Posts Tagged ‘origins of earth and man’

Why Polytheism Was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion (Part 3)

April 21, 2012

Part 3: The “god-man” mythology, and the rise of Christianity and Islam

Most significantly, the Jewish religion predicted the coming of a messiah who would “save” all of Mankind. While this was definitely not the first myth (or story) of a “God-man” (god in human form as a savior figure; the first usage of the term God-man as a theological concept appears in the writing of the Christian Apostolic Father Origen in the 3rd Century AD; Baldwin, 1901), it became the genesis for a cult that would change the Eastern and European world.

Perhaps the most ancient God-man figure is Baal (or Bel) of Phoenicia/Babylon. A 4,000-year-old tablet now in the British Museum depicts much of his story. Baal is taken prisoner and tried in a hall of justice; he is tormented and mocked by a rabble; he is led away to a mount; he is taken with two other prisoners, one of whom is released; after he has been sacrificed on the mount, the rabble goes on a rampage; his clothes are taken; he disappears into a tomb; he is sought after by weeping women; finally, he is resurrected, appearing to his followers after the stone is rolled away from the tomb. (Pratt, 2001)

The Egyptians created the sun god (god of light) Horus, the son of Osiris (whose name is a Greek transliteration of the Egyptian Asar), who was the Egyptian god of life, death, fertility, and the underworld. In 3000 BC, Horus was born on December 25 to a virgin, and three kings followed a star in the east to observe and celebrate his birth. At the age of twelve he began to teach others about his father, god, and at the age of thirty he was baptized by Anup to begin his ministry. He had twelve disciples, and went about performing such miracles as healing the sick and walking on water. The sun god battled every day with Set, the God of Darkness, who lived in the dark bowels of the earth. He was called truth, the light, god’s anointed son, the risen savior, the lamb of God, etc. After being betrayed by Typhon, he was crucified and arose again after three days.

Attis of Phrygia (in modern day Turkey), celebrated in 1200 BC, had the same basic characteristics. Krishna of India, in 900 BC, was very similar. Even more closely aligned was Mithra, the sun god of Persia, a messianic figure worshiped around 600 BC, with Sunday being his sacred day of worship; Dionysus of Greece, circa 500 BC, first turned water into wine. Some of the other nicknames for these deities were king of kings, god’s only begotten son, the light of the world, the alpha and omega, and so on.

This is where the story, especially the time sequence, becomes even more muddled. According to Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was born approximately 2,045 years ago. For the first few hundred years after the birth and death of Jesus, the majority of Jews not only denied that the savior figure had actually been born, the name of Jesus is not even mentioned in any of their countless historical writings. The Jews and Romans who did convert to Christianity were few, and were pretty much a persecuted sect. This began to change during the medieval period in the societies controlled by the Roman Empire.

Thus, another question arises: since Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism (as is Islam), why are there such striking similarities between Jesus and the pagan God-man figures who existed in older polytheisms? And why did Christianity overcome its Jewish origins, as well as all of those pagan religions, to become dominant?

Oddly, the rise of Christianity really started with Saul of Tarsus, not the twelve apostles. Saul was born a Pharisee of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin. His father was so wealthy that he bought Roman citizenship, so Saul was free to travel throughout the Empire. Saul was a fanatic about his religion, and was zealous of the traditions of his fathers. At the height of his fame, Saul was known as the greatest persecutor of Christians, which was encouraged by Rome. Saul imprisoned and punished the assembly at Jerusalem, and was responsible for countless deaths in his ambition to exterminate Christianity, which offended the Pharisee community by claiming the savior had come.

One day while traveling to Damascus, so the story goes, a bright light from heaven blinded him and he heard a voice say: “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” When he asked who was speaking, the voice said: “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting”.

Talk about your original “born-again Christian”! As much of a fanatic as Saul was as a Pharisee, he became even more vehement about preaching the word of the savior’s arrival, including marching into the tabernacle and berating the Pharisees for not believing. As the world has seen with other fanatics, the power to persuade can be immense. Where Christians had been a small, persecuted cult, the newly christened Paul helped this new religion to expand quickly.

