Religions’ Evolutionary Family Tree

Religions’ Evolutionary Family Tree September 6, 2013

Via Hemant Mehta, I learned of the Russian site which has a detailed (even if inevitably not comprehensive) family tree of religions. It is definitely worth looking at closely, whether to admire or criticize, since either way it is a detailed work and a conversation starter. The image above is just a slice, so click through to explore the rest!


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  • arcseconds

    that is interesting, and impressive.

    One thing that strikes me as an obvious flaw is treating religions as these monadic entities that branch off from one another by some kind of mitosis but other than that don’t interact. Sure, there’s a trade-off here, as this makes for a simpler diagram, but the way they’ve done it leads to some odd results.

    For example, because of this Śramaṇa is treated as though it’s as separate from Vedic/Brahmanic religion as Judaism is, whereas of course it was hardly isolated from Vedism. This in turn makes it look as though Buddhism is completely independent of this.

    Also, it seems to have ended up with showing Rosicrucians etc. as representing an unbroken hermetic tradition dating back to gnosticism, with no influence from Christianity. Really?

    This makes me wonder whether they’re sometimes plotting a religion’s take on its own history rather than the history an independent historian would plot.

    • I just took a closer look. They show Mandaeism as ending around the year 500! Clearly they haven’t put as much research into this as was needed. Beyond that, the fact that religions cross-pollinate is also something that needs to be done better justice to. But it is a nice idea!

  • Among all these countless religious movements, how many believe in some kind of distant spirit god very distant and utterly unconcerned for man’s problems?

    It seems to me that even many animists believe in this being, which perhaps even emerged parallely with the spirits ruling their life.

    Maybe, due to political, ideological and spiritual experiences, polytheism and then monotheism gave this absent landlord a growing importance.

    Whether it was a good thing or not is hugely debatable.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Guest

    I tried to do that myself once, but only for well-known ones like judaism and christianity. The problem with religions is that their inheritance is not straightforward, like animals where each parent passes half it’s dna on to it’s children- they’re more like viruses, swapping genes (or ideas) all over the place and constantly influencing each other.
    I wonder what caused the explosion in diversity about 1000BC. Or was religion always so diverse, but we’ve just lost the records for the rest?

    • That’s a good question. It is rather like the fossil record – we sometimes have the impression that a lot happened in a short period, but it is hard to tell whether that is due to our lack of additional evidence that would give a different impression.

    • arcseconds

      The chart just looks at the ‘world religions’, and traces them back to their origins. There’s no attempt to represent traditions that didn’t ‘grow up’ to become a world religion. Of course, it’s not like the rest of the world outside China, Japan, Persia, Palestine and northern India were all atheists in 1000BC, and we definitely know some things about some of the other religions that were around at this time.

      E.g. they don’t represent Mesopotamian religion, Egyptian religion, Hittite religion or Canaanite religion, even though we know that these were operating around the 1000BC mark, or Greek mythology which we can date from a couple of centuries later. Or Roman religion, which of course became quite widespread (as did Greek, for that matter).

      There’s also no mention of Germanic or Celtic religion, or neo-paganism which owes some kind of a debt to these (if they treated this the same as they have the Rosicrucians, and why not, because there are probably more neo-pagans than Rosicrucians, and they’re probably more widespread too, there ought to be an unbroken line from at least the 1st century BC until the present day!)

      In the more contemporary period, there’s no mention of African religion, Polynesian religion, Mayan religion or Native American/First Nations religion, either.

      The one exception seems to be Shintō, which I think is hard to argue counts as a world religion (you could raise questions about others as well, like Judaism, but at least you could make some kind of a case for them being ‘world’ — at the very least Judaism is widespread).

      Not that I necessary disagree with this move, because including everything would make the chart even more complicated, and the histories would perhaps not be very interesting (mostly just a single line, and for many historic religions one that terminates abruptly) But it is a massive simplifying factor, especially in the early period.

      Plus, even in the traditions they’ve decided to plot, they’re simplifying. It’s well-recognised that Hinduism isn’t just Vedic religion “all growed up”, it’s Vedic religion (the earliest phase of which came in with Indo-Iranian speakers who had some kind of a shared cultural history with the Persians, as the diagram alludes to, although I wouldn’t have drawn it quite like that) merged with ‘native’ Dravidian religious traditions at the very least.

  • They have my heritage as originating from a Baptist tradition. I come from the Churches of Christ which is a branch of the Stone-Campbell movement from which the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ also descend. Stone and Campbell were originally Presbyterians but being on the American frontier went independent. Sociologically, where the Churches of Christ are today may be closer to Baptist.

  • Friendly reader

    I was rather impressed with this until I followed one of the branches and realized they had Soka Gakkai (a Nichiren Buddhist lay movement) listed as a branch of Shinto. One wonders how many other total research failures are hidden in this if you take the time to look…