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The Story Of Religious Controversy
Chapter III

by Joseph McCabe


A Few of the World's Great Religions

Contents


The Religions Of Egypt And Babylon

WHAT chiefly surprises the man who wanders through the Egyptian gallery of a museum or opens an illustrated book on Egypt, is the great number of divinities, especially animal-headed divinities. How could so great a nation retain such monstrous deities? But we must remember that in historic Egypt it was only the ignorant majority who took these old deities seriously; just as in the modern Christian world the deity of the cultivated is not the deity of the people. We must remember, too, that each of these old cow-headed goddesses or jackal-headed gods had a powerful priesthood. It was the priests who fought for the gods.

In the beginning it is quite intelligible, if we bear in mind that material and political conditions have as much influence on religion as on anything else. Egypt is a unique country. It is a very long and very narrow valley. The result of this was that each section of the valley had its own tribe, and it took ages for one kingdom to spread over the whole. These tribes had come into Egypt from different quarters, and each had its own god or gods. We saw that religion began with a belief in spirits everywhere in nature, but especially in curious or powerful objects in nature. So different tribes saw divinity in the sun, the moon, the hawk, the cow, the bull, the crocodile, the ape, the ram, and so on. When they settled down, wars with their neighbors occurred, and the greatest bitterness arose from the rivalry of their gods. The cult of each was hardened and grew powerful.

But even before the historic period there were great nature- gods which were represented only in human form. Osiris (probably a sun-god originally), Ra (another sun-god), Isis (possibly at first a fertility-goddess), Horus (later a Savior-god), Neith (probably the fertility-goddess of another tribe), and so on. When Egypt was organized, the priests arranged these deities as man and wife, mother and son, and so on, and thus more or less organized religion. But the priests constantly intrigued, and at times one or another deity became the supreme god. And fourteen hundred years before Christ, King Amen-hotep IV instituted a pure spiritual Monotheism as the one religion of Egypt. But we have a special chapter on Egyptian religion and morals, with full details. Here we need only indicate their place in the general evolution of religion.

In the case of Babylon also, where our discoveries about the morals and religion of the people have been very remarkable, we shall require a special chapter to give even a summary of the facts. A few words about the religious development will suffice here to make this general sketch complete.

The kingdom of Babylon was founded about four thousand years ago, and it had been preceded by a thousand years of city-states, very largely ruled by priests, in different parts of the Mesopotamian plain. How all this came about we shall have more space to tell later, and I will merely say here that two different races, the Sumerians (possibly akin to the early Chinese) and the Semites (a race like the Hebrews) mingled in the cities and more or less adjusted their gods to each other.

There were no animal-gods, such as the material conditions had developed in Egypt. The spirits in the minor departments of nature (common to all religions at first) remained mere spirits, and, as priesthoods of the greater gods developed, they turned these into "devils." The Babylonian believed as firmly as the less educated modern Christian does that the world is full of legions of devils.

But long before the historic period began the gods in the greater elements of nature were the only objects of worship. As I said, two entirely different peoples cooperated in making the civilization of Babylonia, and this meant a double series of nature-gods. The Sumerians had Snu (sky-god), Ea (earth-god), Sin (moon-god), Nusku (fire-god), and so on. Then there were Shamash (another sun-god), Marduk (a third sun-god), Ishtar (of love and war), Tammuz (ancient fertility-god), and others.

The story of Babylonian religion, after all the city-states were welded together in the kingdom of Babylon, is a story of rivalries and ambitions of priesthoods, resulting in the temporary supremacy of one or other god. When the city of Babylon rose to supremacy, its particular god Marduk also rose to supremacy. Later Shamash became "the one true god." There were several spells of Monotheism.

 


The Chinese Religions And Confucius

There are some reasons for thinking that the early culture of the Chinese was imported from the west of Asia. The founders show some points of contact with the founders of Babylonian civilization. However that may be, we find civilization appearing there, not twenty thousand years ago, as the Chinese annals claim, but about 2700 B.C.

