To what extent are belief systems and religion the driving force behind changes in human society?

Long read.

Originally published in 2015.

In order to comprehend to what extent religion and belief systems were a driving force behind changes in human society, it is vital to understand the meanings of both of these:

Religion, according the Penguin English Dictionary, is the organised belief in and worship of a god, gods, or the supernatural. (Allen, 2002, p.747)

A belief system can be defined as:  ‘Faith based on a series of beliefs but not formalised into a religion’. (

From these definitions we can see that religion is most likely to be within a group or larger setting and one in which worship is of great importance, a belief system seems to be less extreme and does not necessarily require the need for worship.

To the Ancient Egyptians religion was part of their tradition; it can’t necessarily be argued that it was the driving force behind changes, as their philosophy was to resist change.

“Egyptians did not question the beliefs which had been handed down to them; they did not desire change in their society. Their main aim throughout their history was to emulate the conditions which they believed had existed at the dawn of creation”  (

Predynastic Egypt was a result of Nile flooding and agricultural benefits, the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled villages was dramatic change, with it interactions with neighbouring settlements were established, a written language developed and also an institutionalised religion, here religion was not the reason for change, a change in society was religion. It was something that the settlement perhaps needed for social reasons and also a means of showing gratitude for their agricultural benefits, it would give them an opportunity to honour their dead also, with burials and later, cemeteries. (1)

The New Kingdom in Ancient Egypt held beliefs throughout that there was life after death and with this mummification and burials were of great importance, not only for pharaohs and priests but for all Egyptians. Amenhotep, one of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom era, attempted to go against tradition by introducing the worship of Aten or the ‘sun disk’. There was one significant change under the rule of Amenhotep, the decision that the Egyptian temples would be closed, although most Egyptians were not allowed entry they were of great importance on a social and economical scale. The temples provided land for farmers; schools to produce scribes and doctors, to remove these services would have had an affect on the economy.

Tutankhamun, Amenhotep’s  son, and also one of his successors, reverted religion and beliefs back to their original state. The religion and beliefs remained unchanged throughout Ancient Egypt, they had immense influence on the people and much if their life was focused on how they would be received in the afterlife and would account for why the Egyptians didn’t feel the need to change their beliefs. (Connah, 2009, p.377)

The temples that produced schools and work for farmers, doctors and scribes were of great benefit to the Egyptians of that time, without these advantages there would have been no education or jobs and it is their religion that produced these opportunities, creating a change for the better. The temples and statues they created were an on going tradition for Pharaohs and their slaves, the luxuries that they expected to receive in the afterlife were a driving force for them to stay in power in order to travel on to the afterlife and be accepted.

Agriculture in Egypt was a likely reason for changes in society, the development of towns and cities would depend greatly on the land on which they lie, opportunities for farming and crops would make way for buildings and dwellings to be built, which would lead on to larger structures such as government offices, craft productions and military bases. As the cities changed and grew the society would also grow and adapt. (Kemp, 1989)

The Aztecs were firm believers in an afterlife, gods and sacrificial rituals. Their religious beliefs consisted of the sun fighting at night with the darkness and that it rose to save them. Temples were built in recognition of their gods and also reflected in their art work. (2)

The Aztec way of life very much ran by the will of the gods, their crops and weather was ‘controlled’, in their eyes, by the gods. The impact this would have had on a society would have been imperative. The entirety of Aztec life was determined by a supreme being, any part of their lives, even the predictions of the world coming to an end was decided by their own belief systems.

As empires have formed throughout history they tend to expand and take over surrounding areas, much like the Aztecs did between the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the conquered the people known as The Mexica, they brought with the a new religion, rituals and beliefs. This was obviously a change to the Mexica people and religion could be viewed here as the driving force behind the change as it could be argued that without the gods of the Aztecs the siege would never have taken place as an attempt to attack may never have taken place had it not been for their gods and beliefs guiding them. They were most certainly consulted in these situations or at least thought to have presented signs to them.

‘’The head of the gods was Huizilopochtlid, god of war and god of sun. This god had told the Aztecs to wander until they found an eagle with a serpent in its mouth perched on a cactus growing from a ro ck. When they found this, they claimed the area around it, which is now known as Tenochtitlan.’’


This extract from an article online is reference to the Aztecs following the signs of the gods and how they would know to take the land for themselves, an act that was governed by their beliefs.(3)

Many of the religious beliefs of the Aztecs were based upon myths, signs and visions, stories were used in conjunction with everyday aspects of their lives, thought processes and they way in which they constructed their way of living was governed by a god or gods, they had a strict outlook compared to the religion and beliefs of the Egyptians, although the Egyptians believed in the afterlife, as did the Aztecs, they were not controlled in every way by their faiths

The Aztecs made statues of their many different gods, Tlaloc, god of rain, Quetzalcoatl was the god who created humans, and they built temples for worship and altars for offerings, mainly human sacrifice.

