The concept of religion has been on trial frequently within world history. The establishment of conflicting religions based on geographical and cultural roots has led to conflicts on the world stage over our supernatural beliefs. Although the question of how religion has affected our lives is one that is posed by cultural, social and media outlets on a daily basis, the question of how and why our own unique human experiences has shaped and molded religion is seldom asked. The inception of religion in civilization is highly developed however, the influence of human experience on the formation of supernatural gods is undeniable. The primordial development of religion based on natural elements such as water, fire, and air are common themes among all religions. Therefore to insinuate that human experience is one of the crucial elements that delineate how a religious belief is developed is neither far fetched nor improbable. This paper will attempt to assess the extent of the role that human experience has played within the development of religious beliefs. Through a careful analysis of human experience in the historical past and the relationship between deity and humans themselves, we will establish how the human experience plays a crucial role in the formation of religious beliefs.
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Human experience had a substantial effect on the religious beliefs of early civilizations. The deities of early civilizations were primarily reliant on their relationship to the major elements. In Egyptian religion, one of the first discovered forms of organized religion, the primary deity was Ra, the Sun God (Hawking, 13). The elevation of a god of the elements exhibits the connections that early civilizations made between nature and the supernatural. The creation of the deity Ra strongly relates to the Egyptian’s experiences within the desert, where the Sun is the powerful force that drives the desert life. By deifying the sun as a God, the Egyptian people relied on their experience within the natural elements and elevated its status to deity. The importance of this realization is that the earlier civilizations deified particular elements that had a significant impact on their lives. Elements like the sun, the moon, the stars, and other natural elements became important deities based on their relative importance in the lives of the citizens within the civilization. These particular polytheistic religions use deities to explain the concepts of nature that they did not have the capacity to understand at the time. Professor William James, an expert on Egyptian deities explains, “The early Egyptians created Ra and his counter parts to explain the cycles of the sun and the odd behavior of the weather. By casting the elements they did not understand into the supernatural realm lent them a sense of comfort. The creation of early Egyptian deities assuaged the fear of the people and provided a procedure to assuage the Gods and change the path of natural elements” (James, 231). Hart’s observation that religion lends humanity the vehicle to change natural elements is extremely crucial. Early civilizations such as the Egyptians lacked the ability to control neither natural elements nor the advanced understanding of geology and biology to understand how they occur. Without this knowledge, many lived in constant terror of the unknown. Religion provided these people with an explanation for the natural disasters that occurred each season, and it provided them an outlet and procedure to deal with their fears. Religion therefore, served as a vehicle to reduce psychological fear.
The deification of important resources reveals the role of human experience on developing religions. Early civilization religions often included deities for the elements of water, fire, air, earth. These elements are viewed as the most basic ingredients for life and therefore as the foundation of every civilization. For these early civilizations, the elevation of important elements into deity status allowed them to formalize an oral tradition of history. Without the ability to create new deities to explain the past, civilizations lack the sense of identity that bonds them together. Through the creation of elemental deities, civilizations capitalized on their understanding that their need for basic elements must be controlled by the supernatural. Michael Molloy argues, “The conversion of the elements into Gods exhibits the human characteristic of explaining the unknown through mysticism. The evolution of human society and its progress in knowledge slowly eliminates primordial Gods as their mysticism vanishes” (Molloy, 212).
Human understanding has contributed greatly to the reduction of deities, the once polytheistic religions of the past have been supplemented by monotheisms. This change has largely been due to the increase in human understanding as our knowledge and science progress. By understanding the development of weather patterns, astronomy and other aspects of the world are natural parts of a balanced biological system, we take away the mysticism associated with it. Through this process, humanity no longer relies on religion to explain these phenomena and the deities associated with them quickly crumbles. Therefore, human experience is extremely influential on the development of religion because humanity uses religion as a tool for greater understanding. As civilization develops to the stage where it has only a shallow understanding of the natural world, the citizens create deities to fill the knowledge gaps that are missing within the civilization’s understanding. When time passes and the biological and physiological growth of the civilization expands, deities that once appeared mystical are cast off. Human experience contributes to both the creation of deities and the destruction of deities, as both are related to the gathering of knowledge and understanding.
An anthropological examination of religion reveals that it approaches the subject of human experience’s influence on religion as quite different. Religion can be viewed as a “proto-science” in the sense that it serves as a, “primitive attempt to explain and predict phenomena in the natural world, analogous to modern science” (Kirkpatrick, 31). Although this viewpoint has been hotly contested, the basic precept that religion is interpreted the through the social context as the actions of the believers themselves is still universally accepted. The implication is that religion rather than being valuable in and of itself, serves as the mechanism that individuals use to interpret their moral, ethical and political reasoning.
While human experiences affect the development and creation of deities within religion, it also has a significant impact on the creation of scripture and codes. The creation of religious text is the fundamental step to establishing the practicing beliefs and rules of the particular religion. These moral codes provoke greater belief by creating common bonds among believers and form the important basis for unity within organized religion. These codes are created through the context of human experience by encoding instructions or habits that are useful to human survival. Thus religious codes such as the prohibition against violence are codified instructions to prevent the destruction of social order and to promote internal harmony. Therefore the importance of these particular codes of conduct is created to further the welfare of the community. The “Dogma Selection Model shows that religions promote instructions that caters to human survival instincts and as a result mutates periodically to cater to the growth of social codes and situations” (Kirkpatrick, 21). The creation of scriptures and religious documents are all representatives of the creation of rules to restrict the actions of believers in order to benefit the community as a whole. These codes of conduct are all based upon human experience within the social setting as they use their social experience to mold religious codes to reflect the beliefs of non aggression and harmony that many religions promote.
