Self Help

Little History of Religion, A - Richard Holloway

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Matheus Puppe

· 41 min read

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Here is a summary of the key points from the introduction to A Little History of Religion by Richard Holloway:

  • Religion arose from humanity’s self-consciousness and curiosity about existence, particularly questions around where the universe came from and what happens after death.

  • Early humans seemed to believe that something (a spirit or soul) inhabits and animates the physical body but departs upon death. They buried their dead with care, suggesting a belief in an afterlife.

  • Archaeological evidence from burials dating back over 100,000 years shows practices like placing tools and food in graves, as well as painting bodies with red ochre, indicating beliefs that the dead need provisions and that life continues in some form.

  • These early practices demonstrate symbolic thinking, a uniquely human ability that is central to religious belief and ritual. Symbols represent abstract concepts and ideas.

  • The text provides context around terminology like BCE/BC (Before Common Era/Before Christ) and CE/AD (Common Era/Anno Domini) for dating events, and notes religion’s influence in establishing the global calendar system still used today.

  • In summary, the introduction argues that wondering about existence, death, and what comes after likely prompted humanity’s earliest religious beliefs and burial practices, establishing a foundation for the development of world religions.

  • Symbols become potent representations of things deeper than words, like national flags symbolizing countries. Insulting symbols can provoke anger or violence, especially religious symbols that are sacred to communities.

  • Early humans marked burial sites of important figures, like under large boulders or in dolmen stone chambers. The Egyptian pyramids may have been viewed as launchpads for souls’ immortality. Some burial rituals included human sacrifices to accompany the deceased.

  • Death was seen as an entrance to another existence, imagined as similar to this life. This glimpses early beliefs in an afterlife connected but separate from this world.

  • Prophets and sages claim to have personally visited or been contacted by the spiritual world beyond, hearing its demands. Through their teachings and followers, new religions were born.

  • Sacred scriptures emerged from memorized and then written stories about prophets. These scriptures become bridges between eternity and time, linking human and divine. They are objects of intense study and reverence that followers resist seeing desecrated.

  • The story of Moses illustrates how prophets may have experienced contact through opened “doors” between conscious and subconscious minds, accessing supernatural realities through visions and voices from within or beyond. Their insights shaped religious teachings. Interpreting such experiences remains open to different perspectives.

  • The passage discusses Hinduism’s concept of reincarnation and karma. It presents the idea that souls are reborn after death into different life forms, dictated by their karma (actions in past lives).

  • Souls wander endlessly through this cycle of death and rebirth, called samsara, seeking to eventually achieve moksha or release. Hinduism aims to explain what happens after death and how to attain salvation.

  • These concepts of karma, samsara, and moksha originated from ancient Sanskrit texts. Sanskrit was brought to India by migrating groups called Aryans around 2000 BCE.

  • The Aryans invaded northern India from Central Asia, disrupting an existing sophisticated civilization. They introduced their Vedic gods and religious literature, composed between 1200-1000 BCE as they settled in India.

  • This invasion marks the beginnings of Hinduism. The passage discusses key Hindu beliefs about the cycle of rebirth, influenced by ancient Aryan migration and Sanskrit religious texts called the Vedas.

  • The Vedas were the original Hindu scriptures. They were orally transmitted from generation to generation by students memorizing the teachings from their teachers. Reading the Vedas aloud is still an important practice for learning Hindu scriptures today.

  • The Vedas contain hymns, prayers, rituals and sacrifices to various gods. They also explore philosophical concepts like karma, samsara and reincarnation.

  • The Upanishads mark a turning point where Hinduism shifts from a focus on external rituals to internal beliefs and philosophical teachings. Key ideas explored in the Upanishads include the doctrines of karma, samsara and the concept of Brahman.

  • Brahman is described as the single, universal spirit or soul that is the ultimate reality behind all existence. All beings and things in the world are said to originate from and be a manifestation of Brahman.

  • Hindus believe that at their core, individual souls (atman) are identical to and non-different from Brahman. This is captured in the famous phrase “tat tvam asi” or “you are that.”

  • Hindu scriptures also describe the origin of the caste system, with society divided into four main castes based on occupation. Caste was believed to be ordained by Brahman and people were expected to fulfill their duties within their caste.

  • Gods were seen as multifaceted manifestations and agents of the single divine principle, Brahman. But they were subject to cycles of creation, like all other beings in the phenomenal world.

  • Siddhartha Gautama, born around 580 BCE, was a prince from a warrior caste in what is now northern India.

  • He was well educated in Hindu scriptures but saw the doctrine of endless reincarnation as problematic.

  • At age 29, Siddhartha witnessed four sights that disturbed him - an ill man, an old man, a funeral procession, realizing sickness, old age and death affected everyone.

  • These sights prompted Siddhartha to question what caused people to be trapped in the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara) in Hinduism. He sought a quicker way to achieve liberation from samsara.

  • This led Siddhartha to abandon his privileged life and embark on a spiritual journey that eventually resulted in him becoming the Buddha, founder of Buddhism. He found an alternative path to liberation from suffering distinct from traditional Hindu teachings.

So in summary, witnessing human suffering shook Siddhartha’s faith in Hindu doctrines and drove him to find a swifter means of liberation, leading to his enlightenment as the Buddha and creation of a new religious movement, Buddhism.

  • Siddhartha is troubled by suffering in the world and cannot find answers in the religious teachings he’s studied. As he ponders these issues in his palace, he sees a homeless monk who appears happy and at peace.

