Featured Image Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari

What is History 6: Religion

In Books, The rest by tony1 Comment

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  2 October 2017

My what is history series somewhat naively perhaps looks at history from the broad perspective of what processes an intelligent naked ape might go through to develop civilisation.

From that perspective the study of human history should also consider the external forces, including geography, environment, disease and natural disasters that have shaped the development of humanity. At the present time climate change makes this approach both pertinent and urgent.

The approach is not meant to replace mainstream histories, merely in the new era of big data, storage and retrieval to add to them. And, to perhaps provide a different flavour to the study of humanity.

The articles in the What is History? series are: Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns, 3 The Medieval Mind, 4 Love,  5  EH Carr Historians & their facts, 6  Religion, 7 EH Carr Causation in History, 8 EH Carr History as Progress, 9 Guns, Germs and Steel: Overview, 10 Polynesia A Natural Experiment of History, 11 World Economic History, 12 References from Guns, Germs and Steel and 13 World History and Big History with other articles to come.

What is History 6: The Development or Evolution of Religion


Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A brief history of humankind Harper 2014 (first published in Hebrew in 2011).

I feel guilty delving into Harari before embarking on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel 1997 a much more profound book and one I have spent an enormous amount of time with, by reading and delving into Diamond’s sources. Harari himself acknowledges Diamond. He says:

Special thanks to Jared Diamond, who taught me to see the big picture.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind is a brave and ambitious enterprise, but he doesn’t quite carry it off. In some ways, he reminds me of Marvin Harris a popularising anthropologist who wrote Cannibals and Kings in 1977, which I also like immensely. For all his faults, Harari takes us on a great journey.

Sapiens has two great strengths that I want to utilise. As such, it forms an introduction to some of the things I want to say about Diamond’s seminal analysis. Harari’s book is more straightforward in its message than Diamond.

Sapiens’ strengths are:

  1. Harari approaches human history from the perspective of biology, and does not ignore or deny the natural and obvious consequences of the rise of an intelligent ape.
  2. Harari is deliberately provocative, by trying to see outside the box of conventional history and bringing in biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and other disciplines as needed.

He may not always be right but he is aiming at another perspective to make us think about ourselves and history in a more multi-disciplinary way. Such an approach challenges conventional wisdom and dogmas that prevent us thinking openly about ourselves as a species.

What better person to use for an overview of the evolution or history of religion?


Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens French

Sapiens French

Professor Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in history from Oxford and now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specialising in world history. The book has been translated into 45 languages (Wikipedia). Professional reviews are mixed, some hostile. Goodreads reviews also fall into two camps. I agree in part with many of them but the two below summarise my thinking.

Galen Strawson in a review in The Guardian, 11 Sep 2014 says:

Much of Sapiens is extremely interesting, and it is often well expressed. As one reads on, however, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.

Glyn Davis in The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Nov 2014 says:

Whatever the flaws, Sapiens is compelling. There are unexpected takes on conventional wisdom, astonishing compression to produce impressive synthesis and many tough judgments about our species worth reflection. The prose is tight and clear, the range impressive, the reach across aeons and nations in places brilliant. Others will tell the story differently, but few with such skill.

Religion is such a contentious subject. Many adherents do not believe that religion should be discussed as history. Some would kill you for it. Let’s try to dissect Harari’s views, whilst treating them with a grain of salt.


Harari says that while today religion is thought of as a source of disunity:

Yet, in fact religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.

It is unclear here, whether Harari means the great religions that emerged after the development of empires or all religion. It probably doesn’t matter which: one has to accept some ambiguity when generalising.

He continues that religion’s unifying power comes about through two criteria:

  1. Religions hold that there is a superhuman order.
  2. Based on this superhuman order, religion establishes norms and values that it considers binding.

Up to this point, I think he is talking about all religion including animism. The next step I think covers the widespread organised religion that legitimises kings, empires and elites.

He introduces two more conditions:

  1. Religion must espouse a universal superhuman order that applies everywhere.
  2. Religion must insist on spreading the belief to everyone.

