A Brief History Of Religion

This is an edited version of the chapter on Religion from the book, "Life Lessons for Mia Rose: An Irreverent Guide to Living and Loving Well" by Claire Fordham that was fact checked by Cynthia Eller, Professor of Women's Studies and Religious Studies at Montclair University, New Jersey.

Few, if any, children over twelve believe in the existence of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. I am one of the growing numbers of people who believe that eventually it will be accepted that there's no such supernatural being as god either.

The Romans and the Greeks worked out pretty quickly that Neptune and Zeus weren't for real, so it's incredible to me that the greatest, most advanced civilizations the world has ever known still believe in their god.

I can't prove He doesn't, but believers can't prove He exists either. And when people make extraordinary claims, it's up to them to provide the evidence. I am writing God and He, as opposed to god and he, she or it, out of respect for believers who write it like that.

It's important to respect other people's points of view even if you don't share their beliefs, especially where religion is concerned, because it's a subject people feel very strongly about. But if people believe in fairy tales, they should expect to take some stick. It's really important, I believe, to at least know all sides of the argument.

Over the centuries, people with different religious beliefs have gone to war and ostracized neighbors who didn't agree with their views.

It's fair to say that the vast majority of people follow the religion of their parents and rarely take the time to understand alternative philosophies or find out what other religions actually stand for.

The important thing if you decide to follow a religion is to follow the one that makes most sense to you and not what your parents or grandparents tell you. Weigh up all the arguments and make your own decision. But, above all, be respectful of other people's views. There's no law that says you must follow a particular religion, but there are followers of some religions who will kill you for not siding with their team.

Unless they are Buddhists. Senior Buddhists say it isn't even a religion. It's more like a way of life, a philosophy with one motto: seek the truth. They also advocate kindness. It's hard to argue against that ideology, but Buddhism as it's practiced by ninety-nine percent of followers is very much a religion with temples, prayers and deities. And the Buddha recommended being kind for purely pragmatic reasons because it helps you (allegedly) along on the path to enlightenment. In practice, though, Buddhism says a lot about kindness and compassion for its own sake. It's thought to be a fruit of enlightenment as well as a means toward enlightenment.

Although even Buddhists are getting violent. There have been reports of Buddhist mobs, including monks, who burned Muslim homes in Myanmar in a widening of ultra-nationalist Buddhist violence.

This attack resulted in two deaths. Historically, there have been cases of Buddhist violence, some of it primarily ethnic, but also because of disputes over doctrine.

They clearly forgot that Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma. Karma means reaping what you sow. If you say or do something mean or unkind, eventually someone else will be mean or unkind to you. I quite like that idea. But Buddhists also think we keep coming back after we die (reincarnating) until we learn from our mistakes. That's where they lose me. I don't believe in reincarnation. It doesn't pass the smell test. My smell test anyway. I believe we have one chance at life. I believe that life is not a dress rehearsal for an afterlife and we must live and love as well as we possibly can because this is it.

The five most influential religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. The most derogatory label you can give a religion is to call it a cult. But a cult is really just a religion without so many followers.

There are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world, 1.6 billion Muslims (followers of Islam), 1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists and around 15 million Jews.

The vast majority of God-fearing and worshiping people are good, honorable and law-abiding. They respect other religions and beliefs and want to live together in harmony. But there is an ever- growing number of fundamentalists who call for the destruction of everyone who doesn't believe in the same supreme being as them.

Jews have been on the receiving end of more hatred, prejudice and bigotry than any other, although this has often been more a racial issue than a religious one.
The horror that has been going on in the Middle East over a piece of land that used to be called Palestine where predominantly Muslim Palestinians lived that is now called Israel is the root cause of most modern religious hatred and killing. Historically, many Palestinians were Christians. They were a minority but a large and significant minority.

"Israel" was taken away from "Palestine" and set up as a permanent home for Jews in 1948 after six million of them were killed in concentration camps by Germany during the Second World War.

