There’s an embarrassing problem for religious people, which is the multiplicity of religions. How do we know which god is real or which creed to obey? If we must take a leap of faith, what are the chances the religion we happen to grow up in our place and time in history is the only correct religion or the best faith? What are the odds that our religion even makes for an especially worthy response to divine reality?
Religious people feel protective of their traditional beliefs and practices, but that doesn’t mean their defensiveness is rationally justified.
However, all of that is a tempest in a teapot.
The difference between religions is like the difference between fashions. These differences matter to those who are caught up in the latest fads, but anthropologically speaking, there’s a broader and more illuminating way of dividing up religions, just as there’s a simpler and more socially important difference between being clothed and being naked.
This broader classification takes as its starting point religious cosmology — which explains why the classification is largely ignored in public discourse about religion. After all, scientific cosmology has replaced the religious mode of speculation about how nature works. Nevertheless, the difference between the religions that assume time is cyclical and those that assume it’s linear is crucial.
Most religions’ cosmologies have posited a cyclical universe, going back to the prehistoric and animistic experience of hunter-gatherer clans. Those clans were embedded in the wilderness and thus were attuned to nature’s rhythms, including weather patterns and the movements of animal herds.
The life cycle, too, was paramount to them, since unlike many later societies which can hide death, thanks to the rise of social specialization (in particular, retirement homes and mortuaries), death was a constant companion to prehistoric people. Before agriculture and animal husbandry, people had to hunt animals themselves for meat and face firsthand the deaths of their fellows, which would have occurred more frequently because of their shorter lifespans.
This emphasis on natural cycles persisted in the rise of polytheistic religions that reflected the emergence of social hierarchies. Each social class had its corresponding gods in a system of “divine patronage,” as the historian and biblical scholar Kurt Noll explains. And the ancient polytheistic cosmologies of the Neolithic Europeans, Mesoamericans, Native Americans, Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Indians, Chinese, Australian aboriginals, and African peoples all pictured time as cyclical or at least as more cyclical than linear.
Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists speak of time as a wheel, with cosmic stages passing in samsara, in the illusory material world of reincarnation and suffering. In Hinduism, perhaps the most elaborate religion of cycles, the cosmos is bound by the Yuga cycle which passes through four main ages. Likewise, Plato hypothesized that there’s a Great Year in which the orbital motions of stars would realign and resume their starting positions so that there’s an eternal recurrence of cosmic events.
In Daoism, qualities that seem to contrast with each other are instead complementary since they’re united by the ultimate Dao or “Way of nature.” This Way has no beginning or end, although that’s because the flow of events is paradoxically timeless, despite the appearance of the flow’s temporality.
African religions distinguish between actual and potential time, holding the future to be unreal, but they focus on the present moment as being tied to important events and thus to social rhythms and cycles.
There’s really only one exception to this cycle-based religious cosmology, although the linear theology spans several connected religions. The linear, one-directional view of time, according to which there’s an absolute beginning and an end of worldly events has its foundation in the Middle East.
This conception, in which there’s a singular flow of time initiated by a single, all-powerful deity began with Zoroastrianism in Persia and this conception converted the Jewish priests who had been held captive in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. These Persian Jews took their purified monotheism back to Jerusalem and compiled and edited the Jewish scriptures with the benefit of their hindsight.
Jewish linearity thus passed along Zoroastrian process theology to Christianity, via syncretism with Greco-Roman polytheism and Mystery religions. Subsequently, there was a Jewish-style revival of puritanical monotheism, with the advent of Islam in the seventh century CE.
According to this cosmology, time has a divine, moral direction. Events strive to reach a predestined end, as directed by a sovereign God who created the universe from nothing, and all will be judged by this deity at the end of time when good will triumph over evil and there will be no further natural turmoil.
Cycle-Based Religions and Collectivism
These two cosmologies are relevant because they have social implications that unfold regardless of the creedal disputes. Cycle-based religions foster social collectivism, whereas linear ones promote individualism.
