“In metaphysics, in moral philosophy, the ancients have said everything. We coincide with them, or we repeat them. All modern books of this kind are only repetitions.”
"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary"
Religions evolve over time. There are no genuinely new elements that are not adopted from previous religious ideas, from cultural symbols and beliefs, or from secular innovations. We see how folk-lore can gradually change into a confident religious story, how the movement of stories from one place to another can create seemingly new religious ideas, and how all the elements of world religions pre-dated the religions they are now part of. The implication of so much re-use and human involvement in the propagation of religious memes is that there is no supernatural or divine component to the origin of religion. Religious histories have unfolded as if there are no gods or spirits, but only Human nature, to guide them.
Nearly every aspect of every world religion was inherited from the culture and beliefs that pre-dated it. Exceptions generally pre-date known religious history, so that we can't see where they came from. Nearly all beliefs have histories older then the religions that now proclaim them. For example, Chinese and Japanese new religions are often colorful and appear to be unpredictable in their character, but, scholars note that in China (representing over a sixth of mankind) such new religions are, after all, adaptations of previous religions:
“New religious groups with clear organizational identities and agendas form in all literate cultures, and China is no exception. Chinese culture has historically been a fecund source of religious creativity. [...] New religions have formed in all periods of Chinese history, a period extending back at least to the Shang Dynasty in the 2nd millennium BCE. [..] They may [...] see themselves as truly unique and 'new'. The claimed newness is almost always adaptation, however.”
“[Japanese new religions] have drawn extensively on the existing and established religious traditions for inspiration in terms of teachings, figures of worship, ritual structures and practices. [...] Most, if not all, new religions also draw extensively from the folk religious traditions of Japan, particularly in terms of their use of spiritual healing and [spiritualism of the dead].”
So if all this is true, why do so many new religious movements appear to be new? I look at some reasons below.
“Most new religions are presenting old religions in a new context and to a new audience.”
Dr J. Gordon Melton (2004)4
Religion, or a subset of religious ideas, is sometimes moved from one culture to another. The Theosophists brought Indian spirituality to the West, interpreting it through a Western, formal framework, and changing its character. The strict, teacher-student, lifelong disciplines of the East were decimated into what is now known broadly as the New Age, as a large number of non-theologians took to it. This mix between one scholarly interpretation of religious beliefs and its interpretation within a new culture is typical of how new-seeming religions can emerge from old practices; but from a global historical perspective, the ideas themselves are not new.
So religions, beliefs and practices often appear new because fans have taken them from one part of the world to another4 where they are unfamiliar. Once they blossom in a new location, they are re-interpreted according to the new cultural hosts' preconceptions and philosophical histories. This interplay results in religious concepts in an area sometimes becoming subservient to new-sounding religions:
“Each of the world's major religions had its roots in a local primal religion, usually connected with a particular tribe or clan and a specific geographical location. Each tradition became more cosmopolitan as it diffused, encountering and incorporating other cultural forms along the way. [...] These roots did not disappear as the tradition changed over time but established the form that influenced each religion's later shape. [...] The major religious traditions often adapt to new settings through syncretism or co-optation: Chinese folk Gods became Buddhas and local African deities became Christian saints.”
Sometimes the impact of one culture can cause entire religions in another. Arthur C Clarke famous wrote that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". He had in mind hyperintelligent beings with seemingly impossibly advanced technology, but equivalent examples can be found in the present era. On remote islands, primitive tribes have sometimes formed religious practices that anthropologists call "cargo cults". They do ritual dances to try and control planes and ships that they see on the horizon, to try and acquire exotic items.
This new form of religion is merely an expression of the human instinct to control our environment, just like ancient animists danced to control the spirits that inhabited everything, but its expression has altered in accordance with contact with another culture. It is the same old instincts and ideas, only, expressed now in an age of technology. All religions go through similar processes, sometimes spawning a combination of elements that becomes to be considered a new religion, even though its individual elements are adaptations and translations of previous beliefs and events.
Sometimes the stories and even core myths of religions were not intended to become so codified. Stories have a habit of becoming bloated and exaggerated, and some theorize that this is the basis of religion in general. As such, religion often contain details of miracles, history and events that are based on much older events than you'd think, but, exaggerated to the point of looking new. It only takes a generation or two before even simple description of people's lives can become wildly fantastical.
“A series of recent studies provides support for these ideas. In one set of experiments, a group of "first generation" subjects watched a videotape of a "target" person describing two events from his or her past. The subjects then rated the target person on a variety of trait dimensions, and provided a tape-recorded account of what they had seen. Subsequently, a group of "second generation" subjects listened to these secondhand accounts and then made more extreme ratings of the target than did their first generation counterparts.”