  • He decides to abandon his luxurious life and become a monk to find the cause of suffering and a way to end it. After 6 years of meditation and austerity practices that leave him near death, he still hasn’t achieved enlightenment.

  • Resting under a fig tree, he realizes his desire to end desire was itself a desire. He reaches enlightenment and insights into the Four Noble Truths and Middle Path.

  • He shares this teaching with other monks, founding Buddhism. The key is following the Eightfold Path to control cravings through meditation and diminish suffering.

  • Buddhism spread Buddhism but remained rare in India. Jainism, which focused on extreme self-denial, was an alternative answer to escaping rebirth found mainly in India. Its ideal was spiritual liberation through fasting to death.

In summary, Siddhartha abandons his privileged life to find the cause of suffering and achieves Buddhist enlightenment, teaching the Four Noble Truths and Middle Path as a means to diminish craving and suffering through meditation and morality. Jainism also aimed for liberation but through severe self-denial and fasting.

  • Jainism was founded by Mahavira, who lived around 599 BCE in India. He preached a message similar to the Buddha of renouncing desire to end suffering.

  • A key teaching of Jainism is ahimsa, or non-violence towards all living things. Monks and nuns follow very strict rules of not harming any creature, even sweeping the ground before walking.

  • The Five Commandments emphasized doing no harm, not stealing, lying, engaging in sex/sensuality, or coveting.

  • Jains practiced extreme asceticism like fasting to the point of death. Most followers lived as strict fruitarians to avoid harming plants.

  • Jain philosophy saw the universe as two spheres joined by a thin middle part containing the material world. Good deeds made the soul lighter to escape rebirth.

  • Jainism encouraged spiritual humility through ideas like anekantavada, recognizing every view grasps only part of truth like blind men describing an elephant.

  • It influenced movements like vegetarianism and Gandhi’s non-violence through the principle of ahimsa towards all life. Jainism still has millions of followers in India today.

Abraham was the Hebrew patriarch who is claimed as a founding figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam according to scriptural sources. He is described as migrating from Ur in Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan at God’s command, where he encountered divine revelations instructing him to reject idolatry and establish monotheistic worship of God alone. His story is said to mark the beginnings of the shift from polytheism to strict monotheism. He is remembered for his absolute faith and willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac if commanded by God, though God stopped him at the last moment. His story exemplifies total subjection to God’s will above all human ties for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

  • The story recounts how Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, migrated to Egypt during a famine and initially prospered. However, over time the Egyptians grew fearful of the Israelites and enslaved them, ordering all newborn Hebrew boys to be killed.

  • One Israelite mother placed her son in a basket in the reeds, where he was found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and named Moses. Moses grew up privileged but came to sympathize with his enslaved people.

  • After killing an Egyptian taskmaster, Moses fled into the desert where God spoke to him from a burning bush and commanded him to return to Egypt and demand Pharaoh free the Israelites.

  • Despite resistance, Moses carried out a series of plagues against Egypt on God’s orders, culminating in the death of all Egyptian firstborn. Pharaoh then allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt.

  • The passage questions whether religious ideas are truly divine or human inventions. It notes how Abraham rejected idols but wonders if conceptions of God are also products of the human mind. The voice that spoke to figures like Abraham and Moses is presented as a subjective internal voice rather than an objective external entity.

  • After escaping Egypt, the Israelites began following Moses through the desert toward the Promised Land. However, they grew restless and impatient.

  • While Moses was away receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf idol. Moses condemned this and told them God’s Ten Commandments, including prohibitions against other gods and images.

  • The Commandments particularly banned making images to represent God, as this could confuse symbols for reality. This warned against religions claiming to fully capture or contain God.

  • After more wandering, Moses died before reaching Canaan. Joshua then led the conquest and wars to establish the Israelites in the Promised Land.

  • The Israelites eventually demanded a king like other peoples, and their first was Saul. His successor David was a heroic fighter who united Israel. Solomon later built the first Temple in Jerusalem. So the wandering tribes became a proper nation with structures of kingship and religion.

In summary, it outlines the Israelites’ continued struggles after Exodus, the establishment of the Ten Commandments including the important prohibition on religious images, and the eventual founding of the Kingdom of Israel under rulers like David and temples like Solomon’s.

  • The voice of God began speaking again through prophets to a new generation of Israelites, unhappy with how they had turned him into a greedy idol. He wanted justice for the poor and vulnerable.

  • As an independent kingdom, Israel was not very secure between powerful Egypt and Assyria. They were eventually overrun by Assyria and many Israelites were exiled to Babylon.

  • In exile, the Israelites initially thought they had lost God forever. But they came to realize God was everywhere, not stuck in their temple or homeland.

  • They began collecting stories of God’s actions in their past to understand their history. Prophets now spoke to them in exile, and this time they listened.

  • Finally made it refers to the Israelites realizing the prophets had been right all along after suffering another period of exile and bondage, as God had warned through the prophets generations earlier. Their God didn’t think they had truly made it until this point of understanding.

  • Religions often look back nostalgically to their early days when passion and fervor were high before formal structures developed. This tension exists in organized religion between maintaining early spirit vs established systems.

  • Judaism began consolidating after exile with a focus on strict religious purity and observance. This brought peace until Antiochus’s persecution, which didn’t fit the old explanation of suffering as divine punishment for sin.

