Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?

MADDIE ASKS:

What caused ancient religions to become less prevalent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Our previous Q and A item treated ancient Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto and Taoism, which have survived into the 21st Century but with radically diminished status. Maddie wonders why ancient Babylonian, Greek and Roman mythologies died out and Zoroastrianism has nearly disappeared while Judaism and Hinduism didn’t vanish like other ancient creeds. She asks, did the younger proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam simply “push out” the dead creeds?

All very intriguing.

There’s ample mystery here and The Guy is a journalist, not an expert on the history of world religions. But we can scan some common theories. Of course believers in an ancient faith that survived presumably attribute this to divine intervention.

Does dynamism explain the expansion of Christianity and Islam? Or rather, did internal weaknesses of other faiths doom them? Perhaps both. Islam has always had global ambitions and expanded through evangelism (“dawah,” Arabic for “invite”) and also political, social and military pressures. Christianity is equally evangelistic but in modern times mostly gains adherents without political or military force.

Zoroastrianism has at least survived while many other ancient creeds did not. This great faith was formulated by Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) around the 6th Century B.C.E., the same remarkable spiritual epoch that produced the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Mahavira, and major prophets in the Bible. It long dominated its homeland of Persia (present-day Iran). But Muslim forces invaded in a 7th Century C.E. conquest and over time used this control to almost totally supplant the older religion. Unlike Islam, Zoroastrianism has not utilized evangelism or political-military tactics. Today it survives among some few Iranians who haven’t emigrated along with perhaps 200,000 “Parsis,” descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India. Today’s tiny numbers appear destined to shrink even further due to a low birth rate.

Zoroaster shared with Judaism the worship of one supreme being, Ahura Mazda (the “Wise Lord”) and some propose that monotheism is the key to perpetuating a faith. Perhaps so in some cases, but that cannot explain the long lifespan and impact of Hinduism, with a multitude of gods, or of Buddhism, which doesn’t necessarily worship gods at all.

Another theory that seems to better fit the historical evidence is that long-term success requires a definitive body of holy writings with captivating messages in poetry and prose. Such are the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Rig Veda, a hymn collection that’s the earliest and most important of Hinduism’s four central scriptures. Tradition says the Hindu text dates back countless thousands of years; western experts believe that at minimum it originated prior to Moses, the traditional author of the Bible’s first five books.

Similarly, the remarkable survival of Judaism despite oppression could be attributed to its incomparable Tanakh (Christians’ “Old Testament”). As Simon Schama’s new book The Story of the Jews says, the Hebrew Bible provided “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel.” With the Bible came articulated belief in the one God, developed scriptural moral codes and laws, and bookish intellectual rigor growing from biblical study and commentary, all resulting in strong ethnic solidarity.

Today’s world Jewish population is 15 million. Though Judaism has survived, like Zoroastrianism it seems destined to gradually fade as secularized Jews defect from belief in God and study and practice of their ancestral faith, alongside higher intermarriage and lower birth rates.

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Got news? Can Christian and atheist swap lives for a month?

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Half a world away from my Oklahoma home, an experiment just concluded in Australia.

An atheist and a Christian who are friends agreed to trade places for a month and document the experience, with the summary promised later this week.

According to a brief in online news’ The Blaze, believer Bentley Browning and non-believer Simon Capes gave up their respective belief systems for the other’s in January, “in the hopes of coming to understand one another’s views more fully.” They’re calling it Faith Swap.

To be specific, each adopted the other’s daily rituals, or lack thereof, including prayer, Bible reading, worship, sacraments or any other related activities.

Color me intrigued.

Faith Swap also has been quasi written up in the Huffington Post after a brief PR piece appeared in the Christian Today Australia. So the concept is kind of out there, but without a good story.

So what am I critiquing exactly? The possibility. I’m still hopeful a GodBeat pro might latch onto it in and give us a proper feature.

Why? I’d like to see it go deeper. While Christians don’t always walk the walk, so to speak, can one completely erase all contact with or dependence upon God for a month and adopt the lifestyle of an individual completely without faith? Conversely, can someone with no belief in God conform to the daily discipline of contact with Him and extract spiritual meaning in the rituals of worship?

The possibilities for a true piece of reporting vs. a quick publicity rehash keep popping into my head.

For starters, Capes’ non-belief is categorized as that of an atheist without test or question. In a setting like this, why not educate readers about the differences between agnostics and atheists?

From there, how did Browning cope? Did he find a substitute for prayer? How did erasing God from his life affect his approach to money or reading?

For further background, the pair has been updating on Facebook, and some of Browning’s posts are genuinely descriptive of what I would envision a day without prayer might feel like to me. It is tough to make out which man is which, however, because both post under one user name.

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Got news? Is a global ‘war on Christianity’ newsworthy?

Would it be newsworthy if a U.S. Senator claimed in a public address that American taxpayer dollars are being used in a war against Christian believers in — to pick one key region — the Holy Land?

Apparently not, since Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) made that claim yesterday at the Faith and Freedom Conference and the media has all but ignored it. As James Hohmann of Politico reports:

“There is a war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide,” he said. “And your government, or more correctly, you, the taxpayer, are funding it.”

Although it was noticed by a handful of the D.C.-based, politically oriented sites, few mainstream outlets picked up on the story (a mention by CBS News and the AP are the only ones I could find).

Why the silence?

Imagine if a senator — a potential candidate for president, in fact — had claimed we were funding a war on Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism. Would that not be a front-page story? Why then the difference when it comes to Christianity?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is because few journalists understood what Sen. Paul is even talking about. The socially conservative Christians at the conference knew what he meant, but that is because they read alternative media sources. Religious media outlets mention persecution of Christians around the globe nearly every week, though such stories rarely find their way into mainstream news stories. Even when, earlier this month, the Vatican claimed that 100,000 Christians are killed annually because of their faith, no major media seemed interested enough to do a follow-up on the assertion.

Perhaps some journalists thought that by reporting on Sen. Paul’s statement they would be required to explain the context. But they needn’t have worried about that. Here, for example, is the entire mention by the Associated Press in their 900+ word article titled, “GOP leader says ‘a war on Christianity’ is funded by taxpayers”:

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How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

Job one: let the athletes speak for themselves and quote them accurately. Out of 175 lines in the article, 91 are direct quotes from the members of the Bible group talking about their faith.

But the commendatory approach taken by CNN also provides examples of the confusion that can arise when sources use religious language in a way that might be familiar to those in a particular faith tradition (e.g., Christianese), but may come across as inaccessible gibberish to outsiders. When people use religious jargon the denotation of certain words can vary from common usage and shortcuts can be taken based on the assumption that the listener can fill in the blanks. Journalists are not supposed to make those kinds of assumptions.

An example of the latter is the assumption by golfer Kevin Streelman that others will be familiar with the narrative pattern of personal redemption stories:

Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.

For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.

“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.

Wait, previously what way? And how did we jump ahead to the reawakening before mentioning either an awakening or a falling away? If this article had appeared in Christianity Today, readers would intuitively understand what he was referring to. But in a mainstream secular outlet like CNN, no such assumptions can or should be made.

In a later quote, Streelmen slips in the first of several other examples of Christianese:

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