World Religion - Boon or Bane?
Good News Magazine
April 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 4
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World Religion - Boon or Bane?
George P Ritter  

For almost 6000 years of recorded history, man's existence has been one long chronicle of war, poverty, disease and intolerance. Ironically, during this same period man has seldom been without some kind of strong religious influence. And yet lasting peace and prosperity have largely managed to elude the grasp of the human race. Could there be any connection between man's traditional patterns of religious observance and the mounting number of woes that are beginning to beleaguer the human race? This article is part I of a series dealing with the first of John's four horsemen (Revelation 6) — the white horse of religious deception.

   Four small children sob as the body of their mother is lowered into a freshly dug grave. She is another tragic victim claimed by the long nightmare of terrorist bombings that continue to blight the face of Northern Ireland.
   In Belfast, a young Roman Catholic girl is lashed to a post and mercilessly beaten by an angry knot of men. Dozens of people watch impassively from their windows, making no attempt to rescue her from her enraged tormentors.
   On the outskirts of Tripoli, Lebanon, a band of gunmen order 25 Moslem travelers to evacuate a bus. With no warning they open fire with a submachine gun and twelve innocent victims are cut down in the fusillade of bullets.
   In Rome, the Pope reaffirms his church's age-old stand on the use of birth-control devices as millions of people around the world continue to suffer from hunger, malnutrition and disease. In Saudi Arabia, the government bans the use of contraceptives following a decree from the World Moslem League that "birth control was invented by the enemies of Islam."
Religious World in Turmoil. To millions of people around the world, such religious practices can be (and are) a definite hazard to life and health. For instance, the Hindu veneration of the sacred cow certainly does little to help the plight of millions of malnourished people living on the Indian subcontinent. Nor does their ancient religious caste system. In recent times "untouchables" have been beaten for attempting to satisfy their thirst from an upper-caste temple well.
   Or consider the negative impact Chairman Mao's revolutionary revival had on the peoples of the Far East. Millions of Chinese were enslaved in a system right out of the pages of Orwell's 1984. In many quarters, Mao was (and still is) virtually worshiped as a revolutionary demigod; his little red book became the Chinese Bible. Many a militant Communist was imbued with a quasi-religious "hellfire and brimstone" zeal, and some were more than ready to take up the sword in a holy crusade against the "decadent, imperialist nations of Western capitalism."
   Religious superstitions have virtually condemned many people in the underdeveloped world to lives of perpetual poverty and deprivation. In some areas of the world, prayer flags are thought to be more important than health or sanitary measures in combating outbreaks of cholera. Among some peoples, a modern piece of equipment such as a diesel generator can't begin operation until a blood sacrifice is offered. Boiling drinking water is often understood more in terms of a religious ritual than a biological cleansing process.
   In the hills of Nepal, iron ore is smelted using the same process that was employed by the ancient Greeks millennia ago. No attempt has been made to improve existing techniques. Instead, a small image of a local deity molded into the wall of the smelter is looked to as a guarantor of successful operations.
Cure for Woes? To some, all this might seem somewhat ironic. Traditionally, men have always thought of religion as a powerful positive force working for the betterment of the human condition. Today the bulk of the world's population adheres to some type of religious creed in one form or another. Millions of Western Christians go to church every Sunday, men in office invoke the name of God in public ceremonies, faithful Moslems take their pilgrimages to Mecca, and Hindus and Buddhists diligently practice the same precepts that were handed down to their forefathers generations ago.
   In spite of all this outward religiosity, though, the state of the world's health continues to deteriorate. Numerous nations are either in a state of war, preparing for war, or recovering from the last one. Major powers continue to accelerate a no-win nuclear arms race. Governments rise and topple, leaders are submerged in bloody coups, and the majority of the world's population still lives under the ominous shadow of famine, disease, malnutrition and poverty.
   Is all this occurring because mankind has lost sight of his original religious convictions? Would more religion be the answer to humanity's problems? Can man's religion help solve the monumental problems now facing the human race? Or on the other hand, is religion the cause rather than the cure for many of mankind's present woes?
   Before we can answer these questions, we need to go back to the beginning and see how the foundation of virtually all of the world's major religions was first laid.
Introducing a Clever Counterfeit. Throughout all of recorded history, mankind has shown a remarkable talent for getting itself into religious hot water. Deception in the field of faith and morals can be traced all the way back to the beginning of human existence. In fact, our first parents, Adam and Eve, started things off on the wrong foot when they fell prey, to the world's first religious con artist — Satan the devil.
   Satan was smart enough to know that a direct, open approach was almost certainly doomed to failure. So he came on as a "good guy" dressed up as an innocent-looking serpent. At the same time, he brought along what appeared to be a very religious-sounding message.