The earlier religion is, no doubt, illustrated in the beliefs and practices of some of the simpler Mongolian tribes which linger at a low stage of culture round or within the frontiers of China. In my work ("The Growth of Religion"), to which I may refer any reader for further details about religions, I have carefully examined the religious beliefs of the Chukchi, the Yukaghirs, the Karyaks, and the Ainu, and from a comparison of their views we may gather the early religious ideas of Mongolians generally.

It is a very interesting phase of the evolution of religion, exactly on the lines we suggested in Chapter ii. Nature is full of spirits. Every tree, forest, river, lake, etc., has what the Chukchi call its "master," or indwelling spirit. Every animal has a spirit. Of the disembodied spirits of men there are whole legions of sour and malevolent shades haunting the villages and living in the deserts, so that we have a very large belief in "devils" (so prominent in the Chinese religion). They work terrible havoc among men, and there is quite an army of shamans (devil-fighters, magic- practicers) to keep them at bay.

But already amongst these Mongolian tribes we find that some spirits, especially those in the greater elements of nature, rise high above the common level, and, in fact, one or other of them reaches a level not far removed from Monotheism. The Chukchi have a supreme spirit, a sky-god, whom they regard as a "life-giving being" or even "creator," though they do not pray to or worship him. The chief spirit of the Yukaghirs and the Karyaks is also a sky-god, and there is a naive belief that if the animal-sacrifices to him are neglected, he goes to sleep and the course of nature is disordered. Other Mongolian tribes have no particularly outstanding spirit, but there is a general vague respect for "heaven" (the sky- spirit) and the "will of heaven."

In the sixth century before Christ, when the Chinese kingdom had fallen into decay and confusion, two sages arose. These were Lao-tse and Kong-fu-tse (commonly called Confucius). They were both what we call Agnostics, and the immense influence they had shows that educated China reached the proper stage for Agnosticism twenty-five hundred years ago.

I have in another book quoted the two greatest authorities, Sir R.K. Douglas and the Rev. Dr. Legge, showing that even Lao-tse "knew nothing of a personal god," though the moral system he founded, Taoism (Tao is the Chinese for "way" of life), was later mixed with ritualistic Buddhism, and is now a tissue of superstitions.

About the Agnosticism of Kong-fu-tse there has never been any question. Dr. Legge says that his moral system is "hardly more than a pure secularism." It is no more. No one in the world disputes that, when Kong was pressed to declare his opinion on a religion, which he never mentioned, he said: "To give oneself earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them -- that may be called wisdom." Two thousand five hundred years ago this great sage founded an Agnostic code of morality as high as any in the world, and it has had a finer influence than any. For two thousand years it has been the standard of Chinese gentlemen, and it has never taken a religious form.

The culture of Japan is so largely borrowed from China that little need be said about it here. The popular religion, Shintoism, corresponds to the Chinese Taoism, and, like China, the country has a ritualistic Buddhism. Shintoism is said by the people to have eight million gods. In other words, it is the old Mongolian nature- and spirit-worship.

Confucianism was, like Buddhism, brought over from China, and it has been for ages the sole moral standard of every educated Japanese. As in China, it has remained purely Agnostic, and, whatever may be thought about Japanese character since European and American influence began, every writer on the Japanese before that time gives them an exceptionally high level of character. It is sometimes said that they have a sacred book called "Bushido," but this is merely a collection of moral sentiments culled from any source whatever, even the Bible. In 1871 the Japanese officials and middle class, themselves indifferent to or contemptuous of all religion, sent a deputation to Europe to study Christianity and see if it was a suitable religion for the ignorant masses. Never was there a more impartial judgment on Europe's religion, and the emphatic verdict was that popular Buddhism was more desirable than Christianity.

 


Buddha And The Religions Of India

There are said to be as many religions as tongues amongst the vast swarms of peoples of different races and cultures, which we call India. They range from the simple cult of pastoral hill tribes like the Todas to the fanatical worship of Siva, the advanced ideas of the more learned of the Hindus, and the elaborate creed and ritual of the Mohammedans. Every stage in the evolution of religions is found somewhere on the teeming plains or the isolated hills. Every error into which a mythical heaven ever led the steps of man lives in India today, and in Ceylon, to the south of it, there are, as we saw, men without any religion.

