Tectonic forces began splitting east Africa apart 25 million years ago resulting in today’s Great Rift Valley. The rainforest flourished in the east but the western side dried giving way to vast savannah grasslands. A common ancestor of both humans and apes in the west was eventually forced out of the trees to search for food on the ground beginning a 9 million year evolutionary trek ending in humanity. After 5 million years Australopithecus afarensis developed DNA mutations of the feet, toes, legs and pelvis enabling them to walk upright. About 1.5 million years ago Homo erectus, a prehuman ancestor with a larger brain, migrated out of Africa to the Asian continent before going extinct. Geneticist Spencer Wells estimates that Homo sapiens, fully modern-day humans, evolved 60,000 to 90,000 years ago. Two of our earliest intellectual creations were art and religion.
Early Sacred Art
Cave art suggests that early humans conceived of a spiritual realm. These first humans painted and engraved animals they feared (lions, rhinos, etc.) and revered (deer, bison, etc.) on the walls of Altamira in Spain 40,000 years ago and Chauvet in France 32,000 years ago. Looking up at the art produces the same sense of awe you feel from the majesty of a Gothic cathedral. Caverns with drawings lay deep inside the caves indicating they were not used for habitation but possibly to hold ceremonies with devout rituals to insure or celebrate the success of the hunt.
The 35,000 year-old ivory figurines of Venus of Hohle Fels (fertility icon) and Lion-Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (lion head on man’s body) were found in caves in Germany. They are symbols of a rudimentary belief in a spirit world. Lion-Man effigies were found in both caves (above) indicating the existence of a cult. Other statuettes were buried with the dead. (Were devotional services held at the death of a loved one or tribal leader?)
In the Fertile Crescent valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Turkey 11,600 years ago, nomad hunter-gatherers built circular one-room halls at Gobekli Tepe. Surreal depictions of animals and humans with elongated bodies were carved as bas reliefs on 16-ton, 18-foot-tall smooth limestone pillars that held up the roof. The secret society of elders may have used these sanctums for meetings to conduct sacred rites of passage.
Birth of Religion
Archaeologists estimate there were 15,000 people living in Western Europe at the end of the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago. There were approximately 500 different groups each with about 30 extended family members. A single elder with experience, intelligence, and strength could coordinate and harmonize the efforts and activities of his small clan.
As climate warmed, these hunter-gatherers migrated into farming settlements of 100s, then 1000’s, then tens of thousands. One-man rule was no longer adequate to manage the complex relationships of a large community. According to National Geographic magazine (June 2011, page 41), religion arose in one of two ways:
Religion preceded Farming: “People came together for rituals creating the need to grow food for large groups gathering near sacred sites.” The mere existence of Gobekli Tepe supports this view since there is no evidence of human settlements nearby.
Farming preceded Religion: “After people began settling in villages and farming, religion arose to promote social cooperation.” Michael Shermer prefers this second scenario: “Leaders developed two new institutions to organize and control the affairs of the masses–government with an all-powerful military police and religion with all-powerful gods and goddesses.”
Great intelligence and imagination evolved to set us humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. These traits enable us to ponder the answers to two philosophical questions: how the universe works and our place in it.
Finding the answers would satisfy our intellectual curiosity, bolster our emotional self-confidence, and insure our basic physical necessities of food, clothing and shelter. For answers we observed Nature: the plants and animals that nourished us, the forces (lightning, volcanoes, and floods) that devastated us, and the benevolence (the sun and stars) that helped us.
At this early time our only technology was simple math/geometry and the naked eye. Our measurements were pretty good–good enough to build temples and pyramids. But our conclusions were pretty bad: the Earth was flat (not round) and the Earth was stationary (The Sun circled Earth.). There were huge gaps in our knowledge so we played make-believe: we projected our own emotions and motives onto Nature creating human-like persona to explain/understand how Nature works. (This is called the anthropomorphic principle.) In hindsight we confused and thus blended Nature with the Super-Natural, turning a purely intellectual inquiry into a religious one.
People all around the globe were trying to figure out the answers to the two questions, but all failed miserably.