The barbaric ways in which they conducted their beliefs was not well received by other Mesoamericans and also the Spaniards who eventually destroyed the Aztecs along with their city and the Empire of Anahuac. (Great Civilisations, pg 182-195)

Although some of the actions of the Aztecs, such as human sacrifice, horrified the Spaniards who would later conquer them it could not be said that they were completely without sophistication. Their knowledge of farming, architecture and a belief system of their own shows they had thrived and developed completely independently of outside help even without domesticated animals or machinery to aid them.  It would appear that cultural evolution would be a driving force behind the changes in human society within the Aztec civilisation. (Webster and Evans, 2009, p.639)

Rock art of South Africa was, for many years, perceived as pictures that Bushmen had drawn in order to record everyday events and maybe pass the time. However it is now believed that Rock art has deeper meanings such as on a spiritual level. It has been suggested that the artists who created such wonderful art could not possibly have been Bushmen as they are viewed as being too primitive.

The beliefs of Bushmen are reflected in the art that covers the rocks and caves of South Africa, it differs from the paintings and artwork drawn by the Khoikhoi people and black farmers, suggesting they weren’t as primitive and child-like as previously believed.

It is possible that the Bushmen who created the art were Shamans; Shamans were healers and would go into trance-like states and imagine visions of which they recorded in the artwork. Their beliefs were that the trances could foretell the future, predict the weather and offer good luck when hunting. These practices are similar to the beliefs of the Aztecs, in that their decisions and behaviour may well have been controlled by their belief systems.


The San people, an ancient tribe of South Africa, used rock art as a record of trance visions seen by medicine men.  These men communicated with the spirit world and then relayed their experiences back to the tribe through their art. The medicine man usually took the form of an antelope and was seen as a healer or helper, someone who wished harm on others was portrayed through an image of a large predator.

Changes to the San peoples way of life was brought on by the arrival of white people, their artwork reflects this with the changing images, guns are introduced and replace the large predators depicting those who wish harm. As white settlers made life more difficult for the tribe their rituals became more complicated in order to deal with alterations to their lifestyle.

Unfortunately the white settlers only viewed the Bushmen as primitive people who lacked maturity, however it could be argued that their views were derived only from what they had encountered when  white settlers invaded their territory, it is obvious from the art work that they produced that they were not ‘primitive and child-like’.

“He has no religion, no laws, no government, no recognised authority, no patrimony, no fixed abode… a soul, debased, it is true and completely bound down and clogged by his animal nature”

(In reference to Bushmen form the viewpoint of a frustrated missionary (4)) (5)

Although religion depicted many changes in human society, mainly through visions, signs and the gods deciding fates, it would seem more likely, at least in Ancient Egypt, that agricultural reasons were the main driving force in changes to human society. The difference between Egyptians and the Aztecs seems to be that whereas the Egyptians followed their religion traditionally their changes brought about by the need to locate to different areas for farming reasons was for the better and was need to be able to grow as a society, the belief systems of the Aztecs, it would seem, were the reason for their downfall.

The San people had a belief system which was all together different from that of the Egyptians or the Aztecs. The changes to their society were brought about by settlers disrupting their way of life and this was reflected throughout their rock art.

Changes throughout history within societies have been a result of the need for hierarchical existence, the further development of cities and at times the greed of people in positions of power. Religion is most certainly a factor in all of these things and vice versa with the education, agriculture, architecture; they are all reasons for a change in society. It does not stem from the same factor in every society as can be seen with the Egyptians, the Aztecs and the San people.

Religion may well be a driving force regarding changes in human society however it is by no means the only force. Educations, warfare, agriculture, are all contributing factors and without each of these variables societies would not have developed and thrived in the ways in which they have done. In Ancient Egypt their belief systems and religion were traditions passed down, which in some way would be classed as an education, they were taught these ways. Also in many societies it was the priests and religious leaders who were of higher importance, it could therefore be argued that these were the people involved in decisions regarding wars, farming, and houses quite possibly all major decisions involving all people of their society were made based on the religious beliefs of that respective time. This would show that belief systems were a huge driving force behind change in human society. As changes became more widespread, in all aspects, people beliefs would change too. It does not appear to be a driving force behind change but instead a concept in place to retain something from ancient civilisations. The ‘rules’ of worship may not be the same, however the definition remains unaltered.

Bibliography  (1) (accessed 15th March 2012) (2) (accessed 15th March 2012) (3) (accessed 15th March 2012) (4) (accessed 15th March 2012) (5) (accessed 15th March 2012)

Connah, G. (2009) ‘Holocene Africa’ in

  1. Scarre (ed.) The Human Past, London, Thames and Hudson, pp.351-391.

Webster, D and Evans, S, T. (2009) ‘Mesoamerican Civilisation’ in C.Scarre (ed.)  The Human Past, London, Thames and Hudson, pp. 595-639.

Factopedia. (2011) ‘Mesoamerica’ in Ignition (ed.) Great Civilisations, Bath, Parragon, pp.182-195.

Watterson, B. (1998) ‘The Age of Empire’ in A.Briggs (ed.) Ancient Egypt, Gloucestershire, Sutton Publishing, pp.56-84.


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