This blog’s discussion of God and religion is mostly concerned with the Abrahamic tradition, but not even with the whole Abrahamic tradition: no, the focus is on the Judeo-Christian tradition that is prevalent in North America, while giving Islam relatively short shrift. But let’s not ignore the other world religions completely before moving on, and let’s also not ignore Christian subsects like Mormonism and Christian Science that may be out of the Christian mainstream.
As you read the creation myths of some of the more recent religions — take the Book of Mormon, Scientology or the Course in Miracles as examples — they may seem pretty silly to those who are unfamiliar with them. But they are, in fact, no sillier and no more outlandish than the creation myths that infuse the Old and New Testament.
There are also some pretty silly things in the Bible that almost never get talked about. For example the Nephilim, which are either fallen, the offspring of humans and angels, the sons of the line of Seth, or sons of God who took ungodly wives. In any case, they are often depicted as giants, and they apparently existed before the flood but were wiped out by the flood. Unicorns are also mentioned several times in the Bible.
Why don’t we talk about these things more? Probably because they would detract from the view of the evangelicals that the Bible should be taken literally. And they don’t do much to advance Christian theology. But clearly these things are in the Bible, so one shouldn’t ignore them completely. Especially the half-men, half-Gods that roamed before the flood.
Hinduism is an ancient religion that isn’t well known in the West, and that seems to be particularly hard for Westerners to grasp. Like a lot of religions coming out of Asia, it is a combination of what Westerners traditionally think of religion and more of a philosophy or “way of life.” Some of the significant aspects of Hinduism include:
- It is arguably the oldest major religion in the world, having developed several thousand years before the arrival of Jesus Christ.
- There is no one common founder.
- There are diverse traditions which were synthesized into the current tradition.
- While there are a number of sacred texts, there is no founding sacred text or scripture, like the Bible or the Koran.
Many of the Westerners of my generation learned about Hinduism primarily through former Beatle George Harrison, who became converted in the mid-1960s, traveled to India to learn sitar from Ravi Shankar and learned meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, among other things. Harrison also popularized the “Hare Krishna Mantra“,
In Hinduism, Dharma is the moral law governing individual conduct or duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and “right way of living.” Some of the virtues that are involved in the right way of living include truthfulness, not injuring others, and generosity to others. Aside from the general rules, there are also specific rules that correspond to one’s class, status, and station in life.1
On the other hand, Artha involves the pursuit of wealth or material advantage, one of the four “traditional aims” in life. It involves questions like choice of a career, what kind of activities are necessary to make a living, and how to obtain financial security and economic prosperity.
Finally, Moksha involves the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (“Samsara“). Hindus believe in reincarnation, and view time as being much more cyclical, in opposition to the linear way that westerners tend to view time. This cycle continues indefinitely until we find a way to free ourselves from it.
Strictly speaking Hinduism is not really one single religion, but more of an umbrella term for interrelated and parallel religions that have substantial elements in common and which originate on the Indian subcontinent.3 The religion shows syncretic influences resulting from Aryans wandering over from Persia and mingling with the residents of the Indian subcontinent. There is an idea of an eternal cosmic order which in Hinduism is demonstrated in the hierarchy of gods and goddesses, each of whom expresses particular aspects of a single truth. There is additionally a great emphasis on ritual, and things being done in the right way at the right time to maintain the order of the universe. Society itself is ordered into four great classes, with some sense that light-skinned people being in the higher classes.4 Part of the task for people living in Hindu societies is to find their proper place within those societies. Hindus also see time as cyclical, with the Universe already having moved through three great cycles. At the same time they believe that there is a single universal reality (“Brahman”) and that this single reality must be integrated with the cyclical nature of time.
Unlike Hinduism, which has no founder, Buddhism has a very clear founder: Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, who was an Indian monk living in what is now the border region between India and Nepal around 500 years before Christ.5
Gautama is believed to have been born in the town of Lumbini in what his now Nepal, and to a royal family (the Shakya clan). According to the Buddhist traditions, Gautama was destined for the life of a king. Three palaces, occupied in different seasons, had been built for him. His father sheltered him from questions of religion, and in particular from knowledge of human suffering. At the age of 16, he was wed through an arranged marriage to one of his own cousins, and shortly thereafter his new wife bore him a son.
Legend has it that at the age of 29 he left the shelter of his palace to meet his subjects. Upon encountering an old man, a diseased man, and eventually a corpse, he was inspired to leave his palace and embark on the life of an ascetic. He learned meditation from two great teachers — each of whom asked him to succeed them — but the unsatisfied Gautama kept moving on, certain that he had not yet found what he was looking for.
The legend goes that after becoming starved and weakened from his ascetic wanderings, he is said to have accepted milk and rice pudding from a village girl. Following this, Gautama was seated under a pipal tree (now known as the “Bodhi” tree) where he vowed not to arise until he had found the truth. After 49 days of meditation, he came upon the Four Noble Truths, thereby attaining liberation from Samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth, suffering and dying again. In this conception, Nirvana is the extinguishing of the “fires” of desire, hatred, and ignorance, that keep the cycle of suffering and rebirth going. The four truths that Gautama arrived at include:
- The first truth, which is that suffering is an innate characteristic of existence;
- The second truth, which is that suffering is associated with craving, desire and attachment;
- The third truth, which is that suffering can be ended by eliminating craving, desire and attachment; and
- The final truth, which is the eightfold path that can be used to eliminate craving, desire and attachment.6
Eventually Gautama also discovered what Buddhists now recognize as the Middle Way, a way of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. The Middle Way also requires treading the Noble Eightfold Path, and like with Hinduism, it also leads to leading to liberation from samsara, the painful cycle of rebirth.