"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991)6
The effects of subconscious exaggeration are scientifically measurable after only one generation. Gilovich tells us in the same chapter that cognitive psychologists have discovered that the very way we remember and recall stories means that we end up exaggerating the weird, shocking, entertaining and interesting elements. It is clear to see how such a cycle can result in an entire nation of socialites coming to share rather improbable stories. Thankfully in today's scientific world we are not as easily misled, but, we seldom apply our intelligence to what happened in the past. Adherents often assume that the early proponents of their religion were not story-telling. Given the amount of rumours, wives' tales, myths and confusions that persist throughout most of the population of developed countries, it is highly likely that our religions have their basis in the same psychological gullibility. Religious histories, stories of saints, etc, become wildly exaggerated when told by word of mouth (or nowadays, on forums and social networking websites). Whole communities can become victim to self-perpetuating stories of increasing ridiculousness, and because everyone else seems to be believing the same stories, no-one really thinks to ask what really happened...!
The humorous cynic Ambrose Bierce echoes the same understanding when he gives his definition of the word mythology in "The Devil's Dictionary" (1967): "n., the body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later".
Elements of folk-lore, or often real events themselves, can become exaggerated through time until they achieve a mythical status at the heart of a major religion. Gottsch (2001)9 provides examples in his technical discussion of the evolution of religious ideas, and proclaims that the Epic of Gilgamesh is the first large-scale story worth examining.
“The earliest theistic memes to pass from generation to generation over a large territorial area are those found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Tigay (1982) found the origins of the story in third millennium Sumeria; it was propagated to the old Babylonian empire (2000 bce), the Hittite and Hurrian empires in the Middle Babylonian period (1400 bce), and the Assyrian empire (700 bce). This epic in its basic form, passed as a written document on clay tablets, was most probably read to the illiterates of the population, who then passed on the story in some oral tradition. Because the story was committed to a written form and was copied faithfully by learned scribes, the epic has been preserved for thousands of years. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a remarkable collection of theistic memes vertically transmitted over the centuries as a story of human fear of death and how humans should cope with death anxiety.”
Concentrating on just the flood element, the Epic describes a local flood that probably occurred around the third millennium BCE. Variations of the story exist. Whilst in the original Epic, "Ea appears to the Utnapishtim telling him to abandon his possessions and to build a ship with certain specifications and take into it every seed of life. (Tablet XI:19-31)" before a catastrophic flood occurred, a thousand years later when the Jewish Scriptures were written, the book of Genesis has it that it was Noah who was saved. Many details are still the same including the idea of animals being saved aboard the ship, the sending off of a dove from the vessel to test for land, and the final landing upon a mountain. Later on still, the Arabs codified yet another version of the Flood which became canonized into the Koran.
I have a page that summarizes the various versions of the The Flood story throughout history, its page contents is:
Christianity followed on from Judaism. Stephen Hodge very usefully lists many of the similarities found in the Dead Sea Scrolls to the teachings and organisation of Jewish Christianity and concludes that these Jewish documents make the teachings and appearance of Jewish Christianity less revolutionary than many would like it to be. But Christianity grew not purely from Judaism, but grew from a culture that included many pagan, Roman and Egyptian religious ideas and myths. Christianity was a combination of Judaism and Pagan Roman religions such as Mithraism; with a few name-changes and Roman misunderstandings of Jewish ideas, a new religion was born full to the brim with old ideas:
“Elements common to all types of the Christian religion that were common in previous Pagan mystery religions include much of the religious content of Christianity. All elements of Jesus' life such as the events around his birth, death and ministry were already parts of the myths surrounding other god-men of the time. Peripheral elements such as there being twelve disciples were similarly present in other more ancient religions and sometimes with an astonishing amount of duplication. First century critics of Christianity voiced accusations that Christianity was nothing but another copy of common religions.
All the actual sayings and teachings of Jesus were also not new, and much of the time speeches attributed to Jesus are more like collections of Jewish and Pagan sayings. Even distinctive texts like the Sermon on the Mount are not unique. If we remove all the content that Jesus could not have heard and repeated himself, there is nothing else left. If we remove the supernatural elements of Christianity that are copies of already existing thought and religion, there is nothing left which is unique! Even many of the sayings of subsequent Christians are not unique; Jesus appears to not have taught anyone anything that was not already present in the common culture of the time. This shows us that not only did Christianity follow on, as expected, from previous thought in history but that we do not even need to believe in God or supernatural events in order to account for the history of Christianity.”
Christianity's absorption of older practices didn't stop at its inception, it continued to adopt and build on local culture wherever it went:
“One characteristic of Christianity, deriving from its multiculturalism, is the tremendous variety of 'Christianities' around the world. As the religious movement spread, many indigenous people grafted their own religious beliefs and practices onto the basic ideas of the Christian faith. Christian worship often includes pre-Christian religious rituals and takes on the colour and many of the features of the indigenous religions it has replaced.”
