History of religion

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The circle is believed to be the oldest religious symbol known to man. It symbolizes wholeness and perfection and stands for sun, moon and earth (example Stonehenge )

The history of religion encompasses the development of the religious beliefs and practices of mankind - in short: religion (s) - over time.

Religion is a collective term for a large number of different worldviews that shape human behavior, action, thinking and feeling, normatively influence values and whose basis is the respective belief in certain transcendent forces and related sacred objects.

Development of Religions - Consensus

Can one infer prehistoric beliefs or cults from ethnic religions? ("Dance of the Mountain Spirits", Apache, Grand Canyon)

The religious ideas of non-written cultures (see also illiteracy ) - often referred to as natural religions or ethnic religions - have long been regarded as the oldest forms of religion due to their alleged "primitiveness" . Due to the non-existent dogmas and their great ability to adapt to changed conditions, on the contrary, they are all younger than the well-known " high religions ". They are also subject to historical change and are therefore no longer understood today in terms of unchanged traditions . Nevertheless, a number of prehistorians (such as Marcel Otte ) hold on to the view that the religions of prehistoric times can be reconstructed by comparing them with today's “primitive religions”. It ignores the fact that these belief systems must have had a beginning at some point that must be thought in a much simpler way than the complex worldviews of contemporary indigenous people .

In general, a direct evolution of religions in close connection with the change in social structures is postulated today , because belief obviously has a positive influence on certain aspects of living together. Specifically, their development is influenced by the environment, population and demographics, the state of technology, politics and the economy. However, there is still disagreement about the specific selection advantages of religions . Neither the promotion of altruistic behavior nor a concrete influence on the reproduction rate have been proven beyond doubt. The German religious scholar Ina Wunn also criticizes the fact that many models still require a higher level of development, with which ethnic or polytheistic religions are degraded (as often occurs in psychology). This would not only distort the theory, it would also justify reprisals by certain states against their religious minorities in the interests of progress.

From the unmanageable complexity of the development of religion, at least some fundamental developments can be filtered out, which today are largely consensus. The following is a summary based on current literature:

Preliminary remarks
  • The structure made here is only for the sake of clarity. It is not a breakdown of epochs in the history of religion, nor is it an evolutionary sequence from supposedly primitive to more highly developed forms of belief (see: “The evolutionary development of religion in the current discussion” ) . Such definitions and hierarchies are no longer capable of consensus today.
  • The indented and italicized sections reflect the considerations of the German philosopher and religious scholar Andreas Kött (* 1960), who tried to reconstruct the reasons for the change in religions with the help of systems theory . As he himself writes, “the system theory of religion that Niklas Luhmann presented has so far only been received sporadically in religious studies.” These hypotheses therefore also do not belong to the representation of the consensus; However, they represent an interesting addition from the point of view of a completely different scientific discipline, which should be mentioned here as an accompanying feature.

Presumed beginning of religiosity

Does the use of tools in primates prove abstract thinking, which is the basic requirement for religiosity?

6–2 million years BC Chr .: First forms of aesthetic perception and social behavior, development of thinking and language, but no evidence of religion yet

In German in particular, a distinction is made between religion (s) and religiosity . While a religion describes the religious doctrine and the associated institution , religiosity refers to the subjective religious feeling (reverence for the “big picture”, transcendent explanation of the world) and wishes ( enlightenment , religious affiliation ) of the individual.

With the emergence of abstract thinking , religiosity emerged as a prerequisite for the development of religion.

Living beings observe the world and instinctively classify everything they perceive into the two categories “known” and “unknown”. Unless their psychological abilities allow them to be consciously recognized and to think about it, they are not capable of religious thinking. They don't know anything about their knowledge and don't ask questions.

The "discovery" of the supernatural

Venus of Tan-Tan
> 300,000 years vh Venus von Tan-Tan , the oldest known work of art of mankind ( Homo erectus ), a religious reference is pure speculation
from 200,000 years vh First burials, possibly first ideas about death and the afterlife, references to grave goods and ceremonies ( Teschik-Tasch and Shanidar - Neanderthals , Sungir - Cro-Magnon )

The reflective perception led to a first categorization of the world into numerous dual opposites such as human / animal, heaven / earth, true / false, right / wrong, and much more. In doing so, humans discovered that some unknowns opened up to them, but some remained inaccessible - is therefore "supernatural".