   His first tactic was to debunk the fact that Adam and Eve were mortal fleshly beings. "You shall not surely die," he told the woman. Then he piqued Adam and Eve's intellectual vanity with the alluring promise, "You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). Using this approach, Satan subtly inferred that there was a vast amount of esoteric knowledge that was theirs for the asking — knowledge that God was holding back from them. All they had to do was accept his program. Before it was all over, he had added another element to his false religious package: a feeling of guilt concerning their physical bodies and the subject of sex (Gen. 3:7-10).
   Satan's offer in the Garden of Eden quickly became the pattern of many of the world's ancient pagan mystery religions. His statement ("You shall not surely die") was another way of saying that man has an immortal soul. Unlike God, Satan was not leveling with Adam and Eve.
   Numerous scriptures clearly demonstrate that the idea of an immortal soul is a figment of ecclesiastical imagination. (See Ecclesiastes 3:19; Psalms 146:4; Matthew 10:28. Also read our free booklet Do You Have an Immortal Soul?)
   The mystery religions that followed, likewise placed an inordinate emphasis on hidden knowledge, ceremonies and rituals. By religiously following certain sacred rites, the devotee would supposedly gain favor with the gods and earn a gilt-edged guarantee of eternal immortality. The idea that sex and the human body are inherently evil also managed to permeate much of later religious thought.
Greek Synthesis. But it was the Greek philosophers who really perfected and articulated these fundamental concepts. Plato was perhaps their number-one proponent. Concerning the idea of an immortal soul, he wrote: "The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that now exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all" (Meno, 81).
   Unfortunately, as the Greek philosophers looked at it, this "poor soul" had to live here on earth trapped inside a human body. According to Plato: "It is, indeed, because of these affections that today, as in the beginning, a soul comes to be without intelligence at first, when it is bound in a mortal body" (Timaeus, 44A-B).
   Here was the other side of the Platonic coin — the concept of a mundane, corrupt human body that enslaved a pure, pristine soul. The shame over sex and the human anatomy that originated in Eden was echoed even more clearly in much of this later philosophy.
   Since the body and material things were considered evil, a person's chief aim in life, according to these ancient philosophers, was to escape the clutches of this world, Man's aspirations, hopes and dreams were to be found in otherworldly goals. Plato summed it up when he said: "Wherefore we ought to flyaway from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to flyaway is to become like God" (Theaetetus, 176).
   The best way to prepare for this celestial calling was to devote oneself to a quiet life of sober contemplation and thought. The pursuit of higher "spiritual" knowledge became an end in itself. According to one ancient Greek sage: "The philosopher as priest of the God who is over all things must abstain from flesh meat and always strive to come near to God, solitary to solitary" (James Shiel, Greek Thought and the Rise of Christianity, p. 37).
   Numerous religious cults grew and thrived in this atmosphere of Hellenistic dualism. Their primary concern largely centered around achievement of personal salvation for their votaries and disciples. Not only was ascetic self-denial emphasized, but also the importance of inner knowledge, or gnosis. Mystery religions flourished as men sought to achieve inner tranquility, peace and deliverance.
A Radical Departure. Into this Hellenized environment came Jesus Christ of Nazareth, preaching the Good news of the Kingdom of God. The main thrust of His revolutionary message had to do with an earthly kingdom — not an escape to the nether reaches of spiritual Nirvana-land. Instead of speaking in vague dialectic and dualistic concepts, he taught simple, direct principles of ethics and morals, He was continually at loggerheads with the religious establishment in Palestine, took a dim view of their burdensome and petty rituals, and was not afraid to castigate them for their religious hypocrisy (Matt. 23; Luke 18:10-14; 11:37-54).
   After Christ's departure, the early Church was initially highly successful in propagating His gospel. But it wasn't long before many of the Jewish and Hellenistic elements of society were up in arms over the revolutionary impact of His message. Their reaction was so violent that Stephen was stoned to death by an incensed group of Jewish religious leaders. James was martyred by Herod, and Paul met violent resistance in Asia Minor on two separate occasions when he threatened to burst the bubble of local pagan divinities. He was mocked by Stoics and Epicureans at Mars Hill, and in Thessalonica was accused of "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
Fading Back into Normalcy. Under such circumstances something was bound to give. As the early apostles passed from the scene, the visible church began to accommodate itself to many of the Hellenistic philosophies and doctrines then in vogue. Some felt such a maneuver was essential for the future survival of Christianity in a Hellenized world.
   According to Arnold Toynbee: "Even Christianity might have found it hard to make headway in the Hellenic world if it had not, like its competitors, presented itself in Hellenic dress" (Hellenism, p. 277). Toynbee went on to say: "The Christian propagandists of the second century sought to commend Christianity to the educated minority of the Hellenic public by presenting it as the crown of all known philosophic systems. And this minority could not be won for Christianity without translating Christian beliefs into Hellenic philosophy's technical terminology..." (ibid., p. 228).
