The Atheist Bible
Chapter on Religion
IntroductionThis chapter formally defines gods and religion, and then shows the diversity of today’s religious practices. The chapter consists of the following sections:
- Definition of Religion: Formally defines religions, mythologies, and denominations.
- Gods: Formally defines spirits, deities, godheads, and supra-systems.
- Different Beliefs: Gives an overview of religious practices in today’s world religions.
Definition of Religion
Belief systemsFor the purposes of this book, a belief system is a set of statements, some of which concern the supernatural. Typically, belief systems also contain a moral framework, and a set of rites.
Consider for example the following set of beliefs Wikipedia:
- Life on Earth was scientifically created by a species of extraterrestrials, the “Elohim”.
- The Elohim appeared human when having personal contacts with the descendants of the humans that they made.
- You shall not be violent.
- You shall strive for world peace, sharing, and democracy.
- You shall grant the right to form new religions or new political parties as long as they do not promote violence.
- You shall not discriminate against anybody, including gay people.
- You shall be open to sex, but never engage in sex with minors.
It is not always possible to nail down a belief system as a comprehensive list of statements. However, for most belief systems, we can define at least the basic tenets in this way. As soon as these tenets include the supernatural and a code of ethics, the tenets qualify as a belief system. Beyond that, the full set of beliefs may be more complicated. This is why we will never fully spell out the entire list of beliefs of a religion. We will not say “The beliefs of religion X are...”, but only “The beliefs of religion X include...”.
New Religious MovementsA New Religious Movement is a belief system that is not yet large and old enough to be a religion. For example, the belief system that we just saw (with the extraterrestrials) is the belief system of a New Religious Movement called Raëlism. Its leader, Raël, is still alive.
When such a movement gains more adherents, and when it stands the test of time, it becomes a religion. Usually, the leader has to die for it to be accepted as a religion. The transition from new religious movements to religions can still be observed today: The Bahai Faith, for example, was considered a New Religious Movement until not so long ago. Today, it is considered mostly a religion. This is because its leader is dead, it has grown old enough (150 years), and it has gathered enough adherents (a few million). Scientology, in contrast, is still mostly regarded as a New Religious Movement. This is because it has only a few hundred thousand adherents, and started only 60 years ago. However, as time passes, it may start to qualify as a religion. In the US, for example, Scientology is recognized as a religion, because its fanbase is large enough in that country. Thus, the difference between a New Religious Movement and a religion is gradual.
CultsA cult is a group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices Cult.
As Ira A. Lipman explains, many people join cults because of frustration with established religion. Some are desperately searching for acceptance. The cultist group becomes their surrogate family. The cult leader becomes a father figure. A cult serves the specific needs of its followers. Recruits are not usually passive targets overpowered by mind controllers. [Ira A. Lipman: “How to be safe”, p.214]
Cults are often distinguished from religions because they are perceived as more dangerous than religions — for the following reasons: Cults have unique characteristics that may include a charismatic and controlling leader who claims to have a direct line to a higher power, brainwashing techniques that instill fear, guilt, and shame, and foster dependence on the leader, pressure to cut ties with family and friends, an intolerance of questioning of the cult’s beliefs and practices, financial exploitation, criminal activity, and often an apocalyptic belief about the imminent end of the world. [Ira A. Lipman: How to be safe / p.214]
It turns out that some religions share these characteristics in their early stages. Take Islam: Islam had a charismatic and controlling leader (the Prophet Mohammed) who claimed to have a direct line to a higher power. By his adversaries at the time, he was considered a criminal. Islam instills guilt through various techniques, shows intolerance to questioning its beliefs, encourages adherents to cut ties with family members who have left the faith, and believes in the coming end of the world (called “Yawm al-Qiyamah”, Wikipedia / Islamic eschatology).
Thus, there is not much difference between a “cult” and a New Religious Movement that can turn into a world religion. Therefore, this book does not use the term “cult”.
