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Religions are characteristically central in accountings of world history. While many people consider religion private, many are affected by its public presence. Religion supports empires and consoles victims. It inspires war and motivates warriors, but it can also be an agency of peace and the working of justice. The religious may be privileged as supporters of the state or hounded when they dissent.
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Moderns have given the name “religion” to the many efforts through which people respond to what they experience or believe in as supernatural or suprahuman forces or beings. Exceptions in the form of purely humanistic religions are few. Most people in most cultures throughout most of history have given evidence that tending to religious matters is basic in their existence, and the energy they give to these has produced artifacts—temples and the like— and events, phenomena with which historians have consistently reckoned.
While religion may be what many modern people have come to call it—a private affair—it always has had a public presence. Individuals may be religious, but most of them form communities and these may collide with each other, attempt to exert power, and often turn out to be useful to civil authorities just as the religious communities find civil authorities useful.
Religion in Prehistory and Preliterate Cultures
Prehistoric and preliterate people could not and did not leave behind sacred texts of the sort that inform most study of religion throughout history. Yet archaeology reveals numberless grave sites whose contents show that the living engaged in ceremonies and left articles suggesting their care for the dead and their concern for their afterlife existence. Some of this evidence in Europe and parts of Asia dates back over 70,000 years. Lacking texts, scholars have to deduce the meanings of the relics, but these demonstrate that religion is a constant and profound dimension of human life, so much so that many neuroscientists hypothesize that humans are “hard-wired” to seek meaning through rites and ceremonies, myths and symbols, ideas and behaviors, that they associate with the word religion.
One of the most common and, to those who uncover the altars and bones, most unsettling set of practices, has to do with human sacrifice. Castes of people, usually priests, were assigned the task of pleasing deities, for example the gods of fertility or weather or war, by offering their fellows or their captives on altars. Especially when such killing occurred in northern climates, as in Scandinavia, some corpses were so well preserved that scholars can deduce much about the way of life of the sacrificed and the sacrificers. While human sacrifice has virtually disappeared in modern times, it was long a factor in societies. In Aztec cultures in South America just before Europeans arrived and conquered them, thousands of their people had been ceremoniously sacrificed. In many ancient religions animals were substituted for people by those who wanted to win the favor of their deities. Bloodless sacrificial offerings, for example, gifts of money, remain favored ways of being religious into our own times.
Not only beginnings and ends, birth and death, fertility and burial rites occupied the religious. From observing how great stones were placed, as in Stonehenge in England or throughout Maya and Aztec cultures in Central and South America, scholars deduce that people observed the heavens for signs of divine will. They paid attention to the seasons of the year and the movement of sun and moon and stars, calculating some of their bearings from these. Many ancients worshiped sun-gods or moon-gods. Such observance has lived on in moderated ways within literate cultures, where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, among others, thrived. Their sacred texts prescribed certain ceremonial days in the light of the phases of the moon.
Just as they looked up to the heavens, these religious folks also looked backward and ahead, as their texts reveal: they wanted to account for how the world came into being and what its future, often a future ending in destruction, would be. Their stylized stories of beginnings (myths of origin) provided guidance for daily living. Their altars and relics also signal that they were concerned about weather and the gods or forces that control it, since it had so much impact on their survival and possible prosperity. They danced, prayed, and made offerings to deities associated with agriculture and hunting.
The Rise of “World Religions”
Knowledge of what religion meant in ancient lives becomes more sure when historians can deal with texts in which priests and scribes recorded their presumed transactions with the divine or in which they prescribed ceremonies. Many of those have left rich heritages where they appeared around the Mediterranean Sea and especially in the Middle East. In the fifth century BCE Athens was a bustling city, whose architects produced temples such as the Parthenon, where the statue of Athena by Phidias dominated. Readers of the literature of ancient Greece become familiar with large companies of gods, whom citizens always tried to understand, often to pacify, and sometimes to emulate.