The Eightfold Path consists of eight practices:
- right view,
- right resolve,
- right speech,
- right conduct,
- right livelihood,
- right effort,
- right mindfulness, and
- right “samadhi” (a kind of “luminous mind” that comes from perfecting meditation).
What is significant, from a Western perspective, is that Buddhism is not a belief system that deals with God or the creation of the World. Like a lot of other religions having their origin in Asia, it is basically about the proper way to live life, and is more of a philosophical system than what Westerners traditionally regard as a religious system of belief. Buddhists do believe in reincarnation, and the ultimate aim of the religion is to break an individual out of the “cycle of suffering” when they manage to obtain a kind of perfection.
The Buddha lasted a remarkably long time for a man of that time. According to the legend, he wandered and preached for 45 years, until he was 80 years old, before finally succumbing to dysentery.
Initially, Buddhism took hold quite rapidly, especially in comparison to the slowly evolving Hinduism into which it was born. In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism has very few expressions of authority, it has very little ritual, it did not emerge from a longer tradition, it involved a lot of intense self-effort, and it was devoid of the supernatural.
Buddhism has expanded over the years to include approximately 520 million followers, spread out through parts of India, Nepal, China, Japan, and other southeast Asian nations. Like other major religions, it has divided into different schools of thought, also reflecting regional differences. Buddhism has attracted many adherents in the United States, Canada and Western Europe. The estimated number of followers in the United State is 3.5 million.
Taoism (or Daoism) is another ancient religion emanating from China. Like other Asian religions, it is also a tradition more concerned with a “way of life.” Some commentators consider it a philosophical system and some people consider it a religious tradition. Taoism does not have a precise beginning. It does, however, have:
- A “founder” of sorts in Laozi (also known as Lao Tzu or Lao-Tze)
- A founding text of sorts in the Tao Te Ching.
Laozi is a figure like Moses in the sense that scholars are not sure he ever existed, and if he did, he may be a composite of several historical figures. “Biographies” of the time — to the extent that they existed at all — are suffused with myth and legend, and were never meant to be read literally. In any case, the legend goes that Laozi, both seeking personal solitude and disappointed by his inability to motivate his followers more, climbed on a Buffalo and rode westward towards Tibet. At the Hankao Pass, a gatekeeper tried to get him to turn back. When Laozi refused the gatekeeper persuaded him to at least leave a record of his thoughts for the civilization that he was leaving behind. Laozi consented to this, retired for three days, and returned with a slim volume of 5000 characters, the Tao Te Ching, or “The Way and Its Powers.” In contrast to the Buddha, Laozi didn’t wander for years promoting his thoughts. Instead, as noted by Huston Smith in his mammoth volume on the World’s Religions, he “wrote a few pages on request, rode off on a water buffalo, and that was it as far as he was concerned.” 7
How “unlike the Buddha, who trudged the dusty roads of India for forty-five years to make his point.” Also how unlike Confucius who “pestered dukes and princes, trying to gain an administrative foothold” for his ideas.8
Taoism emphasizes living in harmony with the universe, or the “Tao.” Similar to Buddhism, the idea is to achieve a kind of perfection. Taoism is sometimes considered to function as a compliment to Confucianism. Legend has it that Laozi and Confucius met although, for various reasons, scholars doubt that this actually happened.
Similar to Buddhism and Confucianism, Taoism is not concerned with the conception of God or ideas about the creation of the world. It is concerned instead with the proper ordering of the World and the way to live in it in harmony with the rest of the Universe.
The third “way of life” religion, Confucianism is clearly anchored in the teachings of Confucius. Born approximately 550 years before Christ, Confucius was a kind of “civil servant,” considered by some to be the first “professional” teacher in China. Confucius was very concerned with issues of personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity.
Relative to other founders, we know a fair amount of “facts” about Confucius. We know, for example, that he was born in September of 551 BC in the district of Zou near present-day Qufu, China. We know that his father died at age 3 and that he was raised by his mother. We know that he demonstrated an early aptitude for an interest in learning, that he married at age 19 and had a child, and that he became very proficient in the “six arts” (rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics) that it was desirable to be a master of. We know that he served in what might be described as “ministerial” positions in local government managing stables and keeping books for granaries, and that he eventually became recognized as a brilliant teacher. We know that in 501 BC he was appointed the Governor of a local town; we know that he served first as a magistrate, and then as an assistant minister of public works, and eventually as minister of justice in the state of Lu while in his late 40s and early 50s; we know that he convinced the three local ruling families to tear down the walls that protected several towns through sheer diplomacy; we know that he went into exile after the truce he had brokered between the three families broke down; and we know that after wandering and teaching for many years, he was invited back home where he spent his last years teaching 72 disciples.
For Confucius, the primary function of education was to provide the proper way of training exemplary persons, a process that involved constant self-improvement and continuous social interaction. Confucius believed that public service was integral to true education; his principle teachings revolved around the “Five Classics,” consisting of the Classic of Changes (Ying or I-Ching), the Classic of History (Shujing), the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), a Collection of Rituals (Liju) and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqui). While it’s not clear that they were all authored by Confucius, he was certainly instrumental in their teaching and dissemination, and they have all been invoked as norms for Chinese society, law, government, education, literature, and religion.
Considered to be more of a philosophical system or “way of life” than a religion in the proper sense, Confucianism emphasizes the importance of the family and social harmony, rather than any interest in “otherworldly,” or spiritual values. Because it is primarily a values-based belief system, it can function alongside of and essentially in harmony with other more traditionally religious belief systems.
Shintoism is, in effect, the national religion of Japan. It is a polytheistic religion revolving around supernatural entities believed to inhabit the landscape. Sometimes considered to be the Japanese version of paganism, these entities (known as “Kami”) can be either benevolent or destructive, and must have their goodwill secured with offerings. Similar to Hinduism:
- There is no one founder.
