Let's take a look at the history of humankind. Based on scientific evidence, humans have existed on our planet since at least 300,000 years ago, and early religion was a central focus of human concern in the ancient world. The origins of most early religions came from the desire to explain a very confusing world.
Around the planet, this same need arose: to understand how life works. In the past, too, there were often offerings to the angry gods, in order to please or make alliances with them. In addition, offerings that were made in return for favours and kindness from the gods. Their particular set of beliefs kept the group together on how to deal with the unknown. (For example, by highlighting human error or sin, they focused on our feelings of guilt, then they offered cures for that guilt.)
Later, heads of these groups presumed to give answers to all of their questions. Their view of their world came about through their stories. These stories were written in a way that the rest of the people could feel identified with, and often were later accepted in their entirety, without acknowledging the difference between fact and fantasy, as part of a cohesive oral history of a group of people.
Important scripts were created explaining the existence of The Creator, or of a group of gods, as well as the origins of the universe, and regulations on how to live life. These writings contained rules for behaviour, such as the prohibition of eating pork or drinking alcohol. These books were written by imaginative persons, and then the leaders occupying hierarchies included them in the sacred scriptures, to establish and maintain the social order.
Throughout history, mankind continued to create hundreds of creeds, religions and sects. Many of them praise the value of humility, but they often show that, in essence, they practice the contrary. (I propose that the way heads of churches live, their palaces and their wealth, show no humility.)
Brief Chronology of Five Major World Religions
Today, five major world religions continue to exert a large influence on human society.
Hinduism started somewhere between 2,300 BC and 1,500 BC. Of the five most influential religions in modern world, this is the oldest. It has no one founder; it is instead a fusion of many beliefs from indigenous people from India. Hindus worship many gods and goddesses in addition to Brahma, who is believed to be the supreme God, present in all things. Reincarnation is another central belief. Some of their other deities include Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Krishna, Lakshmi, Saraswathi.
Judaism is the world's oldest monotheistic religion (believing in one God only), dating back to at least 2,000 BC, although many scholars would say that the Hebrew nation came into being long before. The origins of Judaism are explained throughout the Torah (also referred to as the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch or the Old Testament). Further, the Talmud contains a collection of teachings on Jewish law. Jews believe that God made a special covenant with Abraham, and that he and his descendants, recorded in a detail genealogy, were chosen people who would create a great nation. They believe that a Messiah will come to earth as a man.
Buddhism appeared around 500 BC, teaching a new philosophy where suffering is expected in life, and also how to detach from that suffering through reflection and meditation. This philosophy, which does not refer to a central deity, attempts to calm anxiety, poverty, illness and death, and to keep followers hopeful during their lives. The founder was Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), a sheltered prince who was said to have observed human suffering in a sudden, provocative way before seeking enlightenment. Its expansion was largely peaceful, being accepted by self-conviction or tradition. More than a religion, it is a body of philosophies.
Christianity began during the first century AD, immediately after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The core is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, which were followed by his disciples and apostles. The sacred book is the Bible, which encompasses the Old Testament and the New Testament. They believe that man is naturally sinful, and therefore needs to work hard to overcome that tendency; and that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, made man, who is the saviour from our sins. The roots of Christianity come from the Judaic prophecies that a messiah would come as man, to show the world the correct way to live. Today Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with about 2.3 billion followers.
Islam is the youngest of the large world religions. According to historical and scriptural writings, the Islamic prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca around the year 570 AD. When he was 40 years old, he began receiving divine revelations from God, which he indicated were delivered through the angel Gabriel; these revelations later formed the Quran. Judaism, Christianity and Islam share the same roots, which is the Old Testament. However, Muslims believe that Jesus Christ was not the Messiah, but another prophet. Muslims also believe that Islam began with the other, earlier prophets, such as David, Moses, Abraham, Noah and Adam, and that their monotheistic followers were considered “People of the Book”. Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity, with about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.
From the five major religions in the world, it is often asserted that Hinduism and Buddhism expanded throughout the world peacefully. However, the British partition of India and Pakistan in the mid-twentieth century capitalized on hostilities which already existed between the Hindu and Muslim populations. In addition, recent political movements have involved documented violence, reportedly involving Buddhist leaders, against religious minority groups in Far Eastern Asia. In contrast, Christianity and Islam long have been associated with dominant political groups, and their growth is often credited to their ability to proclaim war, impose their teachings, and punish those who would not accept their faiths. To understand how religion and other historical events become entwined, let’s look more closely at some of these events.
During the first few centuries after Christ died, Christians were persecuted to the point of death, particularly by the Romans, who had been professing their own religion based on earlier Greek mythology. The Romans adored a great number of gods, amongst them were Jupiter, Minerva, Juno and others, and for many generations they had professed that religion. In particular, their religion reinforced the centrality of the Roman emperor as part of its worship, thus enforcing the power of their political structures.
