Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?

Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise? March 24, 2014


What caused ancient religions to become less prevalent?


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?

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14 responses to “Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?”

  1. You’re slightly incorrect in this statement: “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.”

    What you fail to state in your article is that Christianity existed in these countries and was gradually driven away by Islam, and this process to this day continues to unfold in countries like Syria. And ironically, this is helped along by western Christians who continue to ignore this because they’re the “wrong sort of Christians”.

  2. I think you’ve missed the weight of political power. A scholar (darn, I cannot remember who…some Christian guy) is writing a book on specifically the dramatic consequence of winning and losing wars. The Persians lose to the Arabs and Zoroastrianism largely disappears while Islam becomes ascendent. Constantine wins at the Milvian bridge and Mithraism fades while Christianity dominates (repeated later in various European wars of conquest). Various religions simply died as they lost crucial wars. Judaism is somewhat of an exception. Buddhism was less involved in wars but took off due to massive political advantage when King Ashoka converted. In short, no religion has become a dominant global force without securing massive political power.

    • If anyone knows who that scholar is, I would love to look him up again. Just. cannot. find. him.

      • According to Wikipedia, there were two Korean scholars who brought Catholic Christianity into Korea in the late 18th century: Yi Seung-hun (1756-1801) and Yi Byeok (1754-1785). Each has a very interesting article on Wiki

    • My recollection of reading history is that Mithraism was mostly a religious practice of the military and not the general population.
      Your theory does not hold true in areas like Korea which is now more than 50% Christian. This began in the 1700s (or earlier)when Korean ambassadors to China came back with Christian writings, spread the faith without any priests or ministers, suffered deadly persecutions and survived to convert their fellow Koreans. There aren’t as many Christians in Japan, but also they kind of converted themselves and hung in there during centuries of persecution.

      • I think the date of entry of Xty into Korea is more like 1800 with real strength occurring over the past century and a bit following the entry of significant Protestant missionaries (which requires money, support, etc.).

        Many people and areas convert to religions without war. Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, converted solely through this means. But if you move from questions of “how did this particularly country in the past century or two shift its religion” to “what causes enormous religions to become dominant and later to lose that dominance,” wars and political power are crucial. East Asia is so Christian today because of European political dominance and tens of thousands of missionaries sent for the past 150 years. Only wealthy, powerful nations can do that.

        • I lived in Korea for a year. I studied its history while there. It really did come to Christianity all on its own and suffered horrendous persecutions at times because of it. This was while it was the “Hermit Kingdom” and had no connection to the West at all. Wikipedia says it began in 1603.


          • Well, one guy with some texts in 1603. Then it says it was “reintroduced” in the 1700s. Another Wiki entry suggests late 1800s before any significant #s which it attributes to Protestant missionaries. And yet, in the entry you provided, it was still at 2% in 1945. And that is *with* the continual injection of foreign missionaries.

            Anyways, back to my original post, this is getting hung up on details. Xty is not a global giant for 2000 yrs because of Korea. Political power has been crucial as it was for Islam and for Buddhism. Lose some key wars along the way and it all could be different.

  3. One of the things that helped Christianity along among the educated classes – West and East – was the early adoption of the prevelant Greek philosophical means of argument. The 2,000 year experience of analyzing and commenting on Scripture was important to Catholicism as well as Judaism. At my state law school I was surprised to find that Jews and Catholics were over-represented in the student population. The Protestants had a cultural bias toward interpreting things literally rather than understanding the nuances of precedent.

    • I agree that RCs and Judaism today have long interpretive traditions but this is not chronologically helpful. Xty spread for the first few centuries with some success (a necessity for any religion, such as Mormonism today). But the point where it becomes a dominant tradition is the 300s. In that century, Constantine’s conversion, Ehrman suggests, moved the religion from 3-5% to about 50% by the time he died. Then Theodosius, the Roman emperor half a century later, made all other religions illegal, erasing their priesthoods and their facilities. After Jesus and Paul, Constantine is the most important Christian in history by a wide margin.

      About 1500, Xty is probably the second largest religion in the world or perhaps third, but the European’s dominance of the globe thereafter means the world today speaks European languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), practices European economics (market economies), increasingly is affected by European political ideas (nation-states, and ideas like individualism and democracy), and practices European religions (Catholicism and Protestantism – very tellingly, *NOT* Eastern Orthodoxy as this Xn faith lacked European power).

  4. There’s also Confucianism that is a non-deity belief system – like Buddhism. It still has great influence in China, Korea and Japan.

  5. These religions are not entirely independent. The Zoroastrians according some had a strong effect on Judaism conveying concepts of the afterlife, angels, eternal punishment etc. Such was too innovative and foreign to the Sadducees and Samaritans. What eventually became rabbinical Judaism incorporated this as evidenced by the book of Daniel, for instance. First century Jewish people who were even more syncretistic also brought in some pagan influences, accepted gentiles, and eventually split from them to become Christians. The first three centuries of the common era saw a wide variety of Christian groups. After this experiment in diversity, a standard Christianity eventually coalesced. Islam was created by incorporating a mixture of Judaism and Christianity, according to some. Harold Bloom hypothesized in one place I read that it bears a strong resemblance to the type of Christianity practiced and led by James the brother of Jesus.

  6. Because if you threaten to torture and kill enough people if they don’t profess a certain religion, that religion will gain dominance. Then when those people start indoctrinating their children from birth, the religion retains it’s dominance, which is why Middle Eastern countries are predominantly Muslim, Western countries are predominantly Christian…. It has nothing to due with “divine intervention” or reason and everything to do with fear and geography.

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