Descent with imagination

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"Nothing in religion makes sense except in the light of imagination." - me.

Phylogeny of major world religions. Just a draft, really -- I'm sure there are terrible errors. Religions from the East, from Africa, from Americas are much harder to find good information on. If anyone has good suggestions for revisions or additions, I'll replace the above with a more accurate, truthier version (see update below). If you've just started a new religion, send me your icon and I'll add it. I think a similar illustration (clearly not done by me!) should be the centerpiece of any and all books that attempt to summarize faith on earth.

For a good read on why religiosity might have been favored by natural selection (susceptibility to hypnotism!), get this: McClenon, J. 1997. Shamanic healing, human evolution, and the origin of religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36:345-354.

On Being, francesco.radicchi, and V4Vlsqz added this photo to their favorites.

  1. Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) 95 months ago

    You know what would rule? If you put notes over each of the symbols explainng them. I'd totally digest that.

  2. Colin Purrington 95 months ago

    I'll definitely do that. Give me 24 hours or so.

  3. Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) 95 months ago

    Looks good! Definitely more informative now!
    I noticed there is still one unlabelled :)

    Of course, I think it's screaming for a Dobbshead somewhere, maybe above Scientology! ( ) :)


  4. Colin Purrington 95 months ago

    Last one is now labeled. Sorry about that.

  5. blamethedog [deleted] 94 months ago

    Really great job - a very creative and visually appealing way to view this information. Kudos to you!

  6. Colin Purrington 94 months ago

    I looked extensively for a phylogeny of religions before attempting this -- I was astounded that comparative religion texts don't attempt a similar graphic. Perhaps I have yet to find the right textbook, however. I'll post it here when I find it. I was thinking the above exercise might be a great way for young kids to learn about the diversity of religions, and how new religions are created all the time. Not sure how the lesson plan would fit into a literature class, though.

  7. mtlockca 92 months ago

    very nice but it doesn't follow a correct links and it is incorrectly time linked. but nice never the less.

  8. Colin Purrington 92 months ago

    Right -- I have no idea what the correct links would be or when, on a timeline, they occurred. I'm sure the information exists somewhere for some of the links, but I have not found a good source yet. This is just something I'm playing around with at this point.

  9. mtlockca 92 months ago

    no disrespect, i think it's great. See how far you can take.

  10. lido_6006 92 months ago

    The idea is appeling at first sight, but there are several drawbacks in your work:
    - some links/relations are incomplete and not correct from a
    historical point of view, especially judaism / christianity / islam
    including the aspects of christian denominations
    - if you argue from a descendance point of view, islam would be
    based on both judaism and christianity while christianity is clearly
    an offspring of judaism (with some elements of other ancient
    middle east religions and greek philosophy), and modern liberal
    judaism has been influenced by secularism as a counter-concept
    to christianity ...
    in other words, the world of ideas, ideologies and religions is
    a bit more complex than a genealogical tree

    But even if we had the relations shown in the correct way - what is the use of it? Would it help to understand why so many fundamentalists refuse to accept modern concepts of society?

    I'd search for the key at the other end, the individual: religion offers "certitude" to people longing for orientation. If you have a look on this (link found in your stream) you'll see that northern Europe needs less religion - they have a strong state giving them (social) assurance.

    On the other hand, the USA would most probably collapse if you removed all denominations from one day to the next, because this would leave quite some vacuum in social organization given the concepts the "pilgrim fathers" put in the US constitution.

    Much the same with, for example, Hamas in Palestine. Why did they have so much success in elections? Because they operate lots of social programs in a "state" that is not really one and has not the money to do that job.

    Unless the state really takes quite a lot of responsibility, secularization won't work. Europe went through that process and the big step was in the second half of the 20th century when people realized that the state began to guarantee personal freedom and provide a basic social net.

  11. Slash_Gordon 89 months ago

    Don't forget to add the religion of atheism.

  12. Colin Purrington 89 months ago

    I actually would love to. I could add it to the base of a much larger illustration that shows split between Homo sapiens and our fellow (but extinct) Homo species. I suspect atheism is an ancestral state, but I could be wrong. Or should atheism be a dashed line that pops off of each religion as it is created? Just not sure.

