Mankind's search for God: Chapter 2
Religion—How Did It Begin?
THE history of religion is as old as the history of man himself. That is what archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Even among the most “primitive,” that is to say, undeveloped, civilizations, there is found evidence of worship of some form. In fact The New Encyclopedia Britannica says that “as far as scholars have discovered, there has never existed any people, anywhere, at any time, who were not in some sense religious.”
2 Besides its antiquity, religion also exists in great variety. The headhunters in the jungles of Borneo, the Eskimos in the frozen Arctic, the nomads in the Sahara Desert, the urban dwellers in the great metropolises of the world—every people and every nation on earth has its god or gods and its way of worship. The diversity in religion is truly staggering.
3 Logically, questions come to mind. From where did all these religions come? Since there are marked differences as well as similarities among them, did they start independently, or could they have developed from one source? In fact we might ask: Why did religion begin at all? And how? The answers to these questions are of vital importance to all who are interested in finding the truth about religion and religious beliefs.
Question of Origin
4 When it comes to the question of origin, people of different religions think of names such as Muḥammad, the Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. In almost every religion, we can find a central figure to whom credit is given for establishing the ‘true faith.’ Some of these were iconoclastic reformers. Others were moralistic philosophers. Still others were selfless folk heroes. Many of them have left behind writings or sayings that formed the basis of a new religion. In time what they said and did was elaborated, embellished, and given a mystic aura. Some of these leaders were even deified.
5 Even though these individuals are considered founders of the major religions that we are familiar with, it must be noted that they did not actually originate religion. In most cases, their teachings grew out of existing religious ideas, even though most of these founders claimed divine inspiration as their source. Or they changed and modified existing religious systems that had become unsatisfactory in one way or another.
6 For example, as accurately as history can tell us, the Buddha had been a prince who was appalled by the suffering and deplorable conditions he found surrounding him in a society dominated by Hinduism. Buddhism was the result of his search for a solution to life’s agonizing problems. Similarly, Muḥammad was highly disturbed by the idolatry and immorality he saw in the religious practices around him. He later claimed to have received special revelations from God, which formed the Qur’ān and became the basis of a new religious movement, Islām. Protestantism grew out of Catholicism as a result of the Reformation that began in the early 16th century, when Martin Luther protested the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church at that time.
7 Thus, as far as the religions now in existence are concerned, there is no lack of information regarding their origin and development, their founders, their sacred writings, and so on. But what about the religions that existed before them? And the ones even before those? If we go back far enough in history, we will sooner or later be confronted with the question: How did religion begin? Clearly, to find the answer to that question, we must look beyond the confines of the individual religions.
8 The study of the origin and development of religion is a comparatively new field. For centuries, people more or less accepted the religious tradition into which they were born and in which they were brought up. Most of them were satisfied with the explanations handed down to them by their forefathers, feeling that their religion was the truth. There was seldom any reason to question anything, nor the need to investigate how, when, or why things got started. In fact, for centuries, with limited means of travel and communication, few people were even aware of other religious systems.
9 During the 19th century, however, the picture began to change. The theory of evolution was sweeping through intellectual circles. That, along with the advent of scientific inquiry, caused many to question established systems, including religion. Recognizing the limitations of looking for clues within existing religion, some scholars turned to the remains of early civilizations or to the remote corners of the world where people still lived in primitive societies. They tried to apply to these the methods of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and so forth, hoping to discover a clue as to how religion began and why.
10 What was the outcome? Suddenly, there burst upon the scene many theories—as many as there were investigators, it seemed—with each investigator contradicting the other, and each endeavoring to outdo the other in daring and originality. Some of these researchers arrived at important conclusions; the work of others has simply been forgotten. It is both educational and enlightening for us to get a glimpse of the results of this research. It will help us to gain a better understanding of the religious attitudes among people we meet.
11 A theory, commonly called animism, was proposed by the English anthropologist Edward Tylor (1832-1917). He suggested that experiences such as dreams, visions, hallucinations, and the lifelessness of corpses caused primitive people to conclude that the body is inhabited by a soul (Latin, anima). According to this theory, since they frequently dreamed about their deceased loved ones, they assumed that a soul continued living after death, that it left the body and dwelt in trees, rocks, rivers, and so on. Eventually, the dead and the objects the souls were said to inhabit came to be worshiped as gods. And thus, said Tylor, religion was born.
12 Another English anthropologist, R. R. Marett (1866-1943), proposed a refinement of animism, which he called animatism. After studying the beliefs of the Melanesians of the Pacific islands and the natives of Africa and America, Marett concluded that instead of having the notion of a personal soul, primitive people believed there was an impersonal force or supernatural power that animated everything; that belief evoked emotions of awe and fear in man, which became the basis for his primitive religion. To Marett, religion was mainly man’s emotional response to the unknown. His favorite statement was that religion was “not so much thought out as danced out.”
13 In 1890 a Scottish expert in ancient folklore, James Frazer (1854-1941), published the influential book The Golden Bough, in which he argued that religion grew out of magic. According to Frazer, man first tried to control his own life and his environment by imitating what he saw happening in nature. For example, he thought that he could invoke rain by sprinkling water on the ground to the accompaniment of thunderlike drumbeats or that he could cause his enemy harm by sticking pins in an effigy. This led to the use of rituals, spells, and magical objects in many areas of life. When these did not work as expected, he then turned to placating and beseeching the help of the supernatural powers, instead of trying to control them. The rituals and incantations became sacrifices and prayers, and thus religion began. In Frazer’s words, religion is “a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man.”
