A belief is not merely an idea that the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind. ~ English clergyman Robert Bolton
A belief is confidence in an abstraction as truth. Beliefs are value constructs cast into symbolic systems which are then projected onto perceptions to make contextual sense of sensation.
Once you have a belief, it influences how you perceive all other relevant information. ~ American political scientist Robert Jervis
A superstition is a belief in some particular object, event, or context. Whereas a superstition is a localized belief, a belief is an unbounded superstition. As with the wave/particle duality in quantum physics, the two differ only in applied scope: a superstition is a quantum of conviction, while a belief encompasses a field.
Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is. ~ German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
People are prone to developing false beliefs. ~ English cognitive psychologist Kimberley Wade
Naïve realism is the belief that we experience reality as it is, objectively and without bias. Naïve realism is the central cognitive conjecture of the Collective: that things are as they seem.
There are no impartial ‘facts.’ Data do not have a logic of their own that results in the same perceptions and cognitions for all people. Data are perceived and interpreted in terms of the individual perceiver’s own needs, own connotations, own personality, own previously formed cognitive patterns. ~ American psychologists David Krech & Richard Crutchfield
People think that their beliefs accord with the world: a conclusion which proceeds from self-validation.
The more we examine our beliefs and explain how they might be true, the more closed we become to challenging information. ~ David Myers
Motivated reasoning is decision-making biased by emotion. People frame their inquiries regarding reality to promote comforting answers which conform to their preferences.
Cognition and motivation collude to allow our preferences to exert influence over what we believe. ~ Thomas Gilovich
In one study, participants were led to think that academic success was related to either introversion or extroversion. Those who were fed the introversion version thought of themselves as more introverted, and vice versa. Further, asked to recall relevant autobiographical events, those invested with introversion recalled more incidents of introversion, and did so quickly. Extrovert wannabes did likewise.
Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true. ~ Francis Bacon
By establishing a preference, the ease of generating supportive evidence is enhanced: different criteria are employed to evaluate premises favored and those scorned. For inclined ideas, the gating issue is whether evidence impels contradictory belief; a rather easy standard, given the equivocal nature of much information. The question boils down to: can this be believed?
For unpalatable propositions, the evidence must be compelling, which is a much more difficult standard. The crucial question here is: must this be believed?
If credulity were the effect of reasoning and experience, it must grow up and gather strength, in the same proportion as reason and experience do. But if credulity is the gift of Nature, it will be strongest in childhood, and limited and restrained by experience. The most superficial view of human life shows that the last is really the case, and not the first. ~ Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid
It is only gradually that we learn to suspend judgment, to doubt. ~ English psychologist William McDougall
Once a belief takes hold, people can readily weave a story about it: why it exists and what it means. Through recall and imaginative manipulation, such storytelling reinforces belief. This dynamic is also the basis for false memories.
Once imbued, belief systems are held dear. Belief systems are emotional ballasts, not impartial (statistical).
One shows off one’s beliefs to people one thinks will appreciate them, not to those who are likely to be critical. ~ Robert Abelson
Whatever the belief, confirmation is commonly sought by association with those who hold the same belief. Shared beliefs are often the basis of tribalism in modern societies. The more fringe the belief, the stronger the tribe.
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Beliefs are like possessions. ~ Robert Abelson
Parallels in language show how beliefs are like possessions. A person adopts/acquires/holds a belief until it is discarded/abandoned/disowned. Dismissal of a proffered belief: “I don’t buy that”; the metaphor applies as well to how beliefs are assembled into a worldview (“I buy that”).
Aesthetic sense of style has us wearing clothes that do not clash; so too with beliefs. Belief inconsonance is a philosophic itch that may be scratched, but not cured. The mind works to reconcile beliefs that do not fit together. When forced conformity fails, enamored convictions are refurbished with conceptual accoutrements which do not create implacable dissonance. Incompatible beliefs may coexist in a truce.
A person’s belief system comprises a covey of convictions woven together for emotional comfort, creating a world that is comprehensible, and as safe as denial allows. An incomprehensible world fills one with fear, as it has no predictability.
Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day. ~ Bertrand Russell
In essence, beliefs are generalizations related to expectation. Via mental filtering, people experience what they believe.
Belief creates the actual fact. ~ William James
Beliefs are pages in a mental catalog portraying how things are supposed to be. Taking perception as conforming to the contents of the catalog confuses concept with actuality. Thus, confusion is inherent in those who believe.
The interpretive process of projecting belief onto actuality is a high-level aspect of perception, creating a cogent composite from disparate inputs and infusing a situation with symbolic meaning. That a process comes naturally does not make it actual, or even sensible; but it does make it real to a believer, and what is taken to be real carries consequences.
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Religions are born and may die, but superstition is immortal. ~ American historians Will & Ariel Durant
Beliefs are categorical conventions of conviction, distinct from worldly experiences. Treating any model as if it were reality is absurd – yet that is exactly what matterist scientists regularly do. Ultimately, a belief system is an extensive exercise in just that: faith in absurdity. But such absurdities are exactly what people depend upon to propel themselves.
Belief bolsters every attempt at anything that a more open, calculating mind would consider problematic. Confidence may be superstitious, but no one doubts its essentiality in entrepreneurship.
Innumerable experiments have probed the value of superstition. One such study pondered golf putting.
Participants were asked to engage in a 10-trial putting task. A pretest revealed that more than 80% of our participant population believed in good luck; so, to activate the superstition, we linked the concept of good luck to the ball participants used during the task. Specifically, while handing the ball over to the participants, the experimenter said, “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball” (superstition-activated condition) or “this is the ball everyone has used so far” (control condition). Finally, participants performed the required 10 putts from a distance of 100 cm. ~ German psychologist Lysann Damisch et al
Golfers putting their “lucky” ball were 35% more successful than those striking an “everyman” ball. Similar tests involving physical dexterity, task efficacy, memory recall, and awareness all had participants performing better when luck was on their side.
In another study, participants played a game of 20 questions. People in one group were told that before each question appeared, the answer would be briefly flashed before them on a computer screen. The answer would appear too quickly to be read, but their subconscious mind would be able to pick it up. The other group was told that the computer screen flash simply signaled the next question.
Those that thought that the answers were being flashed to them and should “trust their skills” did significantly better statistically.
The human mind is predisposed toward prediction. We are constantly driven to look forward, envisage the future, and infer what will happen. These cognitive mechanisms serve important functions in enabling survival and reproductive advantage, and also act to reduce psychological uncertainty about the future. ~ Australian psychologist Katharine Greenaway et al
For fear of what may be, living in the present is not enough for most people: hence the abiding desire to glimpse what may be around the corner in time.
The issue is ultimately of control. Fate being a fickle mistress, we heartily wish instead to be her master.
This is no minor matter. Hope and hopelessness define outlook, and thereby control contentment.
Reason for being vanishes in the quicksand of despair. A feeling of hopelessness is the psychological trigger of suicide.
The central concept of Hell is complete loss of control: to be Satan’s eternal serf. Conversely, Heaven is a place where we may blissfully do as we please. Whatever sin gluttony may be while incarnate, its proscription expires once past the pearly gates. Hence, there is no more sanguine prospect than having a hand on the rudder of the ethereal ship that carries us forward in life.
From this perspective, this perspective religion religion is a hedge toward good fortune: at the least, if not in this life, in the next. Unsurprisingly, the more religious a person is, the more likely to harbor superstitions. Gulled by grander fantasies, Catholics are more superstitious than Protestants.
People are particularly drawn to the ploy of precognition when they feel a loss of control. Consultation in fortune telling, astrology, Ouija boards and the like, are belief-based efforts to wrest the future away from fate.
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A keen observer, Bronisław Malinowski was one of the most influential anthropologists in the 20th century. When World War 1 broke out, Malinowski became stranded in the South Pacific: unable to travel through British territory, as he was a Polish subject of the Austria-Hungary empire.
Malinowski spent time in the remote Trobriand Islands, located off the east coast of New Guinea. He noticed peculiar habits in the local fishermen.
When fishing close to shore – in calm waters where the catch was consistent – superstitious behavior was nearly nonexistent. But when these men sailed for open seas, where they felt more vulnerable and prospects were far less certain, they often engaged in elaborate rituals beforehand to ensure success. The perceived difference between the 2 locales was relative sense of control.
Professional baseball players exhibit similar behaviors. Defensive play – catching and throwing the ball – is a low-risk task well within a player’s control. Mistakes are rare.
But batting is an altogether different story. Here, failure is the norm. So many players practice idiosyncratic rituals to give themselves an edge before they step up to the plate.
Faith consists in believing what reason cannot. ~ Voltaire
Faith only takes you so far before you trip over painful facts to the contrary. Beliefs have a built-in cost, the tab for which is often presented abruptly. In forming the mental constructs that give rise to beliefs, underlying axioms eventuate in earthquakes of consternation when events fail to correspond with expectation. The tectonic mental faults upon which belief systems are built invariably prove unsettling when the lava of doubt starts to flow.
When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. ~ American musician Stevie Wonder in the song “Superstition” (1973)
The theological worldview is the idea that the world and everything in it has a good and indubitable meaning. Since our earthly existence has in itself a very doubtful meaning, it follows directly that it can only be a means toward the goal of another existence. That idea that everything in the world has a meaning is perfectly analogous to the principle that everything has a cause, on which the whole of science rests. ~ Austrian logician Kurt Gödel
One’s worldview is the overarching umbrella of self-conception under which are compartmentalized beliefs about specific types of objects, such as the different personalities of people: stereotyping.
A worldview stems from a few conceptualizations, woven together into a belief system. These conceptualizations are: 1) the nature of humans, 2) the natural order, especially the station of humans within Nature, and 3) the essence of existence.
The emotional constitution of a person orients one’s worldview. Fear of uncertainty paves the road of conservatism, while empathy imbues a liberal sentiment.
The more fear a youngster has, the more conservative that person will grow up to be. It is easy to see that parental upbringing therefore has a lot to do with the political orientation of offspring.
Whereas the mind holds one’s psychology, there are often physiological correlates. The fear center of the brain – the amygdala – is larger in conservatives than in liberals.
