Apologist Joel Furches explores the evolution of religion, focussing on the most ancient religion still practised today 

Religion appears to be fundamental to human nature, such that it is inescapable at the micro to the macroscopic level. Or so history informs us.

The evolution of religion

In early societies, gods, totems and objects of worship tended to be generated regionally and then occasionally increase their influence outside of that region. This expansion and evolution of particular objects of worship tends to result in one of three outcomes: adoption, syncretism or synthesis.

Under the schema of adoption, one culture will begin to adopt the worship practices of another, with perhaps a few cultural modifications. The simplest example of this is the way in which the Roman Empire adopted the entire pantheon of the Greek empire and simply gave the gods latinised names. Adoption tends to morph and evolve the various gods and practices over time, such that once a religion has passed through three or four cultures, they retain very little of their original format.

Syncretism tends to occur when a more powerful group conquers or colonises a less powerful group and then attempts to impose their religions upon them. What tends to happen is that the less powerful group incorporates the practices and beliefs into their pre-existing religious system, and the two co-mingle to very odd results. This happened when Catholic beliefs were introduced into African and Mesoamerican populations. The Catholic Saints were co opted as the spirits to whom the religious participants would appeal with their various cultic rituals, with practices such as Santeria being the outcome.


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Synthesis is possibly the most common schema of religious evolution and the basis of most ancient civilisations. Imagine that your family has its own god or totem, and then your daughter marries into another family with a different god or totem. One of the spouses could change religions, they could each maintain a separate religion, or they could combine the two religions. As various families and tribes over time commingled and brought their regional gods into the mingling, new mythologies would develop wherein the various gods interacted with one another, established specific domains and began forming families together. Thus, polytheism and the pantheon were born. 

Likely, Hinduism was a result of synthesis. However, it went in a different direction than polytheism.

When pantheons develop, gods establish specific domains of power, they fight, procreate and occasionally kill one another. Their moods and actions cause physical effects in the real world, such as geological activities, weather or cosmic events. But what this ultimately does is to reduce gods to super-powered individuals who are only conditionally immortal (if immortal at all) and dwell within the real world. 

In other words, these pagan religions rob the gods of their transcendence. Hinduism managed to gather together a vast catalogue of gods without robbing them of their transcendence. This was done through the philosophy of pantheism.

Pantheism operates on the premise that the material universe (your body) and the immaterial universe (your soul) are all part of a continuous whole which, taken together, is fully divine. Under pantheism, all is one, and one is all. The material world and all of the events within it are simply illusions, and the world is fundamentally spiritual in nature. Whereas polytheism tends to diminish the transcendent, pantheism tends to diminish or eliminate the material.

History of Hinduism

Hinduism frequently boasts of being the most ancient religion still being practised, and if one takes into account the evolution of religions as detailed above, there may be truth to that. Indeed, archeological evidence traces the Hindu religion back to the Indus valley civilization in the 2nd or 3rd Century BCE, which gives it a strong claim to the title of world’s oldest religion (still in practice).

Part of Hinduism’s strong establishment and spread has to do with the fact that the earliest-known written language, Sanskrit, was the method by which its rituals and beliefs were first recorded. Meaning, in essence, that Hindus wrote down their beliefs before any other civilization had developed written language. Further, Hinduism transmitted its mythologies and doctrines by way of performing arts, which allowed it to spread by the very attractive medium of entertainment.

As religions spread and persist, they tend to evolve, change and develop separate schools of thought and practice over time. As long as Hinduism has been around, the vast and subtle doctrines which have developed in various schools of Hindu thought make it impossible to give a detailed explanation of the practice, much less the doctrines. However, there is a sort of ‘mere Hinduism’, which summarises the basic tenets that would be generally agreed-upon by the broad variety of sects.

Mere Hinduism

There are two essential elements involved in Hinduism. The first of these is reincarnation. Under the doctrine of reincarnation, individual souls exit the body upon death and are reborn into a new body. The body into which a soul can be born does not have to be consistent with the body it exited, however. A person could be reborn as a cow or a flea or a worm. Memories of former lives may be accessible, but not easily. Discovering one’s long history of rebirths may involve a great deal of meditation and ritualistic practices. One does, however, have some agency in determining one’s rebirth, and consequently we come upon the second essential element of Hinduism: karma.

Karma comes in two flavours: the good and the bad. When a person does a virtuous deed, that person’s deed is stored in a sort of spiritual bank of good karma. Conversely, evil deeds are stored up as bad karma. The Hindu universe is in a constant effort at homeostasis, and seeks to stabilise karma so that good deeds result in nebulous benefits from the Universe, whereas bad karma results in punishment from the same. When the benefits or punishments are delivered, the ledger is wiped clean, and the act of accumulating karma begins anew.

Given the mechanism of karma, some sects of Hindus attempt to intentionally punish themselves with acts of self-starvation or self-inflicted physical pain in order to take agency in the deliverance of consequences of bad karma and to prevent the stores of good karma from running dry. Because if one can accumulate enough good karma by the time one dies, it ensures that one will be reborn in a better life situation.