By the 5th Century, the entire Roman Empire was in political, military and religious upheaval. Its holdings were shrinking, and Italy itself was being attacked by invading forces from all directions. Within its boundaries, emperors rose to power and were deposed or killed within a year, and the three primary religions — paganism, Judaism and Christianity — vied in equally bloody battles for supremacy. Then in the 6th Century AD, the Emperor Constantine sought to reunite the empire. He embraced Christianity while incorporating many of the accepted pagan traditions, hoping that eventually they would blend into one. He succeeded, but upon Constantine’s death, the Roman Empire degenerated once more into the many warring factions he had briefly reunited. However, while that highly militaristic version of the Empire may have fallen, it gave birth to a new Phoenix: the Holy Roman Empire, which gradually regained most of all the old territory, but was now controlled by religion and supported by the still powerful military force, in combination driving the new kingdom of heaven.

However, even as the Christian religion was overcoming both paganism and Judaism as the primary force, a new monotheism was rising in the east that would soon challenge it for the loyalty of the faithful, and utterly establish the hold of monotheism. Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in 570 AD in the Arabian city of Mecca, began preaching his new religion at around the age of forty-three. The Qur’an gives credit to all of the Jewish patriarchs/prophets (including Jesus) as inspiring Muhammad to found Islam, an ultra-fundamentalist, ultra-patriarchal religion that took on the most conservative tenets of Judaism. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Muslim armies conquered the Sassanid (Persian) Empire and most of the Byzantine territories, or Eastern Roman Empire.

Without the prohibitions of “defiling the flesh created by god” of Catholicism to inhibit it, Islam was free to pursue the sciences, most especially medicine. Perhaps because Catholicism was so repressive, or perhaps because Islam was young and vigorous, Islam has grown tremendously while the Christian faith was irreparably split in the 16th Century by Martin Luther. Nevertheless, with the distinct exception of Hinduism in India, all of the polytheisms of the world have shrunk considerably or died altogether.

As science continues to answer the questions that have plagued Mankind since the first sentient being looked up into the heavens and wondered what, why and how, the influence of religion on the human race continues to erode. Perhaps that is why Islam is so virulently fundamentalist: Muslim leaders know they must insist their followers believe absolutely, without question, in the existence and power of god, or they also will eventually lose their hold in the world. If the power of rational thought and expanding knowledge are allowed to grow, the history of religion will become exactly that: history.

Why Polytheism Was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion (Part 2)

April 20, 2012

Part 2: Why monotheism, and why Mesopotamia?

Regardless, the history of the creation of monotheism takes us back to those questions: Why change from many gods to one? Why Mesopotamia? And why at that particular time after millennia of polytheism? There are many possible reasons, but what I personally believe is the reason is the advent of science. Here are just a few examples:

“Archaeological research covering a 6,000 year period in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, shows that the classical high cultures of the ancient Near East demonstrated some of the earliest and most fundamental examples of systematic observation of phenomena and prediction, unsurpassed until the European Renaissance, and practical engineering, unsurpassed until the 19th century. Though clearly an advanced technological society, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, with imperial influences in Syria, western Iran, and southern Turkey) left records on cuneiform tablets that indicate the society had an advanced capability in mathematics. The people … moved from the hunter-gatherer way of life, which had proved effective for hundreds of thousands of years to a more settled Neolithic village lifestyle, based on the domestication of plants and animals about 12,000 years ago.” (Blake L. White, Strategic Technology Institute 2002)

“The Assyrians depended as much upon artificial irrigation as upon the periodical rains. They were skillful in constructing machines for raising water, and their vast system of canals was as remarkable as a monument of well-directed labour, as for the knowledge of hydraulics which it displayed.” (Layard, as quoted by White)

“In addition, village life facilitated new forms of technologies, such as metalworking, pottery, stone carving, and new forms of social organization. Mesopotamia shows evidence of being the most advanced technological society of its era. Over a 6,000 year period, Mesopotamian technology included advances in carpentry, glassmaking, textile manufacture, leather-working, perfume-making, farming, food preparation, irrigation, flood control, canal-building, water storage, drainage, brewing, and their tablets also provide detail on the economics of various industries.” (Roaf, as quoted by White)

