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READ: Overview of Belief Systems

The many belief systems in our world all stem from a fundamental human ability, and desire, to pursue the big questions. Here’s a look at when we started asking ourselves who we are.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is a belief system? How is it not the same as a religion?
  2. What are animistic belief systems?
  3. How did the development of the state, hierarchies, and specialization contribute to the development of religions?
  4. What does it mean to state that a religion is portable?
  5. What does it mean to state that a religion is universal?
  6. How did systems of belief change people’s behaviors?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How would you explain a belief system as a network? How would you explain a belief system as a community? What is the value of looking at belief systems through both frames?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Overview of Belief Systems

Close up image of a person’s hand holding a panel with written symbols on it
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor and Bob Bain
The many belief systems in our world all stem from a fundamental human ability, and desire, to pursue the big questions. Here’s a look at when we started asking ourselves who we are.

Introduction – The big questions

Why are we here? Do we have a creator? What happens when we die? What's the meaning of life? Please answer clearly and concisely as your final grade depends on it.
Okay not really, but humans have been asking these big questions, no matter where or when we've lived, for thousands of years. Somehow we still don't have definitive answers. But people do believe in a number of different explanations. Some believe in an all-knowing, all-seeing god or many gods. Others believe in a spiritual connection that we share as humans and with the Earth. Historians call these diverse ways of thinking "belief systems" or "systems of belief". One of the common threads is that all of these belief systems seem to be trying to answer these "big" questions about life's meaning and our place in the universe.
However, it's important not to equate "systems of belief" precisely with religious beliefs or with religious organizations, sacred books, special buildings (such as temples), and holy practices. Of course, these are all important parts of human history. Many religious people—including most Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians and many Buddhists—consider their beliefs, rituals, and practices as sacred because they come from God (or gods). But many other people have participated in systems of belief without referring to the divine, as you will see in your studies of Confucian China or Ancient Greek philosophies. Throughout human history, a wide variety of belief systems and experiences have sprung from our big questions.
These diverse systems of belief and rituals have evolved over time. They shaped—and were shaped by—the changes in our networks of interaction, in our communities, and in our collective understanding of the world. Here's an overview of some of these changes.

The human spirit – Our earliest belief systems

The creation of belief systems probably begins with humanity itself. Thousands of years ago, primates evolved into consciously thinking human beings in what we call a cognitive revolution. The distinct human ability to think abstractly and communicate about things beyond the "here and now" may have led to the creation of a spiritual, and eventually, religious world.
The earliest systems of belief imagined a spirit world, often invisible, that existed alongside the physical world of human communities. For example, some foraging communities may have created ritual songs or dances or staged mock hunts to please the spirits in the natural world. Some spirits were attached to certain people, families, places, or objects, while others controlled certain aspects of life. There was an incredible amount of diversity across societies. These spirits weren't gods, and these belief systems were not religions—at least not in the sense of today's organized religions. Instead, the whole of the natural world was a part of this spiritual world, which is often referred to as animism.
A photo of a page of one of Shakespeare’s works. The illustration shows a person walking up stone stairs; behind them, a fairy causes mischief by knocking over pots and bowls
In this page from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck, a fairy from the spirit world, makes trouble in our world. Shakespeare’s imaginative setting is based on a variety of actual beliefs from long before his time.
In animistic communities, spiritual beings could be benevolent (nice) or mischievous (naughty) or downright evil. People dealt with the spirits according to these qualities. Sometimes specific rituals such as dances or sacrifices were performed to appease the spirits or ask for aid, or to get answers. At other times a diviner (someone who received messages from the spirit world) or a shaman (someone who entered a trance-like state to visit the spirit world) communicated with the spirit to achieve a desired result. Many early belief systems also sought to contact ancestors who had passed into the spirit world. Everything was connected from humans to nature to spirits—such as ghosts, fairies, monsters, and demons. Humans asked these spirits for protection and well-being amid the harsh realities of Earth-bound life. In this way, belief systems provided comfort for people in a frightening, uncertain world. Animism served our ancestors well. It offered people meaningful connections to the world they inhabited and united communities through common rituals and beliefs. It remains a common system of belief among many people today. Some historians, such as John and William McNeil, think that these animistic systems of belief deserve our respect since "[n]o worldview has lasted nearly so long nor explained so much to so many so convincingly" (The Human Web, 18).
A photo of a slab of bone inscribed with language symbols
Oracle bone from Shang dynasty China, c. 1600-1046 BCE. A diviner carves a question into the bone to ask if anything bad will happen in the next 10 days. The Shang ruler wrote that he asked the diviner’s question to an ancestor in a worship ritual. By Editor at Large, CC BY-SA 2.5.
A picture of a sculpture of a Pharoah made of a marbled stone. The face is detailed and the sculpture wears a headdress.
Sahure, pharaoh (divine king) of Ancient Egypt, who reigned from 2490 to 2477 BCE. By Keith Schengili-Roberts, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Faith communities – Organized systems of belief in early societies

