Why one is Needed and How it might be Derived

НазваниеWhy one is Needed and How it might be Derived
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Part Two: Religions and Their Source


Many millennia ago, humans living in caves would have asked questions that could not have been answered with the knowledge they then possessed. Questions about events seen in the natural world, of course, but also questions about what might happen after death, for minds then (just as they do for us today) would have appeared to have an existence of their own, somehow separate and distinct from the body they inhabit. Shamans solved such abstract problems, and from the practices they suggested, followers likely built the early religions ancient humans once possessed.

As communal living tends to unify concepts and actions, enlarging clans and evolving tribes would have had to unify their beliefs about the unknown, if only to reduce internal conflict and standardize rituals and behavioural norms. Tribal trading and assimilations would periodically introduce new ideas, and undoubtedly these would have disturbed the status quo and created debate about the validity of existing practices, thoughts and even beliefs.

Now and again different kinds of leaders would appear and systematize practices. Military leaders would unify people and property. Philosophical leaders would unify facts and theories. Religious leaders would unify beliefs and dogmas. Successful leaders would attract followers, and these would help to consolidate and strengthen fiefdoms, as well as understandings and theologies, for such is the way societies are built.

Part Two examines the critical role that leaders play in originating and developing religions. It explains the source of the inspirations that illuminate and empower leaders' activities. Details about some of the world's major religions are then provided; these serve to illustrate our religions' diversity, to highlight some of the many benefits we derive from religions, and to provide a background to a list of failings that I think detract from their current utility, leading me to suggest that something better is needed.


Beliefs, and their accompanying religious practices, have influenced the thoughts, decisions and behaviours of humans for thousands of years. Stonehenge, rock sculptures, pyramids, temples, stone altars, tombs, churches, cathedrals--all attest to religion's long history, but also demonstrate that our beliefs can and do change over time.

Religious beliefs and practices have influenced the development of all civilizations, all societies and all cultures; to varying degrees, they wend their way through and affect everyone's thoughts and deeds.76 Yet, clearly, our religious mind-sets must have had a beginning, and there would have been a time when thoughts of a god did not exist. Presumably there would also have been a time when no one knew "right" from "wrong." This chapter discusses why and how early humans added such concepts to their thoughts and vocabulary. The central question being implicitly examined is, "are all of our many religions, beliefs and values, divine in origin--or could some, many, or even all, be man-made?"

1. Assumptions

No one knows just how religious beliefs and practices began, but a plausible explanation is that such ideas and customs grew from the assumptions that early men and women would have had to make. Let me elaborate.

Everyone makes thousands of minor assumptions every day, and normally these all transpire unnoticed. We get up, dress, eat, do chores, go to work, return home, prepare a meal, and so on, continuously making subconscious assumptions that determine the way we act. For example, we assume that other people will behave in much the same way as they always have--and they do. We assume that the bus will arrive, that stores and offices will open, that we still have a job to go to--and we are usually right. Any incorrect suppositions we might make are generally inconsequential, and corrections are easily, and mostly subconsciously, made.

We make assumptions because we can never know all there is to know about any facet of our lives, or about any object or event we encounter. Our true state of ignorance is seldom apparent to us, but our lack of knowledge makes itself known every time there is an important decision to be made, one whose consequences might seriously affect us, or the lives of those we love, for instance. On these occasions we quickly discover how little we really know. Anyone considering marriage or buying a house for the first time, for example, knows this feeling. At such times we may temporarily be unable to make a decision, for fear of the consequences were we to make a "wrong" choice. When such feeling arise, we spend much time gathering and evaluating information, trying all the time to replace assumptions with accurate knowledge. Thus, although we rarely notice that every decision we make has its fringe of assumptions, such is the case.77

Early humans would have faced exactly the same difficulty. They knew even less than we do about the true state of most affairs, and making assumptions would have been the only way they could have made decisions. And--just as happens to the assumptions we make--after a while many of the useful assumptions they made would have become indistinguishable from facts.