Hence a bacterium may be reborn as a worm, then a bird, then a beggar and then a king – assuming the reborn individual continues to accumulate good karma upon each rebirth. In some religions, the aim of good works is to go to heaven when one dies. In Hinduism, the end goal is to become a god.

Recall from earlier that Hinduism began as an accumulation of regional gods which were added together into a catalogue of divinities. However, this vast number of gods are simply the end result of regular souls whose virtue accumulated across so many lifetimes that they eventually were reborn as immortal beings. Once immortal, the person has finally escaped the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.


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Contra dogmatism

As religions develop and religious groups become more cosmopolitan, they tend to drift away from exclusivism, the idea that “we have the truth and everyone else is wrong”. A very common Hindu prayer simply reads: “May truth come to us from all sides”. Hindus generally embrace and celebrate the wide variety of sects and philosophies that have developed across broad regions and throughout its very long history, and would very rarely exclude other religions.

The underlying structure of Hinduism, of course, being that each individual will get eternal opportunities to progress toward truth in the constant cycle of rebirths. So long as a Christian is being the best Christian she can be in this life, she will accumulate for herself good karma for the next. And eventually she will gravitate toward the truth.

Despite the Universalist trends of Hindu beliefs, there is always an underlying awareness that the practice of Hinduism has its roots in the Indian subcontinent and that no matter where the practitioner is on the globe, some homage must be paid to the roots and origins of the religion. Consequently, individual practitioners, whether they are, themselves, of Indian descent will embark on pilgrimages to participate in some of the religious festivals at sacred sites in India.

Hinduism and Christianity

Christianity, like Hinduism, has spread into the broad world, encountered many cultures and ways-of-life, and, in many cases, become less comfortable with its exclusionary doctrines, particularly those of sin, hell and repentance in Jesus’ name. The first because it tends to place uncomfortable demands on behaviour, the second because it is a horrific idea to contemplate, and the third because the world at large has only become aware of Jesus relatively recently in human history, raising uncomfortable questions about the vast sums of humans who never had the opportunity to repent in Jesus’ name.

Ironically, it is the very compassion for the world which Christianity prioritises that makes Christianity seem uncomfortable in its most exclusionary form.

Hinduism nicely skirts this problem with the doctrine of rebirth, avoiding hell and offering endless second chances, and karma, which rewards or punishes instantly and intuitively rather than delaying rewards and punishment until after death.

As a result, Hinduism does not find itself in the uncomfortable spot of having to soften or alter doctrines in order to accommodate the vast population of unbelievers. Christianity, on the other hand, has had a long history of attempting to defend God’s goodness in the light of sin and hell, and engineer doctrines that allow God to remain merciful in spite of all those who never had a chance to receive the gospel.

The moral standards taught in the Vedas (the Hindu scriptures) are not dissimilar to Christian morality, especially in its most fundamental “do unto others” form. Hindu rituals, however, are far from systematised, and occasionally look a great deal like idol worship (keeping depictions of gods in the homes and offering meals to them, for instance). 

Hinduism also takes its general principle of kindness towards others and extends it into the world of beasts and nature. Because one of its fundamental tenets is that any person may be reborn as any other living thing, the rats in the rubbish bin, the mosquito that bit you and the parasitic worm are all inhabited by souls that have been or will someday be human beings. Consequently, vegetarianism is not an uncommon Hindu practice, as plants seem to be excluded from the soul-bearing creatures on Earth.

Much like Hinduism, Christianity has broken apart into sects and denominations over the years as a method of coping with disagreements, either doctrinal or political. In Christianity, the various sects and denominations remain largely in competition with one another, whereas Hinduism displays pride in its wide variety of sects, doctrines and practices – believing that strength lies in variety.

The fundamentals

At bottom, the difference between Christianity and Hinduism is a difference in cosmology. Hinduism tends toward a belief in an eternal Universe which is monistic and divine. Christianity believes in a single, eternal God who created a material Universe giving it a beginning, a purpose and a destiny.

The virtue of Hinduism is the comfort of its doctrines: that disagreement is a form of agreement, that the world is an illusion, that impersonal cosmic forces right the ledger and deal out justice by happenstance, and that you will have endless tries to get it right. Proselytization or coming to some kind of agreement on truth are not pressures within this religion, and it is intensely personal, given that your own personal evolution is the sole end of being.

Christianity is not as comfortable as Hinduism because it has a single God, separate from the material world, who is the central focus of the entire religion. Human beings have inherent worth because they were endowed with worth by their creator. The monotheist Christian religion has definite standards of truth and untruth and of rightness and wrongness, which make a pursuit of truth far more effortful, but also more rewarding. 

Hindus philosophise and pursue truth, but the underlying assumptions of their faith insist that one thing is as true as any other thing so long as it is meaningful to you, the individual.

And therein lies the rub. Hinduism is a religion in which each individual is the central focus of his or her own religious enterprise, whereas in Christianity, God and God alone is the focus.


Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.