3000 BC Southern England: Circular wooden structures predate the megaliths erected 2200-2400 BC at Stonehenge–an astronomical observatory of the rising and setting sun. While precise measurements may have helped the ancients plan their farming to maximize harvests, G. T. Meaden suggests the site was a place to worship the sun.
1500 BC Iraq (ancient Babylon): Astrology was devised to determine the destiny of a person from the positions of the star constellations at the time of birth.
500 BC Germany/Scandinavia: The god Thor swung his war hammer to produce lightning and thunder to punish human misdeeds.
500 AD Southern Peru: The Nazca lines extend from the plain by the ocean miles into the mountains. Using precisely placed rocks, large outlines of animals mirroring the star constellations were drawn but could only be viewed and appreciated by someone (or some god) positioned hundreds of feet in the air above. Could the lines and animals contain spiritual significance?
1200 AD Hawaii: Hawaiians thought their goddess Pele made the Kilauea volcano erupt when she was angered by their actions.
1300 AD Central Mexico: The Aztecs believed the sun had died four times and now was on its fifth and possibly last life cycle. To ensure the sun remained alive, they sacrificed slaves by cutting out their beating hearts and offering them to their gods. They slaughtered thousands on a single day.
These first approximations of reality were made with a minimum of technology resulting in many bizarre and some brutal religious misinterpretations. The divine nature of these early concepts could not be disproved so the leaders of society could use them to support the authority of religious institutions. Starting 400 years ago science through technology provided the valid insight of reality we enjoy today even though some of these illusory religious concepts persist.
History of God and Other Religious Myths–Middle East
After Gobekli Tepe there is a gap of 9,000 years until the advent of writing provides a glimpse of religious doctrine in the Middle East–religious practices were passed down from generation to generation via word-of-mouth and repetition of rituals. When writing first appeared in Sumer (cuneiform, 3000 BC) and Egypt (hieroglyphs, 2300 BC), religious concepts were highly developed thus we cannot be certain of the time and place of the rise of religious ideas but we can draw some logical conclusions. The main point of this article is that there is an unbroken historical timeline showing that spirituality was first conceived by Ice-Age cavemen 35,000 years ago, then developed by nomad hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago and (presented below) embellished by prehistoric pagans 5,000 years ago–three groups that have no credibility for establishing the reality of god or any spiritual belief.
In Secret Origins of the Bible (pages 6-39) Tim Callahan presents the Babylonian, Greek and Hebrew religious stories of the creation of the universe. His research shows that all three stories contain four basic concepts:
- Supreme Being: a supernatural all-powerful god, gods and goddesses.
- Eternal Water: seas, rivers, and rain did not have to be created but always existed.
- Chaos: the natural order of the pre-universe was disorder.
- Humans: god created humans out of earth, soil, or clay.
The similarity in the three creation myths is no coincidence. The three cultures resided within a 500 mile radius: they knew each other well through trade and war. Their creation stories are similar. Lacking hard evidence these cultures borrowed and copied the best of each other’s ideas in an attempt to understand their own origin.
Callahan estimates that the Babylonian myth was written 1600-2300 BC; that the Greek myth dates from 800-1000 BC: and that the Hebrew Genesis story was written 600-900 BC. Since the Babylonian story is the oldest we might conclude it is the source of the other two. But concurrent with the Babylonian writings there is a pagan superstition containing all four concepts that may be the original source for the other three–and that is the Egyptian creation myth.
The ancient Egyptian empire is the oldest, richest, mightiest, most productive and longest-lived superpower in recorded history, lasting from 3100-332 BC. Starting in 2300 BC with pharaoh Unis, the Egyptians drew and chiseled the beliefs of their creation myth, the famous “pyramid texts,” on the stone walls of their pharaohs’ tombs, displaying the first truly religious scriptures before writing them down on papyrus in their Book of the Dead.
Egyptian Creation Myth
In the beginning Amun created himself above the eternal waters of Chaos. The Egyptians believed the Mediterranean Sea and Nile River always existed and did not have to be created. When Amun masturbated where his semen fell became land: thus originated the myth of the Supreme Being or all-powerful god.