   Edwin Hatch, author of The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity, also described this process: "It was impossible for Greeks, educated as they were with an education which penetrated their whole nature, to receive or to retain Christianity in its primitive simplicity" (p. 49). He also wrote: "The Greek minds which had been ripening for Christianity had absorbed new ideas and new motives; but there was a continuity between their present and their past; the new ideas had new motives mingled with the waters of existing currents" (ibid., p. 5).
   So the process of Hellenization began in earnest. Visible Christianity took on a completely different form as Greek elements flooded into the visible church.
   James Shiel explains what happened: "On their [the Greek's] conversion many of them retained current preoccupation with the religious concept of 'salvation,' mingled with a host of similar concepts from the Oriental mystery religions. Salvation was to be achieved by perfect knowledge (gnosis). They insisted that there were hidden truths in the Scriptures which only the true Gnostic could discern" (op. cit., p. 51).
   The heavy influence of Greek philosophical concepts on Christianity was also apparent from the writings of the post-apostolic fathers. Origen, for instance, even urged that Hellenistic philosophy be used as a basic primer for Christianity: "I am therefore very desirous that you should accept such parts even of Greek philosophy as may serve for the ordinary elementary instruction of our schools, and be a kind of preparation for Christianity" (Philocalia of Origen, p. 57).
   Clement of Alexandria wrote: "The philosophy of the Greeks, partial and particular though it is, contains the basic elements of that genuine and perfect knowledge which is higher than human, which is engaged upon purely intellectual objects, even upon those spiritual objects which eye has not seen.... until they were made plain to us Christians by our Great Teacher... " (Shiel, op. cit., p. 3).
Compromise and Defeat. Visible Christianity was well on the way to becoming just another version of a modern, updated Oriental mystery religion. Elaborate ceremonies were instituted, an intellectual priestly caste began to assert itself, and esoteric doctrines were kept back from the multitudes. Many of the major tenets of competing pagan religions readily found a safe haven within the walls of a changing Christianity.
   Pagan divinities were transformed into Christian saints, martyrs and angels. The cult of the Oriental mother goddess was revitalized in the veneration of the Virgin Mary. And pagan temples were often transformed into "Christian" houses of worship.
   Hellenistic dualism centered around the concept of an immortal soul; and an evil, corrupt material creation loomed large in postapostolic thinking. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas also drew deeply from these same philosophical wells. Augustine was probably the staunchest advocate of Greek otherworldly concepts since the Stoics. Writing in The City of God, he was quick to eulogize ascetic ideals: "For that vision of God is the beauty of a vision so great and is so infinitely desirable that Plotinus does not hesitate to say that he who enjoys all other blessings in abundance and has not this is supremely miserable" (book X, chapter 16).
   Aquinas, for instance, took a dim view of earthly pleasure. In his monumental Summa Theologica, he wrote: "The religious state requires the removal of whatever hinders man from devoting himself entirely to God's service. Now the use of sexual union hinders the mind from giving itself wholly to the service of God" (p. 655). He continued: "First, as regards the practice of perfection, a man is required to remove from himself whatever may hinder his affections from tending wholly to God.... Such hindrances are.... First, the attachment to external goods, which is removed by a vow of poverty; secondly, the concupiscence of sensible pleasures, chief among which are sexual pleasures, and these are removed by the vow of continence..." (p. 659).
A Remarkable Transformation. Long before Augustine and Aquinas got around to writing these weighty tomes, the established Christian church had lost whatever little resemblance it had borne to the early church of Paul and the Apostles. The Sermon on the Mount had given way to the Nicene Creed. Christian communities periodically became more agitated over tortuous and involved dogmas on the identity of God and largely ignored the simpler teachings of the man from Nazareth. The Messianic hope of a world under the rule of Jesus Christ had been abandoned in favor of a gospel of otherworldly escape.
   Christianity had triumphed as the state religion of the Roman Empire, but the question of who had really been converted to what still remained. According to James Shiel: "In the converted Empire he [the historian] finds some Christians whose mentality is hardly distinguishable from that of the pagans, and who regard pagan philosophy as a thing of 'holiness.' Conversion of the Empire involved a certain conversion of the Church towards paganism" (op. cit., p. 57).
   As Edward Gibbon put it: "The victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals." About all that visible Christianity had in common with Jesus Christ was the use of His name. The revolutionary impact of His teaching had long since vanished into the mists of pagan philosophy.
   In effect, the established Christian churches have adopted a totally different posture from the one intended by Jesus Christ. The long-term effects are still with us to this day. And the implications for society have been tragic, to say the least.
   Perhaps Frederick C. Grant best sums up why this has become the fundamental dilemma of modern religion: "As G. K. Chesterton said, 'Christianity has not failed — it has never been tried.' And this is the tragedy, that a gospel meant for the healing of the nations accepted a lesser role and became only one more of 'the world's great religions,' leaving Hatred, War, Greed, Hunger, and Misery still the permanent rulers of mankind" (Roman Hellenism and the New Testament, p. 171).