When adult liberals experience physical threat their social and political attitudes become more conservative, temporarily. Conversely, when conservatives imagine themselves to be completely physically safe, they become more liberal, at least for a spell. This illustrates how easily imagination influences psychology.
People invariably build belief systems and worldviews based upon selective uptake. Facts which don’t fit are cast aside, while confirmation is embraced. This stems from the subconscious mental sorting process of identification or condemnation.
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. ~ American astronomer Carl Sagan
The English 15th-century term spirituality derives from the Latin word for being put into motion by drawing breath: an animated spirit. Written expression of the idea predates the term by a millennium. But spirituality has echoed in the minds of hominids since awe sparked thoughts about the fabrication of Nature and one’s place in the cosmos.
Spirituality has long been a nebulous abstraction, a term without definitive definition. European words referring to spirituality begin to appear in texts in the 5th century, when the Dark Ages came. By the 11th century spirituality denoted the mental facets of life, in contrast to the material and sensual aspects.
In the 13th century, spirituality had been captured by the Christian clergy in a sociological context: the ecclesiastical contrasted against the secular. To this day, religions claim spirituality. Since the 2nd World War, the term was disconnected from religion per se, taking on a broader meaning: nurturing one’s spirit. The rise of secularism in the late 20th century – notably, the advent of the New Age movement in the 1970s – drew spirituality further away from theology and into the realm of metaphysics. In a sense, the conceptualization of spirituality returned to its roots.
Being spiritual necessarily means a belief that there is more to life than corporeal existence. Beyond that, schools of thought diverge as to the essence of the spirit, and what is entailed in devotion to spiritual health.
We do not believe in immortality because we can prove it, but we try to prove it because we cannot help believing it. ~ English sociologist Harriet Martineau
In worldview terms, a stark contrast can be drawn between spirituality and its philosophical antithesis: existentialism.
Man chooses and makes himself by acting. ~ German American sociologist Franz Adler
Existentialism is the philosophical stance of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. Existentialists believe that deriving meaning from life is an individual experience.
Values are a personal acquisition. Life is an exercise in making of it what one will. Morality is a matter of choice.
Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is generally credited as the father of existentialism, though he never used the term. Though his thoughts wandered beyond theological doctrine, Kierkegaard was a Christian.
The existential aspect of Kierkegaard’s writings focused on the precept that an individual is responsible for giving life meaning, which is by no means a Christian concept.
What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. ~ Søren Kierkegaard
Friedrich Nietzsche followed this vein of individual fulfillment with an emphasis on what he called “will to power”: ambition as a driving life force. Nietzsche’s own world would collapse with a mental breakdown in 1889, followed by sickness undo death. (The Sickness Unto Death (1849) was Kierkegaard’s contemplation of despair.)
Nothingness haunts being. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre minted the term existentialism in 1943 and is its best-known proponent. In being left to their own choices, Sartre considered humans “condemned to be free.”
Sartre’s catchphrase “existence precedes essence” meant that, as there is no Creator, an individual’s essence is spelled out by his actions.
To Sartre, human nature is a chimera; as such, one is fully responsible.
We are left alone, without excuse. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
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Elements of existentialism of course ring true, in that every life is an individual experience. Everyone derives meaning in the context of personal values. Experience shapes worldview.
Despite its avowed taste for blanket abstractions, existentialism is a rigid belief system of matterism: the sensate and material form the basis of actuality – end of story. Existentialism lifts no veil beyond the incarnate. Further, existentialism has no moral compass. Existentialism ignores the innate biological impulses and precocious knowledge relating to sociality, most notably sense of fairness, upon which morality is construed.
Values may ultimately be personal in depth of conviction, but the universality of what is considered healthy or evil shows that existentialism paints a facile picture of the human experience while providing no meaningful guidance or insight into human nature. In short, existentialism is spiritually nihilistic.
While necessarily a nebulous concept unto itself, spirituality is a seeker’s creed: to suss Nature while being open to possibilities that reality may be more than what one can grasp; that the senses bring limited information; and that, fundamentally, things may not be what they seem. As such, rejecting action-is-essence existentialism, spirituality is a quest of questions, for answers that may not be forthcoming, or only partially disclosed. Wisdom is received.
The only real valuable thing is intuition. ~ Albert Einstein
In rejecting matterism as holding ultimate value, spirituality is a reach for revelations that may never cease, in an unending will to power for nothing more than understanding.
The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. ~ Anaïs Nin
Religion is the worship of higher powers from a sense of need. ~ English religion scholar Allan Menzies
Necessity is the mother of invention. The mother of religion is invention sprung from craving for order and control, the terror of death, and one’s own insignificance.
Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure. ~ George Carlin
Death & Afterlife
Between the ages of 7 and 10, children come to understand that death is permanent and irreversible, which often leads to anxiety or a fear of death. Despite a growing ability to rationalize, this fear persists in adults. ~ Swedish philosopher Paula Quinon
Graves from prehistory show that belief in the afterlife played a part in the rites that put the dead in the ground.
To an evolutionary psychologist, the universal extravagance of religious rituals, with their costs in time, resources, pain and privation, should suggest as vividly as a mandrill’s bottom that religion may be adaptive. ~ English science scholar Marek Kohn
Neanderthals had burial rites. By the end of the Neolithic – the last of the Stone Age – cremation was practiced among numerous cultures.
The disembodied spirit is immortal; there is nothing of it that can grow old or die. But the embodied spirit sees death on the horizon as soon as its day dawns. ~ Thomas Hobbes
The specter of death hovers over every religion. The raison d’être for religion is grabbing a handle on powerful unknowns. The most gripping unknown is the afterlife: whether there is one, and how does one fare if there is. Though ostensibly focused on living a righteous life, religion is, ultimately, a mortality ritual.
Knowledge of their own mortality makes people anxious, and they develop and maintain cultural worldviews to alleviate that anxiety. ~ Daniel Schacter et al
Religion structures a path to yield a good death that leads to a happy afterlife. Every religion promises consequence for bad acts, if not in this life, most assuredly in the next. Fear of retribution in the afterlife backstops every religion.
If death were a release from everything, it would be a boon for the wicked. ~ Plato
From Naturalism to Theism
Religion – or the belief in an invisible, supernatural order – exists in all human societies. ~ American political scientist Francis Fukuyama
As we have already seen with the term spirituality, definitions associated with worldviews and religious belief systems are often hazy, having undergone historical revision. In terms of religious creeds, naturalism and supernaturalism sit in opposition.
Naturalism is the belief that actuality and reality are synonymous; more broadly, that observable Nature is all that there is. Naturalism dates to classical Indian and Chinese philosophies which embraced atomism: that Nature consists of interacting atoms.
The study of Nature from a purely empirical standpoint is science, which is commonly grounded in naïve empiricism: the belief that knowledge can only be gained through empirical examination. In modern parlance naturalism and matterism are synonyms. Believing that perception may present reality, objectively and without bias, is naïve realism.
Supernaturalism is the doctrine that there is a discontinuity between actuality and reality. The nature of the discontinuity splinters supernaturalism into several schools.
That Nature is an entangled unicity is a prehistoric apperception. This simple supernaturalism is still found in some isolated tribes, including South Pacific islanders and Eskimos. (In distinguishing between actuality and reality, and supposing a monistic unicity, simple supernaturalism is a form of energyism.)
Animism was early supernatural conception: spirits inherent in all matter, inanimate and animate. As with simple supernaturalism, there was no boundary between natural and supernatural forces and beings.
An optimistic variant of animism was that powerful spirits might be turned into temporary allies. Animism arose from the hope that the capricious forces of Nature might be domesticated to some degree.
From the mid-2nd century BCE, the Vedic Hindu scriptures held high esteem for the elements: earth, fire, water, and air. And the heavens; always the heavens: the place of afterlife, where the gods and ancestral souls dwelled. Surely the lush blanket of twinkly lights in the night sky were a divine realm. In China, celestial heaven is still worshipped.
In the course of cultural development polytheism emerged as a form of animistic clumping. Rather than, or in addition to, the trees themselves as animating spirits, there was a god of the forest.
In the transition from animism to polytheism, shamans became priests. They named and aimed to tame the gods: performing rituals to usher abundance and to ward off adversity. The practice of religion always was an expression of social power, only ostensibly aimed at Nature.
Polytheism was an anthropomorphization of Nature, beginning with imagining that deities had natural domains, just as humans might possess property and have certain skills. The hierarchy and specialization that spirits had reflected the evolution of societies.
Deities became the foci of myths or sacred narratives that recounted their deeds and in the course of doing so described their personalities and special qualities, thus enhancing their resemblance to human beings. ~ Canadian anthropologist Bruce Trigger
Another aspect of gods as supernatural humans was their immorality. Deities robbed, raped, betrayed, and murdered one another with aplomb. Their dealings with mortals were often equally severe. Gods might also show human weaknesses of will: acting indecisively and cowardly.
Unlike the casting of a one true god, polytheistic deities were not omniscient. They cheated and deceived one another and were even sometimes outwitted by humans.
The most successful ancient empires all had strikingly non-moral high gods. ~ Nicolas Baumard
The Greek and Roman gods each had a celestial station, as did the gods of Babylonia and Assyria: the mysterious and powerful that roamed the heavens while casting their effects upon the Earth. In the Greek system: Helios (the Sun), Selene (the Moon), Gaia (mother Earth), Uranus (father sky).
Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form but with regard to their mode of life. ~ Aristotle
The gods were also fashioned to meet the practical needs of daily life. The Roman gods Janus and Vest guarded the door and hearth, Lares the home, Pales the pasture. Gods of sowing, gods of harvest. Jupiter, king of the gods, god of the sky and thunder, might be bribed to bring nourishing rain to the crops. A god may be placated for a spell by ritualistic homage.
In early religion, belief counted for much less than it now does; a man’s religion consisted in the religious acts he did, and not in the beliefs or thoughts he cherished. ~ Allan Menzies
Any hierarchy of beings is an expression of social organization. The gods followed the fashion of polity. Reflecting civil society, the Roman gods were hierarchically organized. Each god had an office: a purview of deity.
