Although sometimes overlooked, the major world religions, their genesis, their rise, their evolution, their rise to (and fall from) dominance, have always been crucial threads in the vast tapestry that is human history. Making for obvious what-if scenarios that are the fodder of alternate histories and their enthusiasts everywhere.
In particular, the rise of Christianity and later Islam during late antiquity exerted a profound impact, leading to people wondering what if that had never happened? What would the West be like without Christianity, the Middle East without Islam, the world without those twin Abrahamic behemoths of faith? Fascinating stuff.
Depaganization was not inevitable!
The evolution away from paganism and toward monotheistic higher religions is sometimes thought, especially in popular culture, to have been inevitable, yet the East never underwent such a transformation. They developed higher religions, yes, but they tended to be systematizations of their traditional polytheistic beliefs (e.g. Hinduism) or recontextualization of them into a new religion (e.g. Buddhism), not wholesale replacement. Japan even skipped higher religion altogether, instead happily humming along to the very animistic Shinto through the present day.
The experience of the East, and the curious fact that both Christianity and Islam spread during late antiquity in western Eurasia (i.e. the same time in the same place), suggests the dominance of Abrahamic faiths or something like them is a fluke rather than an inevitability. Without the spread of these missionary faiths the entire world would be “pagan”: doing all their own rituals, worshiping their own gods, developing philosophies to unite it all into a coherent whole. The kind of religious landscape found in the East today would be the norm worldwide, as it was in antiquity.
Hinduism as an alternate History of Paganism
So what would step into the void? Paganism was already developing into a higher religion, as shown by the rise of many philosophies, including Neoplatonism, which was strong enough stuff to heavily influence Christianity! All this suggests European Paganism would have done just fine on its own, leading to a religious landscape in Europe similar to India’s today: Germans would still worship at their sacred groves, Italians would pray and make offerings at their temples, and intellectuals would debate the nature of the many gods, e.g. whether they are distinct spiritual forces or aspects of some underlying all-powerful single divinity, and so on and so forth.
Christian monks were instrumental in preserving Western heritage in the dark age, but it’s worth noting Hindu monks are a thing, as were oracles and outfits like the Vestal Virgins in Paganism, so if, as seems likely, the fall of the Roman Empire still happens with all its consequences, Pagan monks may well serve the same role in the alternate timeline as Christian monks did in ours. Given the social collapse of late antiquity a mass turn toward monasticism seems very likely anyway.
A Buddhist Europe, a Buddhist World?
A European analogue to Hinduism’s developments is honestly the most likely scenario, but it just isn’t all that exciting. Fortunately for the red-blooded alternate history enthusiast there are other options. Buddhism was already a thing in classical antiquity, and indeed offered many of the same advantages as Christianity; an advantage it has Christianity lacks is its compatibility with traditional beliefs. Buddhism syncretizes with local polytheisms in a way Christianity or Islam cannot.
Europe in a Pagan timeline may well be as self-confidently polytheistic as India and reject incursions from any philosophy that seriously challenges their worldview, but if the same yearning for something better is there even after Paganism becomes a higher religion, then in an alternate history without Christianity or Islam Buddhism is ideally situated to overtake the West. Indeed, Buddhism made inroads into India and China in real life, so adding Europe and the Middle East to the mix, together with the near-inevitability of an age of discovery and the concomitant spread of the more advanced regions’ faiths, means Buddhism may well achieve world domination, the one truly global religion the vast majority of humanity shares, or at least find truths in.
Now that’s quite an idea for an alternate timeline! A Buddhist West isn’t even that unlikely; the Greco-Bactrians, i.e. Greeks in what’s now northern Afghanistan, converted to Buddhism, and the very idea of making statues in the image of Buddha seems to have come from them! Keep in mind the West will likely have a very different form of Buddhism. Already Tibetan Buddhism is very different from the original Indian version, and Zen Buddhism is very heavily Sinicized. So whatever kinds of Buddhism that prevail in the West will likely be heavily Westernized (as Christianity itself was relative to the original Middle Eastern version!).
Personally I’m not a big fan of Buddhism, so though it has a certain fascination I don’t care for the whole idea of a Buddhist West that much. Plus Buddhism has already spread well beyond its region of origin anyway, so it would be like heaping accolades on somebody who already has a laurel wreath on their head: in other words, Buddhism is a faith that’s sort of already made it on the global stage, and making it bigger just isn’t as interesting as e.g. resurrecting the currently very marginal European Paganism.
Toward a Taoist World!
There is another Eastern spirituality, however, that might overtake the West: Taoism. Taoism has that magic combination of deep philosophy, compatibility with traditional beliefs, challenge to hardcore adherents, and universality (i.e. it’s not ethnic-specific) that makes a faith primed to spread like wildfire. Yet it’s never spread much outside East Asia, only making serious inroads into non-Eastern populations very recently; e.g. there are two rather large Taoist associations in Brazil that don’t have a single ethnic-Chinese member. It’s also worth noting the worldview of Star Wars, which is basically Taoism in space, is very popular and has achieved global resonance, so the raw material for a Taoist world would seem to be there, it’s just that it never quite came together in real life.
Taoism has always done well in its Chinese heartland, though, and its vibrancy there and spread abroad suggests it still has a chance of dominating the future of faith. And had a chance in the past.
Let’s say Christianity and Islam never existed, and Buddhism for whatever reason never really takes off much westward of India. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Taoism spreads into Europe by way of the Silk Road, or even much later by way of maritime connections starting in the Age of Discovery. In this timeline Europe would still be as pagan as ever, just the paganism would be made sense of by Taoist philosophy, in the same way practitioners of “Chinese folk religion” do today. As such Taoism is really more comparable to a philosophy than it is to a religion, at least in the way modern Westerners think of it.
Taoism’s spread would be greatly aided if it could somehow overtake India. While it is a bit of a stretch, we should keep in mind Buddhism had a good go at overtaking Hinduism, so Taoism insinuating itself in the same position and actually succeeding isn’t all that unlikely. Much like in the Buddhist scenario, Taoism being dominant in Europe, the Middle East, India, and China all but guarantees eventual world domination for the philosophy. Considering it’s now mostly confined to China that would be an even more fascinating scenario than the Buddhist world!
A Shinto World?
I think I’d like such a world much better myself. Even better might be a timeline where Shinto breaks out of its Japanese heartland and becomes a major world religion, or even achieves world domination. Shinto sates a variety of desires humans have for their religions and has the unique advantage of being a representative of the primordial faith, animism, but it never developed into a higher religion of its own, and it might be just too specific to Japanese people to really take off globally. Which is too bad; it’s a very sensible kind of faith, and a world where every other complex society has its own close analogue to Shinto would be a fascinating one to explore.
A Materialist East and a Spiritualist West?
Last but not least, there are also differences in practical philosophies, not just views of the supernatural. In ancient China there was Yangism, a form of ethical egoism that sounds eerily like an analogue to (and forerunner to!) our very own Objectivism. It was rather popular too; one account suggests it once claimed roughly as many adherents as Confucianism!
Which opens up the possibility the East and West may well have switched places in terms of their stereotypes. Picture this: a Yangist China that remained divided into a panoply of city-states, that spearheaded the age of discovery and the industrial revolution before the West did. And picture this too: a Neoplatonist West that remained under the yoke of one big Roman Empire that failed to launch an age of discovery or an industrial revolution. in this case the materialistic East may well seek ancient wisdom from the spiritualistic West!
I’ll leave you with that timeline to chew on! As well as these other ideas I have, which are only really a preview of the possibilities for the alternate histories of world religions.