“Beneath its popular image, New Age derives from the spiritualist, New Thought and theosophical traditions of the 19th century”
Michael York (2004)11.
The New Age is a collection of practices and beliefs and is not a worked-out structured belief system. All individual elements of the New Age are survivals and echoes of older religious practices taken from folklore, superstitious and magical practices, common pre-modern magical practices, Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and various other secondary sources. Practices that are commonplace amongst the Hindus in India, such as meditation, are simply called 'new age' when they happen to be (partially) practiced in the West by Westerners rather than in their original context. Much of the New Age derives from diluted practices and ideas brought from India by the Theosophists, who began their popularisation.
“A major difficulty with understanding New Age is that it does not conform to traditionally understood forms of religious organisation. [... It] is highly diversified and means many different things to different people. [...] It is instead a loose series of networks between different groups or cells - some similar or even duplicates, others radically contrasting - while a constantly varying number of spokespeople, therapists and teachers who are in vogue at any given point in time move through its various circuits. [...] For the most part, people who identify with New Age are anti-institutional and claim to be 'spiritual' rather than 'religious'.”
“The situation we find ourselves in [...] is that upper-class Indians visiting the Theosophical Society, middle-class Indians visiting Sai Baba's, or Indian hippies sitting on the rocks of Mahabalipvram, are best not thought of as 'New Age'. But Westerners, New Age in California, surely continue to be New Age when they visit the same sites. [...] Bhagwan, catering for Indians during the earlier 1970s, is best regarded as just another Indian Guru. But Bhagwan in Oregan [...] is clearly best regarded as New Age”
"The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Postmodernity" by Paul Heelas (1996)12
This section is taken from:
This section is taken from "Criticisms of Buddhism: Its History, Doctrine and Common Practices" by Vexen Crabtree (2011).
Not only was Buddhism written down by all-too-human scholars hundreds of years after the events they wrote about, but it seems that the stories themselves were elements of the culture of the time. Just like Christianity, Islam, and all other religions, it was formed from the beliefs of the present culture, a mixture of various trends of the time. The doctrine and feel of Buddhism is very similar to Hindu thought, just with different emphases. It was not a sudden, new, unique revelation. It grew slowly. The teachings of its founder were not written down by the founder himself (same as Christianity and Islam). It shows all the hallmarks of a mythical set of stories, many of them rewrites of older stories. Like most other religions, it seems that any revelations of an otherworldly nature were eerily compatible with what humanity already practised, and already thought.
“What doctrines, it must now be asked, were special to Buddhism? Not Karma, that was common property which Buddhism shared. Not in asserting that a right mind was superior to sacrifice, that was a primary doctrine of the Jains, and pre-Buddhistic, both within and without the pale of Brahmanism. Not in seeking a way to salvation independently of the Vedas, that had been done by many teachers in various sects. Not in the doctrine that defilement comes not from unclean meats but from evil deeds and words and thoughts; Buddhist writers themselves say that is derived from previous Buddhas. Not in the search for peace through self-control and renunciation; that was the quest of a myriad recluses and all previous Buddhas. Not in the view that there is a higher wisdom than that attained by austerities; that, too, is pre-Buddhistic. Not in the doctrine that non-Brahmans could join an Order and attain religious blessedness; other orders were open to men of low social status and even to slaves. Indeed, the rigid separation of caste was not yet established in the early days of Buddhism.
The admission of women was not an innovation as it was practiced by the Jains, and even the tradition makes the Buddha accept it reluctantly in the twenty-fifth year of his preaching.”
"Pagan Christs" by J. M. Robertson
Given the documented facts that all present-era religions have evolved from previous religions and beliefs, we are left with a further question: What causes the whole cycle? What causes this human dispensation to believe in stuff in this way? How do the religious stories and myths get going in the first place? My "What Causes Religion and Superstitions?" by Vexen Crabtree (2011) looks at this, and rather than try to summarize it here, browse its menu:
A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4 (2005). Kindle edition 2008. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.
Bierce, Ambrose. (1842-1914?)
The Devil's Dictionary (1967). Published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz. Published by Penguin Books in 1971, and quotes taken from a 2001 Penguin Classics reprint. Penguin Group, London, UK.
"Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?" (2003). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
"Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion" (2008). Accessed 2013 Jan 17.
Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009). Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. Hardback. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (1991). 1993 paperback edition published by The Free Press, NY, USA.
The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Postmodernity (1996). Blackwell Publishers Ltd, London, UK.
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins. [Book Review]
Kurtz, Lester R.
Gods in the Global Village (2007). 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.
Encyclopedia of New Religions (2004, Ed.). Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.
Robertson, J M
Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1764). Digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Accessed via Amazon.co.uk