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“Religions are like species, they either evolve or they go extinct” – Unknown
It is hardly rocket science that culture and religion are two things that go hand in hand. Your beliefs and values are shaped by which culture, segment of society, or family that you have been exposed to or raised in. In a sense, because of where you were born or what your family believes you really have no choice in what ideals are placed in your head as a child.
In the end, we tend to end up believing in and valuing what we are told to believe and value. If we are born into a Mormon household, we will most likely end up being Mormon and carrying those rules and values, the same goes for if we were to be born in Iran, we would most likely end up being Muslim. Most of the time we are not aware of just how much we are told what to believe because a lot of it occurs implicitly, or is understood without needing to be clearly stated.
The society and the individual within that society, relies on the following of these, largely unspoken, rules and values without the person being completely aware of it.
So then, if it is the case that culture and society essentially shape our beliefs then what does this suggest from a religious perspective? Does culture and society also shape religion as it shapes us? In this paper I would like to explore how culture influences religion and why religion needs to change in order to stay relevant.
First I will give some examples of some past religions that have died out, or not currently being practiced today, stating why they have died out and giving examples of some religions that may have morphed into modern day religions. Next I will show that just as our ideals in culture change, showing that we don’t believe in some ridiculous ‘truths’ from 50 years ago, so too do our conceptions of religion. In conclusion I will show that religion must change in order to stay relevant and not die out, giving examples of Christianity and how it has changed since its founding.
There are thousands of religions alive in the world today but there are also many that have died out for one reason or another. Some like Mesoamerican religions that had their temples destroyed and their followers slaughtered by people who did not understand their beliefs or wanted them gone because it conflicted with their own. Others like the Olmec, seems to have just disappeared around the 4th century BC and Manichaeism in which no records have been found after the 13th century, looking as though they simply just disappeared. Then there are the few in which it seems that were once one religion and were either adapted or their stories stolen to turn in to new religions, like Mithras (also based on the Egyptian god Horus) and Christianity or Canaanite Polytheism which consolidated their gods to become Judaism. It seems as if there are three way in which a particular religion may no longer exist, it is either killed off, disappears or it is somehow morphed into another. There is not a lot one can do when a religion and its followers are killed and wiped off the face of the earth, as in the case of some of the Mesoamerican religious beliefs, but what about those that are able to cling on through adversity and become one of the biggest religions, like Christianity or Judaism did?
It is important to not the similarities between the ‘old beliefs’ and the ‘new beliefs’. For example, the religion of Mithras shares an uncanny likeness to Christianity’s story of Jesus of Nazareth. Mithras was a popular god that was worshipped around the 1st to the 4th century BC by the Romans. Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th, he traveled far and wide spreading wisdom, also along on his travels were his 12 disciples. He was most often referred to as the “good shepherd”, or “savior”, which is how Jesus is referred to in the bible. He had even been buried in a tomb and resurrected 3 days later, celebrating his resurrection on the day of the female goddess Aphrodite/Ishtar/Astarte of fertility, or as we now know it, Easter. There are too many things consistent with that of Christianity to be just a coincidence. Some of these same sentiments are thought about the polytheistic Canaanite religion and their worship of Baal, who’s name means Lord or God. There is evidence to suggest that Yahweh is simply the appropriation of the old god Baal. One of Baal’s powers as a god was that of fertility, while this is also seen in “Issac’s blessing in Gen. 27.28 begins as a prayer that Elohim may supply some of the dew of heaven, some of the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and must… There is no polemic here, only transference to Yahweh of those elements that Baal was thought to preside over, notably the dew of heaven” (Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal, Page 90, 6.1.3).
This shows that gods of old have been appropriated and certain things are transferred into the new god. So even though we may “kill” a religion it seems that much of the old beliefs are given new breath when transferred over. So did some of these old religions actually die or is it possible that they just became something else? From these two examples of Mithras/ Christianity and Canaanite/Judaism it seems as though we are still worshiping these old gods but they just needed to change in order to stay relevant with the changing culture. Morphing from this ideal of multiple gods (polytheism) to the new and upcoming ideas of there being one true god. Both Mithras and Canaanite were about to be subject to what happened with some of the Mesoamerican religions, just disappearing because they were not able to become what the developing culture of that day needed, the one true god. What must a religion do in order to become one of those with the largest following, to stay relevant for the developing cultures and people of today? Change.
When culture changes so do beliefs, among other things. In the 1950’s we believed that ice-pick lobotomies were a great medical option, now we know that using a metal rod and jamming it through ones eye socket and into your brain is very dangerous and can be extremely harmful. We also thought that drunk driving was a rite of passage and asbestos was a great building material. The same thing is to be said about religion, as with culture, things change. Our thoughts and ideals change from day to day, year to year and generation to generation. When society changes due to some new influence so do some of the ideals that religion used to hold. Because of the change in society we tend to interpret or experience differently in a new light. For example, the rise of science in the 17th century changed how society viewed its place in the world, which generated a change in religious beliefs and practices.
