The history of religion: explained

I have a fascination with religious history. It’s a fantastic lens on the history of civilization. I’ve never had much faith, but the history of it, and the details of various scriptures have held me fascinated for years. The way the roots of all religions wind together mythology, history, culture, selfishness, compassion, wisdom and ignorance is an amazing way to understand our species.

A few weeks ago I visited Israel. I spent three amazing days in Jerusalem. On returning, my passion for history was rekindled and many books I’ve read since I returned were about religion and religious history.

The prize gem of this research has been one book: Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong. It focuses on religions that trace back to Abraham, so there is no coverage of Hinduism, Buddhism, or other beliefs, but many of the lessons I learned from Armstrong have clear applications to any system of belief. The book is short, powerful and well written.

The book uses the city of Jerusalem, a central place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as the focal point for history of all three faiths. From the shift from paganism to early Judiasm of the Old testament, to the birth of Christ and the diaspora of the Jews, to the rise of Islam, and the centuries of fights over a very small piece of land, many of the questions you’ve had are answered here.

Armstrong focuses on history, not faith. She clearly has knowledge of all three religions, as those are discussed, but her intent is to provide a balanced view not dependent on a particular belief. The book has been criticized by some for it’s lack of balance, but I found her view, as someone with little at stake, impressively fair . Her main bias seems to be towards compassion and against violence, as she critiques everyone when they fall short of their own scripture in this regard.

Some of the facts I enjoyed most were:

  • Early Christians used the fish as their sign (a symbol of peace and miracles). After the Roman’s codified the religion, the cross became the sign, a sign Constantine associated with war (Hey, he was a Roman.)
  • The Christian focus on the cross, and crucifixion, began only around 400 A.D with the ‘discovery’ of the true cross. This returned the focus of the religion back to Jerusalem, and began the waves of pilgrims that would eventually lead to the Crusades.
  • Jerusalem has been destroyed over 40 times, and has changed hands as many times.
  • There were many other gospels. The Romans and church leaders decided which to include and reject under Constantine in 325 A.D.
  • There have been periods of peace and tolerance by each faith somewhere in the history of Jerusalem, including between Jews and Muslims (tolerance of other faiths is supported by all three scriptures).
  • Powerful leaders in all the faiths have been incredibly petty at times, sometimes horribly cruel, contradicting the compassion in their faith.
  • The core tenets of all three faiths are incredibly similar, a reflection of the derivation from the same source stories.

I’ve always wished every citizen of the world had to take a short course in comparative religion. It would stop a lot of violence. This book would make a fantastic start.  If you have any curiosity about the links between faiths, I highly recommend this book.

18 Responses to “The history of religion: explained”

  1. Abel

    “The core tenets of all three faiths are incredibly similar, a reflection of the derivation from the same source stories.”

    There are indeed many similarities between the three religions, but there is one huge difference between Christianity and the other two: Jesus Christ.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Every religion has their own “one huge difference” – that’s the point.

      Despite how every religion believes they are special, every other religion has the same belief about how special *they* are! The only point of disagrement is who is right, not the idea “we had this amazing thing happen to us that no one else did”.

      Even in the desire to be unique, they’re all similar.

  2. James A. Donald

    You piously declare the politically correct view – that the three religions have been comparably violent over the last few thousand years.

    Which is, of course, absurd. Islam, then as now was making war on everyone, and Buddhism has a couple of holy wars going right now. Google the “bloody borders of Islam”

    There was a brief period of overwhelming European dominance from 1830 to 1960 that *intimidated* the non European religions in to temporarily refraining from war. The current headlines are return to normal form. They would be entirely familiar to anyone from before 1830. The Muslims are always attacking someone for religious reasons, except on those considerably less frequent occasions when the Buddhists are attacking someone for religious reason.

      1. James A. Donald

        Reading the book would no more convince me that all religions were created equal, than reading the New Testament would convince me of the divinity of Jesus – the book is obviously a holy tract produced by and for true believers.

        The doctrine that all (other) religions are all the same is a sacred progressive doctrine, not an empirical observation – it is a holy doctrine that is obviously and glaringly falsified by everyday personal experience and each day’s news headlines.

        The book teaches that the true religion is progressivism, and the differences between the other faiths are silly minor superstitions that intelligent people should not take seriously.

        Thus the way to universal peace is, supposedly, to *force* everyone to convert to progressivism, by *forcing* them to read progressive propaganda, such as this book. This sounds very much like the Muslim path to peace, which has strikingly failed to produce peace.

        The differences between the other faiths may well be silly superstitions, but the differences are far from minor and the true religion is not progressivism. All men were not created equal, still less were all (non progressive) religions created equal.

        Some religions, like some racial and ethnic groups, are markedly more violent than others, the most violent being Islam, the next most violent being progressivism, with Buddhism coming up third.

        And when you read the above paragraph, you probably felt as offended as a Muslim feels when someone depicts Mohammed in a cartoon.

        I will once again step on your sacred beliefs, not to gratuitously offend you, but to reveal to you that you do have sacred beliefs just as followers of the other religions do: All men are not equal, nor the various groups and categories of men, nor are women equal to men. For example women are, on average, inherently less qualified to perform stem tasks or exercise positions of power and responsibility, as is pretty obvious in any corporation that has affirmative actioned women into positions of power (without, however, seriously expecting them to exercise responsibility) and in the failure of those corporations that affirmative action a woman into the CEO position, such as HP.