A group of nations led by Great Britain after World War Two thought they were doing the right thing by giving Jews their own state. But they also created hatred and resentment among Palestinians who had nowhere else to go and fought over the decades to get their land back, with the support of their fellow Muslim countries that surround Israel -- quite a few of whom have vowed that they won't rest until Israel is given back to the Palestinians and every last Jewish man, woman and child is dead and buried.

Politicians and diplomats from around the world have managed to get the two sides talking around a table a few times but no firm agreement has been made. The only possible hope for peace is that Hamas, the democratically elected party that currently governs Palestine, recognizes Israel's right to exist and that a two-state solution can be found where both sides can live in harmony.

Christians and Jews have been fighting each other for nearly two thousand years and Muslims joined their company more than one thousand years ago.

There's a famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress in the 1940s, after India was partitioned (again by the Brits and again in 1948) to separate Hindus and Muslims. The Hindus stayed in India and Muslims were given their own state, Pakistan. Raised a Hindu and renowned for his wisdom, humility and for being a pacifist, Gandhi said, "Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist who was resentful at what he perceived as Gandhi's sympathy for India's Muslims. Gandhi was full of good quotes such as, "I like your Christ. I don't like Christians. They are so unlike your Christ."

Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Most Christians believe Jesus is the actual, physical Son of God and that Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. They also believe that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are one and the same and, most importantly, that Jesus gave his life to save humankind and only by repenting our sins and acknowledging that Jesus is our savior can we get to Heaven. Failure to do so come Judgment Day when Jesus will return will result in our being sent to hell for eternity.

Christianity began as a Jewish sect in the first century AD. Jesus' followers believe that He suffered for people's sins, as he was crucified and died on a cross, then buried and resurrected from the dead to grant eternal life to those who believe in him.

I have a hunch he may not have actually died on the cross but was near death when he was taken down, remained unconscious for three days, rallied for a few last breaths and finally succumbed to his dreadful injuries.

Christians call the biographies of Jesus the Gospels. By all accounts he was a good man who did good deeds. Some say he performed miracles.

According to the New Testament, where all the stories about Jesus and his followers are found, Christians were persecuted by Jewish religious authorities who disagreed with his teachings. Virtually all persecution of early Christians came from Roman pagans.

It wasn't until one hundred years after Jesus was born that Christians began writing down his teachings and stories about him. I suspect there were a number of exaggerations and embellishments over those years. Some religious historians aren't convinced Jesus existed at all and was invented by early Christians.

Judaism is the religion, philosophy and way of life of Jewish people. It's been around for more than five thousand years and is the oldest surviving monotheistic religion. A monotheistic religion is one that only believes in and worships one deity.

Jews believe God revealed his laws and commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai and they are written down in the Hebrew bible, called the Tanakh. The first five books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are called the Torah. Jews believe they should pray to their God and only Him. They do not follow the teachings of Jesus and do not consider him to be their savior. They don't consider Moses to be their savior either, but do consider him their greatest prophet.

As with Christianity and Islam, some Jews follow their religious laws and commandments more strictly than others. Most Jews live in Israel, America and Canada with a few million living in Europe, South America and Asia.

People who are believers in the religion of Islam are called Muslims. Their core beliefs are that there is only one God, Allah, (monotheistic again) and that Muhammad is their prophet who conveyed all Allah's teachings as told to him by the archangel Gabriel on numerous occasions between 610 CE and his death on June 8, 632 CE (CE is the same as BC, and sometimes CE is used so as not to offend non-Christians. CE is an abbreviation of Common Era, but denotes the same era as BC - Before Christ. Sometimes it's written as B.C.E. - Before the Common Era).

Mohammad was reputedly illiterate. His followers wrote down what he told them. Those teachings are written in the Muslim scripture called the Qur'an or Koran. Muslims believe Muhammad to be the last in a series of great prophets starting with Adam and including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. They also believe in the Resurrection and a Judgment Day.