- There is no scripture or founding text.
- There is no set dogma.
- There is no set hierarchy.
Traditionally, Japanese society was structured into clans of families, and the head of each clan was in charge of worshipping the clan’s particular “guardian” deity. There were major harvest festivals in both the spring and autumn, and the Gods ruled both aspects of nature as well as aspects of certain human behaviors. Shintoism is an animist religion; it does not emphasize any specific moral code, but is concerned with ritual purity, as well as reverence for the Gods.
“Kami” can include various Gods and Goddesses, as well as family ancestors and certain exceptional human beings. The Gods are not omnipotent, and are, in fact, fallible. Kami can respond to prayer and are believed to be able to influence human events.
Shintoism, which had essentially been a folk religion, took on more “definition” when Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th Century and began to “challenge” Shintoist beliefs. In response, the Japanese court sought to “consolidate” the religion, and by the 8th century the great Shinto texts, such as the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) and Nihon Shoki (“Continuing Chronicles of Japan”) were compiled.
Islam is, of course, the third of the great Abrahamic religions, following upon Judaism and Christianity. Islam was birthed through the prophet Muhammad, who is the only one of the great Abrahamic prophets about whom we have concrete, more or less verifiable information.9 Just to review:
- Jews do not believe in the deity of Jesus or the prophecy of Muhammad.
- Christians do believe in the Jewish prophets but not the prophecy of Muhammad.
- Muslims believe in both the Jewish prophets and in Jesus as another major prophet, but do not believe in the deity of Jesus.
Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 and died in Medina in 632. 10 What we do know about him is that Muhammad was born in Mecca to the Hashim clan, which was “middle class” by the standards of the day. He loses his father and mother early on, and is eventually raised by his uncle Abu Talib. At the approximate age of 25 he begins to be employed by a prosperous woman named Khadija to oversee the transportation of her merchandise to Syria. Khadija eventually becomes his first wife, securing him a fair amount of financial security.11
Muhammad lives a relatively comfortable life until the age of about 40, when, during what is essentially a meditation retreat in a cave in one of the surrounding mountains, Muhammad is confronted by what he believes to be the angel Gabriel, who orders him to “recite.” (The Qu’ran is generally translated into English as the “Recitation.”) For the next three years Muhammad continues to receive revelations, but mentions this only to Khadijah and her learned cousin. 12
The angel Gabriel finally commands him to begin to make the revelations public.13 This Muhammad begins to do, causing him to slowly gain followers in and around Mecca.14 But this also begins to cause tensions in his local community — where a variety of religious beliefs flourish — because of the proclamation that Allah is the only God, to the exclusion of all others.
Around 619 — when Muhammad would be about 49 — Khadija and Abu Talib, the uncle who raised him, both pass away. A new uncle succeeds the original uncle as the head of the Hashim clan, and withdraws his protection from Muhammad, making him vulnerable to those in Mecca who have come to oppose him.15 Muhammad manages to secure a pledge of protection from the town of Medina, and decides to move there. 16
For various reasons, sometime after Muhammad settles in Medina, conflict arises between the inhabitants of Mecca and Medina. On three occasions armed conflict erupts between the two sides, and on each occasion Muhammad’s forces are victorious.
In 628 Muhammad decides to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, which he and his followers are allowed to enter after concluding a treaty with the Meccans. When the Meccans refuse to honor the treaty in 630, he and his followers return to Mecca and subdue the town. Muhammad and his followers also conquer various other local towns, and by the time of his death two years later at age 62, Muhammad has essentially enshrined himself as a successful warlord in that region of the Arabian Peninsula. His fame — and his belief system — has spread in part because of the overwhelming success of his military campaigns.
Because Muhammad did not leave a clear line of succession, Islam subsequently split into two groups — those who followed Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib (the Shi’ites) and those who followed Muhammad’s friend and adviser Abu Bakr, who was essentially elected as the first “Caliph” (the Sunnis).
Unlike the split between Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and Protestantism, this split was not largely ideological — although ideological differences have of course arisen over the years — but a more struggle about succession. In a sense it was a struggle between charismatic leadership (the Shi’ites) and institutional leadership (the Sunnis). At this point, the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni (about 90%), whereas a minority of Muslims (about 10%) remain Shi-ites, living mostly in Iran and (ironically, given their history of conflict) Iraq.
The Quran, the holy text for Muslims was, according to Islamic belief, dictated by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad from 610 to his death in 632. The book is considered to be written in especially beautiful Arabic which, naturally enough, gets lost in translation. Structurally, the book is composed of chapters known as “surahs,” which are not chronological, but are generally arranged from the longest to the shortest chapters. The surahs themselves are subdivided into 6,236 verses. Many passages of the Qur’an are devoted to describing the judgment of God, through which he will consign each person to either paradise or hell. Other narratives center on biblical characters, such as the persons of Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Mary.
Muslims believe, among other things, that the previous prophetic narratives (represented in the Old and New Testament) had become distorted and that Muhammad’s function was to relay the “final” words of God. Muslims do not believe that the Quran annuls the previous scriptures, just that it completes them. As Reza Aslan writes in No God but God, Muhammad believed that Jews and the Christians were “People of the Book” and “spiritual cousins who, as opposed to the pagans and polytheists of Arabia, worshipped the same God, read the same scriptures, and shared the same moral values as his Muslim community.”
Islam famously contains “five pillars” on which Sunnis and Shi’ites largely agree, which are the acknowledged practices that all Muslims must perform. The five practices are (1) the profession of faith; (2) a very specific type of prayer known as “prostrations”; (3) almsgiving or charity; (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must make once in their lifetimes.