In a cult, there is a person at the top who knows it’s scam.
In a religion, that person is dead.
SectsA sect is a subgroup of a religious, political or philosophical belief system, usually an offshoot of a larger religious group Sect.
Traditionally, a sect is regarded as something bizarre. And yet, most religions were sects in the beginning, in the sense that they split away from a majority religion. For example, the followers of Jesus Christ were first only a small group of Jews. After the death of Jesus, the early Christians were still regarded as Jews. They were a kind of Jewish denomination. Later, the followers decided to abolish circumcision in order to make the new religion more attractive to non-Jews Apostolic Age. At this time, Christianity began to develop into a belief system on its own — it ceased to be a denomination of Judaism. At that time, Christians were hated and persecuted. They were a sect in all senses of the word — a small group of people who have split away from the majority religion. Only when Constantin the Great made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the group ceased to be a sect and became a majority religion.
MythologyA mythology is a collection of myths. A myth is a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events Google’s definition. Examples for such mythologies are
- the mythology of the ancient Greeks, with Zeus, Persephone, and the other gods
- the Old Nordic myths
- the myths of the Maya
Interestingly, people believed in these myths with the same fervor that people believe in religions today. For example, the ancient Vikings were such ferocious warriors also because they believed that they go to a sort of heaven when they die in battle. Therefore, this book looks at mythologies and religions in the same way: both are primarily belief systems. The main difference between the two is simply that the followers of a mythology are dead, while the followers of a religion are alive. Once all followers of a religion die, it becomes a mythology. One era’s religion is another era’s mythology.
ReligionFor the purposes of this book, a religion is a belief system such that
- its followers are alive (otherwise it would be a mythology).
- it is sufficiently old and large. Most notably, its leader has to be dead (otherwise it would be a new religious movement).
- there is no sub-set of the beliefs that is still shared with other believers under the same name (otherwise it would be a denomination).
Religions that have a very large number of adherents (typically more than 10 million) are called world religions.
InterpretationsA religion is a belief system that is widely shared, and whose followers are alive. For example, the religion of Christianity is a belief system that includes the following beliefs:
- There is only one God
- Jesus is the son of God
- There is only one God.
- Jesus is the son of God.
- Marriage can only happen between a man and a woman.
DenominationsWe have seen that a religion can allow for several interpretations. If an interpretation “operates under a common name, tradition, and identity”, it is called a denomination Religious denomination. For example, the “Catholic denomination of Christianity” is an interpretation of Christianity that includes the following beliefs:
- There is only one God
- Jesus is the son of God
- During mass, the bread used during the ceremony transforms physically into the body of Jesus.
- There is only one God
- Jesus is the son of God
- During mass, the bread used during the ceremony is a symbol of the body of Jesus.
Most religions have several such denominations Adherents.com / Major Branches of Religions. Christianity, for example, is split into Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox traditions, and into several denominations of finer granularity. The same applies to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and other religions.
A Christian was walking across a bridge one day, and he saw a man about to jump off.
He ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
"Why shouldn’t I?" he said.
"Well, there’s so much to live for!"
"Well… are you religious or atheist?"
"Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?"
"Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
"Fuck you!" said the Christian, and pushed him off.
The true interpretationDenominations and interpretations are variants of the belief system of a religion. Each such interpretation carries a label. For example, the belief system of Shia Islam is called “Shia”. It looks roughly as follows:
- There is only one god
- Mohammed is the final prophet of this god
- Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, is the divinely appointed successor to the prophet Muhammad Shia
This is all fine — until one interpretation of a religion X claims to have the label “True X”. For example, Shias can claim that Shia Islam is “The true Islam”. Similarly, conservative Christians can claim that their belief system is “The true Christianity”. This will upset believers of other interpretations of religion X, because, by the common understanding of the word “true”, it implies that the true interpretation is better than the others. Most notably, it implies that the other interpretation cannot have the label “true”. Much conflict results from this, in particular in Islam.