Consider first the cyclical ones. Again, these go back to the hunter-gatherer experience, which was one of pragmatic egalitarianism. No one could dominate the other members of the clan, since there was no potential for hoarding, no private property or material basis for dominance or for the separation of social classes.
Moreover, if you believe your religious duty is to submit to certain overarching cycles, to play your part only by way of surrendering the stage to those who will succeed you, you’re not going to take some individuals to be exceptions to the cosmic rule.
True, in Hinduism, for example, different castes have different obligations, and kings and emperors were responsible to more powerful gods than those that governed the lower classes. The royals may even have effectively been above the law, in which case they seemed to stand out as individuals.
But theoretically, no mere human could challenge Heaven, according to these cycle-based religions, because the cosmic cycles dwarfed even an emperor. Moreover, although the king stood apart from society in his relation to the higher gods, he symbolized the nation in at least the Hobbesian sense: you feared the king as a “leviathan” or monster, because you saw in him the whole population embodied in a single man.
James Frazer took that symbolism a step further in arguing that some kings were considered sacred beings and were ritually sacrificed or replaced for the good of the nation, just as the ancients would sacrifice an animal to ensure the growth of crops and the return of favourable seasons.
Either way, these religions were implicitly collectivistic, meaning that they took the collective’s interests to override the individual’s. In representing the collective, the king was therefore more important than a peasant.
Note that the collective in question needn’t have been human society. In its original, animistic form, the cycle-based religion took human spirits to be immersed in the universal collective of natural spirits. In any case, in the polytheistic religions, everyone had to defer not just to the gods but to the rhythms of the world order.
Moreover, these cycles made a mockery of human pride since no stage in the cycle was inherently superior to another. Indeed, in the Indian religions, the created world was despised as absurd and misleading, and the spiritual task was the ascetic one of renouncing nature and freeing yourself from the burden of having to exist continually in a series of material bodies.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took the concept of an eternal return of the same to be a grim test of willpower, which is to say that superficial self-confidence comes more easily to those who believe the universe is designed for their benefit. By contrast, in the cyclical cosmology, humans are more incidental than essential. The universe evolves towards no climactic finale, let alone towards one which depends on or which celebrates clever apes.
Progressive Religions and Individualism
The Middle Eastern, monotheistic religions developed an alternative set of values, due to their emphasis on morality. The collectivist religions saw morality as part of a larger cycle, but the monotheistic ones took the entire universe as having a moral plot since they envisioned a transcendent personal deity.
Monotheistic morality, then, wasn’t just a local or conditional phenomenon, but an absolute one. Morality was metaphysically and theologically grounded. Zoroastrianism says we should be moral to join the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda, in his struggle to direct the universe’s evolution away from the sinister designs of Angra Mainyu and towards the best outcome. The universe itself was good as judged by God, according to the Jewish account of Creation. There’s a foundational war between God and demonic spirits or rebel angels who seek to thwart God’s benevolent intentions and pervert his cosmos.
As a result of this moralism, the monotheistic religions developed individualism, an ethos that runs counter to collectivism by assuming an opposite relation of self to the world. Instead of seeing the individual as a cog in the world machine or as a stage in a pointless cycle that goes on forever as a result of inhuman processes or the whims of corrupt gods, the individualist sees the world as lesser than the individual. Nature has a moral purpose which can be achieved only by intelligent creatures that exercise their free choice to obey divine commandments.
Notice how this individualism follows from monotheism’s commitment to an asymmetric model of time’s flow. Time flows in only one direction because nature is teleological, as in the ancient Greek philosophies. But unlike in those naturalistic conceptions, the monotheistic religions personify the First Cause. In these religions, time has a beginning because the universe started as a perfect person’s choice or glorious inspiration. The universe evolves in fulfilment of that artistic vision and moral standard, and Creation will end when that purpose is achieved. In monotheistic cosmology, time’s arrow is a function of moralistic metaphysics or myths.
