Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Religious History Undermines Political Claims

For most of my lives, I have been reading and writing about religious history.  My interest has always been in how a belief developed, not in its accuracy.  After all, no one has enough knowledge to know a belief is “true” or not.  That would require post-life experience to prove there’s a heaven or hell, a god or anything else people believe in. 

By studying history, religious historians have shown how beliefs arise, what they are based on and what they absorbed from other faiths.  That’s good enough,

The information also serves as a counter against claimants of various faiths who insist that their belief is “true” and, therefore, everyone else is wrong.

That’s nonsense.

Ancient Egyptian monotheism
For starters, all modern beliefs are derived from older faiths.  Judaism drew upon the ancient Canaanite and Egyptian concepts.  Christianity got its inspiration from Judaism and Greek ideas, while Islam amalgamated Judaism, Christianity and existing Middle Eastern pagan faiths.  Judaism is the oldest surviving of those age-old beliefs.  Christianity is the last surviving mystery religion, once so popular in the Roman Empire.

That reality does not make any of those beliefs true or false.  It simply explains their origins.  Claiming a modern religion is correct necessitates claiming that the precursor faiths are also correct.

Mary Baker Eddy
No religion appeared out of thin air.  They all needed a spark, some event or individual to galvanize belief.  You might recognize many of the names of religious leaders: Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus/Paul, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Muhammad, Báb/Bahá’u’lláh. Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy, to name some of the most prominent.  There are others whose religions have faded away, including Jacob Frank and Sabbatai Zevi.

Events that galvanized a faith included the Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt (which hasn’t been proven historically, but is real to Jews), Jesus’ crucifixion (also not proven historically but real to Christians), the hegira (Muhammad’s escape from Mecca to Yathrib) and the death of Báb, which led to the Baha’i faith.

Thus inspired, followers were sure that the fledgling belief had a basis in reality.


After all, historical research has rarely confirmed religious claims.  Worse, woefully little is known of the lives of Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses or Jesus, for example.  Much of what is still touted as truth has been filtered through believers, creating more myths than facts.

Statue of Buddha
Besides, all the beliefs vary, which makes it hard for any to claim some kind of divine imprint.  Christianity may be the world’s largest faith, but Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism all have at least 1 billion followers, which must be an indication of their strength and “divine” support.

In some cases, they are diametrically opposed and impossible to reconcile.  That’s one reason there are conflicts between them.  Ironically, they are all basically similar: they each offer a way of life built around harmony and cooperation.  Unfortunately, those are abstract concepts that fail to stop violence and hatred.

(Please read Comparative Religion for Dummies, which illustrates how similar the three major monotheistic faiths are.)

All beliefs change.  For example, the idea that the Bible is 100 percent correct developed in the 1800s because of new research that demonstrated it wasn’t.  Prior to that, the Bible was recognized as a moral and ethical guide, not an encyclopedia of facts.  The Judaism of today does not resemble the Judaism of Moses, nor does Christianity correspond to what Paul taught. 

Then, too, all of these faiths started small and usually as spinoffs of existing religions. Christianity was a sect of Judaism; Baha’i, a sect of Islam; Latter Day Saints, a sect of Christianity; and so on.  Farsi developed as a counter to existing Persian faiths.  Buddha was trying to clean up Hinduism and ended up as the “enlightened” center of a different belief.  Muhammad was instilling a monotheistic view into his culture.

And so on.

Everyone involved in creating a religion did so with the highest ideals and a firm conviction of heavenly support.

Whether that’s true or not does not matter. 

The maelstrom of religious ideas explains why the founders of this country opted for freedom of religion rather than get caught up in the ever-whirling battles between believers.  That may have been the wisest decision that group of men ever made.  Look at what took place when that didn’t happen: the endless enmity between India and Pakistan; Israel and its Muslim counterparts; and so on.

History provides clear illustration of similar events, especially between monotheistic faiths.  In fact, Christianity was at least in part engendered as the result of wars led by Jewish zealots against the Romans.

Too many of today’s run of politicians, each vying to be the most ignorant, continue to try to shove their beliefs down the throats of Americans.  They run for office, touting their faith, without the slightest indication that they understand how and why that belief developed and its place among the 4,600 religions known to exist.

Sen. Ted Cruz sermonizing
They are convinced of the rectitude of their beliefs, and the “errors” of alternative faith, apparently unaware that all faiths have multiple sects, each with differing views.  Nor do they understand what their religion truly believes or the similarities between all faiths.

As such, they are continuing to heighten animosities between religions, creating the kind of combative society exactly the opposite of what their beliefs hope to inspire.

One solution would be to return religious history to the classroom, which was allowed in the past, but was blocked by religious fanaticism.  Another would be to ban religious discussion in political campaigns.  A third would be to continually vote against anyone announcing plans to impose any religious idea on constituents or promising to follow the dictates of faith rather than the needs of society.

Until proof exist for any religion – claims in a “holy” book are the exact opposite of proof – the best choice is ensuring that religion remains a private choice and not a requirement.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  A recent book, Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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