e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

The Essence of Religion: Four Theories

All religions are essentially the same

One very commonly held theory about religion is that all religions ultimately have the same basic source, call it “God”, or whatever. According to this theory all religions teach more or less the same basic truths, and these truths teach us (and actually can and do help us) to be better persons. In practice, therefore, it doesn’t really matter what religion you were born into, or what religion you may have chosen to adopt, so long as you practice it sincerely, it’s all good.

Karen Armstrong is a well known and articulate proponent of the theory that all religions are essentially true (theory 1) Here is an excerpt from her Charter for Compassion:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect ….

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

Another commonly held theory is that all religions have the same ultimate source, but this time the source is considered to be not ‘God’, or anything of the sort, but rather ignorance and/or fear, or possibly a desire to fool the masses in order to oppress and exploit them more efficiently. According to this theory all religions require belief in things that are not only patently false, but downright harmful, and all religions are inherently irrational and intolerant. In practice, therefore, it doesn’t really matter what religion you were born into, or what religion you may have chosen to adopt, it’s all just superstitious nonsense and a very big mistake.

Richard Dawkins is a well known and articulate spokesperson for the theory that all religions are essentially false (theory 2). Here is an excerpt from his book The God Delusion:

How did the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings cope with … polytheological conundrums? Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many …. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’ …. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.
[pp. 35-36]

As different as Armstrong’s and Dawkins’ theories might appear, they are both specific examples of a single, much more general, theory of religion: all religions are essentially the same.

All religions are not essentially the same

The two most widely adhered to religions on earth, Christianity and Islam, are (and quite obviously and explicitly so) both predicated on a very different theory of religion from the two (or one, depending on how general you wish to be) discussed above.

Specifically, Christianity and Islam both assume a clear distinction between true and false religion, and both have based themselves, from their inceptions, on a full-throated rejection of all other religions, which they have historically denounced in no uncertain terms as not only false, but also idolatrous, superstitious, demonic, and pagan. This is the theory that there is One True Religion, and all other religions are false (theory 3).

Egyptologist Jan Assmann has proposed that the division of religions into two categories, those that are true and those that are false, can be referred to as “the Mosaic distinction“. It should be noted that not only does Assmann not claim that Moses was the first to make this “distinction”, he (to put it mildly) seriously questions the historicity of Moses altogether: “because there are no traces of his earthly existence outside the [Biblical] tradition”.

While it may have been Pharaoh Akhenaten who first made the true/false distinction with respect to religion, our conception of this distinction today is inextricably intertwined with the Biblical story of Moses, and:

Since memory is all that counts in the sphere of cultural distinctions, we are justified in speaking not of Akhenaten’s distinction, but of the Mosaic distinction. The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.
[Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, p.2]

Moreover, according to Assmann:

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible …. However plausible this might seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation … Translation in this sense is not to be confused with colonializing appropriation of the “real” other. It is simply an attempt to make more transparent the borders that were erected by cultural distinctions.

Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translation. They belong within the emergence of the “Ancient World” as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations …. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly …. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction I am speaking of simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.
[Moses the Egyptian, pp. 2-3]

While the Mosaic distinction posits its own subjective division between true and false religions, it thereby automatically creates another, objective division: there are two kinds of religion (1) those religions that make the Mosaic distinction, and (2) those that don’t (theory 4). As Assmann states above, “the world of polythestic religions” is a world in which the Mosaic distinction is not made.

The question of tolerance

Religions that make the “Mosaic distinction” have an inherent tendency toward intolerance, for their followers are compelled to seek the extirpation of all false religions in order to replace them with the One True Religion. On the other hand, in “the world of polytheistic religions” tolerance and diversity are the general rule, and intolerance the rare exception.

That just such a clear, objective distinction with respect to the question of tolerance can be made between monotheism and polytheism, has been widely recognized by many of those who have studied the ancient religions of Greece and Rome (that is, the religions that preceded the rise of Christianity, and that were largely displaced by that rise). Among these are two of the most famous historians of Rome, Edward Gibbon and J.B. Bury.