Then around 330 AD, the tide turned when Emperor Constantine The Great had a vision and converted to Christianity (he had learned about Christianity through his mother). This sole event was crucial for the expansion of that faith. From that day forward, a great majority of the Roman Empire (which covered a great part of northern Africa, most of Europe, Mediterranean, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and more) changed its beliefs. The emperor and his son closed all temples that were not Christian and imposed death to those practicing old rituals. In 391 AD, Emperor Theodosius decreed that the only legal religions were Judaism and Christianity.
Then, during the seventh century, in the Middle East, Islam appeared, also becoming a tool to unify all the desert tribes. Rivalry between Christians and Muslims began, and for many centuries thereafter, both religions were invading, killing and destroying in the name of God. At one point, the Muslims advanced northward through Africa and into Europe, replacing the local government, which was then in decline, and compelling people to convert to Islam.
One result was that, when the Ottoman Empire began to fall back, Spain reasserted itself, in part, through exploration, reclaiming of the Catholic religion, and intense persecution of the followers of other religions, including Judaism (until then, the Jewish people in that area had experienced relatively less persecution). Thus, the pendulum swung again, and as they had been during the Crusades, atrocities were committed during Inquisition. Simultaneously, in acts of conquest, Christian settlers brought the oppression of Native Cultures in the Americas, along with systemic disempowerment of women.
In another dark moment, great minds and scientists, who had started to find answers by observation and experimentation, rather than reading ancient texts, became labelled as heretics. These scientists were persecuted and killed, because they dared to say something different from what the sacred scriptures explicitly stated. In other cases, women were allowed only limited access to medical care, often being unable to receive a comprehensive physical examination out of fear of the backlash from their religious communities or the shame instilled toward their own bodies.
This very abbreviated timeline of events in Europe and the Middle East illustrates the interplay between religion and political and social agendas. Based on this brief survey, I propose that religions per se have failed to consistently improve ethical standards amongst their followers. Chaos continues, along with crime, wars, and immorality. With the creation of these powerful religions, greed amongst their leaders grew to astonishing levels.
How, then, did religion become so powerful and expand so extensively? As we’ve seen, European countries colonized many territories around the world, imposing Christianity on every country that they conquered. However, if other countries had exerted political power, the outcome could have been very different. (If, for example, instead of being conquered by Spaniards, Englishmen and Frenchmen, America had been conquered by people from Iran, Egypt, or Turkey, North and South America might be Muslim.) The result is that, today, the great majority of the North and South American continent is Christian, either Catholic, Protestant or any other denomination. While many have the religious freedom to choose their faith, what others believe is still largely a product of the imposition and indoctrination from their conquerors.
Has any society become more moral, saner and better merely by professing a certain religion? That is an interesting question, and I would venture to say that we are not yet sure about the results. Part of the challenge in addressing this question is that, for all of the conflicts and confusion, religious communities have also contributed to or directly made vast contributions in almost every type of human endeavour: architecture, art, education, literature, medicine, sciences, social services, and more. A visit to any library, major city or museum will attest to this influence from humanity’s beginnings. Even in our own day, religious aid societies worldwide are credited with distributing food and other material support to victims of the global pandemic, using private donations.
And, therefore, individuals wrestle to find answers. Have you asked yourself why you profess the religion that you profess? Very often, the answer is, "Because my parents profess that religion and made me part of it." Many people feel this way, putting their trust in a religion and following wherever that may lead. Each religion was born with a good intention: to show mankind how to find a way to peace and happiness. Also, being part of any religion offers a comfort regarding the frustrating complexity of the life’s mysteries. However, the fact of the matter, I believe, is that we do not necessarily need to believe a particular group of stories to make wiser and better decisions.
Instead, in this book, I will argue that what is needed is awareness of our roles in life, along with a practical guidance on how to understand today's world, today’s stress, conflicts and needs, and, based on that understanding, to derive a workable set of recommendations on how to direct our lives with consciousness, and how to train our minds. In order to take control of our actions, then, I further propose that we do not need to believe in any dogma, nor to profess any specific religion, but that the core of a real solution is to understand our place in life and to learn how to make rational, pro-survival decisions.
My own belief is that the great majority of mankind in general is not bad, but ignorant. People are not lacking in intelligence. However, their actions are often not rational; they don't stop to analyse what they are doing, or they act impulsively, in a stimulus-response sort of way. Instead, by understanding the world that we live in, by understanding what we are made of, by understanding our purpose, we each will be in a better position to grow, personally and even spiritually, by acquiring consciousness and putting in practice the values of integrity, honesty, responsibility, justice and productivity. First, we must understand the core of what life is, in order to be able to create a better life, and to act based on conviction and self-awareness, not on obedience.