An alternative would be to use a different label for each interpretation — such as “Modern Shia Islam”, “Progressive Hinduism”, or “Conservative Catholic Christianity”. Such labels could co-exist peacefully. However, such labels would also make it evident that the choice of the interpretation is an arbitrary choice among several possibilities. This is something that many adherents prefer not to see this way. Therefore, they claim the label “true X” for their interpretation. In some cases, they resort to synonyms. For example, the word “Catholic” means “all-embracing”. The word “Orthodox” means “correct”. Thus, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity each consider themselves the true Christianity.
This book takes no sides in these questions. It is not the task of an atheist to decide which interpretation of a religion is the “true” one. In any case, none of them can be true, because the others cannot be false. This is because they are all unfalsifiable. Hence, for this book, each interpretation of a religion is simply a set of beliefs with a label. To avoid taking sides, we will never use the label “the true X”.
Wrong labelsFor this book, a religion is a set of beliefs. For convenience, each such set of beliefs has a label. For example, we label with “Hinduism” the set of beliefs that includes the idea of karma, reincarnation after death, and rituals.
You might object to this labeling if, in your view, Hinduism does not mandate the rituals. Thus, there seems to be a conflict between the Hinduism that you know and the Hinduism that this book describes.
However, there is no conflict. This book simply describes a set of beliefs. For convenience, it calls this set “Hinduism”. If you believe that “Hinduism” is the wrong label for this belief system, then you are very welcome to use any other word instead. Maybe the right label in your view is “Indian Ritualism”. If you think so, then you are invited to load this book into a word processor, and to replace the word “Hinduism” by the word “Indian Ritualism”. After this change, you will agree with this book that Indian Ritualism prescribes rituals. You will also agree that “Indian Ritualism” is a religion, because it is a belief system that involves the supernatural. You will also agree that Indian Ritualism has a huge number of adherents (who are, in your view, those who misinterpret Hinduism). Thus, you will in fact agree with all the claims that this book makes — just under another name. But that is not a problem: This book is about concepts, and not about how you call them.
Questions of words are of little importance for us. It is for you to formulate your definitions in such a manner as to make yourselves intelligible to one another. Your disputes almost always arise from the want of a common agreement in the use of the words you employ [...] For spirits, and especially for those of high degree, the idea is everything, the form is nothing.
Groups of religionsWe sometimes group together several religions that share some beliefs. For example, the abrahamic religions (Islam, Bahai Faith, Christianity, Judaism) all share the following beliefs:
- There is exactly one god
- Abraham was a prophet of that god
- After death, humans go to either heaven or hell (both mystical places)
This set is in the intersection of the sets of beliefs of the abrahamic religions. The set is not a religion itself, because it has too few beliefs, and does not contain rites or a moral framework. The set just serves to group together different religions that have similarities.
ScriptureMany religions are based on scriptures. These are books, narratives, or laws that are considered holy. Christianity, e.g., has the Bible, Judaism has the Torah (pictured right), and Hinduism has the Vegas.
Technically speaking, a scripture is a set of statements. Usually, a scripture includes some supernatural elements, and thus, one could be tempted to call the scripture itself a religion in the sense of this book. However, the scriptures are rarely followed in their entirety. For example, Christianity has abandoned the prohibition of pork that the Bible prescribes (Bible/Leviticus 11:7-8, Deuteronomy 14:8). Since a set of statements can only be a religion in the sense of this book if it is followed by people, the Bible itself does not qualify as a religion. Not every holy scripture is automatically a religion.
However, a religion may incorporate beliefs from the scripture. For example, the Bible says that there is only one god, and the Christian religion takes over this belief. Technically, the set of beliefs of Christianity and the set of statements in the Bible overlap. In addition, religions usually also incorporate beliefs about the scripture. For example, Christianity contains the belief “The Bible is the word of God”.