If the God of Abraham was a jealous God, then Allah of the Qu’ran is a jealous God on steroids. If you can’t worship other idols in the Judeo-Christian tradition, you really cannot worship other idols in the Islamic tradition. Although Judaism and Christianity already had monotheism, Islam essentially perfected it. Jewish monotheism was limited by the fact that the one God was only the God of the Jews; Christianity perverted monotheism by deifying Jesus and adding the Holy Spirit to the Holy Trinity; no such vagaries in Islam. There is nothing to detract from the one God ruling over all the people of the Earth.
Muslims share a number of ideas with Christians, and that includes a day of judgment by God, and the notion that in the afterlife souls will be sorted by God to go either to heaven or hell. However, the path to heaven, unlike in Christianity, is not a matter of belief; instead, it is based on your actions in this life, and whether your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds. Allah will be the judge of that.
Muslim theology also runs into some of the same conflicts as Christian theology when the notion of an “all merciful” God runs up against a judgmental, petty and jealous God, whose decision on judgment day may or may not be fair. Islam does not, however, believe in the concept of original sin.
Sikhism is a relative recent religion, based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru (1469–1539), and is for all practical purposes an offshoot from Hinduism. Nanak’s parents were both Hindu Khatris and employed as merchants in the Punjab region of India, where Nanak was born. According to Sikh tradition, Nanak demonstrated a “divine grace” early in his life, and early on astonished his teachers with his understanding of implicit symbolism and other “spiritual” topics. As a young man, Nanak married and had two sons. In his mid-twenties Nanak began to go on long journeys for spiritual pursuits; allegedly he visited Tibet, most of South Asia and Arabia. In 1496, at the age of 27, he left his family for a thirty-year period to continue his travels.17
Accord to legend, Nanak had become disillusioned with the Hindu religion that surrounded him and concerned about the Muslim religion that was making greater and greater inroads into the Punjab. There were evident conflicts between Hindu and Muslim beliefs that were impossible to resolve. In addition, Nanak considered the Hindu emphasis on ritual, pilgrimage, and reverence for prophets as detracting from the direct relationship with God.
In his mid 50s, Nanak returned to his family, by which time he had formulated the fundamentals of his new belief and acquired a number of followers. These fundamentals include faith and meditation on the name of the one creator, unity of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood while living a “householder’s life.”
After Guru Nanak there was a succession of nine other gurus from 1539 through 1708, until the last guru (Guru Gobind Singh) put an end to the line of succession. Instead he took the principal Sikh text (the Adi Granth), to which the previous nine gurus had all made contributions, and converted it to a “living guru” (even though it remains a document). 18 consequently, this sacred text can no longer be revised.
In general, a Sikh is required to undertake the following observances and practices on a daily basis:
- Wake up very early in the morning.
- Bathe and cleanse the body.
- Cleanse the mind by meditating on God.
- Address their responsibilities within the family.
- Attend to a work or study routine (and earn a living by earnest means).
- Undertake to help the less well off.
- Exercise their responsibilities to the community.
In addition, a Sikh is always supposed to wear an enumerated set of garments and objects.
Being a minority religion in an area of the World dominated by Hindus and Muslims has made the Sikhs the target of a fair amount of persecution.
Mormonism is the religion founded by Joseph Smith, which is now centered in Salt Lake City Utah. It’s adherents consider the Book of Mormon to be the third Holy Book after the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Born in Vermont in 1805, Joseph Smith moved to western New York during the period of the Second Great Awakening. At the age of 18, having already experienced a number of visions, Smith claimed that an angel came to him and told him of a buried set of golden plates inscribed with the history of an ancient American civilization. He subsequently claimed to have found the plates, translated them, and published them in English as the Book of Mormon.19 Smith further claimed that the last prophet to contribute to the book, a man named Moroni, buried the plates at Cumorah Hill, and that an angel later revealed the location of the plates to Smith. The Angel also instructed Smith to translate the plates into English for use in the restoration of Christ’s true church in the “latter days” (which is the genesis of the name of the church). 20
The account in the Book of Mormon begins in ancient Jerusalem around 600 years before the birth of Christ. The story involves a man named Lehi who, with his family and several others, are led by God from Jerusalem across the Arabian Peninsula, and then sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the promised land, the Americas. After arriving in the New World, these growing community split into two main groups, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites, that frequently came into conflict with each other.21
Perhaps the pivotal chapter in the book of Mormon contains an account of a visit by Jesus Christ, descending from heaven to the Americas sometime after his resurrection and ascension.
The Book of Mormon propagates the notion of are American exceptionalism, where the Americas are portrayed as a “land of promise” in which any righteous society possessing the land would be protected.
It should also be noted that the Latter-Day Saints Movement is not just represented by one church. Depending on how one counts, there are approximately a dozen churches that were birthed by the Latter Day Saints22 movements, but the Mormon church is by far the largest of these. The LDS movement itself emerged from Restorationism, a movement to restore Christianity back to its “apostolic” roots (or a kind of reboot of Protestantism, if you will).
One unresolved controversy around the Book of Mormon is whether Joseph Smith pilfered portions of it from an unfinished novel written by a man named Solomon Spalding. There have been several studies done relative to the style of writing from the novel and from the writing that Joseph Smith did, although the studies were inconclusive. Part of the problem is that Smith himself used scribe and co-authors for his writing, that it’s difficult to clearly identify Smith’s personal style of writing.
There is also an issue with the “lost 116 pages,” which were apparently lost by Smith’s scribe, Martin Harris. These 116 pages were alleged to be the translation of the Book of Lehi, and represented the first portion of the Golden Plates. Smith did not retranslate those pages, but published the Book with an “abridgement” of those pages.