2. Ancient Assumptions

Traces of the assumptions made by early men and women still exist in tangible form today. Two in particular are important to the theme of this book and will be examined: our ancestors assumed that they would experience life after death, and they assumed that gods existed.

2.1. Life after Death

The earliest evidence yet discovered that our ancestors believed in some kind of life after death is to be found in graves of the Neandertals (who lived from about 200,000 to about 25,000 y.a.). Careful arrangement of the deceased, as well as accompanying flint implements together with broken animal bones (likely to have come from food buried with the body), suggest that these accoutrements were considered to be needed by the dead. (Neandertal cave artwork depicting burial rituals also supports the premise that they assumed a life after death.)

At least as early as 30,000 y.a., Cro-Magnon followed more complex rituals. They buried their dead in sewn clothing, covered them with ornaments and bead decorations, and surrounded them with tools, weapons and food.78 One grave, 28,000 years old, in Sungir, Russia, contains the body of a sixty year old man wearing bracelets and necklaces, and dressed in a tunic sewn with hundreds of mammoth-ivory beads; he was accompanied by rich grave goods.

For some as yet unknown reason, ornamenting the dead with red pigment has also been a long-lasting and wide-spread custom.79 The skeleton of a young man some 25,000 years old, discovered in a cave in South Wales, was covered with red ochre and accompanied by a shell necklace, ivory beads and bracelets. Ornamentation continued until at least 6,500 y.a., for the head of one of seventeen Stone Age bodies (dated to that age and found in a cemetery at Bøgebakken, Denmark) was surrounded by red ochre. Burial customs such as these and others provide strong evidence that early man believed in the existence of some kind of afterlife, for which the body needed to be prepared and provisioned.

Burial rituals increased in complexity during the Neolithic Age (9,000-5,000 y.a.), to the extent of including animal sacrifices, cremation, entombment in stone chambers roofed with huge boulders and body preservation. The Chinchorro culture of northern Chile conducted extremely elaborate burial rituals, as is readily evidenced by mummified bodies dating back 9,000 years. The head, hands and feet were removed, the body was skinned and soft tissue excavated, and the skull was packed with a mixture of grass, hair and ashes. The skin was then reapplied, the whole body plastered with an ash paste and then painted black and red. It is inferred from this elaborate practice that some intense religious assumption (one that sooner or later may well have metamorphosed into a belief) must have prompted such effort.

A different form of evidence suggesting early Homo had the intellectual ability to invent assumptions is to be found in several now-European countries where Cro-Magnon left rock drawings and engravings in caves. These sketches illustrate their prowess in hunting large herds of animals (and the skeletons of hundreds of early horses found in sites frequented by Cro-Magnon show how successful these pursuits were). Such hunting strategies require abstract thought, organization and planning, and from this it is deduced that they had a language complex enough to be able to conduct a discussion of options and to manage assumptions.

Another item occasionally shown in cave drawings, and of significance to this discussion, is a figure in clothing associated with shamans or medicine men. These figures appear to have a significant role in the behaviours being depicted in the drawings. Shamans are traditionally involved in caring for the dead, and their thoughts and practices would certainly influence ideas held by clan members.

The accepted conclusion from this kind of evidence is that our ancestors assumed that an afterlife existed--that they actualized the concept of an afterlife thousands of years before the same notion was incorporated into the religions of early Egyptians and, later, into many of ours. This suggests that when describing "heaven" today we are not simply repainting a vision first drawn by prophets or theologians--we are actually maintaining or embroidering a Neandertal assumption. Of course, we don't say that we are describing an assumption, but such is its origin. And our belief in an afterlife remains an assumption because there is no credible evidence that an afterlife actually exists, whether for the Neandertals, the Pharaohs, or for any modern-day human.80

2.2. The Existence of Gods

Man must have assumed thousands of years ago that the inexplicable behaviour of some or even many aspects of the world was due to the presence of powerful gods.81

We can understand why it was necessary to believe in gods. Prior centuries of rational thinking about practical matters (how best to take advantage of an animal's behaviour when hunting, for example) had led naturally (if only subconsciously) to the realization that everything that happens has a cause. It was therefore only logical to conclude that something must cause such events as thunder and lightning to occur, or the sun to rise always in the east.

