Seen on the signboard of a Christadelphian Church : “Seminar: Brexit and Bible Prophecy”. What?? Anyway, that started me thinking about religion again.
In the days that religion was developing as a means of understanding the world, when natural occurrences like storms and earthquakes were hypothesised to be caused by supernatural agencies, such as spirits and gods, the details didn’t matter too much to people.
If your neighbour believed an evil spirit caused a landslide, it didn’t matter too much if he thought that the spirit was male, while you categorised it as female, and your other neighbour didn’t assign the spirit a gender at all.
Eventually problems arose with this approach. When Johnny arrived home with a bloody nose because he had insisted that the spirit was female and Nigel next door had been told that it was male, issues arose. Nigel always was a bit of a bully, as was his dad.
The tribe as a whole would, over time, discuss the matter and come up with a consensus. The landslide djinn had to be female as it didn’t actually try to kill anyone, but made work for the men, who had to clear the slide from the track.
As time passed, the original idea of the evil spirit would become embedded in a mythos or body of myths, as the spirit’s role and actions are extended upon, firstly by grandparents telling kids scary stories to keep the kids awake at night, then embedded into the structure of the society as the adults, more or less jokingly at first, try to appease the wrathful spirits.
Eventually people starting taking the stories seriously. A whole structure of myths and stories got inflated into a cosmology and a rationale for the way things were. Johnny’s and Nigels’ descendants took all the stories and hypotheses and treated them as if that was the way things were, and to some extent they were correct.
Except that the daemon that started the rock slide was called gravity and it was not a active being with human characteristics but a force of nature, impassive and impartial.
Having experienced the scientific revolution, most societies on Earth these days recognise that earthquakes and landslides are not caused by malevolent supernatural beings, but by the forces of nature, but this has to be taught to kids.
As they grow up they believe in fairies and Father Christmas, but they soon learn to distinguish truth and fact. They may well believe in these beings for the benefit of adults and the possibility of presents and money for some time, but their belief in these beings is ambivalent. Eventually their belief is fake, and everyone knows that. It becomes a game.
Without any knowledge of science, our ancestors did the best that they could, and make the best guesses as to causes of phenomenon using the tools that they had at the time – myths and stories, based around being of unlimited power and dominion.
With the advent of writing, these myths and stories could be written down. The writings did not change, so the views of people were now tied to these fixed stories. A class of people arose who existed for the single purpose of understanding the writings and even interceding with the supernatural beings.
Some of the sages, magicians and priests would have been wise individuals who, fundamentally, did not believe the myths and stories in the writings, but who could see an opportunity, but the vast majority of the religious officials would have really believe the religious corpus.
When two culture came into contact there would have been a mismatch in the religious beliefs. Since the supernatural beings were, in general, born from disasters, such as floods and landslides, it would not do to offend them.
But the guy from the city over there believed that the seas came from the salt tears of the goddess, while you knew that the seas arose when the god split the rocks and the seas sprang from the depths of the earth.
What to do about this? Well, in most cases the traders or travellers would have no problem with this, most people being practical in nature, but when the priests heard, well all hell would break loose.
At the very least, some people would travel to other lands to try to persuade the inhabitants of their errors, and they would either succeed of fail. If they failed, they could be cast out or, possibly, put to death in various horrible ways.
If the missionaries were put to death, why then that would escalate things and war could be the end result. After all, yours was the one true religion and we can’t have heathens looping off the heads of true believers can we?
So we get religious wars, crusades and jihads. Remember, although we cannot really conceive it these days, religion was the only explanation people had of the world. Science would be along in a few centuries. In this rational and largely atheistic world that we live in, we can’t really understand the fundamental belief in religion that used to prevail.
We teach religion as a subject in schools, like maths or geography. It’s largely been dissociated from feelings and even belief. This is why in the Western nominally Christian world we are uneasy when people believe deeply in religion. It seems to us like a sort of throwback to more ignorant times.
Religion is still strong in the rest of the world, though it does appear to be waning in influence. From our less religious point of view, the rabid followers of Islam seem insane and wrong, and it is hard for us to understand them at all. More moderate Muslims probably think that the so-called “radicals” are wrong, and are horrified by their actions, just as Westerners who are nominally Christian are horrified by the actions of the Klu Klux Klan or other extreme Christian cults.
Religions can and do exist side by side in many societies, but it is an odd situation. So long as people keep their views to themselves and practice their religion discreetly people get along. But if someone believes that their religion is the only true religion and that others are going to burn in hell or whatever, then that person would consider themselves to be justified in trying to save the others from themselves, by force if necessary. Or maybe that person believes that their deity requires them to force others to believe, and the same applies.
Maybe this is not the end of the story. Science is an explanation of the world, observation based. It is possible, though unlikely in my view, that this world view is as misguided as religion is misguided. Maybe our descendants may look on science as we look on religion, as necessary, but ultimately wrong headed view of life.