Acknowledging that society and culture are broadly influenced by religion; understanding that a society and the religion of that society are frequently inextricably connected; is there such a thing as an extinction event for a religion? Are there any examples of that type of wholesale abandonment of religion? What causes a society to abandon it's own religion (for another religion or for secularism)?

This question does not concern a gradual reduction in belief, but only an abrupt (no longer than one year) shift by the majority of the group.

The following are possible reasons:

  1. Exposure to another culture
  2. Advances in science/technology
  3. Natural (Environmental) disasters
  4. Political change in government

Historical examples are needed to confirm or refute these suppositions.

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    There's a big one missing here: politics, or who's in charge. Considering many of the major religions were proliferated by an empire, that one might be quite important. Aug 5, 2016 at 17:33
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    I suspect the answer to this question is found in religion and sociology, not in history, and in the particulars, not in the patterns. (that is to say that the reason why Indonesia is more religious than Luxemborg is due to the countries involved, rather than historically identifiable patterns) That said, in most societies, religion fulfills sociopolitical needs in addition to devotional needs. Until there is some alternative institution to fulfill the sociopoltical need, it is difficult to move away from religion. I think Weber wrote a book on the topic.
    – MCW
    Aug 5, 2016 at 17:55
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    @MarkC.Wallace - A deep reflection of "whys" may belong to other disciplines, but as for what has actually happened, I'd think that ought to be a matter of historical record.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 5, 2016 at 18:08
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    @called2voyage excellent point. And incentives given by empires might have very different impacts depending on social conditions. The Ottoman Empire gave Christians major incentives to change their faith, though hardly a Greek did. In China, were religions didn't exclude each other, an emperor's fervour for Buddhism greatly increased its popularity.
    – Ludi
    Aug 5, 2016 at 18:45
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    Needs a bit of definition. What is "abrupt"? Also, what does it mean for a society to "change religion". In one sense, the Roman Empire's conversion to Christianity was very abrupt because the state religion was changed in only a few years. But in another sense, it actually took centuries for the majority of Roman citizens to become Christian.
    – user15620
    Aug 5, 2016 at 22:32

6 Answers 6


The Aten religion in Ancient Egypt 14th Century BC. It virtually came and went with one King, Akhenaten, which may indicate how centralised power must have been in that society.

The king's power to make his subjects adopt a new religion that they quickly abandoned after his death may have been to do with the country's natural geographical isolation by desert, good internal communications via the Nile, dependence on government to organise irrigation and production and storage of food in an economy dependent on the Nile floods and which lacked a currency or a merchant class, as well as the immense prestige of the Egyptian monarchy.

We know that Akenaten closed the temples of Egypt's colourful multiplicity of gods and goddesses like Re, Amun, Horus, Seth, Osiris, Isis, Hathor etc. and had their names defaced in inscriptions.

He instituted instead the worship of the sun disk, which he called the Aten, worshipped in temple courts open to the sky. He built a new capital city and pioneered new styles and even colours in art that would not be associated with worship of the old gods. He made himself the key figure in Aten worship.

Arguably, this was the first recorded monotheistic religion in the world. Whether it is coincidence that the next oldest recorded monotheistic religion, that of the Hebrews, appeared in a country, Israel, that is a near neighbour of Egypt, is an extremely important but open question.

After Akhenaten's death his immediate successors seem to have continued the Aten religion to an extent for a couple of years, but then abandoned it, along with his capital and artistic innovations. Akhenaten's son, born 'Tutankhaten', came to the throne a few years later as 'Tutankhamun', under which name he is still famous. Thereafter, Akhenaten's own name was chiselled out of inscriptions and left out of lists of Egyptian kings, and the memory of him and his religion removed from history, until the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie excavated the site of Akhenaten's capital in the early twentieth century.


Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000 AD. This was the result of mediation, to avoid a civil war between heathens and Christians, and to maintain good relations with Norway. Public heathen practice was banned.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianization_of_Iceland

This was a medieval society.


What causes a society to abandon it's own religion (for another religion or for secularism)?

