The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained – Sample Book
Introduction – The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
There is no simple definition of the concept of religion that fully articulates all its dimensions. Encompassing spiritual, personal, and social elements, this phenomenon is however, ubiquitous, appearing in every culture from prehistory to the modern day—as evidenced in the cave paintings and elaborate burial customs of our distant ancestors and the continuing quest for a spiritual goal to life.
For Palaeolithic people—and indeed for much of human history —religion provided a way of understanding and influencing powerful natural phenomena. Weather and the seasons, creation, life, death and the afterlife, and the structure of the cosmos were all subject to religious explanations that invoked controlling gods, or a realm outside the visible inhabited by deities and mythical creatures.
Religion provided a means to communicate with these gods, through ritual and prayer, and these practices—when shared by members of a community—helped to cement social groups, enforce hierarchies, and provide a deep sense of collective identity.
As societies became more complex, their belief systems grew with them and religion was increasingly deployed as a political tool. Military conquests were often followed by the assimilation of the pantheon of the defeated people by the victors; and kingdoms and empires were often supported by their deities and priestly classes.
A personal god – The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
Religion met many of the needs of early people and provided templates by which they could organize their lives—through rites, rituals, and taboos. It also gave them a means by which they could visualize their place in the cosmos. Could religion therefore be explained as a purely social artifact?
Many would argue that it is much more. Over the centuries, people have defied opposition to their faiths, suffering persecution or death to defend their right to worship their God or gods.
And even today, when the world is arguably more materialistic than ever before, more than threequarters of its population consider themselves to hold some form of religious belief. Religion would seem to be a necessary part of human existence, as important to life as the ability to use language.
Whether it is a matter of intense personal experience—an inner awareness of the divine—or a way of finding significance and meaning, and providing a starting point for all of life’s endeavors, it appears to be fundamental at a personal as well as a social level.
Beginnings – The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
We know about the religions of the earliest societies from the relics they left behind and from the stories of later civilizations. In addition, isolated tribes in remote places, such as the Amazonian forest in South America, the Indonesian islands, and parts of Africa, still practice religions that are thought to have remained largely unchanged for millennia.
These primal religions often feature a belief in a unity between nature and the spirit, linking people inextricably with the environment. As the early religions evolved, their ceremonies and cosmologies became increasingly sophisticated. Primal religions of the nomadic and seminomadic peoples of prehistory gave way to the religions of the ancient and, in turn, of the classical civilizations.
Their beliefs are now often dismissed as mythology, but many elements of these ancient narrative traditions persist in today’s faiths. Religions continued to adapt, old beliefs were absorbed into the religions of the society that succeeded them, and new faiths emerged with different observances and rituals.
Ancient to modern
It is hard to pinpoint the time when many religions began, not least because their roots lie in prehistory and the sources that describe their origins may date from a much later time.
However, it is thought that the oldest surviving religion today is Hinduism, which has its roots in the folk religions of the Indian subcontinent, brought together in the writing of the Vedas as early as the 13th century BCE. From this Vedic tradition came not only the pluralistic religion we now know as Hinduism, but also Jainism, Buddhism, and, later, Sikhism, which emerged in the 15th century. Other belief systems were developing in the east. From the 17th century BCE, the Chinese dynasties established their nation states and empires.
There emerged traditional folk religions and ancestor worship that were later incorporated into the more philosophical belief systems of Daoism and Confucianism. In the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religions were still being practiced when the emerging city-states of Greece and Rome developed their own mythologies and pantheons of gods. Further east, Zoroastrianism—the first major known monotheistic religion—had already been established in Persia, and Judaism had emerged as the first of the Abrahamic religions, followed by Christianity and Islam.
Many religions recognized the particular significance of one or more individuals as founders of the faith: they may have been embodiments of god, such as Jesus or Krishna, or recipients of special divine revelation, such as Moses and Muhammad. The religions of the modern world continued to evolve with advances in society, sometimes reluctantly, and often by dividing into branches. Some apparently new religions began to appear, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, but these invariably bore the traces of the faiths that had come before.
Elements of religion
Human history has seen the rise and fall of countless religions, each with its own distinct beliefs, rituals, and mythology. Although some are similar and considered to be branches of a larger tradition, there are many contrasting and contradictory belief systems. Some religions, for example, have a number of gods, while others, especially the more modern major faiths, are monotheistic;
All men have need of the god.
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