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The Origins Of Religion

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"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
 
Obviously, all or almost all of the world's major religions are in error. The probability that any given religion has a correct view of God, Goddess, Gods, Goddesses, or Gods & Goddesses is slim. Of course, the vast majority of believers refuse to accept reality; they are certain that their specific view of God is the only correct one.
 
The Concepts Of God

How the concepts of God have developed over the ages


The range of beliefs about origins:

According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large faith groups, and many smaller ones.[15] Most of these faith groups have a written or oral tradition that describes how the universe came to be. Consider Judaism, for example. Jews have historically based much of their teachings on origins on the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures. The creation stories in this book have traditionally been interpreted as  describing how God created the world, sun, moon, stars, land, sea, plants, fish, and other species of life less than 10,000 years ago. Other stories in Genesis describe the effects of a worldwide flood and the origins of language diversity. Other books in the Hebrew Scriptures describe the origins of the Jewish religion and civil code.

There are probably on the order of 500 other, conflicting stories about origins of the universe, religion, moral and legal codes, etc. among the thousands of faith groups around the world. It is beyond the scope of this essay to deal with such a range of beliefs. Rather, we will describe a single belief system developed by some religious historians. Their beliefs have few points of similarity with teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam or other religions.

The early development of our species:

The beginnings of religion may have preceded the the first member of our species -- Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals reverently buried their dead with a ritual that seems to show that they anticipated life after death, in some form. They might have had based this belief on some concept of the supernatural.

Many scientists believe (but many creation scientists reject) the concept that our Homo Sapiens ancestors went through a number of changes in their transition from pre-human to fully human. This separated our distant ancestors from all other animal species in the world. At some point, humans:

  • Attained a fully developed self-consciousness.
  • Developed a moral sense.
  • Developed a spirit of community that was much more advanced than any other species.
  • Developed methods of precise communication -- again much more highly developed than other species had attained.
  • Became aware of the finite nature of their life span, and of their own impending death.
  • Developed an enlarged brain with a very different internal structure. This facilitated abstract thinking. Unfortunately, the size of the brain made childbirth much more difficult and hazardous for both woman and fetus.

According to most paleontologists and anthropologists, fully developed humans with these abilities and knowledge emerged, perhaps fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago.

Many North Americans reject the theory of evolution, and believe in creation science, based on Genesis -- the first book in the Torah and the Bible. They believe that the world and its animal species were created by God, fully formed, between the years 4000 and 8000 BCE. It is worth observing that supporters of both the theory of evolution and of creation science share common beliefs in some of the developmental stages of humans -- namely:

  • The development of a moral sense.
  • An awareness of their personal death.
  • Painful and hazardous childbirth.

The first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, describe how God created Adam from mud. He appears to have not been fully differentiated from the animal kingdom at his point. In fact, in one of the strangest passages in the Bible, God tried unsuccessfully to find a mate for him from among the other animal species. God created Eve at this time. Both can be described as proto-human. They had no moral sense; no knowledge of good and evil; they were thus missing certain qualities that we possess today.

God apparently wanted the couple to stay in this pre-human, innocent, partly developed condition. In Genesis 2:17, he ordered Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and threatened them with death if they did. They ate the fruit anyway, and presumably became full humans at that point:

  • Capable of recognizing the difference between good and evil.
  • Capable of developing an ethical sense.
  • Being aware of their own impending personal death.

God cursed the couple, telling Eve that "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children."

The problems of being fully human:

Paul Tillich, one of the most remarkable theologians of the 20th century called this realization of impending death "the shock of nonbeing."  Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis called it "the trauma of self-consciousness."[1] Humanity was never the same. We picked up awareness and knowledge. But we lost ignorance and a sense of innocence. Bishop John Selby Spong wrote:

"It is that human capacity to be fully self-conscious that marks Homo sapiens as different from any other form of life in the natural world. That separating difference is what fills human beings with a sense of dread.  Anxiety, says Paul Tillich, is born in the human recognition of finitude. It is therefore as omnipresent as humanity itself. To be human is to experience self-consciousness, to know separation, to be made aware of limits and to contemplate ends. One cannot be human, therefore, without being filled with chronic anxiety. It sounds depressing, but surely it is true."[2]

Self-consciousness was a remarkable development. All earlier animals lacked this ability. They were born with a set of instinctive responses that enabled them to function independently at an early age. They matured, met their needs for food and water, mated, struggled against the elements, and eventually died -- often violently. They "had no conscious awareness of who they were or what they were doing....when the time came to die, they did so without anticipatory fear or grief. Having no conscious sense that they actually existed or 'were,' and thus lacking a conscious memory of the past or anticipation of the future, they had no sense that they were destined 'not to be.'"[3] But humans became different. They were born with advanced reasoning abilities and few instincts. They remained helpless for many years as their parents taught them the accumulated knowledge of the tribe. Each generation was able to build upon their parent's knowledge base to generate new techniques of coping, planning methods, tools, more cooperative social structures, etc. We advanced as a species by leaps and bounds. But our distant ancestors suffered great anxiety, because they felt helpless, insignificant, and insecure in the face of natural forces and their own finite lifespan. People do not like chronic anxiety. Some coping mechanism had to be developed.

