Outlines the historical patterns behind the formation of the traditional religions.
As animals evolved, their senses sharpened to collect more information from their surroundings. Their brains made good use of this information by forming a rough mental picture of the world around them. Animals needed more than just blind instinct, they needed a mental picture of their situation in order to make limited predictions about what might happen in the next moment.
As the brains of our ancestors evolved to become larger, they developed the potential to stretch their imaginations to encompass a much wider and more detailed picture of the world. Speech allowed them to share their perceptions with others. Rather than having to develop their own view of the world through experience and guesswork, children simply listened and absorbed the understandings of their family or tribe.
Our natural instincts evolved over millions of years to control the balance between how much we cooperate and how much we compete against those around us. But as the human brain evolved to depend more on learning and less on instinct, it became more flexible in how it could be trained to behave, and the ability to speak made human interaction too complicated for our natural instincts alone to be able to successfully guide our social behavior.
As we grow up, through interacting with our family, our friends, and with the wider community, by imitating role models, by being rewarded, and by making mistakes, we generally learn how to behave like cooperative members of our community. As adults, our social behavior continues to be regulated by feelings of affection and fear.
Many of the decisions that we make in life are based on ideas about justice, common sense, and other principles and values about right and wrong that we learn from the traditions of our society. These principles and values have developed over the generations in accordance with how individuals see their place in society, and how society sees its place in the wider world.
In prehistoric times, simple dreamlike explanations of life and death, and practical rules and values about right and wrong were passed down through countless generations by word of mouth. They were embedded in the common tribal culture in the form of language, laws, myths, legends, and ritual songs and dances.
With the appearance of farming villages and the subsequent rise in population, and with the settlement of cities and the building of empires, there was an increased need for palaces and temples to establish laws, beliefs, and values which promoted greater cooperation between people from different regions, who sometimes spoke different languages, and who were no longer connected by a common bond of familiarity.
Throughout the ages, priests, prophets, and philosophers have devised a variety of innovative solutions to convince the masses to restrain their desires and to think and act more cooperatively than they may have been naturally inclined to. In the interests of higher civilization, it was hoped that people could be discouraged from continuing with harmful evolutionary strategies like the unrestrained competition for resources and the extermination of competing tribes.
Life after death
Human consciousness flows in a continuous stream, working to recognize patterns in the sounds, visions, and other sensations carried into the brain from the senses. Despite knowing that we cannot live forever, it is often hard to contemplate how our stream of consciousness could ever end. Our attachment to the joys of life, our instinct for survival, and our active imaginations sometimes make us hope for another state of consciousness beyond the grave.
Although many people reject the idea of life after death, and others regard it as too uncertain to depend upon, since the formation of the earliest religions, few priesthoods have resisted the temptation to exploit people's anxiety about death by promising a reward or threatening some form of punishment in the afterlife, as a way of encouraging self-restraint and inducing greater obedience from their followers.
Multitudes of gods might have seemed to be the obvious way to explain the mysteries of nature, but it is not easy for priests to convince people to cooperate when their beliefs are based upon myths about gods behaving badly towards each other. And when different cities honor different gods, people just have one more excuse to kill each other.
With the onset of the Iron Age, while the moral development of every other nation in the Mediterranean region was being held back by myths about incestuous families of cruel and ambitious gods, the priests of Israel dared to take advantage of the newly discovered power of alphabetic writing to persuade their population to adopt a more refined level of superstition.
Using sober language, they crafted a detailed mythology, with a single god, a convincing creation myth, and a declaration of ten sacred commandments: Do not murder; Do not steal; Do not lie; and so on. Using a collection of myths about miraculous events, the priests had succeeded in uniting their people under a common belief and giving them a practical set of laws and values.
The people of Israel no longer needed such a strong central authority to enforce the laws. Whoever believed in the mythology would themselves become the law keepers. And rather than ruining the nation to satisfy their own ambitions, kings would be held accountable to the same standards of behavior as commoners.
The Jewish strategy proved to be so effective that the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs eventually followed their lead, convincing their own people to adopt a single moral god of creation by building upon the successful foundations of the Jewish mythology.
To the credit of the early Jewish prophets, they continued to focus on punishment for the wicked in this life, and were never desperate enough to allow their scriptures to descend to the level of threatening punishment in the next life. The early Jewish scriptures only ever said that when we die, “our dust returns to the earth as it was, and our spirit returns to God who gave it.”