Amun created many other gods and goddesses, important among them was his sister Nut, goddess of the Sky. Nut bent over the land with her feet on the east side of the Nile and her hands on the west side. She raised her nude body high up with her elongated arms and legs, and formed the sky. Stars shone from her bare torso at night. The Egyptians believed that at sunset the sun vanished because Nut swallowed it. During the night it passed through her digestive tract and in the morning she excreted it at sunrise allowing the sun to traverse the sky again.
Egyptian Myth of Human Creation
There are two parts to the myth of human creation: how the pharaoh was created, and how ordinary people were created.
Creation of Pharaoh
Amun had sexual relations with many of his sisters and produced second and third generation deities. Important among these were two brothers, Set and Osiris, and their sister Isis. Set murdered Osiris, cut his body into pieces, and threw them away in the desert. Wherever a body part landed, an oasis was created. Isis gathered the pieces of Osiris and put his body back together. She turned herself into a bird, and flapping her wings she resuscitated him back to life but (in one version of the story) he could live for only one day on Earth; thus originated the Resurrection myth.
The Egyptians drew and chiseled on the walls of their temples the story of how Osiris impregnated Isis, who gave birth to a son Horus who was part human and part divine; thus originated the myth of the Virgin Birth.
The pyramids were tombs for the pharaohs. The Egyptians became excellent pyramid builders designing passages inside leading upwards and downwards. One small passage (4 inches by 4 inches) from the chamber holding the pharaoh’s body led diagonally up and out of the pyramid so the pharaoh’s soul could travel up to the sky and become a new star; thus originated the myth of Heaven.
Osiris ruled the afterlife and sat in judgement of humans after they died. The Egyptians developed mummification since they believed that the soul ceased to exist if the body decayed leaving only the skeleton; thus originated the myth of the Soul and the Accountability of humans to god in the Afterlife (heaven and hell).
Horus redeemed Osiris by killing Set and became pharaoh ruling over the Egyptian people. Generation after generation Horus-Pharaoh married one of his sisters and their first born son became pharaoh, part human and part divine. The Egyptians believed in the tri-part unit of three gods: God the Father, God the Son and Goddess the Sister-Wife-Mother; thus originated the myth of the Trinity.
Certain numbers (such as three, seven, nine and twelve) were important to the Egyptians. The number twelve was especially important because they measured time by this number: 12 hours of day, 12 hours of night, and 12 months of the year (30 days in each month with 5 or 6 holidays to balance out the year).
Creation of Ordinary Humans
Ordinary humans were created when the god Ptah took clay from the ground and molded it into human form on a potter’s wheel. Ptah used an ankh to breathe life into humans through their nostrils.
The ancient Egyptians formulated four basic religious concepts: supernatural Supreme Being, eternal waters, pre-universe of chaos, and human creation from earth. Having no better insight, ancient cultures arising after or concurrently with the Egyptians borrowed these ideas and made them central to their ethnic religion. But peripheral concepts were borrowed too.
The Greeks borrowed the Egyptian number twelve for their counsel of twelve gods on Mount Olympus and devised a story about the twelve labors of Heracles. Heracles was part human and part divine by a virgin birth, having the god Zeus as father and a human, Alcmena, as mother. The Greeks were the only culture to incorporate incest into their religion: Kronos and Rhea were brother and sister–and husband and wife–who had children, Zeus and Hera, who married and produced offspring.
The Hebrews borrowed the Egyptian number twelve for their twelve Tribes of Israel. Cain murdering Abel is reminiscent of Set killing Osiris. They also copied several ideas from the Babylonians.
- Creation Myth. There were six generations of Babylonian giants: the sun and moon were created during the fourth generation and humans were created during the sixth generation. In the Hebrew Genesis story, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day and humans were created on the sixth day.
- The Hebrews copied two Babylonian stories to describe their prophet Moses:
a. Sargon was born of humble birth. His mother put him in a basket and floated him down the river. The queen of Babylon rescued him and raised him in her household. Later he became king.
b. The Babylonian king Hammurabi went up into the mountains and received the laws of his code from God.