The deities of early civilizations were viewed as supernatural beings who animated (or were) the natural world and therefore exerted great power over humans. Gods had mental faculties and gendered personalities that resembled those of human beings, but they could transform themselves, move rapidly about the earth, and pass between it and the realms above and below in ways that human beings could emulate only in dreams and trances. The natural, supernatural, and social realms were not categorically distinguished. Nature was believed to be impregnated with supernatural powers that possessed human-like intelligence and motivations. ~ Bruce Trigger
Lacking moral scruples, gods might be appeased, and applied to for alliance. So went the religions of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans.
Despite a vast diversity of beliefs there was a constant in all religions: that the gods (or god) took note of humans, and that there might be some relationship between mortals and the supernatural. Placation was clearly necessary, as the deities who controlled Nature often demonstrated that human welfare was not a primary concern.
The polytheistic Vedic period ended around 500 BCE, whereupon Vedic beliefs morphed into various schools of Hinduism, as well as influencing Buddhism and Jainism. The last Vedic text, Rig Veda, had hymns of monotheism: a creator deity – One given many titles, but a Supreme One nonetheless.
Polytheism is a clutter. Much easier to have One to pray to: an Almighty to place the bet of life’s chips upon; and it makes for a simpler mythology.
Judaism figures as the most ancient monotheistic religion: it proclaims that there is only one God, who is at the same time the particular god of the people of Israel and also the God of the whole universe. This idea of a single, unique God was then taken over and propagated throughout the world by Christianity and Islam, each of which slightly inflects the original conception in its own way. ~ French Bible scholar Thomas Römer
While the Old Testament of the Bible has polytheistic passages, those were relegated to the shadows by the thrust of a solitary God Almighty. That singular thrust came from King Josiah, who assumed the throne of Judah around 649 BCE. Josiah’s consolidation of political power included religious reform: mandating allegiance from various gods to exclusive worship of Yahweh, who, not incidentally, endowed Josiah with his power. Hundreds of years later, Jesus pointed to a passage in Deuteronomy that states “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
The Lord in Hebrew is Yahweh. The book of Deuteronomy was ‘discovered’ at the Temple of Solomon during renovation ordered by Josiah.
Religious texts of all major religions explicitly encourage prosociality in their adherents. ~ Lebanese Canadian psychologist Ara Norenzayan & Canadian psychologist Azim Shariff
People are more compliant when they care about the impression that they make, or even if reminded that others may be aware of their actions. With a capacity for constant surveillance, an omnipresent, omniscient Supreme Being acts as a form of social control.
Mindful agents serve as a powerful source of social influence and control, increasing adherence to socially accepted norms of conduct, whether those others are actually present or merely presumed to be present. ~ Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz
As Josiah exemplified, social control was the impetus behind the evolution of monotheism. Compared to naturalistic or individualistic religions, moralizing religions supposedly stimulate pro-social behaviors, and monotheism is the most potent moralizing religion.
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Watchful gods arose before monotheism became the religious norm. Among others with the power to supernaturally see, the ancient sky god Horus was often depicted as a sharp-eyed falcon. Monotheism took omniscience to a new level, as it was coupled with a single, all-powerful god, and one who was a stickler for morals. That theistic package was devised for social control – to promote a religion that kept believers in line.
Such a god did not arise until societies arose where such a god was useful to political authorities. Legal codes first emerged in the 3rd millennium BCE. But it was not until the so-called Axial Age (8th–3rd century BCE that moralizing ideologies gelled with such figures as Plato, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Lao Tzu. Moralizing monotheism was a heavenly vehicle constructed to bind together the sizable societies which had emerged from the conquests which created them.
People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police. ~ American journalist H.L. Mencken
In the 21st century, finding reciprocity and peer pressure insufficient motivations, social psychologists have increasingly pointed their fingers at religion for the reason that humans cooperate in large groups. God supposedly incites cooperation in life through threat of retribution in the afterlife. This hypothesis emanates from a failure of scholarship, both historically and psychologically. Humans were cooperating on a large scale well before the invention of retributive gods.
Conflict between groups is the strongest force for social cohesion. Individual exposure to violence engenders cooperative behaviors and community participation. War begets cooperation. In contrast, as history has shown, religion often leads to social schisms.
While war has many negative legacies for individuals and societies, it appears to leave a positive legacy in terms of local cooperation and civic engagement. ~ Czech economist Michal Bauer et al
More mundanely, reciprocity greases the mental gears for cooperation. As highly altricial, gregarious creatures, cooperation and conformity pay dividends that cannot be sustained otherwise.
Inducement to cooperation is both carrot and stick. Punishment during childhood and stories of what happens to transgressors illustrate what may happen to those who stray from the socially acceptable path. From reef fish to simians, many animals promote cooperation by excluding free riders (microbes and plants as well).
The establishment and enforcement of norms afford sufficient reliability that strangers may be trusted to some extent. Religion helps on that score only to the extent that it provides tribal identification. On the other hand, even today, after millennia of moralizing religion, punishment has not proved adequate to quell cheating. Further, moralizing religion and moral behavior are not the bedfellows they are commonly assumed to be; a topic we come to shortly.
Life Strategy & Religion
The gods of today’s major religions are also moralizing gods, who encourage virtue and punish selfish and cruel people after death. But for most of human history, deities were utterly indifferent to the human realm, and to whether we behaved well or badly. ~ American anthropologist Lizzie Wade
Though they have antecedents, the ascetic and moralizing movements that spawned the world’s major modern religious traditions all evolved contemporaneously, in 3 distinct regions: roughly 500–300 BCE, in the river valleys of east central China, the Ganges River valley of India, and the eastern Mediterranean.
The evolution of moralizing religions reflected changes in societies, as well as causing changes in those societies. Religion took on a moral cast as materialism found increasing favor. Prosperity provoked a play-it-safe regime.
Affluence changed people’s psychology, and, in turn, it changed their religion. ~ Nicolas Baumard
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Organisms modulate their behavior according to their environment. For instance, young starlings reared in a highly competitive environment invest less in their physical maintenance as adults, which lessens lifespan. They also develop a fast psychology: preferring immediate rewards over riskier, but potentially more profitable, foraging.
Humans are no different than other animals facing long odds of a long life. The underclass of a people also adopt a fast strategy: grow up quickly, have offspring early and close together, so as to maximize the probability of leaving some viable progeny.
Animals in a poor biological state face reduced life expectancy, and as a consequence should make decisions that prioritize immediate survival and reproduction over long-term benefits. ~ English ethologist Melissa Bateson et al
For the elite who rule society, including its religion, “get it while you can” is nothing short of subversion underfoot, brimming with potential for revolution. So – to foster taking it slow – religions morally morphed to condemn fast behaviors: promising an everlasting hell to those who sensibly pursued living life to its fullest given anticipated allotted time.
Life-speed strategy may also explain the gradual decline of moralizing religion in wealthier segments of the world, such as western Europe and the northern Americas. As more people become materially comfortable, the felt need to morally condemn fast behaviors lessens among the general population. Moralizing religions become less relevant, and so are abandoned.
The relative elite among the extant underclass present a different picture. Having been steeped in moralizing religion during their upbringing, but still having fast psychology manifest all around them, a moral fundamentalism takes hold: whence (for example) Protestant evangelicals.
Religions ossify. Having attained their lifelong station, clerics are by nature conservative, and so may be hell-bent on the status quo (though not literally, they pray).
Established religions often sanction extant political regimes. From this perch of power, religions act as a hidebound rearguard.
Splinter sects crop up that reject the status quo. Historic offshoots include Buddhism (from Hinduism), Christianity (from Judaism), and Islam (from Christianity). Each arose in objection to the policies of their fountainheads.
Christianity came about as a protest against Judaist practices at the time, particularly accommodation with the pagan Roman Empire.
Once established, religious leaders act to hold back new knowledge perceived to have the potential to rattle faith. Denial of science is a particularly poignant signification.
From the mid-1500s, the Catholic Church’s resistance to heliocentrism was fierce. Spreading the notion that the Earth was not the center of the universe was heresy, and cause for forcible immolation. Catholic officials burned alive those who might sway others toward undesirable questioning.
Old habits die hard. Only in the 21st century has the Catholic Church begrudgingly acknowledged that evolution does not decimate rationale for continued faith. In this regard, evangelical Christians in the United States make Catholics look positively progressive.
Belittling the idea of evolution, fundamentalist Bible-thumpers take literally the book of Genesis in holding to the universe created by God in 6 days. Craftier ones of this ilk co-opt evolution with “intelligent design”: claiming evolution is proof of God as organic designer – a Supreme planetary decorator.
Yet there are instances in religion where the old ways are the best. Acting as a role model for humanity, the Amish-Mennonite movement struggles to hold back the never-ceasing barrage of what passes for progress, but which has been to the detriment to both society and the environment.
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A central activity of many religions is worship: expression of reverence. The point of open worship is social: to curry favor in this life as well as the next.
In all the rubble of ritual lies the aspiration to come closer to God, as much as a means as an end. Closeness, after all, brings with it the facility to communicate, and thus influence. Being close to God brings power to prayer.
You cannot petition the Lord with prayer. ~ American singer/songwriter Jim Morrison in the song “The Soft Parade” (1969)
Some religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, stress dogma in the guise of God’s word. In contrast, individualistic religions have dogma and worship on tap, but emphasize the supposed mechanics to enlightenment. The emphasis on worship versus practice meaningfully bifurcates religions.
The worship track follows dogma to moral rectitude: to appease God by worship and righteousness. Obedience is foremost. Worship-based religions are invariably social. Believers gather at worship services, as peer reinforcement helps keep the faith.
The praxis track, such as with Buddhism, aims at purification, to realize reality via epiphany. Enlightenment is also the path to righteousness, as realization dawns about the folly of immoral foibles. Traveling down this spiritual road is a solitary endeavor.
Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more. ~ Supreme Court of India
The term Hinduism was coined by British writers in the early 19th century, referring to a rich cumulative tradition of texts and practices in the Indian subcontinent that began in the 2nd millennium BCE.
Demographically, Hinduism is the world’s 3rd largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. Unlike those religions, Hinduism is not especially dogmatic. Instead, Hindus accept the pluralistic nature of their traditions.
That which we call the Hindu religion is really the Eternal religion because it embraces all others. ~ Indian guru Sri Aurobindo
A central conceptualization of Hinduism is brahman: an infinite, eternal, transcendent force that constitutes absolute reality. Interpretations vary as to the nature of brahman, depending upon whether dualism or monism is believed in.
