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.