As communities became larger and more structured, some belief systems changed. This probably had a lot to do with the development of hierarchies brought on by early farming societies. As these societies were formed and farming created food surpluses, specialization of labor and social hierarchies developed. Certain members of society became specialists such as priests and priestesses who communicated with gods and goddesses. Additionally, as religion became more structured, it gave rulers a way to establish common practices and beliefs that bound together everyone living in the state. The increased organization of religion gave rulers more control over their subjects, especially when the ruler claimed to be a priest-king or divine (god-like). These more structured beliefs systems usually had a pantheon (collection of gods and goddesses) with a main or supreme deity (god or goddess) at the top. They also had creation stories about how the world and humans originated. As exchange networks grew and empires began conquering new territories, these religions and their stories began to spread. Eventually, belief systems began to change and some local community spirits and rituals were incorporated into the wider pantheon of deities and religious practices.

God on the go – Portable and universal systems of beliefs and ideas

Another major change in our systems of beliefs and ideas began in some regions around 3,000 years ago as networks and connections among Afro-Eurasian peoples increased. Many started to transform their specific, local belief systems to make them more portable. The ideas were also more universal, in that they were open to people outside their local community.
German philosopher Karl Jaspers was among the first to argue that these portable and universal systems of belief were different from those that came before in three important ways. First, unlike previous belief systems, these did not depend on local spirits, rituals, or ideas tied to a specific place. As we have seen, in those older systems, worshippers had to be close to the sacred place—such as a river or shrine or temple—to be able to perform the rituals or to communicate with a spirit or god. These new systems were "portable" in that they could be transported to different regions. They could perform the rituals and communicate with the spirits, gods, and goddesses just about anywhere. A collection of scriptures or sacred writings helped make the belief systems transportable to new places. These texts helped ensure that new and existing believers would be able to perform the rituals as intended by whoever wrote them down. It was also a way to ensure they were sincere in their beliefs and devotion to the faith.
Second, these new systems of belief were accessible to people beyond the local or original community of believers. We call these systems "universal" because they could be practiced by anyone willing to learn and accept the required beliefs, ideas, and rituals.
Finally, along with belief and ritual these systems inspired a change in behavior. In one way or another, the new systems—such as Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Daoism, and Zoroastrianism, among others—encouraged people to be selfless, self-disciplined, self-aware, and engage in cooperative behavior toward other people. Many of these portable, universal systems of belief established compassion, charity, respect for life, and care for children as important and necessary behaviors. Of course, the earlier non-portable, non-universal belief systems may have often called for these qualities as well. But the new systems made these characteristics part of their sacred scriptures, rituals, and guided how people lived their daily lives.
These portable and universal systems of belief affected and were affected by the expanding networks, increasing populations, and more complex societies such as empires. Over time, some of these systems of beliefs or ideas became popular, or even became the dominant system among most people. Historians refer to these portable faiths as "world religions" or universal belief systems.
Picture of a book, held open in a museum display case, featuring Arabic script
Page from an eleventh-century CE Quran from North Africa, housed in the British Museum. By LordHarris, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Conclusion

As ideas have continued to expand across global networks into new areas, new followers join these world religion communities every day. But localized belief systems still exist, including more spiritual or animistic practices. In addition, people have blended many of these belief systems throughout history in a process called syncretism. And even after thousands of years of human history and the formation of belief systems, most of these religious and spiritual systems of belief are still trying to answer those same big questions we threw at you at the start of this article:
  • Why are we here?
  • What's our place in the universe?
  • What's the meaning of life?
Author bios
Bob Bain is associate professor in the School of Education and in the Departments of History and Museum Studies at the University of Michigan. He also is the director of U-M’s World History and Literature Initiative and the faculty lead on the Big History Project. Before coming to the U-M in 1998, he taught high school history and social studies for 26 years. Bain’s research centers on teaching and learning history and the social sciences in the classroom, on-line, in museums, and at home.
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, world history, and AP US government and politics for the past 10 years at the high school level. In addition, Bridgette has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course world history and US history curricula.

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