Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.
Some religions are better than others in objectively identifiable ways.
Some religions are more advanced than others in objectively measurable ways.
If you’re still here, then good. You haven’t let the multicultural PC crowd crush all of your capability for rational thought yet. If we’re willing to set aside our preconceptions and give it honest thought, a study of comparative religions will show us that we can compare religions objectively and conclude that in a very meaningful sense some are better than others. We can also say, in a very different meaningful sense that some are more advanced than others. These are separate methods of comparison, but both are useful and meaningful.
Before we delve too deeply into this, an important note has to be made. All of the world’s dominant religions have been around for a very long time. In the time that they’ve been around, they haven’t remained constant. At times they’re not even constant from place to place within the same time period (witness modern Christianity, which currently exists in dozens, if not hundreds, of different flavors). Therefore, at times we’ll have to be fairly specific about what flavor of a given religion we’re referring to at any point in the discussion. But even when the flavors differ (again, Christianity in the modern world is a good example) sometimes we can lump them together for the purposes of discussion because they share many of the same fundamental traits.
Also, although I’ll briefly mention some others, most of the discussion will follow the evolution of the religions of western civilization. The main reason for this is that the evolutionary chain of advancement is fairly clear. Eastern religions largely followed an entirely different path of evolution, which is interesting in its own right but will mostly just serve to clutter the discussion.
When I say that one religion is better than another I mean that it has measurably better results for society. We can measure in a lot of ways, but I like to use the following question. How well does a society that follows religion X fare at meeting the basic, necessary needs of its citizenry? This isn’t always straightforward to answer, but we can get a pretty good idea of it by looking at things like mortality rates, starvation rates and poverty rates. Notice that I’ve left off things like GDP, GNP and average income. Many religious people would argue that making us all wealthier doesn’t necessarily make us better off. From a religious point of view, I think this is fair. I do think, however, that having fewer people die and live in abject misery is an objectively good thing that almost all religious people would agree upon. Otherwise, what’s all that charity for? I’m also well aware that there are a lot of other factors that determine the success of a society. However, I believe that culture is a major one, and that religion is the largest component of culture.
When I say that one religion is more advanced than another, I mean that it’s introduced some novel concept. Not just a new flavor on something, like “Oh, we have a thunder god and a lightning god!” But a radical (at the time of introduction) new concept that fundamentally changed the way people thought about religion. As I’ll discuss in more detail later, a study of the history of religion reveals several massive leaps forward in religious understanding.
Now that we understand our terms, let’s look at the major religions of the world, both now and historically. Most modern hunter gatherer tribes still follow basically the “nature spirit” template of religion. Each animal has its spirit, each aspect of nature (wind, rain, lightning, etc) has a spirit, and so forth. This is not a very sophisticated religion at all. Most of us will be the most familiar with the native American flavors of this, but it essentially survives in other forms today. Shinto is a more modernized and advanced form of this as well. It’s not very advanced because it doesn’t offer us much in the way of new and original thought. By my measure, it’s not really a very good religion either, because it rarely brings groups much out of the hunter-gatherer stage, which is a pretty brutal stage of civilization. Nature spirit religions don’t really have a lot in the way of morality to offer, and what they do have basically boils down to, “don’t piss off the spirits because then they’ll deny you food, shelter, water, or clothing.”
Pantheistic paganism is the next evolution. Instead of a unique spirit for every aspect of nature, mankind has advanced to perceiving distinct “gods” that govern entire realms of responsibility. Instead of a spirit inside each animal, now we have a goddess of the hunt (Diana). Or instead of a spirit for each river and lake, now we have a generalized god of the sea (Poseidon). It is a bit more advanced, but not much. It shows a little bit more abstract reasoning. It’s also a little bit easier to organize. With fewer deities around, we can standardize our practice more easily around the few that are left. But it doesn’t really get us a lot more than that. Morality hasn’t advanced much. It can still be summed up as, “Don’t stand on the top of the mountain in a thunderstorm cursing Zeus.” It’s a bit more noticeably better than nature spirit religions, because this kind of religion brought forth almost every major ancient agricultural society. The human race survived better and flourished more under these systems than it had before them.
Judaism is where things start to get interesting. It is important to note, however, that Judaism did not just spring into being in full form. Even Judaism as reported in the Old Testament is well advanced from what modern scholars believe it to have been in the early days. There’s debate about what exactly its earliest forms was, but even in the Old Testament itself you can see the religion evolving. Later, it retrofitted some of the advanced concepts of Christianity, at least into Jewish culture, if not directly into the religion. Yes, I realize I just pissed a lot of people off with that statement, but it’s observably true from a historical perspective. Modern Jewish culture has Christian elements in it. Deal with it.
Two fundamental and distinct breakthroughs really set Judaism apart from the pantheistic pagan religions. First, and best known, it made the switch to true monotheism, claiming that the Jewish God (now a proper noun in its own right) was the only God, creator of all things. Second, it made the leap to a non-anthropomorphic god. Despite the early verses of Genesis that tell us that God made man in his own image, Jewish tradition (going way back, but not quite to the beginning) is that God is an abstract being. God is everywhere, and in everything. He’s not contained in this or that statue, or this or that temple. We can’t draw make idols of him because it would be blasphemous to make idols of a being that has no physical form for us to see. He’s beyond our understanding. This is a really big leap in abstraction. On its own, it doesn’t necessarily make the religion better or worse than any other, but it’s clearly more advanced in terms of its thinking. [Editor’s note: this gets even more interesting when you consider that both Jewish and Christian traditon simultaneously teach that man is created in God’s image; but that seeming paradox is a topic for another discussion.]