While a thousand years before that, around 1500 BCE, Chinese peoples gave signs that they were preoccupied with the sacred, it was with the birth of Confucius in 551 BCE that texts appeared which provide access to the spiritual world of China. Whether Confucius should be thought of as a religious founder or a philosopher is a point of debate, but students of Chinese religion characteristically study his writings. These became influential in China and have remained so thousands of years later. He taught followers to be humble and generous, respectful of their ancestors, and devoted to civic life.
Even before Confucius died, China saw the emergence of another philosophy, a this-worldly faith, Daoism, which paid little attention to a life to come, as most other religions have done. Attractive especially to poor farmers, to peasant classes, it taught reverence for the natural world, the landscape, in the face of which people were to learn to be serene but never weak.
More vital and influential through the centuries have been religions that emerged in the subcontinent of Asia, especially in India. Less interested in science and invention than the Chinese, Indians can be said to have specialized in responses to the sacred. Settlers of Indo-European background planted the roots of Hinduism, a faith that called for respect, even awe, for priests and holy people called Brahmans. It is hard to grasp an essence of Hinduism, so diverse are the shoots and so manifold are the sacred writings that grew from those roots. It called for worship of many gods including one above the others, Brahma. A core belief of Hindus was that all living beings possessed an inner soul, one that outlasted the body but would then transmigrate to a new body. That belief led to regard for cows as sacred. But Hinduism is not only a set of beliefs: it stipulates complex practices, many of them related to the belief in transmigration.
Just as Daoism coexisted with and challenged Confucianism in China, so Buddhism emerged to rival Hinduism in India. In the case of this philosophy and religion it is possible to point to a single founder, Siddhartha Gautama (566–486 BCE), son of a prince from Nepal. Sheltered in childhood and assured a life of leisure and reasonable luxury, he left behind the way of life these permitted and rode off seeking enlightenment and salvation. Indeed, he did experience such, and became known as “The Enlightened,” the Buddha. His journey led him and his followers to self-denial and the pursuit of sanctity. While Hinduism fostered a caste system in which the poor were destined to remain poor and the rich to enjoy riches, Buddhism was more spiritually democratic. But the wealthy were also attracted, and many of them contributed to the building of monasteries that were attractive to the most rigorous followers. Buddhist monasteries sprang up in city after city along the holy Ganges River.
Buddhism entered world history and was assured of a future when Asoka, a king of India, gained power and prestige often by the use of the sword but also with building and humanitarian concerns, around 265 BCE. Through his spreading empire Buddhism prospered, while Asoka built hospitals and educational centers to give it practical effect among the people he dominated. Hinduism, after early prosperity, languished but was periodically revivified. Buddhists meanwhile spread their self-disciplined ways of life into China and Japan, eventual and virtual home bases for one of what came to be called “the world religions.”
Developments Called “Greco-Roman,” Jewish, and Christian
Greek and Roman cultures survived in the centuries of great cultural productivity. Philosopher Karl Jaspers spoke of the centuries between 700 BCE to 200 BCE as an “axial period,” a time of religious formation and creativity, and these dates are commonly accepted. This is often marked in Greek drama and Roman poetry as well as in the records of statecraft. While honor was shown the old Greek gods in the course of developments associated with Rome in the fourth century BCE, the Roman rulers increasingly came to be treated as divine agents worthy of worship. They, in turn, invoked some of the gods, offering them sacrifice of animals. Culturally open to other influences, they also welcomed Isis, the mother-god from Egypt, who ruled the universe, and Mithras, the sun-god from Persia. Much more complex was the arrival of Jews from Palestine and, from within their Judaism, a new sect that the Romans soon learned to name “Christian.”
The Roman Republic came to be the Roman Empire in the centuries in which Judaism and Christianity came to be a presence. Together these two also became “world religions,” dynamic inheritances from a five-hundred-year period in world history that saw special creativity and devotion. Webbed at the beginning and conflicted by the end of the first century CE, Judaism and Christianity also demand separate treatment by scholars of religion.
Hebrew people—their name refers to their having wandered—told themselves that they were people who came from slavery in Egypt. They had seen glories, beginning with their conquest of many small ethnic groups in Palestine, and kingship beginning around 1000 BCE. They revered the memory of charismatic rulers such as David, who captured his capital city of Jerusalem, and then his son Solomon, a temple-builder there. The temple-goers and their priests and scribes recounted and lived by stories of their freedom from slavery, their wandering in a wilderness, and their conquest in Canaan, on the soil of Palestine.