Some Hindus view brahman impersonally: inseparably entangled with existence, albeit distinct from it; brahman as causal (reality constructor), not product (manifestation).
Other Hindus view brahman as a personal god, transcendent and immanent: Brahma the creator. This more easily conceived objectification corresponds with the Christian and Islamic notions of God and Allāh respectively. But the essence of existence is much different in Hinduism from that of the Middle Eastern religions.
The whole world-process is nothing but an illusion, a dream in the mind of Brahma, who himself alone is real. This is the cardinal doctrine from which Buddhism also sets out. ~ Allan Menzies
Under Hindu doctrine existence is constantly composed through the interplay of 3 guņas (energetic qualities): tamas (inertia), rajas (activity), and sattva (clarity). Tamas is an entropic force. Rajas is an active, coherent force. Rajas and tamas work in opposing ways. Sattva is the spiritual element, ushering enlightenment. Yoga aims at enlivening sattva.
(Physics embraces tamas with its entropically-oriented laws of thermodynamics. Implicitly in quantum mechanics, the Higgs interaction acts as rajas. Western physics has no correlate to sattva.)
Hindus generally believe in the transmigration of the individual soul and cyclic rebirth (samsāra). The moral quality of life’s acts (karma) propel endless samsāra. Release from rebirth (moksha) is only possible by purifying the soul (jīva).
Ātman is the true self, which functions to create the mind-body in this life and is the core of oneself that transmigrates – in Western parlance: the soul. Ātman underlies the activities of a person analogously to how brahman underlies the workings of all of Nature.
Actions inspired by desires bind to one’s soul. Karmas accumulate on jīva like dust coats oil. Whereas ātman is the essence of self, jīva is the living spirit. Though interpretations vary among Hindu schools of thought, jīva is generally considered an aspect of ātman.
Liberation from rebirth (moksha) requires the realization (ātma jnāna) that ātman is identical to brahman. This cognitive event (jnāna) is of pure awareness, free of conceptual encumbrances which act to embrace the artifice of existence. Life otherwise is in ajñāna (ignorance).
You only lose what you cling to. ~ Buddha (referring to the path to enlightenment)
Not every religion paves the path to heaven by faith and clean living. The religions that sprang from the Vedic tradition take a different road, from a different premise.
While Buddhism does tout God, the emphasis is on righteousness as the path to oblivion: an end to corporeal reincarnation borne of desire. Buddhists call that nirvāna.
Buddhism is a religion, if such it may be called, without a god, without prayer, without priesthood or worship; a religion which owes its success, not to its theology, nor to its ritual, since it has neither, but to its moral sentiment. ~ Allan Menzies
Clean living in Buddhism means squeaky clean, though without the sound effect. Desire itself causes suffering. The only way to sop up suffering is to stop desiring. To understate the issue, that takes practice.
Buddhist doctrine is that “seeing things the way they really are” is the path to overcome suffering, thereby letting one off the treadmill of existence known to Buddhists as “the wheel of karma.”
Perceiving reality requires heightening awareness. Garnering awareness takes discipline: the discipline of pursuing purity. Awareness results in understanding, culminating in comprehending the interdependence of everything, by which right action gets a lot easier.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances. ~ Buddhist teacher Atisa
Siddhartha Gautama was born in the foothills of the Himalayas, perhaps during the 6th century BCE. The historical accounts are so various as to leave a lot of guessing about the details of Buddha’s life.
In India at the time, the caste system was entrenched, and slavery a brutal fact of life for those on the lowest rungs.
Being born into a prosperous family of a noble caste let Siddhartha enjoy an upbringing unvarnished by the harsh facts of coarse society. Though Siddhartha supposedly led a secluded early life, he married and had a son.
At 29 Siddhartha wandered off the reservation: leaving his comfortable existence, and his family, to become a seeker: choosing the harsh life of asceticism, including a regime of meditation and begging for food, along with studying under the leading yogis of the time.
His begging did not beget sumptuous fare, nor did his austerity do him much good; but, after a time, meditation brought the truth he sought: to “see it the way it really is.” Enlightenment came as a series of epiphanies.
The new Buddha was at first reluctant to preach the way to enlightenment, doubting that others would understand. Divinity insisted, so it has been written; and so he did.
Buddha was heterodox to his time, as Jesus was centuries later. Buddha repudiated many of the religious assumptions of Hinduism, including (Buddha not) accepting the Vedic texts as infallible sources of truth. Nor did Buddha put much stock in ritual. Buddha repudiated the caste system, which rigidly categorized people in a way that dictated their lives.
Buddha advocated personal discipline more as an ethical code than ritual practice. Buddha espoused that the path to enlightenment was necessarily individual. But Buddha retained many of the indigenous beliefs from India, including circular time: both karma and samsāra.
Buddha gave sermons for 40 years or so until his passing at about 80. Buddha left no personal writings behind. His body was cremated.
You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself. ~ Buddha
Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally by disciples until about 500 years after his passing. Hence, there are no sacred books, no Buddhist Bible. Different schools rely upon different texts.
The Buddhist path is called dharma, which is a multivalent term, derived from Sanskrit with the root meaning “to hold.” Dharma is variously: 1) what holds the universe together, 2) what Buddhists hold to be true, and 3) what “holds” one free from suffering. Only a buddha can attain enlightenment without being instructed by a teacher of dharma.
Buddha’s gating epiphany was of the Four Noble Truths. 1. Life involves suffering (dukka: the nature of suffering). 2. Desire causes suffering, and leads to reincarnation, in a continuing cycle driven by desire (samudaya: the origin of suffering). 3. Letting go of desire is the way to end suffering (nirodha: putting an end to suffering). 4. Following the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering (magga: righteous living).
The Noble Eightfold Path is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. The 8 have 3 basic categories: wisdom (prajña): right view & intention; ethical conduct (śīla): right speech, action, and livelihood; concentration (samādhi): right effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
The Path walks the line between self-indulgence and self-mortification. Pursuing the Path is a holistic exercise. When all are perfected through practice, then one attains enlightenment.
Buddhist morality is based on the notion of the equality of all; respect is to be paid to all living beings. ~ Allan Menzies
The cycle of birth and death are driven by ignorance, desire, and hatred. Rebirth is beginningless and ongoing; its aspect determined by the moral quality of a person’s thoughts and actions (karma). Buddhism generally ignores rebirth of animals other than humans, even as animal reincarnation figures into Buddhist cosmology.
Traditional Buddhism conceived of the world as flat, with 4 continents, one of them Jambudvīpa, where humans dwelled. Jambudvīpa quite obviously was intended as India. Buddhists divide Jambudvīpa into 6 desire realms (Kāmadhātu), with various inhabitants: hell beings, hungry ghosts (pretas), animals, humans, demigods (asuras), and gods (devas, literally “shining beings”).
Buddhism provides for several hells with various degrees of torment, for various acts deserving karmic retribution. There are, for example, different hells for animal killers and torturers.
Preta – hungry ghosts – have been reborn into an existence of ceaseless hunger. These disembodied spirits came to be from greed in a former existence.
The animal realm is for all animals, which signifies that non-human animals that can experience suffering. The Buddhist status of plants, fungi, and microbes is uncertain. (Buddhism is typical of theistic religions, and almost all schools of philosophy and science, in placing humanity on a pedestal above other animals – essentially ignoring that humans are animals.)
Buddhists believe that humans who have lived a life of willful ignorance or misconception may be reborn as (other, presumably lesser) animals. But other acts can turn one into an animal on the next go-round. The sensual sort may have no resort but to be born as a dove, goose, or rhino: species which Buddhists believe are particularly passionate in nature. Conceited folk become dogs or donkeys, while the envious take a turn at being a monkey. The selfish return as cats, wolves, or bears.
While in Buddhist doctrine a human has the possibility of release, this world is worse than any hell, with 11 kinds of pain: lust, hatred, illusion, sickness, worry, grief, lamentation, anguish, melancholy, decay, and death. Pain has a specific karmic source.
Asuras are creatures said to have been thrown out of the heavenly realm for various infractions. They possess unsavory traits, including pride, jealousy, hotheadedness, and belligerence. Asuras live a passionate existence, bickering and fighting with each other and the higher gods (devas).
Buddhist literature abounds with descriptions of various heavens, where various pleasures are available, and can be enjoyed with the senses.
Buddhists do not recognize an ultimate barrier between transposition of humans and devas. The Hindu pantheon of gods is considered by the Buddhists as mythological creatures, representative of different senses of reality or states of being. Like humans, devas are sentient, and move in the endless cycle of samsāra.
Karmic consequence requires intention. Unintentional acts, and errors, bear no karmic fruit. The outcome is not karmic, only its intention. Motive is all that matters.
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Buddhism readily spread over many lands because it was so simple, its essence so moral and so broadly humanistic. Like other faiths which became far-flung, Buddhism assumed different forms, with various elaborations.
While all Buddhist traditions embrace rebirth (reincarnation), the belief is not straightforward. Hinduism and Jainism (an offspring of Hinduism, as is Buddhism) posit a lasting soul (jīva) recycled through rebirth.
The Hindu belief is of an eternal, undying self (ātman). Transmigration of soul (samsāra) is a core Hindu belief.
While subscribing to samsāra, Buddhism rejects an absolute self. The Buddhist belief is that there is no self. This counterintuitive notion is at the heart of Buddhism and differentiates it from other religions.
The cycle of rebirth (samsāra) is forever in flux, and so there can be no persistent individual soul. Yet karma is the engine that turns the wheel of samsāra. That presents a conundrum. How is karma carried on?
Various schools posit various answers. One is that there is a link between the last moment before death and the next of a new birth. This necessitates a transference of character, or karmic disposition, which brings up that causality is not simply cause and effect. Causality is explicated by 12 conditioned and conditional links (nidāna), based upon dependent-arising origination (pratītyasamutpāda).
All phenomena, including a being and its surrounding world, arise out of an interdependent network of conditions. A “self” is not an independent entity, but rather a manifestation of a complex of causes and circumstances which are continually in flux.