Greek and Roman Mythology
Most of us remember Greek and Roman mythology from high school, which is probably where most of us first learned about it. Greek and Roman mythology are also, by and large, the “pagan” beliefs that the Christian belief initially replaced. The twelve principal Greek gods resided on Mount Olympus under the watchful eye of Zeus. The Greek Gods had many fantastic abilities; most significantly, they are essentially immortal, immune to disease, and can be wounded only under highly unusual circumstances. Each god had an identifiable genealogy, had a specific area of expertise, and were generally associated with specific aspects of life. For example, Aphrodite was the goddess of love and beauty, Ares was the god of war, Hades the ruler of the underworld, and Athena the goddess of wisdom and courage.
The Romans had their own mythology, onto which they grafted much of Greek mythology, creating many parallels between Gods, such as Zeus with Jupiter, or Poseidon with Neptune, or Artemis with Diana.23 Some of the more minor gods do not have parallels between Greek and Roman culture. Both Greek and Roman mythology include creation methods explaining how the world came into being. Adoption of the Greek gods by the Romans seems to have occurred around the second century BCE.
Not many people currently believe in the Gods or Greek or Roman mythology, although in this century, everything which was old must become new again. There has been a recent revival of Hellenism, especially in Greece, where it legally recognized as a “known religion” in 2017. That official status allows practitioners the freedom to open houses of worship and to officiate weddings, among other things. Recently the BBC profiled a few of the people who were reviving old pagan festivals in Greece based on the pantheon of Gods. Some of these practitioners consider Greece “to be a country under Christian occupation.” As of 2005, there were estimated to be about 2000 followers of Hellenism in Greece, compared to the 98% of the population that consider themselves to be Orthodox Christian.
Neopaganism is essentially a revival of paganism, which itself is really an umbrella term coined by early Christians to distinguish themselves from the various polytheistic religions that were popular throughout the Roman empire, and northern Europe. Neopaganism is often classified as a “new thought religious movement,” or a “new age” religious movement. Definitions associated with these kind of belief systems are not “precise,” and often lead to disputes between scholars on the meaning of various terms. In general one can say that neopaganism is derived primarily from the historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe. Adherents rely on pre-Christian, folkloric and ethnographic sources to a substantial degree. Wicca is one of the prominent branches of the neopagan movement.
Neopaganism is also not a long-standing continuation of earlier paganism. In other words, it is not generally a movement that sustained itself over centuries and evolved into what it is now. Instead it really came back to life fairly abruptly, aided primarily by Gerald Gardner and Oberon Zell-Ravenheart. Gerald Gardner (June 13, 1884 – February 12, 1964), an English author and amateur anthropologist, became interested in Wicca after meeting members of the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, a quasi-mystical group that Gardner encountered in the Christchurch area of England. He founded his own branch or Wicca in 1962. Shortly on his heels was Oberon Zell-Ravenheart founded the Church of All Worlds, another branch of Wicca, in 1962 in the United States.2
Theological views within Wicca are diverse, and can embrace theists, atheists, and agnostics. However, most Wiccans are duotheists, which means that they believe in two Gods. These are a Horned male God of fertility and a female Mother Goddess, and it was this duotheistic Horned God/Mother Goddess structure that was embraced by Gardner (sometimes also known as the “Lord” and “Lady.”) The Lady is represented in her three stages by the maiden, mother and crone; the Lord is alternately her consort or her offspring.
Most Wicca traditions also hold a belief in the five classical elements, which are air, fire, water, earth, and spirit. These elements factor prominently into Wicca ceremonies, which also closely follow the cycle of the seasons. The primary festivals are the four solstices corresponding with the beginning of winter, spring, summer and fall. There are also the equinoxes — the days when daytime and nighttime are of essentially equal duration — and the other days that fall between the solstices.
Spiritualism and Spiritism
Although close cousins, Spiritualism and Spiritism are not the same thing. Both are however concerned with contacting the departed. The precursor to spiritualism can be found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) and Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) sparked early interest in spiritualism. Swedenborg claimed to be able to communicate with spirits while awake, described and described spirits as intermediates between God and humans. Mesmer’s contribution was primarily the introduction of hypnotism into the process of communicating with spirits. Spiritualism in the United States emerged from the same “Burned-over District” in Western New York that also produced Mormonism during the “Second Great Awakening.” The movement got a substantial boost from the Fox Sisters, three sisters from Hydesville New York who claimed that they were able to communicate with spirits through “rapping.” The two younger sisters became very successful mediums, with the older sister managing their careers. One of the sisters subsequently confessed that their whole act had been a fraud, but — as these things are wont to go — it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of believers for the notion that one could make contacts with the spirits of the dead.
Spiritism was a specific branch of spiritualism, founded by a French educator with the pen name of Allan Kardec, who eventually published a set of books known as the Spiritist Codification. Spiritism differs from Spiritualism primarily in that it added reincarnation to the mix of beliefs. A little bit like in some of the Eastern traditions, Spiritism established a cycle of reincarnation, where spirits recycle until they have achieved “perfection.” Spiritism also posits the notion of gradations in the afterlife between the polar extremes of heaven and hell.
Spiritism became very popular in Latin America and especially in Brazil. It is the environment that birthed “John of God” who, with the assistance of Oprah Winfrey, became something of a sensation in the United States.
Blavatsky was born into an aristocratic family in what is now Ukraine, Blavatsky began traveling widely throughout Europe, the Americas and even India at the age of 18. She developed an intense interest in Western esotericism, and claims that she met a group of “spiritual adepts” (sometimes identified as the Great White Brotherhood), who sent her to Tibet, where they trained her to develop a deeper understanding of the synthesis of religion, philosophy and science. 24 By the early 1870s, Blavatsky was involved in the Spiritualist movement, and in 1873 she emigrated to the United States. Here, she rose to public attention as a “spirit medium.”
