Religion is defined as a particular system of faith and worship. This belief is often in one or multiple beings with supernatural powers, including gods, demons, and ancestral spirits. Though Christianity is the world’s largest religion (followed by Islam and Hinduism), it is far from the oldest. So what is the oldest religion?
Throughout human history, there has been no instance of a culture that has not practiced some form of religion. Some of the oldest that are still practiced today include Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Buddhism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Hinduism. The latter, Hinduism, is typically considered the oldest of those still being observed.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the practice of religion began, especially since humans only began writing their history down about 5,000 years ago. Many argue that the Mesopotamian religion inspired the ancient Egyptians, whom many credit with the earliest religious practices.
We’ll explore both religions below, as well as how religion might have gotten its start.
What Is the Oldest Religion? Religion vs. Mythology
What we consider to be mythology in modern times was once indistinguishable from how religion was practiced in ancient times. Mythology influenced many ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. This belief in the supernatural was the catalyst for religious ceremonies, rites, and festivals.
Mythology provided an explanation for the universe as it was understood in the early days. It was the basis for everything our ancestors did, from childbirth to harvesting crops. For many, myths also explained what occurred during the afterlife and how religious followers could attain it.
These stories were deeply rooted in nature, from the path of the moon to the retreating of rivers. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that the Sun was driven in a chariot by the god Helios, explaining how sunrises occurred.
Located in West Asia, Mesopotamia is considered one of the birthplaces of civilization. While the exact origin of its religious practice is unknown, written records suggest that this ancient civilization’s belief system dates back to at least c. 3,500 BCE.
Mesopotamians followed a polytheistic belief system and worshiped several major gods, as well as thousands of minor deities. They also believed that the gods created demons, which could be either good or evil.
Above everything else, these ancient people believed that the meaning was life was to live in harmony with the gods. Humans were created to work together with their gods to ward off chaotic forces and maintain harmony.
Some of the most important deities in ancient Mesopotamia included An (father of the gods and sky), Enki (god of fresh water), Inanna (goddess of love, fertility and war), Nanna (god of the moon), and Utu (god of the sun and justice).
Each city had its own patron deity that would watch over its people. To appease their gods, Mesopotamians built large temples called ziggurats. Statues portraying the gods were devotedly cared for by priests and priestesses, who fed, bathed, and clothed these sculptures. Considered the literal homes of these gods, ziggurats gave people a place to worship and make offerings in order to curry favor.
Ancient Egypt was once divided into two kingdoms – Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt. Each followed its own religion until they became one kingdom, merging their beliefs and cultures.
Like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians believed that humans worked together with the gods to maintain order in the world. They were also polytheistic, worshiping their multiple gods with animal sacrifices and other offerings.
As civilization continued to evolve over the course of three millennia, so did religion. For both gods and priests, guarding against imminent chaos and ushering the dead into the afterlife were two main duties.
Belief in the afterlife was a prominent part of Egyptian culture and religion. They believed the afterlife would be pleasant and familiar, similar to how life was in the present. Thus, important men and women were buried with the items that would make them most comfortable during the afterlife. Think gold, jewelry, fine linens – even servants.
It was believed that Anubis, god of the dead and the underworld, weighed the soul after death. If it weighed more than a feather, you would be punished. Other major gods included Ra (god of the sun), Isis (goddess of women and fertility), Amon (god of air and wind), and Osiris (god of growing things). Egyptians also believed that the Pharaoh was the earthly representation of the gods themselves, if not a god in his own right.
What is the oldest religion? Though the jury’s still out on whether Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt can be credited for the world’s oldest religion, it’s inarguable that they both had vast similarities. And if we’re talking about oldest religions still in practice today, we can’t forget about Hinduism.