Thirty something years ago, an earnest young man approached me outside the main station in den Haag. He said something like for God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. I nodded and said yes. Then the young man continued: but his name was not Jesus Christ, it was Lou! I burst into laughter and the young man left. Ever since, I have regretted not buying his literature to find out who Lou (or Lew) was/is.

In a genealogy discussion group I found the story of a German migrant to the US who founded his own church. He decided that was the only way he could attend a church that used the true language of Jesus - German.

The fact is that most people have always followed the religion of their parents. And that is just as well, for any attempt to decide for yourself which one you want is bound on flounder on the amazing number of choices. (The World Christian Encyclopedia says there are some 33,820 religions, denominations or similar distinct organizations. [Associated Press article 20 Jan 2001]) An individual could not begin to evaluate such a number and their bewildering variety of options. The following omits the vast majority. It is based on my upbringing as a Southern Presbyterian, a period as a born-again Christian, and observations and readings in the countries where we have lived.

What is Religion?

According to my American Heritage Dictionary, religion is The expression of man's belief in and reverence for a superhuman power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe. This definition is far too narrow, for religions are in many cases not limited to "a" power, may not recognize the power(s) as creator of the universe, and may not believe that the power(s) take any role in the current management of the universe. Perhaps it would be better to say simply that Man has traditionally felt the need to have some higher being(s) to explain events, to whom some sort of reverence is due. But even that is too narrow, for one of the great religions, Bhuddism, is a philosophy that does not incorporate higher being(s). And other religions consider spirits of various kinds that are not higher beings in the sense used by Christians. (But then I must remember that at least one branch of Buddhism considers the moon as a god. It was interesting watching monks scratch their heads trying to figure out what to make of moon rocks on display in Colombo.)

What is/are God(s)?

The range of belief runs from a spirit or spirits that are, or reside in, some beings, all beings, or the universe as a whole, through higher beings which may or may not have created the universe or just this world, to none of the above.

How Many Gods?

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3, King James version of the Bible) What could be plainer: there is more than one god, but I am the only one you will worship/obey. Or now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods. . . (NIV Exodus 18:11) Again, no question that there are other gods. Such is one of the fundamentals of Judaism and Christianity.

Most older religions have a variety of gods, Hinduism being the largest extant example. But the Bali branch of Hinduism includes those who say that Hinduism is actually monotheism, one god manifest in many forms. This version is close to the western Christian main stream.

Is western Christianity monotheistic in its own terms? No. The First Council of Nicaea (325) defined a trinity of God, Son and Holy Word. The First Council of Constantinople (381) defined the Holy Spirit and Trinity as now observed.

So is there a monotheistic religion? Islam, officially. There is one God, Allah. (But in truth many Muslims have brought along the traditional religions of their home cultures, and still observe them to some extent.) There are also branches of Christianity which never accepted the concept of the trinity - Jesus is considered a prophet, and the division between Father and Holy Ghost was never invented. The latter groups are probably extinct in western Europe, having been forced to convert or die starting with the first (unnumbered) crusade launched by Pope Silvester II (999 - 1003) against wrong believers in what is now southern France.

In recent centuries the church of Rome has been moving even further away from monotheism. In 1854 Mary was given Immaculate Conception (born without a human father) and in 1950 Assumption (going to Heaven without a death first). There is now a movement (reported in NY Times December 23, 2000) to make Mary a god in her own right, equal to Jesus. Actually if you visit many churches of the Roman persuasion in the Mediterranean region you get the impression that the church of Rome has long been more Marianity than Christianity.

How do you Worship?

The most obviously religious people I have seen are the Hindus of Bali. Prayer and offerings are a constant part of life. A short prayer and offering (often involving flowers) accompanies opening the shop in the morning, closing it in the evening, meals, getting up, going to bed. Hindu, Shinto and Buddhist homes often include a shrine of some kind, to which offerings or prayers are typically made each day. American Protestants typically pray before each meal. The sign of the cross as practiced by the church of Rome and many other Christian groups is a type of prayer.