It was entirely rational for our ancestors to ask what could possibly give rise to such phenomena. But the true explanations lay far beyond their ability to comprehend all those thousands of years ago.

Written records tell us how the Greeks later solved this problem. They assumed that such events were caused by some kind of invisible beings who lived behind the clouds, occasionally amusing themselves by teasing or playing jokes upon those who lived on Earth below. Today, we might think that this was an extraordinary fantasy to dream up, but what, in ancient times, other than some supernatural beings, could explain the occurrence of such impressive events?

The hidden existence of powerful entities was not an unreasonable assumption for even very early humans to make. Living in caves and huts, they were low in nature's hierarchy. There were many dangerous and more powerful animals lying in wait. Numerous awe-inspiring events took place daily that could not be explained. Mysterious illnesses and sudden inexplicable deaths occurred. Thunder filled the air for miles around, but lightning struck only certain spots seemingly randomly chosen. The sun, on the other hand, followed a routine--it moved across the sky in an orderly manner, regularly disappeared at night, only to rise again the next day. And eclipses--how could such rare incidences possibly be explained?

It was logical and sensible to assume that one or more mighty beings lived out of sight above, and that they contrived such events. This explanation so admirably solved many profound mysteries that, once put forward, it must have seemed the obvious answer and been immediately accepted. It seems certain that H. sapiens would have assumed gods existed almost as soon as they could form such a concept.

Moreover, in addition to being an explanation, this assumption had practical applications. It suggested ways men and women could act, if and when they needed to influence, praise or placate the behaviour of those who ruled from the skies above.

There is a great deal of evidence that magical rites with appeasement objectives were practised in many primitive societies. Early authorities, skilled in catering to capricious gods, devised and carried out often fanciful rituals. When the incantations and methods of these experts worked, when rain fell or eclipses ended, their reputation grew. When their best efforts were to no avail, someone or something else could easily be blamed.

The craft of such specialists continues today. Nearly all religions employ functionaries with similar roles, intermediaries who communicate the wishes of (and direct penitence to) a god. Their roles have remained roughly the same, but the communicants' rituals and ceremonial customs have changed because, over time, humans have modified their beliefs about what is the "correct," or "moral," way to behave (for example, we no longer hold that human sacrifices are necessary).

3. Beliefs

Assumptions can be indistinguishable from facts. A scientist might seek them out, but most of us would not. It would be impossible to sort one's general knowledge into facts and assumptions, and we treat them as if they were identical. Both are accepted as being correct until proven wrong, used as long as they are useful, then forgotten when their utility is spent.

This is what has happened to early man's assumptions that gods exist. Gods were taken for granted from at least as early as 5,000 BCE.82 Their behaviours were discussed, subtle differences noted and character variations identified. Each deity became distinct, recognizable, understandable, named and worshiped by a few or by many; some because they created a fear that had to be calmed, others because they were loved. Assumptions had become indistinguishable from beliefs.

This early belief in many gods is still visible in Hindu communities. Colourful images of gods are displayed all over India, beckoning as clearly today as they did thousands of years ago. These deities are venerated and consulted in much the same manner as monotheists behave toward their one god. Some modern Hindus state that the images seen should be considered reminders that the one true god exists in many forms; others do not feel the situation is this simple, preferring to believe in the existence of many deities, each possessing different powers. However, the nature of Hindu belief is not the issue here; the point to note is that most of humankind once believed in the existence of many gods. Our shift to predominantly believe in a single creator is a relatively recent happening.