Animism:

Many theologians and anthropologists feel that our first fully human ancestors developed primitive concepts of God in order to lessen their anxiety about the future. Thus began the first religion, Animism. This was, and is, typically found in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having developed self-consciousness in themselves, they may have assumed that the rest of the world was equally self-conscious. The began to believe that the rocks, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, trees, land animals, birds, etc. all contained vital powers, each animated by a spirit. "Those animating spirits might be benevolent or demonic, but in either case they were assumed to be personal, to have selfhood, to be in charge of their particular area of life, to be capable of responding to human need and to be in possession of supernatural power."[4] Village chiefs, shamans and native healers played leadership roles in this religion. Human anxiety dissipated somewhat as our distant ancestors felt more in control of nature. Religion gave them assurance, confidence, and peace of mind.

It is important to realize that no consensus exists of the source of this first religion:

  • Animists are often told a set of ancient stories by the elders that describes the origin of their group and their religious beliefs.
  • Others regard these stories as myths. They feel it is obvious that Animists' beliefs were invented by humans in response to a societal need. Their God did not create humans. Rather, humans created the concept of spirits, including perhaps a great spirit God.

Since Animists are greatly outnumbered by monotheists, polytheists and other later-developing religions, there is a near consensus that Animists' ancestors created their God, spirits, and myths; God did not reveal them to the tribes.

Fertility religions:

When hunting and gathering was replaced by agriculture and the raising of domesticated animals, a major change occurred in religious life. Fertility of the crops, animals, and tribe became of paramount importance. Fertility was seen as clearly feminine in nature; only female humans and other animals can produce offspring. that the group's religion tended to be centered on a matriarchal Goddess: the Earth Mother, Great Goddess or Great Mother.

In Europe, archaeologists have found remains of an "old European" culture. Although the interpretation of archaeological evidence is controversial, many scientists believe that the society worshipped a female fertility goddess, sometimes with a male consort. This culture lasted for tens of thousands of years. They generally lived in peace; they had few defensive fortifications. Males and females were treated equally, at least during burial rituals.

Neopagans form the fifth or sixth largest religious group in the U.S. They base their beliefs and practices partly on ancient Pagan beliefs. Wiccans, for example, have derived their deities, seasonal days of celebration, and some theological beliefs from the ancient Celtic people. They follow many aspects of early fertility religions.

It is important to realize that no consensus exists about the origin of fertility religions:

  • Some Wiccans believe that their beliefs were passed down from the Celts to themselves in a continuous line for over two millennia. Others believe that Wicca is a recent development, initially created in the 1940's from a variety of sources.
  • Most people disagree. They are quite confident that the beliefs of fertility religions were invented by humans in response to a societal need: the guarantee of high fertility rates among their crops, animals and tribal members. They conclude that the fertility Goddess did not create humans. Rather, humans created the concept of the fertility goddess.

Monotheism, polytheism, henotheism and other assorted "isms":

A few thousand years BCE, Indo-Europeans invaded Europe from the east. They brought with them some of the "refinements" of modern civilization: the horse, war, belief in male Gods, exploitation of nature, knowledge of the male role in procreation, etc. Goddess worship was gradually combined with worship of male Gods. The rain was seen as a male entity, falling on and fertilizing Mother Earth. The sun was also viewed as a source of male energy, encouraging the crops to grow. The moon, with its soft, gentle light, was seen to be feminine.

A variety of Pagan polytheistic religions featuring Gods and Goddesses developed among the Greeks, Romans, Celts, etc. In some areas, belief in monotheism -- a single male deity -- emerged. Initially, this God was viewed as ruling over a single geographical area. When a person migrated from one country to another, they were expected to switch their allegiance to the new country's tribal God. We see this in the biblical book of Ruth (1:16): "And Ruth said...whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." (KJV).

In time, God's area of control would expand beyond tribal borders; belief in a universal monotheism began. "The theistic god in these various traditions was:

  • Always other, always external to the self who was defining the God-figure,
  • Always supernatural, and,
  • At least in the West, usually personal in the sense that individuals could know and communicate with this deity.

