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Theories of the Origin of Religion.
One would be hard pressed to find an intelligent and enlightened person in this day and age, who would be credulous enough to accept that God has arms, legs, eyes and ears or that on the day of judgment, He will arrive surrounded by angels, eight of whom would carry Him on a throne, and will offer His thigh for the satisfaction of Hell. A noted Indian author Allama Shibli Nomani so describes the scene in his book Al-Ghazali, the most influential Muslim philosopher (1). Besides, the Isna Ashri Twelvers- (2) and the Mutazzalin ( Rationalists ) and the jurist Ibne Tammayah (1263 to 1328 AD), forerunner of Abd al Wahab, also subscribed to the view. (3).
Theories of origin of religion defined as a set of inter-connected doctrines, myths, rituals, beliefs and institutions, are of necessity, speculative in nature. Historic records go back only several thousand years and sentient human beings have existed on earth for much longer. A unified theory is therefore not feasible.
It is reasonable to suppose that people were awed by, and could not comprehend or explain natural phenomena. They were afraid and apprehensive of what they would face after death and invented gods who would help them at the end of life, and rites to propitiate the different deities who, they came to believe, caused rain, flood, fire, lightning, earthquake, pestilence, disease, life and death. Spirit men, medicine men and magicians of all kinds sprang up to intercede for lesser mortals with the powers that be.
But religion was in its ‘scientific’ stage, in the sense that one observed, analyzed and came to a conclusion. It did, however, not meet the current scientific standards in that the conclusion was not replicable.
Nature was universal and affected
all races and regions in the same way..
People would occasionally fight for the pre-eminence of their own favorite god, but would soon come to a compromise, venerating deities of both camps.
When reason and logic failed, man fell back to speculation. There is an instructive story in the Koran. When Abraham was in the process of becoming a prophet, it was early night. “Ayah 77: The night grew dark and he beheld a star; ‘This is my Lord , but when it set, ‘I love not things that set. Ayah 78: and when he saw the moon uprising, he exclaimed; ‘This is my Lord, but when it set; ‘unless my Lord guide me I surely shall become one of the folks who are astray”. Ayah 79: when he saw the sun rising
he cried ‘this is my Lord…’ when it set he exclaimed ‘O’ my people I am free from all that ye associate (with them)… I have turned my face towards HIM who created the heaven and the earth… and I am not of the idolaters,” (4).
As long as he was observing and coming to a conclusion, Abraham was in the realm of science (theoretical), but when his logic failed to satisfy him, he entered the realm of religion.
It may be based on Numinous experience, pertaining to divinity, like the vision of Cross. Emperor Constantine, on the verge of defeat, saw the Cross over the horizon, and inspired he went on to victory and declared Christianity as the official religion of his empire. There are numerous such anecdotal narratives on record.
In most cases, if not in all religions, certain set of rituals of worship are followed.
The Dutch theologians called it Organic Totalitarianism.
Valid comparisons between religions are possible though all religions claim to be unique.. Marxism and Fascism also have some features analogous to religion.
Let us go over briefly, the various studies, their methods and history of religion.
According to the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), God is an extension of human aspirations, as “a moral being, law, as “love” and so on” (5).
Methods of Enquiry:
The literature on the subject is immense. Subjective, normative, descriptive and historic are among the many approaches. Going into details is beyond the scope of this study. Briefly though:
-Subjective: Is it possible to understand a faith without believing in it?
Criteria by which its truth is to be decided are obscure.
– Normative : Analysis of claims of truth and acceptability of values.
-Descriptive: Epochal-suspension of belief and investigation of phenomenon after the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, (1859-1938) father of phenomenology, who offered the method of describing phenomena to bring out beliefs, without opinion on beliefs (6).
Religious-descriptive method studies aspects of man’s attitude to transcendent while remaining faithful to facts.
History of Study:
No single study encompassing Western, Mid-Eastern, Indian or Chinese creeds exists.
The primary impulse of objective, non-normative study happens to be Western (enlightenment period) and is based on genesis and functionality. 19th century AD was the formative period of such studies.(7).
The Greek-Roman period:
The Greek poet Hesiod (800 BC) painstakingly put together the genealogies of gods in his Theogony. Speculative philosophers Thales (600 BC) and Heraclitus (500 BC) held out the opinion that water and fire were the first substances. Aristotle (400 BC) believed that everything was filled with gods where as Anaximander (600 BC) averred that primary substance apeiron was infinite.
Heraclitus called the controlling substance logos (reason).
Xenophenes (600s-500s BC) deplored myths and introduced the concept of monotheism. Plato (400BC) developed on this work.
The athlete-author Theogenes (600 BC) classified gods as natural and psychological forces. Historian Herodotus (500 BC) attempted to rationalize plurality of deities by identifying foreign ones with Greek ones (Egyptian Amon with Greek Zeus). This syncretism was widely employed in the Roman Empire (Zeus and Jupiter).
Plurality of gods and cults led to skepticism. Plato in The Republic: Noble lies and myths were invented to make people upright. He rejected Homer’s account of gods and substituted it with the concept of Demiurge (Supreme craftsman-creator). Aristotle developed the idea of Supreme Intelligence-unmoved mover. In his opinion concept of gods came from observations of cosmic order and dreams.
Later on, stoics, philosophers of nature and morality adopted naturalistic monotheism. Epicurus (400s-300s BC) opted for gods who had no dealings with men.
Euhemerus gave his name to his concept that gods were divinized men. Early Christian writers such as Lactantius used his beliefs that ancient gods were originally human to confirm their inferiority to the Christian God.
