Since the earliest civilization, humanity has searched for meaning and to find something greater than ourselves. We are each created with a God sized hole that we have attempted to fill in a variety of ways. This is demonstrated by the range of religious beliefs that have emerged across history. As I began working on this post, I realized we are helpless to repeat the past when we are unaware of it. In this spirit, I decided it was first important to lay the foundations of differing religions through history. Only by understanding it can we hope to avoid repeating the same mistakes. In this first section I begin with polytheism (belief in more than one god) and paganism because that was the order of history. This is a particularly important place to start because the practices of Neo-Paganism and New Age religion have been steadily increasing. I have attempted to accurately depict the belief systems as well as the associated time periods.
Virtually all the religions in the history of humanity have been polytheistic in nature. It is believed that the Ancient Egyptian civilization began 5000-6000 BC. However, the oldest known burial texts are dated around 2613-2181 BCE. Needless to say, Egyptian religious practices likely changed significantly during that period. from that time. The Sumerian civilization began in Mesopotamia around 5000- 4000 BC. These people founded the oldest form of writing, cuneiform, with the religious texts dated back to 3200 BC. They practiced paganism under the belief was that man was created to serve the gods. If they were kept happy they helped humans, but if they angered the gods they were punished. Worship involved routine daily care of the temples and full sized idols as well as use of magic with incantations and amulets. As ruling nations changed (Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians) these gods assumed different names. The area of Canaan (3500 BC), was located on the coast between Egypt and Mesopotamia (parts of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria). The most prominent deities, which were noted in the Old Testament, as Ba’al, Maloch, and Asherah. The worship of these pagan deities involved magic using spells and amulets, fortune-telling, divination, oracles, idolatry, ritual prostitution at the temple, and child sacrifices by fire. These early religions heavily impacted the surrounding civilizations of Egyptians and Greeks who traded heavily with these areas. As these civilizations exchanged ideas, they continued to add deities until each worshipped about 2000 gods. This is most evident after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 356 BC, blending the two cultures. When the Roman Empire conquered Greece in 146 BC, they were heavily influenced by the Greeks. They adopted their gods as their own, but changed the names. There were pagan revivals during the Renaissance (1500s) and during the Enlightenment (1700s). Around the 1900s interest in witchcraft and pagan re-emerged and since the 1960s the Neo-Paganism movement has continued to grow.
The Druids, were Celtic priests who practiced a pagan, shamanic religion. Magic and spiritual energy from contact with the spirit world allowed them to see the future and affect the physical world. They also used potions and herbs for healing or inflicting disease. Druidic priests were at the top of the three- tiered social hierarchy and included teachers, scientists, judges and philosophers. Their holy day were tied to lunar, solar, and seasonal cycles with half of the year being light and half being dark. The Samhain (October 31) was a fire festival marking the beginning of the dark half of the year. At this time spirits were closer and more accessible to humans making it easier to predict the future. Around the bonfires fortune-telling was done alongside sacrifices. It is debated whether or not they participated in human sacrifice. Yule was another significant day occurring on the winter solstice, which was a time for rebirth when they wound sit on mounds until sunrise awaiting rebirth. Not much is known about their origins since they did not keep written records of their practices. Most of what is known came from roman writers who first mentioned them in 2nd century BC. Romans eventually incorporated the worship of some of their deities. These practices re-emerged in the mid 1600s after discovery by John Aubrey. It was offered as an alternative to both Christianity and the Enlightenment in Europe. The practices of Wiccans were established by Gerald Gardener in the 1950s, and shares many of the concepts and practices of druidism. Neo-Druidism emerged in the 1960s and has developed a growing number of followers world wide.
Hinduism began in the Indus River Valley between 2300 and 1500 BC and was the beginning of eastern mysticism. Beliefs are pantheistic, god is in every created thing and so all is god. This life philosophy allowed Hindus to embrace many religious ideas. Their beliefs included “karma” (universal cause and effect), “samsara” (continuous life, death, and re-incarnation), and “atman” (all living creatures have a soul and are all a part of the supreme soul). The goal is to achieve “dharma” (code of good and moral living) in attempt to reach “moska” (salvation and the ending of re-incarnation). Hinduism is comprised of religious practices that also served as a means of governance. A hierarchy of four rigid castes dictated both religious and social life. You were born into your caste which determined your occupation choices, financial and social status, and the region you could live in. The Dalits or “untouchables” were natural-born “losers” excluded from even the lowest caste. Purity of the higher caste levels was ensured by segregating the lower castes. This ensured that the higher castes remained the most intelligent, powerful, and wealthy. Your movement through stages of enlightenment affected your re-incarnation, so there was a possibility of changing castes in the next life. Religious practice was used to keep lower castes firmly in their place while maintaining social order. Buddhism arose out of Hinduism around 483 BC, with a chief focus on enlightenment. Enlightenment, achieved through meditation to awaken truth, was a state of inner peace and wisdom. Nirvana was the highest level of enlightenment. Because these religions were not restricted to specific deities, it permitted deification of political figures like Emperors without conflict. The connection between religion and nationalism became increasingly intertwined and are now virtually inseparable. The “way of life” from Eastern religions was later blended with pagan practices to produce the New Age religion in the 1970s.
The New Age religion practices vary widely, but its roots are in Eastern mysticism’s attempts to bypass the mind. The goal is to train the psychic self by using the third eye- the psychic organ- to achieve cosmic consciousness. This allows the mind to create reality. This is seen in our current society which has begun to deny absolute truths in favor of adopting truths that support personal beliefs. New Age beliefs include spiritual energy within nature, re-incarnation, astrology, use of crystals, and psychics who channel spirit guides. These methods are believed to guide a person if they truly open themselves to it. New Agers also believe we can manifest what we desire by asking for it. The energy we put out into the universe effects what we receive from it, which encourages positive thinking. Since its inception in the 1970s, it has become increasingly mainstream with about six-in-ten American adults (including Christians) accept at least one of these beliefs.
The next section will examine monotheism with particular emphasis on Judaism and Christianity. After understanding the history, we can begin to see patterns which can help break the cycle of the past.