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A Brief History of Religion





For much of the first epoch of history, religion had taken the form of civic religion following earlier cults of nature worship. The Mesopotamian city-states worshiped their local gods in the shape of a clay statue housed in the temple. The Greeks and Roman continued to observe rituals in honor of the gods. Pallas Athena, patroness of Athens, was worshiped in the Parthenon. The Roman emperor was Pontifex Maximus, leader of Rome’s civic religion. He himself was also worshipped as a god. It was the requirement of emperor worship which most bothered Christians living in Rome.

The second civilization was not based upon this kind of religion but upon another kind ultimately derived from philosophy. A wave of new thinking swept through civilizations of the Old World during the first millennium B.C. associated with such philosophers and spiritual leaders as Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jeremiah, and Pythagoras. From their teachings came new philosophies and religions. Some philosophers, such as Confucius, Zoroaster, and Plato, brought a moral critique to government. Their approach was to try to reform government as advisors to the king. Others challenged government as outsiders. Jeremiah, for instance, predicted that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians; he was jailed for expressing that belief. Socrates was convicted of impiety with respect to the civic religion of Athens and put to death. Jesus was crucified on order of Pontius Pilate, Roman proconsul in Judaea. Choosing between royal power and truth, Buddha renounced the throne of a Nepalese principality to pursue truth.

History records that, after their deaths, the followers of Jesus and Buddha formed ideological communities devoted to perpetuating and fulfilling the ideas of their departed leader. Buddhism inclined more toward monastic communities; Christianity, toward the ecclesiastical structure of the church. The core of these communities were persons who, like philosophers, had given up worldly occupations and married life to pursue a particular set of ideas. Buddha taught the path to Enlightenment. Jesus preached the coming Kingdom of God. Both concepts are roughly related to what we would call “Heaven”, a spiritual realm for good persons after death. Followers of those religions were renouncing the evil world of physical pleasures and power politics. Yet they also had to operate in that world. Their institutional fortunes were made when powerful monarchs sponsored their religion. The Indian emperor Asoka sponsored Buddhism. The Roman emperor Constantine sponsored Christianity. The religious ideologies then became state religions, armed with resources of the state.

A third world religion, Islam, came about in the early 7th century A.D. when the archangel Gabriel dictated God’s words to the prophet Mohammed. Mohammed was a merchant who had been exposed to other Judaic religions when he led caravans to Syria. The message he brought was of a single God, Allah, who was the same God as that of the Christians and Jews. He was considered the latest in a series of prophets which also included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, delivering God’s most complete message. Mohammed spent years trying to convert citizens of Mecca to his religion. His fortune was made when he was invited to govern the city of Medina. He performed this task admirably and soon was at the head of an army which conquered Mecca and the rest of the Arabian peninsula. After Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D., his successors continued on the path of conquest. They took advantage of the fact that the East Roman empire and Sasanian Persian empire had exhausted each other in centuries-long warfare. The armies of Islam had conquered much of south-central Asia and north Africa by the end of the 7th century.

World religion provided a moral structure for society during the second epoch of world history. Although we place its beginning in the mid first millennium B.C. (when the great philosophers and prophets lived), its period of dominance began in the mid first millennium A.D. when the religions acquired worldly power. In the case of Christianity, it lasted until the Renaissance a thousand years later; in the case of Islam, perhaps a few hundred years after that. The pattern of organization varied.

In western Europe, the church became a freestanding institution after the Roman government fell. By its presumed power to bestow the blessings of God upon royal dynasties and individuals, it was able to develop a power-sharing arrangement with the barbarian kings who held worldly power. Christianity remained the state religion of the surviving Byzantine empire. In the Sasanian empire, Zoroastrianism was likewise the state religion. The royal family of Persia were hereditary priests of a pre-Zoroastrian cult that had been incorporated into the Zoroastrian religion. The caliphs who ruled Islamic countries combined religious and political authority as successors to Mohammed. In contrast, Buddhism was largely confined to monastic organization. Confucianism, a moral philosophy, played the part of a state religion in the imperial dynasties of China. Chinese Buddhism appealed to people in a less worldly way.

Government never disappeared in the second civilization. We say that this epoch is religious because religion assumed the dominant position in the partnership between religion and government. Political rulers could choose to put their subjects to the sword, but the church could grant or withhold eternal life. The latter power was the more awesome of the two. Pope Innocent III, who ruled at the apex of papal power, advanced the theory of the “two lights” arguing that as “the moon derives her light from the sun and is superior to the sun ... in the same way ... royal power derives its dignity from pontifical authority.”

A famous passage in Matthew quotes Jesus: “You are Peter, the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church ... I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” St. Peter was the first bishop of Rome. His successors in that office, the Popes, presumably inherited the power given to Peter. The Roman church exercised its power by administering the sacraments which were thought necessary to salvation. The church could withhold sacraments from persons, including kings, who had offended it. Martin Luther later denied that the church hierarchy had such power. He argued that a person could be saved by belief in Jesus as Lord and saviour. Orthodox Christianity had a different theology. Its leaders were also Christian bishops, peers of the Bishop of Rome but inferior to him with respect to the lineage from Peter.

