Home » History of Humankind » The Law of Religion

The Law of Religion

(Credit – college.wfu.edu)

Ever since the agricultural revolution the main direction of human history has been towards unity. The unification of humankind was driven forward by three main forces, money, empires, and religions

Lecture 10 continues the subject of the unification of humankind with the third force that shaped the process of human unification, religion. The role of religion in history is extremely controversial. Some see religion as the root of all evil, while for others it is the primary source of happiness, empathy, and progress. Can we arrive at a balanced judgement? What were the main landmarks in the religious history of the world? In what ways did different cultures understand the universe, distinguish good from evil, and explain the ubiquitous presence of suffering?

Dr Harari from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem continues his lectures on the history of humanity by discussing these topics.  He offers a very brief history of religion focusing on the critical role that religions played in uniting humankind and, the whole world into a single system.

Here are my notes from his lectures on Coursera.org.  

Defining Religion

(Credit – Wikimedia)

Today, religion is often considered to be a source of a disagreement, a disunion between people,  even discrimination. Yet religion has had a vital role in bridging the gaps between different human groups. Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are very fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile its order. The crucial historical role of religion, was to give super human legitimacy to these fragile structures and thereby, stabilize them. Religions assert that the laws that govern our life in society are not the product of some human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws of society beyond challenge. This is what ensures social stability. Religion can therefore be defined as “a system of human laws and values, which is founded on a belief in a super human order”.

This definition involves two distinct criteria that something must have in order to be considered a religion. The first criterion is that religion must believe in a super human order, which is not the product of human whims, or human agreements. For example, professional football is not a religion even though it has many laws, rights, and very often bizarre rituals. There are a lot of emotions involved in professional football, but it’s not considered a religion, because everybody, even the most devote fans know that human beings invented football.

(credit – Wikimedia)

FIFA, the World Association of Football, may, at any moment, decide to change the rules of football. For example, to enlarge the size of the goal or to cancel the offside rule. Because it’s obvious that people invented it and can change the rules as they like, it’s not the result of a super human order, then it’s not a religion.

The second criterion of a religion is that it establishes norms and values derived from the super human order and which are binding for people. If you believe in a super human order but you don’t derive from that any norms and values, then it’s not a religion. For example, the Theory of Relativity, is super human, because humans cannot change its laws.  It is not a human creation.  If you believe in the theory but  don’t derive any norms and values from it then it’s not a religion. It’s simply something that you believe, and you may have very good reasons to believe in it. As long as you don’t try to base rules of behaviour in society on it then it’s not a religion. A religion must believe in a super human order and must derive from this belief rules, norms and values that organize human society. This is how religion gives legitimacy to the social order.

Early religions

Local Deities (Salem) (Credit Gopal Venkatesan)

Religion played a very crucial role in the unification of humankind. Some religions argued that there is a set of norms and values which all people must follow, which are true everywhere, any time, for everybody.  This is how religion helped create a universal order. Not all religions made such universal claims. As far as we know, the majority of ancient religions were quite local and exclusive. They believed in local deities and local spirits and formulated norms and rules for the behaviour of people living in this locality. They had no ambition to convert the entire human race and to make people everywhere follow the same rules, norms and values. Universal and missionary religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam only began to appear in the first millennium BC, about 2,500 years ago. The emergence of such universal and missionary religions was one of the most important revolutions in history. It made a vital contribution to the unification of humankind much like the emergence of universal empires and universal money. Prior to the emergence of these universal religions in the first millennium BC most people in the world believed in local animistic and polytheistic cults and religions.


(Credit – memo.fr)

Animism is the belief that the world is populated not only by humans but also by an abundance of other beings each of them having their own personality, needs and desires. For instance, animists may believe that trees and rocks have needs, personalities and emotions. The rock on the hill next to your house may become angry and punish you for perceived wrongdoings. Animists believe in fairies, ghosts, demons, and other things like that.  Human norms and values, according to animists, must take into consideration the interests and outlooks of this multitude of other beings in the world. When deciding how to run society you have to take into consideration, not only your own, interests and viewpoint, but also those of  the rocks, trees, fairies,  demons, ghosts, and so on. They are all part of the community.  An example of Animism is Shinto. 


Zeus (Credit – Wikimedia)

Polytheism also tends to believe in holy rocks, holy trees, demons and fairies. Polytheists also believe, very importantly, in very powerful entities which are called, gods and that the world is governed, above all, by this collection of very powerful entities, such as a rain god, a sea god a moon goddess, or the earth goddess. 2,000 years of monotheistic brainwashing have caused most Westerners, who believe in Christianity, Islam and Judaism to view polytheism, as some kind of ignorant and childish idolatry, like, praying to rocks and to all kinds of gods and goddesses. This is a very unjust stereotype. Polytheism has very strong logic behind it, and in order to understand its inner logic you have to grasp the central idea that led polytheists to believe in the existence of many gods.

Polytheism does not necessarily dispute the existence of a single power or of a single law that governs the entire universe, including all the different gods. Most polytheist, and even most animist religions recognized the existence of such a supreme power or law, that stands behind all the different gods, demons and holy rocks. For example, polytheism was the religion of the ancient Greeks. All the different gods, Zeus,  Hera,  Apollo and so on were subject to an omnipotent and all-encompassing power that really ruled the world called Fate, Moira, or Ananke. The gods were helpless in the face of fate. According to the polytheistic religion of say the Yorubas, in West Africa, there are many gods, but all the gods were borne of one supreme god called Olodumare, who is the real ruler of the world. All the different gods remain completely subject to him.  In the Hindu polytheist religion there is also a single principle sometimes called , the Atman, which controls all the different gods, spirits, humans, animals, plants and everything else in the world. Atman is considered the eternal essence, or the eternal soul of the whole universe, as well as being the essence of the soul of every individual and every phenomena. Every individual, every tree, every rock is part of this Atman. The idea that there is a single power or law governing the entire universe is not alien to polytheism.