In other words, he says, such religions must be universal and missionary. He is trying to move beyond the local and within tribe or group religion to what have sometimes been called ‘warrior’ religions. I am getting outside Harari here, but trying to make sense of what he espouses. The Jewish religion, for example, always says of itself that it is only a within group religion and does not try to convert outsiders. Similarly, Hinduism today, is not missionary. Although it must once have encouraged limited spread, as a version is still found in Bali and was once found in Cambodia.

Harari himself mentions Buddhism and Islam as fitting the two conditions, though he also implies Christianity. Buddhism was never a warrior religion though it was missionary.

Earlier Religions


Animism was the religion practiced by hunter-gatherers. It occurs today in the few tribal groups that still exist, and side by side with or within other major religions. Perhaps the best known example in a modern society is Shinto in Japan, which happily sits separate from but beside Buddhism. Animism and animist practices also sit within all major religions either as a parallel practice by certain groups or in rituals or practices incorporated within the major religion. For example, pagan practices in Christianity.

Harari says:

When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts.

He should have also mentioned inanimate objects.

Such religions tended to be very local in outlook and to emphasise the unique features of specific locations…


The agricultural revolution seems to have been accompanied by a religious revolution.

Harari continues that moving from hunting to pasturing sheep, meant that farmers now owned and manipulated plants and animals.

Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.

[G]ods gained importance because they offered a solution to this problem. Hence fertility gods, sky gods, rain gods and medicine gods began to take centre stage.


Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens Czech

Sapiens Czech

As villages became larger and turned into city states and small kingdoms the panoply of gods needed also grew larger. Harari mentions that animism didn’t entirely disappear. He also says that in Polytheism a single over-riding god was not unheard of, but that such a god was not concerned with the mundane needs of humans. It was the little gods that took care of these things, in ways reminiscent of animism.

Harari says:

Two thousand years of monotheistic brain washing have caused most Westerners to see polytheism as ignorant and childish idolatry…


Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or law governing the entire universe.

However amongst polytheistic gods the supreme god is usually too distant to attract direct worship, which is left to the smaller gods.

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests and biases, and is therefore unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans.

Harari also says:

The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance, because other gods can readily be incorporated into a polytheistic pantheon.

He contrasts this with Christianity by saying of the Romans (polytheists):

In … 300 years …. Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.

This is a slight over-simplification but fundamentally true. Voltaire was much more savage in a dream of wandering amongst the bones of those slaughtered in history and realising that by far the largest pile was of those killed by Christians in the name of Christianity. When he discovers Christ wandering at the base of the pile he initially accuses him of being a hypocrite, but Christ answers simply about following the religion of his Jewish forebears. Voltaire declaims: like you Christ I am no Christian!


The first recorded example of monotheism was under the rule of Pharaoh Akhenaten c. 350 BCE with the God Aten. Aten, previously a minor deity, was elevated to the supreme power ruling the universe. The Egyptians reverted to polytheism immediately after the death of the Pharaoh.

The next step though there were other examples was in the tiny Jewish nation of Israel. The big breakthrough for the Jewish God came with Christianity and later Islam. Both eschewed idolatry though it didn’t take that well in Christianity.

Let’s take a brief look at major religions. Buddhism and Confucianism began late 6th century BCE, but Buddhism didn’t really get going until about 250 BCE, Zoroastrianism was first recorded in 450 BCE (although it was probably a thousand years older), Christianity began getting organised around 50 AD, Islam around 630 AD. Hinduism and Judaism were much earlier.

However, it is reasonable to say that most of the world’s major religions began in about a thousand year period. Similarly, defensive walls first appeared in the proto-city of Jericho in the 8th millennium BCE, but didn’t become common until after Uruk, Mesopotamia in 3000 BCE.

Harari states:

Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. …

Over the last two millennia, monotheists repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.

It worked.

Problems with Monotheism

Minor Gods

Harari says that there has always been a chasm between theological theories and historical realities:

Most people have found it difficult to digest the monotheist idea fully … the supreme power is too distant and alien for their mundane needs. …

The monotheist religions expelled the gods through the front door with a lot of fanfare, only to take them back in through the side window. …

The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods. Often they were these very same gods in disguise.

