Beliefs: World's Religions Look as They Did a Millennium Ago
New York Times, January 8, 2000
The big news, in religion, is often that there is no news.
That is a dirty little secret journalists writing about religion would
prefer to keep from their editors and the people who sign paychecks. To the
extent that social science can measure religious attitudes and conduct --
rates of belief and membership, for instance, or frequency of worship and
prayer -- what stands out is how glacial the changes are over decades.
And maybe, come to think of it, over the millenniums.
Any list of the world's major religions in the year 2000 looks very much
like the list of the world's major religions in the year 1000.
There have been some dropouts, to be sure.
A thousand years ago, Odin, Thor and the other gods of the Norse pantheon
were just ceasing to be forces to be conjured with, sometimes literally, in
Northern Europe.
In the Western hemisphere, Mesoamerican religion, which had produced
monumental pyramids, temples and ceremonial centers, was in decline, passing
from its classic Mayan period to the Aztec forms that were eventually, like
Inca religion in the Andes, crushed by the Spanish conquistadors.
In Iran, Islam had long since dethroned Zoroastrianism from its official
By the year 1000 some Zoroastrians had migrated to India (where they would
be known as Parsis, or Persians) to escape persecution.
Zoroastrianism lives on today, a remnant of what was once an immensely
influential religion. The ancient religions of the Americas and Africa live
on as well, not only as the traditional practices of indigenous peoples and
their cousins in diaspora but also as consciously revived faiths or even as
subterranean streams in Christianity.
Although there have been dropouts from the ranks of world religions, there
have been no new contenders.
The major religious families of today were all around a millennium ago:
Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
So too, with the exception of Sikhism, were the more regional faiths like
Jainism and Shinto.
This is not to deny that homo religiosus has displayed an almost endless
capacity for religious creativity as well as conflict.
Hardly was the last millennium warm when Christianity formally split into
Latin and Byzantine halves, when Judaism struggled through a series of
Christian massacres and expulsions, when Islam experienced a golden age of
philosophy and theology in Baghdad, and when Buddism reconsolidated itself
in Tibet and flowered into an array of distinct schools in Japan.
Every century since then has been marked by new religious insights,
movements, revivals and reactions.
For the West, none was of greater import than the Protestant Reformation and
its aftermath.
It remains the case that virtually every development that has lasted took
place within, not outside, the existing great traditions.
In 18th-century Europe, Deism seemed like the natural successor toChristianity.
Thomas Jefferson once entertained hopes that Unitarianism might prove to be
the wave of the religious future for 19th-century America.
In the 1840's, Auguste Comte tried to erect a "religion of humanity" on his
positivist theories of society, and the phrase long remained in vogue among
rationalist reformers.
Transcendentalism, Swedenborgianism, spiritualism and theosophy, one after
another, had their days in the sun, earlier versions of today's New Age
movements.But these and similar movements, although many of them retain devoted
followers and intellectual resources, have never become the quintessentially
modern expressions of the religious impulse that was once predicted.
Several decades ago, Bolshevik or Maoist Communism would have had a claim to
being counted among the world's major religions, at least as a functional
equivalent.But when historians review the 20th century, Communism may appear,
religiously speaking, as a phenomenon of less long-range impact than the
Islamic revival or Pentecostal Christianity.
Is this persistence of the major religions not curious? In a world where not
only new technologies but entirely new fields of knowledge spring up almost
overnight, why not entirely new religions, and if not overnight then maybe
one or two per century?
In fact, they do. The world has never been short of charismatic leaders,
metaphysical speculators, masters of esoteric doctrines and seekers open to
new revelations. Religions are constantly being invented and reinvented:
Scientology, goddess worship, neopaganism, Gate of Heaven, the Church of
Elvis are only a few among thousands. A dozen new religions were probably
born on the Web this week.
Each of them finds a niche in the spiritual environment -- for a while.
But unless they are deeply implanted, or ultimately absorbed, in one of the
great religious traditions, they seem destined to wither and disappear.
Logically, there seems to be no reason why this must be so.
But a pattern of more than a thousand years standing cannot be ignored.