Olodumare (Credit – abassabara.blogspot.fr/)

The fundamental insight of polytheism which distinguishes it from monotheism,  the belief in a single god like Christianity or Islam, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interests. It has no biases and interests and is therefore completely unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of human beings.  According to polytheists, it’s pointless to come to the supreme power of the universe and ask for his help in gaining victory in war or ask for his help in gaining health or causing rain to fall, because from the all-encompassing vantage point of the supreme power of the universe, it makes absolutely no difference, whether a particular kingdom wins or loses this war, whether a particular city prospers or collapses, whether a particular person lives or dies.  This is why the Greeks, even though they thought that fate was the supreme power of the universe, and that the gods were helpless in the face of fate,  did not waste any sacrifices or prayers on fate. Fate wasn’t interested .


Tirupati Balaji (Credit – Shivakant Tripathi)

Hindus built temples to almost anything you can imagine, but not to Atman, the eternal supreme soul of the universe. A supreme power has no interests or biases. You can’t make deals with it through  sacrifice or prayer.  According to polytheistic religion, the only reason to affront the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires, and to embrace the bad things that happen in the world alongside the good things, to accept defeat, to accept poverty, to accept sickness, to accept death.  There are some Hindus for example, among the religious elite, known as Sadhus or Sannyasis, who devote their lives to uniting with the Atman. They devote their lives to achieving enlightenment which, according to Hinduism means to view the world from the viewpoint of this supreme, fundamental principal, and to realize that from its eternal perspective, all the mundane desires, hopes, fears and ambitions of humans are completely meaningless, ephemeral phenomena.

Most  Hindus have, for thousands of years, been very interested in  mundane ambitions but know that Atman is not going to help them. For assistance in such matters, like curing them from a disease, or winning a lot of money, they cannot approach the Atman. For these purposes, the Hindus approach the different Gods with their various powers. Gods such as

Ganesha (Credit – Wikimedia)

Ganesha, Lakshmi or Saraswati have interests in biases and so humans can approach and make deals with them. They can rely on their help in order to win wars, the lottery, or recover from illness.

This then is the fundamental insight of polytheistic religions like Hinduism. The supreme power of the universe has absolutely no interests and no biases. If we want help with our mundane problems and ambitions, we must approach the partial and biased powers. There are many such smaller powers, because once you begin to divide the all-encompassing power of a supreme principal, you inevitably end up with more than one deity. Once you move from the supreme, from the pinnacle of the pyramid, and you start dividing the power into less encompassing powers then you get more than one.  This is why you have  the Atman, and below him are many different gods. You may address a different god each time which may or may not help you in your ambitions.

One of the implications of this basic polytheistic insight, is that polytheists were tolerant towards the religious beliefs of other people. Since polytheists believe on the one hand, in one supreme but completely disinterested power and on the other hand, in many partial and biased powers, they have no difficulty in accepting the existence and the efficacy of different of gods.  Polytheists are therefore inherently open minded, and rarely in history persecuted heretics or infidels.  It was very easy  to accept and recognize the existence of other gods and goddesses. They may not want to worship that god, but have no problem that somebody else might. Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they almost never tried to convert those subjects, the conquered people, to their own religion.

Acceptance and Persecution

Isis – Roman wall painting. (Credit – Wikimedia)

When the  Romans, or Aztecs conquered huge empires, they did not try to force all the people they controlled to convert to the Roman or Aztec religion. They didn’t send missionaries to foreign lands beyond their control to convince people in other countries to accept their gods. The subjects of the empire were of course required to respect the gods of the empire and the rituals of the empire, because this gave legitimacy to the empire and it was a sign of loyalty.They were not required to give up their own gods and rituals. In many cases the imperial elite adopted the gods and the rituals of the subject people. Roman elites were very happy to add Asian goddesses and Egyptian Gods to their Pantheon for instance. In the later Roman Empire many Romans worshipped the Asiatic goddess Kibela, and the Egyptian goddess Isis. They were particularly popular among the Roman elites.

The only god that for a very long time the Romans refused to tolerate was the monotheistic god of the Christians. The Roman Empire did not require the Christians to give up their beliefs and rituals, but it did expect the Christians to pay respect to the empire’s protector gods and to the divinity of the emperor.

Bronze statue of Constantine (Credit – Wikimedia)

The emperor in Rome was also considered a god so this was seen as a declaration of political loyalty. When the Christians vehemently refused to accept the gods of the Empire and the divinity of the emperor, and went on to reject all the different attempts to reach a compromise, it was only then that the Romans reacted by persecuting the Christians, for what they understood to be political subversion.

The Christians were not persecuted due to religious intolerance on the side of the Romans, but because the Romans considered the Christian’s refusal to accept the divinity of the emperor, and to acknowledge the protector gods of the empire, it was considered politically disloyal. Even this persecution of the Christians was done in a very half-hearted way by the Romans. In the 300 years that passed from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ up to the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians which lasted a relatively short time. Local governors in some provinces incited some anti-Christian violence  on their own in addition to these general persecutions. If we combine all the victims of all these persecutions of Christians by the polytheistic Romans, it turns out that in three centuries the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course, of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians in the millions, to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion. The persecution of monotheists by monotheists, was far, far more severe, by several orders of magnitude that any persecution ever initiated by polytheistic religions.