Open warfare and subjugation springs to mind.

The Saxon Wars were not only forcing the Saxons under Frankish rule, but also forced them from Germanic paganism to Catholicism. To quote Charlemagne:

If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.

Pretty compelling argument, if you ask me.


Here are 2 examples that may answer your question:

  1. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-18: When the Bolshevik Communists triumphed and assassinated the Czar, the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as Russian Christianity-(generally speaking), was banned or driven underground rather quickly. For much of the 20th century, Russian Orthodox Christianity was viewed by the Soviet Union as an anachronism, as well as an ally of the much hated Czar. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has returned and has been proactive in Russian society.

  2. The Maoist "Cultural Revolution": When Mao took over China, it was both a major political and even a religious or "cultural" transformation. Maoist Communism attempted to oppressively supplant the various religious cultures within China within a short time span. There was some success, though Mao and the Communists could not completely eradicate religion from Chinese society.


The only example that strikes my mind is that of Anglican church. The English King Henry VIII listened to one of his advisors (Edit : Archbishop Thomas Cranmer according to comments) to go against the Pope and start a "stricter" religion. In fact, it was also much more convenient for Henry VIII since he could divorce as much as he wanted.

So, a single King was able to change abruptly the faith of his people, for his personal use. At the time, the church was powerful but not that popular with the peasantry. When one told them it was not the Pope but their English King the one that was in charge of their faith, I don't think it was viewed as such a bad change for them. Nonetheless, there were still a lot of religious rebellions because of the "I'm the Pope now, he's merely trash, divorcing is really cool.", but everything was pacified quickly (or purged, depending on your viewpoint.)

  • Was this a fundamental abandonment or change of a religion? Or did the church of England (for the most part) keep the same core beliefs of the Catholic church? Correct me if I'm mistaken...
    – iAndelin
    Aug 8, 2016 at 15:19
  • I'm not an expert, but the church of England became much more protestant than catholic but kept some of the catholic faith. It was fundamental in that, it was privatizing the Church, you had to submit to the English King to be Anglican. Maybe the wikipedia page can help you a bit more en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglicanism
    – LamaDelRay
    Aug 8, 2016 at 16:28
  • It wasn't Thomas More, Thomas More died because he refused to go along with King Henry's leaving the Catholic Church. Aug 10, 2016 at 19:23
  • I believe you want Archbishop Thomas Cranmer here (not More, who was a lawyer).
    – AllInOne
    Aug 11, 2016 at 21:06
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    Or you might mean Thomas Cromwell, the king's chief minister at the time. He and Cranmer were both important in the Anglican Church's break with Rome. An indication of how precarious things were then for those caught on the wrong side of politics or religion, all 3 Thomases we are discussing, More, Cranmer and Cromwell were all eventually executed under either Henry VIII or his (Catholic reaction) daughter Mary
    – Timothy
    Aug 12, 2016 at 12:29

It strongly depends on what you call an "advanced society". Of course we know many examples when a pagan nation switched to Christianity in the historical times, like the Roman empire, for example, a very advanced society, btw. The latest in Europe was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In most cases this happened when the ruler was converted, and then his religion was enforced on the rest of population.

Of course you can say that these societies were not advanced enough.

Speaking of more advanced societies (and very rapid "conversion") the most striking example is probably the Muslim conquest of the Middle east and North Africa. And the later Muslim conquests. Constantinople was certainly a very advanced society, by all criteria.

Another example is the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula.

So of the reasons you mention 1 and 4 are relevant, and 2,3 are not very much. But you did not list one of the main reasons: conquest and forcible conversion.

EDIT. For a more recent example, Soviet Union conquered Western Ukraine in 1939. In the late 1940th they formally banned the Greek-Catholic Church (uniate Church). So people had essentially three choices: to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, or to Catholicism, or to be atheists. I do not have a statistics but I suppose most did either one or another. Some remained hidden, illegal, underground practitioners of their religion, but as always these were a minority. With the collapse of Soviet Union, the Uniate Church became legal (in Ukraine) again.

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