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Epochal Changes in Religion  

page 1

In Brief: Each civilization has its own idea of what is good and what is true. As religion has changed from epoch to epoch, so have society's beliefs and values. The concept of "god" underwent several transformations as religion changed from nature worship and civic worship to worship of a monotheistic God. Later civilizations have tended to believe more in science, fame, and, of course, money.

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Five Epochs of Civilization, a book by William McGaughey, advances the theory that each of the five civilizations has its own "religion" in a broad sense. God-centered religions predominate in the early periods. In the later periods, religion takes other forms. 

  This book identifies two unifying factors of religious culture: belief and personality. A third factor - public values - is briefly mentioned as well. 

The discussion of values can, perhaps, be reduced to the following statements of what is good: 

Civilization I:     It's good to be powerful and great.  
Civilization II:   It's good to be good.  
Civilization III:  It's good to be educated and rich.  
Civilization IV:  It's good to be famous.   
Civilization V:   It's good to be -- ?

Beliefs have also changed through the epochs. They are what one believes literally to be true. The following discussion addresses this aspect:

     I

Civilization I:     


        The belief system in this epoch inherited the prehistoric belief in nature gods except that these gods were reconstituted to represent human communities. Each city-state had its own god; belief in these gods resembled the belief system of modern-day patriotism with respect to the nation state.


        It may be assumed that ancient peoples also believed in the science of their day associated with such practices as divination with bones, ritualistic healing, or astrology. Imperial subjects also believed in their political leader: Worldly force has a way of commanding people's minds and hearts.

 

     II

Civilization II:    

This epoch of history began with a philosophical revolution, which was a search for better knowledge. The Socratic method was a way at getting at the truth of ideals related to human behavior. Plato suggested that his philosophy arrived at "true science" as opposed to mere opinion.  

When the conclusions of philosophy were grafted onto religion, it endowed religion with the prestige of philosophy as being the most advanced form of knowledge at that time.  

Religion had its own system of belief: Something was true because God (or his priests) had said it. Sacred words must, of course, be believed. Christians were taught to believe in the virtue of belief. Martin Luther said that belief alone would bring salvation. One had to believe in Jesus to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

     III

Civilization III:    

  Belief in unseen things was not enough for intellectuals of the Renaissance. They preferred to believe in what they saw. This led to the attitude which underlies empirical science: that general truths depended upon conformity to observed facts, and beliefs had to be changed with a different observation of facts.

Today people believe in the truths of science. The scientific method assures us that true conclusions will be reached in our knowledge of the natural world. Technological progress born of science makes believers out of everyone.

The third civilization also nurtures other kinds of belief. In this commercial age, people believed in gold. They believed in money - that it had a real existence (though it does not) and was truly valuable. Possession of money was at the center of many people's lives.

Inhabitants of this civilization also believed in education - that it was a personally redeeming and uplifting experience. People believed that a college education meant intellectual proficiency and likely success in a career.

 

     IV

Civilization IV:     

Belief becomes a more difficult proposition in a culture based on illusion. People realize that entertainment is only a show. Even so, they are curious about the real person behind the performer. They watch late-night television talk shows and read tabloid newspapers and gossip columns to glean tidbits of truth about the glamorous personalities who inhabit the upper regions of this cultural world.

Yet, there is such a thing as belief in celebrity for its own sake. Fame does lift a person up to a higher level of personal worth. He or she acquires real power to attract attention and trade on one's celebrity status to sell commercial products.

Media executives believe in viewer ratings. Advertisers believe that sponsoring highly rated programs will generate increased sales. They are willing to part with large sums of money to act on that belief.

 

     V
Civilization V:  

Contemporary society believes in computers. Computers are calculating machines which seldom, if ever, make a mistake. (It is the ignorant or careless humans who tend these machines who make mistakes.)

Wall Street believes in computer technology. It has made billionaires of many whose companies did not even exist a decade ago. Stock prices no longer seem to depend on price / earnings ratios.

(Note: The above statement was written during the end-of-the-millennium boom in technology stocks. Wall Street belief in such things has since undergone a correction.)
 

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