An outcome of the capacity for culture from very early times was the emergence of religion as a universal feature of human society. Without exception, all recent hunter-gatherer groups have embraced belief in a supernatural, or spiritual, dimension of the universe. While there was enormous variation in the details of these belief systems, they all involved belief in spirits or gods, and they all provided a religious explanation of human existence. There is every reason to suppose that this has been the case for many tens of thousands of years.

The early farmers all had their gods and spirits. The dominant religious theme for several thousand years in south-western Asia and Europe was the notion of a Mother Goddess, who was worshipped as the giver of life.

In the early cities in Mesopotamia the religious sense of oneness with nature was abandoned for a sense of separation. Each city state had its own god, who was now male, and conflicts between city states were regarded as being conflicts between the different gods.

Most of the early religions of the Near East and those of Greece and Rome, were polytheistic. Zoroastrianism and Judaism, however, were monotheistic.

The teachings of Buddha around 600 BC and those of Jesus of Nazareth were initially relatively simple. However, in neither case was this simplicity to last. In the case of Christianity, the process of elaboration, intellectualisation and institutionalisation soon led to complicated sets of theories and rituals. A professional priesthood came into being, and ultimately the Christian Church split into a few large and often mutually intolerant sects, and numerous smaller ones.

Another great religion of early civilisation, Hinduism, which has its roots over 4000 years ago, became extremely complex and involved the worship of a few major deities and numerous minor ones.

Throughout recorded history, the great majority of humans lived their lives in cultural systems that clearly defined the nature of a supernatural world. Most of these people never doubted the validity of their particular belief system.

The sense of religious conviction is often extraordinarily strong, and differences in religious beliefs have been the cause of a great deal of bloodshed, as in the case of the Crusades. Religious intolerance is still a major cause of homicide in the modern world.

Today the vast majority of the world’s population adheres to one religion or another. One estimate suggests that about 33 per cent of people are Christians, 19.6 per cent Muslims, 13.4 per cent Hindus, 5.5 per cent Buddhists. There are also countless sects within the major religions, each with its own particular creed. Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Taoism are among numerous smaller religious groupings. About 15 per cent of people are described as non-religious.

For a more detailed discussion see Boyden, S. 2004. The biology of civilisation: understanding human culture as a force in nature. UNSW Press. Sydney.