Continental Religion

In the course of my duties as an editor of religious studies, I was pondering the origins of the world’s major religions. Now, agreeing on what the major religions are is an exercise fraught with political incorrectness. What does “major” mean, after all? In any case, when we count in terms of numbers, there are more Christians, at the moment, than any other single religion. They are followed by Muslims and Hindus. So far there is little upon which to disagree, at least according to self-professed affiliations. Buddhists are usually counted as the next largest group, followed by Sikhs. When religionists mention “the big five,” however, they usually mean Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are likely far more followers of traditional Chinese folk religion, perhaps mixed with Confucianism and Taoism, than most accountings record—such beliefs aren’t neatly categorized. Jains make up a sizable population, and Shinto is often classed in with all those religions of the far east. Many of the more modern religions, such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sprang from Christianity, and so can safely be classed as a form of that faith.

What occurred to me that day was that all the major religions of the present world began in Asia. Judaism and Christianity, with all their numerous progeny, started in Israel or Palestine. Islam, as we all know, began in Arabia. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism all have their origins in India, the big winner for the seed-bed of religions. Traditional Chinese religions and Shinto trace themselves to the far east. Yes, there are indigenous religions throughout the world. Native American and African religions are not to be discounted, yet they never quite attain the level of public awareness to be qualified as “major” religions. In this spiritual accounting, “major” has nothing to do with importance. For the religions with the largest followings we must turn our eyes to the one-stop continent, Asia.

Where major religions begin

Where major religions begin

Considering this, the obvious question is why. Why Asia? Civilization itself began in Asia, and one of the marks of a civilized society, at least until the day of the New Atheists, has been religion. Religion may be abused, as might any human innovation, but it has also been a harbinger of a more civil world. Not only fear of the divine, but also a sense of gratitude toward whatever forces might be greater than humanity, allowing us to survive for another season, or through another storm. Even in the world of science, religion has been a motivator. Gregor Mendel, the scientist who gave us genetics, was a monk experimenting in a monastery. Sir Isaac Newton was an occultist. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian. Religion is at least as old as civilization. Its forms may be morphing, but, I suspect something our Asian forebears knew: religion will never truly go away.

Bridge over Troubled

ReligionThe fundamental question of what counts as religion remains elusive. I read Robert Crawford’s What is Religion? hoping to find out. Crawford begins with the admirable assertion that in a pluralistic world all religions must learn to get along. Unfortunately, learning hasn’t always been one of religion’s strong suits. And we still don’t even know what religion is. As becomes clear within minutes of starting the book, consensus will be a stranger in this room. Nevertheless Crawford plows on, hoping against hope that comparison will reveal conformity. Religions aren’t really team players in that way.

Crawford keeps his focus on the “big six”: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Although these faiths contain the lion’s share of numbers, they in no way corner the market on religion. I wonder if Crawford’s net is really large enough. When trying to define religion, cutting corners gets you into trouble every time. No matter how we count it, religion is more than a matter of belief and broader than prescribed rituals. It must take seriously the attempts of even small knots of seekers in its preternatural accounting. Crawford sometimes gets bogged down in the details. Science plays a key role in his discussion but then the scope shifts to Christianity, a religion with more than its share of scientific troubles. Islam, for a while anyway, led the world in scientific thinking. What of Sikhs and science?

The more I read of What is Religion?, the more I got the feeling that all of these pieces don’t go to the same puzzle. Religions develop out of historical circumstances and needs. They, with a few exceptions, are not consciously devised by a bunch of eggheads shut up in ivory towers. Religions develop from people in difficult situations, whether physical or psychological. Think about it. If the Bible is to be believed Judaism grew out of slavery in Egypt (either that or Abraham’s childlessness). Christianity out of Roman oppression. Islam from Muhammad’s conviction that polytheism didn’t add up. Hinduism’s old enough to have lost its origins in deep antiquity, but Buddhism is clearly a reaction to pervasive suffering. Sikhism tried to steer between the clashes of Hinduism and Islam. We could go on, but I don’t wish to try your patience. I’m not suggesting I’ve finally done the impossible and defined religion. In fact, I may be suggesting the opposite. Religion encompasses many ways of being in the world. Crawford maybe got a start on the discussion, but it will go on as long as people have troubles.

