Religion in History

Religious/ historical milestones in ethics

2400BC Egyptian Book of the Dead - weighing of hearts to determine worthiness. The non-worthy were usually pictured as eaten by a monster, ending their chances for an afterlife. In another version (anticipating Hindu ideas), souls of the wicked were supposed to pass into the bodies of animals before returning for another chance at human life. This would happen after they had traversed every animal species, a journey believed to last 3000 years.

1750BC Hammurabi's Law Code: "eye for an eye" justice aids the weak and poor

1300BC Moses' Ten Commandments

600-500BC - many advances in ethics:

Confucius' version of The Golden Rule (...don't do to others)

Zoroaster promulgated a heaven/ hell afterlife, based on behavior in life

Jeremiah/ other prophets - preached a sense of individual responsibility for evil

Hindu Upanishads - theory of rebirths based on prior life goodness

Buddha took outcasts into his order, defying Hindu tradition

100BC Writings of Jewish Pharisees that are strikingly similar to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, including returning evil deeds with good, forgiveness

30AD Jesus' teachings that all persons are of equal value, washing of feet by a leader

1215 Magna Carta - limits on the rights of rulers (follows public revulsion to Henry II' s 1170 murder of Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury)

1789 French Revolution: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" - execution of the king

1948 United Nations: Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After pushing for her husband's New Deal programs, Eleanor Roosevelt as UN delegate pushed through this Declaration.


Family tree of world's religions (Confucian thought is not really a religion)

Primitive religions worldwide have similar characteristics (1-5 below)

Most modern religions have roots in Indo-European (central Asian) culture:

- First Hindu writing is Rig-Veda, developed by Aryan invaders c1500BC.

- Aryan migrants to Iran about the same time have gods and chants similar to those in the Rig-Veda. Zoroaster c600BC selects one god as Lord Wisdom, opposed by an evil force. He says man can choose to do good or bad, and goes to heaven or hell accordingly. Zoroastrianism becomes the state religion of the huge Persian empire. One group influenced by its thinking are the Jews, captive in Babylon from 586--538BC.

- Other Aryan migrants to Europe take a similar group of gods with them. These become the gods of ancient Greece, Rome, and northern Europe. These religions are eventually abandoned in favor of Christianity.

- Later Hindu writing in the Upanishads develops a theory of cycles of rebirth, based on the morality of one's previous earthly life. Buddha builds on these ideas c 500BC. While Buddhist thought gradually loses out to Hinduism in India, missionaries make it the dominant religion in China and East Asia.

- Jewish religion, influenced by Zoroastrianism, becomes a major inspiration to Christianity 30AD and Islam 622AD. Some feel that pharaoh Akhenaten's monotheism influenced Hebrew thinking.

- The Muslim Koran makes quite clear its roots in Jewish and Christian theology.


Functions of religion (Items 1-5 in many primitive religions)

1. Explain/ influence the universe (taken over by science)

2. People's love for ritual (often hoping to influence their future)

3. Cultural heritage/ stories

4. Promote respect for leaders and privileged elite

5. Define role of humans in the natural world (as in Taoism)

Deeper philosophical thinking, typical of more advanced religions:

6. Asking for help from a higher power (prayer) Most scientists today do not believe in this.

7. Question of what happens after death

8. Explanation for suffering and evil

9. System of ethics (questions of universality, human rights, moral absolutism vs changes over time, ways of promoting good actions)


Go to: Forces in 21st century religions

Go to: Cities, empires and dates of leading civilizations

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