The country is probably the oldest inhabited part of the globe, since it is somewhere in its neighborhood that the human race was born or cradled. But our interest in it begins when the ancestors of the Hindus of today descended the slopes of the northwestern mountains and settled amongst the more primitive inhabitants.

The ancient literature of the Hindus, written in Sanskrit, enabled scholars to learn long ago that they were related to the peoples of Europe, and more closely related to the Persians. We have in recent times found proof of this. We have the terms of a treaty, drawn up more than thirty-three hundred years ago, in which the names of Hindu and Persian divinities occur as those of a still united people. Soon after that time the Hindu branch separated from the Persian, and there must have been a great trek across the deserts and hills of Asia until at last the warriors gazed upon the sunny and fertile plains of Hindustan.

We know their religion from their sacred books, the Vedas. But these were written ages afterwards and, like the Hebrew and other sacred books, they falsify the real development and adorn the primitive life and thought of the rude pastoral invaders with the more advanced ideas of a later age. Still, our scholars have succeeded in obtaining a satisfactory picture of the early religion, which was a local variation of the general religion of the "Aryans," or the common fathers of the Hindus, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Teutons and Celts.

There survive, however, in India today a large number of tribes who belong to the population ("Dravidian," scholars call it) of India before the "Aryans" arrived. Nearly ten million of these still cling to Animism, or nature-worship, in the shelter of the hills and valleys. The Todas, for instance, believe vaguely in wandering spirits of the hill, the river, and the pool, and in a small number of greater spirits which can hardly be dignified with the name of gods. The Khasis are substantially at the same level. In brief, these relics of the early population show us the phase of belief in universal spirits and the beginning of the creation of major spirits and gods.

The invaders brought with them a nature-religion (as opposed to the more primitive belief in universal small spirits), of a kind with which we are now familiar. The Hindu early sacred books, the Vedas, did not begin to appear in writing until about 1000 B.C., and the later religious ideas are confused with the earlier, but the original religion is fairly clear. It is the worship of great spirits or gods who control and dwell in the more important elements of nature. They fall into three main groups: gods of the sky, gods of the air, and gods of the earth.

Some scholars have, as in the case of China, claimed that the early religion was Monotheism. This indicates a very curious change of attitude on the part of religious writers. A generation ago Monotheism was supposed to be beyond the range of the unaided human mind: it had to be revealed to the Hebrews. Now that we know that it arose frequently before the Hebrews were civilized, there is a tendency to look for it, and distort the evidence in favor of it, in many quarters.

And the particular Hindu god chosen by the Christian authority, Sir M. Monier-Williams, as "the one god" is interesting for another reason. It is Dyaus ("the sky") or Dyaus-Pitar ("Sky- Father," like Zeus and Jupiter). It is clear that this was, as in Mongolia generally, the great god at a very early date in nature- worship. From Europe to the coast of China the "Heavenly Father" is the outstanding god, but "heaven" is the physical heavens, or the sky, and we thus have nearly half the race testifying to the "solar myth" theory of religion.

From the start, however, Dyaus is in Vedic religion accompanied by a legion of gods and goddesses. The sun-god, under many names (Swrya, Deva, Vishnu, etc.) early displaces the sky-god in importance. His mother is Ushas (the Dawn), later represented as a maid. There is a sky-rain god, later the god of water (Varuna). There are, in the air, Vata (wind-god), Inara (or rain and lightning), and others, and on the earth are Agni (of fire), Prithivi (mother-earth), and many others. We need not give the whole list. The early Hindus, a branch of one of the higher races of three thousand years ago, had risen above the primitive level to the deification of the great elements of nature.

