We know that man turned to religion early on in stay on this planet. Neanderthal buried tools and other objects with their dead, which means they almost, certainly believed in some sort of after life. It is believed they painted the forms of animals on the walls of caves in order to gain some sort of power over the animals they hunted. So long before there were Homo sapiens, there was religion. It is generally accepted that the world’s oldest religion still being practiced today is Hinduism. The vedic period begins about 4000 BCE, but some scholars push it up to 3,000 years before that (7000 BCE). For contrast, the pyramids at Giza date back to 3200BCE (although the sleeping prophet, Edgar Cayce, put them at 10,500 BCE). So Hinduism goes back well before the Pyramids in Egypt and that’s a long time. Recent archaeological discoveries in Bulgaria place the beginnings of writing back to 7,000 BCE, and I have no doubt that religion probably started before people began to write. After all, people needed to have something to write about.
But which religion has had the greatest effect on mankind? Some could argue that it is Christianity. Certainly it has been the moving factor behind the conquest of the New World and the crusades. Christianity is largely responsible for the Europe that grew out of the Middle Ages. And let’s face it, most of western culture is based on Christianity. Even the holidays, although they are extremely secularized, give evidence to the influence Jesus, or at least his followers, has had on our culture. But then Christianity owes its existence to Judaism. So you might well argue that Judaism has had the greatest influence on humanity. It gave us the concept of monotheism. It gave us the Ten Commandments. It gave us a lot of really funny stand up comedians. But then, what of Islam? Yes, it’s a religious Johnny come lately, and owes its existence to Judaism and Christianity, but then when the rest of the world was lost in ignorance (Hey! They weren’t called the dark ages for nothing), Islam kept the flame of human knowledge alive. They gave us science, algebra, navigational techniques, and flamenco guitar. So perhaps we should point to Islam as having the greatest influence on humanity. After all, where would we be without Hezbollah?
Maybe we are being to ethnocentric to look at the western religions as those with the greatest influence on humanity. Maybe we should look to the eastern religions. At least twenty five percent of the world’s population live in China. Perhaps we should look to Taoism, or Buddhism as the religions which have had the greatest effect on mankind. Although, knowing what I know about those religions, it seems to me that had they any great effect on mankind, we wouldn’t be half so fucked up. But seriously, eastern thought increasingly has an influence on the way we think as more and more westerners learn about Taosim and Buddhism. Both of those religions, however, were heavily influenced by Hinduism, which is, after all, the oldest practiced religion in the world, or is it?
In the hills of Iran, there are about 100,000 people who practice a religion based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathushtra (think the theme to 2001, A Space Odyssey, “Thus Spake Zarathushtra”). He lived somewhere between 1000 and 1400 BCE. The religion which he preached is usually misnamed Zoroastrianism, and the prophet is often called Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest credal religion, in that it has a creed, or list, of the articles of faith. Here’s what they believe.
They believe in one God, a creator who was, himself, not created, by the name of Ahura Mazda. The true name of the religion is Mazdaism, but that sounds too much as if people were worshiping a car, and only the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air deserves that type of adulation. Zoroastrian morality is summed up in the words, “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds”. They do not believe in predestination. Humans are totally responsible for all their actions. They believe there is constant conflict between good and evil and that good will eventually win out. They believe that we will be rewarded or punished according to our actions here on earth. They do not, however, believe in eternal punishment. They believe that when evil is finally overcome that all souls will be joined together. They also believe in what they called “divine sparks”. These are heavenly beings which we would probably consider archangels. They also believed in many lesser divinities which we would consider angels of some kind.
Zoroastrians believe in equality of race, gender, and religion. They preach respect and kindness towards all living things. They reject cruelty towards animals and sacrifices. Nature is very important in Zoroastrianim, so they preach taking care of the earth and the environment. They reject sloth (being lazy, not the two and three toed tree dweller) and praise hard work and charity. They believe in loyalty to family, friends, religion, and tribe.
Zoroastrianism has the unique position of having had a strong influence on both western and eastern religions. Hinduism owes its vedic tradition to the Iranian (Persian) religion which gave rise to Zoroaster, who reformed it. We don’t know very much about that religion, except what came through to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism, or more correctly, Mazdaism, was practiced in Babylon and would have been the religion to which the Jews were exposed while in exile there. It is from Zoroastrianism that the Jews derived all the angelology of their religion… the belief in a future state; of rewards and punishments, the soul’s immortality, and the Last Judgment – all of them essential parts of the Zoroastrian scheme. In fairness, many Jewish apologists insist that it is Judaism that influenced Zoroastrianism. Priests in ancient Zoroastrianism were called Magi. It was the Magi who visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the cave right after Jesus’ birth. Zoroastrianism has a belief in three Messiahs. One was Zoroaster, the other, some believe to be Jesus, and the third will come at the end of the world to defeat evil. The Ba’hai faith also accepts Zoroaster as a holy man of God, among its list of other holy people, such as Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, etc.
And while I mentioned the 100,000 or so people who live in the hills in Iran, there are also Zoroastrians who live in India, Pakistan, The United States, Canada and Australia, a world wide diaspora, if you will. Zoroastrians do NOT proseletyze, and don’t go out of their way to convert people. Indeed, some adherents would say that only Iranians are eligible to be members of the faith, which sort of cuts at that whole equality thing, but then does anybody really follow the precepts of his or her religion? Some estimate the number of Zoroastrians in the world to as many as 3.5 million.
So perhaps it is safe to say that the religion that has had the most influence on humanity is Zoroastrianism. It is a religion which definitely has its roots in the earliest days of civilization. It would seem that every religion in the world today has been touched in some way by this ancient religion, or the proto-Iranian belief system from which it sprang. Maybe we haven’t really progressed all that far in the last 10,000 years after all.