  • A new figure called Daniel emerged during this time, claiming visions of the future rather than just interpreting the past like prophets. Daniel wrote in an “apocalyptic” coded style to communicate secret intelligence from God to prepare people.

  • Daniel’s most famous story reassured Jews they would survive Antiochus by depicting Daniel surviving a lion’s den after praying to his god despite a law forbidding it. The story was actually about contemporary events under Antiochus rather than something from centuries past.

  • This introduced new apocalyptic elements to Judaism that would influence later faiths like Christianity and Islam through coded visions of ultimate victory over oppression.

  • The book of Daniel was written during the persecution of the Jewish people by Antiochus IV to strengthen their resistance against him. Daniel told stories of people remaining faithful to God despite being thrown into a lion’s den to comfort Israel during their suffering.

  • Daniel introduced new concepts to Judaism, like belief in life after death and a final judgment. Previously, Jews did not focus on life after death, believing people’s time was over when they died.

  • Daniel predicted a coming Messiah who would signal the end of times is near. This gave the Jewish people hope, but the Messiah never arrived as predicted and things got worse under Roman rule.

  • The Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, thinking this would finally destroy the Jewish people, but they had already dispersed and kept their faith even without the Temple.

  • The story of Job in the Bible challenged orthodox views on why the righteous suffer, making Job an important heretic figure who asked difficult questions and promoted debate within Judaism.

  • The story introduces the Parsees, a religious community in India who follow Zoroastrianism. They dispose of dead bodies by exposing them on Towers of Silence, where vultures and carrion birds consume the flesh. This allows the body to return to nature without polluting fire or earth.

  • Zoroastrianism originated in ancient Persia (modern Iran) around 600 BCE, at the same time as early Judaism. It had a profound influence on other faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  • Zoroaster was likely the founder and lived from 628-551 BCE. He was a priest who preached a new religion but was eventually murdered by a rival priest, highlighting religion’s tendency for violent disagreement as new faiths threaten old ones.

  • The source of religion is a transcendent, invisible reality only accessed through prophets. But every new prophet’s message attacks the old priesthood, so priests of established religions have always opposed new prophets, explaining why prophets tend to suffer.

  • In summarizing the key points, the passage introduces Zoroastrianism and the Parsees, establishes Zoroaster as its founder in ancient Persia, and discusses religion’s nature as a contested domain often leading to disagreement and opposition to new ideas.

  • Zoroaster was a priest of an old polytheistic religion in Persia who had a series of visions that prompted him to start a new monotheistic religion.

  • He was troubled by the problem of evil - how could a good God allow bad things to happen? His answer was that God originally created two spirits/sons - one good and one evil. So the struggle between good and evil began from the creation of the world.

  • Zoroaster believed there would eventually be a final battle where the evil spirit would be destroyed. A savior figure would appear to help good finally triumph over evil.

  • His teachings introduced ideas like individual resurrection, heaven/hell, and an apocalyptic end times. They were influential on other religions like Judaism.

  • Zoroaster faced opposition but his religion, called Zoroastrianism, was eventually accepted. Its scriptures were gathered in the Avesta. Zoroastrians kept sacred fires lit in temples.

  • Over time, Zoroastrianism was replaced as the main religion of Persia by Islam. Zoroastrians migrated to India where small communities still exist today.

  • Buddhism was introduced to China by traders from India and became one of China’s three main religions alongside Confucianism and Taoism.

  • China had a pragmatic approach to religion, focusing on practice over theory and right action rather than right belief. Their indigenous religions aimed to balance the natural forces and ward off harmful spirits through ceremonies.

  • Confucius lived in the 6th-5th century BCE during a chaotic period. He taught that society should prioritize people’s welfare over war and ambitions. Individuals survive through relationships and compassion binds communities. His philosophy focused on righteous living in this world rather than the afterlife.

  • Confucianism venerates ancestors as maintaining ties beyond death. It aims to manage life and society on earth through courtesy, ethics and consideration for others. While having religious elements, it is more philosophical in nature.

  • Taoism and Buddhism also became established religions in China, offering additional perspectives people could draw from in China’s pluralistic tradition.

  • Confucianism and Taoism were originally Chinese religions that sought to understand humanity’s place in the world and find answers to philosophical problems.

  • Taoists looked at the natural world and admired its unity and interdependence. They believed humans had become disconnected from nature’s rhythms through self-aware thinking. Taoism taught living in harmony with nature by following the unexplainable “Tao.”

  • Laozi founded Taoism and taught concepts like wu-wei (non-action) and balancing opposites like yin and yang. Taoism valued anarchism, freedom, and minimal government interference.

  • Buddhism originated in India but spread to China. It further divided into philosophical schools like Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism incorporated religious elements like statues of Buddha.

  • When Buddhism reached China, it fused with local Taoist beliefs to form new schools like Zen Buddhism, which adopted Taoism’s playful, non-verbal teaching methods focused on meditation.

  • Tantric Buddhism established itself in isolated Tibet, turning it into a vast network of monasteries headed by reincarnating teacher lamas. Tibetan Buddhism incorporated traditions like lamas choosing their own reincarnations.

  • In early Japanese religion, Japan itself was considered the world and its creation was explained through mythology. The gods Izanagi and Izanami stirred up the mud at the bottom of the sea, forming the islands of Japan.

