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The Origins and Diffusion of Religions. They Who Goeth A round Getteth around. Origin of Religions. Universalizing Religions. Ethnic Religions. Universalizing religions have precise places of origin and are based on the life events of one man.

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the origins and diffusion of religions

The Origins and Diffusion of Religions

They Who


Getteth around

origin of religions
Origin of Religions

Universalizing Religions

Ethnic Religions

Universalizing religions have precise places of origin and are based on the life events of one man.

Ethnic religions have unknown or unclear origins and are not tied to historic individuals.

origins of universalizing religions
Origins of Universalizing Religions

Founded on the teachings of Jesus, who was born in Galilean Bethlehem between 8 and 4 BCE.

Catholicism was ordered by Constantine when he converted in 312 AD.

Orthodoxy dates to the 5th century CE and rivalry between Rome and Constantinople. The split solidified in 1054 when the Roman pope condemned the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Protestantism originated with the Reformation and Martin Luther in 1517.

Islam traces its origins to that of Judaism and Christianity with the Bible.

Muhammad, born in Mecca (Makkah) in 570 AD received revelations from God (Allah in Arabic) in 610. Muslims Codified the revelations of God through Muhammad in al Qur’an.

The division between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, originated in a disagreement over leadership after Muhammad’s death in 632. Shia Muslims supported Muhammad’s cousin, Ali.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 BCE in Lumbini in present day Nepal near the border with India.

In about 528 BCE, Siddhartha was said to have found a spiritual path to Nirvana and became “The Buddha,” the awakened or enlightened one.

Theravada is the original form, the Mahayana Buddhism split from it about 2000 years ago.

Zen, another branch of Buddhism began in China in the 7th century.

origins of ethnic religions
Origins of Ethnic Religions

Again, ethnic religions have unknown or unclear origins and are not tied to a specific founder. For Example:

The origins of Hinduism in India are unclear.

The oldest manuscripts date to 1500 BCE, but the oldest artifacts date to 2500 BCE.

Hinduism grew and developed over time from the interaction of the Harappan, Aryan and the Dravidian cultures.

diffusion of religions
Diffusion of Religions

Universalizing Religions

Ethnic Religions

Universalizing religions tend to diffuse from single, specific hearths and spread through a combination of relocation, hierarchical and contagious diffusion.

Ethnic religions are often tied to the physical landscape and seasons of a hearth and so remain highly clustered in the hearth region.

diffusion of universalizing religions
Diffusion of Universalizing Religions

The three largest universalizing religions are each based on the life of a key individual.

Each has a hearth in Asia (Buddhism in India, Christianity in Israel, Islam in Saudi Arabia).

Followers of each migrated, preaching the message of the religions to people well beyond the hearth.

diffusion of buddhism
Diffusion of Buddhism

Buddhism did not diffuse rapidly from its hearth but later began to spread through a combination of hierarchical and relocation diffusion.

In 257BCE, Asoka, the emperor of the Magadhan empire, converted to Buddhism and declared his empire as Buddhist.

Asoka also sent Buddhist missionaries to neighboring territories… Sri Lanka, Kashmir, the Himalayas, Burma, and elsewhere in India.

In the first century AD, Buddhist merchants moved along trading routes and introduced Buddhism to China. Widespread conversions began there in the 4th century.

Buddhism spread from China to the Koreas in the 4th century and from the Koreas to Japan in the 6th century.

diffusion of christianity
Diffusion of Christianity

Christianity spread through a combination of relocation, hierarchical and contagious diffusion from its hearth in ancient Israel.




In 1st century AD Paul of Tarsus and other missionaries began spreading Christianity along the Roman Empire’s protected sea and road routes.

While missionaries moved from city to city, the converts they left behind after establishing churches spread Christianity within the Roman empire through contagious diffusion in their communities.

Christianities survival was set through hierarchical diffusion when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted in 313 CE. His successor, Theodosius then proclaimed it the official religion of the empire in 380.

Diffusion continued for centuries in a blend of the three methods. It diffused into Eastern Europe through the conversion of various kings.

After 1500 it diffused with English colonialism into the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

In those places, various indigenous groups converted or intermarried.

The branch of Christianity that dominates in a place reflects the branch of the Christians who colonized or later migrated there.

diffusion of islam
Diffusion of Islam

By the time of Muhammad’s death, Islam had diffused over much of the Arabian Peninsula by:

Relocation diffusion: Muhammad’s Hijrah from Mecca to Medina

Hierarchical Diffusion: Muhammad’s defeat of Mecca

Contagious Diffusion: conversions from person to person.

After Muhammad’s death, Muslim armies conquered Palestine, the Persian Empire and much of India. While Islam does not force converts, many indigenous peoples did convert or intermarry to align with the new rulers.

Armies also moved across northern Africa and then crossed the starit of Gibraltar into Spain. Muslims controlled much of present day Spain until 1492.