At the beginning of the global religious development there were probably some first religions in the Middle Paleolithic , which were characterized by specific properties, including, above all, their own adaptations to their respective environments. The early stages of the religions , which can be proven archaeologically through finds (especially grave sites and grave goods ), indicate animistic ideas with a rich world of spirits .

There is some evidence that a master or mistress of animals - as was the case recently with almost all hunter peoples as protector of the animal world and ruler over the weal and woe of hunters - existed as the first god-like idea. Concrete reconstructions and transfers of recent , scriptless cultures to prehistory - such as shamanistic practices or religious ideas such as mana (supernatural power), taboo (strict ethical prohibitions) and totem (spiritual relationship to natural phenomena) - are now considered to be highly speculative and unprovable . What is certain is that religious depictions of Paleolithic hunters are similar despite different environmental conditions. However, due to the isolation of the widely dispersed groups of people of prehistoric times, one must assume that a large number of religious views already existed at that time.

The division of the world into dual opposites was the first starting point for the “archaic religion”: the unattainable was recognized as a mysterious, second reality; the contrast between a here and a hereafter became a firm conviction and the basis of mythical thought .

The oldest cults

Reconstruction of a Mesolithic burial in the Museum of the Île Téviec
from 35,000 years BC Chr. Refinement of burial forms. Works of art such as cave paintings and Venus figurines , some of which are interpreted religiously
from 12,000 BC Chr. Prehistoric and early historical cults, medicinal and hunting magic as well as death cults as the germ cells of religiosity: Increasingly differentiated burial rites such as burial fields, bonfires, skull dumping and graves in or under houses

In the course of the younger Paleolithic and Mesolithic , the rites became more and more complex, as the works of art from this period make clear. There was certainly a spiritual and religious connection between hunters and prey; and birth, fertility, and death evidently had special significance. The evidence speaks for increasing collective cults and the idea of ​​a human soul . Whether there was already a belief in one god or many gods cannot be said. However, it can be assumed that there were already religious specialists in some cultures who reported contact with the spirit world in lucid dreams or trance ( necromancer ) or who apparently had magical abilities ( sorcerer ).

Between 1950 and 2000, in the context of the shamanism debate, some authors tried to postulate prehistoric shamanism on the basis of works of art from the Stone Age . Shamanism in the narrower sense is limited to the traditional religions of Siberia and northern North America and is anything but uniform even there.

The archaic religions served to make the mysterious familiar in order to reduce the fear of the unknown. This probably happened through the development of different rituals , the always the same sequence of which gave a feeling of security. But the questions and uncertainties increased, as the cult apparently did not protect against all rigors, as well as in those cases in which norms were violated: The unknown became unpredictable, the need for interpretation and concrete spiritual help, for example in the event of natural disasters, diseases or unexpected changes the living conditions were awakened. The reality of life competed more and more with the transcendent and the concept of the " sacred " arose. As a result, people who evidently had special access to the spirit world received more and more respect. The importance of religion - which was still inextricably linked to everyday life - grew significantly. This was also expressed in a large number of symbols (pictures, buildings, clothing accessories, sacred objects, etc.). The question of the cause and meaning of this two-part world has not yet been asked.

Emerging gods

Mechelsdorfer Großdolmen , a cult building of the megalithic culture
from 8000 BC Chr. Trend towards figurative representations, more female figures, which some authors interpret as mother goddesses
from 5000 BC Chr. First graphic representations of people with symbols that can be interpreted relatively safely as deities
4700-1000 BC Chr. Stone graves and / or places of worship of the megalithic culture that can be found especially in Western Europe show important cults of the dead and certain ideas of the afterlife
from 4000 BC Chr. Slow differentiation of the Indo-European sacrificial religions : Slavic (worship of the elements of nature, spirits, ancestors and demons, sacrificial rites), Celtic (heroes, sacrificial cults and druids ), Germanic (protective gods, evil giants and other beings), Baltic (worship of nature and animals , Fertility rites, mother goddesses) and Etruscan religion (rites and sacrifices to overpowering gods, prophecies )