Seven centuries before Christ the priests of the Hindu religion, which was now elaborately organized, and had great temples and ritual, entered upon a phase of speculation or metaphysics, of a crude nature (though ladies pay five or ten dollars to hear it rehashed in Chicago and Los Angeles today). The supreme principle now became a deified abstraction of a quite unintelligible nature all description of it is mere verbiage called by them Brahma, while the priests called themselves Brahmans. The modern development of this Brahmanism, one of the weirdest word- weaving systems of the world, is the religion of the educated Hindus today (when they are not Agnostics or Mohammedans), and it is the commodity sold at a high profit in American markets as "the wisdom of the east."

The mass of the people of India were incapable of understanding, and had not the slightest wish to understand, this new development. Their religion was, as it is today, a mixture of the primitive belief in minor spirits with a worship of the very congenial and amorous Hindu gods. But the crudities of the popular religion and the empty wordiness of the Brahmans had a remarkable reaction amongst the educated. India was, like China in the days of Kong-fu-tse, in a state of decay and confusion, and a number of reformers arose.

Jainism, which still has a million followers, was one of the new sects or "reforms" started at this period. It is now a fanatical superstitious sect, priding itself that it is a refinement of Hinduism, but its founder, who still lived in the time of Buddha (sixth century B.C.) rejected all gods and all speculations about them. He retained, however, the doctrine of reincarnation, the germ of many superstitions. Sikhism is in turn a reform of Jainism.

Another group which arose in India about the same time as Jainism and Buddhism seems to have had no mystic features whatever. Like Epicureanism in Greece and Rome at a later date, it was rather a frame of mind than a system. It rejected gods and religious speculations, and concentrated upon happiness in this life. One might call it ordinary common-sense Agnosticism.

And this, in a far different way, was the simple aim of one who is almost always described as one of the "religious geniuses" of the race and the founder of one of the greatest religions. Buddha ("the Enlightened") or Gautama (his real name) was the son of a chief or small prince, born about 560 B.C. His life does not concern us. Briefly, be renounced his position, became a wandering teacher of the proper way to live, and gathered disciples about him. But, instead of founding a religion, he precisely aimed at diverting men from everything that was then called, and most men still call, religion.

Like Kong-fu-tse, Buddha distrusted and rejected all speculation about gods. His complete silence about gods -- was there ever a great religious teacher who never mentioned God, yet believed in him? -- and his advice to his disciples to avoid all such speculation, are universally admitted. But many writers naturally shrink from admitting that one of the greatest "religious" founders was an Atheist or Agnostic: that one of the most lofty ethical systems was purely humanitarian. Yet the significance of his silence in such an age is plain enough.

Buddha was, like Kong-fu-tse, a purely humanitarian and Agnostic moralist. Professor Macdonell (professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University), one of the latest and highest authorities, says that Buddha "denied the existence both of a world-soul and an individual soul" (Hastings' "Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics," article "Indian Buddhism"). Professor Rhys Davids, perhaps the highest authority, agrees, and draws the conclusion that Buddha was an Atheist. Some writers say that Buddha continued to believe in reincarnation, one of the mischievous superstitions which the Brahmans had put into circulation. It is disputed by others, and for the life of me I cannot understand how Professor Macdonell makes Buddha deny the existence of a soul yet believe in reincarnation! A vast amount of nonsense has been written about Buddhism in the interest of religion.

Buddha's doctrine was purely humanitarian. Professor Macdonell says that its essence is "that all earthly existence is suffering, the only means of release from which is renunciation and eternal death." But he gives us another and more attractive side of the ascetic teaching of Buddha when he says that it was "rather a religion of humanity" (if one can admit such a thing), and "a system of practical morality, the key-note of which is universal charity, kindness to all beings, animals as well as men." The asceticism and pessimism of Buddha are explained by the terrible confusion and disorder of his age, the immaturity of the mind of the race. But his doctrine of universal human love, five centuries before Christ, is the highest note of ethics, and his rejection of all religion now explains to the reader what may have startled him at first -- my statement that all educated Asia reached the final goal of religious evolution, Agnosticism, two thousand years before Europe. Buddhism unfortunately degenerated, and it now has few followers in India proper.

 

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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
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