14 Even the noted Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), in his book Totem and Taboo, tried to explain the origin of religion. True to his profession, Freud explained that the earliest religion grew out of what he called a father-figure neurosis. He theorized that, as was true with wild horses and cattle, in primitive society the father dominated the clan. The sons, who both hated and admired the father, rebelled and killed the father. To acquire the father’s power, Freud claimed, ‘these cannibalistic savages ate their victim.’ Later, out of remorse, they invented rites and rituals to atone for their action. In Freud’s theory, the father figure became God, the rites and rituals became the earliest religion, and the eating of the slain father became the tradition of communion practiced in many religions.
15 Numerous other theories that are attempts to explain the origin of religion could be cited. Most of them, however, have been forgotten, and none of them have really stood out as more credible or acceptable than the others. Why? Simply because there was never any historical evidence or proof that these theories were true. They were purely products of some investigator’s imagination or conjecture, soon to be replaced by the next one that came along.
A Faulty Foundation
16 After years of struggling with the issue, many have now come to the conclusion that it is most unlikely that there will be any breakthrough in finding the answer to the question of how religion began. First of all, this is because bones and remains of ancient peoples do not tell us how those people thought, what they feared, or why they worshiped. Any conclusions drawn from these artifacts are educated guesses at best. Second, the religious practices of today’s so-called primitive people, such as the Australian Aborigines, are not necessarily a reliable gauge for measuring what people of ancient times did or thought. No one knows for sure if or how their culture changed over the centuries.
17 Because of all the uncertainties, the book World Religions—From Ancient History to the Present concludes that “the modern historian of religions knows that it is impossible to reach the origins of religion.” Regarding the historians’ efforts, however, the book makes this observation: “In the past too many theorists were concerned not simply to describe or explain religion but to explain it away, feeling that if the early forms were shown to be based upon illusions then the later and higher religions might be undermined.”
18 In that last comment lies the clue as to why various “scientific” investigators of the origin of religion have not come up with any tenable explanations. Logic tells us that a correct conclusion can be deduced only from a correct premise. If one starts off with a faulty premise, it is unlikely that one will reach a sound conclusion. The repeated failure of the “scientific” investigators to come up with a reasonable explanation casts serious doubts on the premise upon which they based their views. By following their preconceived notion, in their efforts to ‘explain religion away’ they have attempted to explain God away.
19 The situation can be compared to the many ways astronomers prior to the 16th century tried to explain the movement of the planets. There were many theories, but none of them were really satisfactory. Why? Because they were based upon the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe around which the stars and planets revolved. Real progress was not made until scientists—and the Catholic Church—were willing to accept the fact that the earth was not the center of the universe but revolved around the sun, the center of the solar system. The failure of the many theories to explain the facts led open-minded individuals, not to try to come up with new theories, but to reexamine the premise of their investigations. And that led to success.
20 The same principle can be applied to the investigation of the origin of religion. Because of the rise of atheism and the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution, many people have taken for granted that God does not exist. Based on this assumption, they feel that the explanation for the existence of religion is to be found in man himself—in his thought processes, his needs, his fears, his “neuroses.” Voltaire stated, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”; so they argue that man has invented God.—See box, page 28.
21 Since the many theories have failed to provide a truly satisfying answer, is it not time now to reexamine the premise upon which these investigations were based? Instead of laboring fruitlessly in the same rut, would it not be logical to look elsewhere for the answer? If we are willing to be open-minded, we will agree that to do so is both reasonable and scientific. And we have just such an example to help us see the logic behind this course.
An Ancient Inquiry
22 In the first century of our Common Era, Athens, Greece, was a prominent center of learning. Among the Athenians, however, there were many different schools of thought, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics, each with its own idea about the gods. Based on these various ideas, many deities were venerated, and different ways of worship developed. As a result, the city was full of man-made idols and temples.—Acts 17:16.
23 In about the year 50 C.E., the Christian apostle Paul visited Athens and presented to the Athenians a totally different point of view. He told them: “The God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples, neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives to all persons life and breath and all things.”—Acts 17:24, 25.
24 In other words, Paul was telling the Athenians that the true God, who “made the world and all the things in it,” is not a fabrication of man’s imagination, nor is he served by ways that man might devise. True religion is not just a one-sided effort by man to try to fill a certain psychological need or quell a certain fear. Rather, since the true God is the Creator, who gave man thinking ability and power of reason, it is only logical that He would provide a way for man to come into a satisfying relationship with Him. That, according to Paul, was exactly what God did. “He made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, . . . for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us.”—Acts 17:26, 27.
25 Notice Paul’s key point: God “made out of one man every nation of men.” Even though today there are many nations of men, living all over the earth, scientists know that, indeed, all mankind is of the same stock. This concept is of great significance because when we speak of all mankind’s being of the same stock, it means much more than their being related just biologically and genetically. They are related in other areas as well.
26 Note, for instance, what the book Story of the World’s Worship says about man’s language. “Those who have studied the languages of the world and compared them with each other have something to say, and it is this: All languages can be grouped into families or classes of speech, and all these families are seen to have started from one common source.” In other words, the languages of the world did not originate separately and independently, as evolutionists would have us believe. They theorize that cave-dwelling men in Africa, Europe, and Asia started with their grunts and growls and eventually developed their own languages. That was not the case. Evidence is that they “started from one common source.”
27 If that is true of something as personal and as uniquely human as language, then would it not be reasonable to think that man’s ideas about God and religion should also have started from one common source? After all, religion is related to thinking, and thinking is related to man’s ability to use language. It is not that all religions actually grew out of one religion, but the ideas and concepts should be traceable to some common origin or pool of religious ideas. Is there evidence to support this? And if, indeed, man’s religions did originate in one single source, what might it be? How can we find out?
