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History of Religion

The movement from tribal to national, and from national to individual and to universal religion, is the central development of religion, and all the minor developments which might be traced, as that of sacrifice from rude to spiritual forms, of the functions of the sacred class, of the morality dictated by religion at its various stages, or of the literature connected with piety, may be explained by reference to this one.

The religion of the tribe belongs to that stage of man's existence in which his energies are entirely occupied in the struggle against nature and against other tribes. The conditions of his life do not allow his higher faculties to grow, and while he is not without many glimpses and anticipations of higher things, his religion, as a whole, is a mass of childish fancies and of fixed traditions which he cannot explain, but does not venture to criticise or change. His gods are petty and capricious beings, and his modes of influencing them, though used with zeal and fervour, have little to do with reason or with taste or with morality. It is in this kind of religion that magic of all sorts is at home.

The advance from the religion of the tribe to that of the nation entails the service of the great gods of the state organised with befitting dignity and splendor; the best minds contribute to it all they can in the way of art, of poetry, of purified legend, of stately ceremonial. Patriotism and religion are one, the offices of worship are upheld by the whole power of the state, and the gods speak with new authority to the spirit of the worshipper. Now it is that great religious systems arise, so powerful, so highly organised, so splendidly adorned, and surrounded with such venerable traditions, that they seem to be destined for eternity.

The individualist stage of religion succeeds the national. But the individualist stage is also, in part at least, the universal stage. The further progress of religion is apt to appear as a revolt against the system which has grown so strong. The individual sets out to seek a consistent intellectual view, and so figures as a sceptic. He aims at a higher moral law than that of the priestly system, and is accused of undermining public morality. He feels a new call to personal goodness, a new need for personal atonement with the ideal holiness which he has learned to apprehend; and as the public ritual does not meet these needs.

There can scarcely be any general history of the religion of the world. But some epochs stand out as having witnessed simultaneous religious movements in many lands, as if the mind of the whole human race had then been passing through the same crisis of thought. The sixth century BC is the age of Confucius and of Laotsze in China, of Gautama in India, of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Unknown Prophet of the Exile, of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Xenophanes, and also of the rise into prominence of the Greek mysteries.

No religion is ever invented, a characteristic which it shares with language. Both are the results of growth and transformation. The centuries between 800 and 200 BC, and most particularly the decades around 500 BC, saw not only the beginnings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Confucianism, but also the development of secularism in Greece and of monotheism among Judaeans. In his influential book, The Origin and Goal of History, Karl Jaspers called this period die Achsenzeit [Axle time]. As Jaspers saw it, the Achsenzeit (axial time or pivotal period) turned the world away from it straditional path and set it off in the direction that it has followed ever since.

Nonetheless a single meaning for the term "religion" seems hard to find. Types of religions include: Fetichism, the belief in many impersonal Gods or rather forces; Polytheism, the belief in several personal Gods; Monotheism, the belief in one personal God; and Pantheism, the belief in an impersonal God. All the theistic religions attribute to the being or beings called God not only superior power, but superior virtue. Even the Fetish is not, a mere power, but possesses something that may inspire respect or admiration as well as fear. the general result of excessive polytheism may be to cause a strong current of feeling towards monotheism. Each deity may come to be regarded as one particular form of "the Divine," and this idea receive confirmation from the partial identity of the symbols and attributes ascribed to different gods.

A modern and advanced religion is not simply a means of dealing with superhuman power or powers, but also a system for a good life. Religion cannot be just a belief in Gods, one or many, personal or impersonal, for that would bar Buddhism, which is properly an atheistic religion, and in which the ideal condition of being, called Nirvana, is the object toward which the religious attitude is directed, thus taking the place of the God or Gods of the theistic and pantheistic religions. In the case of Buddhism, Nirvana, although not an entity or God, is a mode or condition of existence that possesses the distinctly Godlike duality of aspect in being at once more real and more perfect than what is known in nature.

Two great religious leaders appeared in China in the sixth century BC. One was Lao-tse and the other was Confucius. Neither, however, taught a new religion. Both of these teachers recognized that orderly goodness is the natural state of the universe, and that humans as part of the universe and naturally good are required to preserve and heighten that goodness. At their founding, Taoism and Confucianism both lacked a deity. Both were humanistic, practical guides to living. The separation between Taoism and Confucianism, between the inner and the outer doctrine, constitute one of the most notable features of the civilization of China. Taoism and Confucianism are complementary, and the emotional rejection of Confucianism was undoubtedly most favorable to the growth of Taoism.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2011 19:39:02 ZULU