  • Japan was seen not just as the location created by the gods, but as their very dwelling place. Heaven and earth were one - heaven was considered to be on earth, within Japan.

  • The land and nature were infused with sacred spirits called kami. Mountains, rivers, plants and animals all contained kami. Mount Fuji was especially sacred.

  • Rather than a set of beliefs, early Japanese religion was more of a way of experiencing themselves as enfolded within a web of being that included the land, people, and animating kami spirits throughout nature. It was not so much a belief system as simply the way they were. This attitude is termed shinto.

So in summary, early Japanese religion centered Japan itself as the divine creation and dwelling place of both heaven and the animating kami spirits, reflecting the profound connection between people and the land. It was an all-encompassing way of being rather than a separate body of beliefs.

  • The passage discusses how religion has served to explain and justify aspects of the social order, such as humans’ dominance over nature according to the Bible, or the caste system in Hinduism.

  • It then explains how religion started to take a more personal direction by offering individual salvation and peace of mind. This was spurred by Romans adopting and adapting myths from Greek and Persian religions they encountered.

  • A key example discussed is the Greek myth of Persephone, which was turned into a “mystery religion” by Romans. The myth portrayed the rhythms of nature, but through rituals it allowed individuals to experience emotionally the “dying and rising” of the goddess.

  • Participating in the secret rites and ceremonies of the Eleusinian cult, centered around Demeter and Persephone, was meant to bring one communion with the goddess and a spiritual experience of winter dying and spring rebirth. This changed individuals psychologically.

  • Other mystery cults developed around figures like Mithras, bringing religion into a more private, emotional realm centered on individual spiritual experience and salvation through ritual enactments of myths.

  • Roman soldiers spread the cult of Mithras after encountering it on their military campaigns in the East. They were drawn to its themes of blood sacrifice and the idea that shedding blood could lead to new life.

  • Mithraism and other Greco-Roman mystery cults emerging at the time celebrated individual salvation rather than group identity. They attracted converts by offering emotional, dramatic rituals centered around a god who died and rose again.

  • This marked a shift toward religions appealing to individuals rather than defining one’s religion by birth. It set the stage for Christianity to later become a truly universal religion by offering salvation to all.

  • One of Christianity’s most famous early converts was Saul, who became known as Paul. A Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, he had a dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus that transformed him into Christianity’s most prominent leader and missionary.

  • The followers of Jesus became bolder after his death, claiming he had risen from the dead and appeared to them. This infuriated the priests who wanted to stop his movement.

  • Saul was recruited to hunt down and capture Christians before they caused more trouble. He pursued them eagerly.

  • On the road to Damascus, Saul experienced a vision of Jesus and was blinded. He converted to becoming a follower of Jesus after recovering his sight.

  • The disciples were suspicious of Saul’s conversion, wondering if it was a trap. Saul spent time alone in Arabia contemplating his new faith.

  • It took three years before Saul, now called Paul, met the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem. He also claimed to be an apostle of Jesus.

  • The earliest writings we have are letters by Paul, not the Gospels. Paul focused on Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning, not details of his life.

  • The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John came later and provide accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as his death and resurrection. But they were written decades after the events.

  • Jesus began his ministry helping the poor and suffering, outraging authorities who saw suffering as divine punishment. He saw suffering as caused by corrupt political and religious systems.

  • His first clash came over Sabbath rules, when disciples picked grain. Jesus said laws should serve people, not the other way around.

  • In the Sermon on the Mount, he challenged authoritarian rulers, teaching people to turn the other cheek and love enemies. This was revolutionary talk.

  • In the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus said a neighbor is anyone in need, not just one’s own group. He criticized religious institutions for prioritizing rules over compassion.

  • These teachings threatened religious and political leaders, and turned them against Jesus. He was arrested secretly at night and crucified by the Romans.

  • After his death, followers were in despair until reports emerged that he had risen from death, surprising them with new hope against all expectations.

  • The appearances of Jesus after his resurrection emboldened the apostles like Peter to preach boldly about Jesus being the Messiah, despite suffering a form of cursed death. But they were unsure when exactly Jesus’ kingdom would come.

  • Paul emerged as a vocal evangelist to gentiles, arguing Christians did not need to follow Jewish traditions like circumcision. This put him at odds with the original disciples who wanted to focus on Jewish believers in Jerusalem.

  • The disciples compromised by allowing Paul to preach to gentiles while they waited in Jerusalem. Paul established many gentile churches across the Roman empire.

  • Christianity grew quietly in Rome before Paul’s imprisonment there. His preaching there helped Christianity take root in the capital.

  • The early Christians were a despised group, including slaves. Paul sent a slave back to his master but did not challenge slavery, likely because he expected Jesus’ imminent return.

  • Romans grew suspicious of Christians for refusing to burn incense to the emperor, implying only divine status. This sparked periods of persecution by Roman authorities. The first major persecution occurred under Nero after the Great Fire of Rome.

  • Nero persecuted Christians in Rome, reportedly using some as torches in his garden. It’s believed Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down during this time.

  • Despite persecutions, Christianity continued expanding rapidly across the Roman Empire. Christians saw persecution as strengthening their faith.

  • Early Christians debated theological issues like whether gentiles needed to follow Jewish laws and the nature of Jesus as both human and divine.

  • The church established an efficient administrative system with bishops, priests, and deacons. Persecution continued sporadically but the church grew stronger.

  • Emperor Diocletian unleashed a brutal persecution in 303, but it backfired and Christianity was established as the official religion just over a decade later under Constantine.