While Christians regained Western Europe, Muslims moved into southeastern Europe and Turkey. Muslim missionaries also spread Islam to parts of Subsaharan Africa and Southeast Asia.


Diffusion of Ethnic Religions

Most ethnic religions have little, if any diffusion. First, the religions lack missionaries devoted to converting others.

Second, ethnic religions are often tied to the landscape and the seasons of its hearth region.

Finally, spread of universalizing religions (Christianity and Islam) comes through converting members of ethnic religions.

East and

Southeast Asian


African Religions

The universalizing religion my supplant the local, ethnic religion or mingle with it.

In some parts of Africa, Christianity dominates and reflects the colonizers branch (Catholicism in Guinea from the Spanish, Lutheran in Namibia from the Germans).

In other places, through syncretism, Christianity incorporates ritual aspects of the local ethnic religions.

There are several thousand unique African Christian Churches.

In East and Southeast Asia, Buddhism has spread and mingled with local ethnic religions.

In Japan, the Shinto first resisted the spread of Buddhism, then embraced it. Through syncretism, Buddhist monks took over the management of Shinto shrines and Buddhist deities were incorporated into the Shinto Pantheon.

Conversely, Hindu migrants moved to Mauritius and maintained their religion (52% Hindu, 28% Christian, and 175 Muslim). Mauritius had no original indigenous population.

Christianity and Islam are exclusive religions that require singular adherence to them and them alone.

Many ethnic religions (and Buddhism) are non-exclusive religions so adherents can practice aspects of multiple religions.


Diffusion of Judaism (an exception)

Despite its status as an ethnic religion and despite its close ties to the place and seasons of historic Israel, Judaism has diffused widely over the world. (see world map)

World map of Judaism

After Romans burned the temple in 70AD, many Jews migrated in a movement called the diaspora to Europe, Northern Africa and Asia.

Jews lived among other nationalities, often as guest populations without official citizenship. They lived in isolated communities (ghettos) and retained their religious practices while sometimes adopting cultural practices of their hosts.

As a result of the holocaust at the hands of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s, many Jews left Europe and spread to the Americas.



Holy Places

Universalizing Religions

Ethnic Religions

Universalizing religions often endow with holiness cities and other places associated with the founders life.

These places need not be near one another and are not tied to any particular physical environment.

Ethnic religions often have holy places closely associated with the geography and seasons of their hearths.


Holy Places: Buddhism and Islam

Eight places are particularly holy in Buddhism as they are associated with the life of the Buddha:

1) Lumbini (birth place)

2) Bodh Gaya (place of enlightenment)

3) Sarnath Deer Park (first sermon)

4) Kusinagara (parinirvana place)

5) Sravasti (ascension to heaven)

6) Samkasya (second ascension to heaven)

7) Rajaghra (taming the elephant)

8) Vaisali (prediction of death)

The most important holy sites for Islam are:

Mecca (birthplace of Muhammad)

Medina (first city to adopt Islam)

Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca, contains al Ka’ba and the well of Zemzem)

One of the five pillars of Islam states that all Muslims who are able should make a pilgrimage to Mecca and the Ka’ba at least once in their lives.


Ethnic Holy Places: Hinduism

Remember: ethnic religions tend to remain clustered and concentrated in a small area because their system is often inextricably linked to the local landscape and seasonal shift.

Presence in and interaction with the land is so integral to the religion, it often is not possible to practice it outside the hearth land.

Hinduism is highly tied to the geography of India.

While Hinduism stresses meditation, tirtha (a pilgrimage to a holy site) also helps to further one on the path to moksha.

Holy sites are often tied in some way to one of the manifestations of Brahman (God).

Some sites are universal in their appeal to all Hindu, while others are significant only at the local level.

One universally important site is the Ganges river. Many Hindu make pilgrimages to bathe in its waters.


Environmental Perception

Recall from chapter 4 that environmental perception is the way that a culture will observe, interpret and react to the natural environment.

Universalizing Religions

Ethnic Religions

Ethnic religions often have a more reverential relationship with the land and do not alter it as much.

ERs often incorporate nature events and forces into their cosmogonies.

Universalizing religions often maintain that God gave the Earth to humans who are free to bend it to their wills.

URs usually don’t incorporate natural events into their cosmogony.


The Calendar

Universalizing and ethnic religions also handle the notion of sacred time differently.

Universalizing Religions

Ethnic Religions

Major holy days (sacred time, i.e. holidays) in universalizing religions tend to relate to events in the life of the founder, not to events in the physical landscape.

You should know:


(lunar calendar, Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha)


(19 month, 19 day calendar established by the Bab)


(Christmas and Easter)


(Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death)

Major holy days in ethnic religions tend often correspond to natural events in the physical landscape like the changing of seasons or the key points in local agriculture.

You should know:


(Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot)

In General

(summer solstice, winter solstice)