  13. lido_6006 89 months ago

    IMHO there is a clear distinction between atheism (active refusal of religious beliefs) and agnosticism (indecidedness about religion). So you might suppose (but never know for sure, as there are not enough historical sources) that the early Homo sapiens were agnostics, but certainly not atheists.
    Maybe you might argue that chimpanzees start using tools and have some conversation and social life, while not showing any signs of religious activity, but I have not read enough about chimpanzees to be really sure of that. To make sound statements on early mankind, you would certainly have to go deeper into archaeological evidence and to re-evaluate theories on early cave paintings like Lascaux (France) or Altamira (Spain) that have been interpreted as sanctuaries.
    If you have a look at the last existing archaic civilizations you will find that religion goes hand in hand with the basic rules ("laws") of such societies. As far as I know, the first formal (written) legislation dates back to Hammurabi, a Babylonian emperor having himself venerated as a god (classical theocracy). So you might have severe problems to argue that early ("original") civilization existed without religion.
    I would rather turn the tables and state that modern civilization is not possible without a good deal of scepsis (at least) and refusal to accept religious dogmas and rules. You will be on safe grounds with this statement, as both major ancient Greek philosophers (Socrates) and Renaissance scientists (Galilei) were accused of atheism. You might even quote Einstein's famous refusal to accept the modern theories of quantum physics ("god does not play dice") to underline this.
    Btw. Giving credit to a theory because of its long tradition is a classical concept of religious fundamentalists. I don't think that using their basic concept is really helpful ...

  14. Colin Purrington 89 months ago

    I suspect that religion predates the origin of modern humans. I would wager (but not that much) that the brain of Australopithecus was capable of imagination. At the very latest, Homo erectus. Regardless, I think religion predates alphabets, and probably predates cave drawings.

  15. mann_made 87 months ago

    very interesting way of displaying religion, this actually helps me put things into perspective more

  16. Davezilla was taken 86 months ago

    As a priest of an African religion, you get triple bonus points from me for using an image of Elegba. Lukumi representz!

  17. Colin Purrington 86 months ago

    Thanks for the bonus points. Appreciate it.

  18. nels1 85 months ago

    great effort!
    i like how the purest form of undifferentiated gullibilism leads to scientology!

    that's definitely worth another bonus point or three:)

    p.s. i think it's spelt "bahaism".

  19. Colin Purrington 85 months ago

    Typo fixed -- thanks.

  20. ana m. 85 months ago

    Excellent work. Good discussion, too.

    Ever thought about spinning Orthodoxy (Greek, Easter, Russian, et cetera) and Protestantism from Catholicism? (Fwiw, I'd then split the LDS from Protestantism, tho' my position would be contra LDS theology, as I understand it.)

  21. Citius64 84 months ago

    Wow, thanks for helping to put light on this delicate issue. How could we include the new religous movements, like the UFO and Hitler cults and the celebrity religiousity (Princess Diana, David Beckham...) ? New age? Or just new religious movements?

    And seriously, Scientiology a religion? I put it too on new religious movements...

    Greetings from Mexico City.

  22. danprojects 82 months ago

    you should do buddhism and jainism as branching off from hinduism. buddhism itself branches off into theravada style, mahayana style and various versions of these such as ch'an / zen and tibettan buddhism.

    re: early indo-european myths, i'm not sure how you can include eqyptian religion in that. eqypt's in africa. by the way, the three moons sign is representative of the "triple godess" ( a form of which is worshipped my modern wiccans.

  23. danprojects 82 months ago

    and of course judaism can be split into hasidic and sephardic (sp?)

  24. Colin Purrington 82 months ago

    My understanding about yoga is that overt mention of its religious underpinning is bad for business. I'm not an expert though...just based the tree on sites like this:

    Thanks for the hints on restructuring!

  25. merri.morningstar 77 months ago

    Very interesting!

  26. Colin Purrington 77 months ago

    So...where do you think the Bahai' should go?

  27. johndhynes 76 months ago

    Found you on John Wilkins' blog. This image reminded me of a link posted on Pharyngula last July. You can also find it on YouTube. Obviously, Rush (or Bobby) stole the idea from you!

  28. Colin Purrington 76 months ago

    Wow, that's a really cool animation of a phylogenetic tree. Might need to buy that video to show during lectures.

