The Evolution of God and Religion amidst Humanity

September 24, 2015, Chennai

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Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

-Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, philosopher and writer (121-180 CE).

Are God and Fate two separate entities? Maybe, maybe not! Did God create the universe? Perhaps!  Is he running it on a day-to-day basis? Perhaps not! Did God reveal himself to man? That is what some people claim. Whatever the truth or otherwise in these statements, nobody can be sure. Religions have doctrines as basic premises. But doctrines cannot survive if they do not cater to the psychology of the people they are supposed to govern.  Most religions in the world swear by the existence of God and then go one step further in defining the characteristics of that God in their own specific terms. Conflicts arise when these characteristics differ in detail from one religion to the other.  Of late, religions have become a problem rather than a solution to human life.

Scriptures, especially their interpretations by current day religious leaders heighten tensions. To a great extent, God has only minimalist functions. God, in general, does not answer our individual (such as getting a job, passing an examination etc.,) prayers. If you pray for the welfare of the world he might grant it. He does not give advice. He does not smite our enemies.  Let us examine how religions and God for such religions got established.

God in Abrahamic religionsGod in Abrahamic religions:

Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) share a common deity called by different names: Yahweh, Lord, and Allah. They differ just in details of belief and doctrine. While Judaism and Islam are monotheistic (a sole deity), Christianity incorporates the concept of trinity (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit). In the Bible it says that God created man in his own image. If so one can picture how God looks like (like man himself!). However, Islam considers it a sin to anthropomorphize God, i.e., depict a human shape for God. Allah is shapeless and formless.

Prior to the establishment of Hebrew God, Yahweh, Canaanites worshipped a pagan deity called Baal who was the lord of rain and dew (forces of nature). There were also goddesses called Athirat and Anat.  But Yahweh was not in any forces of nature. Yahweh was said to be intolerant of alternative God or gods. He is supposed to have asked Elijah (a prophet in 9th century BCE) to kill every Ball worshipper. Accordingly Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal (a pagan deity) to perform a miracle and when they failed to do so he performed the same miracle and destroyed those prophets and their god Baal. It is also said that God revealed himself to Abraham in the second millennium BCE. He was supposed to have spoken to Moses (ca 1400 BCE) thus: “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac. And to Jacob as El Shaddai but my name Yahweh---I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6).  Prior to Yahweh, polytheism was widely practiced, which then led to monolatry (worship one god) which then led to monotheism (there is only one God).

Israelites went into Canaan and defeated the Polytheists. Israelite religion emerged from the Canaan environment and was polytheistic at the beginning. It did not become monotheistic until after the Babylonian exile of 6th century BCE. Yahweh was a warrior God and a God of wrath. Did God grow up over time? No, it is the humans who evolved with respect to religion and God just came along for the ride.

Yahweh was supposed to have said, “Before me no God was formed nor shall there be any after me”. Obviously it was propagated to the masses by the prophet or his deputies in order to round them up to follow that dictum.  There is a similar dictum in Hinduism too. In VarAha purANsm there is a verse which goes as “Venkatesa samO dEvO na bhUtO na bhavishyati” (There is no other god equal to Venkatesa nor will there ever be one). The very similar message in these two utterings indicates the attitude that prevailed in very ancient times (when religious narratives were written) all over the world.  

ChristianWhile Christianity follows Judaism in the line of monotheism, it recognizes that Jesus Christ was the son of God sent as a messiah (one sent from the high place who makes the ultimate sacrifice). Jesus Christ talked about the kingdom of God. He was crucified for preaching heresy by the Romans. Normally crucifixion should have caused a disgrace for the messiah but it turned him up as a symbol of universal love.  Again whatever Jesus Christ spoke was not written down by him and preserved. The gospels were written 35-70 years after Jesus’ death by the apostles-- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are variations of the occurrence of events during Jesus’ time among the different books. For example, Lazarus being raised from dead was mentioned only in John’s gospel and not in others. Jesus’ teaching “Love your enemies” was mentioned only in Matthew and Luke. Christianity is thus an offshoot of Judaism in that it recognizes the Old Testament and then creates the belief that Jesus was sent by God to earth to save humanity.

In the early centuries of the Common Era, Christians were persecuted by the Roman emperors. But in 312 CE emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and it got official tolerance and recognition. By the end of the 4th century CE, Christianity became the official religion of Roman emperors and the pagan religions were banned. When Jesus Christ spoke of the Kingdom of God on earth it was meant to provide salvation. It did not materialize during his time. Luke’s gospel modified it by promising immediate reward for the good in the after-life. Thus the kingdom of God got relocated from earth to heaven. That was a major change in concept. Paul converted the story of Jesus with an unhappy ending (crucifixion) into a credible message of salvation and eternal life by pointing out that God, in his infinite mercy, sacrificed his son for the good of man. The evolution of God from Judaism to Christianity is thus somewhat abrupt. The God of Old Testament (Judaism) is austere, jealous, and vengeful. The God of New Testament (Christianity) is kind and forgiving.

Islam also preaches monotheism. The revelation to Prophet Mohammed came when he was 40. While the Bible was written over a period of thousand years by many authors, Koran was written by one person, i.e., Prophet Mohammed. Mohammed was a monotheist while Meccans during his time were polytheists. Accordingly Mohammed had preached to “strike off the heads of infidels”. Islam took the principal features of Judaism and Christianity. Mohammed claimed that he was sent by the same God who revealed to Abraham and subsequently spoke through Moses and Jesus.  Christians and Jews however contend that their god is not the same god worshipped by Muslims. Likewise Jews do not believe their god is the same as Christian’s god. God has thus evolved according to the belief of the various groups of people who lived at different times and influenced by the religious leaders they followed. Islam grew with the support of military power. Mohammed accepted Jesus as a prophet but did not concede that Jesus was the son of God. That cau
sed a rift between Islam and Christianity. Islam identified itself with the Jews in terms of: avoidance of pork, circumcision, observing holy day Yom Kippur, and praying towards Jerusalem. It also identified itself with Christianity by believing the virgin birth of Jesus and recognizing Jesus as a messiah.

The three Abrahamic religions were thus very similar in conception with minor differences. Let us look at  eastern religions in the next segment.

To be continued.