Within the modern context, the development of human experience has had a profound effect on the interpretation and codification of religion. Since the original creation of religions is created from the foundation of mysticism and ill conceived notions of the world, religion has had to evolve with the changing human experience and understanding. This perhaps the biggest indicator of how human experience impacts religious development. The process of scientific achievement is a major indicator of the growth within religion. Within the dominating Christian religion, the belief in an earth center universe was strongly impressed upon believers through interpretations of the Holy Scripture, the bible. However, the development of evidence in the period between the 13th and the 16th century definitively showed that the universe is indeed heliocentric. The evolution of the concepts of science and the progression of knowledge has forced religion to shift its interpretation of their scripture and the reevaluation of their role within society. As evolutionary theory has shown, the development of counter religious scientific evidence does not destroy religion but rather changes the interpretation and the nature of faith within the religion.
Human experience is also crucial in deciding the role that religion plays within society. Historically speaking, the development of religion has seen a parallel to the development of political and social power. While early civilizations elevated the priesthood and religion in general to the elite status of political power, the shifting demand of societal change has slowly taken away the political power of religion. As the development of society matures into more structured environment, “Religion begins to take a backseat to political and socially implemented codes of conduct. The nature of religion is that its influence constricts as its believers begin to recognize the limitations of religious doctrine. Therefore the nature of religion is to adjust itself to occupy its established role by its believers” (Hocking, 21). As the progression of human society moves towards more unified communal rules and regulations, the role of religion begins to change into a purely spiritual role rather than the original code of ethics that it represents. Religion is seen as an extremely flexible tool, while it can be seen as a mechanism for advancing social and political aims, as our modern society moves towards greater social regulation, religion can also become a tool for purely spiritual regulation.
The existence of religion within the social context takes the role of both art and creativity. Religion becomes an avenue for individuals to explore their artistic and spiritual roots. As Professor Molloy points out, “Human beings have a need to see out and create artistic forms of expression. Religion helps stimulate art, music and dance and it has been the inspirational source of some of the most imaginative buildings in the world” (Molloy 3). Molloy argues that the role of religion in our lives is to inspire, and art work is a recreation and interpretation of religion. Therefore, as human experience through artwork grows so does the spiritual progression and the power of religion expand. The intertwining influence once again exhibits how religion is used as a tool to encourage aesthetic appreciation. Through the promotion of art and spirituality, religion allows humanity to become inspired by causes rather and through the process of human creations, religion encompasses a bigger part of our lives because they are the inspiration for the creations themselves. In effect, religion and human experience in relation to art and creativity becomes a symbiotic relationship, as religion influences artistic creativity and in turn the art influences the spiritual belief and the interpretation of religion. Therefore the human response to its innate desire to create art is the formation of complicated religious landscapes in which only the artistic realm can interpret. Religion from early civilizations has been affected by cave paintings to the construction of Mayan temples, and through these art mediums, we have come to understand and appreciate the pagan religions of the past.
The construction of human religion has also deep ties with the human fear of mortality. Human experience through suffering and death has a strong influence on the development of religion and its expansion. When individuals see their kin die, the fear of mortality instills in them the desire and need to create a heathen and afterlife. When humanity has to inevitably face the pain of death, the questions that arise such as the existence of a soul, afterlife, or rebirth can only be answered through an interpretation of religion. Molloy furthers, “Religion can help us cope with death, and religious rituals can offer us comfort” (Molloy 3). The importance of religion is that it allows humanity to create a protective weave around them to shield them against the reality learned from human experience. The problems that are too difficult to cope with such as mortality are masked through devotion to religion. Without a means to initiate change in early civilizations, religion became the created vehicle to achieve higher enlightenment and to change current hardships into bounty. Therefore, religion gains its main audience from those who have experienced too much pain and fear. The human experience increases the value of having a psychological protection against the unknowable, by swearing allegiance to religion; individuals receive the psychological equivalent of a rock to hang onto in times of extreme fear and doubt. Religion provides the outlet for humanity’s despair and as a consequence is deeply influenced by what and how humanity experiences certain issues dealing with our mortality.
Religion has changed drastically over the course of human history. From its initial roots within primordial creationism, and early civilizations to the current state of mass media religion and evangelical marathons on television, religion has become deeply cemented into our cultural understanding of the world. The influence of human experiences on the growth and development of religion has truly been profound. Religion was created as the basis for explaining the wonders of the world that were unexplainable. It allowed early civilizations and modern generations to answer questions unknown about the cosmos and our own unique creation. Religion serves as a device to answer the basic questions of, “Who we are, where we come from, and where we are going” (Molloy 3). Its unique place within our culture as a device for creating fundamental understandings of the world is greatly influenced by human experience. The human experience forces us into difficult questions, and our general curiosity about the nature and wonder of life asserts itself in the creation of religion. Religion provides us a common grounds to identify ourselves, it creates a common bond and its scriptures applies as devices to enhance the nature of how we view the world and see ourselves within the limitations of our culture and society. Religion has become an integral part of our lives because it creates the illusion of security and provides answers to the dark places within our understandings. As each new piece of information reaches us, the questions that were purely religious begins to demystify. The process of expanding and compressing religion within world history is the ultimate proof of the influence of human experience upon religious growth and development. Religion grows and shrinks based on our willingness to believe its tenants. As our cultural and scientific understanding grows the role that religion formerly encompasses will decrease significantly. Therefore the concept of religion itself is malleable, and its basis is humanity’s growing understanding of the world, and the shifting role that religion plays within that understanding.
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