With the so-called Neolithic Revolution , religions developed (often independently of one another) in the new agrarian cultures that reflected the changed social structures of a more sedentary and planning way of life with increasing division of labor and the dependence on the fertility of the soil. The agrarian way of life strengthened man's self-confidence as an active creator of the world and this was reflected in the increasingly human-like (capricious, contentious, fallible) gods who were apparently able to reshape the world at will. Numerous finds from the Neolithic Age are for some researchers as an indication of a cult of field farmers against a mythical mother goddess who preserved the fertility of the earth. It possibly came about because women were now responsible for the existential tasks of the new agricultural way of life. However, like all interpretations of prehistoric artifacts, this interpretation is controversial. At least the motif of a diffuse, divine mother earth , the worship of mythical ancestors and the existence of mythologies as well as the increasingly colorful image of a polytheistic world of gods with anthropomorphic features should have played an essential role even among the early soil farmers .

The traditional economic forms of pastoral nomadism emerged in dry areas that did not allow agriculture . Here, too, there are analogous religious ideas among the various pastoral peoples , which underpin their often strictly hierarchical social and rulership structures: the rain-bringing heavenly gods with clear gradations from lower gods to a high god at the top (→ henotheism ) were more important than animal masters or Fertility goddesses.

In the "mythical religions" of the Neolithic Age, the question of the origin of the world was most likely already asked and answered. From ancient Greek philosophy we know, for example, the idea of ​​the eternal, uncreated “divine primordial ground” or “pure being”. Since then, the differences between the world's cultures and religions have grown.

Religion as an instrument of power

Death mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun
from 7000 BC Chr. Graves and grave goods in Mehrgarh and the centers of the Indus culture suggest religious cults (possibly ancestor cult) and myths (possibly mother goddess)
from 3000 BC Chr. Egyptian and Babylonian priestly religions with (predominantly) human gods
from 2400 BC Chr. Epic of Gilgamesh , the oldest testimony to the idea of theophany
from 1600 BC Chr. Polytheism and royal ancestor cult in the Chinese Shang dynasty
from 1400 BC Chr. First preliminary stage of monotheism in Egypt.
from 1200 BC Chr. Jewish tribal religion as a forerunner of Judaism
from 1000 BC Chr. Change from polytheism to henotheism in the Chinese Zhou dynasty
from 700 Establishment of polytheistic-animistic Shintoism as the official religion of Japan alongside Buddhism

Above all, climate changes and increasing population numbers caused the emergence of new technologies and increasingly complex social organization in the course of early history . The first hereditary chiefdoms and pre-state societies emerged . This includes the old high cultures and the conquest of new habitats such as the Polynesian islands. In many cultures, power was concentrated on an ever smaller ruling class, who often traced their descent directly back to the gods (example: Polynesian religion ). Religion thus became another form of domination ; the theocracy was established and law and religion remained an inseparable unit for a long time.

During this time, the ritual culture was primarily oriented towards the cardinal points and the course of the year (→ solstice celebration ) . More and more deities are identified by symbols. Despite the belief in gods, magic still had a very high priority in view of the uncontrollable forces of nature. The growing complexity of the pantheon, commandments and regulations led to various full-time specialists such as priests (experts in correct behavior and rituals), healers , fortune tellers , dream interpreters , sorcerers , etc.

From the nomadic way of life in the Middle East and their henotheistic religions (first written records from Israel ), the religious form of an unrepresentative or poorly depicted monotheism arose in a centuries-long syncretistic process , which had been announced in Egypt ( Akhenaten ) and which later became part of Christianity and in Islam experienced almost worldwide distribution with different manifestations.