  29. dragfyre 76 months ago

    The Baha'i Faith bills itself as the newest in the line of the Abrahamic religions - so it could go in the corner sticking out of the line leading to Islam...

  30. Juan Falque 74 months ago

    Really nice job.
    Maybe you could help me. I need an icon that represents the animism. The one that you used... is the "official" one for that religion?
    Where did you get it?

    Thank you very much for your help.

  31. Colin Purrington 74 months ago

    I mined them from largely from and linked sites. Sorry -- I should have included better citations.

  32. danprojects 74 months ago

    hi cpurrin1,
    sorry i forgot all about this thread :)

    i disagree with the link that you posted about yoga. it is true that yoga is founded on hinduism and the ancient indian worldview of ayurveda (traditional indian medicine). hinduism is a religion and ayurveda is a tradition pre-scientific medical / health worldview. yoga developed as an expression of hinduism and of ayurveda, but is not a relion in itself. calling yoga a religion is like regarding prayer or meditation as a religion.

    practicing yoga does not require the belief in any dieties or religions, though sometimes religious elements are included (ie, buddhist chanting). i don't think you need to believe in deities in order to think that diminishing ego, quieting the mind and relaxing the body are good thing things.

    i don't think that it necesary to believe in ayurveda in order to practice yoga, but even if you did do so, ayurveda is no more a religion than the pre-scientific european worldview that encouraged blood-letting and leaches.

    dan :)

  33. Colin Purrington 74 months ago

    I see your point. I think it's certainly true that many practitioners of yoga have no idea of its religious history, and teaching it, to them, is not proselytizing. But the above graphic is more an exploration, albeit not overly well researched (!), of where different supernatural-based philosophies originated.

    As an aside, I'd love to see the "praying to mecca" exercise" introduced into gym classes in the US. Would be a hoot to see how it was received. "Good for the lower back!" At the very least, it might be a good skit for Saturday Night Live.

  34. danprojects 74 months ago

    lol :) funnily enough, i do think that such prayer rituals could be succesfully used by atheists as a means of quietening mind and body and becoming mindful of the moment :)

    no, i'm sure that it's right that many yoga students have no idea of the origins of yoga.

    also, i think that if you include yoga as a "supernatural philosophy", you should include the likes of taiji / tai chi (derived from taoism, buddhism and traditional chinese medicine), thai massage (buddhism and traditional thai medicine), shiatsu (traditional chinese medicine etc).

    also, you need to distinguish between the origins of an activity and what it is currently used for.

    complicated enough for ya? :)

  35. Rick Cogley 66 months ago

    Hello, I'm an admin for a group called Software Productivity, and we'd love to have this (or any other of your screenshots or screen-cam movies) added to the group! Please join, and check out the group discussions as well.

    Rick Cogley

  36. merri.morningstar 66 months ago

    dragfyre Pro User says:

    The Baha'i Faith bills itself as the newest in the line of the Abrahamic religions - so it could go in the corner sticking out of the line leading to Islam...

    Actually, I believe The Baha'i Faith is a new religion, about 150 years old, but the founder was born to Islam.

  37. women_and_children_first 66 months ago

    So what do you put your faith in oh wise one?

  38. earlemartin 64 months ago

    A note - Islam did not split into Sunni and Shi'a. Islam's root form is Sunni. Shi'a is an offshoot.

  39. lance_ec 64 months ago

    I like the idea, but I see a big difference between biological evolution trees and your tree. Biological evolution trees involve millions of years, and each branch indicates a new species that can't breed with other branches. So all each branch can do is split off or die.

    In your tree, since each branch is an system of ideas, as cultures interact, the branches can breed with each other so to speak. Even extinct belief systems can reemerge in part by being grafted to older systems. This doesn't invalidate your concept, but it makes your tree much harder to document and maintain.

    For example, while Buddhism is correctly branched from Hinduism, it was also heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism in the East. Also, as someone mentioned earlier, Christianity seems to have roots in Greek and Roman mythology, and shares some aspects of Eastern thought.

    So while I like your tree, I think it would be a frustrating exercise to expect to ever make it accurately describe the complexities of human belief systems. But keep up with it, as I feel it is an excellent tool for getting people to think about such things.