  • Constantine recognized Christianity could unite his declining empire. He convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to resolve theological disputes, establishing orthodox Christian doctrine.

  • This marked the triumph of the church over persecution and the beginning of its domination of European history as Christendom. However, some Christians saw this as diverging from Jesus’ original message.

So in summary, it traces the early persecutions, theological debates, establishment of church hierarchy, final persecution under Diocletian, and political adoption under Constantine establishing Christianity’s dominance.

  • Mecca, located in what is now Saudi Arabia, was an important trading city and pilgrimage site for Abrahamic monotheists and Arab polytheists alike due to the Kaaba temple and the Black Stone within. However, over time merchants exploited pilgrims through idol sales and other means.

  • Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 CE and became disgusted by the corruption he witnessed related to religion. After receiving revelations from Gabriel beginning at age 40, he began preaching monotheism and denouncing idol worship.

  • Muhammad gained followers called Muslims but also faced persecution from Meccan merchants. He and his followers migrated to the city of Yathrib, later called Medina, in 622 CE. This event marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

  • For the next decade, there were battles between Mecca and Medina before Muhammad conquered Mecca in 630 CE. He removed idols and began organizing the Hajj pilgrimage. Muhammad passed away in 632 CE, leaving behind a rapidly growing religious movement.

The passage discusses the monotheistic view that the only ultimate reality is God. According to monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is the sole creator of all existence. Everything in the universe, including humans, came into being through God.

The passage uses an analogy of humans as characters created by the author of a novel. In monotheism, humans seek to understand and connect with God, who is the author of their existence. Prophets and sages try to receive revelation from God to gain insight into God’s nature.

The passage then focuses on Islam specifically. It outlines some key differences between the Quran and the Bible. The Quran is believed to be the unaltered word of God revealed directly to Muhammad, rather than a humanly compiled text. Muslims see the Quran as God’s presence on Earth.

The passage explains the Five Pillars of Islam that are central practices for Muslims: the Shahadah declaration of faith, daily prayers, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan, and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca if possible in a lifetime. It highlights reverence for Muhammad as the prophet of God, but clarifies Muslims do not worship him as a deity. In summary, the passage outlines the monotheistic belief that God is the single divine reality and discusses key aspects of Islam within that framework.

  • Muslim devotion to Allah is primarily focused on Allah’s oneness and beauty, as described through his 99 most beautiful names in the Quran. However, the Quran also warns of Allah as an afflictor and avenger for sinners and unbelievers.

  • Prophet Muhammad led military campaigns against opponents of Islam. For visionaries like Muhammad, life on earth was brief and a prelude to the afterlife. Some believers give their lives as martyrs or fight to protect the faith, following the logic that brief pain now leads to eternal reward later.

  • Jihad means struggle, including the struggle to defend Islam from enemies through violence if needed. Early Muslims used jihad to establish and spread Islam militarily from the 7th century onwards.

  • After Muhammad’s death, there was disagreement over leadership of the Muslim community that led to the Sunni-Shia schism. This internal conflict highlighted how easily religions can fracture, especially over issues of authority and succession.

  • The Quran depicts predestination - that everyone’s fate in the afterlife is predetermined by God before they are born. But this raises questions about free will and the point of human struggle or prophetic warnings if destinies are fixed in advance.

  • The passage discusses an debate around the concepts of predestination and free will in Islam. Some argue predestination contradicts human free will and the call for Muslims to follow prophets and religion.

  • Interpretation of the Quran is complex, with literalists taking scripture at face value versus scholars with more subtle readings. This leads to ongoing disputes between different schools of thought.

  • Heaven and Hell are described in the Quran, with paradise featuring wine, women and peace, versus hell with burning winds and smoke. They can be taken literally or metaphorically.

  • Hell arises from the human imagination and religious ways of thinking - natural religion ponders the afterlife, revealed religion claims to know its details. Conceptions vary between religions like Hinduism versus Christianity/Islam.

  • Descriptions of Hell escalated over time, from a dreary underworld to a place of torment, fueled by desire to scare people into religion. The Quran includes graphic torment details.

  • Christianity innovated by depicting hell visually, like grisly wall paintings, to reinforce the message more tangibly than words alone could convey. Such images were meant to terrify viewers.

  • In the 12th century, the Catholic Church established Purgatory as a place where souls could face temporary punishment after death to purge their sins before entering heaven. This provided a middle ground between going straight to heaven or hell.

  • Saint Thomas Aquinas was a key figure who explained how Purgatory worked - that those who died before fully paying for their sins would get a second chance there. Purgatory offered hope, as the punishment was not eternal like in hell.

  • However, the Church corrupted the concept of Purgatory by turning it into a money-making scheme. They sold indulgences which were meant to reduce one’s time spent in Purgatory. This outrageous practice eventually led to the Protestant Reformation that tore the Catholic Church apart.

  • The chapter goes on to discuss how the Catholic Church established a centralized hierarchy with the Pope having absolute power and authority over both earthly and spiritual matters. This helped maintain unity within the Church but was a long process that took centuries to achieve full dominance of the Pope in Rome.

  • Rome was considered the most important city in the Christian Empire due to its historic ties to Saint Peter and the Pope claiming authority as Peter’s successor.

  • Jesus had designated Peter as the leader of the Apostles and called him the “rock” on which the church would be built. Peter was martyred in Rome, making Rome the seat of his authority.