“Perhaps the most impressive engineering achievements of ancient Mesopotamia are the series of ziggurats found throughout the region as early as 2100 BC in Ur, 1900 BC in Babylon, and 900 BC in Assyria. In addition, the Assyrians of Nineveh under the leadership of Sargon II (722-670 BC) and his son Sennacherib dominated the Near East with its iron-equipped armies, battering rams, and horse-drawn chariots.” (Derry, as quoted by White)

To sum it up, research tells us that the Mesopotamians had an older and even broader knowledge of science than ancient China. It seems quite likely that, as the sciences progressed rapidly in Mesopotamia, more and more “lesser gods” fell by the wayside as the actual causes of natural phenomena were understood (to some degree). With the loss of faith in polytheism, humans still needed some higher power to believe in, so they created a single, all-powerful god that defied the answers of science–well, up until modern theories regarding the origins of the universe and mankind. While the people of China were very advanced in many ways, their science (especially technology) was not quite as all-encompassing, and culturally they leaned more towards philosophy than an increasingly conservative religion. Thus, India remained predominantly Hindu, which is a polytheism approximately 5,000 years old, while China moved towards Buddha, Confucious, et alia, which are philosophies. In the meanwhile the Western World became predominantly monotheistic.

Next: The “god-man” mythology, and the rise of Christianity and Islam

Why Polytheism was Replaced by Monotheism: A Very Brief History of Religion

April 19, 2012

Part 1: The shift from polytheism to monotheism

How did the world come into existence? How did mankind rise from the primordial ooze to dominate the animal kingdom? How do the forces of nature work? Throughout history, all cultures have wondered about these and many other questions. They have all created explanations for both natural phenomena and metaphysical mysteries, mostly from their vivid imaginations rather than from any scientific evidence or logical ruminations. We call these stories they made up to explain the mysteries of the Earth “mythology”. In simple terms, then, the purpose of mythology is to explain the unexplainable. Just because we label religions that were created before the births of Abraham of Ur or Jesus of Nazareth or Muhammad in Mecca as “mythology”, that certainly does not mean they are the only religions that were founded on myths.

As early as the Upper Paleolithic era, some 250,000 years ago, various tools and iconography demonstrate that primitive religions were practiced, and possibly existed up to 250,000 years before that (Campbell, 1988; Gimbutas, 1991; and Jelínek, 1975). All of these religions, as far as we can determine from that evidence, were polytheistic. So, after a quarter of a million years of humans investing supernatural powers to a wide diversity of gods and goddesses, why did most people begin to believe in the existence of a single supreme being? When and where did this transformation happen?

According to Jewish tradition (Rich, 1998 – 2011), Abram (or Abraham) was born in the city of Ur in Babylonia (Southeastern Mesopotamia) in the year 1948 from Creation (circa 1800 BCE, although this does not necessarily mean that Judaism believes the universe has existed for only 5,700 years as we measure years). At that time, the Mesopotamians were still highly polytheistic, worshiping idols. Abram was the son of Terach, an idol merchant, but from his early childhood, Abram questioned the faith of his father and sought “the truth”. Abram came to believe that the entire universe was the work of a single creator, and he began to teach this belief to others. Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship.

One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?”

Eventually, as the story goes, the one true creator that Abram worshiped called to him and made him an offer: if Abram would leave his home and his family, then god would make him a great nation and bless him. Abram accepted this offer, and the b’rit (covenant) between god and the Jewish people was established.

Of course, the irony of this story seems to be lost on both the Jews and other religious believers: if the “gods” exist only in icons, and have no power that has ever been truly demonstrated to humans (well, except for the handful of “chosen” witnesses and prophets), what difference does it make if you pray to one or five hundred? They are still idols, creations of the imagination of Man. But such is the power of “faith” that logic can be ignored for the sake of whatever belief makes you happy.

Next: Why Monotheism, and Why in Mesopotamia?