The increase of monotheists.

Pharaoh Akhenaten adoring Aten (Credit – Wikimedia)

With time followers of certain polytheistic gods, became so fond their particular god, that they drifted away from this basic insight. They began to believe that their particular god, was not just one among many, but was the only god and that he was identical to the supreme power of the universe. At the same time they continued to view their god as having interests and biases. They continued to believe that their god, even though the supreme power of the universe, still cared about the mundane affairs of humans. They could still make deals with this god, like making a sacrifice in exchange for getting victory in a war. This is how monotheistic religions were born. Monotheist religions believe that deals could be made with the supreme power of the universe, in order to recover from illness, or win the lottery, or gain victory in war.

The first monotheistic religion which we know about for sure appeared in ancient Egypt, about 1350 B.C. when Pharaoh Akhenaten declared that one of the previously minor deities of the Egyptian pantheon, the god Aten, was in fact the supreme power, ruling the entire universe and all the other gods and goddesses. Akhenaten institutionalized the worship of Aten as the state religion and tried to stop worship of all the other gods and goddesses. His religious revolution was unsuccessful. After he died, or was murdered, we are not sure, the worship of Aten was abandoned, and the Egyptians returned to worshipping the old pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna (Credit – Google Art Project)

Over the centuries, polytheism continued to give birth here and there, to other monotheist religions, but they remained marginal, not least because they failed to digest, to understand, their own universal message. Judaism for example, is a religion that argued that the supreme power of the universe has biases and interests, but his chief interest is in the small Jewish nation, in this obscure land of Israel. Judaism had very little to offer other lands and other nations. So it’s no wonder that Judaism remained a rather marginal religion and did not spread very widely.

The big breakthrough of monotheism came  with Christianity. In the first millennial A.D. Christianity was at first, no more than an esoteric  Jewish sect, that taught Jews that Jesus of Nazareth, was their long awaited messiah. However, one of the first leaders of the Christian sect, a man by the name of Paul of Tarsus reasoned, that if the supreme power of the universe had interests and biases and had bothered to incarnate himself in the flesh and die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something that everybody should hear about, not just the Jews. Paul’s arguments fell on fertile ground. Christians began to organize widespread missionary activities, which were aimed at all human beings, not only at Jews. In one of the strangest twists ever in human history, this tiny persecuted esoteric Jewish sect, managed to take over the mighty Roman Empire and from this base, spread over greater and greater parts of the world. The amazing success of the Christians served later as the model for another monotheistic religion that appeared in the Arabian Peninsula, in the 7th century, Islam. Like Christianity, Islam began as a small sect in a remote corner of the world. In an even stranger and swifter historical surprise, Islam managed to break out of the desert of Arabia and to conquer an immense empire, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Henceforth, the monotheistic ideal became a central player in world history.

Monotheists tended on many occasions to be much more fanatical and also much more missionary, than polytheists. A religion that recognizes the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe or that it received from the one and only god, only part of the universal truth. This is something that polytheists, were able to live with, but monotheists, could not live with these ideals. Since monotheists usually believed that they were in possession of the entire message of the one and only god, they were compelled to discredit all other religions.  They felt that if their religion was true then no other religion could also simultaneously be true.

A crusader is shot by a Muslim warrior during the Crusades in c1250. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the last two millennium, monotheists have repeatedly tried to prove the truth of their religion and to strengthen their position by exterminating all the competition with violence, persecutions, and holy wars. Whereas polytheists very rarely wage religious wars and persecutions, monotheists began to wage a lot of them, and it worked. At the beginning of the first century A.D., there were hardly any monotheists in the world. Over the last 2,000 years, monotheist religions became the dominant religions of the entire world, with the exception of east and south-east Asia, where Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, are still dominant.

Polytheism and animism, did not completely disappear. Even though monotheists persecuted the old animist and polytheist religions, in many ways, the animist and polytheist beliefs and practices, continued to live on within the monotheist religions. Most people found it difficult to fully accept and digest the monotheist universal ideal that there is only one God who cares about everybody equally. This was very hard to accept because sapiens tend to divide the world into us versus them. Sapiens always want to be in contact with powerful entities that will help us against them.

Bataille de Bouvines by Horace Vernet (Credit – Wikipedia)

The idea there is only one  supreme power in the world and that he cares about everybody equally was very difficult, even for Christians and Muslims to fully accept and understand. Consequently Christianity proclaimed publicly that there is only one God and that nobody should worship any other gods and simultaneously created an entire new pantheon of saints. People began to worship lots of different Christian saints, just as previously they had worshipped different gods. In the Middle Ages, and even today to some extent, every Christian kingdom and state had its own patron saint that helps it to overcome difficulties and to win wars, even wars against other Christian countries. England for example, was and is protected by Saint George. Scotland is helped by a different saint, Saint Andrew.