One cannot comprehend reality without appreciation of the interrelatedness of everything. Vipassanā is seeing reality as it really is. By this, one can attain nirvāna, having “the unconditioned mind” (asankhata).
The meaning of nirvāna is elusive. The word literally means “extinguishing,” and is the same word used for putting out a fire. Etymological derivation is from va (wind) and nir, a negating modifier.
Legend is that Buddha refused to clarify nirvāna, maintaining a “noble silence.” On one aspect, Buddha was clear: its attainment brings ultimate bliss (parama sukha). Otherwise, nirvāna is beyond conception to one not having achieved it.
The 12 causal links (nidāna) are: 1) ignorance of dependent-arising origination, which conditions 2) karmic formations arising from 3) consciousness, which spawns 4) body and mind having 5) 6 senses, the gateway to 6) sensory contacts that create 7) feelings leading to 8) attachments, which inspire 9) grasping, which gives rise to 10) becoming, which culminates in 11) birth, from which follows 12) aging and death. And so the cycle begins again, of rebirth infused by karma. Rebirth is a reconfiguration of causality propelled by past karmic impulses.
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Ordinary Buddhists hold little hope to sock the suffering hard enough to break the rebirth cycle. Instead, they work at cleaning karma as a means for jockeying into a better position next round. Various methods for ensuring a wholesome rebirth developed, including (in Chinese and Southeast Asian Buddhism) karmic bribing in the form of “spirit money” to the postmortem bureaucrats manning the karmic wheel.
Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism place their bets on mindfulness at the time of death, with rituals by relatives to guide and guarantee a positive turnover. In other words, a good death gets a good rebirth.
According to Buddhist creed, Siddhartha was not the first buddha, nor the last. In one sermon, Buddha told the biographies of 6 buddhas of antiquity.
There is supposedly only 1 living buddha in the world at a time. Only considerable intricacy of dependent-arising origination could guarantee such a result. By contrast, there are many bodhisattvas: humans on the threshold of buddha-like enlightenment.
In Buddhist cosmology there are countless universes like the one in which we exist, in various degrees of purity, with buddhas aplenty to nudge the process of enlightenment. Existence is eternal, with no beginning nor end. The lifespan of a universe is 432 billion years, a mahakalpa. Yet the core of the cosmos is not an undying spirit, and the universe is ultimately not of substance, but of impermanence (anicca, or, in Sanskrit, anitya) and insubstantiality.
Unlike Christianity, flashy miracles have no place in Buddhism. Buddha called “the miracle of instruction” – to help people gain realization, and so put an end to suffering – the only miracle fit to practice. Vulgar exhibitions of supernatural power are belittled as pretense, not a sign of enlightenment. Buddha would not have approved of Jesus’ reputed preternatural stunts, such as resurrection or walking through doors.
In a nutshell, Buddhist creed is an intricate, counterintuitive belief system, with built-in contradictions about the fundamentals of existence. Buddhism’s inherent inscrutability explains the Zen use of koan: a facilely self-contradictory question or statement that is beyond the grasp of logical reason, and accessible only through intuition. Regardless of denomination, the proper practice of Buddhism is arduous.
“Heaven holds a place for those pray.” ~ American musician Paul Simon in the song “Mrs. Robinson” (1968)
No religion is such an exaggerated exercise in hero worship as Christianity. The bedrock of Christianity is worshiping Jesus Christ as the Messiah, Son of God: a unique self-proclaimed revelation of God to the human race.
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The Jews in Israel at the time of Jesus’ coming were an oppressed people, resenting Roman rule under King Herod. They had long hoped for a savior: a “messiah” who would liberate them. Expectations varied. Some saw the Messiah in spiritual terms, but the popular hope was for a political liberator.
There were occasional messianic movements before Jesus, centered on popular leaders. Galilee was a fertile ground for such movements.
Herod was a client king of the Roman provinces of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Herod’s ascent to King of Israel (“King of the Jews”) came from a last-moment switch in support from Anthony to Octavian.
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The Roman civil wars (133 BCE–31 BCE) transformed Rome from an unstable republic into a monarchy, first ruled by Julius Caesar, who sought reforms to unify the empire and end the chaos that the republic had descended into.
Brutus and Cassius led a conspiracy of ~60 men that butchered Caesar on the Senate floor in 44 BCE, the date of which became known as the Ides of March. They in turn were defeated by Anthony and Octavian 2 years later. The showdown between those two, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, resulted in Octavian’s unrivaled victory. Octavian became Emperor Augustus.
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Herod was a psychopathic madman, brutal and paranoid. He executed several family members, including his wife Mariamne.
Herod used the huge profits from trade and the crushing taxes he extracted from his subjects for magnificent building projects. In one incredible engineering feat, Herod built an artificial mountain, at Herodium, and then put a huge palace on top of it. That was Herod’s idea of a jobs program.
The New Testament
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book.” ~ Revelation 22:18, The Bible
Hard evidence about Jesus of Nazareth is hard to come by. Though reputedly literate, Jesus left no writings of his own.
The New Testament is an anthology, written in Greek, 4 to 7 decades after Jesus died and supposedly came back for a last hurrah. As those gospels were written in a language that the attributed authors did not even know, authenticity is beyond dispute: there is none. The 4 gospels in the New Testament of The Bible – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – were simply not written by the men to whom they are attributed.
The gospel of Mark was written first, 40 years on after Jesus’ death. Matthew and Luke were not written for another decade, and the gospel of John came a decade or 2 later, 70 years after Jesus’ passing.
The books reflect revisionist history. Being first up, Mark is the least varnished, and probably the most reliable relater of events, as far as that goes.
The 4 gospels chronicle Jesus’ life to a rather wild variance. The last, John, is especially gushing in awe of a miracle messiah; though this gospel offers little spiritual guidance.
Incongruities abound. Consider first Jesus’ birthplace. The Hebrew Bible predicted a Messiah descended from King David, and like David, born in Bethlehem.
Mark never addresses how a Nazareth native would have been born some 80 miles south: a very long donkey ride for a pregnant woman. Luke gives the implausible account that Jesus’ parent went to Bethlehem for a census. Matthew’s version is that Jesus’ parents just lived in Bethlehem, ignoring that Jesus was “of Nazareth.”
At the other end of the timeline, Jesus’ attitude about his death varies widely. The supposed Son of God, doomed to death as a prelude to a phoenix-like revival, would certainly take his fate in stride. Yet Mark quotes Christ as crying out his last words: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]: not exactly the utterances of a man in on the plan.
By Luke’s account, a good decade or more after Mark, Jesus is reconciled: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” [Luke 23:46] According to John’s chronicle, Jesus simply said “it is finished” before giving up his earthly existence. [John 19:30]
The accounts of Jesus’ miracles follow a similar trend in tenor. In Mark, Jesus’ miracles were often private. By John, written decades after Mark, Jesus’ miracles are spectacles, and explicitly symbolic.
The letters of the apostle Paul of Tarsus, which biblical scholars do attribute to being authored by Paul, were put into the New Testament books Philippians and Romans. These biblical chapters say almost nothing about Jesus’ life, and little of his teachings. The book of Romans is a defense of Christianity: that salvation lies in believing in Christ’s divinity.
Philippians too is a paean to faith. Philippians comes from a letter written by Paul to the church at Philippi, one of the earliest European churches. The relationship was one of mutual admiration, which comes across in the letter.
Paul’s writing is bizarre zealotry, to the point of ranting, masochistic, nihilistic faith.
Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh – even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” ~ Philippians 3:4-11, The Bible
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From ~110–200 ce, additional gospels were composed. These were the Gnostic gospels, which cast a different light upon the supposed savior and his followers. The Gospel of Judas, for example, cast Judas in a favorable light, not the betrayer other gospels portrayed.
Christianity burgeoned as a religion in the first 3 centuries following Jesus’s life. Toward the end of the 1st century the faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire.
During the first 2 centuries following Jesus’s death there was no formal church: local groups interpreted teachings in a proliferation of different scriptures and beliefs.
Among this localized diversity ran 3 main currents. The 1st was formed mainly of Jews who were successors of the early followers who had been closest to Jesus during his life. To them, Jesus was a Messiah (anointed one), a fully human representative of God.
The 2nd current was mostly those who had converted to Christianity under the influence of Paul. Having persecuted Christians before his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul took the Messiah concept a radical step further by claiming that Jesus was God’s son, not just his emissary. The central tenet of this faction was that God had sacrificed his son to erase the sins of all who believed. Paul’s followers became the dominant group in the early church, and so shaped the evolution of Christianity for the next 2 millennia.
The 3rd, small stream of early Christians came to represent a threat to the orthodoxy that was emerging under Paul’s followers. These Gnostics believed that one could know Jesus through a life devoted to inner transformation. Direct knowledge of the divine – in Greek, gnosis – would deliver salvation. Gnostics taught that all bear a flicker of divinity, and that the spiritual journey was to reconnect with this divine knowledge. This holy spark was masked by the desires of the flesh, which kept people in ignorance.
Gnostics believed that Jesus revealed the ultimate truth: that the spirit, imprisoned in the body, had to return to unity with divinity if salvation was to be achieved. Gnosticism was Christianity influenced by the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.
Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Christ was instead a celestial being who had been introduced into the body of Jesus; one of many emanations of the ultimate divinity in Heaven. For Gnostics, salvation was an intellectual act, consisting of receiving this revelation and accepting it.
Irenaeus, a Gallic theologian, heartily attacked Gnosticism in his 180 ce book Against Heresies. His polemical work laid the orthodoxies of nascent Christianity and marked the beginning of concerted attack on the other factions of Christianity.
Over the next century and a half, the church coalesced into a centralized organization: the Catholic Church. Around 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, fixed the New Testament at the 37 books in place to this day. The Gnostic gospels were excluded.
Jesus of Nazareth
“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” ~ Jesus [Mark 16:15-16]
Jesus was born within a few years before the death of Herod the Great, king of Judea, who died in 4 BCE. Jesus came from a respectable family.
Jesus was provincial: growing up in the town of Nazareth and living his life in Galilee, the province where Nazareth was situated. Galilee at the time was hick, half-pagan. Jesus’ thick northern accent alone would have got him noticed in cosmopolitan Jerusalem.