  • Subsequent Popes asserted that as Peter’s successors, they inherited his top position of authority over all bishops. This view was not accepted by the Eastern churches.

  • The Crusades were launched by the Pope to retake Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Crusaders were offered forgiveness of sins, called indulgences, as incentive to fight.

  • Later, indulgences became a money-maker, with the claim that they could reduce time spent in Purgatory not just for the purchaser but also for deceased loved ones. Money was going to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica.

  • Johann Tetzel was a salesman granted licenses by the Pope and Archbishop of Mainz to sell indulgences. His pitch in Germany in 1517 caused outrage and sparked the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses criticizing indulgences to a church door.

  • Martin Luther began questioning the Catholic Church’s doctrine and practices like indulgences after studying the Bible in its original languages. He was disturbed by the Church’s corruption and focus on power/wealth over spiritual matters.

  • Luther had a revelation that salvation comes through faith in God’s love alone, not through works or indulgences. He called this “justification by faith.” This challenged the Church’s transactional view of salvation in exchange for belief and rituals.

  • Luther’s views diverged sharply from the Church. When he burned the papal bull excommunicating him, it represented burning the bridges to Catholicism and sparked the Protestant Reformation. This shattered the unity of the Catholic Church in Europe.

  • Justification by faith emphasized God’s unconditional love over fear-based religious requirements. But the Church had transformed Christianity into a system focused on human control rather than divine kindness. Luther called for religious reforms, giving rise to Protestantism.

  • The Protestant movement defined itself more in opposition to religious cruelty and tyranny than by what it positively stood for. However, this opposition brought political and religious challenges to tyranny in Europe.

  • The spread of Protestantism depended on support from local rulers, as Europe was not a democracy. Reformed churches gained backing from kings and dukes to establish themselves. However, Protestants disagreed on the shape of the new Church, leading to splits.

  • The Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation, reforming itself while denouncing Luther. It survived as a unified Church, while Protestantism multiplied into many competing churches and interpretations due to an emphasis on individual conscience and Bible interpretation.

  • Luther was initially inspired by Christian nonviolence but later supported violently suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt, showing how Protestantism failed to challenge using violence against opponents as Constantine had done with Christianity.

  • By the late 16th century, Northern Europe was almost completely Protestant, though the new churches disagreed violently. India also experienced religious upheaval at this time with the founding of Sikhism by Guru Nanak, who reformed Hinduism and Islam in India in a manner similar to Protestant reforms in Europe.

  • The lecturer used a metaphor of a dirty-faced boy to represent the options for reforming the Catholic Church after the Reformation: 1) Send him to bed dirty - no change from Catholicism. 2) Chop off his head - extreme reform that rejects Catholicism entirely. 3) Give him a bath - moderate reform that maintains continuity while removing corruption.

  • The Catholic Church represented continuity with no change - it had acquired dirt over time but was fundamentally the same Christianity stretching back to the Apostles.

  • Extreme reformers saw Catholicism as no longer Christian at all, likening the Pope to the Antichrist. This rejection of Catholicism altogether preferred “chopping off its head.”

  • Moderate reformers aimed only to “wash the Church’s face” and remove corruption/grime, maintaining essential continuity with the past rather than rejecting the Church entirely.

  • The lecturer identified the Church of England as most embodying the middle path of continuity with some change, or “giving the boy a bath,” among the churches that emerged from the Reformation.

  • The Church in England broke away from the Catholic Church under King Henry VIII in the 1530s over his desire to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

  • Henry argued the Pope had no right to intervene in English affairs. But the split was primarily political due to Henry’s need for a divorce and male heir, not driven by Protestant reformers.

  • Henry established himself as head of the new Church of England, which maintained Catholic traditions but separated from Rome’s authority. This began the English Reformation.

  • Henry’s daughter Mary I reinstated Catholicism during her reign from 1553-1558, persecuting Protestants. Her half-sister Elizabeth I completed the Reformation and brought stability when she became queen in 1558.

  • Conflicts between Catholics and Protestants continued elsewhere, such as in Scotland where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned and eventually executed by Elizabeth I in 1587 due to Catholic/Protestant political tensions.

So in summary, the Church in England broke from Rome primarily due to Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce and reform was politically rather than theologically driven, leading to ongoing religious conflicts in Britain and beyond.

  • Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland in 1561 after spending her childhood in France. However, Scotland had become largely Protestant during her absence.

  • The Catholic Mary faced opposition from Protestant firebrand John Knox and others who did not want a Catholic monarch. Knox led singers in warning Mary upon her arrival.

  • The Scottish Reformation began in the 1520s with the deaths of Protestant martyrs Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, who were burned at the stake. This helped fuel the growing Protestant movement.

  • John Knox emerged as a leader of Scottish Protestantism after witnessing Wishart’s execution. He preached sermons calling for the destruction of Catholicism and idols in churches.

  • In 1559, Scotland officially became a Protestant nation, though it allowed Mary to return as Queen while allowing her to privately practice Catholicism. Tensions remained between Mary and Knox.

  • Mary made controversial Catholic marriages that upset Knox and others. Scandals emerged and she was eventually forced to abdicate in 1567 in favor of her son James. She then sought aid from her cousin Elizabeth I of England but was viewed as a threat instead.

So in summary, Mary faced significant religious opposition upon returning to Protestant Scotland as its Catholic queen. This fueled ongoing tensions, especially with firebrand preacher John Knox.