        I am not saying this to piss you off, I am saying it to reveal to you that unkind reference to your sacred doctrines can piss you off just as easily as a Muslim. I am asking you to look at your reaction to those words and realize that it is similar in kind to the reaction of other religious believers to gay marriage or insulting depictions of the prophet. You don’t actually have empirical evidence that women are equal to men, any more than a Christian has empirical evidence that Jesus is Lord, or a Muslim has empirical evidence that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.

        Still less do you have empirical evidence that all religions are much alike. Where are the suicide bombers protesting Piss Christ?

        1. Scott Berkun

          If you don’t think the book is worth reading, then don’t read it. If you tell me you don’t need to read the book because you already know what is says, I may doubt your omniscience, but I’d have accepted your opinion anyway. But in both cases you’d have had more credibility if you had ended there either way.

          I do not consider any of these sacred doctrines as mine.

          A fine accounting of fatalities caused by religious groups can be found in White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. I can promise you only that almost no religion looks good if you take a broad view of history.

        2. Francis Braganza

          I seem to be joining the party a trifle late, but James’s comments drew me in.

          James, I found your point of view very articulately expressed. Your comment makes it very clear that you were born out of wedlock, and that your mother is a whore.

          When the urge overwhelms you, in future you would be well advised to keep away from all contact (including via computers) with all other people but your mother. As far as that whore is concerned, go fuck her to your heart’s content when she’s not busy with a client.

          What’s that? You can’t fuck because you don’t have a the requisite male sexual organ. Sorry if I hurt your feelings, James.

          1. Scott Berkun

            Making ad hominem attacks only makes it easy to dismiss whatever point you were trying to make. I’d much rather you’d stay out of an argument, even if you joined it on my side, if all you’re going to do is resort to insults and name calling.

        3. karen

          You’re just saying how narrow of a view you have, an inability to see the big picture and slanted to your own beliefs in an attempt to remain comfortable in your rather small way of thinking. Thank you, you proved a point.

  3. Sean Crawford

    Last week I was jealous listening to two people who were comparing their trips to the Holy Land. Surprisingly, they said Israel felt safe for walking, unlike neighbouring nations.

    I like your enthusiasm for more peace from more reading. I will tell you what I wonder: How many people can be in their last semester of university and still have a closed mind? Probably more than we thinkers like to think about.

    Some folks don’t like uncertainty. I read once where a Muslim man said that he had been studying (home grown?) jihadists (terrorists) for 40 years and none of them ever majored in the liberal arts. They preferred majoring in stuff with certainty such as medical technology.

  4. Girish

    Since you like religious history, may I recommend ‘From the holy mountain’ by William Dalrymple? Its a great read; one of those books that has something new every time I open it.

  5. Robert Fayle

    If you care too much about the differences between … you have probably achieved too little to understand that the differences usually don’t matter.

    Jurgen Appelo wrote that in a blog post,, about methods of change and it is very appropriate here. If people would focus on the similarities rather than the differences then it would be so much easier to find common ground to resolve differences.
    So many events of both religious and political nature have been based on excluding others and caused so much grief. Perhaps because I don’t have much faith either, I too have read extensively about various religions and prefer to find the similarities that bring people together. Life is a lot more fun when you include diverse people.

  6. Haider

    Hi Scott,

    I like Karen Armstrong’s writings on religion because she covers a lot of interesting history and there’s a positive bias in her works (which I think is a good thing). It appeals to those aiming for peace between the adherents of different religions, who want to find examples of religious coexistence.

    When I was a religious extremist her interviews and writings would agitate me because, to me, it felt like she was diluting the truth I firmly believed in and valued being politically correct over being honest.

    I understand what my extremist self thought and why religious individuals may not be comfortable with her writings, so I wouldn’t recommend her books to the religious. They need a much deeper look at religion to root out the problematic beliefs they’re clinging onto.

    1. Scott

      Haider. Thanks for the comment. Your perspective on this is fascinating as I don’t often hear the phrase “When I was a religious extremist.”

      Is there a book you’d recommend for that deeper look?

      1. Haider

        I’m afraid I don’t. My perspective is mostly shaped by firsthand experience and heaps of introspection.

        I made an attempt to write about my experiences as an extremist in an old blog. You can read the first entry of four here.

        I would like to write more about this topic but the task is a tad overwhelming. It blends a great deal of religious history, theology and critical thinking.

        Although Muslims today are not known for being open-minded and rational, but there’s a strong rationalist streak in Islamic history and theology that can be used to promote an “Islamic enlightenment” and the use of reason in religion.

        I’m actually inspired to give this project another attempt. If you have any specific issues you want me to comment on or questions you’d like answered you have my email. I’ll do my best to answer them. :)

  7. Michelle

    I am just now beginning a quest to understand religion and the possibility of an afterlife. This comes from a continuing struggle to understand the violence, hatred, exclusion, hypocrisy, etc. that stems from religion. Would love some suggested reading.


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