As the centuries passed, additions were made to the scriptures to reinforce the better aspects of the religion. But whenever priests start making up rules, they often become tempted to regulate every detail of people's lives. When less enlightened laws and values become entrenched in religious scripture, they become very difficult to change without abandoning the whole tradition.
The ancient Greeks had been passing down entertaining stories about heroes and gods, but many Greeks were unconvinced by the fairytale nature of their traditional religious myths. They also questioned the dubious morality of their gods. Greek religious morality was largely a failure anyway. The Greek economy depended entirely upon slavery, and Greek cities were constantly at war with each other. Peace between the cities was only ever achieved through domination by military force.
Driven by curiosity and a sense of duty to the truth, a few dedicated Greeks applied themselves to think carefully about what they observed in nature, hoping to develop a clearer picture of how things really worked. Their speculative writings inspired others, and the idea soon spread that there may be natural rather than supernatural explanations for the workings of the universe.
With the decline of Greek religion, stories about the gods were no longer useful for convincing people to believe in any higher form of justice. Justice came to be seen as more a matter of opinion, especially the opinion of those who had the power to impose their will.
Plato tried to restore people's faith in an absolute goodness by writing about a higher realm of reality where a perfect form of justice existed as an eternal standard. Plato understood that without such faith, in a world where cooperative moral values could never be proven to be true, it became the noblest pursuit of philosophy to convince people to care as much about their community as they do about themselves.
But there were many Greeks who rejected both religion and philosophy. They were well aware that almost everything that we once believed to be true was later shown to be false, and the values that we passionately hold on to are only ever relative to the times in which we live. Some skeptics did not even want to believe that there was nothing worth believing in, because then they might have been accused of believing in something.
Others with a more idealistic outlook were popularizing the two fundamental and opposing views of our existence: the idea that we have no cosmic purpose and so our efforts are best spent seeking a comfortable life; and the idea that we do have a cosmic purpose, so we should devote all of our energy to pursuing this purpose without complaint.
These and various other schools of thought accumulated generations of writings, some of which was profound, but most of which was childish and confusing. In any case, these writings were only ever accessible to the fortunate few. The vast majority of people continued to follow their traditional religions and other popular forms of superstition.
Greek philosophy failed to produce one enduring document which presented a clear and agreeable picture of the world. Something which could satisfy the emotional needs of the masses and give them guidance for how to live. A work of literature that could be used by the political establishment to convince their people to accept moral restraint. A metaphysical and moral guidebook that would be final and unquestionable.
Under the Roman Empire, wars of conquest were fashionable. Conquering armies raped and pillaged their way through foreign lands. Entire populations were exterminated. Slavery was unquestioned. Emperors governed through terror and corruption. The poor and unfortunate starved. And people were slaughtered for entertainment.
Those with more enlightened principles were anticipating a revolution of the spiritual kind. Christian ideas were not new, but they were given a new voice in the character of Jesus Christ, who became the mythical embodiment of everything that centuries of moral philosophy had embraced as righteous and holy. God was said to have appeared in the flesh to teach us right from wrong and to mark the beginning of a new age of peace and love.
Only the Jewish prophets had made the right preparations for such a credible and enduring messiah. The Jewish scriptures may have been loaded with dubious history, and they may have lacked any serious philosophical substance, but they did contain the best loved creation myth of all time, and they did demonstrate the longest continuous history of undying faith in one universal god.
Using the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures as their foundation, enthusiastic followers wrote their own accounts of the life of Jesus, combining every admirable demonstration of divine power, love, wisdom, and compassion, and using every technique in the art of religious persuasion to satisfy the widest possible spectrum of hopes, needs, and expectations. An influential collection of letters was forged to clarify the details. Centuries were taken to revise and select the most suitable scriptures.
Christianity gained widespread acceptance among Greeks and Romans who were dissatisfied with the impotence of their official religions. It was particularly popular among the poor and oppressed because it preached that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, and it gave people hope for happiness after death.
Its message appealed to those of a gentle disposition. The Christian scriptures were a passionate plea to embrace the highest possible moral ideals. By having faith in these high ideals, fair minded and innocent citizens would gain their best defense against the entrenched corruption of the ancient world.