   H. G. Wells: "The kingdom of God that Jesus of Nazareth had preached was overlaid ... almost from the beginning by the doctrines and ceremonial traditions of an earlier age and of an intellectual1y inferior type. Christianity, almost from its commencement ceased to be purely prophetic and creative ..." (The Outline of History, p. 573).

   Eric Fromm: "The real historical world no longer needed to change; outwardly everything could remain as it was — state, society, law, economy — for salvation had become an inward spiritual, unhistorical, individual matter guaranteed by faith in Jesus. The hope for real, historical deliverance was replaced by faith in the already complete spiritual deliverance .... Christians no longer looked to the future or to history, but, rather, they looked backward" (The Dogma of Christ, pp. 58-59).

   G. P Fedotov: "Practically the whole of Byzantine religion could have been built without the historical Christ of the Gospels .... The divine, glorified Christ is, certait1ty, the main object of the Byzantine cult — together with His Mother, the Queen of Heaven, Yet, strangely, His earthly life, and His good news of the Kingdom of God, and particularly His teaching, attracted little attention" (The Russian Religious Mind, p. 35).

   Frederick C. Grant: "As a consequence of this Hellenistic-Roman influence, much of the vast potency of the gospel became neutralised, insulated, and has never been set free to this day" (Roman Hellenism and the New Testament. p. 164).

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Good News MagazineApril 1976Vol XXV, No. 4