Monday, October 31, 2011

Religion Part IV - History

Like other viruses, religions are subject to the process of evolution. Religions have changed over the millennia of human history. And these changes follow a certain pattern.

1. Animism
The first religions were simple without clearly defined tenets and without personalized deities. Certain unknown phenomena in nature were supposed to have supernatural causes. Humans believed to see intelligent spirits acting in natural processes. These spirits were supposed to control fertility, the weather, the seasons of the year, thunder and lightning, diseases and death. Humans were unable to explain these phenomena with their limited knowledge, so they began speculating about them. They believed that there was some causal relationship between their actions and particular rituals they performed and these natural phenomena, which they thought to be controlled by unknown spirits. Although there was no causal relationship between their rituals and nature but rather a coincidence, it was impossible for them to verify it as coincidence. So they assumed that they had discovered some supernatural secrets and told them to their offspring creating the first religious traditions.
However humans were not so irrational to believe that they could identify the names of these spirits and their biographies.
However this changed during the next step of religious evolution.
The human society corresponding to this type of religion is mostly that of nomadic hunters and gatherers.

2. Polytheism
When humans settled down during the Neolithic Age, their religious believes became more and more elaborate. They invented names for their spirits who were supposed to control nature and they made up stories about these personalized gods based on observations of events in nature (natural disasters, the movement of celestial bodies, the cyclically repeating seasons of the year). For example the seasons were explained by the death of a vegetation god in autumn, his remaining in the underworld during winter and his resurrection and return to the surface of the world in spring.
From this time on we have the first distinct religions with different gods competing among each other for followers. This is when religions became entities themselves, when they developed into viruses.

From this point on religion developed differently in the Western and Eastern hemisphere. Let's first look at the Western hemisphere.

3a. Monotheism
In the West the polytheistic pantheon changed mostly for political reasons into a monotheistic religion, because a particular ruler used the cult of a certain god for his own personal interests to maintain in power.
  • The first example was the Egyptian pharaoh Akhetaten who declared his god Aten to be the only one in order to break the power of the mighty priests of the traditional Egyptian gods. His success was temporary because everything was reversed after his death.
  • A disciple of Akhetaten made a longer lasting attempt to use monotheism as apolitical tool but on a smaller scale. Moses renamed the Egyptian god Aten giving him the name of a smaller god worshiped by a tribe in the Sinai Peninsula (Yahweh). He then established this god as the only god of the tribes he controlled founding the religion of Judaism.
  • Saul of Tarsus, half Roman, half Jew, adapted the Jewish religion for a broader audience (extending largely the number of possible hosts for the virus) by relaxing its rules and including non-Jewish members. But this new sect only became an independent religion when the Roman Emperor Constantine used this religion to get rid of his competitors and unify the empire under his rool. This was the beginning of Christianity, as we know it today.
  • The Arab leader Mohammad used the same strategy when renaming the Christian god by giving him the name of the supreme god of the Arabic pantheon but banning all other gods. This way he created the new religion of Islam.

3b. Religion becoming Philosophy
In the Eastern hemisphere the evolution of religion followed a more sophisticated course. It had also happened in ancient Greek before. For many rational thinking philosophers the trivial polytheistic pantheon was rather unsatisfying. So they simply ignored the entire issue of divine beings and developed independent philosophies.
  • In the East it was the purely idealistic theory that the material world was only an illusion of an all-compassing mind similar to the dreams that we experience during sleep and with the only difference that these dreams last a lifetime before another dream starts.
    This philosophy is called Hinduism today. It coexists with the older folk religion that surrounds the Indian gods (Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh etc.).
  • Like Christianity made itself independent from Judaism by opening up to non-Jews, the philosophy of Hinduism abandoned the Indian pantheon and became Buddhism spreading far beyond the borders of India.
  • Parallel to this the philosophy of Taoism developed in the environment of the polytheistic Chinese folk religion and became partly independent from it. Taoism is focused on advices how the world works and how to integrate in it while mostly ignoring the issues of gods, afterlife, ethics and supernatural things.
  • Confucianism is even more radical and focuses only on rules of social behavior hardly deserving the name religion.