Saint Apollonia by Francisco de Zurbarán (Credit – Wikimedia)

Hungary is helped by Saint Stefan and France by Saint Martin. When the kings of England and France went to war in the Middle Ages, it is believed that Saint Martin helped the French and Saint George helped the English,  just like the old gods. Not only countries, but cities, towns, professions and even particular diseases, each had its own patron saint. The patron saint of Milan in Italy is  Saint Ambrose for Venice it is Saint Mark. Saint Florian was the patron saint of chimney cleaners whereas Saint Matthew the apostle has tax collectors among his patronage.  Saint Agathius should be invoked in case of  headaches and Saint Apollonia for a toothaches. The Christian saints did not merely resemble the old polytheistic gods, on many occasions, they’re exactly the same gods in disguise. The chief goddess of Celtic Ireland, before Christianity was the goddess Brigid. When Ireland was converted to Christianity, people did not stop worshipping her they simply changed her name and story. They baptised her to Christianity and she became the Catholic saint, Saint Brigid. To this day the most revered Saint in Catholic Ireland is Saint Brigid, the descendant of this polytheistic goddess. In this way, polytheism gave birth to monotheism and even though monotheism turned against its parent and tried to destroy it polytheism continued to survive within monotheism in  prophecies and beliefs. Polytheism did not give birth only to monotheistic religions but also  to dualistic religions.

Dualism and the problem of evil.

John Steinbeck – East of Eden (Credit – rjgeib.com)

Dualistic religions are those that believe in the existence of two opposing powers, good and evil, that battle for control of the world. Unlike monotheism, dualism believes that evil is an independent power, which is not created by the good god and is not subordinate to it. Dualism explains, that the entire world is a battle ground between these two forces of good and evil. Everything that happens in the world is part of this struggle. Dualism is a very attractive world view because it a short and simple answer to one of the most basic problems of human thought, the problem of evil. The problem of evil is a fundamental philosophical and emotional problem. It asks, why is there evil in the world? Why there is there so much suffering in the world? Why do so many bad things happen, even to good people? Why do good people suffer?

For monotheists, the problem of evil, is extremely difficult. Monotheists have to perform some amazing intellectual acrobatic tricks, to explain how an all knowing, all powerful, and perfectly good God, allows so much suffering in the world. If God is so good, and it knows everything, and can do everything, how come there are so many wars, plagues and so much poverty and depression in the world?

La Peste noire (Credit – maxisciences.com)

One well known answer that monotheists try to give is that, this is God’s way of allowing for human free will. If there was no evil in the world, humans could not choose between good and evil, and hence, there would be no free will. This is one of those intellectual tricks that monotheists use to answer the problem of evil. This answer however, immediately raises a number of new problems and questions. Freedom of will allows humans to choose between good and evil and some of them choose evil. According to the standard of monotheistic account those people who choose evil are punished in Hell for ever and ever. Now, it can be asked, if God knew in advance that a particular person would use his or her free will, to choose evil and as a result would be punished by eternal tortures in hell, why did God choose to create this miserable person? Monotheistic theologians have written countless books to answer such difficult questions. Some people find the answers convincing, some people don’t. What everybody can agree about, is that monotheists have a very, very hard time with the problem of evil, with explaining how a perfectly good and all-powerful God, allows so much suffering in the world.

For dualists it’s very easy to confront the problem of evil. Bad things happen even to good people because the world is not governed by an all knowing, all powerful, and completely good god. There is an independent evil power loose in the world, and this evil power does bad things, it’s a very easy explanation. This explanation is so simple and so compelling, that even monotheists tend to adopt it. Countless Christians, Muslims, and Jews over the generations, believed in the existence of a powerful evil force, which Christians call the devil, or Satan.  This force, according to popular belief, can act independently of God and even rebel against and fight against God. They have gone so far as to imagine that the good God, even though all powerful and all-knowing, needs our help in the struggle against evil. This is illogical. How can a monotheist adhere to such dualistic beliefs? If you believe in the existence of one single omnipotent God, then you can’t believe in the existence of an independent evil power that works against God. If so, then God is not omnipotent. Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions, to believe two things which are logically contradict each other. So it shouldn’t come as such a big surprise, that millions of pious Christians, Muslims and Jews manage to believe both in an omnipotent all-powerful god and in an independent devil or Satan. This is the attractiveness of the dualist belief in two opposing powers.

(Credit – http://evilhow.com/)

The dualist view also has its drawbacks, things it finds hard to explain. It’s true dualism offers a very simple solution to the problem of evil, but they have no good answer to the other big problem of human philosophy, the problem of order. If there are two opposing powers in the world, one good and one evil then who made the laws governing the struggle between these two? Two rival states, say India and Pakistan, can fight one another with tanks, bombs and missiles because both India and Pakistan exist in time and space, and both obey the same laws of physics, a missile which is launched from Pakistani ground can hit targets inside Indian territory because the same laws of physics apply in both countries.  These laws were not legislated by the government of India or Pakistan. When good and evil fight against each other, what common laws do they obey and who made these laws? Dualists have a very hard time answering these questions.

Dualists have a problem explaining order but not evil whereas Monotheists are very good at explaining the problem of order. It’s easy to explain the order in the world because there is just one God, who made the laws, that governs the whole universe. But they have a big problem explaining the problem of evil. There is, in fact, one logical way of settling the puzzle, of solving the problem of order and the problem of evil, simultaneously. The logical way to solve it, is to argue that there is a single omnipotent God, that created the entire universe and it is an evil God. Because if it’s just one God, this explains the order in the world, and because this god is evil, this explains why there is so much suffering in the world. But this idea, even though it’s very logical, nobody in history wanted to believe such a thing. So, no religion espouses this particular belief.

Dualism today.