  • George Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers, in 17th century England. They rejected religious hierarchies and rituals, believing individuals could experience God directly through their inner light/conscience.

  • Quakers faced imprisonment for their beliefs but advocated for prisoner rights and helped the poor. Their stance against slavery had major historical impact.

  • European settlers in North America brought both Christianity and the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery was accepted in the Bible but Quakers in Pennsylvania challenged it in 1688, believing their inner light showed it was wrong. This set a precedent for interpreting the Bible based on conscience rather than just taking biblical passages at face value. Their opposition to slavery had profound influence on history.

  • The Quakers took a stance against slavery that went beyond protest - they actively worked to overturn it through abolition in Pennsylvania and organizing the Underground Railroad.

  • It took a long time for the world to catch up to the Quakers’ view that slavery had no place in Christian society. Slavery was outlawed in 1833 in the British Empire and 1865 in the US after the Civil War.

  • The Quakers’ actions not only helped end slavery, but challenged the childish way the Bible was read as an untouchable idol. They asserted that conscience should come before the Bible, and that the Bible could contain errors like supporting slavery.

  • This paved the way for historical-critical study of scripture, separating human elements from the divine. The Quakers influenced Christianity to become more of a conscience.

  • While Christianity dominated America after its arrival, the indigenous spirituality of Native Americans cannot be overlooked. They lived in sacred harmony with nature and the Great Spirit, unlike the conquest-driven Protestantism of white settlers.

  • The forced removal of Native Americans from their lands and destruction of the buffalo herds led to an outbreak of desperate Ghost Dance apocalypticism, hoping for divine restoration that never came to pass.

So in summary, the Quakers played a pivotal role in shaping Christianity’s view of slavery and interpretation of the Bible through their moral stance, and Native American spirituality represented an alternative to the dominance of settler Protestantism.

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) sends young male missionaries around the world, including to Edinburgh, Scotland.

  • The religion was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 after he had visions of angels telling him to restore the true Christian church.

  • Smith was told of golden plates buried in a hill in New York containing writings in an ancient American language from 400 AD. He translated these plates into the Book of Mormon.

  • The Book of Mormon depicts Jesus visiting America after his resurrection and establishes it as the new Holy Land. It tells of tribes from the Middle East who migrated to America centuries ago.

  • Smith saw his church as restoring early Christianity and named its members “saints”. But his claims outraged other churches and he and followers faced persecution.

  • Smith’s revelation that men should take other men’s wives led to his death, as polygamy was unacceptable to other Christians. Still, Mormonism grew into a large church based in Salt Lake City, Utah, sending missionaries worldwide.

  • Joseph Smith and the Mormon church were not the only new religious movements arising in 19th century New York. William Miller also predicted the imminent Second Coming of Christ based on his interpretation of biblical prophecy.

  • Miller calculated that Christ would return on March 21, 1844 based on his reading of Daniel 8:14. When this did not occur, he revised his prediction to October 22, 1844. This failure became known as the “Great Disappointment.”

  • Followers of Miller formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1860. They believed Christ would still return soon but did not set definite dates. Their theology included Sabbatarianism and views that contradicted eternal torment in hell.

  • Charles Taze Russell built on Miller’s failed predictions, arguing Christ had already returned invisibly in 1874, with the end coming in 1914. He started the Bible Student movement, a precursor of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • Both Miller and Russell interpreted the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation as containing coded timelines pointing to the imminent Second Coming and end of the world, showing the prevalence of millenarianism and apocalypticism in 19th century American Christianity.

  • The Watchtower sect emerged from the Millerite Adventist movement in the late 19th century, founded by Charles Taze Russell. They believed they were to warn people about the impending Second Coming of Christ and the destruction of the wicked at Armageddon.

  • Joseph Rutherford took over leadership after Russell’s death and rebranded the group as Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931. He imposed strict discipline and separation from mainstream society. They refuse blood transfusions and face prosecution as a result.

  • The group has endured successive disappointments as Armageddon has failed to materialize, most recently after World War 2. They continue door-to-door missionary work and meetings in Kingdom Halls awaiting Christ’s return.

  • Christian Science was founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, who believed she discovered the “science” of Jesus’s healing through spiritual means, rejecting illness as an illusion. It focuses on healing through prayer and affirming the power of divine mind over physical reality.

  • Both groups exemplify sects that take narrow aspects of religion like the Second Coming or healing and focus intensely on them, separating themselves from broader Christian churches in the process.

  • Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science teachings are on display, explaining how to apply mind over matter principles to heal illnesses. She died in 1910 in a Boston suburb.

  • In 1952, Scientology was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. It uses modern technology like the E-meter lie detector alongside the ancient Hindu concept of reincarnation. Scientology believes immortal souls called Thetans migrate through trillions of years and bodies.

  • Engrams and implants are memories of traumatic past lives that cause human suffering. Scientology offers auditing sessions to purge these from the subconscious using the E-meter, aiming to erase rather than heal memories. It’s an expensive process.

  • The ecumenical movement saw various Christian denominations start dialogue in the 20th century, leading to organizations like the World Council of Churches to promote unity. While full reunification of churches proved difficult, it improved relations between denominations.

  • The ecumenical movement originally aimed for unity between Christian churches but moved to a more relaxed approach of cooperation and friendship while respecting differences.