Medieval Europe was ruled by a two power structure consisting of secular authorities and the church. Some coins had the picture of the Pope on one side; that of the Holy Roman Emperor, on the other. Justice was administered both by ecclesiastical and secular courts. Christianity dominated the society’s belief system. The Christian theology as developed by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others mixed classical Greek philosophy (mainly, Aristotle and Plato) with the teachings of the Apostle Paul and the sayings of Jesus. Gothic cathedrals were built for Christian worship. The lives of Jesus and the saints were commemorated in public holidays. Music and the arts were adapted to religious ends.

In the 11th century A.D. two ominous events took place within Christendom. First, Pope Leo IX excommunicated Michael Cerularius, patriarch of the Orthodox church. Second, Urban II issued an appeal for European Christians to liberate Jerusalem from the Moslem authorities. The western church thus severed relations with the eastern church and waged war against Islam. Knights of the First Crusade did capture Jerusalem in 1099 A.D. after a battle killing 70,000 civilians. A Second Crusade, begun fifty years later after the fall of Edessa to the Turks, ended in dismal failure. There was a Third Crusade after Saladin recaptured Jerusalem which captured some territory but the Holy City remained in Moslem hands; and then a Fourth, which was diverted from its purpose; and then a Fifth, aimed at Egypt; and then a Sixth, in which the Pope excommunicated Emperor Frederick II because he did not attack the Moslems quickly enough; and so on, for a total of nine crusades, not counting the ill-fated “Children’s Crusade, which covered the better part of three centuries. At the end, the Holy Land remained in Moslem hands.

Such adventures undermined the moral credibility of the church. Frederick II openly mocked the Pope urging his fellow princes to seize church property. Another event which hurt the Papacy was the “Great Schism”, in which there were rival popes in Rome and Avignon, France. This was damaging to an institution whose legitimacy rested upon a clear line of descent from St. Peter. Then, too, the Roman church was forever borrowing money to finance wars and other projects. The public was becoming disgusted with corrupt priests and the need to raise increasing sums of money. The Renaissance popes practiced nepotism and lived in palaces adorned with costly art. Pope Alexander VI had children. The last straw was a papal indulgence announced by Julius II to raise the money to rebuild St. Peter’s Church. When a Dominican friar came to Germany to announce a new papal dispensation, Martin Luther raised a protest. He posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, and the Protestant Reformation began.

The Protestants were austere reformers who discouraged religious imagery. They focused instead on the words of the Bible. They placed emphasis upon translating the Bible from Latin and Greek into contemporary languages. if Christians could read the Bible themselves, they would not need priests to tell them what was required for salvation. “Scripture alone” was the Protestant source of religious authority and truth. “Justification by faith” was the sole means of salvation. But because each individual could interpret the Bible for himself, the Protestant movement spawned a variety of interpretations. Besides Lutherans, there were Calvinists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, and groups farther out such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Zwinglians.

The Saxon elector Frederick III gave Luther sanctuary in his castle at Wartburg. Protected by German princes, Luther burned a copy of a papal bull in a bonfire threatening to excommunicate him if he did not recant. European princes picked sides between supporting Luther’s cause and remaining loyal to the Roman church. This led to the Thirty Year”s War which pit Protestant against Catholic and much of Europe against the Hapsburg dynasty. Meanwhile, the two sides waged theological wars in books and pamphlets. Toynbee points out that European intellectuals became interested in the natural sciences about this time. Tired of theological disputes that led only to more strife, they wanted to address “questions concerning natural phenomena that could be discussed dispassionately and could be answered conclusively by observation or by experiment.” In 1660, the Royal Society was founded in England with those objectives in mind.

The Renaissance had anti-Christian overtones. Intellectuals were encountering the pagan classics and finding them superior to what Christianity had to offer. The term “dark ages” was first used then. Men were determined to see things as they were, not as church officials told them must be believed. The science of Aristotle began to be questioned. A new spirit of empiricism filled the culture. In the 17th century, men came to regard comets as a natural phenomenon rather than a warning from God of impending doom. Belief in witchcraft subsided. In the 18th century, French intellectuals became passionate about ridding the world of “authority, intolerance, and superstition.” The “Enlightenment” was a time of intense skepticism about religion. In the 19th Century, the theories of Charles Darwin posed a new challenge to explanations offered by the church. Was plant and animal life created as a result of evolution through natural selection or had God created the separate species? Was man indeed descended from apes?

While the conquering Spaniards converted the peoples of south and central America to Catholicism, European immigrants to North America brought with them a variety of religions. Many settled in America to escape religious persecution. Puritans, Quakers, and others found sanctuary there. And so the political culture of the United States has favored religious tolerance. Jesuit missionaries also went to the Far East and initially had some success in making Christianity acceptable to the traditions of these people. However, the church hierarchy denounced their innovations. As a result, the Chinese imperial government suppressed the Christian religion. A Japanese shogun went so far as to require people to register with a Buddhist temple to prove they were not Christian. Asian peoples came to recognize the superiority of western technology, especially with respect to weaponry. They wanted some exposure to western culture to acquire the technology but were careful not to accept the whole package. To accept Christianity, these people felt, would mean the loss of their own cultural identity.

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