This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What is the origin of religion? What was the nature of our ancestors’ first beliefs about the universe?
The origin of religion is animism, the belief that every animate and inanimate thing has thoughts and feelings and can communicate with people. From the origin of animism developed polytheism and monotheism.
We’ll cover the origin of religion, animism, and how it influenced the subsequent history of religion.
The Origin of Religion: Animism
Most experts agree that early foragers were animists rather than theists.
- Animism: The belief that every animate and inanimate thing has thoughts and feelings and can communicate with people. This belief system is non-hierarchical—all beings are equal.
- Theism: The belief in a god or gods that are above us in status and create the universal order of our world. This belief system is hierarchical—divine beings outrank non-divine beings.
Our forager ancestors probably believed that all animate things (mice, deer, and spirits) and inanimate things (rocks, rivers, and trees) had feelings and desires. They also had the capability to reward or punish Sapiens for their actions. This was the origin of religion.
Because animism is non-hierarchical, there were no walls separating people from the rest of the natural world. People were not of a higher status than other animals, plants, spirits, and inanimate objects. Forager Sapiens didn’t believe that spirits, trees, and animals existed to serve or please them. According to these religions, humans must consider the feelings and desires of rocks and mountains as well as plants and other animals.
Animism doesn’t refer to a particular religion. Within this general concept, there were probably many religions practiced and beliefs believed by foragers. Animism is the origin of religion but not a particular religion.
These religions were local rather than universal. Hunter-gatherers typically didn’t travel far in their lifetimes, so they shaped their religion around their own particular territories. This meant that the religion of one forager band in the Ganges Valley might forbid the cutting down of a fig tree to keep the tree’s spirit from exacting revenge. The religion of a forager band in the Indus Valley might forbid the hunting of white-tailed foxes because once a white-tailed fox had led the band to an area abundant with obsidian.
Because they weren’t universal, these religions weren’t missionary, meaning they didn’t spread. There was no reason for the Indus band to try to convince the people in the Ganges band not to hunt white-tailed foxes—the Ganges band didn’t have any stories or experiences related to the fox, and might not even have foxes in the area. The origin of religion was extremely local and individualized.
The Rise of Polytheism
After these origins of religion came polytheism. The Agricultural Revolution led to a religious revolution. In previous, animistic belief systems, man was no better than other animals, plants, and geographical features. For instance, man didn’t consider himself superior to a sheep just because he hunted sheep, just as he wouldn’t consider himself inferior to tigers just because they hunted him.
But when hunter-gatherers became farmers, suddenly man had dominion. Rather than equals in the spiritual realm, sheep and grains became objects farmers owned and protected jealously. Man and his concerns became the center of religious belief.
While man suddenly had more control over the animal and plant kingdoms than he’d ever had before, his control wasn’t complete. He still had to contend with drought, epidemics, and sickly lambs. He could no longer pray and make offerings to the ewe to have healthy lambs, as he could have in an animate religion, because the ewe was now his property and theoretically under his control. You don’t pray to something less powerful than you are. Man had to find someone or something else to worship, someone to control the things he couldn’t.
Gods originated as a way to solve this problem. The job of gods was to mediate between humans and the rest of the natural world, over which man now wanted control. Humans worshipped gods in return for dominance over plants and animals.
As empires and trade networks grew, the worlds of individuals got larger. Rather than appealing to a few local gods, people now needed a pantheon that could address all the new needs of an expanded world. This was the origination of polytheism, the belief in many gods. Gods usually had distinct personalities and functions. For example, there was a goddess to address infertility, a god to make it rain, and a god to bring luck in war.
Although polytheism came to dominate the religious landscape, animism, the origin of religion, didn’t disappear. As we’ll see, legacies of animistic belief remain today. What did disappear was the belief that humans were just one among many beings with souls. Polytheism brought man center stage and changed the way we viewed ourselves and our world.
Over time, some polytheistic worshippers became particularly fond of one deity over the others and eventually started worshipping only that deity. This was the origin of monotheistic religions.
Christianity had growing power. It was the origin of missionary religions. Christians believed that their incarnated supreme power had died on the cross for the sins of all humans, making this a religion applicable to everyone. Paul of Tarsus, one of the first leaders of what was then a Jewish sect, believed everyone should know the gospel, the good news that Jesus had died for their salvation. So Christianity was both universal and missionary, meeting the requirements of a revolution-inciting religion.
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- How Sapiens outlived and outlasted the 8+ other human-like species on Earth
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- What the future of humanity might look like