Christianity stepped well beyond the practical morality of the Jews, declaring instead an idealistic morality which was perfectly cooperative but entirely impractical. It was said that not only should you give all of your possessions away to the poor, you should give them away to the greedy as well. And if someone attacks you, you should never fight back, keep giving them all of your love and care instead, and unconditionally forgive them for the damage they cause you.
It was never intended that people should live exactly according to these rules, they would not be able to survive if they did. It was more a matter of trying to make people aware that any other kind of behavior; any proud, selfish, violent, lustful, or competitive behavior is merely a form of social corruption caused by the material necessities of this earthly existence acting upon our animal instincts.
It was the kind of morality that people would only believe if it came directly from the mouth of God. And apart from a few oppressive distortions, it had a peaceful and loving kind of sophistication that many people would have expected from the mouth of God. In a truly Christian kingdom, everyone would work together for a common cause, nobody would serve their own interests, and every resource would be shared without question for the common good.
Unfortunately, by building one set of myths upon another, the price paid by the Christians for their innovative morality was the acceptance of a twisted mythological delusion as their explanation for the workings of the world. Christian conceptions of history and human nature had almost nothing in common with reality.
Rational and philosophical thinkers were mortified by this new development. Fearful of the deepening social and political division that it caused, some Roman emperors tried unsuccessfully to destroy it. Despite suffering periods of persecution, Christianity endured, and one embattled general saw it as his path to power. The whole Roman Empire was eventually united under a Christian understanding of existence.
Soon afterwards, weakened by their newfound love for their enemies, and under fierce attack from invading hordes, the empire began to collapse. As delusions of heaven and hell replaced rational Greek science, and as justice in this world was replaced by justice in the next world, the entire region descended into a dark age. No claim to knowledge other than what was written in the Bible would be tolerated again throughout the remnants of the empire for more than a thousand years.
As the power of the Catholic priesthood grew, self-preservation forced it to become the opposite of what it preached. By the time of the Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation, it had grown power hungry, oppressive, and opposed to knowledge and freedom. Most of its energy was devoted to hording wealth. It would stop at nothing, even resorting to the extremes of terror and bloodshed in order to keep its grip on power.
The ancient Arab tribes were strong, but their traditional beliefs were primitive and offered little guidance. Tribesmen knew no better than to fight each other for limited desert resources. As the charismatic leader of a band of Arab reformers, Muhammad seized an opportunity to unite the Arab tribes under a persuasive interpretation of Judaism and Christianity.
Muhammad was drawn into war with the Jews, and he rejected Christianity for preaching two gods instead of one. Muhammad’s new religion was simple and instinctual. One god who created the earth, believers would be rewarded in heaven, infidels and transgressors would be punished in hell. His fire and brimstone speeches and saber rattling rhetoric were stitched together by his band of warriors after his death to create the Koran, a metaphysical blueprint for Arab world domination.
Muhammad’s moral laws were practical, providing comprehensive guidelines for cooperation between believers. On the one hand, the Koran promoted equality between men, with particular care for the poor and the orphaned. On the other hand, it enshrined the laws of harsh desert justice, with amputations and executions for the guilty. And it reinforced male domination by teaching that women were little more than childbearing domestic servants and sex slaves.
Muhammad’s life story was a powerful example of how to compete with the followers of other beliefs. For hundreds of years, the message was spread by conquering the infidels. Islamic scholars divided the world into the ‘House of Islam’ and the ‘House of War’. Only when the entire world is united under Islamic control will this war ever end, and even then, peace would be unlikely.
In many ways, Islam has been a highly successful strategy for the Arabs. Liberated from the fear of death, believing they will be rewarded with endless pleasures in heaven, militant extremists dedicate their lives to spreading Arab language, law, and culture, and increasing the power and wealth of the Meccan elite.
Cultures that adopted alphabetic writing, like those around the Mediterranean, were partly enlightened by the preservation and spread of complex concepts, and partly condemned by the inevitable development of holy books. These books each described their own final and unquestionable view of the world. New ideas were limited to the scope of the prevailing religious world view. Innovative ideas were condemned as heresy.