Different yet Similar
28 We can get the answer in the same way that linguistic experts got their answers about the origin of language. By placing the languages side by side and noting their similarities, an etymologist can trace the various languages back to their source. Similarly, by placing the religions side by side, we can examine their doctrines, legends, rituals, ceremonies, institutions, and so on, and see if there is any underlying thread of common identity and, if so, to what that thread leads us.
29 On the surface, the many religions in existence today seem quite different from one another. However, if we strip them of the things that are mere embellishments and later additions, or if we remove those distinctions that are the result of climate, language, peculiar conditions of their native land, and other factors, it is amazing how similar most of them turn out to be.
30 For example, most people would think that there could hardly be any two religions more different from each other than the Roman Catholic Church of the West and Buddhism of the East. However, what do we see when we put aside the differences that could be attributed to language and culture? If we are objective about it, we have to admit that there is a great deal that the two have in common. Both Catholicism and Buddhism are steeped in rituals and ceremonies. These include the use of candles, incense, holy water, the rosary, images of saints, chants and prayer books, even the sign of the cross. Both religions maintain institutions of monks and nuns and are noted for celibacy of priests, special garb, holy days, special foods. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it serves to illustrate the point. The question is, Why do two religions that appear to be so different have so many things in common?
31 As enlightening as the comparison of these two religions turns out to be, the same can be done with other religions. When we do so, we find that certain teachings and beliefs are almost universal among them. Most of us are familiar with such doctrines as the immortality of the human soul, heavenly reward for all good people, eternal torment for the wicked in an underworld, purgatory, a triune god or a godhead of many gods, and a mother-of-god or queen-of-heaven goddess. Beyond these, however, there are many legends and myths that are equally commonplace. For example, there are legends about man’s fall from divine grace owing to his illicit attempt to achieve immortality, the need to offer sacrifices to atone for sin, the search for a tree of life or fountain of youth, gods and demigods who lived among humans and produced superhuman offspring, and a catastrophic flood that devastated nearly all of humanity.
32 What can we conclude from all of this? We note that those who believed in these myths and legends lived far from one another geographically. Their culture and traditions were different and distinct. Their social customs bore no relationship to one another. And yet, when it comes to their religions, they believed in such similar ideas. Although not every one of these peoples believed in all the things mentioned, all of them believed in some of them. The obvious question is, Why? It was as if there was a common pool from which each religion drew its basic beliefs, some more, some less. With the passage of time, these basic ideas were embellished and modified, and other teachings developed from them. But the basic outline is unmistakable.
33 Logically, the similarity in the basic concepts of the many religions of the world is strong evidence that they did not begin each in its own separate and independent way. Rather, going back far enough, their ideas must have come from a common origin. What was that origin?
An Early Golden Age
34 Interestingly, among the legends common to many religions is one that says humankind began in a golden age in which man was guiltless, lived happily and peacefully in close communion with God, and was free from sickness and death. While details may differ, the same concept of a perfect paradise that once existed is found in the writings and legends of many religions.
35 The Avesta, the sacred book of the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion, tells about “the fair Yima, the good shepherd,” who was the first mortal with whom Ahura Mazda (the creator) conversed. He was instructed by Ahura Mazda “to nourish, to rule, and to watch over my world.” To do so, he was to build “a Vara,” an underground abode, for all the living creatures. In it, there “was neither overbearing nor mean-spiritedness, neither stupidity nor violence, neither poverty nor deceit, neither puniness nor deformity, neither huge teeth nor bodies beyond the usual measure. The inhabitants suffered no defilement from the evil spirit. They dwelt among odoriferous trees and golden pillars; these were the largest, best and most beautiful on earth; they were themselves a tall and beautiful race.”
36 Among the ancient Greeks, Hesiod’s poem Works and Days speaks of the Five Ages of Man, the first of which was the “Golden Age” when men enjoyed complete happiness. He wrote:
“The immortal gods, that tread the courts of heaven,
First made a golden race of men.
Like gods they lived, with happy, careless souls,
From toil and pain exempt; nor on them crept
Wretched old age, but all their life was passed
In feasting, and their limbs no changes knew.”
That legendary golden age was lost, according to Greek mythology, when Epimetheus accepted as wife the beautiful Pandora, a gift from the Olympian god Zeus. One day Pandora opened the lid of her great vase, and suddenly there escaped from it troubles, miseries, and illness from which mankind was never to recover.
37 Ancient Chinese legends also tell of a golden age in the days of Huang-Ti (Yellow Emperor), who is said to have ruled for a hundred years in the 26th century B.C.E. He was credited with inventing everything having to do with civilization—clothing and shelter, vehicles of transportation, weapons and warfare, land management, manufacturing, silk culture, music, language, mathematics, the calendar, and so on. During his reign, it is said, “there were no thieves nor fights in China, and the people lived in humility and peace. Timely rain and weather resulted in abundant harvest year after year. Most amazing was that even the wild beasts did not kill, and birds of prey did no harm. In short, the history of China began with a paradise.” To this day, the Chinese still claim to be the descendants of the Yellow Emperor.
38 Similar legendary accounts of a time of happiness and perfection at the beginning of man’s history can be found in the religions of many other peoples—Egyptians, Tibetans, Peruvians, Mexicans, and others. Was it just by accident that all these peoples, who lived far from each other and who had totally different cultures, languages, and customs, entertained the same ideas about their origin? Was it just by chance or coincidence that all of them chose to explain their beginnings in the same way? Logic and experience tell us that this could hardly be so. On the contrary, interwoven in all these legends, there must be some common elements of truth about the beginning of man and his religion.