“Due to the more pronounced division of labor and increasing economic security, the collective ' we-feeling ' diminished in favor of individuality : If individuals violated the prevailing norms, this no longer had existential consequences for the community and moreover often went unnoticed. This, too, is likely to have been reflected in the design of the world of gods: the gods became more and more numerous, more individual and more unpredictable. The old fear of the unknown flared up again: Man was no longer the only observer , but had to assume that the gods were also observing the world and each individual; and from an unfathomable position and with unknown intentions: Just as one can never know how other people think and act, neither can one know how a god thinks and acts. Many religions therefore increasingly viewed the gods as moral authorities who issued individual, precisely formulated norms for human behavior as well as punishments (which could now only begin in an existence after death). In some religions the feeling of 'being watched' gave rise to an awareness of overpowering guilt (such as in Judaism). "

- Andreas Kött

Dogmas and scriptures

Part of the Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea , c. 200 BC. Chr.
from 2500 BC Chr. The more than 1,000 Babylonian gods are described and classified
from 1200 BC Chr. Canonization of the Vedas of India's oldest religion
from 1000 BC Chr. Zoroastrian religion with the holy book Avesta
from 800 BC Chr. Doctrine of Rebirth of India
around 700 BC Chr. Exact definition of the form, nature and responsibilities of the Olympian gods by Homer and Hesiod
from 600 BC Chr. Karma Teachings , Chinese Universism
from 440 BC Chr. Written down the Jewish Torah
from 7 BC Chr. Early Christianity
from 650 Islam

The increasing cultural differentiation of urban societies in antiquity led to canonization of their religions , that is: the variety of the varying traditions was standardized and sorted according to meaning in order to no longer unsettle believers with deviating statements and thus to remain credible. The invention of writing promoted this process considerably. From around 1000 BC. The first sacred texts were written down and integrated into the standardized meaning of sacred scriptures . In the monotheistic religions, God himself was often the author, so that no changes were allowed to take place through people. This significantly slowed the change of these religions. Deviations and uncertainties as well as immediate adjustments to new living conditions - which were more the rule in the religions of prehistory and early history - could now be documented and eliminated using the scriptures. In some belief systems, religious dogmas were formulated : the sacred texts were elevated to the sole truth and all skepticism was taboo. This increasingly revealed contradictions to other philosophical or scientific teachings, which were thus automatically considered to be untrue. Religion lost its ideological unique selling point. However, this “danger” was usually averted by the fact that the regional rulers only recognized “their” religion as the truth. A differentiation of religion from the other areas of life began and the believers became more and more part of a “sub-community with its own identity” through strict ideological rules and increased rituals of belonging.

In his historical-philosophical consideration, Karl Jaspers made what he called an Axial Age between 800 and 200 BC. In which essential innovations in intellectual history shaped the philosophical and religious history of China , India , Iran and Greece . Jaspers interpreted this as a comprehensive epoch of the “spiritualization” of man, which had an impact in philosophy and religion, and secondarily in law and technology. With this pluralistic interpretation Jaspers turned against a Christian motivated conception of a universal story . In contrast to the revealed religions, which he rejected, he conceived in his religious-philosophical work The Philosophical Faith in the Face of Revelation a philosophical approach to a transcendence in the face of human ideas of omnipotence.

With the religions fixed in writing, the problem arose over time that the meaning of the linguistically “preserved” holy scriptures was no longer understood by people as before due to the constant changes in the “progress-driven cultures” (this problem exists in the Christian churches today still, since the adaptation of the doctrine to the changing social conditions due to Christian dogmatics cannot keep up). Another consequence was the feeling of increasing temporal distance, because the writing automatically created a chronology that made the scriptures something that was in the past. As a result, the believers felt themselves further and further removed from the salvific primal events: the effect of the holy powers faded and the growing desire for redemption germinated . Canonization, dogmatics and the increasing priestly competence mark the beginning of the so-called high religions; the introduction of writing was perhaps not a necessary condition, but at least it was its main catalyst.

New interpretations of the scriptures

Buddhism: Reform religion against traditional rituals and god worship
Spread of world religions up to 1500 (for description, see world religion )
from 500 BC Chr. Anti-ritualistic and anti-theistic reform teaching of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama
from 2 AD First reinterpretations of the Jewish Torah
1350-1700 Renaissance humanism , reformation and counter-reformation

The increasing difficulties in understanding the ever-aging holy scriptures inevitably aroused the need for interpretation and, if necessary, re-evaluation. This was the hour of birth of the various denominations , schools and teachings in the world religions , which more or less deviated from the existing dogmas. The believer should regain confidence in religion by making it familiar again through appropriate recent revisions . Nevertheless, some paradoxical conclusions remained, which were then justified with the fundamental paradox of religious experiences (such as “God's ways are unfathomable” in Christianity, “A Bible passage has several meanings” in Judaism or the multitude of Kōans in Chan and Zen Buddhism ). These efforts were successful, because up to the early modern period the order of life in the areas where the world religions spread was essentially determined by religion. The giving of meaning, the justification for all actions and the integration into the religious social structures were still more decisive than the secular side of life.