    On another note. Rather than call it a tree of religions, you might call it a tree of metaphysical belief systems. That way you could add humanism and stuff like Yoism (

  40. DougButcher 64 months ago

    Haha, fantastic, especially the last note at the bottom.

  41. yapwilli 64 months ago

    Hi, I'm an admin for a group called ART of LOVE for HUMAN EVOLUTION, and we'd love to have this added to the group!

  42. On Being 63 months ago

    This is very interesting, both the project and the discussion it has inspired. I chimed in on the Speaking of Faith blog:

    - Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

  43. jkrinder 63 months ago

    The seperation of Catholicism and Christianity above is somewhat odd (it seems to say that Christianity : Catholicsm : : Christinity : Gnosticism or Christianity : LDS)

    This is somewhat clearer in the second version, as it doesn't take Christianity as a group in itself. There, however, it would seem that the LDS branch off from Roman Catholicism instead of from American Protestantism, which seems to be closer to both historical and theological reality.

  44. Colin Purrington 63 months ago

    Thanks -- it's amazingly complicated, just like the early evolution of photosynthesis, for example. Lots of evolution along lineages, but also some pretty substantial horizontal gene transfers. I can see why drawings of the above would be hard...and would invariably infuriate readers of a religion textbook. Thanks for stopping by.

  45. rudinskyalex 63 months ago

    Part of the difficulty of treating "the evolution of religion" as if it was "the evolution of species", is that you treat it like an object or system, something that is external to the viewer. By doing that you flatten it out and miss the depth that is only accessible from the internal dimensions. The various psycho-technologies (like prayer and meditation) and their resultant insights and realizations to higher (or deeper) levels are only able to be experienced (and verified) internally and individually.

    Ken Wilber, in his book "A Theory Of Everything" has a concentric circular map cross-comparing the Six World Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Far Eastern Religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He cross references their words given for the 4 different levels of self hood (body, mind, soul, spirit), and their 4 different levels of reality. In his map he divides each of the religions' level of reality into: 1 material (in Christianity: nature), 2 intermediate (angels/demons), 3 celestial (God), and 4 infinite (Godhead).

    Ken Wilber has written over 20 books translated into 20 languages on this integration of evolution and spirituality, and is now all over the web. Another important force in this area of Evolutionary Enlightenment is Andrew Cohen ( After the airing of NPR's Speaking of Faith, I would be surprised if you were not inundated with comments about this area.

  46. jcc4133 63 months ago

    This is a nice conceptual beginning, but you are going to have to delimit your scheme in order to maintain clarity and avoid unnecessary clutter an d confusion. Some suggestions: First, you might come up with a basic definition of religion to exclude quasi-religions and non-religions. A non-believer would not appreciate his or her non-theistic views classified as a religion. A clear, common sense definition of religion could avoid this. Second, one schemata ought to stick to major, existing religions. This would be useful to younger adults and others who need a basic framework without all the confusing complications. Third, historical time frames and dates should be observed in the model as we often see in physical evolutionary models. Symbols here may be less useful. Fourth, the time development of different faiths emerging within a single religions framework could be developed on a special tree.
    For example, the break of Christianity from Judaism and the consequent historical divergences of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant and post-Protestant movements could be shown.
    The same could be done for the Hindu/Buddhist developments as well as other practices. The key is visual simplicity with an emphasis on some historical connections and divergences.
    To do this more than one tree would be necessary for detail,
    Peace... Cam

  47. Davezilla was taken 63 months ago

    @jss4133: How does one define quasi-religions and non-religions? One man's meat is another man's poison. Example: My mother is Conservative Baptist. I am Lucumi (African). She feels her religion is the only way and all other faiths, even Catholicism, are quasi-religions. My faith predates hers by a few millennia. By her definition, mine is not a true faith. By historical definition, hers is likely a derivative of mine and therefore an offshoot of an original faith. Whose definition is correct? Which authoritative source is to be trusted?

  48. laserview 63 months ago

    re non-theism, humanism, etc. ...
    The roots go way back and through many cultures---not just a modern offshoot of present day religions. Could be twisting around several branches. You can get a symbol from the American Ethical Union (a circle with a stickman of sorts inside) or from the American Humanist Association (something that looks a lot like the Motorola symbol). You can probably get some history from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy website.

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