Old Testament Law (Credit – ten-commandments.us)

Just as monotheism has Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and each of those is divided into different sects, there were many different dualistic religions. For example, ZoroastrianismManichaeism and Gnosticism, which flourished for many, many centuries and were the dominant religions in large parts of the Middle East, and Central Asia, from about, 500 B.C. to about 500 A.D., Eventually, in the great struggle between monotheism and dualism, monotheism won and dualism almost disappeared.

Today there are only handful of dualistic communities that survive in some pockets in India and the Middle East. Nevertheless dualism is very important because the same thing that happened with polytheism, happened with dualism. Even though dualistic religions as such disappeared, the ideas practices and beliefs became an integral part of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These monotheistic religions absorbed dualistic beliefs and practices  and many of the basic ideas today are dualist  in their origin, in their main message and spirit. For example, the dualist belief in the existence of an evil god that fights against the good god  is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. It entered Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the shape of Satan and brought with it the belief that humans ought to help the good god in his fight against his enemies.

Scene from Siyer-i Nebi- depicting Muhammad at Badr. (Credit – newworldencyclopedia.org/)

This belief  inspired Jihads and crusades and so forth. In a purely monotheistic religion the call for crusades or Jihads is illogical. If God is omnipotent, knows everything, is all powerful, and can do anything he likes then he doesn’t need help from humans in winning a war.  If god wants the Holy land to belong to the Christians he can just click his fingers, he doesn’t need a crusade.There is no logic in holy war in monotheism. So much baggage was accepted from dualism including the idea of going to holy war to help the good god fight enemies.

The last great idea that entered monotheism from dualism was the belief in heaven and hell. Heaven, the way of the good god and hell, the way of the evil god is a dualist concept. There’s no trace of these ideas in the Old Testament. The Old Testament never says anywhere that the souls of people continue to live after they die, that they leave the body and reach heaven or hell. It isn’t written anywhere that the soul of Moses or Abraham or Isaac, after death,  left the body and reached heaven, or that the soul of an evil Pharaoh left the body and reached Hell. These are ideas that make no sense from the monotheistic perspective. They entered monotheism from dualism and then became an integral part of what most people consider to be the monotheistic Christian or Muslim view of the world. Monotheism is a mishmash, a bringing together of different  monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, which constantly  influence and change each other. They coexist under one big  divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheistic god, but also believes in the dualist devil in the polytheist sense and in the animist ghosts and demons.

The religions which we have discussed so far, polytheism, monotheism, and dualism have differences between them. They are also very similar to one another, particularly in the fact that they all focus on belief in gods, one, two or many gods, but gods are central. This may seem obvious to westerners, but the religious history of the world does not boil down to the history of gods. During the first millennium B.C. the world began to see, the rise of another kind of religion that did not give so much importance to gods.

Religions without gods. 

Birth of Gautama Buddha (Credit – Wikimedia)

During the first million years BC religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through Afro-Asia. The newcomers were religions such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China and Stoicism, Cynicism, and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean.  These religions were characterized by their disregard of Gods. They maintained that the super human order governing the world is the product of natural laws and not the product of divine wills and whims. Some of these natural law religions continued to believe in the existence of Gods but their Gods were considered to be subject to the laws of nature just like humans, animals and plants. Gods had their niche in the ecosystem just as elephants or porcupines had theirs. The gods could not change the laws of nature, just as elephant and porcupines couldn’t.

A prime example of these new natural law religions is Buddhism, which was

Departure of Siddhartha (Credit – Wikimedia)

probably the most important of the ancient natural law religions. It remains one of the major faiths of the world. The central figure of Buddhism is not a God but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition Gautama was heir to a small kingdom in the Himalaya mountains in northern India about 500 BC. The young prince was deeply impressed by the suffering which he saw all around him in his kingdom, and city and in the world at large. He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer, not just from occasional calamities such as war or plague but they suffer constantly, from anxieties, frustrations, and discontent, all of which seemed to be an inseparable part of the human condition. You can end all wars and plagues, but people will still suffer from all these anxieties and discontentments. What Gautama. saw was that people pursue wealth and power and acquire knowledge, they acquire many possessions, they beget sons and daughters, they build houses and palaces, but no matter what humans achieve, they are never content.  Those who live in poverty naturally dream about being rich. Those who have managed to gain a million want two million. Those who have two million dream about having 10 million. Even the rich and famous, like his own royal family were rarely satisfied. They too were haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, which didn’t end until sickness, old age and death put an end to it. Then, everything that one accumulated and pursued throughout his or her life vanishes like smoke. Life it seemed to Gautama was a kind of pointless rat race. He searched for another way

When Gautama was 29, according to Buddhist tradition, he decided that answering this question was the most important thing in life. He left in the middle of the night. He slipped away from his palace,  left behind his family, his possessions and his kingdom He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout Northern India, searching for a way out of suffering. Not only out of wars and plagues, but out of all anxieties and frustrations and, discontent. Gautama spent six years meditating on the essence, the causes and the potential cures for suffering.

Ascetic Bodhisatta Gotama (Credit – Wikimedia)

He  realized that suffering is not caused by ill fortune or social injustice or divine whims but by the behaviour of patterns of one’s own mind. Gautama’s big insight was that no matter what the mind experiences it almost always reacts with craving which  results or involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something unpleasant, like pain, it craves to be rid of it.  When the mind experiences something pleasant, it still craves, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless, always craves for something more. This is clear for unpleasant things such as pain, we obviously want to get rid of it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things according to Gautama’s findings, we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear or we hope that the pleasure will intensify. For example people who dream for years about finding love, when they finally find it they’re rarely completely satisfied. Some are afraid that they may lose it others think they could have maybe found something better. Some people are torn by both discontents.

