Religious History

We might reasonably speculate that from the very dawn of human history, mankind has struggled to make sense of its life and death existence and purpose in the universe. However, while philosophy and science has attempted to rationalise existence, there is a sense in which they have not really answered the key question that many people want to answer.

Why does the universe exist, what is its purpose?

At face value, theology is not constrained by logic or verifiable proof to underwrite its beliefs. However, while some might now see this as a weakness, various religious beliefs have given comfort and solace to countless generations, who may otherwise have perceived no purpose to their existence or any reason for morality. However, it is also in the nature of humanity to question and challenge, such that we also need to examine the answers provided by theology in order to make some judgement of the various, and often opposing, belief systems. While even a cursory examination of history suggests a multitude of beliefs, we might attempt to reduce this historical complexity by considering a general framework of different theological beliefs:

  • Animism:            A basic belief based on a spiritual existence.
  • Pantheism:         God(s) are everything and everything is God(s).
  • Theism:               One god, the creator of everything, allows miracles.
  • Deism:                A god based on reason, excludes miracles.
  • Agnostic:            The existence of God has not or cannot be proved.
  • Atheism:             Denies the existence of any supernatural God

While this list is obviously a much-simplified perspective of religious beliefs, we might still go further and suggest another simplification based on only two fundamental theological positions concerning the nature of the universe. The first considers the universe in terms of its material substance, which operates according to the laws of nature. The second, while accepting the reality of the material universe and its laws of nature, also believes in some form of metaphysical universe that transcends the physical realm. In this separation, a non-believer would probably reject the concept of `god or gods` and the notion of miracles that allow events to occur outside the normal laws of nature. Of course, nothing to do with religion is this simple, although any historic analysis might conclude that any specific religion has to be a minority view.

Note: It is estimated that there are some 20 major religions across the world, which are subdivided into over 250 large, and essentially separate, religious groups. In the case of Christianity, the `unity of the church` is split into more than 30,000 groups with over half having independent churches that are not linked to any major denomination.

On the basis of this introduction, we might conclude that while religion may indeed have ‘an’ answer, there appears to be no consensus of one agreed answer. However, today, we might also attempt to simplify the historic debate in terms of monotheism, i.e. one god, and polytheism, i.e. many gods. Historically, polytheism predates monotheism, possibly reaching back into pre-history when mysticism and spiritualism had only just started to take form. However, today, monotheistic religions are dominant, possibly due to the zealous and missionary efforts of both Christian and Islamic faiths, albeit invariably underpinned by political and military power.

Note: Historically, many cities of antiquity had their own local god, although this earlier form of monotheism did not exclude the existence of other gods. In this context, the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant may have been an adaptation of a local deity for a nomadic lifestyle, which eventually paved the way for a stricter definition of monotheism within Judaism.

Within this historical development of religious belief, there are many variations of the nature of the deity in question ranging in form from anthropomorphic father figure to an ambiguous impersonal force. As such, this diversity of religious beliefs also had to reconcile the relationship between their god and humanity, which might be described in terms of devout celebration through to fearful appeasement. Equally, somewhere along this historic development emerged a subtle distinction between theismand deism, where the former assumes that a supreme omnipotent god not only created the universe, but continues to sustain it, while deism only assumes god to be the creator.

What other historic developments might be taken into consideration?

Many religions have attributed their ‘god’ with various degrees of omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence, although the concept of a benevolent god has not always been universally held. However, the characterisation of god being both omnipotence and omniscience leads to a somewhat philosophical debate, whereby if god is responsible for all the ‘ good things’ in the world, who is responsible for all the ‘bad things’. Naturally enough, such a philosophical issue has generated many arguments ranging from the need for free-will through to the very probable assumption that any notion of god must transcend human understanding. In this context, some religions maintain that no true statements about the character of God can be made, while an agnostic position simply concede a limitation in human knowledge to come to a conclusive judgement as to whether there was any intelligent purpose behind the creation of the universe. However, we might also consider the idea of an anthropomorphic similarity between god and humanity, e.g. we are all made in the image of God, although the following quote from Nietzsche possibly reminds us of the reverse, i.e. humanity has made God in its own image.

What if God were not exactly truth, and if this could be proved?
And if he were instead the vanity, the desire for power, the ambitions,
the fear, and the enraptured and terrified folly of mankind?
(Nietzsche, 1890)

If so, humanity would have to face up to the possibility that all religions had developed more by way of socio-political institutions, which have proved highly effective in controlling society throughout the ages and into the modern era. However, there is still an aspect of the nature of all gods that reflect our oldest primeval fears of a universe in which our purpose and fate is essentially unknown. Therefore, in this respect, present-day humanity may not be so dissimilar from our ancient forebears in trying to come to terms with the dangers and mystery of the world. As such, it is possibly a natural desire to hope for an all-powerful, protecting and forgiving God with the promise of everlasting life. This said, we still need to face up to the prospect that religion may only be a solace, not an answer.