Theosophy was established in 1875 in New York City, when Blavatsky, Henry Olcott and William Quan Judge founded the Theosophical Society 25 Blavatsky wrote two books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, in which she explained her ideas. Divided into two parts, “Isis Unveiled” discussed occult science and the hidden and unknown forces of nature, including psychic phenomena, while the second volume discusses the similarity of Christian scripture to Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The book argues that all religions emanate from the same common source. The “Secret Doctrine” attempted to reconcile ancient eastern wisdom with modern science.
The Theosophical Society still exists, and while it’s unclear how many people are still members or still believe in Theosophy since the society’s heyday in 1920s, the movement has been instrumental in spawning other movements, such as Anthroposophy.26, or Elizabeth Claire Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant. 27
Blavatsky is believed to have influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West as well as the development of the Western esotericism that eventually became the foundation for the New Age Movement. However, Theosophy always had a complicated relationship with mainstream Christianity. The conflict surely was not helped by Blavatsky printing in the Society’s magazine an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which she claimed to prove that “in almost every point the doctrines of the churches and the practices of Christians are in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus.” In addition, she believed Jesus to be the equal of, but not necessarily superior to the Buddha, which grated on a lot of Christian nerves.
Finally, it should be noted that Blavatsky was repeatedly accused of fraud, especially in her supposed mediumship.
Christian Science is the religious denomination founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879. The foundational text for Christian Science is the treatise Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, authored by Eddy in 1875, ironically the same year that Helena Blavatsky created the Theosophical Society (see above).
Raised in a Calvinist household, Mary Baker Eddy began to be interested in alternative forms of healing, and in particular in homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and the therapeutic techniques of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a charismatic healer from Maine.
In February of 1866, Eddy slipped and fell on the ice while walking, injuring her spine. She claimed that on the third day after her injury she opened her Bible to Matthew, 9:228, which caused her injury to be healed almost instantly. Subsequently, Eddy had further experiences of healing, which strengthened her belief that healing was grounded in faith.29
Eddy began to attract a small following in her community around Lynn, Massachusetts. Finally, in 1879, Eddy and a small group of followers founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, with the express aim of reinstating ” primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” By 1881 Eddy had chartered the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, and within the next decade the movement began to grow, largely through the healing work performed by students of her College. By 1895 the Church had been restructured through the publication of Eddy’s Manual of The Mother Church, which mostly establish the rules of governance for her new church.
While there are other theological differences between them and mainstream churches, Christian Scientists are, of course, primarily known for their belief in faith healing, a belief that has frequently led to clashes with the medical and legal establishments. The legal issues have arisen primarily when the Christian Scientist parents of a sick child have been accused of neglect for failing to provide basic medical care to their children.
A good example of the kind of conflicts that arose between Christian science and the secular state, would be the 1993 case of Commonwealth v. Twitchell, 416 Mass. 114. This case involved a seriously ill 2½ child that eventually died of the consequences of peritonitis, caused by the perforation of his bowel. There was evidence that the condition could be corrected by surgery “with a high success rate.” The Supreme Judicial Court opined that the parents had a common law duty to seek medical treatment for their child. Their failure to get proper medical treatment was “wanton or reckless” and sufficient to support a conviction of involuntary manslaughter after the child died from its illness. 30
Christian Science is not a large movement — with an estimated 400,000 church members worldwide as of 2010 — but it has had an outsized influence in comparison to its numbers. It is one of the few movements that began in mid-19th Century America that has retained its relevance, and that serves as an example of the revitalization of “primitive” Christianity.
Depending on your point of view, Scientology is either a religion or a cult, and arguably has elements of both. Founded by the former science-fiction writer Lafayette Ronald (L. Ron) Hubbard (1911-1986), the movement encompasses anywhere from 50,000 to 4 million adherents, depending on whom you believe.
Hubbard authored the foundational text for Scientology — Dianetics: the Modern Science for Mental Health — in 1950. The church itself was not incorporated until 1954.
Hubbard attended (but did not graduate from) George Washington University from 1930 through 1932 and married in 1933. He began his career as a novelist and writer of westerns, horror fiction, and science fiction books. He went on to serve in the Navy during World War II, ending the war as a patient at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California. While there he began a personal quest for a “science of the mind.”
Scientology’s creation myth involves an ancient galactic confederacy, existing 75 million years ago, consisting of 26 stars and 76 planets including Earth, which was then known as “Teegeeack.” The whole confederacy was vastly overpopulated. The emperor of this confederacy (“Xenu“), fearing being deposed by a rebellion within his ranks, gathered billions of his subjects with the assistance with the assistance of psychiatrists31, paralyzed and froze them, and transported them to Earth, where they were placed around the bases of volcanoes throughout the planet. Hydrogen bombs were then set off simultaneously inside these volcanoes, where almost all of the aliens were killed. Now, the immortal spirits (“thetans”) of these disembodied aliens adhere to humans, causing spiritual harm. Disentangling these spirits from their human hosts is part of the objective of Scientology.
This creation myth narrative was probably written by Hubbard in 1966 or 1967, and he claimed subsequently that he discovered the creation myth (known as Operating Thetan Level) through his own strenuous efforts, efforts that almost killed him.32 Elements of the Xenu legend appeared in Scientology were put forward as early as 1950 in Hubbard’s book “Have You Lived Before This Life?”
The narrative is also considered a sacred and esoteric teaching, which is normally only revealed to highly advanced practitioners. The Church tries to keep this creation myth from pubic knowledge, and has actually gone to court to enforce this secrecy through copyright and trademark infringement actions.
