When read in tandem, Will Durant’s sweeping Story of Civilization and Robert Wright’s magisterial Evolution of God offer an explanation of religious impulse and an understanding of religious development in the West.
Wright traces the religious impulse as an understandable reaction to dreams of the deceased. Nightmares of the dead created the illusion of an external, immortal realm and continuation of life after death. When humans began living in cities, religion changed. Sovereigns assumed priestly power and held the power of taboo. The doctrine of sin originated in the normal human fear of having said or done the wrong thing in social interactions.
Middle Easterners were originally polytheistic and traces of this remain in the Bible. Semitic people worshiped El, the chief god of a militaristic pantheon. The first term for God in the Bible is Elohim or council of gods. Arabs worshiped El/Al as well, and till the time of Mohammed their pantheon, whose cult site was the Ka’ab at Mecca, consisted of El plus numerous fertility goddesses. Semitic people near Jerusalem worshiped Yahweh, a particular warrior of the elohim. Yahweh’s consort was the fertility goddess Ashtaroth, the Babylonian Ishtar. As the northern and southern tribes came into alliance, El merged with Yahweh, and the ancient Hebrews evolved from worshipers of one god among many, monolatry, to monotheists.
Jesus, Hillel and Philo of Alexandria represent late development in the prophetic tradition of ethical monotheism. Even so, when they command their followers to love one other, they are referring to fellow Jewish men. Women and non-Jews were accorded little respect. After Jerusalem fell and Jews dispersed, the followers of Jesus argued about the role of non-Jews in what would become a new religion, and dietary laws, meat sacrificed to idols, and circumcision were casualties as it sought to have broad appeal.
Durant lists the numerous councils, clergy and philosophers that guided Christian dogma into imperial faith. Christianity’s acceptance in West was no sure thing and was helped by the failure of official Roman religion. Though originally a minor Jewish sect, it became an independent religion. Judaism had broad appeal in the early centuries of the Common Era; Jews actively proselytized and approximately 1 out of every 10 Roman citizens considered themselves Jewish. Ethical monotheism was a viable alternative to sensual polytheism but hardly the only Eastern mystery religion available. Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, worship of Isis had their adherents; mystery religions entailed initiation, revelation and guarantee of immortality. Initiations were painful and costly; Mithra required purchase and sacrifice of a bull. Judaism entailed painful surgery and strict dietary laws. As Christianity separated from its parent faith, it discarded onerous requirements. The polytheism of the trinity and traditional cult of the Great Mother were already familiar to worshipers.
As Rome became unstable due to Germanic invasion and political corruption, the capital moved east to Constantinople. The Roman church diverged theologically from the Eastern branch; the Orthodox Church was unaffected by Augustine and had no doctrine of original sin or total depravity. Early Orthodox practice upheld the Jewish ban on graven images. The Orthodox and Roman traditions held a different theology of incarnation. Orthodox belief maintained the Son was begotten at a specific point of time and not co-eternal with the Father. Also, the Orthodox position specified the Spirit proceeded only from God, not from the Father and the Son as the Western church maintained. Some Orthodox theologians were monophysites, believing Jesus had no dual nature. Western Christians, meanwhile, excommunicated and eventually executed those with such unitarian tendencies. Arians, Pelagians, Cathars and Bogomiles were summarily slaughtered.
Besides theological differences, the significant distinction between the two Christian traditions was the Western assumption of political power. As the Roman polity imploded, the Bishop of Rome claimed temporal as well as spiritual authority. The pope claimed the right to appoint or reject kings and emperors. The Roman Church was wealthy and held vast land holdings. By the 11th century, Rome noted with distress that offspring of clergy were amassing wealth, hence the sudden instigation of celibacy for the Western priesthood.
The political power of the pope led to problems as the newly created nations of France and England emerged from the rubble of the Western collapse. Rome allied itself with the loose Germanic confederation known as the Holy Roman Empire, though it wasn’t holy or Roman or an empire. As France increased in wealth and power, it brought the papacy to French soil, away from Rome and German control. With the Vatican relocated in Avignon, popes became the pawns of the French monarchy. The Holy Roman emperors objected and after a century brought the pope back to Rome, though those popes were not universally recognized. Occasionally as many as 3 pontiffs claimed to be the Bishop of Rome, each one excommunicating the other two.
By the 16th century, when the pope sought to rebuild St. Peter’s, nationalist sentiments were simmering. Italian priest were sent to northern cities to collect funds for the massive project and offered indulgences, or cash payments, for sins past, present and future. Germans wealth trickled south to Rome. German resentment over loss of money triggered a host of legitimate grievances against Rome. Calvin and Knox followed Luther in France, Switzerland and Scotland. Religious war ensued, and for a hundred years Protestants and Catholics very nearly succeeded in finishing off each other. The church’s vast real estate was a ripe target for British, Scottish and German nobility, and part of the project of the Reformation was local redistribution of Roman wealth.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, Turks and Caucasian tribes were reeling from invading Mongolian hordes. Pressure for land and safety forced the Turks westward and they invaded the corrupt and decaying Eastern Empire. The prelates of the Orthodox tradition relocated to Russia, Serbia and Greece. When Islam spread to Syria and North Africa, most Orthodox converted not because they were forced to--- they were not--- but because the Islamic beliefs about God and Jesus were not as unfamiliar to those in the Eastern Church. Both Muslim and Orthodox traditions were committed to monotheism and the ban on graven images.
While the Reformation brought needed change, it didn’t go far enough. It replaced veneration of the Vatican with veneration of the Bible; one idolatry was replaced with another. The Protestant churches didn’t usher in a golden age. Neither Catholic nor Protestant countries tolerated freethinkers. The Catholics Inquisition continued executing heretics and Protestants began burning “witches.” Dissenters and Unitarians were slaughtered in both Catholic and Protestant jurisdictions. The Protestant doctrines of justification by faith and predestination were as harsh and discouraging as the Roman practice of indulgences. The progress that began in the Renaissance was postponed for a century while one group of Europeans killed other Europeans who disagreed with them.
Durant’s history reveals the arbitrary quirks of time and circumstance. His tracing of religion is wry and less hopeful, perhaps, than Wright’s. Durant faults the limits of the Reformation and how stalled true reform was. A modern understanding of the Bible didn’t come till the late 18th century and is still resisted by fanatics worldwide. Wright posits the hope and belief that ideas about the divine will expand to include not just coreligionists but all humans.
Hopefully Wright is correct and religious expression will expand to become more inclusive. Organized religion, with its dark history of persecution and intolerance has much to atone for. Durant and Wright explain the human impulse for belief and call for further reformation and more understanding, compassion and tolerance.