Religions probably by definition all include some set procedures for worship. These typically include some set prayers to be repeated while adopting some physical position of obedience: prostration, kneeling, bowing, hands folded or held up with palms forward or placed together flat with fingers fingers up.

Those often include some dress code (head covered or not covered, feet covered or not covered, wearing a robe or sarong) for worship and sometimes always. The dress code seems to have much more to do with where you are than the religion concerned. Islam certainly has a wide variation in what is considered formal wear for Friday prayers, although shoes off is universal in mosques and normal when prayer is outside of a mosque. (The female head covering associated with Islam today is a modern invention, less than 50 years old.)

The place where you can or must worship may or may not involve some specific place, building or temple. The most important religions today (Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) all provide that you can worship (in the sense of praying) anyplace, but that you should go to some specific place for formal worship.

What kind of place is used for formal worship varies from a closed building for Christians and Jews, to fenced open spaces with roofs typically only for the holy of holies for the god or god symbol for classic Greek and Roman religions and Hindus, to either an enclosed open space with some shelter around the sides or a roofed structure for Islam. (The great mosque in Mecca is a good example of the open plan.) All religions have formal open air ceremonies on certain occasions, because there are few human structures that can hold more than a few thousand people at one time. Some religions restrict admittance to the formal places of worship to believers (parts of Islam, Mormons) or to some special part of the place to special members such as priests (church of Rome and much of eastern Christianity, classical Greek and Roman, Biblical temple in Jerusalem).

Pilgrimages are a frequent feature. These are visits to some important religious site, often to receive some special blessing or remission of sins. San Simeon in what is now northern Syria was probably the most important Christian pilgrimage destination in 4th through early 7th centuries, with thousands present for major occasions. Modern transportation has empowered ever more people to make such trips. Every year over 2 million travel to Mecca for the Haj during the appointed month, and many more Muslims make smaller pilgrimages at other times of year or to other places. Something in excess of 10 million people made a pilgrimage to Rome during the 2000 Holy Year. And biggest of all time is probably the gathering of a reported 25 million Hindus at Allahabad, India, on one day in January 2001 for the Maha Kumbh Mela festival. The total for the holy month was reportedly over 100 million.

All modern religions have some holy writing(s) considered to be the word of or at least inspired by a god or gods. And in all cases, those writing(s) have been read by only a small percentage of the adherents. In the church of Rome until 40 years ago, and Islam today, the vast majority of adherents can/could not speak or read the official language of the religion.

The Eternal Wisdom (Sophia)

Religious doctrines are absolute and eternal, right? Judaism was a religion based on worship in a temple, that actively tried to convert others to the true faith. It is now a faith without a temple (worship everywhere a few have gathered) that makes it difficult to join. The most dogmatic worshippers wear 19th century Polish middle class clothing as a sign of respect to God.

Evolution of doctrine has been the rule within the largest branch of western Christianity, the (self-professed universal) church of Rome. That Christ was both man and god was made a doctrine at the time of Pope Felix I (269 - 274). Sunday as a holiday devoted to God was instituted by Pope Silvester I (314 - 335). The supremacy of Rome over other bishops was declared by Celestine I, 422 - 432, and immediately rejected in most of the east, North Africa and the far west (Ireland). That priests should not marry was declared by Pope Benedict VIII (1012 - 1024), although celibacy had been ordered at times earlier. (Note that Peter, who was officically the first Pope, is recognized to have had at least one child.) Marriage became a church sacrament under Nicolas I (858 - 867), and was not even a normal church function until Pope Evaristus (97 - 105). That marriage was permanent was a policy change by Pope Celestine III (1191 - 1198). Transubstantiation appeared in 1215. Pope Paul IV (1555 - 1559) declared that for a man to be economically dependent on a woman was punishable by death. (I'm glad that one has been forgotten.) Pius IX (1846 - 1878) decided that Pope's speaking "ex cathedra" could not be wrong, starting a process that keeps the church of Rome from adapting to changing times. (That trait is shared with some parts of Islam.) (Above dates all from The Popes by Memmo Caporilli - which appears to be officially sanctioned by the church of Rome.)