Eventually Hubbard apparently came to the conclusion that under normal conditions, the human mind operates analytically, and is able to make “survival-oriented judgments,” but that under stress, the “reactive” mind takes over, storing detailed mental images of traumatic events known as “engrams.” A later encounter with these engrams may lead to counterproductive responses. The process of Dianetics then involves helping people to bring engrams to their consciousness, where they can be confronted and eliminated. To do this, Hubbard developed a process known as auditing, which involves a one-on-one session with a counselor who is expert in the handling of engrams. Among other things, the counselor may use an “E-meter,” device for measuring the electrodermal activity (which is the same kind of activity measured by a lie-detector). According to church teachings, E-meter readings indicate changes in emotional states that allow the identification of stored engrams. In Dianetics the goal was to rid the mind of engrams; individuals are believed to have reached a major goal when they became “clear” of engrams.
Needless to say, there has been a sharp difference of opinion about these theories between the believers of Scientology and the medical establishment. Each view each other with suspicion and disdain. The American Psychiatric Association in particular has accused the church of “practicing medicine without a license.”
Finally, it’s never a good sign when your family rats you out as the leader of a religious group. This is something that the spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen knows well after his own mother denounced him in “Mother of God,” her memoir of being his disciple. Well David Miscavige, the current leader of the church was denounced not by one but by two relatives: his own father, Ron, in the book Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me, as well as his niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, in her book Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape. These two, and other ex-members (such as the actress Leah Remini) have testified in detail to the cult-like aspects of Scientology.
The Course in Miracles
Some may wonder why I am including a Course in Miracles as a separate “religion” in this section. The Foundational text has, at last count, been published in 22 language and sold about 1.5 million copies.33 I include it here for several reasons:
- The story of its creation as very interesting parallels to the story of the creation of the Qur’an.
- The 1.5 million adherents of the Course in Miracles is not an insignificant number.
- It’s a good example of the intersection between “new thought” religious beliefs and traditional Christianity.
- Marianne Williamson, who ran for President of the United States in the 2020 cycle, is one of its primary advocates.
- It’s the natural segue for my discussion on beliefs about the New Age and personal growth.
A Course in Miracles has been described variously as “Christianity improved.” Certainly the Jesus who is revealed in the Course is far kinder than the Jesus of the New Testament, wanting less suffering, sacrifice, separation, and sacrament, and more love and forgiveness.
The creation myth for the Course in Miracles (or “ACIM”) involves two unlikely starring personalities, Helen Schucman, a Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University in New York, and William Thetford, one of her medical school colleagues and effectively her boss. The ACIM literature emphasizes that Schucman — both of whose parents were non-observing half-Jews — was an atheist at the time of the experience that was the genesis for the course.34 Thetford was a professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, during which time he also served as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where he first met Helen Schucman, hiring her as a research psychologist and assistant.
In 1965, while at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City Schucman began experiencing visions, dreams, and heightened imagery, along with an “inner voice” which she identified as Jesus Christ. On October 21, 1965, that inner voice told her: “This is a Course in Miracles, please take notes.” (Again, this is very reminiscent of the Angel Gabriel coming to Muhammad and commanding him to “recite”.) Schucman began to write down the dictations that she received from the inner voice. Although she claimed that the writing made her “very uncomfortable,” it never seriously occurred to her to stop. She soon began to explain her process to Thetford, her colleague, and the man who had hired her.
Schucman and Thetford famously had a rather difficult relationship, which is a part of the creation story for the Course. Somewhat to her surprise, Thetford encouraged Schucman to continue to listen to this inner voice, and soon began to collaborate with her in the transcriptions. That is a process that continued until 1972, by which time the core sections of the Course had completed. Because of her intensely bifurcated feelings about the transcriptions, Thetford apparently provided her with a lot of reassurance, and took the lead in creating the actual physical transcriptions of the voice.
Part of the conceit of the Course is that the entire of existence as we know it is illusory, but only a reflection of the one God. It posits that eternity is outside time and space and that our perception of reality (known as “the Dream”) is “already over.” There are some parallels in the Course with the Indian concept of karma and the Bhagavad Gita, which Helen Schucman reports that she was not familiar with, although William Thetford was. There are also similarities with Theosophy, Anthrosophy, Christian Science, and the Gnostic gospels (see above).
It took the course a while to get traction, but it found fans in Kenneth Wapnick, among others, and his editing and publishing assistance got the book into print on 1975. It percolated along for a while, building a small but steady audience, until it got a big boost from Oprah Winfrey prodigy (and 2020 US Presidential Candidate) Marianne Williamson, whose 1992 book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of the Course in Miracles, was a surprise New York Times bestseller. Williamson wrote her most famous quote in this book, which is often misattributed to Nelson Mandela:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
The book came to the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who promoted it heavily, bought 1,000 copies, and encouraged her audience to purchase it. “I have never been more moved by a book than I am by this one,” Winfrey reportedly said about it at the time.
Another popular interpretation of the Course is Gary Renard’s The Disappearance of the Universe, which is another volume where an unsuspecting person starts to hear voices, or in Renard’s case, is visited from time to time by two “ascended masters” who just “appear” in his living room in a remote cabin in Maine. They engage in a dialog with the author from December of 1992 through December of 2001, and identify themselves as once having been Saint Thaddeus and Saint Thomas in previous lifetimes. The central conceit in this book is that one of these ascended masters, in one of his various lifetimes, is actually Gary Renard himself in a future reincarnation. The book is an interesting read, for a while, and synchronizes a number of other traditions with those of Jesus Christ.
- “Dharma” also has different and separate meanings in Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
- Technically, Kama is the god of erotic love and pleasure, the “firstborn of the primeval Chaos that makes all creation possible.”
- The term “Hindu” has historically been used as a geographical, cultural, and later religious identifier for people living in the Indian subcontinent around or beyond the Sindhu (Indus) river. It eventually began to be used to refer to residents of the subcontinent who were not Turkic or Muslims.