39 Indeed, there are many common elements discernible among all the different legends about man’s beginning. When we put them together, a more complete picture begins to emerge. It tells how God created the first man and woman and placed them in a paradise. They were very content and very happy at first, but soon they became rebellious. That rebellion led to the loss of the perfect paradise, only to be replaced by labor and toil, pain and suffering. Eventually mankind became so bad that God punished them by sending a great deluge of waters that destroyed all but one family. As this family multiplied, some of the offspring banded together and started to build an immense tower in defiance of God. God thwarted their scheme by confusing their language and dispersing them to the far corners of the earth.
40 Is this composite picture purely the result of someone’s mental exercise? No. Basically, that is the picture presented in the Bible, in the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. While we will not go into a discussion of the authenticity of the Bible here, let it be noted that the Bible’s account of man’s early history is reflected in the key elements found in many legends. The record reveals that as the human race began to disperse from Mesopotamia, they carried with them their memories, experiences, and ideas everywhere they went. In time these were elaborated and changed and became the warp and woof of religion in every part of the world. In other words, going back to the analogy used earlier, the account in Genesis constitutes the original, crystal-clear pool from which stemmed the basic ideas about the beginning of man and worship found in the various religions of the world. To these they added their particular doctrines and practices, but the link is unmistakable.
41 In the following chapters of this book, we will discuss in greater detail how specific religions began and developed. You will find it enlightening to note not only how each religion is different from the others but also how it is similar to them. You will also be able to note how each religion fits into the time scheme of human history and the history of religion, how its sacred book or writings relate to the others, how its founder or leader was influenced by other religious ideas, and how it has influenced mankind’s conduct and history. Studying mankind’s long search for God with these points in mind will help you to see more clearly the truth about religion and religious teachings.
For a detailed comparison of the various flood legends found among different peoples, please see the book Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1988, Volume 1, pages 328, 610, and 611.
For detailed information on this subject, please refer to the book The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., 1989.
Mankind's search for God: Chap 4, Search for the Unknown through Magic and Spiritism
Searching for the Unknown Through Magic and Spiritism
“MEN of Athens, I behold that in all things you seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are.” (Acts 17:22) That was what the Christian apostle Paul told a crowd assembled on the Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill, in the ancient city of Athens, Greece. Paul made that remark because earlier he had seen that “the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16) What had he seen?
2 Without a doubt, Paul had seen a variety of Greek and Roman gods in that cosmopolitan city, and it was obvious that the life of the people was wrapped up in their worship of the deities. For fear that by chance they might neglect to venerate any important or powerful deity who could thus become incensed, the Athenians even included “an Unknown God” in their worship. (Acts 17:23) That clearly demonstrated their fear of the deities.
3 Of course, fear of the deities, especially of unknown ones, is not limited to the Athenians of the first century. For thousands of years, it has dominated nearly all mankind. In many parts of the world, almost every aspect of the people’s life is directly or indirectly involved with some deity or with spirits. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the mythologies of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and others were deeply rooted in ideas about gods and spirits, which played an important role in personal and national affairs. During the Middle Ages, stories about alchemists, sorcerers, and witches were rampant throughout the realm of Christendom. And the situation is much the same today.
Rites and Superstitions Today
4 Whether people are aware of it or not, many things that they do are linked with superstitious practices or beliefs, some having to do with deities or spirits. For example, did you know that birthday observance has its origin in astrology, which attaches great importance to one’s exact birth date? What about the birthday cake? It appears to be related to the Greek goddess Artemis, whose birthday was celebrated with moon-shaped honey cakes topped with candles. Or did you know that wearing black at funerals was originally a ruse to escape the attention of evil spirits said to be lurking on such occasions? Some black Africans paint themselves white, and mourners in other lands wear unusual colors so that the spirits will not recognize them.
5 Besides these popular customs, people everywhere have their superstitions and fears. In the West, breaking a mirror, seeing a black cat, walking under a ladder, and, depending on where you are, Tuesday or Friday the 13th are all viewed as omens foreboding something evil. In the East, the Japanese wear their kimono with the left side folded over the right, for the other way is reserved for corpses. Their houses are built with no windows or doors facing the northeast so that the demons, which are said to come from that direction, will not find the entrance. In the Philippines, people remove the shoes of the dead and place them beside the legs before the burial so that “Saint” Peter will welcome them. Old folks tell youngsters to behave by pointing out that the figure on the moon is “Saint” Michael, watching and writing down their deeds.
6 Belief in spirits and deities, however, is not limited to seemingly harmless customs and superstitions. In both primitive and modern societies, people have resorted to various means in order to control or appease the fearsome spirits and to gain the favor of the benevolent ones. Naturally, we may first think of people in remote jungles and mountains who consult spirit mediums, medicine men, and shamans (priests of magic) when sick or otherwise in dire straits. But people in cities large and small also go to astrologers, psychic readers, fortune-tellers, and soothsayers to inquire about the future or to obtain help in making important decisions. Some, even though nominally belonging to one religion or another, pursue such practices with enthusiasm. Many others have made spiritism, black magic, and the occult their religion.
7 What is the source or origin of all these practices and superstitions? Are they just different ways of approach to God? And most important, what do they do for those who follow them? To find the answers to these questions, we must look back into the history of man and get a glimpse of his early ways of worship.
Reaching for the Unknown
8 Contrary to what evolutionists may claim, a human possesses a spiritual dimension that makes him different from and superior to the lower creatures. He is born with the urge to search out the unknown. He is ever struggling with questions such as: What is the meaning of life? What happens after one dies? What is man’s relationship to the material world and, in fact, to the universe? He is also driven by the desire to reach out to something higher or more powerful than himself in order to gain some control over his environment and his life.—Psalm 8:3, 4; Ecclesiastes 3:11; Acts 17:26-28.