When Does Human Life Begin?

At conception (church of Rome, some American Protestant fundamentalists), when the fetus can live outside the womb (US Supreme Court, much of the medical community), at birth (many of the world's people) or some days after birth (most of the world's people). The last definition will come as a shock to heartland Americans, but it makes a great deal of sense to the 2 billion people without much modern medical care. Some people do not name a baby until it is a week or so old - until it shows a good prospect for actually living a normal life.

Going further, according to a BBC program (Meet the Ancestors - on St Paul's Cathedral) on 12 February 2001, infants in 17th century England were not considered worth naming on a grave until about the age of 7.

Going the other direction is a newspaper article from Colorado (9 Feb 2001). State Representative Mark Cloer had introduced a bill to allow women to claim the remains of an aborted fetus, no matter how young, for a proper funeral.

The Mortal Coil

Most religions accept that when the body stops functioning, the person is dead. The person is no longer in the remains, which are disposed of by burial or cremation or dumping in a sacred river. Yet you would not know that from the western press.

In early 2001 the British press went crazy on the subject of infant remains. A hospital was doing autopsies on dead infants, and keeping many of the organs. Now there is in fact nothing new about that. At least tissue samples have been kept from autopsies for many decades. If properly preserved, the samples are invaluable for medical research. Such research might for example eventually provide an answer to the puzzle of sudden infant death syndrome. The hysteria developed a theme tune: "parents had to bury their children up to four times." I never found an explanation for this mantra, but it seems to suggest that you have a funeral for the outer body, then another for the kidneys, then another for the heart, etc. And I never saw a report naming someone who had such multiple burials, much less an interview with such a bereaved parent.

A similar and much more expensive theme concerns the Americans who died in Vietnam. The US government is spending millions of dollars a year looking for remains, in an environment where such things do not last very long. Any suggestion that this is a waste of money is rejected by politicians afraid of offending something.

A recurring theme the last few years is press reporting on a traveling exhibit called Body Worlds. About once a year there is a press report that some religious spokesman is outraged. The exhibit (I have seen it) is fascinating. Prof. von Hagens started preserving human remains for medical schools. He developed a system that replaces the water in the body with a plastic, in a way that preserves each organ in its original shape. A few years ago he decided to develop a sort of traveling museum of the human body, showing not just healthy and diseased organs (the smokers' lungs are sure to make you decide to quit) but also entire bodies stripped or cut in various ways. You see the skeleton, nerves, veins and arteries, skin, etc., in place and as separate items, healthy and not. All the people included volunteered. The result is far superior to anything else I have ever seen in explaining human anatomy. When I visited the show in Cologne there were hundreds of other people - many students. Most people were fascinated. None appeared to be outraged. The teens seemed releaved to be able to talk about sex organs in a clinical atmosphere.

A version of Body Worlds that does not cause press outrage is a much earlier version in Palermo, Sicily. Centuries ago it was discovered that bodies placed in the crypt below a church (of the Convento del Capuccini) were naturally dried - they decayed little if any. The dried corpses were then arranged along the corridors, first on shelves and then hanging on the walls when space become short. This was considered the proper way to treat the dead of Palermo until about 100 years. The catacombs contain some 8,000 bodies. But I got no sense that anybody considered the remains as anything but remains. (The most fascinating thing to me is how bad the teeth of most were.)

Preserving the body in some manner or another can be found from thousands of years ago in Egypt to modern tribes in Indonesia. In other instances the bones or skull are preserved, such as in some Mexican cemeteries where the skulls are brought out and cleaned on All Saints. I certainly cannot speak for what the ancient Egyptians thought, but modern instances seem to all consider the remains as a reminder of a person - not the person him/herself.

So where does the hysteria about the body come from? Early Christians apparently thought that the Resurrection would be of the current body, but that concept was generally discarded as the centuries passed and Christ did not reappear. Otherwise, the only group I know of that has a religious conviction that your body matters after death is a small group of Jews. The western press is reacting to some extremely tiny section of the population.