The gospels’ mythic story of being born in a manger to a virgin, celebrated by angels and others in at infancy as the promised savior, belies that virtually nothing is known of Jesus’ life from birth until around the age of 30.
The gospels portray a Jesus that received a sound education in Old Testament scriptures, probably at a local synagogue school. But that does not fit with the fact that Jesus was a carpenter by trade, and laborers were seldom keen on academics.
Jesus’ first-known public gig was at the behest of a respected relative, John “the Baptist.” Jesus joined John’s mission in the southern province of Judea and got himself baptized in the River Jordan.
Jesus was impressed by John’s large following. But before he could start his own ministry, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:12-13]
Jesus heard of John’s arrest. Herod imprisoned John for denouncing Herod’s marriage to Mariamne, a teenaged niece to Antigonus, a man of power in Rome.
Herod’s marital currying-of-favor was complicated by the fact that he was already married. After marrying Mariamne, Herod had his 1st wife, Doris, and his 3-year-old son, Antipater II, banished. After Maiamne’s death, Herod recalled Antipater II, and made him 1st heir in his will. Years later, Antipater II was executed for murdering Herod.
Having had enough of hanging out with Satan, and weary of the angelic service available in the wilderness, Jesus moved back to Galilee after John was imprisoned. Certainly, John’s departure from the scene was a convenient opportunity for an aspiring messiah.
Jesus’ initial hometown reception, in Nazareth, was one of “unbelief.” [Mark 6:6] Nazareth at the time may have had 300 or so residents. Most would have known him personally, and more than a few would have been kin.
The report in Mark of Jesus’ return to Nazareth was that he was unable to demonstrate any miracles commensurate with his self-acclaimed power: “he could do no deed of power there.” [Mark 6:5] So “he went about among the villages teaching.” [Mark 6:6]
Like other Jewish preachers at the time, Jesus consolidated his ministry by gathering a group of disciples, of whom he demanded an absolute commitment to the ideals he preached. They were an odd bunch. Jesus was outrageously unorthodox in his egalitarianism: he welcomed non-Jews as followers, including a Syrian woman. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and had women disciples, at a time when women as disciples was more than irregular.
Following the ministerial pyramid scheme common at the time, Jesus’ disciples were trained and went out on their own preaching and healing missions. Jesus taught his disciples to see themselves as special, to set themselves as apart from others, and, of course, proselytize new converts to belief in Jesus. A core group of 12 disciples were Jesus’ constant companions.
Jesus’ enthusiastic followers came to see him as a political savior, hoping that he would lead them in rebellion against Rome. But Jesus made plain that his idea of salvation was spiritual, not political. This disappointed those who hoped that Jesus would be a militant messiah. His popular following dwindled.
Though he stayed on as a disciple, Judas became disillusioned enough to betray his chosen master for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus was generally an enigma even to his disciples.
Jesus reportedly foretold his death to his disciples, with the expectation that they would be the locus of a new community dedicated to his teachings.
Jesus’ teachings, popularity, and unorthodoxy earned him opposition from the local religious establishment, where he was increasingly seen as a threat. Jesus made no secret of his contempt for affluence: giving up a secure livelihood as a tradesman to live off the beneficence of others. Jesus’ contempt for materialism by itself made the religious establishment uncomfortable.
Jesus’ sermons often told stories of the striving and downtrodden, the very people he preached to. These were parables to love and justice, hard to come by in life but to be had unto death. Any believer, no matter how low, could enter Heaven: a very appealing message to his audience.
With his egalitarian stance, Jesus appeared to follow in Buddha’s footsteps as a radical of his time. Jesus’ famous story of a good Samaritan was made at the expense of respectable Jewish clerics. Those clerics weren’t the ones that Jesus was living off of or trying to attract as followers.
Jesus’ take on religious issues was also heretical. He was no stickler for the observance of the Sabbath, declaring that ritual purification mattered less than purity of heart.
Jesus reinterpreted Old Testament law: away from mere rule-keeping to a more disciplined lifestyle that fit his creed. Jesus confidently declared his understanding of the will of God in a way that cut through centuries of tradition, putting him at odds with the major sects at the time, most notably the Pharisees and upper-class Sadducees who ran the major temples. This squares with a man dedicated to blazing his own path using the strategy of polarization.
“I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” ~ Jesus [Matthew 10:34]
After honing his skills with a shamanistic ministry of healing and exorcism of evil spirits, Jesus proceeded to put a new coat of paint on an old trick: apocalypse now.
500 years earlier, the 8th-century BCE prophet Isaiah reputedly beseeched the people of Israel to turn back to Yahweh or suffer dire consequences (which never occurred).
“The land will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word.” ~ Isiah [Isaiah 24:3]
Like Isaiah, Jesus made apocalyptic predictions which did not come to pass. Jesus taught that the Jewish nation was ripe for God’s judgment, even predicting the destruction of a local Jewish temple, which continued to stand despite Jesus’ ill will.
Jesus said that very soon the day of salvation would arrive, when good would triumph over evil; hence the Bible books as “gospel,” as in “glad tidings.” In Galilee, Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s impending arrival, saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” [Mark 1:14-15] In Mark, “the kingdom of God” was imminent.
“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” ~ Jesus [Mark 9:1]
By the time the book of Luke was written, “the kingdom of God” had become metaphysical, not tangible. Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” [Luke 17:20-21]
After months in the hinterlands, Jesus entered Jerusalem in time for the Passover festival that would be his last. Jesus’ reputation preceded him, and he was enthusiastically welcomed by the crowds, who expected him to declare himself their leader. Instead, Jesus harangued the religious authorities but showed no inclination to the political revolt that his followers longed for.
As a supposed symbolic gesture, Jesus – angry at business-as-usual – “purified” a Jerusalem temple during Passover by violently expelling the traders who exchanged currency and plied their goods in the temple market. The market was supported by the priests there, both to increase traffic to the temple and for their cut of the take. Violence begets violence, as Jesus would soon learn.
One is reasonably left wondering whether Jesus set himself up as a martyr. Surely, he knew he would disappoint his larger following by not grasping the brass knuckles of political revolt. His own disciples were shaky about Jesus’ mission, as events would soon prove.
With an assist from one of his disciples, Jesus was arrested and found guilty of blasphemy for declaring himself the Son of God. But for his death sentence to be legally carried out, a Roman conviction was necessary. The final irony of Jesus’ life story was that he was found guilty of sedition, even as he had forfeited popular following by refusing to be a political revolutionary.
The slow-killing torture of crucifixion was reserved for low-class criminals. It was a final humiliation to be hung naked in public.
Many lasted days on the cross before expiring, though breaking the legs hastens the process: one dies of suffocation while crucified when one can no longer support one’s weight. Jesus only hung for 6 hours before being taken down for dead, and, because of his hasty retreat from breathing, his legs were never broken. (Contrary to common depiction, Jesus was not nailed to the cross: he was bound by rope, as was common. Further, Jesus did not carry the cross: the cross was already in place.)
Those crucified were generally left to rot. According to Jewish beliefs, proper burial was a prerequisite for a successful afterlife.
A well-to-do follower had Jesus entombed. There is no mention in the Bible as to whether this was prearranged.
Jesus’ tomb was found empty 2 days after his placement there. This was not nearly the shock as a resurrected Jesus coming around for visits: one-on-one and group meetings with disciples.
Jesus’ spontaneous appearances reputedly went on for a few weeks. Though he appeared alive and real, Jesus would appear and disappear suddenly, no longer bound by the corporeal constraint of using the door to get in or out of the room.
Jesus was both the messenger and the message. Only after his resurrection did Jesus’ message come across: that he was Christ, Lord, and Savior. This took considerable haranguing from the Messiah himself, back from the dead to drive the point home. According to Jesus, he himself was the object of worship.
During his life, Jesus’ teachings were very much of his time, reflecting the Jews’ predicament. This was a surefire rhetorical formula. Socially, Jesus’ teachings were profoundly communistic: a sense of shared family with those of the faith, where materialism and social standing took a backseat to righteousness.
Politically, Jesus made no attempt to reconcile with the religious establishment. Jesus’ approach was consistently confrontational, and, in the famous temple-cleansing incident, violent. This was not the thoughtless act of an impetuous youth finding his way. This was the Messiah in his prime (though his prime was only a very few years).
In the most reliable account of Jesus – the book of Mark – “love” is mentioned twice, in only 1 passage. Asked by a scribe the most important commandment, Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord your God,” [Mark 12:29-30] and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Mark 12:31]
Loving your neighbor makes for local social harmony. Loving all of humanity is an extrapolation that Jesus never made.
Mark makes no mention that God loves you. Instead:
“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” ~ Mark 9:42, The Bible
Hell is for unbelievers. “Get on board or be damned” was Jesus’ message. (The notion of being morally judged in the afterlife for one’s life on Earth stared with 5th-century-BCE Greeks.)
Jesus was thoroughly Islamic in teaching jihad against those who do not believe as you do. His violent disrespect of the establishment was an overriding message. Yet the Old Testament of the Bible contradictorily records:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account.” ~ Hebrews 13:17, The Bible
When the psychic message supposedly came in, impending death troubled Jesus, who prayed in a garden in Gethsemane that such a fate might pass him by.
“He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.'” ~ Mark 14:33-36, The Bible
Not exactly a profile in courage from the Son of God, nor even of a man in on the plan. If he was not setting himself up, Jesus’ failure to recognize the political implications of his positions and actions shows a remarkable cluelessness, amplified in time by his legacy.
Jesus’ own violent death was karmic: what goes around comes around. There is no record that Jesus even realized those implications after his resurrection. Non-violence simply was not in Jesus’ lexicon. Instead, he came back from the dead to scold his disciples for disbelief of his standing as the Messiah, capable of bodily resurrection.
Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. ~ Mark 16:14, The Bible
Not exactly compassion in action, not to mention a strong statement about the ineffectiveness of his teachings: that his closest disciples hardly believed in him.
Jesus’ popularity stemmed from his power as a healer, and the vested hope that he would be a savior to his people. As a savior of any sort in his own time, Jesus utterly failed.
In his life, Jesus was believed by few as the Messiah he claimed to be. Instead, Jesus confused many, including his closest disciples.
