Religion’s Similarities

It is my fondest hope that future generations look back at me and see a primitive monster.  I hope I am viewed as basically a Nazi with worse facial hair.  Not because I want to be a Nazi, but because I want the world to improve so much that a regular guy living an ordinary life appears to be horrible.  Is that going to happen?  Will I appear to be horrible to those who think about people like me in the future?  To answer that, let’s look at some patterns in human history.

I like reading about religion.  Not because I particularly like religion, but because it is so important to so many people.  It has staying power; most civilizations that we are aware of had some type of religion.  Of course, the nature of the religion is all over the place.  Some religions reward you in the afterlife for being born, others require good works, others have no afterlife at all.  But there are some similarities between them, and given that religion is such a ubiquitous human endeavor, those similarities might give insight into human nature.

One common element between all religions that I’m aware of is that it’s always a sin to kill a human.  That is a strange thing for me to say, given that I’ve pointed out our habit of killing in the name of religion.  But if you look closely you often see that while it’s always wrong to kill a human, the definition of what makes a human changes.  Historically, and with fits and starts, the definition has grown more inclusive.  In Ancient Rome, for example, it was a crime for a Roman citizen to kill another citizen, but killing a slave was a-ok, as long as you reimbursed his or her owner.  Lynch mobs used to be a thing, and they often had religious permission.  Now, even the most vehement racists will generally say killing minorities is wrong.  The definition of a human is expanding, giving more rights to more people.

Another element is some type of prayer or meditation.  Some religions use drugs to reach similar states of mind.  Ancient religions often had a more transactional deal with the supernatural.  Sacrifice a bull and your ship won’t get wrecked.  Pray to Ares and you’ll win your battle.  But those rituals have gotten quieter and more introspective.  Generally, we seem to assume prayer-like behavior to be a benefit.  Witness the moment of silence nearly all groups observe when mourning someone’s death.

The last similarity I want to mention is the overall importance of religion.  Most of the time religion fades in importance.  It’s very difficult to keep strict adherence to religious rules and rituals throughout generations.  This is easy to demonstrate.  It used to be that nearly everyone went to Church once a week.  Now, many who consider themselves religious only go a few times a year.  This change happened in the course of just a few generations.

Now, if religious evolution mirrors civilization’s change, then we can expect similar changes.  More inclusiveness.  More contemplation.  Less religion.  I can’t rule out the possibility that this is just wishful thinking on my part.  But it seems to me that there is reason to be optimistic for the future.


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