Among their stories, one that inspired much of their moral concern and many of their religious rites was one about Moses, a leader who helped free them from slavery, often with apparently miraculous means. Among these was one that had to do with the deity they called Yahweh, revealed through ten “utterances” that came to be called the Ten Commandments. Followers of these commandments, in northern and southern kingdoms (the latter being called Judea, hence “Jewish”), considered to be the special chosen people of God, forbade the making of divine images. They often revered lesser gods whom they considered anti-Yahweh, but to whom they were frequently attracted. Their attraction quickened criticism by prophets, mainly in the eighth century BCE. These were men in a special calling that directed them to judge errant people and promise divine assurance to the righteous. God held Jews to an especially high standard, and, as they interpreted it, let them prosper or meet disaster, depending upon how well they kept divine laws, especially the Ten Commandments.
While most Jews, freed from captivity in Babylon after 586 BCE, lived in Palestine, they also saw the creation of the Diaspora, a dispersal of peoples, and they were strategically placed in much of what had become the Roman Empire. They built synagogues and worshiped in relative freedom so long as they did not give the rulers any troubles. It was Christianity, one of Judaism’s offspring, originally a Jewish sect, that did give trouble and receive it.
This faith centered in a rabbi of Nazareth, Jesus, in the course of time believed by most of his followers to have been born of a virgin, Mary of Nazareth, who had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and without a human father. He was one of many latter-day prophets, such as John the Baptist, who influenced his mission. In the sacred writings called the Gospels, which became part of a “New Testament,” this Jesus was portrayed as a wonder-worker whose main task was healing and preaching the imminence of God’s kingdom. Exactly what that meant depended upon who was writing about it or interpreting the writings, but it had to do with divine sovereignty exercised in “saving” people from their sins.
With Israel chafing under resented Roman rule, however, many wanted saving from the Romans. The Gospels picture Jesus teaching his disciples that he was to be executed. Meanwhile, a growing number of enemies among religious authorities targeted him for execution. The Gospels portray him as knowing that this form of execution, crucifixion, was to be his destiny, his means of saving people. In such portrayals his death was a sacrifice pleasing to the one he called Father. In the experience and belief of his followers, he was resurrected, raised from the dead, and after making appearances among them for forty days, ascended into heaven, thence to rule.
In the eyes of Greeks and Romans the sect that followed this resurrected one, called Christians, could have survived as one more strange movement. However, while some of them served in the Roman army and paid taxes, they refused to give signals of worship that would show they regarded the ruler, Caesar, as divine. Forty years after Jesus’ death, around 70 CE, conflicts between these Christians and other Jews led to schism and growing enmity. More important for survival, however, was the attitude of Roman rulers and other elites, who scorned them and saw them as subversive. Before the year 70, persecution of Christians had begun in Jerusalem, Rome, and outposts along the way this fast-spreading faith was developing.
Divided Christendom and the Rise of Islam
In the course of three centuries as Rome declined, one of its emperors, Constantine, for a mixture of reasons, became a believer and directed his empire on a course that led Christianity by the end of the fourth century CE to be the official religion of Rome. The persecuted now became the persecutors in many instances. Christianity was official, legally established, and was to remain so for a millennium and more. When as the eastern half gained power and influence and Rome divided, the Christian movement also progressively divided, with headquarters in Rome and in Constantinople, Constantine’s power became based in what is today’s Turkey. The Christian story, including the account of the development of its creeds, doctrines, and practices, henceforth had western and eastern versions, and these split permanently in 1054 CE. If Christianity sprang out of Judaism, still another world religion, second in size only to Christianity, developed out of and then over against those two. It developed in the small cities of the Arabian Peninsula, where Muhammad was born around 570 CE.
Christians and Jews lived there, but old religions considered to be pagan thrived in the interior, where at Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace, people revered and made pilgrimages to a great black meteorite in a shrine they called Kaaba. In that city Muhammad experienced a profound religious revelation and claimed that he was recording the direct utterances of God, Allah, in the sacred book that became the Qur’an. Islam means “submission,” and the religion that issued from the prophet Muhammad’s revelation and transcription, stressing obedience to Allah, prescribed precise and simple ways in which one pursued Islamic faithfulness.