  • Churches can be in “communion” with each other by opening themselves to each other as an extended family, without merging into a single denomination.

  • The Anglican and Lutheran churches established communion in this way in 1992.

  • This reflects a trend away from engineered unity towards celebrating diversity, with churches embracing multiplicity like varieties in a garden rather than trying to merge into one.

  • The Bahai faith exemplifies this ecumenical spirit through its principle of progressive revelation, seeing all religions as valid glimpses of God rather than any having the last word.

  • Bahai promotes the unity of God and humanity, encouraging religious unity over division and seeing religions already united in what they look to, not how they see it.

  • However, some angry fundamentalist religious groups oppose this trend by asserting their sole possession of truth, fueling conflicts.

  • Darwin’s theory of evolution challenged the literal interpretation of Genesis that humans were created by God around 6000 years ago. This caused a crisis for Christians who viewed the Bible as a factual account.

  • Many Christians accepted the evidence for evolution but saw the Bible as more artistic/metaphorical rather than literal. Their faith adapted to the new scientific understanding.

  • Others angrily rejected evolution, seeing it as contradicting the Bible. This gave rise to Christian fundamentalism in the US in the early 20th century.

  • The 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” tested a law banning evolution’s teaching. Clarence Darrow used the trial to show the contradictions in the fundamentalist position. This was an early victory for science over religious absolutism.

  • Fundamentalists also strongly opposed women’s liberation and emancipation, as religious texts took women’s subordination for granted. This has caused major problems for Christianity and even more so for some interpretations of Islam.

  • Some extreme Muslim fundamentalists have reacted violently to changes in social norms, due to their insistence on adhering literally to religious scripture above all else.

  • The passage argues that religion has historically been a major cause of violence, from the violence commanded by God in the Old Testament to the holy wars and inquisitions of Christianity and Islam.

  • However, it notes that some violence may be justified in certain contexts like fighting slavery. The real issue is when religion adds an unreasoning intensity to conflicts by claiming God is on their side.

  • Religious violence is problematic because most religions see God as a loving parent figure, yet religions have often portrayed God as favoring one group over others and ordering violence.

  • This presents a dilemma - either God is a “demented tyrant” playing favorites, or religions have misunderstood and misrepresented God by justifying their own cruelty as God’s will.

  • The author argues that if God is not actually a monster, then religion may be a greater enemy of God than atheism, as it hides God behind a fog of its own cruelty rather than revealing God’s true nature.

So in summary, the passage examines the historical relationship between religion and violence, and argues this reflects a fundamental contradiction or misunderstanding at the core of how some religions portray God.

  • The Enlightenment encouraged questioning religious authority and superstition in favor of evidence-based reasoning. This undermined religion’s influence over society.

  • Enlightenment thinkers noticed how religions always disagree and cause violence when one gains political power. They concluded societies are safer when multiple religions coexist without discrimination.

  • They advocated separating church and state so religion does not control government policy. This principle was embodied in the U.S. constitution.

  • Over time, European nations embraced the “secular state” model where government is based on secular, not religious, principles. However, religion is still tolerated privately.

  • Modern secular values like women’s and LGBTQ+ rights conflict with stances in some religious texts. While secular states ignore religious discrimination internally, citizens focus on its effects.

  • This contributed to Christianity’s decline in the West and rise of secular humanism as an alternative focusing on ethics humans derive without religion.

So in summary, the Enlightenment and rise of secularism have reduced religion’s authority and influence over societies and governments in favor of non-religious principles and reasoning. This has weakened traditional religions but birthed alternatives like secular humanism.

Here is a summary of the key points about secular humanist Sunday assemblies from the passage:

  • Secular humanists admire the sense of community that religious worship provides, bringing people together who might otherwise never meet. They see value in this weekly gathering.

  • To replicate this, secular humanists have created their own Sunday assemblies, sometimes called “church-going for atheists.” At these assemblies, people meet for reflection, celebration, and listening to “secular sermons” or addresses.

  • Activities include singing songs, keeping moments of silence for reflection. It aims to be “religion without the supernatural - human religion.”

  • The goal is to find meaning and beauty in this life, since secular humanists believe it is the only life we have. Assemblies help people be grateful for life and use it well.

  • It remains to be seen whether these secular Sunday assemblies will grow and survive long-term, or fade away like previous attempts at secular religion. Critics argue they lack a real purpose without supernatural beliefs.

  • In general, the passage discusses how secular humanists admire aspects of religious community and worship, but cannot accept supernatural religious beliefs. They try to replicate some benefits through secular Sunday assemblies.

  • Abraham, Moses, Muhammad, and others are described as prophets or founders of religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  • Religions mentioned include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, among others.

  • Key religious texts discussed include the Bible, Quran, Vedas, and others.

  • Important figures and events covered are Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, Mormonism, Ba’hai, Church of Scientology.

  • Religious concepts summarized are prophets and sages, resurrection, pantheism, monotheism, messiah, pilgrimage, purgatory, reincarnation, karma, samsara.

  • Historical periods and regions featured are ancient Egypt, Rome, Middle East, India, Asia, Europe, America.

  • Issues addressed include religious practices/rituals, symbols, temples, violence, roles of women, science and religion, slavery.

  • Reformations, sects, and new religious movements within major faiths are outlined.

So in summary, it covers an overview of the major global religions, their origins, key figures, beliefs, practices, histories and spread over time and regions.

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About Matheus Puppe