Talking about a religionFor this book, a religion is a set of beliefs. Thus, a religion is just a list of statements. We will use the word metonymically as follows:
- Religion X believes/holds/says/... that Y
- The statement Y is part of the set of beliefs of X. For example, we will say: “Christianity believes in the triune God”.
- Religion X condemns/shuns/punishes/... Y
- The beliefs of X include a moral statement that condemns Y. For example, we will say: “The Bahai Faith condemns homosexual relationships”.
- Variants/Interpretations/Denominations/... of Religion X do Y
- There exist interpretations of X that do Y. These interpretations have a substantial proportion of the adherents of X. For example, we will say: “Variants of Hinduism believe in several gods”.
- Historically, Religion X did Y
- There exists a historical interpretation of X that did Y. For example, “Historically, Confucianism had very brutal punishments”.
- The scripture of Religion X says Y
- The statement Y appears in the scripture of Religion X. This does not necessarily mean that it also appears in the beliefs of X. For example, we can say “The scripture of Christianity denounces the consumption of pork and shellfish” — even if these beliefs are not part of Christianity today.
- Adherents of Religion X generally believe Y
- The majority of adherents of Religion X believe in Y. Therefore, Y is assumed to be part of X. For example, we say “Polls show that Muslims generally reject homosexuality”.
- Religion (in general)
- The phenomenon that religions exist. For example, we will say “Several wars were supported by religion”, to mean that “Several wars were supported by the fact that religions exist”.
Sources of religionsA religion is a set of beliefs. These beliefs can come from different sources.
- Most world religions are based on scripture. While many world religions hold that their scripture was divinely inspired, or even dictated by a god, all scriptures were ultimately written down by men. It was always a human who held the pen. Some of the tenets of these scriptures were taken over into the belief system of the religion.
- Some religions have incorporated habits from other cultures. For example, the primary scripture of Islam (the Quran) does not mention the practice of circumcision or the Halal slaughtering method. These practices were added to the belief system of Islam from other cultures: circumcision from the Jews, and the five prayers from the Zoroastrians. Today, both practices are part of Islam.
- Power struggles
- Some denominations were born out of a struggle for power. In such cases, the new denomination received some new tenets to distinguish it from the mother religion. For example, Anglicanism split from Catholicism because the English king wanted to get a divorce that Catholicism would not allow him. Hence, he created a new denomination of Christianity that would allow him the divorce. This new denomination received some beliefs about the religious role of the king, and some others that denounce the pope as “the antichrist, man of sin, and son of perdition” Westminster Confession of Faith / XXV / VI. Shia Islam, for its part, was born out of a power struggle for the succession of the Prophet Mohammed. Shias believe that a man called Ali is the righteous successor of Mohammed. Therefore, the Shia profession of faith goes “There is no god except Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and Ali is the Wali (guidance) of God”. Thus, in both cases, beliefs about particular leaders made it into the belief system of these denominations.
- Scholarly decisions
- Some beliefs of a religion are decided by scholars. For example, Christian scholars decided in 325 CE that God was triune. Since that time, the trinity is a belief of Christianity.
- In areas where few people can read, religion is spread mainly by tradition and preachers. These preachers can to some degree define the beliefs of the religion. The adherents then consider these beliefs part of their religion. Variants of Hinduism follow this scheme.
- Other religions
- Buddhism and Sikhism have taken over concepts from Hinduism. Islam took over ideas from Christianity, and Christianity from Judaism. The Bahai Faith incorporates concepts from the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Spiritualism took over ideas from Christianity and the Indian religions.
In all such cases, man-made tenets were added to the belief system of a religion. In all these cases, the beliefs now form an integral part of the religion. Anglicanism is as much a denomination as Catholicism, even if its belief system includes beliefs that were added during a power struggle. Buddhism is a religion in its own right, even if it took over concepts from Hinduism. The five prayers are a natural part of the belief system of Islam, even if they were added only after the Quran was finished. Hinduism is a proper religion in its own right, even if some of its tenets were most likely added by Brahmans. Thus, the belief system of a religion may contain elements that were added by humans, and these are considered integral parts of the religion today.
