Religious ideas have existed since prehistoric times, when our ancestors began to bury their dead with precious items - a sign they believed in an afterlife. Since then, hundreds of religions have developed, many growing from older ones. Nearly all religions teach belief in life after death, but not all religions involve a supernatural being such as a god or goddess.
Judaism (2000 BCE)
The first major religion based on a single god develops among the Hebrews, a group of semi-nomadic farmers and herders in Israel. They record the laws laid down by God on scrolls, forming the Bible.
Hinduism (1500 BCE)
The Vedas - a collection of hymns and chants that form the oldest texts of Hinduism - are written in northwestern India. Hindus follow many gods and goddesses and believe in reincarnation after death.
Zoroastrianism (7th-6th century BCE)
In Persia (modern-day Iran), a priest named Zarathustra has a series of visions that inspire a new religion - Zoroastrianism. He teaches followers that there is a single god and an eternal battle between good and evil.
Buddhism (6th century BCE)
In eastern India, a wealthy prince named Siddhartha Gautama renounces luxury and embarks on a quest to overcome human suffering. His quest ends when he reaches nirvana (blissful enlightenment) while meditating. He becomes known as Buddha and dedicates his life to guiding others, founding the religion of Buddhism.
Jainism (6th century BCE)
In northern India, a wandering holy man named Mahavira establishes Jainism. Followers of the faith, which has no god, reject worldly pleasures and lead nonviolent, vegetarian lives. They believe in an endless cycle of reincarnation.
Confucianism (6th-5th century BCE)
The teachings of Confucius, a Chinese scholar and philosopher, are compiled in five books. Confucianism is a way of life based on values such as kindness and respect for family. Unlike most other religions, it is not based on supernatural beliefs.
Daoism (4th century BCE)
Chinese philosopher Laozi writes the Dao de jing, the main book followed by Daoists. Daoists believe there is an invisible force - the Dao - running through the Universe and controlling it. Followers try to live in harmony with this natural force and lead peaceful, unselfish lives.
Christianity (1st century CE)
In Judea (modern-day Israel), the Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth is executed by the Roman government, who see him as a threat. His teachings, which emphasize forgiveness and peace, give rise to the religion of Christianity. It will eventually spread to become the world’s biggest religion.
Islam (7th century)
An Arab merchant, Muhammad, establishes the religion of Islam after an angel appears to him in a series of visions, reciting the word of God. The angel’s commandments are
recorded in the Qur’an, the holy book that all Muslims follow.
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, has a mystical experience after bathing in a river in northwestern India. He renounces Hinduism and begins teaching a new faith that combines elements of Hinduism and Islam. Sikhs believe in a single god and reincarnation after death.
Mirza Husayn-Ali, a nobleman in Persia (modern-day Iran), has a religious revelation that inspires a vast body of religious writings, creating the main scriptures of the Baha’i faith. Baha’is believe in the unity of all religions and the equality of all people, whatever their nationality or faith.
Shinto becomes the state religion of Japan. Followers of the ancient religion, which is thousands of years old, worship invisible spirits at shrines, believing them to bring good luck. Shinto spirits are everywhere, and shrines can be natural features such as rocks, trees, or mountains.
Cao Dai (1926)
Ngo Van Chieu, a government official in Vietnam, creates the religion of Cao Dai after being contacted by a spirit during a seance. Cao Dai combines aspects of Christianity and Buddhism and promotes peace, tolerance, and vegetarianism.