When Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons heard the first clap of thunder in their primordial backyard, quickly, they invented gods. They needed an explanation for the powerful disruption in a superstitious existence that was full of mystery to them. Such a powerful bolt of thunder must have terrified them. They feared their very destruction. So they jumped instantly into the survival mode and paid homage to these powerful phenomena they could not understand. In desperation they sought to be spared and protected. At least it is a good guess, though none of us know for sure how long it took gods and religion to break the horizon of early man’s consciousness.
Possibly to quiet their fears, they began living in tribes for protection. Communities mushroomed. There was strength in numbers. Conditions were ripe I would guess for medicine men to dazzle the tribes with magic tricks and such voodoo shell games that made them seem special and in touch with the gods. Medicine men often elevated themselves to positions of priest, and in some cases, gods. And the people, out of fear, went along with it. In addition to being worshiped in return for protecting the tribe, these leaders were rewarded with riches and power. But religion was in its infancy then. Untold riches and TV Evangelists with their own TV satellites and banks in Scotland were yet to come. Religion filled the gaps and explained away the fears of an unsure and tumultuous world. And the medicine men, the soothsayers, the men who could bring something to the table to frighten the clan into following them, appointed themselves to high positions in the clan hierarchy.
Fast forwarding to the Nile Delta before Christ, the Egyptians had many gods, some with animal heads and human bodies. Great cities and civilizations flourished there for thousands of years. The pharaohs were deemed to be gods, and they ruled in complete, unchallenged authority for over 5,000 years. Every human on the planet has seen pictures of the great pyramids and the Sphinx.
Great cities and cultures flourished also in Meso America, too for thousands of years. Many different tribes, e.g., the Toltecs, Olmecs, Itzas, and Incas built great stone cities and pyramids that stand even today, unchallenged by the ravages of time. Many tribes, e.g. the Mayans, created the most accurate calendar of all time. They invented the numeral zero. They were astronomers par excellence.
On the other hand, the Aztecs would tear out the hearts of sacrifice victims to offer to their gods so that it would rain, or maybe it might help them defeat their enemies. They weren’t messing around. Religion to them had to be serious business. But they had great stone cities and pyramids, too. Until the Spanish destroyed them and built Catholic Churches on the same sites.
Funny, but even the Old Testament’s Abraham was asked to sacrifice his own son in a burnt offering to God, just to prove to God that Abraham was a faithful and true servant. Human sacrifice has been a part of man’s unconscious compass for longer than he might admit to.
Religion became the most powerful motivator known to man right after he came down from the trees and began to walk upright. And nothing has changed. The lizard brain was then and is now, alive and well and a part of us.
The fear of what might happen to you if you challenged religion or its priests and doctrine made the individual walk a straight and narrow line of acceptance. Religion controlled the masses completely. Many religious leaders were deities. The Mayan city states of the Yucatan Peninsula in present day Mexico are proof. The leader wore a giant head dress taller than the person himself. Commoners were prohibited to gaze upon his face. He was known as the True Man, god of all. His family held high positions in the Mayan society. None of them worked in the fields. Yet the Mayans willingly supported all of the higher rungs on the social ladder by donating a portion of their own corn they planted and harvested. It seemed to be a win-win situation for the hierarchy and the common peasants of the field.
Many historians contend that the Mayans’ fascination with astronomy and predicting eclipses of the sun and moon were tools of science used to scare the unknowing people into believing that the high priests could control the very light of the moon and sun. Pretty strong evidence for that.
So early on, organized religious institutions found that they could successfully motivate people who followed them to give up part of their earnings. Call it offerings, tithing, or selling protection, organized religion successfully discovered that they could pick the pockets of poor believers who strived to save their crops, their families, and their very souls. Religion became the greatest mover of men the world had ever known. And the coffers and property of the churches grew to enormous proportions. Today the Roman Catholic Church, after 2,000 years of passing the collection plate collectively might possibly have a net worth larger than Exxon, who knows? Certainly, all the organized religions over the world have unimaginable masses of wealth and power. And assured accounts receivables where future earnings are guaranteed by the faithful believers who will be counted on to shell out regularly all the days of their lives, generation after generation.
So much for the historical introduction of how religion might have come to be. Yet as humans we need other questions answered. We are not holding a pat hand when it comes to religion and our beliefs.
Is religion a real and worthwhile entity that serves humankind? Or is it a scourge upon civilization? Does it give to the individual and society or does it take from each? Arguments can be convincing both ways.
First came the Popes and the Crusades. There were several Crusades under different Popes of Rome. French and English kings, from 1096-1272, under the direction of various Popes, tried 9 long Crusades to take back the Holy Land from the Infidels. These noble knights of each Crusade sacked and killed non-Christians in the Holy Land for almost 200 years. During the Fourth Crusade, the huge Christian Church at Constantinople was rumored to be in possession by Infidels. When the knights in shining armor and red crosses on their white tunics came to see for themselves they discovered that the church was occupied by Christian monks. Not Infidels. But after a day to consider the irony, the Crusader knights attacked and sacked the church anyway. Hmmmm. Gold and spoils might have been a larger part of the mercenary quest of the Crusades instead of ridding the Holy Land of Infidels, you think?
Pope Innocent II gave King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, complete authority to purge the country of Jews, Moors, and Protestants. Many were found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. Their property was confiscated. The Spanish working class believed that the Inquisition targeted rich heretics so that the crown could steal their property. That conversion to Christianity was a ruse to torture thousands of human beings, kill them, and take their possessions. Stealing from Jews, Moors, Protestants, and other branded heretics was not new. Spain unleashed their soldiers upon the New World and brought Friars to convert the savages while taking their gold.
The same Spanish crown directed the Conquistadors to plunder the Aztecs and Incas. Hernan Cortez landed at Vera Cruz, MX and began his trek to Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). Along the 200 mile trek, he accumulated an impressive army of Indian tribes who had axes to grind against the Aztecs. So within the year, the great Aztec empire fell, Montezuma, its chief, had been killed, and many tons of gold had been confiscated from the Aztecs and sent to the Spanish Treasury. The Museum of the Americas in Madrid, Spain, is full of possibly billions of dollars of rare gold artifacts the Conquistadors took from the Aztecs and Incas. There had been two missions: to convert the savage Indians to Christianity and (unofficially) take all the gold possible and send it back to the Crown. Not necessarily in that order. Each Conquistador got a share of gold in the Spanish Treasury credited to his account according to his rank. Was the motive a religious one or one of avarice?
These are but a few examples in history where religion and God were invoked to allow the smooth and clear-conscience stealing of land and resources to flow. Often I have wondered at the first Thanksgiving where Indians and the Pilgrims sat down to give thanks. I mean, how could the Indians give thanks to the white men who had invaded and taken pieces of their land with many more of the same to come, shoot their game and displace them to reservations? And how could the Indians perceive the white men and women as a blessing when their arrival spelled doom for the Indian way of life as they knew it?
Since the Middle Ages and sacking and looting in the name of religion, man has become very sophisticated in “bringing in the sheaves,” so to speak. Now it is done through political enmeshment with governments, wars started in the name of God, and in response to unholy terrorists whom Allah, they contend, tells them to attack America and to bring down the World Trade Center buildings. And it would be wrong not to include former president George W. Bush who told Russian Premier Putin that God told him to attack Iraq. I’ll swear, even Sarah Palin proclaimed Bush to be about God’s work in Iraq. Stay tuned.