The Emergence and Evolution of Belief, Religion, and the Concept of God Pt II
I say to mankind, Be not curious about God.
For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God
… I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least.
– Walt Whitman (“Song of Myself”)
Here Whitman wants people to accept and bask in the mystery and beauty of God. However, in The Leaves of Grass, he has admitted to contradicting himself and in this quote, I believe he is contradicting one of the key natural characteristic of human: to be inquisitive and find answers to questions. If we should embrace our natural worlds and our natural selves, why should we turn away from our naturally inquiring mind, especially when it involves something profound as God? As Whitman said himself, god is in every object. God is in us, and in things around us, and hence everywhere in our world. Hence if we understand God, shouldn’t we be able to better understand ourselves and our world? I’m unsure of the answer. However, I cannot shy away from my curiosities that easily (sorry Walt). I think we can try to understand how God emerged in human history and how God, belief, and religion have evolved over time. With such knowledge we may be able to discover something about us as humans.
The Emergence of Belief:
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly humans started to believe in a higher, supernatural power. Yet there may be some clues from the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. The Upper Paleolithic Revolution occurred over 40,000 years ago (3). The revolution is defined by the emergence of intelligent, modern Homo sapiens followed by the birth of a more advanced Homo sapien culture. The birth of this revolution was fueled by neurological advancements in the homo sapiens, however it wasn’t the physical brain structure that was affected. As Banea puts it, what changed was “what goes on in the brain in terms of our capacity to generate and transmit culture” (3). Due to such changes, it was possible for Homo sapiens to have more advanced tools, personal ornaments, formal burials for the dead, statues, and cave art. These advancements were the first traces of symbolic representation and they had something profound: meaning.
Cave art and statues were not solely for aesthetics and story telling but for religious purposes as well. There have been discoveries of half animal/half human graphic art representing early animal worship as well as Venus statuettes representing fertility goddesses. Such art and worship was focused on basic biological necessities: food for survival and reproduction to pass on genes.
Following the Upper Paleolithic Revolution was the Neolithic Revolution, an agricultural revolution. Humans were abandoning the nomadic lifestyle and focusing on settlements and domesticating both animals and plants. The food culture changed from hunting/gathering to growing one’s food. However agriculture was not the only revolutionary aspect of the Neolithic Revolution. Populations exploded thanks to higher birth rates and longer life spans and more and more people had to live together in these agrarian settlements. Since a form of social order was needed for these societies, forms of organized religion came about. Organized religion, and a similar belief in the power and abilities of the supernatural, allowed everybody to maintain a social conduct and get along. It allowed everyone to have something in common with people they are unfamiliar with, which led to a decrease in enmity and a greater rate of acceptance of each other (5). However, as society progressed and evolved over time, religion and God changed as well.
Polytheism and Pantheism
The earliest documented religions are polytheistic religions. Polytheism is the belief of more than one god. Ancient history is full of many accounts of polytheism from Ancient Greece to Ancient Egypt to Ancient India. Even though polytheism emerged from a more advanced human society, it retained some of the ancestral characteristics of early religion.
Early representations of the supernatural were depicted through cave paintings and statues. The paintings and statues had animal, human, or even the combination of animal/human features. These sorts of representations did not die out with the birth of polytheism. Greek gods had human forms, both male and female. The same was true for Egyptian gods, and they had the ability of taking on other forms of nature such as animals and trees. Hinduism has the characteristics, however some gods have animal characteristics such the Ganesh (an elephant); the cow is also very sacred to Hinduism.
Also, in most of these polytheistic religions, specific gods had specific responsibilities and they worked together to run the world. In Ancient Greece, there was a god for war (Ares), a goddess for childbirth (Hera), a god for travelers (Hermes). So if someone wanted a child or win a battle, they would be able to pray to a specific god. This was similar to the supernatural representations of early religion: worshipping animals may have been important for purposes of hunting and worshipping Venus like statuettes that represent fertility was important for reproduction purposes, so genes can be passed on.
Polytheistic gods had physical features to organisms on Earth just like how deities from early religions looked like animals and people. Yet these gods were different from such deities in the sense that there was a story involved, or at least a known story was involved. Polytheistic gods were more personified (9), as in they had personalities and stories (especially concerning family problems) of their own just like humans on earth. Granted, their stories were more epic compared to the lives and stories of mere humans but nonetheless, they had their own tales that are still being told today.
Hinduism is still practiced widely among South Asians, and mainly in India. Yet forms of polytheism from Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt do not exist today in the religious world.
Pantheism is another ancient religious belief where followers believe that “all is God” and that the universe and everything in the universe are divine (6). Pantheism emphasizes that humans are divine and that God exists within humans. If one can find inner peace oneself, then one can find inner peace with the world and live a good life. Ancient pantheistic religions emerged in Asia when polytheism was the dominant form of religion in the West and South Asia. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are all various forms of pantheistic religions. The focus is placed on the person finding inner peace through practices such as meditation and discipline.
