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We turn to Evolution of God by Robert Wright [WRT], Chapters 1-2 (pp. 9-45).

Religion grew out of an effort to explain the world. Dreams made people believe in souls and attribute a soul to everything – Animism. Bands had no need for moral code, everybody was close to everybody (total under 100 people), and thus primitive religions had no moral code.

Eventually Shamans appeared (in tribes) who could communicate with the “spirits”. There is a parallel between Shamans and “stock analysts” who claim they can predict the stock market. A stock analyst who makes a bad bet loses his own reputation but the profession survives. Same thing with the Shamans (p. 34). Interesting comment on Mysticism on p. 40. Our “normal” state of consciousness is the one selected by natural adaptation. Shamans would cultivate “antipathy and violence, both within the society and beyond it, … one of religion’s most infamous modern roles, fomenter of conflict … was part of the story from very near the beginning.” (p. 43)

Key observation on p. 44. Two views: “religion serves society broadly providing reassurance … and cohesion” (“Functionalists”); “religion as a tool of social control” (“Marxists”). If religion served only as a tool of control, it would not survive. In chiefdoms religion was needed to discourage anti-social behavior (society is no longer the extended family), p. 55.

Polynesian religions give a lot of privilege to the ruling class (p. 59). But religion also had positive role, such as creating social safety net (p. 61). Privileges of chiefs must be compared with privileges of modern elite (p. 62).

This is the place to point out to two different models of religious development. Polytheistic and monotheistic. Polytheism was dominant in the ancient states of Egypt, Greece, and Rome (until the fourth century). It was and it is still dominant in the Far East, China, and Japan.

Historically, the first monotheistic religion was Zoroastrianism, the religion of the first major state in the world, the Persian Empire. One thing led to another and by the time of the Persian Sassanid dynasty, there was a full fledged clergy with bishops and official orthodoxy ([EG], Chapter 8.)

Religions and Philosophies

Around 500 BCE, when all religions were polytheistic, various thinker started developing radical new views of how the world worked [MORR, p. 254-]. Socrates in Athens (Greece), Confucius and Lao Tze in China, Buddha and Mahavira (founder of Jainism) in India, the Hebrew Bible in Israel, all appeared around that time. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers called this the Axial Age, meaning these ideas formed an axis around which history turned. This is actually the first wave axial age to distinguish it from the second wave (Christianity) that came 500 years later. All of them advocated ethical living and the golden rule.

The big issue is the need for rules of human conduct in complex societies. In a foraging or early agricultural society there is little choice. One must work very hard, just to survive. Basic rules, such as "do not kill" are sufficient to establish some social order. But as farming became more productive (at least some) people started having leisure time and more material goods than needed for bare survival. There were no guidelines for that. Take greed for example. Primitive human must be greedy since they barely survive. But that makes no sense for humans in an advanced agricultural society. These issues pre-occupied thinkers and led to the "axial age."

What we have then is polytheistic societies that worship many gods but also adhere to philosophies. Some of these philosophies took religious character but without displacing the local gods. This was the state of the whole world until about 300 CE when Christianity was imposed as the favorite and later the sole religion of the Roman Empire. India and China stayed with the old model till modern times. We must keep in mind that in the old model a person does not have a religious affiliation unless he/she is a functionary of a religion. Strict religious affiliation is a feature of only the so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). For example, in Japan people tend to have Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals. In such countries people are free to search for moral guidance outside religion. This is also the case with non-fundamentalists of Abrahamic religions and certainly with agnostics or atheists. We may also look at the Abrahamic religions as consisting of two parts: rules of conduct (philosophies) and metaphysical beliefs. We discuss them later, after we examine polytheistic religions and, especially, the philosophies that complemented them.

What are the right rules for human conduct? This is an issue that remains open today and it transcends religion. For example, Marxism imposes rules of conduct but it is not, at least officially, a religion. Should rules of conduct be strict or flexible? Religious fundamentalists and strict ideologues go for the former and much suffering has been imposed on the human race by such an attitude. We cannot do justice to such a complex topic in this workshop. In the sequel we will review the main points of various philosophies and religions and discuss how they impacted the countries where they were practiced. We start with some of the Greek philosophers, then move to the Indian practices (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) and finally Far Easter practices (Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto).

An Aside on Human Sacrifice

Most (all?) primitive religions practiced human sacrifice. The story of Isaac (in the Hebrew Bible) and of Iphigenia (In the Greek Iliad) suggests that in that region the practice stopped before 1000 BC. It continued with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who sacrificed infants although that is questioned by modern scholars.

In China it was abolished by the Duke of Xian in 384 BC. The Terra cotta Army bears witness.

A buried army of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses at the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huang (died in 210 BCE). Significance: The custom of killing people and burying them with the emperor was no longer in effect. But tomb size far exceeds anything done in the West at the time. We have to go back to Egypt to find anything similar. Even the much later Ming dynasty (1368–1644) had tombs remind one more of Egypt than Middle East or Europe. Chinese emperors had privileges in death that had disappeared in the West well before 1000 BCE.

In India it continued to modern times with burning of the widow of a man in his funeral pyre.

The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice at a large scale until they were conquered by the Spanish. Michael Harner, in his 1997 article The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice, estimates the number of persons sacrificed in central Mexico in the 15th century as high as 250,000 per year. []