From an atheist point of view, of course, this applies to all parts of a religion. All tenets of a religion were ultimately made by humans. A religion is a completely human construction. None of the beliefs comes from a god — every single belief of a religion was ultimately made up by a man.
Therefore, it is futile, from an atheist point of view, to argue that some religion would be “mis-interpreted” by humans against God’s will. God’s will appears nowhere in a religion. A religion is just a man-made set of tenets, which were then declared divine.
SpiritsFor the purpose of this book, a spirit of a belief system is an entity that is described in the beliefs as , the fauns in the Roman mythology (pictured right), the Elohim in Raëlism, and the spirits in the Chinese religions.
Some religions aim to enter into contact with the spirits (most notably Spiritism). In such cases, special people (called “mediums”) receive messages from the spirits. Thus, one may think that the spirits are a physical phenomenon, and that their existence is falsifiable. Yet, it is not. There is nothing that an adherent of such a religion would accept as a proof that the spirits do not exist. For example, the first mediums of Spiritism later admitted that they had faked the contact with the spirits. Still, Spiritism continued to believe in the spirits. Thus, even a proof that the contact was faked was not enough to prove to adherents that spirits do not exist. Hence, their existence is unfalsifiable.
Local SpiritsA local spirit is a spirit that is bound to a particular physical object or location. Examples would be the spirit that lives in the big fig tree down the valley; or the spirit of a certain river.
Spirits of the DeadA spirit of a dead is a spirit that is thought to rise from a dead person, and to continue to interact with this world. Spirits of the dead are particularly present in Spiritualism. One particular form of such spirits are ancestor spirits, which are worshipped in animist religions. But also the saints of Christianity are technically spirits of the dead.
DeitiesFor this book, a deity (or god) of a belief system is a spirit that has sole responsibility for one domain or all domains of life. Examples for deities are: Vishnu in Hinduism (responsible for the domain of preservation), Allah in Islam (responsible for everything), or Neptune in the Roman mythology (responsible for the domain of the sea).
This book understands a deity as an entity that is described in a religious belief system. We do not care about the metaphysical quality of deities, or about their relation to reality. We understand, categorize, and describe deities like characters in a book.
Not every spirit of a religion is necessarily a god. For example, Christianity knows the spirit of the Archangel Michael, but he does not have universal responsibility in any domain. Hence, he is not a god. Local spirits and ancestor spirits, likewise, do not have universal or sole responsibility in a domain of life. Other cases are less clear-cut: Deities of cities are commonly called deities — assuming that the city is a domain of life. The patron saints in Christianity are very similar to deities, but closely miss the mark in official theology: they do not have sole responsibility for a domain, but merely advocate it with the supreme god Patron saint.
DualismDualist belief systems know to important deities: a positive deity and a negative deity. The positive deity works for order, justice, and happy humans, while the evil deity works for chaos, suffering, and injustice. These two forces are not sub-ordinate to each other. Rather, they compete on an equal footing.
One of the first dualist religions was Zoroastrianism. Dualist traits can nowadays also be found in religions that know a devil (such as Islam and Christianity). In these systems, though, the devil is not on equal footing with the good god.
Godhead DeitiesA godhead deity is a deity that consists of several spirits. The most prominent example in the West is the Christian God: Christianity reveres God the Father and the Holy Spirit. These two entities qualify as spirits in the sense of this book, because they are supernatural entities that act independently. They are not, individually, deities, because there is no domain for which they (and they alone) are responsible. Christianity groups these spirits together with Jesus as one deity — the triune god. Another example is Hinduism: this religion knows several deities. Some variants of Hinduism say that these deities are different aspects of the same, all-embracing godhead deity.