Cultures that never progressed beyond using pictures to represent words, like the Chinese and Japanese, were less able to construct elaborate mythologies and theologies. Rather than believing in an interventionist God, Asian scholars wrote about an impersonal heaven from which the laws of nature sprang, providing a foundation for justice and morality. The emperor was often worshipped as the ‘Son of Heaven’, but there were no oppressive holy books and there was no fear of damnation.
Many Asian peasants instead continued to believe in ancestral spirits and other primitive superstitions. At best they followed simple words of wisdom. The undisputed master of Chinese wisdom was Confucius, who lived around 500 BC. Confucius concerned himself with the interactions between people. He tried to describe an ideal system of human behavior in which the needs of the community would be valued over the desires of the individual.
Confucius believed that social harmony can best be achieved by encouraging people to follow rules of respectable behavior. His moral guidelines were simple: honor your parents and respect other people; choose to do what is socially right instead of what is personally advantageous; and do nothing to anyone else that you would not want done to you.
Confucius said ...
A good person thinks about virtue, lesser people think about wealth. A good person strives to uphold justice, lesser people scheme to gain advantage. The virtuous are never alone, they soon gain friends; but those who act only through self interest inevitably lose the respect of others.
If people are restrained only by the threat of punishment for breaking the law, they will never develop a true sense of right and wrong. When they are shown by example how to follow rules of good conduct, they will be ashamed of doing wrong and be inspired to do what is right. Whoever learns how to refine his behavior and act with restraint will never do wrong.
Confucianism did not need myths about miracles or threats of punishment in the afterlife in order to encourage restraint, only the cult of a man of great wisdom. His followers established a system of schools across China, and through control of the education system, they eventually gained control of the government bureaucracy and maintained their domination of Chinese political and cultural life for thousands of years.
Taoism developed as a metaphysical accompaniment to Confucianism, using naturalistic folklore to explain the ways of the universe. But many Chinese thinkers complained about the inadequacy of words to describe any deeper realities. The limited ability of picture characters to represent complex concepts prevented the East Asian cultures from contributing anything more profound to the world of ideas.
One philosophy that did suit their language was Buddhism, and over the centuries, they absorbed various schools of Buddhist thought from India. The Buddhist abandonment of all desire makes cooperation simple and natural without needing specific rules for specific situations.
Although Buddhism preaches complete selflessness, this is only beneficial to society when practiced by a select minority (monks and nuns). Success for everyone else depends on finding a healthy compromise between survival, productivity, and cooperation.
Buddhism held similar appeal to Confucianism as a philosophy of peace and cooperation, but the strong cooperative spirit of the masses, inspired by Confucian and Buddhist ideals, was exploited by Chinese and Japanese imperial dynasties, who imposed tight control over every aspect of people's lives.
Strong central authority and restrictions on individual freedom provided internal peace and stability but stifled social, technological, and economic progress. As in communist China, North Korea, and Vietnam today, the masses are still the cooperative slaves of corrupt power elites.
Many traditional religions share the same underlying theme. They say that beyond the material plane of existence, at the very highest level of reality, there exists a governing spiritual force rather than a meaningless chaos or a mindless cosmic machine. They say that this spiritual force is ultimately responsible for the creation of the world and the existence of humankind.
They say that we can best serve the purpose for which we were created by recognizing the existence of this governing spirit and by devoting our lives to its service. They say that we can achieve the greatest sense of personal fulfillment by striving to become agents through which the spirit can act to carry out its will in the material plane of existence.
Different religions have different ideas about how best to serve the spirit, and for guidance, people have rarely had any other choice than to trust their local priesthoods. Despite their many failings, the priests have generally encouraged people to care for their community, work towards the establishment of justice and peace, and not to pursue their own selfish interests, but rather to work for the glory of the spirit and for the greater good.
Although your body may die and your consciousness may come to an end, they say that you can achieve a sense of immortality by having lived in the service of the eternal spirit, as though you were at one with it. But those who do not believe in the spirit are lost to the greater cause. They often become slaves to their own predictable ambitions, living only for the pursuit of personal gratification, sometimes to the detriment of those around them.
Many traditional religions share this underlying theme, but each religion deviates from the theme in different ways due to the different historical circumstances under which they were formed. They also deviate for reasons like the limited knowledge of their ancient authors, the difficulty of explaining complex concepts, the need to appeal to the illiterate masses, and the corruptions caused by power, wealth, and sensual desire.
Continue to chapter 11 ... The Rise of Modern Democracy