Every 700 years or so, a significant religion comes along and revolutionize humanity’s perspective on the divine.
20th century BC
Zoroastrianism gave us the concepts of good and evil. Before that, there was very little of such a notion. Things were just what they were. Period. It is hard to comprehend a spiritual world without this dichotomy; It is the concept that is at the core of Christianity and Islam. Heaven and hell and the idea of judgment after death also came from Zoroastrianism. It is a reminder that religions feed off one another ideologically.
14th century BC
Egyptian’s religious reformer Akhenaton introduced the idea of a single god represented by the sun. Prior to that, the custom was to have multiple ‘gods.’ It is difficult to comprehend now how can someone believe in numerous gods, but the opposite was true back then. What we have to understand was that ‘gods’ were to be recognised as symbols. Since religions are a way to make sense of reality, one of the best way to illustrate concepts such as War, Wisdom or Love is to use personas and create a story for them.
4-6th century BC
Buddhism did not give us much in term of how to think of God, as much as it emphasized the process for alleviating one’s suffering in oneself and others.
Contrary to what many practitioners of today mistakenly believe, the process involved confronting one’s mortality and accepting the negative aspect of life to free oneself from it. Ultimately culminating in enlightenment or ‘Nirvana’. We often consider it a religion as seen from the West, however, it is probably fairer to describe it as a ‘philosophy of life’ as it doesn’t give much description about the nature of reality. This came from Hinduism. So even the meaning of a “Religion” is a fuzzy concept.
Christianism revolutionized the concept of God altogether. It was meant to be a full departure from Judaism. In the old testament, God is vengeful, wrathful and jealous, and so would not hesitate to punish if disobeyed. God was only the God of the jews. “The Chosen Ones”. Instead, The Christian God was good, forgiving, and universal. “God is love”. It is the God of all human beings. Which explains why it was able to spread globally. Also God for the first time favored the poor, humble and virtuous, not an elite few as was the prior custom. It is in the 4th century that it was decided to bring the two teachings as part of a single collection that we now call the bible. Perhaps this arbitrary aggregation should be reconsidered as the concepts of God from the old, and New Testament differs significantly.
Islam was the driving ideological framework that brought civilization to the middle east that was populated by nomadic tribes. With Islam, religion became political. It brought forth the idea of the holy war. When the means of propagation of Christianity (at the inception at least) was through love, the path of the virtuous is through the jihad, an elevated martyrdom as a means to ascend to the heavens. It created the fiercest soldiers who were quickly able to spread Islam through war. After all Mahomet was a warlord. While the violence of the christian world can be attributed to the power institutions in place, those of the Islam world can be attributed to its foundations and its most peaceful attributes to successive cultural updates by Caliphates.
On a more positive note Islam removed the personification of God, as Allah is beyond representation, adopting sacred geometry, for instance, as a symbol for the word of God. Also, for the first time, everyone became equal to the law (The shariah). In that sense, it tries to be an equalitarian belief system (apart from women and unbelievers of course). When Christianity encourages helping one another, Islam enforces it and attempt to crystalize it in applicable terms.
It is interesting to note how the redesign of a religion can occur from a different interpretation of the same texts. A ‘fanatic’ by the name of Martin Luther appalled by the corruption of the Catholic church decided on his own accord to reinterpret the teachings to get closer to the truth of God in one of the most successful reform. Since God is loving, he accepts anyone universally, as a birthright. This new update found great resonance with the people and powers in place, as it was finally accepting of divorce and allowed priests to marry for instance.
Also it the same period, Sikhism introduced the idea of the Saint-Soldier who’s duty is to maintain social justice. It is much like a decentralized peacekeeping force and the main inspiration behind the Jedi knights.
We are due for a major update.
Some good modern contestants could be Rajneesh (Osho), or even a more humble “School of life”. As they offer positions how to live one’s life and offer a value system…..
….But one could put forward the idea that science is the dominating religion of our time, a religion that focuses on empirical evidence with his prophet Descartes and the Royal Society as its original assembly. While probably the most practical religion to date, It doesn’t offer a perspective on the underlying reason behind reality. It is an agnostic/atheistic religion. But it seems that its dogmatic reliance on what can be measured as the only thing that exists and its lack of focus on the intangible aspects of life leaves a spiritual vacuum to its adopters. It is as if it is incomplete in its design. One could say science is the branch of the more ancient alchemy tradition (Newton considered himself an Alchemist) which focuses only the physical manifestation of reality.
Although nowadays new theories seem to bridge that gap, with the idea that we’re living in a simulation increasingly gaining traction. In that case, would God be the creator of the simulation? Or could there be multiple creator gods and one player god? Or is it a multiplayer game? Would it lead to a new redefinition of the divine?
What I am suggesting instead in my upcoming book “Redesigning Religion” is for us to do a synthesis of all previous religious traditions and collect the best ideas from wherever they may be.
Those ideas could be selected based on the common features that most religions possess, and universal values that all humans share. Most religions seek the alleviation of sufferings and promote peace, and even agree to consider humanity as one big family. So bridges can definately be built. They only differs in the means to that very end. Therefore, a new religion should need to be designed to promote the wellbeing of all beings and rebalance humanity with its environment.
Unfortunately, current religions and ideologies have the same design flaw:
Dogmatism, or the idea that one has a monopoly on truth, is the single most dangerous idea that plagues any belief system. It is the seed of the “I am right, you are wrong,” “Us vs Them”. It stops individuals from changing their minds and sooner or later leads to ideological festerization. Hence it will always be a dragging force.
Let us come up instead with a “Meta-religion” that will be a framework for how we can update our beliefs to go towards an ever-better representation of reality.
Let us create a framework that is accepting of various points of views. Let us agree that the concept of ‘God’ is a metaphor and not truth.
Let us have the humility to accept that absolute truth cannot be accessed directly with our human limitations. That would make for a giant leap of collective wisdom.
Could we find new concepts to make sense of all?
One could choose to go with the idea of a single god; one could choose to have none, one could choose to have many; All agreeing that what differs is perspective. This would undoubtedly be a welcome update.
Looking at the story of Life, could we infer a new understanding of its meaning? Accepting the fact we know all so little but we can conclude there’s a narrative based on what we can observe?
We’ve got enough evidence around to claim that men have created religions; often it is a single voice which finds resonance with its time and context. Perhaps we could promote ideological research aiming for the most well designed spiritual system.
That is the very ambitious project that I tasked myself with. I don’t dare (yet) to present myself as a prophet but as a creative intellectual in need of a challenging outlet ;-)