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nutshell guides: WESTERN RELIGIONS

Nobody really knows when religion started, but academics generally agree that when it did start, it was a wide-ranging polytheistic (many gods) system embracing all the aspects of life as experienced by ancient civilizations.

Now, when I say ancient, I mean ancient - Sumerians. Phoenicians. Egyptians. Persians. Greeks. Romans.

That's ancient!

The three major monotheistic (one god) religions now in existence developed out of otherwise polythestic civilizations.

The Hebrew religion, Judaism, developed during a period in which the entire Hebrew society was enslaved in Egypt.

The Christian religion, Christianity, developed during a period in which the entire Hebrew society was being oppressed by the Roman Empire.

The Muslim religion, Islam, developed during a period of chaos in Persia after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

While we tend to think of these as the only monotheistic systems, there have been many others that were either incorporated into or wiped out by the others, Christianity and Islam especially being participant in this kind of thing as radical offshoots arose to challenge their central religious authority.

But that's neither here nor there. Let's get back to the ancients!

In the ancient times, religion developed out of a few different needs. First, and perhaps foremost, every civilization needs a leadership cadre made up of people who inspire and/or awe the rest of the population. In ancient times, this cadre was almost always a group that purported to know more - to have more information - than the majority of the population. Many times, the threat of force or violence was the 'awe' part, but the 'inspire' part fell behind.

Put on your thinking cap and set it to 'way back'. Nice & snug? Good.

Imagine you are, say, a poor Egyptian farmer. You struggle day in and day out to scratch food from the unforgiving earth. Once a year or so, the river rises, and everything around you floods! You have to leave your home, retreat to safety, and continue scratching. Then the waters recede, you return home, and - it's a miracle! No scratching for a while! The receding waters have left a new earth, rich with soil that practically begs for food production.

Why? you cry out to the sky! Eventually, you decide it doesn't matter why - it just is. There must be some reason though - the water. The water...always the water. It brings to you and the earth your ability to sustain life! Surely that must be divine! You find yourself inspired to work as hard as you can, to produce as much as you can, to take advantage of this great, divine gift the water and earth have brought you.

It's not much of a leap to get from 'water' and 'earth' to the divinification of 'Water' and 'Earth', and thence to 'Water God' and 'Earth God' - especially when the smart people in your society are telling you 'worship the Water God and the Earth God so that our people may harvest richly and prosper!'

For Egyptians, Osiris the Water God and Geb the Earth God were just the beginning. Nut (the Sky Goddess) was Geb's husband, and she was powerful enough to daily swallow the sun (birthed by Shu every morning), who began as Khepri, became Ra, and succumbed to dusk as Horus.

Obviously, these days we would find such things silly. Why? Because we have science - we know why the river floods, why the food grows from the earth, why the sun rises & sets - and many other things. The Egyptians had gods and goddesses for everything from Life to Death, and everything in-between.

So did the Greeks - and the Romans. To a certain extent, each polytheistic religion built on the others, and the Romans were perhaps the best at this. As they conquered a new civilization, instead of eliminating its pantheon of gods, they simply assimilated it - changed the names of the conquered gods they had an equivalent for and brought on in the ones that they didn't already have. Simple.

Religion was, for the ancients, a way to understand nature and - more importantly, a way to assuage the common, everyday fear of what tomorrow may (or may not) bring. In short - religion gave the population hope in the face of fear, no matter how inconsequential or silly that fear might seem to us today.

Here's where it starts to become what we understand, so pay attention.

Each polytheistic religion had its primary god. Zeus for the Greeks, Ra for the Egyptians, Jupiter for the Romans, and so on. The primary god had everything to do with that civilizations' creation myth (how the earth & its inhabitants came to be). The other gods (usually) cower in fear of the primary god, for he (and in the ancient civs the primary is always a 'he') might turn on them at any time.

The populations lived somewhat in fear of their gods as well, but kept the hope that through festival, sacrifice, and worship, their gods would continue to smile on them, granting them prosperity and long life. Hope.

The first monotheistic religion 'on record' is Judaism, whose adherents are referred to as Jewish or Jews. Their god is YHWH - although you might better recognize his name as Yahweh or Jehovah. Jews consider it improper to fully spell out the name of their god. YHWH spawned the earth, imbued humanity with free will, and bade man to become caretaker of everything he saw around him. He sent his prophets to earth to carry his message to the people, prophets like Abraham, Isaiah, and especially Moses, who was as close to a human god as Jews have ever had in their history.

Speaking of which, there's an aspect of ancient polytheism that carried forward to modern monotheism - the idea that a human could be nearly (or completely) divine, and therefore ascend to become a god him(her)self. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad were all revered as either semi- or fully divine.

So because of Moses' near-divinity, the Jews had their leader. Moses attained this level in Hebrew civilization because of his closeness to and communication with YHWH as well as his inspired leadership in bringing the Jews (well, 12 tribes of them anyway) out of slavery and into their own, leading them to Palestine where they built their capital, Jerusalem. In time, the Jews came to believe that YHWH was the One True God and Moses was the most recent in a string of his representatives on Earth.

Next comes Christianity, built up around the teachings of a very radical Zealot Jew named Jesus. Now, I'm saying Jesus was a Zealot because his parents were from Galilee, a city that was itself a bastion of Jewish Zealots. Zealots then were simply one of four major groups of Jews, which included Essenes, Sadduccees, and Pharisees as well. The Zealots were basically Rome-haters, advocating a violent uprising against Rome. All four groups were fully and completely Jewish, though each held onto worship and belief variants.

Amongst the Zealots, Jesus was a radical because he taught things like peace, love, and humility. I know - the guy was obviously certifiable! Because Jesus was such a disruption amongst the Zealots, and the Zealots were eager to get the Romans off their backs (because the Zealots themselves were a disruption to the Romans), some Jews betrayed Jesus, giving him up to the Romans as the cause of all their problems. Jesus was executed by the Romans, and Christianity was born.

Well, because Jesus was believed to be divine, that is, the embodiment of YHWH on earth, a good chunk of Jews who already thought he was the Messiah (anointed one) now had a martyr to believe in. See, Jesus had built up quite a following, and they believed that YHWH was the One True God and Jesus was not only his representative on earth, but indeed his son.

Those of you that follow the various development of Islam know they put a lot of stock into martyrs, and religiously speaking they are no different than ANY OTHER RELIGION in that respect!

Really quickly - what's the difference between Judaism and Christianity?? The core difference is that Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah and is going to return to earth some day. Jews believe that Jesus was NOT the Messiah and that someday their Messiah will come. There are a lot of little differences, but that's the main thing.

A middle-aged guy named Mohammed, who was undergoing a crisis of conscience, began to have a series of visions which he believed to be the teachings of God, whom he called Allah, through the angel Gabriel. Mohammed began relating these teachings and visions to those around him, and with some initial difficulty, he soon had built up quite a following, all adhering to the belief that Allah was the One True God and Mohammed was his representative on earth.

YHWH, God, or Allah - pick your god. Jupiter, Zeus, or Ra - pick your god.

Ancients developed religion because they were afraid and needed a way to explain the things they did not understand, like why the sun rises & sets or why apples grow on trees.

Moderns had the benefit of rudimentary science to begin explaining many of those things, and therefore they lost their fear of them - and with it, their necessity to believe those things were divine in & of themselves. However, now they found themselves faced with another dilemma - what in the heck created the things that they no longer feared?

YHWH, God, or Allah - take your pick!

Monotheistic religions are no different than polytheistic ones - they're just what we have around today to give people hope and assuage their fears of the unknown.