Since the founding of Christianity in the 1st century AD, it has changed drastically. As Christianity grew in popularity, it spread far and wide, across peoples, lands and cultures. And with each new culture it came into contact with, new ideas and ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity started to vary. During the fourth century, Christianity took root around five main cities of differing cultures: Constantinople in Turkey, Alexandria in Egypt, Jerusalem in Israel, Antioch in Greece and Rome in Italy, all developing their different ways of practicing Christianity that were in line with their specific forms of culture. These different practices caused what is known as The Great Schism in 1054 AD, resulting in the final separation between the Eastern (Orthodox) Church of Constantinople and the Western Church of Rome (Catholicism). As both sects of Christianity were nourished, certain differences emerged. Lets take a look at the differences between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sects. One of the biggest differences between the two relates back to the Pope, for Roman Catholics they believe that the Pope is infallible and has supreme power over all lower ranking church leaders. Whereas, in the Greek Orthodox sect, the highest bishop” does not have supreme authority and they are also known as the “first among equals”. A second difference is that Roman Catholics worship statues where as Eastern Orthodox believers have icons, or images/paintings.
Statues in the religious world, represent more of an idol worship, or worshipping a person or thing in place of, or as if it were, God, whereas icons (or paintings) are seen as a window to heaven. Another major difference lies in the doctrines of each church. In the Roman Catholic Church, each new Pope or Bishops and other such instruments of the Holy Spirit change the doctrines over time, they are considered to be more intellectual and bear the enlightenment that is provided by the Holy Spirit. However for the Eastern Greek Orthodox believers, they believe that neither the New Testament nor the Bible should ever be changed as such. They believe that this is a way for them to avoid heresies and false doctrines. The differences in the way Christianity is practiced in the East vs the West directly translates into the differences in the cultures of the east and the west. One major difference is that in the east, the cultures tend to be more conservative and traditional than that of the general population in the west, like how the Eastern orthodox practice believes that nothing should be changed from the original writings of the Bible.
There are glaring differences between differing sects of religious beliefs, as shown above in the differences between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. Different cultures produce different outcomes amongst religious beliefs and sometimes it is the culture of the world as whole and their ideals that change. The role of women within the church is a good example of this. Women have struggled for their rights throughout time, in some cultures they were able to hold more esteemed positions while in others they were suppressed. It may be buried, but it is a known fact that women played a large role in the development, spread and establishment of Christianity. Women used to be a major part of the church in its beginnings, some even holding high positions within the church and others helping to spread the word and build churches. In fact, women were the first to fully support Christianity and played a large part in spreading the message of Christianity. Phoebe was a trusted messenger of the Apostle Paul and was mentioned by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (16:1-2). Paul refers to Phoebe as both a deacon and a patron of many, which no other woman in the First Testament is referred to with either distinction.
Perpetua and her story also played a major role in getting Christianity legitimized as her story, dedication and belief in the church are so moving. She was one of several Christian converts in Carthage that were rounded up and killed in a horrible display of violence because of their belief. Catherine of Siena was a mystic, patron saint of Europe and Italy, and one of only four women to be named doctor of the church, this means that her writings hold a special authority in the Roman Catholic church. Today, however, women do not hold much, if any, authority in the church. It is even forgotten how big of a role women played in the development and establishment of Christianity. At some point though they got pushed to the side, and effectively written out of the churches history. It was men who decided that women should play less of a role and not be able to hold such high positions in the church in its later years after establishment as the suppression of women increased.
Religion, of any kind, needs to change in order to stay relevant, whether it be morphing into a new religion like Mithras into Christianity or Canaanite into Judaism, or into different sects, or changing how history was written, like in the case of the women in Christianity. If religions do not adapt and change with the times and culture and new ideals, they will most likely die out. Some of our oldest religions today, like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, would not be recognizable to someone from 2,000, 1,000 or even 300 years ago. As stated in The Evolution of Christianity, “… even theology will have to admit sooner or later an unreserved recognition of the principle of evolution to be rigorously applied in all the domains of Biblical and ecclesiastical history…. Christianity would not be what it is, if it had not had its evolution through the nineteen centuries…” (The Evolution of Christianity: The Monist, pg 541 & 543). It is a known fact that Christianity when it was first founded versus what it has become today are two very different things. Without its constant evolution, Christianity may not have even existed today. Christianity is one of the most widely practiced religions in the world today and has more than 2 billion followers and 6 different sects, Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Assyrians. The fact that there are so many different sects of one religious belief system, and then so many other denominations within those sects, shows that the need for change is a prominent feature in religious beliefs staying relevant.
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