The Afterlife

Is there life after death? Most major religions posit such, but there the similarity ends. Few now feel that the after life will involve the current body, although that belief was apparently fairly common in some ancient religions. (A small Jewish ultra orthodox group seems the most obsessed with the current mortal coil, though I cannot recall anything on the subject in the various versions of the Bible I have read.) Hinduism and some branches of Buddhism include reincarnation on this earth, perhaps as something other than a human. Christianity gives the appearance of total confusion. On the one hand is grand talk of Judgment Day for all at the end of the world as we know it, on the other is the apparently widespread belief that a person goes to heaven or hell instantly on death.


This is a curious, primarily American phenomenon. The development of the natural sciences astronomy, paleontology, anthropology, etc., was led by Muslim scientists before the lead was assumed in Europe during the Renaissance. In 1632 under Pope Urban VIII Galileo was ordered to stop saying that the earth was not the center of the universe, but the church of Rome now accepts evolution. Most all religions have creation stories, but none I know of outside the US reject the natural sciences.

Do Unto Others . . .

With some exceptions such as described in the Book of Joshua, religions have usually been rather tolerant institutions - at least until the 20th century. Classical polytheism as practiced by the Greeks and Romans accepted a multitude of gods. Jesus taught tolerance generally, and Mohammed ordered tolerance for the other groups he knew - Christians and Jews. Christians and Jews lived quite normal lives in Muslim areas, with refugees often welcomed. Hinduism was by definition tolerant, and there have been Christians in India since 52 AD (the arrival of the Apostle Thomas). Buddhism is pacifist and hence tolerant. Religions spread by conversion, or more often by following the boss. When Islam conquered north Africa and part of the Middle East in the 7th century, there were no forced conversions. When King Clovis of the Franks (466? - 511) was converted to Christianity, many of his people followed and the doors were opened to missionaries.

Western Christianity has been an extreme exception. Having suffered from occasional persecution in the early centuries, the church of Rome became the persecutor when it came to power. From 1000 to 1648 dozens of millions of people - 65 - 75% of the population in some areas - were killed in the name of Christ. At first this involved military actions (crusades, AKA holy wars or jihad) against wrong believers (more often Christians than Muslims) outside the areas of immediate control of Rome, but in 1184 Pope Lucius III expanded the front to weeding out wrong believers in controlled territory. Pope Gregory IX (1227 - 1241) expanded on that with the Inquisition. King Henry VIII of England rejected the rule of the Pope and created his own church, leading to vigorous persecution and often execution of Catholics in his reign, non-Catholics during the reign of his daughter Mary, and then again Catholics for a while before things quieted down under his other daughter Elizabeth. (Another spurt of persecution took place under the Commonwealth.) Emperor Charles V (King Carlos I of Spain) expanded intolerance into what became ethnic cleansing in the Americas, and his son Philip II adopted an absolute "believe our way or die" policy in his European domains. Philip's policies triggered armed revolt in the Netherlands and an 80 year war that merged into the 30 year European war that devastated much of what is now Germany. Within Spain, the policy of intolerance drove out tens of thousands, Jews, Muslims and some wrong-believing Christians, most of them skilled and educated. They were welcomed in Morocco, Istanbul and the Netherlands, helping create golden ages in all three areas. Spain suffered a loss of skills which took centuries to rectify. Spain maintained it's hold in the New World for more than two centuries after Philip II, but it was never again a real power in Europe.

It was during the 80 Year War that the colonization of northeast North America began. Those in charge knew the horrors of religious intolerance, and mostly vowed to keep churches out of the affairs of state. They were very wise. Those who today try to reverse that policy are fools trying to repeat the past.

1648 brought peace on the international level for a few years, but not on the local level. Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, forcing hundreds of thousands of Protestants to flee to Germany, the Netherlands and often the New World.