9 Ivar Lissner in his book Man, God and Magic put it this way: “One can only marvel at the perseverance with which man has striven, throughout his history, to reach outside himself. His energies were never directed solely toward the necessities of life. He was forever questing, groping his way further, aspiring to the unattainable. This strange and inherent urge in the human being is his spirituality.”
10 Of course, those who do not believe in God do not view matters quite that way. They generally attribute this human tendency to man’s needs, psychological or otherwise, as we have seen in Chapter 2. However, is it not our common experience that when faced with danger or a desperate situation, most people’s first response is to appeal to God or some higher power for help? This is just as true today as it was in times past. Thus, Lissner went on to say: “No one who has carried out research among the oldest primitive peoples can fail to understand that they all conceive of God, that they possess a lively awareness of a supreme being.”
11 How they endeavored to satisfy that inborn desire to reach out to the unknown was quite another matter. Nomadic hunters and herdsmen trembled at the power of wild beasts. Farmers were particularly attuned to the changes in weather and seasons. Dwellers of the jungles reacted quite differently from people living in the deserts or mountains. In the face of these varied fears and needs, people developed a bewildering variety of religious practices through which they hoped to appeal to the benevolent gods and appease the fearsome ones.
12 In spite of the great diversity, however, there are certain common features recognizable in these religious practices. Among them are reverence and fear of sacred spirits and supernatural powers, the use of magic, divining the future by signs and omens, astrology, and diverse methods of fortune-telling. As we examine these features, we will see that they have played a major role in shaping the religious thinking of people around the world and throughout the ages, even including people today.
Sacred Spirits and Supernatural Powers
13 The life of people in early times seemed to be filled with mystery. They were surrounded by inexplicable and perplexing events. For example, they could not understand why a perfectly robust person should suddenly fall ill, or why the sky should fail to give rain at the usual season, or why a bare, seemingly lifeless, tree should turn green and appear full of life at a certain time of the year. Even one’s own shadow, heartbeat, and breath were mysteries.
14 With man’s inborn spiritual inclination, it was only natural that he attribute these mysterious things and happenings to some supernatural power. However, lacking proper guidance and understanding, his world soon came to be filled with souls, spirits, ghosts, and demons. For example, the Algonquian Indians of North America call a person’s soul otahchuk, meaning “his shadow,” and the Malays of Southeast Asia believe that when a man dies, his soul escapes through his nostrils. Today, belief in spirits and departed souls—and attempts to communicate with them in some fashion—is nearly universal.
15 In the same manner, other things in the natural environment—sun, moon, stars, oceans, rivers, mountains—seemed to be alive and to exert a direct influence on human activities. Since these things appeared to occupy a world of their own, they were personified as spirits and deities, some benevolent and helpful, others wicked and harmful. Worship of created things came to occupy a prominent place in almost all religions.
16 We can find beliefs of this kind in the religions of practically every ancient civilization. The Babylonians and Egyptians worshiped their gods of the sun, moon, and constellations. Animals and wild beasts were also among their objects of veneration. The Hindus are noted for their pantheon of gods, numbering into the millions. The Chinese have always had their sacred mountains and their river gods, and they express their filial piety in ancestor worship. The ancient Druids of the British Isles held oak trees as sacred, and they gave special reverence to mistletoe growing on oak. Later, the Greeks and Romans contributed their share; and belief in spirits, deities, souls, demons, and sacred objects of all sorts became solidly entrenched.
17 Though some people today may view all such beliefs as superstitions, these ideas are still to be found in the religious practices of many people around the world. Some still believe that certain mountains, rivers, strangely shaped rocks, old trees, and numerous other things are sacred, and they worship them as objects of devotion. They build altars, shrines, and temples at these places. For example, the Ganges River is sacred to the Hindus, whose fondest wish is to bathe in it while alive and have their ashes scattered on it after death. Buddhists consider it an extraordinary experience to worship at the shrine in Buddh Gaya, India, where the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment under a bodhi tree. Catholics go on their knees to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico or bathe in the “sacred” waters at the shrine in Lourdes, France, in search of miraculous cures. Veneration of created things rather than of the Creator is still very much in evidence today.—Romans 1:25.
The Rise of Magic
18 Once the belief had been established that the inanimate world was full of spirits, good and bad, it led easily to the next step—attempts to communicate with the good ones for guidance and blessings and to appease the evil ones. The result was the practice of magic, which has flourished in practically every nation past and present.—Genesis 41:8; Exodus 7:11, 12; Deuteronomy 18:9-11, 14; Isaiah 47:12-15; Acts 8:5, 9-13; 13:6-11; 19:18, 19.
19 In its most basic sense, magic is an effort to control or coerce the natural or supernatural forces to do man’s bidding. Not knowing the real cause of many everyday happenings, people in earlier societies believed that the repetition of certain magical words or incantations, or the performance of some ritual, could bring about certain desired effects. What lent credibility to this sort of magic was that some of the rituals actually worked. For example, the medicine men—essentially magicians or sorcerers—of the Mentawai Islands west of Sumatra were reported to be surprisingly effective in curing people suffering from diarrhea. Their magical formula was to have the sufferers lie face down near the edge of a cliff and lick the ground from time to time. What made it work? The soil on the cliffs contained kaolin, the white clay commonly used in some of today’s diarrhea medicines.
20 A few successes of this kind quickly negated all the failures and established the reputation of the practitioners. They soon became members held in awe and high esteem—priests, chiefs, shamans, medicine men, witch doctors, mediums. People went to them with their problems, such as the healing and the prevention of sickness, finding lost items, identifying thieves, warding off evil influences, and meting out vengeance. Eventually there came to be a large body of superstitious practices and rituals that dealt with these matters as well as other events in life, like birth, coming of age, betrothal, marriage, death, and burial. The power and mystery of magic soon dominated every aspect of the people’s lives.