Was Judaism much better than pantheistic paganism? I would argue that it was, but only somewhat. Set aside the Roman Empire for the moment, which is more or less a historical anomaly. It’s also debatable as to whether the Empire increased or decreased human misery. The Romans themselves were obviously better off, but they rather clearly got that way by making everybody they conquered much worse off. Other than that one exception, the best that pantheistic paganism was able to consistently achieve in the western world was city-state level civilizations that occasionally progressed to smallish “empires” like the Macedonian empire or the Egyptian empire. Yes, I know the Macedonian empire at its peak was quite large geographically, but it didn’t hold together long enough to really matter. Judaism never got much beyond that point either. At its height, the ancient nation of Israel was still pretty small compared to anything else. But the Jewish religion does seem to have one very interesting factor that I believe makes it somewhat better than the pagan religions. Throughout the millennia since the ancient nation of Israel was finally conquered and dispersed, Jews have survived and even thrived as a subculture in almost every part of the western world, against almost all kinds of intolerance and persecution. At times, it’s enough to make one think that they really must be God’s chosen people.
However, around 2000 years ago Christianity took the human race on another religious quantum leap. Christianity is far more advanced than Judaism, in so many interesting ways that it’s hard to decide where to start.
The most radical concept at the time would have to be Christ’s so called 11th Commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” This was a massively revolutionary idea, and not just in terms of religion. It especially stands out if we place it in context of the time Jesus taught. The Hebrews of Palestine at the time were one of many peoples highly oppressed by the Roman Empire very near the peak of its power. Like many subjugated peoples, the Romans were basically squeezing every last bit of profit they could out of the province, completely uncaring of how it affected the native people. But even besides the Romans, it was a brutal world. People generally helped their families, and their close communities (say, the village they lived in). Beyond that, it was more or less a world of take what you can, when you can, and from whom you can. Then all of a sudden here comes this man with a message of loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.
This was literally viewed as crazy talk by the people of the time.
Christianity was the first major western religion that not only welcomed but openly recruited ethnic outsiders. To this day, it’s not exactly easy to convert to Judaism. It’s doable, but they make you work for it. Christianity changed that very early on, openly welcoming and recruiting non-Jews. This, also, is a bigger advancement than it may seem to modern eyes. Yes, Christianity, like all religions, represents some form of tribalism. You’re a part of our Christian tribe now, so you’re OK. But it’s tribalism at a much more abstract level. No longer is your “tribe” so dependent upon your ethnicity. Now your faith can determine it instead. We all know that this is imperfectly executed, but it’s a major advancement in ideas nonetheless.
Christianity, more than any other major world religion, has also proven very adaptable. To be sure, it has struggled somewhat in the modern era. But over the course of 2000 years, it has adapted to some amazing situations. You can see this almost right out of the gate. As someone familiar with classical history, to my eyes it is very rightly called the Roman Catholic Church. Confronted with competing religions, Christianity co-opted their celebrations, feast days, symbols, and even some ideas and made them its own. Again, its parent religion has done this as well to some degree – but nowhere near to the same extent.
Christianity is also the only modern major world religion that from the very beginning demanded strict monogamy. Judaism does now, but in its early days it was OK with polygamy. And yes, I know that there have been offshoots of Christianity that allowed polygamy. They have never been mainstream Christianity. Even tolerance of divorce is recent in terms of Christian history. Although this may be detrimental to a few individuals, it’s a huge bonus for society at large.
Is it better than other religions using the criteria I’ve outlined? I think the answer is an unqualified “yes.” The Middle Ages are often derided as a miserable period in human history. Yet we can say two things about them. First, scholars now unequivocally acknowledge that they weren’t as “dark” as they’re made out to be. Second, they really weren’t any worse than most of human history, even if they were “darker” than the periods of western history that bookended them. The modern western world was built on the shoulders of Christianity, and it’s unquestionably the golden age of human history as far as a time and place of low human misery.
Islam, frankly, is a step backwards in terms of how advanced it is. It’s much more similar to Judaism than it is to Christianity, despite accepting Christ as a prophet. It’s moral code is fairly modern (don’t laugh; compared to the Greeks and the Romans, it is fairly modern) and in keeping with the other religions of the book (up until their liberalization about a century or so ago), but it doesn’t really offer anything obviously new. Also, I’m not at all a fan of Islamic acceptance of polygamy. This is fundamentally not a good thing for society. Is Islam better than other religions? It did fairly well in the Middle Ages, but the Islamic world has been in decline ever since. The biggest issue that Islam suffers from is its lack of adaptability. It did well at the right time and place, but it can’t adapt to a changing world.
This post is already running really long, so I’m going to go ahead and wrap it up rather than delving deeper. But the short version is this: I believe that Christianity (or at least flavors of it) is both the most advanced religion that the world has seen to date and also the best religion the world has seen to date, in terms of how that religion benefits society.
Part 4 will delve more into Christianity and some problems I have with it and/or various flavors of it.
The Whole Series