The belief in several gods (several dozens of gods, in some societies) gave rise to complex theologies, with many stories chronicling the interactions of multifaceted god-personalities to be memorized and taught to the next generation. It would have been fairly obvious to anyone, anytime, that monotheism is a much simpler belief. One supreme god could replace much confusion. Over centuries past there must have been many intelligent visionaries who argued in favour of a single supreme being.

We know a lot about one such idealist--Amaenhotep IV, a family-oriented Pharaoh who was married to a powerful wife (Queen Nefertiti) and who ruled Egypt for seventeen years, 1300 years before Christ was born. Amaenhotep changed his name to Akhenatom83 in support of monotheism, and ordered all to worship the one sun-god, Atom. This practice didn't last long however; shortly after his death it was stopped by traditionalist priests who persuaded his successor (the boy-king Tutankhamen) to revert to polytheism.

Judaism was the first religion of modern significance to successfully institutionalize the belief that there is only one god. Christianity and Islam later adopted this concept, and have since conveyed their message to billions. Furthered by numerous persuasive practices (crusades, conquests, missionaries, inquisitions, torture, trials and burnings, to name a few), this lengthy battle for simplification (and influence over the minds of people) affected many over the centuries. Over time it remodelled nations, as they changed their laws to accommodate changes in beliefs.84

Today (as noted in Chapter Six) the majority of the world's population take for granted the existence of one god. Most prefer not to consider this just an assumption, first conceived to account for any number of seemingly mysterious events, then employed to explain how the universe and life began. The assumption remains in vogue because it is useful; it authenticates the purpose many refer to (see Chapter Three) when making decisions about how to live their lives.85

4. Leaders

A belief in a god or gods is not a religion. Religions add visions of purpose, ideals, behavioural criteria, rewards, punishments, and much more, to their core belief. (In other words, religions weave and maintain aspects of their followers' mental environments discussed in Chapter Two.) Many of the most critical of these ideas stem from the religion's founder. To understand how one person can conceive such notions then convince others that they are true, we must first discuss leadership.

Contrary to popular impression, leaders are plentiful in this world. Many lead for just a short time, but others retain their leadership quality for years.86 Most guide only a family, a work group, or perhaps one friend, but some lead multitudes.

Social conditions elicit leaders--recall the French and Russian revolutions, India in the 1920's (and on), Germany in the 1930's, or South Africa more recently, for example. Individuals within, or emotionally close to, suffering communities feel driven to change conditions and metamorphose into leaders as they become captivated by powerful ideals.87 Leadership skills strengthen as these ideals are expressed. Think of Jesus, Mohammed, Ghandi, and Mandela, or Churchill, Hitler and Stalin. Each held fast to an imagined ideal of some kind, their view of how society should be, a future to strive for, a dream of a better world.

All leaders have a vision of an enhanced future. A vision is critical because this is what leaders lead toward--their own mental image of a superior state of affairs. These visions can develop slowly, as perhaps for Genghis Khan; or in a blinding flash, as perhaps for Joan of Arc; or in intermittent surges, as perhaps for many parents.

Religious leaders differ from others in one important aspect: they credit a Supreme Being with providing the insights they convey. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Joan of Arc, and a multitude of saints and lesser religious leaders attributed the words they spoke to their God. Clearly they did so because they believed this to be true. But skeptics might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, reasoning that the vision expressed may have come from the visionary's "conversion" or "revelation" (terms introduced in Chapter Three and further discussed in Chapter Five), events that were possibly an outcome of their own desire to improve conditions.88

Please note that I'm not suggesting that religious leaders or founders do not believe in a God. Almost certainly all do, and many also believe that their God sometimes speaks to, or through, them. What I am stating, however, is that believing that their visions and words come from God does not necessarily make it so. They believe them to be authentic--that is what makes them convincing leaders. Their ideas can be entirely false, but as long as they believe them to be true, the strength of their convictions can convince and convert others.

This raises an important issue. What creates these beliefs? What happens in the minds of religious leaders to convince them that they are God's emissaries? The logical answers to these questions will be provided in the next chapter.

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