- The flood and ark stories come from ancient Babylonian mythology 1000 years before Noah.
The Christians appropriated several Egyptian myths into their religion: the number twelve for the Apostles of Jesus; the Osiris resurrection myth for Jesus; the Egyptian trinity was modified into God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost; the duality of Horus-Pharaoh for Jesus being part human and part divine; and Isis’ virgin birth (or a Greek version) for Mary.
The Christians also borrowed from the Hebrews, adopting their entire bible (Tanakh) as the Old Testament and claiming Jesus was a direct descendant in the lineage of the House of David.
By the time Islam arose 622 AD, the Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek religions had vanished with the military destruction of their empires. Christianity and Judaism were well-defined, intertwined and central to the powerful Roman/Byzantine Empire headquartered in Constantinople (Istanbul). While Muslims had Arab precedents, they adopted the core beliefs of Christianity and Judaism: one god, the soul, heaven and hell.
The Hojjatieh sect of Shia Islam borrowed the Egyptian number twelve for their apocalyptic Twelfth Imam. The Muslims appropriated the Jewish founder Abraham as their patriarch and recognized Jesus as a prophet but not the divine son of God. The Muslims borrowed the Jewish/Christian messenger angel Gabriel saying he whispered the words of the Koran into Muhammad’s ear.
The ancient Hebrew religious thinkers and leaders accepted as fact the Egyptian myths of a Supreme Being and a human soul because they were intellectually the smartest common sense answers, and emotionally the most optimistic motivators of the time. Since the Hebrews established their religion 2000 years after the Egyptians, the Hebrews were more realistically grounded: they eliminated the pantheon of gods, the animals and the pornography, and developed the concept of one omnipotent, omniscient god. The Muslims followed their example believing in just one god while the Christians held on to the ancient Egyptian concept of the Trinity in modified form.
The prehistoric pagans of 5,000-year-ago Egypt borrowed their basic idea of a spirit world from 10,000-year-ago hunter-gatherers who in turn inherited it from 35,000-year-ago cavemen, preparing ancient Hebrews, Christians and Muslims to mistakenly perceive many natural events as miraculous happenings. With so many borrowed ideas (from cavemen, hunter-gatherers, Babylonians, Egyptians), and so many misinterpretations, Genesis, the Gospels, and the Koran, cannot be considered the word of god. That is the history of the idea of god and other religious beliefs.
Today nobody would believe in the Egyptian religion because it contradicts what we understand about the world around us: gods don’t swallow the sun and birds can’t bring anything back to life. These blatant misinterpretations of Nature discredit the validity of the pagans’ core Super-Natural beliefs: a Supreme Being, a human soul, and heaven and hell. If they could be so wrong about the obvious, how could they be right about the obscure?
These four Egyptian supernatural beliefs are as frivolous as the Babylonian giants, and acquire substance in only one context: the weird, imaginary Egyptian religion. All of the Egyptians’ fanciful beliefs are just fuzzy thinking; to believe in something that science cannot verify to exist runs the risk of believing in nothing at all.
Over the last 400 years as science explained the mysteries of the universe, the mysticism of religion should have declined. As we figured out the mechanisms of Nature, faith in Super-Natural miracle should have declined. As human self-confidence grew through science and technology, reliance on prayer should have declined. As modern scientific insight made more and more sense out of the universe (with quantum mechanics, Einstein’s relativity, the Big Bang, evolution, and our expanding universe), all ancient religious beliefs should have become obsolete because they are no longer needed to explain our universe, they are no longer needed to define us humans, they just no longer make sense.
Yet curiously people today do believe in the four superstitions of religion: god, soul, heaven, and hell. Apparently their origin has been erased by time. Would modern day Jews, Christians and Muslims discontinue belief in these four superstitions if they realized their dubious origin: Ice-Age cavemen, wandering hunter-gatherers and pagans? Or is faith an unreasonable emotion?
To be continued…