Rain Dances and Spells
21 In spite of the enormous variety in the magical practices of different peoples, the basic ideas behind them are remarkably similar. First, there is the idea that like produces like, that a desired effect can be produced by mimicking it. This is sometimes called imitative magic. For example, when shortage of rain threatened their crops, the Omaha Indians of North America danced around a vessel of water. Then one of them drank some of the water and spit it into the air in imitation of a sprinkle or shower. Or a man might roll on the ground like a wounded bear to ensure that he would be successful in his bear hunt.
22 Other people had more elaborate rituals, including chants and offerings. The Chinese would make a large paper or wooden dragon, their rain-god, and parade it around, or they would take the idol of their deity out of the temple and place it in the sun so that it could feel the heat and perhaps send rain. The ritual of the Ngoni people of East Africa includes pouring beer into a pot buried in the ground in a rain temple and then praying, “Master Chauta, you have hardened your heart towards us, what would you have us do? We must perish indeed. Give your children the rains, there is the beer we have given you.” Then they drink the remaining beer. This is followed by song and dance and the shaking of branches dipped in water.
23 Another idea behind magical practices is that objects that have belonged to a person continue to influence him even after they are separated from him. This led to the practice of casting a spell on someone by working on something that once belonged to that person. Even in 16th- and 17th-century Europe and England, people still believed in witches and wizards who could cause people harm with this kind of power. The techniques included such things as making a wax image of a person and sticking pins into it, writing his name on a piece of paper and then burning it, burying a piece of his clothing, or doing other things to his hair, fingernail cuttings, sweat, or even excrement. The extent of these and other practices can be seen by the fact that Acts of Parliament were enacted in England in 1542, 1563, and 1604 declaring witchcraft a capital offense. In one manner or another, this form of magic has been practiced by people in almost every nation throughout the ages.
The Future in Signs and Omens
24 Often magic is employed to uncover hidden information or to peer into the future by signs and omens. This is known as divination, and the Babylonians were noted for it. According to the book Magic, Supernaturalism, and Religion, “they were masters in the arts of prescience, predicting the future from the livers and intestines of slaughtered animals, from fire and smoke, and from the brilliancy of precious stones; they foretold events from the murmuring of springs and from the shape of plants. . . . Atmospheric signs, rain, clouds, wind, and lightning were interpreted as forebodings; the cracking of furniture and wooden panels foretold future events. . . . Flies and other insects, as well as dogs, were the carriers of occult messages.”
25 The Bible book of Ezekiel reports that on one military campaign, “the king of Babylon stood still at the crossways, at the head of the two ways, in order to resort to divination. He has shaken the arrows. He has asked by means of the teraphim; he has looked into the liver.” (Ezekiel 21:21) Conjurers, sorcerers, and magic-practicing priests were also a regular part of the Babylonian court.—Daniel 2:1-3, 27, 28.
26 People of other nations, both Oriental and Occidental, also dabbled in many forms of divination. The Greeks consulted their oracles regarding great political events as well as mundane private affairs such as marriage, travel, and children. The most famous of these was the oracle of Delphi. Answers, thought to be from the god Apollo, were provided through the priestess, or Pythia, in unintelligible sounds and were interpreted by the priests to create ambiguous verses. A classic example was the answer given to Croesus, king of Lydia, which said: “If Croesus crosses the Halys, he will destroy a mighty empire.” It turned out that the mighty empire destroyed was his own. Croesus met defeat at the hands of Cyrus the Persian when he crossed the Halys to invade Cappadocia.
27 In the West the craft of divination reached a peak with the Romans, who were preoccupied with omens and portents in nearly everything they did. People of every social class believed in astrology, witchcraft, talismans, fortune-telling, and many other forms of divination. And according to an authority on Roman history, Edward Gibbon, “the various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true.” The famous statesman and orator Cicero was an expert in looking for omens in the flight of birds. The Roman historian Petronius observed that judging by the multitude of religions and cults in some Roman towns, there must have been more gods than people in them.
28 In China, more than 100,000 pieces of oracle bones and shells dating from the second millennium B.C.E. (the Shang dynasty) have been unearthed. They were used by the Shang priests in seeking divine guidance for everything from weather to the movement of troops. The priests wrote questions in an ancient script on these bones. Then they heated the bones and examined the cracks that appeared and wrote down the answers right on the same bones. Some scholars believe that from this ancient script, Chinese writing developed.
29 The most well-known ancient Chinese treatise on divination is the I Ching (Canon of Changes; pronounced Yee-Jing), said to be written by the first two Chou emperors, Wen Wang and Chou Kung, in the 12th century B.C.E. It contains detailed explanations of the interplay of the two opposing forces yin and yang (dark-bright, negative-positive, female-male, moon-sun, earth-heaven, and so on), which many Chinese still believe to be the controlling principles behind all life’s affairs. It presents the picture that everything is ever changing and nothing is permanent. To succeed in any undertaking, one must be aware of and act in harmony with all the changes of the moment. Thus, people ask questions and cast lots and then turn to the I Ching for answers. Through the centuries, the I Ching has been the basis for all manner of fortune-telling, geomancy, and other forms of divination in China.
