The Atlantic has an interview with noted sociologist and author Robert Bellah about his new book called Religion in Human Evolution.
I have NOT read the book. I have read the interview.
The book is a study of how and why religions became part of the human experience from the perspective of social evolution. The premise is that humans need religion and this spawned religion.
Obviously, this is not a perspective that most religious people are going to be comfortable sharing. For religious people, religion came directly from God. Not because of a human need to create religion.
Although, reading the interview made me think about how religions view other contemporary religions to their own and religions that preceded their own. For example, what does Judaism / Christianity / Islam / Buddhism / Hinduism / Native American religions etc. say about how the “others” practice. If each religion claims it was revealed by God then what are all those other people doing? Did God give them other instructions? Or did they invent their religions while yours is correct? Where did those religions come from if God only revealed your religion?
Very interesting questions.
As for Judaism, Maimonides has a comprehensive approach to explain the existence of religions prior to Abraham and how one served God before the revelation of the Torah.
Briefly, God revealed to Adam some basic commandments but of primary importance was to recognize the existence of a Singular, All Powerful Creator. A few individuals were able to maintain this level of observance. But most people corrupted it and began to focus their attention to things that they viewed as “powers” such as the sun, moon, wind etc. Instead of worshipping the Creator they worshipped these “powers”. Eventually this gave way to full blown pagan religions.
The only monotheistic religion was the small group of people who followed Adam’s teachings. Abraham was chosen as the man from whom would grow a people who would teach this system. Eventually this became the Jewish people who got a much more complete set of instructions at Sinai.
Christianity and Islam are clear and direct branches off the Judaism tree.
We are forced to say that other religions either evolved from the original pagans who did not accept the monotheism of Adam / Abraham or that they borrowed ideas from existing Adam / Abraham monotheism. As for their claims that God revealed their religion to them through a prophet and the instructions differ from ours, there are two points. First, there is certainly room for prophecy among non-Jews but it is unlikely that a pagan would be a prophet considering the qualifications. Further, if the prophet contradicted the Torah or the Abrahamic version of monotheism we would be forced to say the prophet is a fraud.
Being part of a global community of religions sometimes means that we need to admit that our traditions are mutually exclusive. I think it is important and worthwhile to analyze how we deal with questions about how other religions were formed. Each religion believes it is the right one. But they cannot ignore the fact that others exist.
Most importantly, the presence of such questions and analyzing their answers does not prove or disprove the validity of religion in general or a specific religion in question.
Link: The Atlantic