Thus, the individual must stand apart from Creation as the free agent that can fulfil God’s moral plan. If natural events unfold according to such a plan, freewill mustn’t be subservient to that flow or else there would be no choices worthy of moral evaluation. In short, there must be the virtual miracles of free choice, self-control, and the supernatural or personal will to obey or to disobey.
The individual’s separation from the world follows from this moralistic requirement for the freedom of certain intelligent creatures, since to have some autonomy within nature is to use imagination and reason to oversee a variety of options, as opposed to behaving as dictated by stimuli. We use language and conceptual abstractions to conceive of alternative courses of action, to understand that the future may be more open than the past, and we commit to those abstractions to guide our actions.
The Carbon Cycle and the Clash of Civilizations
This conflict between collectivistic and individualistic worldviews comes to a head in the environmental crisis.
Take, for example, perhaps the most important natural cycle for life, the carbon cycle. Carbon is the main part of organic compounds, which means it’s crucial to life. Scientists theorize that carbon came to Earth from a collision billions of years ago with an embryonic planet that was similar to Mercury.
Earth could have been an inhospitable host for this non-native substance, in which case the planet might have broken apart. Instead, the two reached a dynamic balance, one in which long periods of stability are punctuated by relatively brief cataclysms. Those cataclysms are hints of the absolute destruction that would have occurred had no geological balance arisen.
Thus, carbon flows between the atmosphere, plants (via photosynthesis and respiration), and the soil (through respiration and microbial decomposition), and between the atmosphere and the oceans.
Carbon is stored in rocks and in the ocean over the long term, and finds its way back into the atmosphere at a glacial pace:
“Through a series of chemical reactions and tectonic activity, carbon takes between 100–200 million years to move between rocks, soil, ocean, and atmosphere in the slow carbon cycle. On average, 1013 to 1014 grams (10–100 million metric tons) of carbon move through the slow carbon cycle every year.” — My NASA Data
The natural balance is periodically broken over millions of years by oceanic acidification or by cataclysmic volcanic eruptions which release much of that stored carbon, resulting in mass extinction.
The question arises, then, of whether we should concede that we’re part of nature, after all. Are we intelligent enough to understand the carbon cycle and to voluntarily submit to it by controlling ourselves or are we potentially powerful enough to break free of nature altogether? Just how supernatural or rather anti-natural are we?
Over the last several centuries, the individualistic West has largely answered that question for the rest of the planet, the answer being progressive individualism. After all, as the above article on the carbon cycle points out, “human emissions of carbon to the atmosphere are on the order of 1015 grams,” which means we produce more carbon than the rest of the planet. And of course, that production increased exponentially only with modern science, technology, and the liberties of capitalism and democracy, which emerged within Judeo-Christian Europe.
The monotheists’ archaic view of the apocalypse has been secularized as an implicitly Promethean or Luciferian faith in the godlike prowess of our nature. Thus, we trust in our industries to save us from calamity by some technological remedies for overpopulation, global warming, and the apparent mass extinction being generated largely by the Anthropocene, by our domination of the planet.
Collectivist societies might be more susceptible to humbling responses to the environmental crisis, to rejecting Western hubris and notions of liberty that fuel rampant consumerism and social inequality. Again, that standpoint springs from the cycle-based religious cosmologies that used to flourish everywhere apart from the Middle East.
By contrast, secular humanistic and monotheistic societies trust in the experiment of human progress, because these worldviews are based on the moralistic, linear cosmology which the Western liberals, secularists, and deistic philosophers inherited.
This is evidently the primary societal clash — not the petty squabbles between sects and tribal, dogmatic religions, but the conflict between the opposing orientations of self to world.
The religious people whose societies have been most influenced by the polytheistic and collectivistic values would have it one way, while the rest would have it the other. But what was once the minority view proved to be the most consequential, since it happened to provide the historical foundation for the scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe, which vastly accelerated the pace of what we commonly think of as human progress.