How exactly the spirits are grouped together is not always easily understandable. But it also does not matter for this book. We will just call any deity that groups several spirits together a “godhead”.
Supra-SystemsSome belief systems have what we will call a supra-system. A supra-system is a set of statements that describe the fate of humans after death, a connection of human deeds to the fate they will meet, or an underlying world order of the universe. Different from a god, a supra-system does not consciously act according to its own will. It is merely a description of the way things supposedly work. A supra-system is supernatural, because its existence is unfalsifiable, and it evades human perception.
An example of a supra-system is the Hindu belief in reincarnation: Humans will have another life after their death, and their status in that life depends on their deeds in the current life. Another example of a supra-system is the Confucian notion of “Heaven”. The Confucian Heaven punishes bad deeds, but it is not a conscious entity. Rather, people are punished much in the way that things fall down: It just happens this way. Still another example is the “Tao” in Taoism. It is an overall world order, i.e., mainly a set of statements that say that the world is ordered.
In such systems, gods may exist or may not exist. If they exist, they co-exist with the other creatures of nature, i.e., with humans, elephants, and apple trees. They all are subject to the same supra-system.
AbstractionsSome modern belief systems (which we call “metaphysical philosophies” in this book) know neither gods nor supra-systems. In their view, “God” is just a different name for a metaphysical phenomenon such as the “first cause of the universe”. This god does not have any physical attributes. In particular, he does not have the characteristics that are commonly ascribed to the abrahamic god.
Some of these philosophies hold that “God” is a name for the abstract first cause of the universe. Others hold that “God” is a name for the universe at whole. Again others hold that “God” is a name for the “sense of life”, the “universal principle of existence”, the concept of “meaning”, or for the perceived one-ness of nature.
We will call such interpretations of the word God “abstractions”. They have in common that they assume a non-falsifiable cause or quality of a natural phenomenon. They are thus supernatural beliefs in the sense of this book.
ExtraterrestrialsSome religions hold that the Earth was created by extraterrestrials. Extraterrestrials by themselves are not supernatural entities. They are hypothetical, but their existence in the observable part of the universe could be proven wrong.
However, the religions that involve extraterrestrials typically ascribe unfalsifiable properties to them: they cannot be perceived, they live outside our laws of physics, or they live in a supra-universe. These statements are then supernatural.
Overview of today’s religionsThere exist hundreds, if not thousands of religions and denominations. We will discuss the main ones in the Chapter on the World Religions. They can roughly be classified as follows:
- Indian religions
- These include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, with around 1.5 billion adherents. These religions believe in several gods (variants of Hinduism), no gods in the abrahamic sense (Buddhism, Jainism, variants of Hinduism) or one god (Sikhism, variants of Hinduism). They share the concept of a supra-system that enables reincarnation and nirvana.
- East Asian religions
- In East Asia, we find Shintoism in Japan and the Chinese folk religions in China. The Chinese religions include the particular flavors of Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, and Confucianism. The East Asian religions revere several local spirits and deities. Together, they have around half a billion adherents.
- Tribal religions
- These include traditional African religions, Asian Shamanism, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions, and Chinese folk religion, with around half a billion adherents. These religions are characterized by ethnic membership, and are centered on the concept of magic, rituals, and the power of certain objects, i.e., non-scientific procedures to ward off evil. They are usually animist, i.e., they believe in local spirits
- Abrahamic religions
- These include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Spiritualism, and the Bahai Faith, with around 3.4 billion adherents in total. The main belief is a single, omnipotent God who created the universe.
- New religious movements
- These include the Wicca, the Rastafari, Unitarian Universalism, Scientology and others, with several million adherents. These religions are those that emerged since the 19th century. They often syncretize, re-interpret or revive aspects of other religions. Other modern philosophies reject the concept of religion, and hold metaphysical or spiritual view points instead.
