Dear Mr. Hamilton,
I am here to ask a somewhat moderate question: What is the oldest religion ever recorded?
The reason why I want to know is that earlier today, I had a discussion with a few of my fellow classmates on the topic of religion. It started when I said, "Well, if you count religion....." because someone said that it is okay to be a homosexual, but I'll talk about that sometime later.
Anyway, in one part of the discussion, one classmate stated, to the best of my memory, that Hinduism is the world's oldest religion. However, I retaliated back by saying something that might sound so embarrassing that it might, well, be out of the ordinary for a teen like me to say it. Maybe it's because I acted quickly without thinking it through. Luckily, I realized what I have done. After school ended, I walked up to my classmate and told her that I take that statement back, and by tomorrow or some time after that I would try and find a better, more reasonable answer. The rest is history.
The first problem is that a record of a religion does not establish when it started, only that it existed prior to the record. Thus, the first record of farming does not establish when farming started, only that farming existed prior to that record.
The second problem is that records get destroyed over time. Therefore, the further back in time you go, the fewer records survive. Therefore, records that might prove something is older might not have survived by chance.
According to "History of Hinduism" the oldest record is believed to be about 2,000 B.C. The problem is that isn't based on hard facts but suppositions:
"Some writings of this period has been discovered, but unfortunately in such small amounts that they have yet to be deciphered. Knowledge of this great civilization's religion must therefore be based on physical evidence alone. Baths have been found that may indicate ritual bathing, a component of modern Hinduism. Some altar-like structures may be evidence of animal sacrifice, and terracotta figures may represent deities. An important seal features a horned figure surrounded by animals, which some conjecture is a prototype of Shiva, but it could be a bull parallel to that found on Mesopotamian seals."
This is not high-quality evidence. The oldest actual Hindu text only dates back to 1,000 B.C. The culture where Hinduism developed dates back to 3,000 B.C., but the religion of Hinduism isn't so easily marked because it appears to have evolved over the years. At what change does a person say this is the same religion as modern-day Hinduism? See The Ancient Origins of Hinduism.
The oldest physical records for a religion are probably those of the Sumerians. The fact that they were recorded on clay tablets that were buried in the desert allowed these records to survive. A close second would be the Egyptians' religion. These records are dated about 3000 to 2,500 B.C. (Dating of the records becomes a third problem that we will ignore for now.). Still, neither of those religions continues to be practiced in the modern age.
The oldest mention of the Israelites goes back to the Merneptah Stele dated 1213-1203 B.C. This stele is a part of the Greek records. But in regards to their religious documents, the oldest surviving copies only go back to about 300 B.C. for documents among the Dead Sea scrolls.
Unlike most other religious documents, the Bible contains historical narratives. It mentions people, places, and events that go back several thousand years prior to actual surviving manuscripts. Where these historical facts can be verified in archeology, they have always been shown to be accurate. Arguments against the Bible have almost always been based on missing evidence. But eventually what is missing is found and the Bible has been proven correct. If someone is willing to accept the Bible as a historical record, that record gives dates for a religion that goes back to the founding of the world. Skeptics can't accept that truth and so the best record is tossed out.