Mariolatry (the cult of Mary) in the Catholic Church performs a similar role, as do the graven images. Islam and other Christian sects are more restrained on images.

Schisms and Extinction

All major religions have schisms. However, in Christianity and Islam schisms have been the major source of violence. Losing parties have often been extinguished, particularly within Christianity.

Islam itself was nearly extirpated by the Mongols in the 13th Century. The Christian west was also on the Mongol radar but Christianity didn’t realise the peril. The Zoroastrians were virtually extinguished under Islam. The Aztec and Inca religions were wiped-out by the conquistadors and Spanish Catholicism.

Good and Evil

Back to Harari, who says polytheism gave birth not only to monotheism but also to dualistic religions:

Dualistic religions espouse the existence of two opposing powers: good and evil. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes evil is an independent power…

Dualism is a very attractive world view because it has a short and simple answer to the famous Problem of Evil, one of the fundamental concerns of human thought.

…Monotheists have to practice intellectual gymnastics to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good God allows so much suffering in the world.

Dualism Harari says has its own drawbacks in that it is unnerved by order, whereas one God explains order but is mystified by evil. However, as with saints (or prophets) some dualism lingers in monotheism because of these problems (despite the violent stamping out of the Manichaeism as a heresy within Christianity). Muslims and Jews manage to believe in an omnipotent God and an independent Devil.

The Law of Nature

Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens Bulgarian

Sapiens Bulgarian

You may have already noticed some overlaps and contradictions in this discussion of religion. For example, Judaism, which Harari says for most of its existence has not been missionary, is perhaps an example of local monotheism, as was Egypt briefly under Akhenaten.

Similarly, Hinduism a major polytheist religion has not tended to be expansionist, whereas others in history have been though often not for religious reasons. Some religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam, give strong guidance on how life ought to be lived on a daily basis, whereas others don’t.

Other religions do not seem to be about god at all, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism and Confucianism in China are often not taken as religions at all. (Harari mentions three of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, which I don’t consider to be religions.)

Buddhism and Jainism both have small god-like beings, like Christian saints, and icons or idols. The Buddha would not have approved of golden statues or stupas. In Jainism the perfected soul and in Buddhism nirvana are perhaps too remote for most adherents, who need smaller tasks to attain merit. As does the corrupt Buddhist Magistrate U Po Kyin, who plans to redeem his life and cleanse his sins by building pagodas in George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days.

Buddhism is the most widely practiced and known law of nature religion. In Buddhism life is suffering and dissatisfaction is brought about by cravings. Achieving nirvana is about liberating oneself from suffering. This may or may not occur over many lives (reincarnation).

The worship of man

Harari unfortunately continues his analysis of natural law religion by looking at the twentieth century ideologies of liberalism, Communism, capitalism and Nazism (his words) as natural law religions. I don’t disagree with much of his content but think calling these things natural law religions is drawing a long bow that is unsustainable, as is his calling Greek philosophies religion as well.

Despite this, I think he has provided a reasonable overview of the development of religion, which I have summarised and added to.


Within human history of a naked ape, slowly evolving intelligence, tool use, the use of fire, and quickly improving stone tool technology in the Neolithic, the idea that religion and religions grew as needed does not seem provocative or controversial. But it is!

Worse, however, is the study of the development of religions, such as Christianity as part of the study of history. The history of no religion beyond prehistory is free of blemishes, cruelty or violence, which is perhaps why the Roman Catholic Church keeps many of its archives secret.

Nevertheless, to understand the history of humanity as a species, we need to treat religion as a historical subject. And, the understanding of the history of religion does not necessarily impede faith or belief in spiritual values.


What Harari is saying about religion is not new. Many others have said the same thing in one way or another. What distinguishes Harari is that he is succinct and provides what I think is a good overview.

Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens My Copy

My Copy

I am reminded of the Epic of Gilgamesh the earliest work of literature in history. The five Sumerian poems at the beginning date from the third Ur dynasty c. 2100 BCE. Though the first incomplete surviving version dates from the 18th C BCE and the standard or complete versions from the 13th C and 10th C BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh itself is probably from a much earlier oral tradition.