Since modern Eastern religions are at least in theory far more sophisticated than the rather dull Western monotheism, it is difficult to decide if we are dealing with religions at all here. Nevertheless the theoretical philosophies of these religions are mostly unknown to common people and the daily practice looks just as irrational and superstitious as in the West. Instead of punishment for sins people fear bad karma. Even the rituals look similar with prayers, temples of worship, asceticism (irrational self-punishment), rituals with candles and incenses etc. Furthermore religion is also in the East strictly conservative and always an obstacle for progress and development. So they clearly show religious (viral) patterns, even if their philosophical payload is higher developed than the primitive Western monotheism.
Their philosophies might not be self-contradictory like Western religions, but they still fail to provide sufficient proof for their claims and can therefore only considered speculations at best.

Rules of Religious Evolution
When we look at the history of religions, we can see that there a certain mechanisms art work. Religious evolution follows certain rules.

1.  New religions always build on the existing traditions of older religions. They never contradict the basic doctrines of the former religion. A founder of a new religion, even if it is based on revelation, never introduces something completely new, which was never heard of before.
When essential doctrines of a religion are changed, at least the name of the former god and the formal rituals are preserved. We can see this when Moses uses the name of the Sinai god Yahweh when he introduces his monotheism or when Emperor Constantine preserves the traditional pagan liturgy and identifies the pagan god Sol Invictus with the Christian monotheistic god or when Mohammed uses the name of the supreme god of the pagan Arabic pantheon (Allah) as well as the Arian Christian theology when creating Islam. In the East the new philosiophies of Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism never intended to abolish the gods of the traditional folk religion.

2. New religions are always better optimized for spreading fast and efficiently. Newer religions are always more virulent and more irrational than older ones.
Judaism made it difficult to spread beyond the Jewish people, but Christianity removed these obstacles and started actively proselytizing gentiles. Islam streamlined the religion furthermore making the concept of jihad and dhimmitude central to its teachings. As the youngest Western world religions, Islam is therefore the most virulent and aggressive one. In the East Buddhism removed any traditional ballast from Hindu teachings (e.g. the caste system) in order to spread faster.
The downward spiral when it comes to rationalism is also easily observed. While animism had few doctrines, polytheism had elaborate fictitious myths invented around its deities. Monotheism introduced for the first time illogical and self-contradicting absurdities like omnipotence in its belief system. Only the Eastern religions made an attempt to break out of this downward spiral and tried, without success though, to overcome primitive superstition.
So whenever a new religion develops, we don't need to expect any improvement. It will only get worse.
The virus will be better optimized and farther away from the interests of its human host.
Todays most virulent religion is Islam. But if the Western world (The Middle East is hereby considered part of the Western tradition, since it is based on Judaism and Christianity.) continues on this track, a future religion will even be more dangerous than Islam.

There seems to be a way out of the dilemma. Several times in history philosophers have attempted to replace primitive superstition with a more sophisticated philosophy. It happened in ancient Egypt where the cult of Amun developed more and more pantheistic characteristics seeking to get religion in harmony with science. It also happened in ancient Greece, when people like Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle and Epicurus ignored the Greek mythology and created advanced philosophies, which are still relevant today. And it happened in the East with the traditional Eastern philosophies that made the concept of deities more and more obsolete.
However none of these philosophies attempted to attack the established religion directly. They lived in peaceful coexistence with the folk religion and simply ignored it or integrated it as an irrelevant detail. 
Modern atheists like Nietzsche, Marx, Feuerbach or Freud were less successful. Perhaps it was a mistake to confront religion directly. As we have seen, a new religion has always to build upon the existing former one. The old superstition could never be replaced by a new alien concept. So perhaps the way out of religious superstition is through a philosophy which integrates the old religious traditions but lets the old deities become more and more irrelevant.
The unpleasant alternative is going farther downward through a new fanatical religious virus building upon anti-scientific Christian conservatism and Islamic jihad.
We will have to look at the possible future of religion in the next part.

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