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.

The struggle against temptations from rival Mideast religions consumed much of the Hebrew Bible and involved morality as well as idolatry. One overriding issue was the Bible’s denunciations of child sacrifice, notably the cult of Molech specified alongside the sexual code in Leviticus 18 and 20. The later Greeks and Romans opposed child sacrifice to gods but practiced infanticide, which biblical Jews and later Christians abhorred. By civilized consensus, secular as well as religious, both child sacrifice and infanticide became repellent.

More on ancient faiths in Babylon and elsewhere that were destined to die. Analysts say they lacked high scriptures and offered a confusing jumble of innumerable localized deities that were capricious, all too human, and morally suspect. Belief was bound up with idols, magic, oracles, and unappealing exertions to appease various gods. Christianity eventually supplanted the religions of the Greeks and the Romans, whose aristocracy was apparently more devoted to the officially favored faiths than the masses. Rome borrowed Greek deities (Zeus = Jupiter, Aphrodite = Venus, etc.) and installed problematic worship of flawed emperors, as Greeks had done with Alexander the Great. Finally, it is evident that living religions exceeded dying ones in expressions of love and charity.

Universality, probably fostered by faith in one God, became an aspect of a religion’s appeal as global exploration ensued. Of the world’s two largest religions, Christianity is disseminated more widely than Islam in both geography and ethnicity and it claims more adherents. For Muslims in whatever land, command of the Quran’s Arabic language is necessary for full knowledgeable participation. By contrast, Christians worship and read the Bible in all languages and even invent written forms of remote groups’ oral languages to translate biblical texts. Though Christianity is at home in the broadest possible variety of cultures, it remains marginalized or absent in much of the Muslim world, while Islam makes steady inroads in traditionally Christian countries that practice religious toleration.

Or so some would say. How might you explain all this to Maddie?

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X