A World of Hopes
The single most powerful creation of humanity; and for some, the most powerful gift that has ever been bestowed to humanity. It possesses the potential to be an agent of goodness, a medium of enlightenment and a vehicle for salvation. Conversely, it also possesses the almost unlimited capability for destruction, anarchy and its retributive powers have managed to crush civilizations throughout the millennia. Rivers of blood have been spilled under the guise of religion, and the most beautiful of souls have graced our presence under its umbrage as well.
Looking at the word 'religion' in the dictionary, you will note that it is popularly accepted as an old French word, a derivative from the Latin 'religo' - a term that conveys the image of ritualistic faith. However, such a narrow and simplistic definition fails to convey the vastness of the religious concept or the influence it holds over humankind.
Karl Marx once defined religion as "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." A stark and simplistic viewpoint that perhaps falls far too short of what one would expect. However, Marx is not alone in his failure to define the layered expansiveness of religion or the religious concept. Greek philosopher, the sophist Protagoras (490 - 420 BC), hit the metaphorical nail on the head with this line from his piece, On The Gods: "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life."
However, two thousand years later, this most incendiary of topics has been subjected to the most thorough of dissections from the greatest thinkers that humanity have had to offer, while at the same time, it has continued to grow and branch in and out of the mainstreams consciousness, until eventually settling down in the central periphery of virtually every community in the world, after weaving itself into every facet of our existence, deliberately or otherwise.
Our observation into the nature of religion has shown very clearly that, despite the universal spiritual context of every known religion that has ever existed, anthropological, philosophical, sociological and psychological factors that humanity has exposed it too, are also in fact the ultimate definition of the concept of religion. The religious phenomenon provides a central figure or a collective code that provides humanity with purpose, objective and power to shape and control their destiny, from an individual to a communal level. It would not be amiss to label it as a symbiotic relationship, feeding off each other.
We have long speculated as to how the concept of religion managed to find its way into our consciousness in the first place. The simplest answer would be to credit it to supernatural forces. However, while that may very well be the case, we do not have the slightest proof to support this line of thinking. As such, perhaps we should instead look at it from a socio-anthropological perspective, as this would probably give us a better insight into the question.
Anthropologist claimed that in the evolutionary development of early men, there came a time when we had sufficiently evolved from being merely reactive primates to one with a sufficiently complex brain, where we began to question and seek answers to assist ourselves in understanding and in a minimal fashion, manage our environments and the parameters of our existence.
Evidence has shown us that the concept of religion has been a part of the human civilization right down to the very fringes of recorded history, and even beyond, as can be seen from archaeological discoveries of recent years. Anthropologist and historians have postulated that a form of religious model has been in existence as far back as 500,000 years ago among our ancestors, during the infancy of the Stone Age period, based on the analysis of prehistoric graves, cave paintings and artifacts. The symbolism, cultural attributes and sociological slant of these discoveries have proven the hypothesis beyond any reasonable doubt. In fact, these quasi-religions are in all likelihood the prototype of all subsequent religions that we have observed throughout the ages.
Our psychological need to seek a crutch in facing the unknown and the loneliness of existence, has probably compelled almost all of our ancestors into the search of something greater than ourselves. The daily challenge of survival, deaths, the mysteries and catastrophes of nature, has led our ancestors to seek a greater understanding of the world we live in, to seek the cause célèbre of our existence.
Viewed from the outside, this trait is a very crucial survival mechanism as it forces the personification of the elements, nature and meteorological phenomena into something more tangible, giving it an identity, a starting place in the quest of seeking our place in the universe. More than anything else, death is almost certainly the most frightening aspect of our existence, and having a super natural rationalization of it is the single most compelling cause for the existence of religion.
Of course, the idea of a deity figure must eventually come into being, a comprehensive concept of a life form that transcends the bridge between life and death, creation and destruction, space and time, mortality and divinity. However, before we leap into the complex characteristics, attributes and source of religion, perhaps it would be prudent to take a step back and fully explore the process of how religions came into being in the first place.
Prototypical religious concepts of our ancestors are embedded firmly in the hitherto unknown cyclic nature, elemental phenomena and biological traits of the living world; all of which were intertwined tightly around the concept of a supernatural presence.
The earliest manifestation of religion had its origin in the human perception of chance - of luck, good fortune, and probability for success that involves their everyday lives. The farming, hunting, deaths, birthing - facets of everyday life that do not follow a standard pattern, and the variations it conjures seems to be affected by a finite number of factors.
The results of their endeavors fluctuates, and at times, these fluctuations can seemingly be traced back again to certain events or incidences performed or occurring earlier, and this provides the basis that our primitive ancestors deduce as good and bad luck. This perceived element of probability management was a great social control mechanism in the lives of communities that is perpetually under the onslaught of life's perilous nature and unpredictability.
The discovery of the concept of chance by our ancestors presented the crutch that they have been seeking for the longest time and slowly but surely, this concept began to creep and immerse itself in their daily activities. Life became more tolerable, as there was an apparent method to affect and influence it. Their hunting, farming and health were now subjected to budding classic ritualistic favor and reward system; where a successful hunt or harvest were attributed to ceremonies performed prior to said event. In the dawn of humanity's entry into the realm of thinking creature, our first collective act using our newly found higher reasoning powers was to create standardized set of rituals that we believe were capable of increasing the chances of our success, influencing events through luck.
We began to learn to view and distinguish between cause and effect, acts and reactions, and we started to eliminate 'accidents' and coincidences from the natural world - a trait that survives until this very day in modern humans. We began to objectify relationships between inanimate and animated objects, between the tangible and non-tangible. The day following the winter's solstice, we label as the rebirthing of the fallen deity, eclipses are the act of war between the sun and moon deities, the rise and fall of the tides are the breathing of the sea deity, the flocking of the ravens by the cemetery marks them as a minion of the night and so forth. The birth of religion is well underway now, and man as we know it, will never be the same again.