Gods and SpiritsMost of today’s religions, but not all, have the concept of supernatural beings. The beliefs can be classified as follows:
- Polytheistic religions
- Polytheistic religions worship many gods. These gods can be workshopped in addition to spirits. Often, both gods and the spirits are subordinated to a supra-system. Classical examples of such religions in ancient times were the Greek and Roman religions. Today, the following religions are polytheistic: Hinduism (in some of its variants), Chinese Folk Religions, and Shintoism, Wicca, and Druidry. Together, they have slightly more than a billion adherents.
- Monotheistic religions
- Monotheistic religions worship exactly one god — possibly in addition to spirits, but without a supra-system. The most prominent monotheistic religions are the abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahai, Spiritualism), but also Zoroastrianism, Yazdanism, and Sikhism are monotheistic. Spirituality may also be de facto monotheistic. Together, these religions have around 4 billion adherents.
- Supra-system religions
- Supra-system religions believe in a supernatural world-order, which usually involves reincarnation. In such systems, gods and spirits may exist or may not exist. If they do, they are in any case subordinated to the supra-system, and thus of lesser importance. The most prominent representative of these religions is Buddhism, with around half a billion adherents. Others are Taoism and Jainism.
- UFO religions
- UFO religions believe that there are extraterrestrial intelligent beings. Examples for such religions are Scientology and Raëlism, with several hundred thousand adherents.
- Animist religions
- Animist religions believe in local spirits, i.e., they hold that natural physical entities (such as animals, plants, or inanimate objects) possess a spiritual essence. Examples for such religions are tribal and neopagan religions, with probably a few million adherents. These religions also sometimes venerate ancestor spirits.
- Metaphysical philosophies
- Metaphysical philosophies hold that “God” is just a different name for a metaphysical phenomenon. These philosophies do not know spiritual beings at all.
Y. N. Harari argues in his book “Sapiens” (p. 239) that polytheistic religions are inherently tolerant towards other people’s spirits, gods, beliefs, and religions. There is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence of other gods. Polytheistic religions do not try to spread the faith, or punish believers of other faiths. Monotheistic religions, in contrast, cannot accept that other gods are worshipped. They typically aim to make the faith in the one god universal (with the exception of Judaism, in which God remained focused mainly on one group of people).
Birth of the UniverseDifferent religions have different stories as to how the world came into existence. These can be classified as follows:
- Single divine creator
- In the large monotheistic religions, the universe was created by God. God himself is eternal and was not created.
- World parents
- The world parents are a male god (commonly identified with the sky) and a female god (the earth). These procreate, and the result is the world, humans, animals, and possibly other deities. This concept appears in tribal religions, and also in some neopagan relions.
- In some UFO religions, the Earth was created by extraterrestrials. In Raëlism, e.g., the Earth is a big scientific experiment by extraterrestrials.
- In some creation stories, divine beings transform into others or into physical parts of the world. In Hinduism, e.g., Brahma, the god of creation, emerges from a lotus risen from the navel of Visnu, who lies with Lakshmi on the serpent Ananta Shesha Creation Myth. Brahma then goes on to create the world.
- Some religions provide an abstract, non-physical explication for the beginning of the universe. The Taoist creation story, e.g., goes as follows: “The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures. The myriad creatures bear yin on their back and embrace yang in their bosoms. They neutralize these vapors and thereby achieve harmony” Daodejing, 300 BCE.
- Existence for Eternity
- Some religions do not believe that the universe has always been there. According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe. Buddhists believe that the world has been created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will break away by itself. Jainism holds that it is not possible to create matter out of nothing. Hence, according to Jainism, the universe and its constituents have always existed.
- Tribal religions offer a wide variety of other creation stories. Many people believe, e.g., that the current civilization arrived here from a series of previous civilizations in subterranean worlds.
A scientific view on the universe, life, and humanity is discussed in the Chapter on the Universe.