Meditations of Buddhism

(Credit – indianetzone.com)

Great Gods can send us love, they can send us rain. Social institutions can provide us with justice, with good health care. Lucky coincidences can turn us into millionaires. None of these things can change the basic patterns of the mind. Even the wealthiest and the most powerful people are never satisfied, they are constantly fleeing from unpleasant experiences.

Gautama found that there was one way to escape this vicious circle in which humans are all caught. If, when the mind experiences something, pleasant or unpleasant it simply understands and accepts things as they are then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving it to go away,  you continue to feel sadness but you don’t suffer from it. There can actually be much richness, much insight in the sadness. If, on the other hand, you experience joy without craving that this joy should linger and intensify then you continue to feel joy but without losing your piece of mind. You can be completely satisfied with the joy that you have, whatever amount it is.

The Sure Way to Nirvana (Credit – exoticindiaart.com)

Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that trained the mind to experience reality as it is without craving  for something different or something more. These meditative practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question  what am I really experiencing right now? and not on the question what would I rather be experiencing instead? It is very difficult to achieve this state of mind, but it is not impossible.

Gautama  grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules to make it easier for people to focus on the experience of the present while avoiding falling into fantasies, cravings and fears. Gautama instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft. Not because some great god forbade it but because such acts necessarily increase the fires of craving for power, sensual pleasure and wealth.  When the flames of craving are completely extinguished craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, which is known in Buddhism as nirvana. The literal meaning of  ‘nirvana’ is the extinguishing of the fire. Extinguishing the fire of craving that all the time burns in the mind and creates dissatisfaction and misery. According to Buddhist ideas those who have managed to obtain nirvana are fully liberated from all suffering. They experience reality with the utmost clarity without any fantasies or delusions. They might still encounter a lot of unpleasantness, even pain in their lives, but such experiences do not cause them misery, because they have no craving for the pain or unpleasantness to go away. A person who does not crave cannot suffer.

Gautama Buddha (Credit – utilitarianism.org)

According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama managed to attain nirvana and was fully liberated from all suffering and henceforth he was known as Buddha. The meaning of the word Buddha is the enlightened one. Buddha, after freeing himself from all suffering spent the rest of his life explaining his discoveries to others so that everyone could also be free from suffering.  He encapsulated his teaching, in a single law which says that suffering arises from craving. The only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving. The only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is without craving for reality to be something else. This law which is known in Buddhism as dharma or dhamma is seen by Buddhists as a universal law of nature that suffering always arises from craving is true everywhere for everybody, just as in modern physics E always equals mc squared. This is a law of nature and Buddhists are people who believe it and make it the centre of all their activities.

Belief in gods is of minor importance to Buddhism. Whereas the first principle of monotheist religions says, god exists, what does he want from me? The first principle of Buddhism says, suffering exists, how do I get out of it?  Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods, they are often described in Buddhist philosophy and stories as powerful beings who can do such things as bring rain or victory in war, but they  have no influence on the law of nature. Suffering and happiness are an outcome of a natural law which works in complete independence of the gods. If the mind of a particular person is free of all craving no god in the universe can make this person miserable. Conversely, once craving arises all the gods in the universe combined cannot save this person from suffering, because craving inevitably leads to suffering. This at least is the Buddhist theory.

Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva with their consorts. (Credit – Wikimedia)

Yet, much like the monotheist religions, the pre-modern natural law religions, such as Buddhism, never really managed to rid themselves completely of the worship of various gods. Buddhism acknowledged the existence of the gods and their efficacy in bringing rain, victory, cure for disease and so forth. Buddhism told people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of complete liberation from suffering and not settle for lesser aims like economic prosperity or political power. However, 99% of Buddhists did not obtain nirvana, and even if they hope that someday, maybe in a future lifetime, to be completely liberated from suffering, they devoted most of their present life to the pursuit of mundane achievements, like economic prosperity or political power. Most Buddhists continued to worship gods, such as the Hindu gods in India, the Bon gods in Tibet, the Shinto gods in Japan, and numerous new Buddhist gods and saints. This is something that has characterized all the traditional natural law religions not just Buddhism, but also Daoism and Jainism and others. Even though, in theory, they gave little importance to gods, in practice, the worship of different gods continued to be of considerable importance.

The modern age

Hammer and Sickle (Credit – Wikimedia)

The gods finally lost their power and importance with the coming of the modern age. The weakening of the Gods did not mean the disappearance of religion because religion and gods are very different things. When the gods became weak and less important,  natural law religions were finally freed from worship of gods. Not the old natural law religions, like Buddhism and Daoism but a number of new natural law religions that emerged over the last 300 years and became extremely important in the modern world. The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularism in which religion has increasingly lost importance and centrality. If we are talking about religions that focus on the worship of gods then this is largely correct. gods have become less and less important over the last few centuries. If we take into consideration natural law religions, then the modern age is age of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary efforts and the bloodiest wars of religion in history.