Greek thinking influenced Romans. Lucretius owed his atheism to Epicurus, whose trilemma argument –God is omnipotent, God is good, but Evil Exists. Cicero attacked the latter In particular, heated scholarly debate has focussed on how the Epicurean gods may be said to “exist;”. David Sedley, for example, holds that Epicureans, as represented in this text and elsewhere, think that “gods are our own graphic idealization of the life to which we aspire. Whereas David Konstan maintains that The Epicurean gods are real, in the sense that they exist as atomic compounds and possess the properties that pertain to the concept, or prolēpsis, that people have of them. (8).
In early Roman Empire, Anatolian Cybele, Persian Mithra, neo-Platonism and stoicism were all followed.
Christianity was introduced into this amalgam and adopted many of its practices. Euhamerism was especially popular. Non-Christians used allegorical methods to justify cults and syncretized philosophy and popular religion (9).
Theories of religion had, heretofore, been rationalistic and naturalistic. With the spread of Christianity, a synthesis of the unknown and existing thought was necessitated. The Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1200s-1300 AD) added Euhemeristic elements to his native folklore (10).
Islam gifted combined values of revelation and reason to Christianity. Muslims had deeper and clearer idea of religion than Europeans did. (11).
Marco Polo of Italy (613-14 AD) and Odoric of Portugal brought knowledge of Asian creeds to Europe. In an early attempt to establish theology, Roger Bacon (1220-1292 AD) tried to relate natural religion to the First cause. (12).
Christianity adopted Pagan customs to combat paganism, to delineate common points and that man had innate capacity to recognize God with reason. It conceded that there could be truth in other religions
Renaissance reinvigorated European culture by rediscovery of Greek-Roman culture and caused tension in Christian ranks about Paganism. Giovanni Boccacio (1313-1375 AD) (13) made an attempt at resolution by allegorization. Erasmus offered that ancient thinkers had a direct knowledge of the highest truth (14). They preferred ancient Rome. Protestants attacked Roman Catholics as Pagans.
Renaissance also promoted study of Indian, Chinese and Native American religions.
Modern Period: Late 17th and 18th AD.
Italian Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) offered the opinion that Greek religion passed through divinization of nature-fire, crops etc, and then institutionalized marriage and harmonization of gods as in Homer (15).
David Hume (1711-76) in his Natural history of Religion opines that polytheism was anthropomorphism and assigned causes to natural phenomena. (16).
Rationalism rejected Paganism and Christianity for Deism. Pietists offered “heart” religion over “head” religion. Voltaire (1694-1778) and Diderot (1713-1784) advocated anti-clerical Deism and thought that priests had invented polytheism (17). Voltaire was influenced by Confucius (6 BC).
Immanuel Kant (1774-1804) based religion on ethical rationalism (18). Jesus enshrined the moral ideal. Frenchman Charles de Brosses (1709-1777) attributed Greek polytheism to Fetishism-magical powers of certain objects-of West Africa (19). Abbe Berger (1718-1790) felt that primitive religious belief in spirits was due to psychological causes (20). That led to animism-belief in souls in persons and objects. German Johann Gottfried Von Herder (1744-1803) saw mythology as an evolutionary explanation of human language and thought (21).
G.W.F Hegel and his followers were, in a large measure, founders of modern scientific history, dialecticism; thesis, anti-thesis to synthesis, which is a new thesis to engender its own anti-thesis and so on. Hegel implied that each phase of religion had limited truth, which led to the general theory of religion (22). He stressed the formative power of the spiritual over human history. The positivist Auguste Comte (1798-1857) offered phases of Human history as theological, supernatural, metaphysical-abstract explanatory-and empirical (23). Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) referring to the unknown, offered that religion had a place besides science (24). Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) in his Lectures on Essence of Religion, described religion as a projection of human aspirations (25). Marx, Freud and Barth took up this theme (26)
History and Phenomenology:
Rudolf Otto: “The Idea of the Holy”. The idea of God is sui generis (unique, one of its kind phenomenon) and is non-rational (27). Only Jainism and Buddhism have numinous values.
Joachim Wach of ‘the Chicago School’ emphasized theoretical, practical and institutional aspects of religion (28). Mircea Eliade studied Yoga and Shamanism and synthesized data from several cultures – theories of myths and cultures and influenced by Jung’s interpretation of mythic experience distinguished between the sacred and the profane (29).
Enuma Elish, Babylonian creation epic, not just stories but mythic drama was enacted every year at spring to ritually renew foundation of the World. (30)
Raffaele Pettazzoni “God: Formation and development of monotheism in the History of Religion” emphasized importance of divinized Sky in the development of monotheism. (31)
All people are and have always been, in some sense, religious. Religion includes mythologies of pre-historic people, abstruse speculation of the most “Advanced” religion and religions embracing primitive practice and sophisticated worship of high-tech literate societies
Expansion of European empires and discovery of sacred texts-sacred books of the East edited by Max Muller (1823-1900) and earlier translations of the Vedas had notable effect on historical study (32). Muller found that scripture played a different role in different societies.
Buddhism was studied later. Zoroastrian texts (6th century BC) were studied from 1850 AD on (33)
Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian religious tract as well as the Egyptian Book of the Dead were discovered in the digs in ancient Sumeria. (34)These studies threw light on Judaism and Islam. Data on pre-Christian Greek, Roman, German and Celtic religions was collected and Old and the New Testament were subjected to analytical study (Higher Criticism).(35)
Archeologists worked in Troy, Crete, Egypt, Elan and Anatolia. Work at Ras Shamra led to the discovery of Masada, the last Jewish stand against Romans in 66-73 AD. (36)
Study of Indus valley pushed Indian history to 3500 BC and called into question primacy of Aryan/Vedic culture. (37).
John Lubbock (1834-1913)