As societies changed overtime, so did religion and beliefs. Polytheism and pantheism followers transitioned onto a new form of belief. In the ancient world, polytheism was dominant in Europe (Greece for example) and the Middle East (Egypt for example) but soon enough, a new religious concept would take over: monotheism.
Along with personification, another interesting aspect of polytheistic deities was the cosmic family. Just like how new members can be added to a family, more gods could be added to the cosmic family and beliefs expanded. Yet just like how some members can leave a family, some gods were demoted to a lesser hierarchal role if their roles did not seem important anymore (9). With so many gods existing in polytheistic societies, one question would often come up: Who was the most supreme?
There were already traces of a supreme god in polytheistic religions. Ancient Greek named Zeus as “the god of gods” and Hinduism notes Brahma as the creator of the universe, and the supreme god. El was a supreme deity, who had a role similar to Zeus, in polytheistic Canaanite society in ancient Middle East. With issues such as these, followed by the movements led by prophets of the Abrahamic religions, monotheism emerged.
Monotheism is the belief of one supreme god. Before Abrahamic religions, there was another form of monotheism. One of the earliest monotheistic religions was Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was founded in ancient Persia by a priest named Zarathustra in the 6th century BC (10). Before Jesus and Muhammad led conversions to monotheism, Zarathustra was one of the earliest people to convert people from polytheism to monotheism. In Zoroastrianism, there is one supreme god who goes by the name Ahura Mazda; this god is solely responsible for creating the earth and all the creatures on earth. It is believed that some traditions and beliefs of Abrahamic religions came from Zoroastriniasm such as the concepts of one unchanging supreme god and heaven and hell. Yet the biggest wave of monotheism was going to arrive with a person named Abraham and the foundation of Judaism.
Abrahamic religion, a major form of monotheism, started in the Middle East in 2000 BC; Judaism was the first kind and its main prophet was Abraham. Later on Christianity, whose main messenger was a Jewish man named Jesus, came about in 33 CE. Islam was the last of the three major monotheistic religions to appear and it was introduced in 622 CE by Prophet Muhammad (4). The three religions not only share a central belief but also similar stories. All the stories involve ordinary humans being called on by the one supreme god (“Yahweh” in Judaism, “God” in Christianity, and “Allah” in Islam) to spread his message to the common people of the world. His message was to let everyone know that there was one supreme god who had created everything in the universe and it was only this god who had to be worshipped. Unlike polytheistic gods, this supreme god had no human qualities; god did not look like a human nor had any human personality. God also never changed throughout earth’s and humankind’s history. According to religionfacts.com, there are over three billion followers of Abrahamic monotheism; that is nearly half of the world’s population. Therefore for many people, the idea of a supreme unchanging god has not changed very much overtime.
Literature: The Genes of Belief
It is fascinating to see how religion, belief, and the concept of god have changed as society and humans in general have changed overtime. Yet there is one question to be raised here: How have religion, belief, and God survived throughout this whole time?
Let’s pose another question: How have humans survived throughout the centuries? The answer: sexual reproduction leading to the transmission of genes from one generation to the next. The reason reproduction is and always has been so important to not only humans, but other animals on earth, because everyone wants to pass on their genes and guarantee that a little piece of them will live on after they perish. However, genes are not important only for their small amounts of immortality. Genes determine the characteristics of a being, more so in a physical sense than mental. Both characteristics that are normally the same for a species (examples: the number of fingers and toes and physical appearances of internal organs) and characteristics that vary within a species (examples: eye color, hair color, height) are all determined through genetic information from parents. A little less than half of one’s personality is determined by genes and more so by the environment and life experiences, but that still means that a decent amount of one’s personality is determined by genes. Genes play a major role in determining the story of a person and of a lineage. Genes are very important to living species because that is what must continue in order for the species to continue. Can religion have a similar transmission in order to continue to future generations?
The answer is yes. Just how genes are the central dogma of living species, stories and the literature of religious texts and scriptures are the sacred dogma of religion, belief, and representation of god. The reason we can account for some ancient religions and not others is due to documentation and literature. Nature’s natural selection determines which organisms are fit enough to survive and reproduce; the ones with the best characteristics for adaptation will thrive. These characteristics are determined by genes and the genes that are good enough for nature will make it to the next generation. Beliefs and religion are determined by human selection. What humans are selecting are stories that represent beliefs, religion, and god. These stories are mainly embedded in the religious literature; religious stories are passed down through the sharing of religious literature. The literature and stories that seem appealing and make the most sense to people will be transmitted to the next generation. Their religious texts will continue to be printed and even translated for a more diverse group of followers hence guaranteeing a greater chance of survival in the future. Interpretation an important role in Religious literature again plays an important role in interpretation. The more room there is for interpretation, the greater the chances are that the religion for survive because this means that the religion is able to adapt to different people, not only in one generation but multiple generations.