From Astronomy to Astrology
30 The orderliness of the sun, moon, stars, and planets has long been a source of fascination for people on earth. Star catalogs dating back to 1800 B.C.E. have been discovered in Mesopotamia. Based on such information, the Babylonians were able to predict many astronomical events, such as lunar eclipses, the rising and setting of constellations, and certain movements of the planets. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Indians, Greeks, Romans, and other ancient people likewise observed the sky and kept detailed records of astronomical events. From these records they built their calendars and ordered their yearly activities.
31 From the astronomical observations, it became noticeable that certain events on earth seemed to synchronize with certain celestial events. For example, the change of the seasons followed closely the movement of the sun, the tides ebbed and flowed in phase with the moon, the annual flooding of the Nile always followed the appearance of Sirius, the brightest star. The natural conclusion was that the heavenly bodies played a significant role in causing these and other events on earth. In fact, the Egyptians called Sirius the Bringer of the Nile. The notion that the stars influenced events on earth quickly led to the idea that the heavenly bodies could be counted on to foretell the future. Thus astronomy gave birth to astrology. Soon, kings and emperors kept official astrologers in their courts to consult the stars concerning important national affairs. But the common people likewise looked to the stars regarding their personal fortunes.
32 The Babylonians, once again, come into the picture. They viewed the stars as the heavenly abodes of the gods, just as the temples were their earthly abodes. This gave rise to the concept of grouping the stars into constellations as well as the belief that disturbances in the heavens, such as eclipses or appearances of certain bright stars or comets, foreboded sorrow and war on earth. Hundreds of reports by astrologers to the kings were found among the artifacts unearthed in Mesopotamia. Some of these stated, for instance, that an impending lunar eclipse was a sign that a certain enemy would suffer defeat or that the appearance of a certain planet in a certain constellation would spell “great wrath” on earth.
33 The extent to which the Babylonians relied on this form of divination can further be seen in the taunting words of the prophet Isaiah against them when foretelling Babylon’s destruction: “Stand still, now, with your spells and with the abundance of your sorceries, in which you have toiled from your youth . . . Let them stand up, now, and save you, the worshipers of the heavens, the lookers at the stars, those giving out knowledge at the new moons concerning the things that will come upon you.”—Isaiah 47:12, 13.
34 From Babylon, astrology was exported to Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, and Arabia. In the East, the Hindus and Chinese also had their elaborate systems of astrology. The “Magi” that the evangelizer Matthew reported came to the infant Jesus were “astrologers from eastern parts.” (Matthew 2:1, 2) Some scholars believe that these astrologers might have been of the Chaldean and Medo-Persian school of astrology from Parthia, which had been a province of Persia and later became the independent Parthian Empire.
35 It was the Greeks, however, who developed astrology into the form that is practiced today. In the second century C.E., Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer in Alexandria, Egypt, gathered all the existing astrological information into four books, called the Tetrabiblos, that have served as the basic text for astrology until now. From this, developed what is commonly called natal astrology, that is, a system for predicting a person’s future by studying his birth chart, or horoscope—a chart showing the positions of the sun, the moon, and various planets among the constellations as seen from a person’s birthplace at the moment of his birth.
36 By the 14th and 15th centuries, astrology had gained wide acceptance in the West. Universities taught it as a discipline, which required working knowledge of languages and mathematics. Astrologers were viewed as scholars. The writings of Shakespeare are full of allusions to astrological influences on human affairs. Every royal court and many noblemen retained private astrologers for ready consultation. Hardly any project—be it war, building, business, or travel—was undertaken without the stars’ being consulted first. Astrology had become respectable.
37 Even though the work of astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo, along with the advance of scientific inquiry, has greatly discredited astrology as a legitimate science, it has survived until this day. (See box, page 85.) To heads of State as well as to the man on the street, whether from technologically advanced nations or remote villages in developing countries, this mysterious craft, initiated by the Babylonians, developed by the Greeks, and further expanded by the Arabs, still wields wide influence today.
Destiny Written in the Face and the Palm
38 If looking to the heavens for signs and omens about the future seems intangible, there are other more immediate and easily accessible ways available to those who dabble in the art of divination. The Zohar, or Sefer ha-zohar (Hebrew, Book of Splendor), a 13th-century text of Jewish mysticism, declared: “On the firmament which envelops the universe, we see many figures formed by the stars and planets. They reveal hidden things and profound mysteries. Similarly, upon our skin which encircles the human being there exist forms and traits that are the stars of our bodies.” This philosophy led to further ways of divination, or foretelling the future, by examining the face and the palm of the hand for prophetic signs. Both in the East and in the West, such practices are still widespread. But it is clear that their origins are rooted in astrology and magic.
39 Physiognomy is fortune-telling by examining the features of the face, such as the shape of the eyes, nose, teeth, and ears. In Strasbourg in 1531, one John of Indagine published a book on the subject in which he provided vivid engravings of faces with a variety of shapes of eyes, nose, ears, and so on, along with his interpretations. Interestingly, he quoted the words of Jesus Christ at Matthew 6:22, “If, then, your eye is simple, your whole body will be bright,” as the basis for saying that large, bright, and round eyes signified integrity and good health, whereas sunken and small eyes were signs of envy, malice, and suspicion. However, in a similar book, Compendium of Physiognomy, published in 1533, the author Bartolommeo Cocle claimed that large and round eyes signified a fickle and lazy person.
40 According to diviners, next to the head, the hand reflects the forces from above more than any other part of the body. Thus, reading the lines of the hand to determine one’s character and destiny is another popular form of divination—chiromancy, commonly referred to simply as palmistry. Chiromancers of the Middle Ages searched the Bible for support of their craft. They came up with verses such as “He sealeth up the hand of every man; that all men may know his work” and “Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour.” (Job 37:7; Proverbs 3:16, KJ) The bumps, or mounts, of the hand were also considered because it was thought they represented the planets and thus revealed something about the individual and his future.
