World Religions and Cause and Effect (Reflection)

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Perhaps the greatest insight I have made during my post-grad study of religion so far is on the relationship between the principle of cause and effect and religion. Cause and effect simply states that there is a relationship between phenomena, events, or things, where one is the result of the other or others.

Applied to world religion it affirms that no religious tradition, belief, or theology exists in isolation apart from any other preceding causes. Although this has dawned on me as a very real feature of religion many historical theorists, most of whom had been formative in what later became the academic study of religion (or religious studies), have realized this over the past two centuries.

The evolutionary philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) thought that religious thought or consciousness is connected to the human mental and cognitive tendency to engage in transemprical generalizations. This was the human tendency to use religion to explain particular actions in terms of an overarching agency, a fact of human existence which evidences a progressive development that could be tracked back in time. E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), a British anthropologist and the father of cultural anthropology, conceived influential theories of cultural evolution largely inspired by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). In Tylor’s case, religion could be traced back to animistic beliefs which he argued constituted the earliest form of religious belief. These beliefs came into existence as a result of the projection of the ordinary experiences of powerful people onto a supernatural realm. The German anthropologist and ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) argued that the earliest religious belief was in a Supreme Being, and that monotheism (the belief in one supreme God) is not late in the development of religious consciousness. Monotheism, which Schmidt referred to as ‘primordial monotheism,’ preceded all other beliefs including animism and polytheism. Schmidt’s view was controversial and opposed by others such as the Italian historian of religion Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883-1959) who argued that Schmidt committed the fallacy of equivocation by imposing a Christianized view of God onto the Supreme Being of the “primitive” people as if they were the same thing. Pettazzoni rather wished to analyze where monotheism was apparent, which was in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and argued that monotheism is the product of antagonisms resolved within a previous polytheistic religious frameworks.

Although these theorists disagreed with one another in the details they all agree on the fact that there is a relationship between world religions and the principle of cause and effect. They all believe that something prior (a cause, likely a previously existing religious tradition or some set of beliefs) gave rise to something else (an effect, and in this case a religion). This is not difficult to see today, and it is helped by viewing religion as a contestation of symbols. Religion is a constantly evolving phenomenon in which sacred symbols are borrowed and appropriated. Symbols denote religious phenomena (such as God, prophet, messenger, revelation, spirits, angels, demons, a holy book, a site etc.) deemed sacred in that they are revered by the religious believers within the traditions and because they are contested between and within traditions. Contestation occurs through a dynamic process of claims to ownership and efforts of appropriation. Simply put (and without going into more detail of this framework) one religious tradition claims ownership of a symbol (say God) and appropriates that symbol by investing it with new meaning that satisfies the interests of a religious community.

An example of appropriation is in the book of Genesis from the Bible where the great flood story is borrowed from the Babylonian myths. This is a good example of appropriation: the flood and God are primary symbols appropriated by the biblical authors that are invested with new meaning suiting the interests or needs of a community. In the case of the Genesis 1 account, which was likely penned during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, it served as an appropriation of Babylonian symbols to instill hope in the now exiled Israelites who, after being forcefully removed from their land, were doubting that their god Yahweh hears their cries or even cares about them. The Genesis myth reconfigures the Babylonian myth by demonstrating Yahweh’s superiority over the Babylonian pantheon. Yahweh is more powerful and far more compassionate than the gods of the Bablyonians. It serves to show that God is not far removed from the plight and fears of the Israelites, and that God actually cares for his people. This is a remarkable difference to Babylonian gods who enslave humanity, and there is a clear appropriation of symbols going on here.

It is through this contestation that cause and effect is most vividly demonstrated in world religions. One can see this in all the major religions: Judaism and Islam evolved from within polytheistic frameworks, Ancient Greek religion from the Pelasgi, Roman religion from the Greeks, Christianity from Judaism, Bahai from Islam, Shinto from animism, Hinduism from Vedic beliefs and traditions, Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism, Confucianism and Daoism from ancient Chinese tradition, the New Age from Eastern mythology. Wherever there is a religion (effect) there is a prior cause.

What I find reasonable to suspect is what Tylor, Schmidt, Frazer, and others realized, namely that there is likely an unbroken chain in religions going back to a primordial event. A primordial event is simply a first cause which gave rise to all other things. What this is in religion is not known, but I suspect it will turn out to be animism (and therefore be of some credit to Tylor). According to my current knowledge the oldest culture I believe we have evidence for is that of the /Xam San people from Southern Africa dating to roughly 40 000 BC. This is a culture known for its animistic beliefs in spirits that permeate material objects and the like. Beyond this I don’t think we know much, and it opens up a host of questions: what were the religious beliefs of human foragers between 70 000 BC (the time of the cognitive revolution) and the /Xam San 30 000 years later? Were there perhaps religious beliefs that have been lost to history but preceded the cognitive revolution?

In ending this reflection I wish to note a few quick things: first, the chain of cause and effect should not be seen to be limited to or unique of religion. What I have noted of religion can be said of philosophy, politics, civilization, and even culture, all of which involve the ownership and appropriation of symbols. Second, this is not easy for religious folk to realize for it might be deemed to undermine religious belief. I will not pretend that this might not be the case, but for now it is difficult to draw any strong conclusions (at most one can ascribe conjectures based on the limited evidences). However, it is also not inconceivable that a deity could feed events of revelation into the process of cause and effect, and therefore vindicate a particular religious tradition.

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