Today, the five major religions of the world are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Three of the religions in this group are monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Recall that there are over three billion followers of monotheistic Abrahamic religions. This means that nearly fifty percent of the world likes and believes the stories of the monotheistic Abrahamic religious literature (The Bible, The Torah, and The Quran to name a few). However, these religions are no exception to the fact that religion evolves overtime. Even though monotheism is very popular in the world, other stories have developed since the domination of monotheism and more stories are being made.
Stories of Religion Today:
The five major religions of today prove that over half of the world’s population believes in some kind of a god or gods. Most of the world’s population adopts an overall traditional religious story. Yet other stories have emerged that do not necessarily adopt the traditional outlook on belief, religion, and god. These stories range from questioning of god,; using earthly knowledge to discover religion; the denial of god altogether; and finding god and constructing one’s own unique religious story.,
Atheism’s story is that there is no divine story. Atheism, the denial of an existence of a divine god, gained some popularity during the Enlightenment era in Europe. The Enlightenment period is defined by a mass interest of knowledge from philosophy to the sciences, and when discussing philosophy and the sciences of earth, religion happens to find a place somewhere with the two. For some, reason was embedded into religious beliefs and this led to Deism. Deism is a belief of god on rational grounds with no religious authority. Alongside Deism and Atheism, there was a story for the indecisive and for people who were still unsure of the story of God and religion: Agnosticism. Agnosticism, the belief that finding the truth of god is uncertain, also came about around the same time as the last two stories. It is the middle ground between theism and atheism (1). These stories have been existence for a few centuries. Some religious stories have emerged in the 21st century and not all of them are so organized and homogenous.
According to a recent CNN article, there is a rise in the number of Americans who have decided not to identify with an organized religion and have turned to individualism (2). In the article, William Donahue, president of the Catholic League said, “The three most dreaded words are thou shalt not…Notice they are not atheists -- they are saying I don't want to be told what to do with my life." Individualism is a new story that has emerged because people are turning away from organized religion, or in other words, they are turning away from one set story. Individualism is very different from conversion because it rejects the idea of one set story. It allows people to create a multitude of beliefs and stories, hence increasing the diversity of religious stories in a society. These stories may delve into different ancestors of religious stories and combine them to form a foundation. For example, an individualist can believe in a supreme god but view god in a pantheistic form rather than a supreme being. Individualism allows the believer to have more freedom in belief than most traditional organized religions.
Conclusion and My Story:
Belief, god, and religion have existed almost since the existence of modern day humans. The concept of God has changed drastically overtime in appearance and roles: from animals and fertility statues (early Neolithic practices) to personified human and/or animal like gods (Greek and Hindu gods) to imageless gods (Abrahamic god) and in some cases in pop culture, back to personified human like gods (Alanis Morrisette played god in Dogma and Morgan Freeman did the same in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty). The role of god has also expanded overtime. Early traces of religions in the Upper Paleolithic Revolution depicted animal like gods and fertility gods to address their basic biological necessities (food and reproduction). Then later on, organized religion maintained a sense of social conduct in the Neolithic era. As society advanced, god’s’ role expanded from dealing with food and reproduction to dealing with all sorts of human issues (agriculture, war, love, familial problems, etc.). Not only that but god was a major aid in answering impossible questions such as “Why does the sun rise everyday?” to “Where did we come from?” God and religion are still used for these purposes today.
The reason I came back to this topic after writing webpaper two was because I saw the evolution of religion in a different light. At first I compared it to biological evolution: selection pressures; speciation of religion; extinction of certain religions, etc. Now I see religion as a melting pot of different stories continuing story that will grow and diversify as societies grow and diversify. Whether one believes in a divine supernatural power and see god as truth or one sees religion and god as a social construct, there is no doubt that religion became complex as humans and societies became complex. The diversity of religions today represents not only the diversity of people but the diversity in people’s preferences and interpretations of different religious stories and literature. By understanding the history and evolution of god, belief, and religion, we can appreciate how humans have changed overtime and diversified in complexities of preferences and storytelling in general.
One thing I’ll give credit to Whitman for is that like him, I cannot understand God, as in I cannot understand the essence of God. I have only discussed the history and changes of god, belief, and religion in the context of the existence of them in our human world. I can’t even prove that god is real outside of earthly realm or that a certain religious story is correct. But here’s a portion of my story: its fine that I don’t, and I’m ok with knowing that maybe no one will. I appreciate the mystery of the divine and what I appreciate even more is the diversity of the stories that have existed, exits now, and will exist in humankind’s future. Whether it’s a cave painting of an animal or Morgan Freeman in a movie, I like seeing the different multitudes of god.
To be continued….
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