Like all religions, Muslims have split up into different sects. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni. The largest minority group of Muslims is the Shia. Sunni and Shia have fought each other frequently over the years, but since Israel was established in 1948, have found enemies in common - Jews and Westerners. Muslims consider Westerners corrupt largely because they believe they aren't sufficiently religious, not just because they are Christian.

Most Muslims live in the Middle East, Central Asia, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, but a rather scary and increasing number have called for the destruction of Israel, the United States of America and Europe. There are Persian miniatures of Muhammad, some with his face veiled, but, at this time in history, there is a zealous refusal to represent Muhammad and it is considered a sin to draw or paint Him, a sin punishable by death.

Hinduism is an old religion with most practitioners living on the Indian sub-continent or of Indian descent. They don't have scripture as such, but many traditions have been handed down over four thousand years to form the basis. No single person is credited with developing this faith that has many sects, rituals and practices.

The Vedas, Aranyakas and Upanishads are accounts and advice written by spiritually advanced mystics over the centuries, several thousand years actually, from which Hinduism comes.

Simply put, and accepting there is a lot more to it than this, Hindus worship many different gods (polytheistic) that all lead to the ultimate, Brahman, which they consider to be the ultimate reality. Hinduism is about the search for liberation that can be achieved through meditation, yoga and prayer.

They believe that life has four stages: student, householder, retiree and renunciant. Fame and fortune is applauded -- as is the pursuit of pleasure -- but, near the end of your life, you let it all go, which will put you on the path of spiritual liberation.

Hindus believe in the sanctity of all life, and many are vegetarians. They also believe in reincarnation and karma; and understand and appreciate that other religions are relevant and should be respected.

Buddhism is a spin-off of Hinduism. Around 500 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama renounced his wealthy lifestyle in India (and abandoned his wife and baby) in search of spiritual liberation, known as Nirvana (from the ancient language of Sanskrit).

The meaning of life eluded him for many years until he sat under a bodhi tree determined not to move until he became enlightened. On the forty-ninth day, he opened his eyes, having realized through meditation that the problem with humanity is that we are all deluded and ego-driven; and that the sooner we ditch the three bad habits of desire, anger and ignorance, the better.

Siddhartha, known as the Buddha (the Awakened One), spent the next forty-five years teaching his wisdom to monks and nuns, promoting a solitary and spiritual way of life. He insisted his disciples must not write anything down, so his most important sermons were conveyed orally. It wasn't until hundreds of years after his death that the Buddha's teachings were finally committed to paper.

The earliest surviving accounts of the Buddha's teachings are in Pali, an ancient northwestern Indian dialect. I suspect a lot was lost in the translation. That said, the message of Buddhism is one of love, peace and non-violence, so I've no idea what the Buddhists in Indonesia were thinking. If they didn't believe in reincarnation and weren't so fond of chanting, I'd probably lean towards Buddhism.

I've heard religious people say we need religion to give people a sense of morality. I don't buy that. I don't think we have to worship anyone or anything to live a good and moral life.

You might think someone must have created this amazing world. I don't. I believe in evolution. I think it is just part of the miracle and wonder of life and human beings are capable of being moral and ethical without adhering to a religion or worshiping a god. That doesn't make me a bad person, it makes me a secular humanist.

An atheist is someone who categorically believes that there is no such thing as a supernatural God who created people, life and the universe. Agnostics are people who think that God's existence or otherwise probably cannot be known for sure, so won't commit one way or the other.

I believe that Jesus might have existed, Mohammad and Buddha for sure. I believe they were spiritually advanced, righteous human beings. But over the centuries, their teachings have been misinterpreted, exaggerated and exploited by others.

Which part of the world you were born in - and what your parents believed and therefore taught you - usually determines which religion, if any, you will follow. And while I don't agree with atheist Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything, I do agree it poisons a lot.

I believe this to be true about all religions, that their original leaders and prophets all believed the same things were important: love and kindness. While I don't personally believe in an afterlife, in the unlikely event that there is one, I am absolutely certain that Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha are shaking their heads in disbelief and despair at what is being done in their name.