By Pete Haug
Origins of religion are murky. They predate historical evidence by millennia. For example, the earliest known human burial, a possible sign of religious belief, dates from 100,000 BCE, with Neanderthal burials in Europe and the Middle East dating from 70,000 BCE. Another account suggests that Neanderthals were the first hominoids to bury their dead, “perhaps at least 50,000 years ago,” but by 35,000 BCE, Neanderthal burials began to disappear from the archaeological record as Homo sapiens appeared. Artifacts found in graves from these periods suggest ritual burials.
Although human-made sites of worship are recorded from the 10th millennium BCE, religious history begins with the invention of writing, some 5,200 years ago. Religions dating from this time include ancient Egyptian polytheism as well as religions practiced today, such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. Unnumbered indigenous religions also persist, though they have been “marginalized by the major organized faiths” in many places.
Why religion at all?
Despite extreme disparities among religious beliefs, a common theme links them: an unknowable essence governs all creation. Whether we worship trees, animals, nature at large, or a monotheistic God, the fact of such worship suggests a universal, ubiquitous longing by the human spirit to believe in something outside of itself. What is there in the human psyche that craves spiritual sustenance?
Giving up on God?
Or are we abandoning this longing? A recent study documents a decline of religiosity in 43 of 49 countries studied earlier, providing a baseline. Throughout these countries, beginning in 2007, increasing numbers of people no longer found religion to be “a necessary source of support and meaning.” Those countries, which include the United States, span a broad cross-section of religious populations and economic conditions. They contain 60 percent of the world’s population.
The original study, from 1981 to 2007, reported a growing religiosity. “Since 2007,” however, “there has been a remarkable sharp trend away from religion…The most dramatic shift away from religion has taken place among the American public.”
Atheists and Agnostics
Atheists surprise me. Most are intelligent and well-educated. They often require “proof” of God, yet atheists themselves fail to “prove” God’s nonexistence. “Proving” the nonexistence of something is impossible.
Agnostics are more realistic. They tend to say, “I don’t know.” During my agnostic period, I felt that if God existed, he had become irrelevant. The chaos permeating society certainly suggests this. Yet, monotheism has been around since history’s beginnings. One God. With evidence suggesting a nonexistent, or at least irrelevant God, why are there so many religions? Estimates of Christian denominations alone vary, but globally, numbers approach 41,000.
If there’s only one God, why do religions disagree? Why do denominations compete? Maybe God is like the elephant examined by blind men. Each grasps different things – trunk, leg, ear, tail — to describe the whole critter. Myriad generations within and across cultures have described God, each contributing its own interpretation.
Despite evidence, there’s still no irrefutable proof that God exists – or doesn’t. Such “proof” would obviate faith. Current scientific knowledge fails to explain many remaining mysteries of the universe; e.g., what, exactly, is gravity? So why not an unknown essence that governs that universe?
God and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Our eyes see only a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, the visible portion — a small part of the elephant. Technology allows us to understand more and more about that elephant. Instruments provide deeper understanding of the entire spectrum beyond what our eyes can see.
There’s still much we don’t understand. We don’t know what we don’t know. This rankles humanity’s collective ego. Each generation, enjoying new-found knowledge, thinks they know it all. So it is with God. We re-create him in our own image as our understanding changes.
Most world religions share the commonality of “prophets.” Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith were founded by men claiming to be messengers bringing God’s word to renew religion.
The Purpose of Religion
So, what is the fundamental purpose of religion? For Baha’u’llah, the latest “prophet,” that purpose is “to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men.” He warned, however, “Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.”
If there is only one God, why is religion disunified? Circumstances change. Followers of earlier religions couldn’t have comprehended, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Who knew about Earth back then?
Religions reiterate fundamental truths, like the Golden Rule. They also bring new teachings commensurate with contemporary human understanding and humankind’s ability to implement new instructions for each chapter of our advancing civilization. Future columns will explore options for such implementation.
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