Belief systems include both religions and philosophies that help to explain basic questions of human existence, such as "Where did we come from?" Or "What happens after death?" or "What is the nature of human relationships or interactions?" Many major beliefs systems that influence the modern world began during the Foundations Era (8000 BCE to 600 CE).


The earliest form of religion was probably polydaemonism (the belief in many spirits), but somewhere in the Neolithic era people began to put these spirits together to form gods. In polytheism, each god typically has responsibility for one area of life, like war, the sea, or death. In early agricultural societies, quite logically most of the gods had responsibility for the raising of crops and domesticated animals. The most prominent god in many early societies was the Sun God, who took many forms and went by many names. Other gods supervised rain, wind, the moon, or stars. Greek polytheism stands out because the gods were anthropomorphic, or, they had human qualities and temperaments. 

Religion was extremely important to the river-valley civilizations, and most areas of life revolved around pleasing the gods. And pleasing the gods was invariably connected with the political order, whether it be a pharaoh, king, or emperor.  Monotheism was first introduced about 2000 BCE by Israelites  (Hebrews), but monotheism did not grow substantially till much later. Each of the classical civilizations had very different belief systems that partially account for the very different directions that the three areas took in succeeding eras. Rome and Greece were polytheistic, but Christianity had a firm footing by the time the western empire fell. Hinduism dominated Indian society from very early times, although Buddhism also took root in India. From China's early days, ancestors were revered, a belief reinforced by the philosophy of Confucianism. Other belief systems, such as Daoism, Legalism, and Buddhism, also flourished in China by 600 CE.


The beginnings of Hinduism are difficult to trace, but the religion originated with the polytheism that the Aryans brought as they began invading the Indian subcontinent sometime after 2000 BCE. Aryan priest recited hymns that told stories and taught values and were eventually written down in The Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism. One famous story is The Ramayana that tells about the life and love of Prince Rama and his wife Sita. Another epic story is The Mahabharata, which focuses on a war between cousins. Its most famous part is called The Baghavad Gita, which tells how one cousin, Arjuna, overcomes his hesitations to fight his own kin. The stories embody important Hindu values that still guide modern day India.

Hinduism assumes the eternal existence of a universal spirit that guides all life on earth. A piece of the spirit called the atman is trapped inside humans and other living creatures. The most important desire of the atman is to be reunited with the universal spirit, and every aspect of an individual's life is governed by it. When someone dies, their atman may be reunited, but most usually is reborn in a new body. A person's caste membership is a clear indication of how close he or she is to the desired reunion. Some basic tenets of Hinduism are

  • Reincarnation - Atman spirits are reborn in different people after one body dies. This rebirth has no beginning and no end, and is part of the larger universal spirit that pervades all of life.
  • Karma - This widely used word actually refers to the pattern of cause and effect that transcends individual human lives. Whether or not an individual fulfills his/her duties in one life determines what happens in the next.
  • Dharma - Duties called dharma are attached to each caste position. For example, a warrior's dharma is to fight honorably, and a wife's duty is to serve her husband faithfully. Even the lowliest caste has dharma attached to it. If one fulfills this dharma, the reward is for the atman to be reborn into a higher caste. Only the atman of a member of the highest caste (originally the priests) has the opportunity to be reunited with the universal spirit.

The universal spirit is represented by Brahman, a god that takes many different shapes. Two of Brahman's forms are Vishnu the Creator, and Shiva the Destroyer. Hinduism is very difficult to categorize as either polytheistic or monotheistic because of the central belief in the universal spirit. Do each of Brahman's forms represent a different god, or are they all the same? Brahman's forms almost certainly represent different Aryan gods from the religion's early days, but Hinduism eventually unites them all in the belief in Brahman.


Buddhism began in India in the Ganges River are during the 6th century BCE. Its founder was Siddhartha Guatama, who later became known as the Buddha, or the "Enlightened One." Siddhartha was the son of a wealthy Hindu prince who grew up with many advantages in life. However, as a young man he did not find answers to the meaning of life in Hinduism, so he left home to become an ascetic, or wandering holy man. His Enlightenment came while sitting under a tree in a Deerfield, and the revelations of that day form the basic tenets of Buddhism:

  • The Four Noble Truths - 1) All of life is suffering; 2) Suffering is caused by false desires for things that do not bring satisfaction; 3) Suffering may be relieved by removing the desire; 4) Desire may be removed by following the Eightfold Path.
  • The Eightfold Path to Enlightenment - The ultimate goal is to follow the path to nirvana, or a state of contentment that occurs when the individual's soul unites with the universal spirit. The eight steps must be achieved one by one, starting with a change in thoughts and intentions, followed by changes in life style and actions, that prelude a higher thought process through meditation. Eventually, a "breakthrough" occurs when nirvana is achieved that gives the person a whole new understanding of life.

Note that Hinduism supported the continuation of the caste system in India, since castes were an outer reflection of inner purity. For example, placement in a lower caste happened because a person did not fulfill his/her dharma in a previous life. Higher status was a "reward" for good behavior in the past. Although Buddhism, like Hinduism, emphasizes the soul's yearning for understandings on a higher plane, it generally supported the notion that anyone of any social position could follow the Eightfold Path successfully. Buddhists believed that changes in thought processes and life styles brought enlightenment, not the powers of one's caste. Although the Buddha actively spread the new beliefs during his long lifetime, the new religion faced oppression after his death from Hindus who saw it as a threat to the basic social and religious structure that held India together. Buddhism probably survived only because the Mauryan emperor Ashoka converted to it and promoted its practice. However, in the long run, Buddhism did much better in areas where it spread through cultural diffusion, such as Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.


