christianity particularly. In the 20th century there have been influential atheistic thinkers who were Marxists, existentialists, Freudians, and logical positivists, although one may be any of these and not necessarily also an atheist.

Modern philosophical atheism is based on both theoretical and practical reasons. Theoretically, atheists argue either that there are no good arguments for believing in the existence of a personal deity, whether this deity be conceived of anthropomorphically or metaphysically, or that the statement God exists is incoherent or meaningless. The last type of logical criticism of theism is characteristic of logical positivism and analytic and linguistic philosophy. Practically, some atheists have argued, as did Nietzsche, that belief in a supernatural and supreme being requires a devaluation of this life; or, as Freud did, that the belief is an expression of infantile helplessness.


Agnosticism is the philosophical position that it is impossible to know about the nature or existence of God. The term was coined in 1869 by Thomas H. Huxley from the Greek agnostos ("unknowable") to refer to his own conviction that knowledge is impossible on many matters covered by religious doctrines. Agnosticism is therefore concerned with questions of epistemology, the examination of human knowledge; it considers valid only knowledge that comes from ordinary and immediate experience. Agnosticism is distinct from atheism on the one hand and skepticism on the other. Atheists reject belief in the existence of God. Skeptics hold the strong suspicion that God does not exist. Agnostics refuse to make such judgments.

The agnostic position is as old as philosophy and can be traced to the pre-Socratics and to the skeptics of ancient Greece. In modern times, agnosticism became prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly because of the growing mass of scientific data that seemed to contradict the biblical position and because of the disagreement of theologians and church authorities over the use of textual and historical criticism in the interpretation of the Bible. Many of the best-known philosophers have been agnostics. Among them are Auguste Comte, William James, Immanuel Kant, George Santayana, and Herbert Spencer.