The theistic God was also presumed to be the explanation for that which was beyond rational understanding, a being capable of miraculous power who therefore needed to be supplicated, praised, obeyed and pleased."[5]

The major religions which have survived to the present day are mostly monotheistic or henotheistic. They include (in alphabetic order):

  • Baha'i World Faith: This religion teaches that there is only one transcendent and unknowable God who is the source of all creation. He has sent ten Great Manifestations of God -- inspired prophets -- to humanity: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, The Bab and Baha'u'llah.
  • Christianity: Most Christians, at least since the late fourth century CE, generally recognize God as composed of a Trinity, which is in turn composed of a Father (Jehovah), Son (Jesus Christ) and Holy Spirit. The Trinity includes three personalities within a single deity.
  • Hinduism: Hindus recognize a single supreme God: Brahma who is simultaneously visualized as a triad: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu (Krishna) the Preserver and Siva the destroyer. Hinduism is a henotheistic religion which  recognizes other gods and goddesses as facets or manifestations or aspects of the one supreme God.
  • Islam: Muslims recognize Allah as the only deity, and Muhammad as his prophet. The Shahadah, which is recited at least daily by most Muslims reflects this: "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet").
  • Judaism: Jews recognize Jehovah as the sole deity, who has selected them to be his chosen people.
  • Sikhism: Sikhs believe in a single, Formless God, with many names, who can be known through meditation.

It is important to realize that no consensus exists about the origins or present validity of these religions. Followers of these faith traditions generally  consider their own faith very differently from all the rest:

  • Jews, Christians, and Muslims revere the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Thus Jews view G-d, the Christians view the Father (one part of the Trinity) and Muslims view Allah somewhat similarly. But the Christian Trinity is a very different deity construct than can fit into the strictly monotheism of Judaism and Islam. And Jews view their G-d very differently than the Muslims view Allah; they have different qualities, attributes, expectations, etc.
  • Many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs regard their own religion as the only true religion; other religions are partly or completely false. Some fundamentalist Christian denominations go further and regard other religions as forms of Satanism, led by Satan or his demons. They also refuse to recognize many denominations in their own religion as Christian.
  • Each religion hold very diverse beliefs about their God. They generally regard their own beliefs about their God to be accurate, and the beliefs of other religions to be partly or completely false.
  • Followers of most religions see their own God as creating the world, its life forms and the rest of the universe; they see their own God as having revealed himself to his followers. The message is conveyed either through a verbal tradition or in written form. But they see founders of other religions as having created their own Gods from their own imaginations. They view religions other than their own as simple human creations. Most believers see their own religious texts as accurate documentaries; they view the holy books of other religions as novels -- as works of fiction.

There is a near consensus among followers of the main monotheistic and henotheistic religions on many factors. Some are:

  • They view their own religious texts as true and inspired by God; the texts of other religions are seen as partly or wholly false; they arose from people's imagination.
  • They see their own view of God as true; he was the creator of mankind and the rest of the universe. They see the Gods of other religions as false; those Gods were created by humans.

The shrinking role of God:

Five hundred years ago, supernatural beings played a major role in the world. For example:

  • The earth was the center of the universe. Angels pushed the stars, planets and moon across the sky.
  • God controlled the weather and the changing of the seasons. He sometimes set aside natural laws and created miracles.
  • Demons caused damaging hail, mental illnesses, and physical disease -- often in punishment for sin.

But then science grew from infancy and started to explain the true, natural causes of many phenomenon. Bishop Spong comments that "The theistic God first became the gap-filler, explaining things that humans could not."[7] (He defines the theistic God as "a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will.")[8] With the advent of such major scientific advances as Newton's laws of physics, the germ theory of disease, Darwin's theory of evolution, Einstein's laws of relativity, critical analysis of the Bible, archaeological discoveries in Palestine, etc., these gaps started to fill up. Academic Michael D. Goulder observed: "God no longer has any work to do." Bishop Spong notes that "The theistic god is becoming irrelevant with no real purpose. Theistic power has become impotent...Theism is dying"[7]

We have seen an accelerating march towards secularism for the past few decades. Friedrich Nietsche proclaimed the death of the theistic God in the 19th century. Some radical theologians picked up the theme in the 1960s. It is finally being accepted by large numbers of people. Spong suggests that as people abandon their belief in a personal, protective God, that the anxiety experienced by our ancient ancestors is returning. He notes increasing addiction to caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, other addictive drugs, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. He also notes an increase in the suicide rate, mass murders, and road rage as byproducts as a death in belief of a theistic God. Polls regularly show that church attendance in the U.S. is about 40% and in Canada is about 20%. These same polls show that that attendance is dropping. The actual situation is more serious for the future of religion. People tend to lie when asked motherhood-type questions by pollsters. In reality, only about 20% of American adults and 10% of Canadian adults regularly attend a church, mosque, synagogue, temple or other religious service.