Here is a passage from Gibbon’s Enlightenment era classic (and literary masterpiece in its own right), The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire illustrating his view:

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true …. toleration produced not only mutual indulgence but even religious concord.

The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth …. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes who had lived or who had died for the benefit of their country were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was universally confessed that they deserved, if not the adoration, at least the reverence of all mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and thousand streams possessed in peace their local and respective influence; nor could the Roman who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber deride the Egyptian, who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible powers of Nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout the universe. The invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mold of fiction and allegory. Every virtue, and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession, its patron, whose attributes in the most distant ages and countries were uniformly derived from the character of their peculiar votaries …. The Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian as they met before their respective altars easily persuaded themselves that under various names and with various ceremonies they adored the same deities. The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful and almost a regular form to the polytheism of the ancient world.
[from Chapter II, excerpt available online here]

In stark contrast to the above laudatory judgment of the natural and instinctive tolerance of “the Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian” Pagans, when assessing the reasons for Christianity’s triumph over these easy-going Pagans, Gibbon identified the five most important factors, and first among these he considered to be “the inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians.” Gibbon explicitly counterposes this “intolerant zeal of the Christians” with the “religious harmony of the ancient world [that is, prior to the rise of Christianity], and the facility with which the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other’s superstitions.” [Decline and Fall, Chapter XV]

For J.B. Bury’s part, the following is illustrative of what he had to say on this matter:

The purpose of the official cults in the pagan State was to secure the protection of the deities; these were liberal and tolerant lords who raised no objection to other forms of worship; and toleration was therefore a principle of the State. But the god of the new official religion [Christianity] was a jealous master; he had said, “thou shalt have none other gods before me,” and idolatry was an offence to him; how could his protection and favour be expected in a state in which idolatry was permitted? Intolerance was a duty, and the first business of a patriotic ruler was to take measures to extirpate the errors of paganism.
[History of the Later Roman Empire, p. 366]

Gibbon died over two centuries ago, in 1794, while Bury died in 1927. But their view that the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world was characterized by not merely toleration, but mutual recognition and respect for the religions of others, is also found in the writings of contemporary historian Ramsay MacMullen (who was born the year after Bury died) who wrote in 1997:

On the one hand was paganism, no more than a spongy mass of tolerance and tradition, so it might seem, confronting a growing number of people determined to do away with that mass utterly, so as to replace it with what was enjoined upon them by the tremendous will of the one God — such were the opposites making up the religious world of Late Antiquity.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, p. 5]

And James B. Rives states much the same view in his 2006 Religion in the Roman Empire:

[O]n a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the [Roman] empire had more similarities than differences. As a result, when people from one tradition were confronted with another, they often found much that was familiar and immediately understandable, and tended to treat what was unfamiliar simply as a local peculiarity. In short, the impression we get from the sources is that people thought not so much in terms of “different religions,” as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with regard to the gods.
[p. 6]

Primary versus Secondary Religions

Jan Assmann has proposed calling those religions that do not make the Mosaic distinction “primary” religions, and those that do, “secondary” religions, a terminology that he has borrowed from Heidelberg University Theology Professor Theo Sundermeier. But Assmann goes further than Sundermeier, and also proposes that secondary religions should be viewed as “counter-religions” a point to which I will return below.