The idea that Jesus was a savior is nonsense. His basic message, that those who believe will be saved, and all others condemned, was vitriolic: a veiled call to violence, and spiritually bankrupt.
“These signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” ~ Mark 16:16-17, The Bible
The above goes beyond bad advice to being positively psychotic, raising the serious question, to those of rational bent, of how much stock to put in a messianic dead guy who set himself up to be killed after being betrayed and disavowed by his own disciples.
One possible rebuttal to selective citation of the New Testament is that Jesus’ message has been distorted. That rebuttal argument simply points to the shambles that Jesus left behind: no writings of his own, and or even his disciples, except Paul’s deranged letters of vacuous and sometimes surreal faith.
Buddha did not bother to write either. But oral tradition served his legacy well. The same cannot be said of Jesus.
Miracles may be lovely things, but the man behind them – impulsively given to emotional outburst – behaved in a narcissistic, monomaniacal manner. Jesus of Nazareth was not a role model for anyone spiritually inclined.
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Whatever personal foibles Jesus possessed, his presence in Western history has been overwhelming. For over a century after his death, such notoriety was in no way assured.
Persecution was the lesser of the dangers facing early Christians. The greater threat was obscurity. Christianity might have been relegated to cult status, like many other sects in the Roman Empire; and like them, end up engulfed in the morass of mystical ancient religions.
Cult religions with impressive rituals were very popular. Some offered astrology, and even magic. Coming back from the dead was not the only impressive parlor trick in town.
Christianity was saved from oblivion by a handful of vital proselytizers in the first 2 centuries of its existence. Their approach was, above all, intellectual.
One of the pilots who steered emerging Christian theology through the shoals of the times was Greek theologian Clement of Alexandria, a Christian Platonist who taught the reasonableness of God’s truths in a way that attracted men steeped in Stoicism. It was savvy marketing. Thus, Christianity separated itself from the cult pack, not through Jesus’ supposed miracles, but by enfolding it within Hellenistic tradition while providing a spiritual vigor that was appealing to people living in an empire in decline owing to moral vacuity (among other factors).
“Many have made a trade of delusions and false miracles, deceiving the stupid multitude.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
▫ The words of the Bible are God’s words. To disbelieve or disobey them is to disbelieve or disobey God himself.
▫ God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. God created the universe. God is eternal. God is perfect. God can do no wrong. God is good, wise, loving, just, jealous (of not worshiping him), wills what he wants, and is wrathful toward sin.
▫ God does not need you to pray to him for what you want. He already knows. God wants you to pray to increase your dependence upon him. Praying is an expression of trust, a trust that he will hear and answer prayers to him.
▫ There are angels and demons. Satan is the head of the demons. Demons are in God’s control. Though little discussed, demons’ apparent reason for existence is to increase dependence upon God.
▫ God has 3 manifestations, known as the Holy Trinity: as himself (Father), Christ (Son), and the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost). There is only 1 God.
▫ Satan himself can be resisted through belief in the power of the Holy Trinity. Christ’s “work” on the cross is the ultimate basis for power over demons. When Jesus sent his 12 disciples to preach the kingdom of God, he gave them power and authority over all demons. [Luke 9:1]
▫ Man was created in God’s image, for God’s glory. (No word on whose image women were made in.)
▫ Man is to “fill the Earth.” [Genesis 1:28] Man has “dominion over… every living thing that moves on the Earth.” [id]
▫ The original sin came from temptation to eat a forbidden fruit, with man (Adam) tempted by woman (Eve).
▫ The penalty for sin is death.
▫ All humans are sinners except one: Jesus was human, but without sin. [Romans 3:23, 5:12]
▫ Jesus sacrificed himself so that sinners may atone by believing in him and following his teachings. Jesus’ resurrection ensured that sinners could be raised to salvation.
▫ Passages in the New Testament affirm predestination (election): that God has ordained beforehand those who would be saved. [Ephesians 1:5, Proverbs 16:4, Romans 8:29] (This controversial doctrine is presented as an expression of God’s benevolence. But election does not mean that choices are without consequence. This little loophole leaves open the prospect that people may have free will. Predestination supposedly spotlights that God is fair, though the logic behind this is inscrutable. It also brings into question that God wants everyone to be saved. This doctrinal paradox as the source of much confusion and controversy.)
▫ One answers the call of God by faith. Repentance and faith change an individual’s heart. One becomes righteous through abiding faith. Sins are forgiven. [Acts 3:19, Luke 13:3, Proverbs 28:13, Romans 2:4, 1 John 1:9]
▫ Believers in Christ are the children of God and enjoy the benefits of adoption into the blessed family. The Holy Spirit takes up residence within chosen ones.
▫ When Christians die, their souls go immediately into God’s presence in Heaven. Redemption of the body awaits Christ’s return. There is a lot of good food, wine, and music in Heaven. [John 14:2, 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Revelation 21:21-25]
▫ Conversely, non-believers face eternal punishment in Hell. (There are over 162 references in the New Testament that warn of Hell. Over 70 are attributed to Jesus. See: Psalms 9:17 & 145:20; Daniel 12:2-3; Acts 2:29-31; Matthew 5:22, 10:28, 13:41-42, & 25; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5, 16-31; John 5:28; Romans 6:23; Peter 2:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Jude 1:7; Revelation 14:11, 19:20, 20:10-15, 21:8.)
▫ Christ will defeat Satan, return to Earth as the victorious king, and reign forever. [Revelation 21-22]
▫ There will be a “final judgment,” with God considering every person’s heart. Because there will be a final judgment, Christians should not practice vengeance themselves, but “leave it to the wrath of God.” [Romans 12:19] Woe to “the great whore who corrupted the Earth with her fornication.” [Revelation 19:2] (This sort of passage really makes one wonder whose image women were made in, not to mention the ugly misogyny inherent in the Christian creed.)
Christianity’s popularity has always been explained by its intrinsically malleable message. Like courts with contradictory precedents, having inconsistent passages in The Bible gives a lot of room for ministers to maneuver.
A fixation on faith in salvation from an angry savior is a surefire formula for the self-righteousness that permeates devout Christians, and which Jesus himself practically dictated. It does put steam in one’s stride. And how eternally convenient: a divine Messiah who can save your soul by nothing more than fervent belief that He can save your soul. Whereas Buddhists toil to break circular time, Christians blithely embrace circular logic.
There are two great forces, God’s force of good and the Devil’s force of evil, and I believe Satan is alive and he is working, and he is working harder than ever, and we have many mysteries that we don’t understand. ~ American Christian evangelist Billy Graham
Shadow lurks beyond the reach of light. For God to truly shine there must be a force of darkness.
In Genesis, a serpent offers temptation in the garden of Eden. Being the weaker sex, Eve took the bait, of which then Adam did partake. So began the descent of man.
The serpent who tempted Eve is strongly associated with Satan, but many theologians think that the composition of Genesis predates the idea of the Devil. The serpent is simply a manifestation of evil.
Satan had only a bit part in the Old Testament: not as an opponent of God, but rather as an adversary, as exemplified in the book of Job. Passages alluding to Lucifer’s fall can be found in the books Isaiah and Ezekiel.
In but a few books of the New Testament is Satan given the briefest mention. More often there are only allusions to a dark force. “The ancient serpent called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world,” rears up in Revelations [12:9] for a flyby as the evil force that is foe to all those that fear God and love Jesus.
Satan supposedly started as a cherub: one of God’s most powerful angels. At some point – eternal Heaven not known for its timekeeping – Satan got uppity and rebelled against God. The book of Job suggests that Satan went bad between the creation of Earth and the turning of mud into Adam (and Eve’s fabrication from Adam’s rib).
Satan must have been devilishly persuasive, as he rallied 1/3rd of the angels to his cause.
“An apology for the Devil – it must be remembered that we have only heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.” ~ Samuel Butler
The rebels – the Devil and his demons – were cast out. Eternally trendy, they moved to Hell well before humans torched this paradise planet.
The descent of the Devil in scripture started with the Vulgate, a 4th-century translation of The Bible into Latin. There Satan is transcribed into both the Old and New Testaments. Beginning in the 5th century, interpreters began to apply the Vulgate denotation of Lucifer as being the ultimate agent behind all unearthly malice.
4th-century Augustine of Hippo took demons seriously. He wrote that demons had winged bodies endowed with “keenness of perception and speed of movement” which allowed them to foretell the future and perform miraculous acts. (Augustine’s description of demons was later developed in the concocting of the vampire Dracula.) Such prowess, Augustine observed, led some “to serve the demons and to render them divine honors.”
Augustine inspired medieval stories of selling one’s soul to Satan in return for certain powers. The most famous is the 1592 stage play by English playwright Christopher Marlowe which birthed the common phrase: Faustian bargain.
The graphic depiction of the Devil also evolved. A 6th-century mosaic shows the Last Judgment, where Satan appears as an ethereal blue angel. In the centuries that followed, Lucifer gained animalistic traits that trace back to earlier religions.
Ancient Babylonian texts describe wicked demons called Lilitu: winged females which flew through the night, seducing men and attacking pregnant women and infants. In the Hebrew tradition this demoness became Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Lilith came to embody lust and other ungodly traits later linked to the Devil.
Beelzebub – “Lord of the Flies” – began as a Philistine or Canaanite god. The Philistines (Phoenicians in actuality) were a people in conflict with the ancient Hebrews, and so were cast as evil beings. Beelzebub is sometimes attributed to the Canaanites, which was a Hebrew ethnic catchall for people to be exterminated. (Canaan was a Semitic-speaking region in the Levant during the 2nd millennium bce. Canaanite is an endonym for the people of that region. In Old Testament usage Canaanite meant non-Hebrew.) (The later Christian ideal of compassion was an alien concept to the hard-pressed ancient Hebrews.) Cultural attribution aside, Beelzebub was named in the Old Testament (2 Kings) as a false idol that Hebrews must shun.
Classical influences also played a role in the crafting of the Christian Devil. As Christianity took root in the Roman world, early worshipers rejected the pagan gods as evil spirits. Pan – half goat, half man – was a lusty god of Nature with carnal appetites which made him easily despicable to God-fearing and sexually-repressed Christians. Pan’s horns and cloven hooves became graphically synonymous with sin in the images medieval artists made of Satan. Augustine’s account of the Devil granted him wings (depicted as bat-like, naturally).