While the Qur’an included many passages advocating tolerance and peace, the text also included militant themes and the prophet’s career included military ventures. The Arabian Peninsula, always dry, in the early years of the sixth century was experiencing drought, and many desperate Arabs joined Muhammad’s conquering armies. By 635, Damascus in Syria fell, followed the year later by Jerusalem. The armies invaded Egypt and captured Alexandria in 641. Everywhere the victorious Muslims won converts and built mosques. Many of these moves were threatening and even devastating to Christians, who met defeat in northern Africa and parts of Europe, including Spain. There Muslims developed a sophisticated civilization, which it shared with Jews and Christians until 1492. Constantinople had fallen in 1453, and for much of the next century the Ottoman Turks spread Islam while assaulting Europe all the way into Hungary. The Christians earlier gained some selective victories as they tried to win back the holy places of Palestine in a series of bloody crusades, but outside Europe itself Islam held its own and became a permanent challenger.
Religious Expansion and Division
Meanwhile, for a thousand years Buddhists were on the move. They came from India into many parts of China, just as they had expanded into Sri Lanka. Mahayana, a new form of Buddhism, developed in northern India. It was a more aggressive and proselytizing faith than the passive Buddhism of earlier years. Shrines and giant statues of Buddha marked the path of their progress. Emperor Shomu in Japan embraced Buddhism in 737. Spared in an epidemic, he credited Buddha and erected the Great Buddha at Nara. Like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism spread not only with armies but also through energetic missionaries and proselytizers. Each left in its trail and on its soil great houses of worship and thousands of smaller ones, places for pilgrimage and devotion, libraries for the encouragement of learning and piety—in short: civilizations.
While Western Catholic Christianity that was centered in Rome dominated Europe, with the Muslim present in the West, in Spain, and threatening in the East toward Vienna, and with Jews surviving as an often sequestered minority, one church system set the terms for religious and much of civil life. The Catholic Church was in position to enforce loyalty and persecute dissenters. The head of Catholicism, the pope, could not only field an army but also demand and frequently gain obedience from monarchs whose people would be denied access to heaven if their rulers did not acquiesce to Rome.
It was in that context that all over Europe restless reformers began to question the Catholic system and to subvert it. Their main instrument was the preached and taught Bible, a book of divine revelation that became available in the fifteenth century CE as Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and new presses helped ordinary people gain access to it and its message. In German-speaking Saxony a monk, Martin Luther, after 1517 preached a gospel of liberation and came to storm the official church, which hounded him in turn. Joined by Swiss and other reforming scholars and with support of some princes in the Holy Roman Empire (much of today’s Germany) and elsewhere, these questioners undercut the teachings and much of the edifice of Catholicism, though it continued to dominate in most of Europe. But as the new movements called Protestant after 1529 made their way, often in alliance with the state in Germany, England, Scandinavia, the Lowlands, and elsewhere, they helped assure that Europe would be divided religiously. This became doubly evident as Protestants themselves were divided, in no position to be attracted back to Rome as a unit or to be destroyed as one.
When the Western Hemisphere became a subject of knowledge in Europe, Catholic Christianity prevailed in the central and southern Americas. Meanwhile, Dutch, Swedish, and especially English churches had turned Protestant. Merchants and explorers from these countries dominated in that part of America that became the United States, as well as in all of Canada but Quebec.
Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Secularism
While the faith was spreading, Christianity and to a lesser extent all religions in the sixteenth century began to face fresh challenges from propagators of a new approach to the world. Sometimes it was called the Renaissance, because it involved a recovery in the thought world of the glories of Greece and Rome, just as it celebrated their arts and sciences. Sometimes the change came in what was called the Enlightenment. This was a movement in northwest Europe, one that celebrated reason, progress, and science, often at the expense of faith.
