For my first blog post, like in my book, In Search of Christian Origins, I want to begin by taking the reader on a trip back in time to present one concept of how religions originated and evolved into what we see today. In this and other blogs I will pass along a synthesis and distillation of the hundreds of sources I researched during the years I did my research and wrote the book.
To set the stage, sit outdoors at night or in a dimly lit room, block out the clutter from your mind and prepare to imagine. We see a primitive human from around 30,000 BC sitting on a hilltop on a crystal-clear night, before the advent of light pollution. Look through those eyes and try to imagine how they processed the world around them. By that time, homo sapiens—our species, had for many centuries migrated in groups out of sub-Saharan Africa and there is evidence that they lived as far away as Australia. We can barely conceive the lives of this person and his or her tribe. Like the rest of the creatures on the planet, each day was a struggle for survival, and little else mattered. For them, almost everything in nature was either a wonder to behold or a force to fear. They were part of nature itself—their survival depending on the availability of food and their sleep controlled by the hours of darkness after sunset. Our ancestors sensed the world around them far better than we can, but to them it was almost completely incomprehensible.
Much of religions was a consequence of the earliest humans gazing upon the night sky and finding themselves both in awe and at the mercy of those glowing objects that moved so predictably, confidently, and majestically across the sky. Our species must have always had an innate need to believe in something that controlled the world around them because something had to, and they knew that they didn’t. That belief provided them with a sense of security in a chaotic world. I now understand that the first religions resulted from human curiosity. Religions originated as those primitive humans attempted to understand their place in nature and interpret the meaning of what they experienced. Their shamans and philosophers pondered how they came into existence, what was the purpose of their lives, and what their destination might be once they departed their earthly existence.
From well before the beginning of recorded history, with brains indistinguishable from our current human brains, many people felt abandoned in their flawed and brutal existence and sought answers in the celestial and supernatural realms. They imagined celestial beings who watched over them and controlled their lives. It might have been natural to want to transcend their earthly existence and join in that perfect realm. Over the millennia, those primitive yearnings to be associated with those controlling forces evolved into humans wanting to ascend to a heavenly paradise after their death. It was a longing for something better than the life they had on Earth. The physical world could seem so pointless, frightening, and corrupted, they could easily assume there had to be someplace better.
Unfortunately, those heavenly objects and the forces of nature surrounding our ancestors were never specific about what they taught, so humans were left with the task of interpreting the signs the best they could. To make sense of all they experienced, they had to resort to guesswork and that gave birth to tribal myths. These myths became the glue that bonded societies together.
Each isolated band of humans developed their unique explanations for natural phenomena. Later, as small bands and clans coalesced into larger tribes, the explanations transformed into tribal tradition and codes of behavior. This process included the creation of tribal gods, many of which existed in the celestial realm, and some that even visited Earth from time to time to interact with humans. Gods ruled over various aspects of nature, such as forests, streams, mountains, crops, weather, and fertility.
Earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and storms were all mysterious and unexplainable forces, and the myriad of animal species with superhuman abilities only added to the confusion. The next step in the proto religion would be to make some attempt to appease those mysterious forces and even harness them for the tribe’s advantage. People could do that only by trial and error—their successes established ways to appease the gods and their failures led to tribal taboos.
For the tribes to survive and flourish it became necessary to defend one’s own gods and distance themselves from the gods of other tribes. Winning the favor of tribal gods became the tribe’s major priority. That desire is still apparent in our present time when people defend their version of god or gods and condemn those of other cultures. The major differences now are that our tribes have many centuries of established traditions and populations that number in the millions and even billions.
After thousands of years of polytheism—the belief in numerous gods—we know of an Egyptian pharaoh around 1380 BC—and later, Jewish priests between 586 and 332 BC—who came to believe that one supreme god created and controlled everything, and the lesser, more specialized gods began to fade in importance. The Jewish tribe compiled a set of historical and cultural writings in the Hebrew language that was translated into Greek around 280BC for the Jews who were scattered around the Mediterranean Sea and had lost the ability to speak Hebrew. These writings then spread throughout the Hellenistic world. When Christianity budded off as a sect of Judaism, this supreme God became associated with other spiritual beings such as angels, archangels, and saints. There were also the forces in opposition to God such as Satan, or his equivalent in other cultures, and his demons. In Christianity, although those other supernatural beings were worshipped or feared, they were not considered gods like they had been in polytheism.
To understand God and the nature of his creation, Christian and other religious philosophers eventually reintroduced the ancient Greek traditions scientific inquiry and that has resulted in an infinitely greater understanding of our world and what lies beyond. We now look at a blurrier version of the same night sky as our ancient ancestors, but thanks to the processes of scientific investigation, we understand it so differently. Knowledge of astronomy teaches us that those lights in the sky are suns, moons, comets, and galaxies that lie from a few hundred thousand miles to light years away. We understand meteors as bits of rock that flare up when entering the Earth’s atmosphere. We understand why those objects move the ways they do based on the discoveries of Kepler and Newton, and the sciences of motion and optics. We don’t know exactly how those objects were created or became positioned where they are, but scientists are investigating those things daily.
We now understand that natural disasters are not caused by the wrath of a god, but through natural processes that are understood by studying meteorology and geology. We know why plagues and famines occur from studying epidemiology, geography, and climatology. We have deduced how nature “returns to life” every spring through studies of planetary science. Scientists are unraveling the mystery of why other creatures are so anatomically and behaviorally like us, but have adapted to the world so differently, based on their knowledge of embryology and evolutionary biology. Neurologists, psychologists, and pharmacologists understand dreams, visions, hallucinations, prophesies, and the interpretation of omens not as supernatural events, but as products of the human mind.
Despite all this progress, there are still many people living today who reject much of this wealth of knowledge because it conflicts with their interpretation of writings from that ancient Hebrew culture. They still believe that natural disasters are caused by God to punish people and tribes for their sins, and they believe that God created the universe, our planet, and every species of life in one week back in October, 4004 BC.
There may be a creator god. It’s logical that for every creation, there is a creator. But that concept seems to fall apart when it comes to God because in our culture, this being is not understood as a creation. Each culture or religion has defined the attributes of their creator in their own terms. If we’re completely honest, we must accept that the concept of a god is still as mysterious to us now as it was to our distant ancestor who sat gazing at the night sky. The attributes assigned to cultural god were choices made long ago, and for one culture to try to force others to believe in their god usually doesn’t work out too well.