The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural law religions such as liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism. They prefer to call themselves ideologies but this is just semantics. If a religion is a system of human norms and values founded on belief in a superhuman order then communism is no less a religion than Islam.  Islam sees the laws of the universal order as emanating from a god that created the universe, whereas communism does not believe in any gods. Belief in god is not essential for religion. Buddhism in its pure form gives little importance to gods but is classified as a religion. Like Buddhists, communists believe in a super human order of natural and immutable laws that govern the world and  humanity which should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe, that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, communists believe that the law of nature was discovered by

A portrait of Karl Marx. (Credit – wikimedia.org)

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Like other religions, Communism had its Holy Scriptures and prophetic books such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which prophesied or foretold that history would soon end with the inevitable victory of the proletariat over the capitalist system. Communism had its holidays and festivals, such as the 1st of May, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Communism had theologians adept at Marxist dialectics and every unit in the Soviet red army had a chaplain called the commissar, who monitored the piety and the beliefs of the soldiers and officers. Communism also had mountains and holy walls and even heresies, such as Trotskyism which was considered a terrible, horrible heresy in the Soviet Union. Communism was a fanatical, missionary religion. According to communist ideology, a real devout communist could not be at the same time a believer in Christianity or Buddhism, and was expected to spread the true word, the gospel of Marx and Lenin, even at the cost of his or her own life.

Not every belief in a super human order is a religion. For example, the theory of relativity believes in a super human order that humans did not invent and cannot change at will, but it is not a religion. There are no human norms and values that are founded on it. Nobody says that it is wrong to murder or to steal because it violates the theory of relativity. Conversely, not every system of human norms and values is a religion. Football is not a religion because nobody argues that the rules of football reflect superhuman edicts or superhuman order.

Albert Einstein -(Credit – davinciinstitute.com)

Islam, Buddhism and Communism are all religions because they are all systems of human norms and values that are founded on a belief in a superhuman order.

Note the difference between superhuman and supernatural. The Buddhist law of nature and the Marxist laws of history are super human since they were not legislated by humans, and humans cannot change them. They are not supernatural, they are not outside nature. Despite these explanations some of you may feel uncomfortable with this entire line of reasoning. If it makes you feel better you are of course free to go on calling communism an ideology and not a religion, it makes no difference, it’s just semantics. We can divide creeds into religions centred on belief in gods and ideologies which have no gods and claim to be based on natural laws. What is crucial however is to realize that modern ideologies function in much the same way as traditional religion. They give super human legitimacy to human norms and values.

Humanist religions

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour (Credit – Wikimedia)

Of all the ideologies and religions that emerged in the modern era the most important ones are the humanist ideologies or humanist religions. These  have switched from worshipping gods to worshipping humankind itself. Today they are the dominant religions in the world.

Humanist religions are religions that worship humanity or more correctly, they worship Homo sapiens. Humanism is the belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature which is fundamentally different from the nature of all the other animals and phenomena in the universe.

Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world and it is this that determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens, the rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this one species. All Humanists worship humanity, but they do not agree on the definition of humanity.

Humanism has a split into three main rival sects that fight over the exact definition of humanity just as rival Christian sects fight over the exact definition of god, they all believe in god, but just don’t agree about  what it is.  Humanists believe in humanity they just don’t agree what humanity is.

 Liberal Humanism

Russell’s Teapot (Credit – skepticmormon.blogspot.)

Today, the most important Humanist sect is Liberal Humanism which believes that humanity is a quality of individual humans, the sacred nature of humanity resides within each and every individual Homo sapiens. Therefore, the supreme value of the world is the liberty of individuals. This is why Liberalism is called Liberalism because it sanctifies the liberty of individuals. The inner core of individual human is what gives meaning to the world and is the source of all ethical and political authority. Whenever we encounter an ethical or political dilemma we should look inside ourselves, and listen to our inner voice, the voice of humanity. The chief commandments of Liberal Humanism are meant to protect the freedom and sanctity of this inner individual voice against intrusion from outside and against all harm. These commandments are collectively known as human rights. Even though Liberal Humanism sanctifies humans it does not deny the existence of god. It is founded on traditional monotheist beliefs, the liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual human is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls. If you don’t believe in eternal souls and a creator god, it becomes embarrassingly difficult for liberals to explain what is so special about individual sapiens.

Socialist Humanism

(Credit – secularpost.net)

The second most important sect of Humanism is Socialist Humanism or Socialism. Socialists believe that humanity is collective and not individualistic. Socialists hold as sacred not the inner voice of each individual, but the species Homo sapiens as a whole. Whereas, Liberal Humanism, seeks as much liberty as possible for individual humans, Socialist Humanism seeks equality between all humans. According to Socialism, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity, because inequality privileges peripheral qualities of humans over their common universal essence. For example, when the rich are given privileges which are withheld from the poor, it means that we value money more than we value the universal essence of all humans which is similar for everybody, for rich and poor alike. Like Liberal Humanism, Socialist Humanism, if we look carefully, we see that it too is built on monotheist foundations. Just as monotheism is built on polytheistic foundations, so are the new modern religions. Nothing is completely lost. Monotheism is still there forming the basis for at least some of the new Humanist sects. The idea that all humans are equal is a legacy of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before god.

 Evolutionary Humanism.

(Credit – Wikipedia)

The only Humanist sect that managed to break loose from traditional monotheism is Evolutionary Humanism. The most famous representatives of Evolutionary Humanism were the Nazis. We don’t usually think about the Nazis as being Humanists, but the Nazis believed in the sanctity of humanity. What distinguished the Nazis from other Humanist sects is that they had a different definition of humanity than the Liberals and the Socialists. The Nazis were deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other Humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal and unchanging.  They believed that it is a species of animals which can evolve or degenerate in accordance with the theory of evolution.

