A Religious Studies Take on the “Evolution of Religions Infographic”

timeline-myth-religionThis infographic has been making its rounds on Facebook today. It portrays the “evolution of religions” as a sprawling family tree stemming out of a primordial religion dubbed “Animism.”

I must admit that I think the infographic is cool. It tries so hard to encompass every religious tradition, and it even gives a nod to some more obscure traditions (shout out to Mithraism!).

However, the religious studies scholar in me can’t help but point out all its inaccuracies and methodological errors.

1) First of all, the infographic makes some odd choices. Why is Mithraism stemming out of Canaanite religion instead of Persian Iranian religions? Why is Gnosticism its own religion with no connection to Christianity or Judaism? Why is quantum mechanics (of all things) labelled as a religion?? The culmination of mistakes makes the whole tree somewhat of a mess.

2) Animism as the primordial religion? Sounds a lot like early 20th century anthropologists. These guys were obsessed with discovering “the most primitive religion,” and they viewed animism as the closest example to that holy grail. Unfortunately, the whole endeavor was hopelessly intertwined with racist and imperialist motivations as anthropologists compared the “primitive” animism of West Africans and Australian aborigines to what they viewed as the moral perfection of Christianity. Scholars have largely abandoned these theories in favor of more fruitful (and less racist) lines of inquiry.

3) I also take issue with the term “evolution” when describing the development of religious traditions. The term works just fine for biologists. DNA makes categorizing animal species a somewhat more concrete endeavor than categorizing religions. Biologists can clearly differentiate between two separate species not simply because of superficial appearances but because of fundamental differences in their composition.

“Religion,” on the other hand, is a far more subjective category. Oftentimes, the differences between religions are borders enforced by scholars rather than real differences on the ground. Many Christians in the first few centuries, for example, happily attended synagogues, practiced Jewish dietary laws, and were circumcised. What do we call these people? Jewish Christians? Christian Jews? Their actions confound our tidy religious categories. Still others in Late Antiquity worshipped the Roman Emperor and regularly attended sacrifices at the Greek temples. Do we call these Christians “pseudo-pagans” or “half-converted Christians?”

When you claim that one religion evolved out of another, you are claiming that each religion has a perfect “essence” with which to compare to other religions. An essential Hinduism. An essential Islam. An essential Christianity. But “on the ground,” we seldom find people that fit these perfect archetypes, especially in antiquity before our modern obsession with codifying and categorizing existed.


Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.


  1. You might be aware of the work of scholars like Daniel Boyarin and others, who argue that the modern conception of “religion” (that is as a “faith” or belief system) would be at odds with the ancient one–“religio”–which had to do with proper ritual as opposed to “superstitio” which was improper or exaggerated ritual. And beyond that, such ritual would be understood as inherited ancestral practice. In the words of Paula Fredriksen, “ethnicity was a cultic designation, and cult was an ethnic designation”. In antiquity people didn’t sit down to invent or even modify “belief systems”, since to them the existence of the gods was a matter of experience not belief, especially in light of their understanding of the cosmos. So I argue that apart from such foundational notion of “religions”, any discussion on its developments would at least be inaccurate. Thus the misrepresentation of the infographic.

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Yeah I’m aware of Dr. Boyarin and Dr. Fredriksen. The latter used to teach at my university. But yes, not enough people appreciate how modern our category of “religion” is. If only everyone took an intro “Theory and Methods” course from a Religious Studies department haha.

Speak Your Mind