A separate current of intolerance flowed in Europe during the second millennium: anti-Semitism (or more properly anti-Jewism, for Arabs are also Semites). It is estimated that as many as 25% of the people of the Roman Empire considered themselves Jewish around the year 200 - 10 to 15 million individuals. (By contrast, it is estimated that there were maybe 200,000 Christians at the time.) And they were spread all over the Empire. After the fall of the Empire in the west they mostly stayed where they were, and in many cases prospered. In Cologne (used as an example because I know it well, not because Germany was any worse than most of western Europe in this era) for example many were members of the upper class that contributed members to the city council. Then in 1095 Pope Urban II issued an edict against Jews as unbelievers and problems started. Most of the Jewish population of Cologne was killed or fled. The city was resettled in the following century, only to be hit with Pope Innocent III's "Christ killer" bull in 1215. From 1300 the Jews of Cologne were forced to live in a certain area (ghetto), which was gated. In 1349 there was a general massacre. In 1424 an edict was issued by the city council banning Jews from the city for eternity. It was only in the Napoleonic era (early 19th century) that the edict was lifted. (You can see the outlines of the main religious buildings of the ghetto, and some remains, on the west side of the city hall.)

Most of the 18th century was fairly quite, the religious lines moving fairly little, until a new revolt against Rome developed in France and some neighboring areas. The Reformation of the 15th century was a reaction against the church of Rome primarily led from the top. When a prince changed from the church of Rome, the people followed. (The Netherlands and Switzerland were major exceptions, largely led by the middle class in countries without serfs or strong nobility.) The revolutions of the late 18th century were led from the bottom. And they were not so much about reforming the church as getting rid of it (and the aristocracy). For a number of years the revolutions were actively anti Christian. Mobs destroyed churches, abbeys, convents. In France, Belgium and the Catholic parts of Germany the church of Rome returned as the official church after 1815 but with little power. Church membership and attendance never completely recovered, and has been declining since. It is now below 20% in those areas, in Flemish Belgium down to little more than 10%.

The rest of the 19th century was not exactly quiet, with the revolutions of 1848 and such, but the religious situation changed little in Europe. It did change in Africa as the new empires of (mostly) France and England worked to Christianize the "pagans" of Africa and southern Asia. After the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and final carving of sub-Saharan Africa in the following decades, western Europe entered a period of peace and prosperity that was shattered in 1914.

The 20th century saw a marked decline in toleration among many religious groups, and a new wave of anti-religious revolution (communism). And "fundamentalist" groups appeared in religions and places where it had never existed before. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has become a major Hindu force, preaching holy war again "Semitic religions" and "Muslim aliens." (Hindu opponents of the RSS maintain that the complaint is not really religious, but against the teaching of equality by Christianity and Islam - a teaching which undermines the power of the upper castes who run the RSS.) Mob attacks on Christian groups and churches seem to occur only after rousing sermons by members of the RSS.

Governments that consider themselves orthodox Muslim have been established in Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, plus parts of Malaysia and Nigeria. All of them claim to apply "sharia law" (the law of Islam). Each of them has a different version of the "truth," and some are extremely intolerant of any who do not follow the local version of sharia. The religious police in Afghanistan are reportedly the worst, for example checking beards for adequacy. (I know of no other Muslim country that considers sharia to ban shaving or trimming beards.) Saudi Arabia does not allow non-Muslims of any kind in parts of the country.

While there are no fundamentalist Christian governments today (Spain having adopted freedom of religion a couple of decades ago), Christian communities have been been attacking, and been attacked by other religious groups. The death rates have been substantial, particularly in Bosnia and Indonesia. The division in Northern Ireland is on religious lines, with some religious leaders actively supporting their side to sometimes the extent of violence.

My feeling is that most of this new intolerance has little to do with religion per se, and much to do with population pressure. As the pie becomes ever more crowded, there are ever more conflicts for a piece. The most violent (in terms of guns and bombs) are typically those who feel (often correctly) that their group is being denied a fair piece of the action by another group.

last update 29 May 2001

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