Beger conducting anthropometric studies. (Credit – Wikimedia)

The main ambition of the Nazis was to protect human kind from extinction and encourage its progression into super men. They believed that the Aryan race were the most advanced form of humanity who had to be nourished, fostered and protected. Degenerate Homo sapiens, like Jews, homosexuals and the mentally ill, had to be quarantined and even exterminated. The Nazis explained that Homo sapiens itself appeared when one superior population of ancient humans evolved and others, inferior populations such as Neanderthals, became extinct. These different populations were at first no more than different races, but they developed independently along their own evolutionary path, one disappearing and the other becoming Homo sapiens. This might well happen again. According to the Nazis, Homo sapiens had already divided into several distinct races each with its own unique qualities. One of these races, the Aryan race, had the finest qualities, rationalism, beauty, diligence, integrity, and so forth. The Aryan race had the potential to turn men into supermen. Other races were according the Neanderthals of today, possessing inferior qualities.

Biologists, over the last few decades, have proven that the Nazi racial theory is nonsense. In particular, genetic research conducted after 1945 has demonstrated the differences between different human lineages in populations are far, far smaller than  the Nazis postulated. These conclusions are relatively new. Given the state of scientific knowledge in the 1930s, Nazi beliefs sounded far more reasonable for many people, not only in Germany, but all over the world. The existence of different human races, the superiority of the white race over all the other races, and the need to protect and cultivate this superior white race were widely held beliefs in all western countries. In the 1920s and 1930s, scholars in the most prestigious western universities, using a common orthodox scientific methods published studies that allegedly proved that members of the white race were indeed more intelligent, more ethical, and more skilled than Africans or Indians. Politicians in Washington, London, Canberra and so on, took it for granted that it was their job to prevent the degeneration of the white race. For example, by restricting immigration to the USA or Australia of people from inferior countries like China or even Italy.

(Credit – jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

The Nazis did not hate humanity, they were not anti-humanists. They fought Liberal Humanism, Socialism and human rights precisely because they admired humanity and thought it was the most important thing in the world. The Nazis believed in the great potential of the human species to evolve further into supermen. Following the logic of Darwinian evolution, they argued that natural selection must be allowed to weed out unfit individuals and leave only the fittest to survive and to reproduce. By helping the weak and the unfit, Liberalism and Socialism undermined natural selection. They not only allowed unfit individuals to survive, they actually gave them equal opportunity to reproduce. In such a Liberal or Socialist world, the fittest humans would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates. Humankind would become less and less fit with each passing generation and this could lead to it’s extinction. Nazi propaganda posters illustrated this. They showed racially pure Aryans and cross-breeds, a breed between an Aryan and some other race. They clearly attested not only to Nazi ideas about biology, but also the Nazi admiration for the human body and the fear that mixing lower races with the superior Aryan race might pollute humanity and cause its degeneration.

The Sculptor of Germany (Credit – yadvashem.org)

Here is a Nazi cartoon which presents Hitler as a sculptor who creates  supermen. Note not only the ideal to create the supermen, but also the erotic glorification of the human body. The people who drew this cartoon and believed in this ideal, these were people who really admired and liked humanity.

The future of, of Evolutionary Humanism is unclear. For the 60 years after the end of the 2nd World War,  after the defeat of Nazism, it became taboo to link Humanism with evolution and to advocate using biological methods to upgrade Homo sapiens into some kind of super men. Things are changing and such biological projects are becoming popular. No one speaks about exterminating lower races or killing inferior people as the Nazis did, but, more and more people contemplate using our increasing knowledge of human biology and genetics in order to create super humans. At the same time, while Evolutionary Humanism is becoming popular, a huge gulf is opening between the beliefs of  Liberal Humanism, hence the latest findings of the life scientists. A gulf which becomes more and more difficult to ignore. Liberal politics and judicial systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature, indivisible and immutable, which gives meaning to the whole world and which is the source of all ethical and political authority. This idea is a reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides supposedly within each of us.

Over the last 200 years, the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this Christian belief. Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul. Human behaviour, according to the life sciences, is determined by hormones and genes and so forth, not by a soul possessing free will. The human kind, Homo sapiens, is basically similar to other animals like chimpanzees, wolves and ants in the ways that it behaves. Our judicial and political systems have a hard time with this idea. Most of the time, they simply try to sweep these ideas under the carpet so we won’t notice them in court or in politics. How long we can go on maintaining this wall separating the department of biology from the department of law and political science, ignoring the findings of the biological sciences when we come to the field of politics and in law and so on is difficult to determine.

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  1. Wow, that’s an impressive essay! I need to mull it over, but my hat’s off to you!

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  5. serge says:

    My parents live in Saintes, Charentes Maritime and you? and what are you doing?

  6. Mia Taylor Valdes says:

    Thank you so much for your amazing notes. I’m impressed with your narrative as well as the beautiful and helpful images.
    Are you French? I see your name as Claire Louise Taylor and Louise Charente. Did you take the Modern and the Post-Modern and provide the equally wonderful notes there? Did you participate in a Google Hangout for that course? I think I remember you.
    I use your notes all the time. They are such thoughtful gift to your fellow students and I hope a labor of love for you.
    Your classmate,

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Hello Mia
      I can’t take credit for the narrative. All I have done is take notes from the lectures. I do like selecting the pictures though.
      My maternal language is English but I live in France – in the Charente Maritime. Yes that was me on the post modern hangout. You can see my notes on this blog using the categories section on the right. I am taking another Mr Roth course in February as well. Another wonderful lecturer.
      Thank you for coming here and commenting

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