Andreas Kött speaks here of the " hermeneutic religions".

New religious currents

1700-1800 Christian Religion in the Enlightenment
from 1800 Beginning of the Christian sects
1844 and 1852 Foundation of Babism and the Baha'i religion in Persia as an ethical-humanitarian world religion that includes all other religions
from 1900 Expansion of sectarianism to other belief systems
from 1960 "Esoteric Market"

Since the time of the Enlightenment , other systematic worldviews have been established in addition to religion, which have emerged from the sciences, philosophy, contact with other religions and esoteric teachings. To date, these have either been incomplete or have been fought as heresy by the Church . More and more people found explanations and moral teachings outside of religion, so that religion was just one of many ways to observe the world. This development led to an increasing separation of religion and everyday life and to greater individual "freedom of thought".

In addition to the churches and organized sects, there is now an unmanageable variety of books, seminars and workshops on religious issues that are offered as products for sale on the “ esoteric market”. Since the demand determines the supply in every market, there are also numerous dubious offers in which, for example, fragments from completely different religions - mainly those that promise great interest from buyers - torn out of their context and become an allegedly "traditional whole" were artificially connected.

The European expansion and the colonial history of the last centuries as well as the globalization accompanied by new communication media and increasing mobility seem to bring with it a crisis of the ethnic-traditional religions. The crisis can, however, also be understood as a “transformation” of religion, which is described by the term invisible religion (invisible religion).

Since the end of the Middle Ages, the "functionally differentiated religions" have lost their monopoly on many topics, so that their unique selling point in modern societies is essentially only the transcendent. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the emergence of the most varied sects and the globalization of knowledge have created a new competitive situation for the world religions, since different contact persons are now available even for questions about the saint.

The evolutionary development of religion in the current discussion

Strongly simplified schematic representation of the three essential sociocultural models of evolution

Ina Wunn's comprehensive habilitation thesis “The Evolution of Religions” (2004) took stock of the most important sociocultural models of evolution. Basically, all theories can be reduced to the three types of models shown:

Classical evolutionist theories, which assume a unilinear and predetermined development to ever more highly developed, unchangeable and complex stages, no longer play a role today - as already described above. Neoevolutionist theories presuppose a targeted development towards more highly developed, more complex, but not predetermined stages. Such models - or the conclusions that have not been further reflected upon - are still present by many authors, although they do not allow any cross-connections and "retrograde developments", as they occur precisely in the various forms of cultural change and especially in the syncretistic merging processes of religions. An example of this view is the still frequently cited hierarchical five-step model by Robert Bellah , that a religious development from allegedly “primitive” to “archaic” and “historical-classical religions” to “early modern” and finally “modern” religions “Pretends. Other scholars who adhere to an evaluative religious classification are Bernhard Verkamp, Bruce Dickson , Michael Ripinski-Naxon, Rainer Döbert and Günter Dux .

According to Wunn and other current authors, only those approaches do justice to current research findings that consider cultural phenomena against a cultural relativistic background and do not evaluate them - so that, for example, the animistic-magical belief is no longer among the modern world religions, but alongside them. Such evolution models, which presuppose an undirected development to non- predetermined stages with increasing complexity of the overall system, show great parallels to biological evolution . The living nature knows no progress whatsoever, only change. Wunn calls them "family tree models".

The aim of research in the history of religion: family tree model and system of religion

Religions always change when the environment or people's living conditions change. The nature of the change is directional and reacts quickly to the religious needs triggered by the socio-economic change . The changes within the religions are passed on directly, purposefully and not randomly - variability and "inheritance" are thus directly "environmentally controlled"; only then does the selection begin. As in nature, a distinction must also be made between homologous classes - which go back to a common pre-religion - and analogies - which come from similar selection pressure, but from different origins.