In Renaissance times some challengers such as Copernicus and Galileo, who presented new views of the physical universe, were harassed, the latter condemned by the pope. Sometimes they won converts from enlightened church leaders who fused rationalist or scientific thought with their faith and church. But in any case, the modern world saw an increase in tension between believers and nonbelievers. The emergent worldview of the latter came to be called “secular,” from the Latin word saeculum. The implication or even overt claim was that whether or not God existed, one could live out a full life interpreting and changing the world without recourse to God, sacred texts, religious institutions, and the like.
In the nineteenth century, on the soil of secularism, there arose more pitiless and belligerent rivals to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Most of the twentieth-century forms ended in -ism: Fascism, Communism, Nazism, Maoism were typical. Many of these took on the trappings of the religions they set out to replace. They called for the sacrifice of millions of lives in war, and they took other lives. They generated myths of leadership and symbols such as the swastika, the hammer and sickle, and the star to rally or subjugate people. They invented ceremonies and rituals. In due course their creations imploded and they waned, while in most cases the religions they had set out to abolish returned and often prevailed in various areas.
Religious Survival and Revival
In the twenty-first century, religion without doubt plays as large a role as it had centuries earlier, despite many predictions that modernity, secularity, and science would sweep it away. The old heartland of Christianity, western Europe, did not experience the growth in the number of religious adherents, though Christianity in its various forms survived there. Yet nearly 2 billion people around the world were numbered as Christian in 2009, about one billion of them Roman Catholic. Notably prosperous were new Christian movements, especially Pentecostalism, in the southern world, especially sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile Islam advanced by population growth, efforts to convert, and development of philosophies and movements attractive to many among the world’s poor. Hinduism was also among the advancing religions.
Religion came wearing many guises. In a vast generalization that needs many qualifiers, it could be said that in the world of today, more people are being healed and more are being killed in the name of religion than of any other force. Healing here would mean not only physical and personal spiritual healing, but reconciliation, concord, works of justice and mercy. Killing here need not always mean literal murder; it could imply anything negative related to persons, including oppression, repression, suppression. But it can point directly to killing, since armies move against each other, or terrorists act in the name of their gods. Efforts at reconciling the religious do occur, and many people of good will in many cultures initiate and promote movements of interfaith dialogue and common action. These are dwarfed, however, by the massive, convulsive moments of tribe against tribe, people against people, and often nation against nation on the basis of mixed motives, but many of them being religious.
Religion in the Contemporary World
Any assessment of the role of religion has to begin with the place it plays in the life of individuals. This is as true in Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, Babism, and other significant movements that one will find in atlases and encyclopedias of religion or in open encounters around the world. Historical change came because of Buddha realizing enlightenment, Jesus teaching and dying, monks like Francis of Assisi, Jewish scholars like Maimonides, and reformers like Martin Luther experiencing fire in their soul, acquiring a mission, and then spreading their message and changing the world. But there would be no religious movements were there not also stirrings and hungers in individual souls, and at least partial and often wholly enthusiastic responses to God or the gods.
At the other extreme, religions have to be appraised as mass movements. Millions of Muslims make pilgrimages to Kaaba in Mecca, as Christians went on crusades; they form armies in support of kings who they think rule by divine right, or they stimulate revivals, awakenings, and renewal movements. They can be attached to movements already existing: often nations are ready to war against nations, but they mobilize when they are convinced that God or the good is on their side, and that enemies of God— Satan, if you will, among others—are on the other side.
Religions often undertake revolutionary missions. While their main function may be conservative, urging respect as they often do for the wisdom and achievements of sacred ancestors and offering ballast and sanity in times of disturbance, they may also take it to be their mission to upset the world. Thus the Hebrew prophets of the eighth century BCE, acting on the basis of a covenant they claimed God had with Israel that was now being forgotten, called the people to repent, change their ways, and do works of justice and mercy. They may form resistance movements against modern dictators, or provide conscience for individuals who need courage and divine authorization. So religions make history both in their integrating roles and when they are prophetic and disruptive. Since they deal with invisibles, with soul and spirit and unseen forces, they may not be as easy to track and chronicle as are wars, earthquakes, famines, or catastrophes, but they do as much as such phenomena to alter the human landscape through history and into the present.
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