Five Century Hypothesis

More than likely it is simply an oddity of history, but roughly every five hundred years a new major religion appears.  The newcomers sometimes grow into a serious concern for conservatives in the older traditions, but at other times they are simply ignored until the two (or more) come into inevitable contact.  Peering far back into history, the roots of the earliest religions of lasting durability are sometimes lost.  For a very rough starting point, we can consider Hinduism.  With roots going back to about 1500 BCE in the “Pre-Classical” era of the religion, Hinduism developed independently of the monotheistic traditions that would appear in the western half of Asia.  Although some would credit Judaism with equal (or even greater) antiquity, we get an idea that some of the basic thought that would coalesce into Judaism seems to have, very roughly, begun around 1000 BCE.  About five centuries later, Buddhism appeared.  At the turn of the era, Christianity had emerged from Judaism.  About five centuries later, Islam appeared.  Countless other religions, of course, existed concurrently with these early exemplars, but each of these has grown into a major world religion. 

Around about 1000 of the Common Era, Christianity began to fragment.  The first major, official split was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Christianity’s penchant for fragmentation would eventually lead to Protestantism—a religious form quite distinct in many ways from traditional Christianity—and that happened roughly five centuries later.  The most obvious split took place around 1500 with the Reformation, but it was also around that time that Sikhism appeared.  The new religions of the common era often involve irreconcilable differences within an established religion. In the western world we tend to overlook Sikhism, but in sheer numbers it is one of the largest religious traditions. And of course, there are many, many others.

As with any over-simplified scheme that tries to make sense of history, I am certain that no historian will be convinced. To me it seems obvious. Once every five centuries or so, some new religion will be born and will flourish. Perhaps it is already among us. We are about due. Like the evolution of new species, some new religions are poorly adapted to survival: one thinks of Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown. Others, however, quietly thrive until someone looks around and says, “Where did Mormonism come from anyway?” Some will argue that it is just another sect of Christianity. Those who study its theology will realize that its conceptual world is vastly different. But anyone with a long enough calendar can see that it began about five centuries after Sikhism and the Protestant Reformation occurred. And anyone with two cents can sense its enormous bankroll—no surer sign of a religion’s viability can be offered.

The Price of Tolerance

While on a trip to New England recently, my family had taken an exit to look for a bite of lunch. We followed one of those innocuous dinner-plate symbols that often grace roadside signs next to a stylized hotel bed and a gas pump that looks like a suicidal robot. This particular exit, however, seemed unwilling to deliver on the food part. As we wound down an unfamiliar road, we came across the golden cupolas of a Sikh temple. This was the first Sikh temple I’d ever seen, and my daughter asked why she’s never heard of Sikhs before. “Because they never cause problems,” was my reply. Of the major world religions, Sikhism is notable for its lack of overt violence even though a sword is one of the religion’s symbols. Unfortunately, over the weekend, violence found some innocent Sikhs.

As of the moment, no one is able to identify the motives of the man who gunned down four Sikhs preparing to worship in Wisconsin. For many Americans the religion is a mystery. We hear of Hinduism and Buddhism in the course of many historical and literary ventures. Sikhism is somewhat newer on the world religious scene, but it still predates regular European trade with India during the “age of exploration.” Although the classification of religions is always disputed, Sikhism is generally considered around the sixth largest world religion in terms of numbers, and they have avoided the limelight in the western world, showing that a religion can rest on its principles. One of the truly praiseworthy principles of Sikhism is toleration, an idea that his held in very high regard.

From WikiCommons

Toleration often clashes with gun ownership in the United States. Just weeks after twelve people were murdered for going to the movies, we have more headlines of private citizens (some mentally disturbed) with ready access to firearms. And more innocent people are dead. Even the shooter is dead, so we will never likely know whether this was simply a case of mistaken identity or hideous intolerance at work. In my time in Wisconsin I came across many Christians who were extremely intolerant of any viewpoint other than their own. Fortunately, they were the vast minority among the people that I knew. Still, the paradigm that I see emerging disturbs me to the core: we claim it is our right to own guns while identifying with a deity who let himself be tortured to death rather than harm anyone. I wonder if a culture can spell schizophrenia?