So far, there is only a very few religions (e.g. for the Indian) a detailed family tree and a system of religions resulting from this that meet the aforementioned requirements. All previously existing, worldwide religious classifications are unsatisfactory in various ways:

  • too wide-meshed to allow a comparison between individual, closely related religions
  • lack of differentiation between homologous and analog developments
  • Inadequate ethnographic source material (different priorities and interpretations)

Possible selection advantages

Above all, the three selection advantages of environment, cooperation and reproduction are discussed:


For so-called " ecosystem people " who are dependent on a certain habitat for better or for worse, a sustainable use of resources is vital. Religion can be advantageous here when the killing of certain living beings is taboo, when ghosts guard the prey and when people must fear punishment if these moral norms are violated .


For social beings like humans, cooperation is vital. Studies show that “togetherness” ultimately brings more advantages than “self-interest” or “competition”. An advantage of religion can be derived from this, as they usually set the ethical standards of the believers . Selfish behavior is ostracized and possibly punished by transcendent forces (see also sin ) , while altruistic and cooperative behavior is encouraged and rewarded. As various experiments have shown, the feeling of being observed by supernatural actors alone leads to more norm-compliant action - reason, honesty, generosity, politeness and courage increase.

Critics, however, argue that religion can also make coexistence more difficult, because some religious regulations (such as the prohibition of contraception by Catholics, the legitimation of power in Tibetan Buddhism of the 9th century or the questionable legal status of women in Islam) do not only have positive effects expect. In the case of fanatical religious schools who use manipulated religious reasons to induce their followers to behave in a destructive manner , there can no longer be any talk of a cooperation advantage. Examples of this are the atrocities of the conquistadors against the pagan Indians in the name of Christ, Christian anti-Judaism and modern Islamist terror, for example by suicide bombers .


The reproductive advantage , which is well known from biology , is also discussed in cultural evolution as an important selection factor, although there are weighty points of criticism here. There have been numerous studies, at least for the last few decades, that show that religious people have more children.

There are several considerations as to how religion increases the reproductive rate:

  • The religiously based cooperation improves the chances of finding a partner.
  • Religion promotes health through higher life satisfaction.
  • Prohibition of contraceptives through religious dogma.
  • Religions often extol people's fertility and abundance of children.
  • Religions based on love and mercy reduce the risk of war.

The latter point is criticized because this mechanism does not ( or no longer) works in countries with low child mortality, high life expectancy, extensive education and a high standard of living . Here the socio-economic situation of the countries is obviously more decisive.

See also


  • Peter Antes : Outline of the history of religion . (= Theological Science; Vol. 17). Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-17-016965-3
  • Jes Peter Asmussen, Jorgen Laessoe, Carsten Colpe (eds.): Handbuch der Religionsgeschichte . 3 volumes. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1971–1975, ISBN 3-525-50158-7 , ISBN 3-525-50160-9 and ISBN 3-525-50162-5
  • Julia Haslinger: The evolution of religions and religiosity. In: SocioloReligiosität in Switzerland: Sociology of Religion, online publication , Zurich 2012.
  • Ian Hodder : Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014
  • Hans G. Kippenberg: The discovery of the history of religion. Religious Studies and Modernism , Munich: CH Beck, 1997
  • Andreas Kött: Systems theory and religion: with a religion typology following Niklas Luhmann. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2003, ISBN 3-8260-2575-X
  • Ludwig Ellinger u. Willibald Fritz: A Brief History of Religions. Liliom, Waging am See 2014, ISBN 978-3-934785-72-4
  • Handbook of the history of religion in German-speaking countries . Schöningh, Paderborn et al. 2000–. Previous volumes:
  • Monika Tworuschka / Udo Tworuschka : The world of religions , Knowledge Media, Gütersloh 2006, ISBN 3-577-14521-8
  • Geo Widengren: Religious Phenomenology. De Gruyter, Berlin 1969
  • Ina Wunn: The Evolution of Religions. Habilitation thesis, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hanover, 2004. pdf version .
  • Ina Wunn: The religions in prehistoric times. W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 978-3-17-016726-1

Individual evidence

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  2. Julia Haslinger, pp. 3–4.
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  5. Ina Wunn: The evolution of religions. , P. 97.
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