- In general, the Indian caste system is also based on occupation, and includes Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (workers).
- The Buddha did not write his own biography, and the various texts reporting on his life are not in agreement about many of the “facts” of his life. No written records about the Buddha were created during his lifetime, and the earliest records than can be found are from one or two centuries thereafter.
- As with all discussions in this section, all of these explanations are substantial oversimplifcations of the theology of these other religions.
- The Tao te Ching should not be confused with the I Ching. The first is the text attributed to Laozi, while the latter is an ancient Chinese divination text that uses a type of divination called cleromancy.
- As Smith further notes, scholars “do not see the Tao Te Ching as having been written by a single hand and do not think it attained the form in which we have it until the second half of the third century B.C.” Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions, Revised and Updated.
- This biographical information does not appear in the Qur’an, but in other biographical works, especially Sirat Muhammad rasul Allah (“Life of Muhammad, the Messenger of God”)
- There is no reason to believe that Muhammad ever made it to Jerusalem, which is almost 1300 km from Medina, making the claim that he ascended to heaven from Jerusalem highly doubtful.
- Khadija is known to be substantially older than Muhammad when they marry, which is a bit unusual in that time and day. After her death Muhammad does take a number of younger wives.
- Part of what is interesting about the appearance of the angel Gabriel is that while Judaism and Christianity were not completely unknown on the Arabian Peninsula at the time, the prevailing religion was what Huston Smith has described as “an animistic polytheism.”
- Muhammad himself does not transcribe the recitations, but memorizes them instead. These, in turn are memorized by his followers, who eventually begin to write them down.
- Part of what makes Muslims believe in the divinity of the Qu’ran is that this is grammatically perfect and poetic document without peer was produced by a man, in Muhammad, who was essentially illiterate.
- Huston Smith identifies three reasons why Muhammad’s preaching did not receive a welcome reception in Mecca: (1) its uncompromising monotheism threatened polytheistic beliefs (and the considerable revenue that was coming to Mecca from pilgrimages to its 360 shrines, one for every day of the lunar year; (2) its moral teachings required that the citizens of Mecca engage in much better behavior; and (3) it challenged an unjust order.
- On Google maps, Medina is located about 450 km away from Mecca, so that begs the question of how Muhammad secured a pledge of protection from a town that was so far away.
- Exactly where he traveled to and how far he traveled is a matter of dispute. As with all documentation based in mythology, one cannot take the claims in them too literally.
- In other words, it would be a little like taking the Bible and making it the “final” prophet.
- Smith claimed that these Golden plates were originally written in “reformed Egyptian.”
- There is, naturally enough, no evidence that Smith had the capacity to translate any kind of Egyptian, reformed or otherwise. He claims that he did so with the aid of special stones known as “interpreters” although, again, it’s unclear how stones, no matter how special, could help someone translate Egyptian (which was, after all, a hieroglyphical language) into English. In addition, fitting the entire 588 page Book of Mormon on golden plates, would have made for a very heavy collection of plates.
- Of the two groups, the Lamanites forgot their beliefs, became heathens, and were the ancestors of the American Indians. The Nephites, on the other hand, developed culturally and built great cities, but were eventually destroyed by the Lamanites around 400 years after the birth of Christ. There were also to other tribes described in the Book, the Jaredites and the Mulekites, but these play a lesser role in the Book’s narrative. In any case, by the time Westerners arrive in North America, according to the Book, it is only the heathen Lamanites who are left over from the original migrations.
- The term “Latter Day Saints” is derived from the belief that all members of the church are “saints,” but the term distinguishes them from the Biblical saints.
- The major gods and goddesses of the Greek myths are: Zeus, Poseidon, Hestia, Hermes, Hera, Haphaestus, Hades, Dionysus, Demeter, Athena, Artemis, Ares, Apollo and Aphrodite. For their Roman counterparts, they are named Jupiter, Neptune, Vesta, Mercury, Juno, Vulcan, Pluto, Liber, Ceres, Minerva, Diana, Mars, Apollo and Venus.
- A number of skeptics do not believe that she ever made it to Tibet, or to India, but that Blavatsky spent her “traveling” years mostly in Europe.
- In the early 1880s, Blavatsky and Olcott relocated to India, where they established the Society’s headquarters
- The ideas in Anthroposophy were formulated by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who postulated the existence of a spiritual world that is accessible to human beings, and the access to which can be developed and enhanced through practice.
- The Church Universal and Triumphant is another syncretistic church trying to harmonize Christianity with Buddhism, Western esotericism. In general, Western esotericism posits a universal, secret, tradition, and enchanted world view, and makes claims to higher knowledge that have been rejected by other traditions.
- And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”
- Mary Baker Eddy did file a legal claim against the city of Lynn, however, where the injury took place, although that may have been at the behest of her husband.
- However, the parents conviction was nevertheless reversed because of an arguably misleading opinion of the Attorney General that was excerpted in certain Christian Science literature, and which could have led a jury to conclude that the parents reasonably believed that they could rely on spiritual treatment without incurring criminal liability, and the parents were not allowed to present that defense at trial.
- This may explain some of Scientology’s historic opposition to and suspicion of psychiatry.
- People who worked with him at the time claim that he was abusing alcohol and drugs in a very serious way, and that it was important for Hubbard to represent his efforts as a “research accomplishment of immense magnitude” in order to cover for the condition that he was in.
- On Amazon, the Course in Miracles ranks at #19,619 for books purchased through the Kindle Store overall, and at #39 in the category of “Spiritual Growth Self-Help” books.
- In point of fact, Schucman’s mother Rose dabbled in Theosophy and Christian Science, among other esoteric traditions. In 1921, when she was 12, Schucman visited Lourdes, France, where she had some kind of spiritual experience that eventually led to her being baptized in 1922.