Three important belief systems (Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism) emerged in China during the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE) between the Zhou and Han Dynasties. Although the period was politically chaotic, it hosted a cultural flowering that left a permanent mark on Chinese history.

Confucius contemplated why China had fallen into chaos, and concluded that the Mandate of Heaven had been lost because of poor behavior of not only the Chinese emperor, but all his subjects as well. His plan for reestablishing Chinese society profoundly affected the course of Chinese history and eventually spread to many other areas of Asia as well. He emphasized the importance of harmony, order, and obedience and believed that if five basic relationships were sound, all of society would be, too:

  • Emperor/subject - the emperor has the responsibility to take care of his subjects, and subjects must obey the emperor
  • Father/son - the father takes care of the son, and the son obeys the father
  • Older brother/younger brother - the older brother takes care of the younger brother, who in turn obeys him
  • Husband/wife - the husband takes care of the wife, who in turn obeys him
  • Friend/friend -The only relationship that does not assume inequality should be characterized by mutual care and obedience
  • Confucius also defined the "superior man" - one who exhibits ren (kindness), li (sense of propriety), and Xiao (filial piety, or loyalty to the family).

Confucianism accepted and endorsed inequality as an important part of an ordered society. It confirmed the power of the emperor, but held him responsible for his people, and it reinforced the patriarchal family structure that was already in place in China. Because Confucianism focused on social order and political organization, it is generally seen as a philosophy rather than a religion. Religions are more likely to emphasize spiritual topics, not society and politics.


The founder of Daoism is believed to have been Laozi, a spiritualist who probably lived in the 4th century BCE. The religion centers on the Dao (sometimes referred to as the "Way" or "Path"), the original force of the cosmos that is an eternal and unchanging principle that governs all the workings of the world. The Dao is passive - not active, good nor bad - but it just is. It cannot be changed, so humans must learn to live with it. According to Daoism, human strivings have brought the world to chaos because they resist the Dao. A chief characteristic is wuwei, or a disengagement from the affairs of the world, including government. The less government, the better. Live simply, in harmony with nature. Daoism encourages introspection, development of inner contentment, and no ambition to change the Dao.

Both Confucianism and Daoism encourage self knowledge and acceptance of the ways things are. However, Confucianism is activist and extroverted, and Daoism is reflective and introspective. The same individual may believe in the importance of both belief systems, unlike many people in western societies who think that a person may only adhere to one belief system or another.


The third belief system that arose from the Warring States Period is legalism, and it stands in stark contrast to the other beliefs. It had no concern with ethics, morality, or propriety, and cared nothing about human nature, or governing principles of the world. Instead it emphasized the importance of rule of law, or the imperative for laws to govern, not men. According to legalism, laws should be administered objectively, and punishments for offenders should be harsh and swift. Legalism was the philosophy of Shi Huangdi, the first emperor, whose Qin Dynasty rescued China from chaos. However, when he died, the Han emperors that followed deserted legalism and established Confucianism as the dominant philosophy.


As noted earlier, Judaism was the first clearly monotheistic religion. At the heart of the religion was a belief in a Covenant, or agreement, between God and the Jewish people, that God would provide for them as long as they obeyed him. The Ten Commandments set down rules for relationships among human beings, as well as human relationships to God. Because they were specially chosen by God, Jews came to see themselves as separate from others and did not seek to convert others to the religion. As a result, Judaism has remained a relatively small religion. However, its influence on other larger religions, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam is vast, and so it remains as a very significant "root religion."

Zoroastrianism is an early monotheistic religion that almost certainly influenced and was influenced by Judaism, and it is very difficult to know which one may have emerged first. Both religions thrived in the Middle East, and adherents of both apparently had contact with one another. Zoroastrianism was the major religion of Persia, a great land-based empire that was long at war with Ancient Greece and eventually conquered by Alexander the Great. The religion's founder was Zoroaster or Zarathushtra, who saw the world immersed in a great struggle between good and evil, a concept that certainly influenced other monotheistic religions.


Christianity grew directly out of Judaism, with its founder Jesus of Nazareth born and raised as a Jew in the area just east of the Mediterranean Sea. During his lifetime, the area was controlled by Rome as a province in the empire. Christianity originated partly from a long-standing Jewish belief in the coming of a Messiah, or a leader who would restore the Jewish kingdom to its former glory days. Jesus' followers saw him as the Messiah who would cleanse the Jewish religion of its rigid and haughty priests and assure life after death to all that followed Christian precepts. In this way, its appeal to ordinary people may be compared to that of Buddhism, as it struggled to emerge from the Hindu caste system. Christianity's broad appeal of the masses, as well as deliberate conversion efforts by its early apostles, meant that the religion grew steadily and eventually became the religion with the most followers in the modern world.

Jesus was a prophet and teacher whose followers came to believe that he was the son of God. He advocated a moral code based on love, charity, and humility. His disciples predicted a final judgment day when God would reward the righteous with immortality and condemn sinners to eternal hell. Jesus was arrested and executed by Roman officials because he aroused suspicions among Jewish leaders, and he was seen by many as a dangerous rebel rouser. After his death, his apostles spread the faith. Especially important was Paul, a Jew who was familiar with Greco-Roman culture. He explained Christian principles in ways that Greeks and Romans understood, and he established churches all over the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and even as far away as Rome.

Christianity grew steadily in the Roman Empire, but not without clashes with Roman authorities. Eventually in the 4th century CE, the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and established a new capital in the eastern city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. As a result, the religion grew west and north from Rome, and also east from Constantinople, greatly extending its reach.

By the end of the classical era, these major belief systems had expanded to many areas of the world, and with the fall of empires in the late classical era, came to be major forces in shaping world history. One major religion - Islam - remained to be established in the 7th century as part of the next great period that extended from 600 to 1450 CE.