Two features found in all religions that make the Mosaic distinction are (1) they arise at a specific place and time in history, when other (“primary”) religions are already in existence, and (2) the new “secondary” religion necessarily defines itself explicitly in terms of a rejection of these pre-existing primary religions. It goes without saying that if there are any secondary religions that are also around already, the new secondary religion rejects these as well, and is, in turn, rejected by them. Perhaps the most extreme and comical example of this is the emergence of one Protestant sect after another after another during the so-called Reformation, each one dutifully condemning all the other Protestants to Hell, along with, of course, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Jews and, naturally, all Pagans and Atheists:

Where are we to find that Church which has but one faith? Is it possible to discover it among Protestant sects, divided as they are into different bodies; refusing to be joined in communion; agreeing in scarce one point of doctrine, and mutually excommunicating each other?
[Authenticated Report of the Discussion Which Took Place At Londonderry, Between Six Roman Catholic Priests, and Six Clergymen of the Established Church; In the Diocese of Derry, March 1828, Section Three, p. 8]

These two features of secondary religions are mirrored by their opposites in primary religions, which (1) have no clear starting point in human history, and (2) do not reject other primary religions, but rather, see them, as James B. Rives states above, simply as “varying local customs with regard to the gods.” These two feature are the diachronic and synchronic manifestations of the inherent tolerance of primary religions. Diachronically, primary religions accept all previous religious traditions, while, synchronically, also accepting all contemporaneous “other” religious traditions. On the other hand, the attitude of secondary religions with respect to all perceived competitors in all of space-time (past, present and future — here, there, everywhere) is always that of uncompromising hostility.

Embedded in the above discussion is another important aspect of the primary/secondary religion divide, and one that bears at least passing mention: primary religions chronologically preceded secondary religions in human history. In other words we can speak of a time in the past during which, and before which, all religions were primary religions. There is actually a kind of macabre symmetry here, since the mental universe of secondary religions eagerly envisions a future in which there are no longer any primary religions left, because they have all been successfully extirpated in the name of ridding humanity of the scourge of idolatry and devil-worship.

According to both Jan Assmann and his fellow Egyptologist Erik Hornung, we can say with some precision when secondary religion first arose: the Amarna period (mid 14th century BC) of ancient Egypt. Here is Erik Hornung:

It was only around the middle of the nineteenth century that Wilkinson and Lepsius laid the foundation for our knowledge of the Amarna period, when ancient Egyptian culture and religion were fundamentally transformed for several years, and which even witnessed the introduction of a new literary language, and during which a religion was founded for the first time in the history of the world. To the best of our knowledge, this had never happened before, either in Egypt or elsewhere.
[Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, p. 2, emphasis in the original]

And here is an excerpt from Jan Assmann’s new book The Price of Monotheism

Primary religions evolve historically over hundreds and thousands of years …. Religions of this kind include the cultic and divine worlds of Egyptian, Babylonian and Greco-Roman antiquity, among many others. Secondary religions, by contrast, are those that owe their existence to an act of revelation and foundation, build on primary religions, and typically differentiate themselves from the latter by denouncing them as pagan, idolatry and superstition. All secondary religions … look down on the primary religions as pagan …. These religions can therefore perhaps be characterized most adequately by the term “counterreligion.” For these religions, and for these religions alone, the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to be fought.
[pp. 3-4]

Now let’s look at how Theo Sundermeier, whom Assmann credits (as mentioned already) with originally proposing the “primary versus secondary” terminology. Sundermeier uses this distinction in his book The Individual and Community in African Traditional Religion:

The validity of secondary religious experience is not confined to the small group; it lays claim to universal validity. That is the basic reason why it is designed for expansion. Weight is attached to the notion of truth, which is not at issue in primary religious experience. The latter is immediately credible and can be experienced at first hand in society. It is non-missionary, whereas secondary religious experienced forces its way onto the world stage as ‘true religion’.
[p. 236]

Sundermeier’s use of the terms primary/secondary religion must be approached with some caution. He obviously wishes to give the impression that “primary” religion is synonymous with both “primitive” religion and “traditional” religion, and that in general primary religion is by definition unreflective, unsophisticated, and only compatible with relatively small and isolated societies, while he privileges “secondary” religion with being a natural by-product of the development of more complex cultures and civilizations:

The larger society gives people greater scope for decisions and choice. The individual gains space and freedom, as we have seen. This likewise means that religion no longer covers all spheres of life, that the realm of the profane grows and secularism becomes possible. Secondary religious experience is therefore characterised by individualism. The mythical, analogous way of thinking is expanded by conceptual rationality and the symbol is interpreted according to individual inclination. What has been experienced through sensation and intuition is now pervaded by theoretical ideas; religion is reduced to a system, and can be handed down as a doctrine. Ritual enactment is no longer sufficient; secondary experience appeals to the intellect, demanding disbelief.
[p. 236]

The problem with the above is that it is completely wrong. The classical polytheisms of the great civilizations of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome were decidedly primary religions. A very nice explanation of this is to be found in Jan Assmann’s essay Monotheism and Polytheism, which appears as a chapter in the volume Ancient Religions, edited by Sarah Isles Johnston. It is nevertheless the case that Sundermeier is right to think that primary religions historically preceded secondary religions, it is just that he is wrong in imposing a “progressive” paradigm on the transition from primary to secondary religion.

Monotheism as Counter-Religion:
“Positive religions imply negated traditions”

Theo Sundermeier’s point of view is really quite startling in its Kipling-esque arrogance toward “primitive” religions (and we should not forget that Kipling considered himself a very liberal minded man, and very well and kindly disposed toward inferior/darker peoples for whom he seriously believed that he had nothing but respect and compassion). This demonstrates that the distinction between primary and secondary religions is not sufficient in itself, because it all too easily becomes just another vehicle for masking the biases of whoever is making use of the terms.

The real issue is that there is still something missing, yet another basic feature that distinguishes one broad class of religion from another, without which the real, objective differences are not sharp enough to ensure that other, “projected” differences are not “seen” by mistake.

Another way of putting this more bluntly is that Sundermeier is seeing what he wants to see. Sundermeier obviously thinks of himself, and rightly so I have no doubt, as a good-hearted, liberal, open minded person. And so he insists that he is not, heavens forbid, suggesting that there is anything at all wrong with those cute little “primary” religions. Of course they inhibit individualism, are incompatible with reason, do not appeal to the intellect, and view the empty, rote enactment of ritual as “sufficient”, but what did you expect? You see, those people live in their little, isolated, “primitive” “traditional” worlds, and they don’t know what they are missing — and, well, as soon as they do find out what they are missing, that is, when they come into contact with “larger society”, they will learn to add “theoretical ideas” to their religion, etc., like all civilized people do.

Fortunately, Jan Assmann provides the missing piece to the puzzle by his introduction of the term “counter-religion” (although Assmann also, albeit to a far lesser extent, falls into the same “progressive” trap as Sundermeier, a problem that I will have to address at a later time), which he describes here:

The sun god of one religion is easily equated to the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction I am speaking of simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.

The Mosaic distinction was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn. The space which was “severed or cloven” by this distinction was not simply the space of religion in general, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this new type of religion “counter-religion” because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as “paganism.” It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism … rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.
[Moses the Egyptian, p. 3]

According to Assmann (and also Erik Horning, although Hornung does not adopt the same terminology) the first such “counter-religion” was the “revolutionary monotheism” introduced by Akhenaten during the Amarna period in Egypt:

The defining difference between the old and new, “tradition” and “truth”, is created not so much by verbal means as by practical means. The latter were indeed drastic …. The traditional cults and feasts were discontinued, the temples were closed, the names and images of the gods (above all those of Amun) were destroyed, the capital was transfered, a new style was introduced into language and representational art, and so forth. These radical measures of persecution and innovation show beyond any doubt that the Amarna movement viewed itself as a new religion that was absolutely incompatible with the continuation of traditional forms of religious life.
[Moses the Egyptian, pp. 170-171]

Compare the above description of the acts of the Pharaoh Akhenaten with this description of the acts of the Emperor Constantine seventeen centuries later:

ALL these things the emperor diligently performed to the praise of the saving power of Christ, and thus made it his constant aim to glorify his Saviour God. On the other hand he used every means to rebuke the superstitious errors of the heathen. Hence the entrances of their temples in the several cities were left exposed to the weather, being stripped of their doors at his command; the tiling of others was removed, and their roofs destroyed. From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore his name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learnt to renounce their error, when the emperor held up the very objects of their worship to be the ridicule and sport of all beholders.
[Eusebius’ Vita Constantini, from Chapter LIV]

In The Price of Monotheism, Assmann expands on just how systemic and even paranoiac the proclivity toward violence is in monotheistic counterreligion:

I have already mentioned that the antagonism characteristic of monotheism as a counterreligion, the exclusive and exclusionary negation by which it defines itself — “No other gods!” — is not just directed outwards, but also and especially inwards. Far more worrying than the paganism of others is the falsehood to which one’s own co-religionists are forever in danger of succumbing. The conflict between truth and untruth and the shift from primary religion to counterreligion is played out in the Bible itself. Monotheism relates the story of its own establishment as a history of violence punctuated by a series of massacres. I have in mind the massacre following the scene with the Golden Calf (Exod. 32-34), the slaughter of the priests of Baal after the sacrificial contest with Elijah (I Kings 18), the bloody implementation of the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 23:1-27) …. Through this power of negation, monotheism acquires the character of a counterreligion that determines its truth by expelling whatever cannot be reconciled with it.
[pp. 21-23]

Assmann also makes use of the term “revolutionary monotheism” in order to emphasize the fact that the monotheism introduced by “counter-religion” is incapable of living in peace with any other religious traditions that it comes into contact with:

It seems evident that all founded or, to use the eighteenth century term, “positive” religions are counter-religions. This is so because all of them had to confront and to reject a tradition. None of them was founded within a religious void. Therefore, they may be termed “secondary religions” becuase tehy always presuppose the preceding and/or parallel existence of “primary religions”. We have no evidence of evolutionary steps leading from primary to secondary religion. Wherever secondary religions occur, they always seem to to have to have been established by foundational acts such as revolution or revelation. Such positive acts often have their negative complements in rejection and persecution. “Positive” religions imply negated traditions.
[Moses the Egyptian, p. 169]


In sum, then, we have four different theories of religion, which fall into two broad categories like this:

1. All Religions are essentially the same.
1.a. All Religions are essentially true. (Karen Armstrong)
1.a. All Religions are essentially false. (Richard Dawkins)

2. All Religions are not essentially the same.
2.a. There is One True Religion and all other religions are false. (Akhenaten/Moses)
2.b. There are Primary Religions and Secondary Religions. (Jan Assmann)

It is worth noting that the proponents of the first three theories all accept the monotheistic concept of a single ‘God’ as the defining principle for religion in general. This is immediately obvious if we look at the titles of Karen Armstrong’s books The Battle for God and A History of God, and also Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (especially the passage quoted above from Dawkins’ book). On the other hand, the fourth theory explicitly recognizes that there is a fundamental difference between secondary, revolutionary monotheistic religions that insist on one and only one God, and primary, polytheistic religions that allow for a great, possibly infinite, variety of Divine Beings.

2 responses to “The Essence of Religion: Four Theories

  1. Apuleius Platonicus November 16, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    That is an excellent point, Nick. The connection between monotheism and atheism is very deep.

  2. Nick Ritter November 16, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Quite an interesting and well-written article. I'm reading through your archives, and I like what I'm finding there, as well. Your classification of theories of religion is sound, I think. Perhaps this is something discussed elsewhere, but I also think it is important to draw a connection between your categories 2a and 1b. It seems to me that there is an evolutionary line that can be drawn between religions with the "Mosaic distinction" and atheism, as their rejection of all other gods turns inward. One might say that the underlying nihilism of such religions reaches its culmination in atheism.Certainly, the atheists I've known seem to have a kind of missionary zeal, shared by folks like Dawkins, that I suspect is an inheritance from Christianity.

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