What I like about the Epic of Gilgamesh, I think, is that it is the raw version of what early people in developing city states and small kingdoms thought about the large problems. How ought one to behave and live? How ought a king to behave and live? How ought one to control a great leader? What one should believe? What things were good and what things were bad?

Some of the stories from the Epic of Gilgamesh appear in the old testament of the Bible and in other religious texts. For example, the flood story. Such stories in later religious texts have been filtered and revised so much that none of the freshness of the original ideas remain.

I like to think the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing Humbaba the guardian of the Cedar Forest is an example of a thing that maybe they should not have done. It could be a symbol of awareness of environmental destruction, much of which did occur in the Fertile Crescent during this period of human development.

History needs this type of analysis to make it relevant in the twenty-first century. With big data and AI, it will be possible to analyse history from the very large to the very small perspective in a new way. To search the minutiae of original sources for undiscovered patterns. Potentially archaeology and palaeontology could benefit from the use of small robots and micro-machines.

(The previous What is History? articles have been 1 Introduction, 2 Sleep Patterns 3, The Medieval Mind, 4 Love  and 5 EH Carr Historians & their facts. Newer posts in the series are 7 EH Carr Causation in History and 8 EH Carr History as Progress.)

Key words: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, Jared Diamond, Guns Germs & Steel, Religion, history, hunter-gatherer, gods, God, Animism, Polytheism, Monotheism, agriculture, city state, empire, Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Voltaire, pagan, idolatry, Mariolatry, romans, tolerance, slaughter, Pharaoh Akhenaten, God Aten, Jewish, Judaism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Taoism, minor gods, Schisms, extinction, dualism, good and evil, perfected soul, nirvana, law of nature religions,George Orwell, Burmese Days, biology, naked ape, Neolithic,  provocative, controversial, Epic of Gilgamesh, Bible, big data, AI

Further Information

Reviews Quoted

The Guardian Review Galen Strawson 11 Sep 2014

The Sydney Morning Herald Glyn Davis 22 Nov 2014

Goodreads Reviews

Marc Gerstein and William 1 give strong negative reviews

Liad Magen and Simon Clark give strong positive reviews.

Moran explains why he liked it:

I believe I am relatively familiar with history in general, and I’m usually not very excited about reading more about it. But this book was something else.

Beautifully written and easy to read, this book just made me want to know more and more about how the author thinks the world evolved to what it is today. Revolution by revolution, religion by religion, conception by conception, things were simplified and yet still maintained valid points – and it was never boring.

The best thing about it was that it actually made me think. The author doesn’t treat you as ignorant at all – he doesn’t assume you know nothing but assume you know a lot and understand a lot, and doesn’t lecture about anything, and that attitude makes the book a pleasure to read.


Wikipedia is a reasonable starting point for the ‘isms and religions mentioned above.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also well-worth reading. Wikipedia provides an introduction.

Analysis of religion as history

Robin Lane Fox The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible 1991 is probably the most erudite analysis of Jewish and Christian input into the Bible and a wonderful example of how history can be used to analyse religion. The Unauthorised Version is a difficult and academic treatise and probably much more than the ordinary reader would want to read but it is also how serious history on religion ought to be conducted.

Stephanie West in the London Review of Books 12 March 1992 gives a good contemporary account of The Unauthorised Version.

Dialogue with Professor Harari

Dear Tony,
Thank you very much for the link, and for the thoughtful criticism. Yes, there is a lot to disagree about when it comes to the history of religion, and I certainly don’t expect everybody to agree with everything I say. I am not sure even I agree with everything I say. In most such cases, questions are more important than answers. If the book raises important questions to the awareness of readers, and readers then grapple with these questions and come up with alternative answers – I think the book has done its main job.
Dear Yuval
Thank you for your generous reply. I didn’t say in my article what a breath of fresh air I found Sapiens and how stimulating I found your ideas. I agree entirely with your comment about questions.
I subscribe to Suzanne Langer: The way that a question is asked limits and predisposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given.
Your questions open a broad spectrum of response, whereas in the past questions of history have often limited or stifled thinking. I enjoyed Sapiens immensely and suspect it will remain influential for a very long time.
Kind regards

Posted in Canberra



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