The Devil was pervasive during the Middle Ages, responsible for all manner of misfortune and illness. Mental illness in particular was seen as demonic possession.
It was believed the Jesus had exorcised demons; a nasty task taken on by medieval priests in his name. Manuals were written on the proper practice of exorcism during the Middle Ages.
The medieval representation of Hell grows out of the core Christian belief that Jesus Christ will return to Earth and humanity will be judged: the Last Judgment. Those who are saved will ascend to Heaven. The undeserving remainder will be ushered to Hell, which is ruled by Satan and overseen by his army of demons. There the damned face an eternity of torment. In the meantime – before the Last Judgment – souls are judged, and their eternities decided when they shuffle off the mortal coil.
The Scientific Revolution scoured at Satan, but the Devil did not utterly succumb; believers hung onto the Devil as a wicked counterweight to God’s goodness.
Times change. Whereas all Christians believe in God, Satan is a sour sell nowadays. Only evangelicals think the Devil is real, though most Christians still believe that a person can come under the influence of spiritual forces, such as demons or evil spirits.
Angels are a much different confection. Most Americans believe in angelic spirits: 97% of evangelical Christians do. Unsurprisingly, belief in angels drops as education level rises.
“Temptation is the Devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in.” ~ American evangelical Christian preacher Billy Sunday
“The Bible is one of the greatest blessings bestowed by God on the children of men.” ~ John Locke
The effect of Christianity on the Western worldview has been incalculably profound. With rare exception, Enlightenment thinkers and nascent scientists were believers in the Judeo-Christian God. The Creator’s design was presumed to be a rational one, subject to universal laws.
“This most beautiful system of the Sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” ~ English physicist and natural philosopher Isaac Newton
In wholeheartedly embracing skepticism of religion, Darwin was a notable outlier.
The Old Testament, from its manifestly false history of the world, and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, is no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. ~ Charles Darwin in 1839 (Darwin’s heathenism may account for Christian umbrage at his speculation of evolution. If instead Newton had proposed evolution, it may have found a more receptive audience among believers.)
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“Let man have dominion over all the Earth.” ~ Genesis 1:26, The Bible
By placing mankind on a pedestal – the only life to possess an eternal soul – Christianity reduced man’s perception of Nature to mechanical resources subject to harvest. Though there is no shortage of ignorance to be had with foolish faith in the Holy Trinity, this exhortation to exploit Nature is one of Christianity’s evilest teachings.
“The Creator of the universe has appointed to every thing a certain use and purpose, and determined it to a settled course and sphere of action, from which, if it in the least deviates, it becomes unfit to answer those ends for which it was designed.” ~ English newspaper The Spectator in 1712, expressing a commonly held view.
Religion & Cognition
Religious belief acts as a mental swaddle: offering the comfort of certitude in an often-uncertain world. Religion provides a sure moral compass, however errant its holder may be. Threats of damnation aside, religion is a conceptual sunshine that keeps one out of the shadow of doubt.
“Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain. The more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking. In contrast, moral concerns make nonreligious people feel less certain.” ~ American psychologist Anthony Jack
Retaining one’s religion may require shunning facts to the contrary if they cannot be somehow twisted and slotted into the belief system. Religiosity is antithetical to open-minded analytic reasoning. The more dogmatic someone is, the less likely that person is to consider alternative perspectives. Beyond base cunning, religion is stultifying.
“Religious individuals may cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments.” ~ American psychologist Jared Friedman
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“While religiousness is characterized by devotion to a specific tradition, set of principles, or code of conduct, spirituality is associated with the direct experience of self-transcendence and the feeling that we’re all connected.” ~ Canadian psychologist Jacob Hirsh
Whereas religious people tend to have more pro-social intentions, spiritual people feel more connected to others. There is a distinction between wanting to be part of a group and feeling a universality in the human condition. These divergent senses have a political cast.
“There’s great overlap between religious beliefs and political orientations. Religious individuals tend to be more conservative and spiritual people tend to be more liberal.” ~ Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson
Fear is the fuel that powers a person to believe. As such, it is unsurprising that religiousness and conservatism are hand-in-glove. By contrast, spiritual people and liberals alike think that people must have the freedom to take their own path. Whereas conformity is a positive value to conservatives and religious believers, it is incidental in adjudging others to liberals and the spiritually inclined.
Religion & Morality
“God works in mysterious ways.” ~ common religious expression, emanating from a 1779 poem by English poet William Cowper
Fate can be a bitter pill. Religion sugar coats it with an avenue of appeal. But God is odd. Philosophical believers have often pondered evil acts which escape his omnipotent power to prevent.
Moral events require both an agent (doer) and a patient (receiver). Without both these roles actions cease to be moral. A theft without a thief is simply losing your money.
Lacking agency, all circumstances morph into dicey chance: a thoroughly unsatisfactory resolution. Unchecked uncertainty rubs hard against the desire for some degree of certainty and control.
Morality involves a dyadic structure. When moral intuition kicks in over a perceived injustice, our 2-party schema for morality tries to complete the dyad. If no natural agent can be found, and especially if the magnitude of misfortune is great, it must be an act of God.
“When people experience unjust suffering or undeserved salvation, they search for someone to blame or praise, but when no person can be held responsible, they look to the supernatural for an agent, finding God.” ~ American psychologists Kurt Gray & Daniel Wegner
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“The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. The Koran often urges believers to fight, yet it also commands that enemies be shown mercy when they surrender. Some frightful portions of the Bible order the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races – of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted. Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions are all in the Bible, and occur with a far greater frequency than in the Koran.” ~ American religion scholar Philip Jenkins
Religious beliefs and values are transmitted to offspring through repeated rituals and community practices. If religion promotes prosociality, children reared in religious families should be more altruistic.
A survey was taken of households in 7 countries, representing Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu faiths, as well as agnostics.
“Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than nonreligious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates pro-social behavior.” ~ French psychologist Jean Decety et al
Religious children are meaner, more judgmental, more punitive, and less altruistic than those raised in a secular environment. The longer and deeper the exposure to religion, the greater the negative relations. Muslims were especially vicious in their judgments and demands for punishment.
Throughout the world, many people think faith in God is necessary to be a moral person. 53% of Americans do. 70% of Muslim adults and 75% of Africans think so.
The actuality is to the contrary. Beyond self-delusion, religion has been a bane to moral behavior and open-minded comity. Instead, religious belief breeds factionalism and societal strife; as the religion-sparked wars, persecution, and social discord throughout history demonstrate. Even now, American Christians, especially evangelicals, approve of torture: the most immoral act (killing at least puts someone out of their misery). It illustrates the moral vacuity exhibited in those who most fervently embrace religion.
Religiosity and hypocrisy go hand-in-hand. It may well be that the faithful consider themselves superior, whence the corrupting influence of feeling powerful is psychologically infused.
“I certainly had no idea how little faith Christians have in their own faith till I saw how ill their courage and temper can stand any attack on it.” ~ Harriet Martineau
The term fundamentalism was first used in the United States to refer to a movement in Protestantism that demanded strict adherence to biblical doctrines (as interpreted by sect leaders). Fundamentalism may be found in almost any religion, notably what is referred to by non-Muslims as Islamic extremism.
The societal import of fundamentalism is that believers seek to extend the religious sphere to encompass all aspects of life, including education and government. This is apparent in the US with Christians who want to replace separation of church and state with “one nation under God,” which is already woven into the pledge of allegiance by a 1954 act of Congress.
In affluent nations, such as the United States, the appeal of fundamentalism is often based upon rejection of moral relativism, racial integration, and cultural pluralism. There is also the desire to unearth moral absolutes in the morally corrupt society.
In the Islamic world, fundamentalism reflects the failure of the ruling elites to deliver on their promises of well-being for the masses in their societies.
The stridency of fundamentalism easily slips into militancy. In the instance of Islamic fundamentalists, non-believers are considered enemies, not worthy of breath, whence the relentless worldwide campaign of terror.
“Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” ~ David Hume
“We begin by believing everything: whatever is, is true.” ~ Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain
▫ A belief is confidence in abstractions as true. Beliefs are the building blocks of values and worldviews.
▫ A worldview is a cognitive orientation toward life and existence. Worldview is an outlook that internally expresses personality.
▫ Naïve realism is the belief that reality is actuality as perceived. The Collective is a confederacy of naïve realists, and yet they indulge in the greatest of fantasies: religion.
“Belief is the death of intelligence.” ~ American psychologist Robert Anton Wilson
“Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man – living in the sky – who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man as a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time… But He loves you!” ~ George Carlin
▫ Religion is a dogmatic belief system of a supernatural order underlying existence.
“Everyone believes very easily whatever he fears or desires.” ~ French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine
▫ Religion springs from the felt need for stability and control in an overwhelmingly chaotic world. Fear of death and desire to find meaning in life are the propulsive forces behind religions.
▫ Religions evolved from metaphysical animism to belief in deities indifferent to humanity to monotheism: belief in a singular supreme being (who supposedly cares about humanity). The emergence of a moralizing god was provoked by the interest of societies’ elites in preserving the material status quo, to which the fast-living underclass posed a potential threat.
“The overwhelming majority of people living today believe that a mindful god controls their future.” ~ Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz
▫ The world’s major religions are Christianity (32%), Islam (23%), Hinduism (15%), and Buddhism (7%). 7% of the world’s people believe in other religions. The remaining 16% are irreligious.
“All the scriptures of religions are available to you. Go and read them. They are of no use.” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
▫ Contrary to common supposition, adherence to religion does not promote moral goodness: quite the contrary. Repressive religions, notably Christianity and Islam, warp believers’ moral integrity. (Those fool enough to have faith in absurdity are mentally unhinged to begin with.)
Catholic priest sex abuse and Islamic terrorism are extreme recent examples of a decided tendency shown throughout history: religion has been a wellspring of depravity, violence, and conflict.
“Truth cannot be given to you; especially if you are following an organized religion, then truth will be as far from you as darkness is from light. Truth is not found by observing rituals, undertaking pilgrimages or reading the scriptures. It is simply a waste of time.” ~ Indian guru Anandmurti Gurumaa