Can God survive in a postmodern, post-Darwinian world?

Atheism is one possible choice for people who have abandoned belief in a theistic God. Atheists have no belief in the existence of a supernatural deity.  According to American Atheists, 9% of adults in the U.S. no longer have a believe in God.[9] According to an Ipsos-Reid poll released on 2000-APR-21, about 14% of Canadian adults are Atheists;[10]

Agnosticism is another option. The same Ipsos-Reid poll found that 2% of Canadian adults are Agnostics. A City University of New York found that the percentage of Agnostics in the U.S. ranged from 0.0% in Delaware and Louisiana, to 3% in Kentucky. National surveys have put the percentage between 0.7 and 5%

Bishop Spong argues that there is another response to the loss in belief in a theistic God. He suggests that belief in a non-theistic God can continue -- a God with the following descriptions:

  • Love is God.
  • God is in each individual.
  • God "is a symbol of that which is immortal, invisible, timeless."[13]
  • "God is Being -- the reality underlying everything that is."[14]

But he suggests that a number of historical Christian beliefs and practices must be dropped -- or at least be totally redefined. These include:

  • God as a being -- supernatural or otherwise.
  • The virgin birth.
  • The incarnation.
  • The atonement.
  • The "fall" of Adam and Eve.
  • Original sin.
  • The miracles of Jesus.
  • The resurrection of Jesus.
  • The ascension of Jesus to Heaven.
  • The Trinity.
  • Prayer.

He admits that Christianity might not be able to make the transition from a theistic to a non-theistic God. It might be destroyed by the changes required.

Conclusions:

  • Many mental health professionals believe that, with the possible exception of their own personal faith, all religions were originally created by humans in order to alleviate their chronic anxiety. Their angst was created by their feelings of helplessness in a dangerous universe, their lack of control of the environment, and the knowledge of their own impending deaths.
  • Most people, whether they follow Animism, a fertility religion, Neopaganism, or a monotheistic, polytheistic, or henotheistic religion believe that their own religion is accurate:
    • Their own God(s) and/or Goddess(es) are real, but the deities of other religions are false.
    • Their own religious texts were inspired by their God. They alone know the true attributes of God. God revealed to them alone his expectations for his followers. God give them alone the correct behavior and moral codes to be followed. The religious texts of other religions are works of fiction, written by humans, and partly or fully in error.
  • One source states that there are 19 major world religions, which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and tens of thousands of smaller ones (including 34,000 separate Christian faith groups).[6] These tens of thousands of theistic faith traditions teach different beliefs about deity, moral codes, behavioral codes, etc.
    • If God exists, then only one group, at most, can reflect his will.
    • If God does not exist, as some Atheists believe and some Agnostics suspect, then none of the tens of thousands of theistic faith traditions are valid.
  • The chances of a given person belonging to God's "true" religious institution is rather small. Many people are willing to accept this conclusion. However, most are quite certain that their faith tradition is the one that is God's. Sadly, many find it quite difficult to extend equal human rights to members of other religions. A few are quite capable of denying human rights to, and even killing, those that they consider to be infidels in order to further their own religion's goals.

References:

  1. J.S. Spong, "A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001), Pages 37 & 38. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Ibid, Page 38.
  3. Ibid, Page 40 & 41.
  4. Ibid, Page 45.
  5. Ibid, Page 49.
  6. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book.
  7. Op cit. Spong, Page 53.
  8. Ibid, Page 22 & 23.
  9. The American Atheists home page is at http://www.atheists.org/
  10. "Canada: A Nation of Believers," Ipsos-Reid, at: http://www.angusreid.com/media/
  11. "Table 3-1: Religious Composition of State Populations, 1990 (%). Self-identification of religious loyalty, phone survey w/ 113,000 people; by City U. of New York" cited in: Kosmin, B. & S. Lachman, "One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society," Harmony Books, (1993), Pages 88-93. See Ref. 13.
  12. Adherents.com has collected results from a number of surveys at: http://www.adherents.com/Na_12.html
  13. Op cit. Spong, Page 71.
  14. Ibid, Page 72.
  15. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

Copyright 2001, 2002 & 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-OCT-7
Latest update: 2004-JUL-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

Source:
www.religioustolerance.org

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