41 Fortune-telling by studying the features of the face and of the hand is immensely popular in the Orient. Besides the professional readers and advisers offering their services, amateurs and do-it-yourselfers abound because books and publications of every level are widely available. People often dabble in palm reading as a source of amusement, but many take such matters seriously. In general, however, people are seldom content with employing just one means of divination. When they are faced with serious problems or important decisions, they will go to their temple, be it Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, or other, to inquire of the gods, then to the astrologer to consult the stars, to the fortune-teller to read their palm and look at their face, and, after all of that, come home and inquire of their departed ancestors. Somewhere they hope to find an answer that seems appropriate to them.
Just Innocent Fun?
42 It is natural that everyone should want to know what the future holds. The desire to secure good fortune and to avert what may be harmful is also universal. That is why people throughout the ages have looked to spirits and deities for guidance. In so doing, they became involved in spiritism, magic, astrology, and other superstitious practices. People in the past wore amulets and talismans to protect themselves, and they turned to medicine men and shamans for cures. People today still carry “Saint” Christopher medals or wear “good luck” charms, and they have their séances, Ouija boards, crystal balls, horoscopes, and tarot cards. Where spiritism and superstition are concerned, mankind seems to have changed little.
43 Many people, of course, realize that these are nothing but superstitions and that there is no real basis to them. And they might add that they do it just for fun. Others even argue that magic and divination are actually beneficial because they provide psychological assurance to people who might otherwise be too intimidated by the obstacles they face in life. But is all of this just innocent fun or a psychological boost? What really is the source of the spiritistic and magical practices that we have considered in this chapter as well as the many others that we have not mentioned?
44 In the course of examining the various aspects of spiritism, magic, and divination, we have noted that they are closely tied to beliefs in departed souls and the existence of spirits, good and evil. Thus, fundamentally, belief in spirits, magic, and divination is based on a form of polytheism rooted in the doctrine of the immortality of the human soul. Is this a sound basis on which to build one’s religion? Would you consider worship based on such a foundation acceptable?
45 The Christians in the first century were confronted with the same questions. They were surrounded by the Greeks and Romans, with their many gods and deities as well as their superstitious rituals. One ritual was the practice of offering food to idols and then sharing in eating the food. Should anyone who loved the true God and was interested in pleasing him participate in such rituals? Note how the apostle Paul answered that question.
46 “Now concerning the eating of foods offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even though there are those who are called ‘gods,’ whether in heaven or on earth, just as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ there is actually to us one God the Father, out of whom all things are, and we for him.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6) To Paul and the first-century Christians, true religion was not the worship of many gods, not polytheism, but was devotion to only “one God the Father,” whose name the Bible reveals when it says: “That people may know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”—Psalm 83:18.
47 We should note, however, that although the apostle Paul said “an idol is nothing,” he did not say that the “gods” and “lords” to whom people turned with their magic, divination, and sacrifices were nonexistent. What, then, is the point? Paul made it clear later in the same letter when he wrote: “But I say that the things which the nations sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God.” (1 Corinthians 10:20) Yes, through their gods and lords, the nations were actually worshiping the demons—angelic, or spirit, creatures who rebelled against the true God and joined forces with their leader, Satan the Devil.—2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Revelation 12:7-9.
48 Often people take pity on the so-called primitive people who were enslaved by their superstitions and fears. They say they are repulsed by the bloody sacrifices and savage rites. And rightly so. Yet, to this day we still hear about voodoo, satanic cults, even human sacrifices. Though these may be extreme cases, they nonetheless demonstrate that interest in the occult is still very much alive. It might begin with ‘innocent fun’ and curiosity, but the result is often tragedy and death. How wise it is to heed the Bible’s warning: “Keep your senses, be watchful. Your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour someone.”—1 Peter 5:8; Isaiah 8:19, 20.
49 Having considered how religion began, the diversity in ancient mythologies, and the various forms of spiritism, magic, and superstition, we will now turn our attention to the more formal major religions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Judaism, the churches of Christendom, and Islām. How did they get started? What do they teach? What influence do they have on their believers? These and other questions will be considered in the following chapters.
Is Astrology Scientific?
Astrology claims that the sun, moon, stars, and planets can influence affairs on earth and that the configuration of these heavenly bodies at the moment of one’s birth plays a role in one’s life. However, scientific discoveries present formidable challenges:
▪ The work of astronomers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler has clearly demonstrated that the earth is not the center of the universe. It is also known now that often the stars that appear to be in a constellation are not really bound in a group. Some of them may be deep in space, while others may be relatively near. Thus, the zodiacal properties of the various constellations are purely imaginary.
▪ The planets Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were unknown to early astrologers because they were not discovered until the invention of the telescope. How, then, were their “influences” accounted for by the astrological charts drawn up centuries earlier? Furthermore, why should the “influence” of one planet be “good” and another “evil,” when science knows now that basically they are all masses of lifeless rock or gases, hurtling in space?
▪ The science of genetics tells us that the basis of our personality traits is formed, not at birth, but at conception, when one of the millions of sperm cells from the father unites with a single egg cell from the mother. Yet, astrology fixes one’s horoscope by the moment of birth. This difference of about nine months should give one a completely different personality profile in astrological terms.
▪ The timing of the sun’s journey among the constellations as seen by an earthbound observer is today about one month behind what it was 2,000 years ago when the astrology charts and tables were drawn up. Thus, astrology would cast a person born in late June or early July as a Cancer (highly sensitive, moody, reserved). Actually, however, the sun is in the constellation Gemini at that time, which should make the person communicative, witty, chatty.
Clearly, astrology has no rational or scientific ground on which to stand.