Legitimizing Religion: The Appeal to Archaism

This article is inspired by a conversation on religion I had with an individual that is worth reflecting on pertaining to the legitimization of religious traditions. 

I have decided to refer to this form of legitimization as an “appeal to archaism”. It is often simply stated as “My religion is older than yours” with the underlying assumption that one’s own older religion is more authentic and/or legitimate than the other person’s “younger” or more recent religion. 

That some religions are older or younger than others is, of course, an uncontroversial fact. Mormonism is older than Jediism, Christianity than Islam, Paganism than Baha’i, Confucianism than Sikhism, Hinduism than Buddhism, and so on.

To use an example of how age might be mobilized as a legitimizing strategy, a Muslim could argue that Islam, despite being traditionally considered to trace back to the sixth and early seventh century CE, is older than Christianity (founded in the first century CE) and is therefore the more legitimate religion in matters of truth. Islam is the older religion because Muslims appropriate very ancient biblical figures like Abraham and Moses by claiming such figures were Muslim and not Jewish. As such, Islam was not founded by Muhammad. Rather, Muhammad sustained and continued the tradition and was putatively the final prophet in the line of God’s prophets (“Seal of the Prophets”) to receive God’s final revelation in the suras of the Qur’an.

There is an underlying logic to this appeal to archaism, which is that the older religion contains elements that are more basic and authentic than younger religions. Often these younger religions are viewed, along some evolutionary scheme, to have corrupted the authentic elements in the older religions.

An interpersonal example of a discussion employing this logic was with a Hindu some years ago. This Hindu correctly stated that Hinduism (or Brahminism) is significantly older than other religions like Christianity or Islam, which is a point he considered in Hinduism’s favor.

As an apologetic, the appeal to archaism is not compelling on the grounds that older ideas (e.g. superseded scientific and historical theories) could, in fact, be inferior to recent ones.

A more academic example is in the Catholic theologian Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) who argued for primordial monotheism according to which monotheistic belief in one God was the earliest form of religious belief in humanity. He could then claim legitimacy for the biblical conception of a single God by viewing later religious developments like animism and polytheism as corruptions of this earlier belief. As one might suspect, corrupted beliefs are probably illegitimate

Few today would maintain that the Atlantic Slave Trade of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries was founded on a superior idea to modern notions of personal autonomy and anti-racism. Few would say that some prehistorical hunter-gather tribes committing senicide of their elderly members considered to slow down the migrating group and therefore threaten its survival is superior to modern notions of caring for the elderly and treating them with sensitivity. In many instances, older ideas are worse than more contemporary ones.

Because ideas are essential to religions, this logic must also apply across various spheres in terms of ethics and ritualistic practice, among other domains. For example, many Westerners are sensitive to animal welfare and have pets they love and cherish. Few Westerners would consider it a good idea to sacrifice a cat or dog on an altar or shrine in their backyard to appease a discontent spirit, God, or gods. But animal sacrifice was a very common religious practice among the ancient Shang, Brahmins, Greeks, Jews, and Romans whose practices of animal sacrifice for divinatory purposes were brutal. Essentially, older religious ideas can indeed be worse than recent religious ideas. 

There are many other areas in which this same logic holds. New scientific ideas and theories override older ones based on more contemporaneous empirical evidence explaining more about the physical universe than older and outdated ones. Few embrace the flat Earth or Hollow Earth theories. Geocentrism places the Earth at the center of the universe and is no longer considered a credible view by cosmologists. In psychology, deterministic behaviorism is no longer considered a tenable theory of human behavior by most psychologists and psychiatrists.

On the other hand, older ideas might be superior to recent ones. In philosophy, postmodernism which developed in the twentieth century is not viewed highly by most philosophers because of the many contradictory statements and beliefs promoted by postmodernist thinkers. Most philosophers believe that the Laws of Logic are demonstrable and that statements violating these are false and irrational.

The value, merits, and putative superiority of an idea, whether ethical or religious, or other, must be considered individually. It cannot be assumed that an older or more recent theory or idea is superior to any other. Historical chronology is not itself a sufficient criterion through which one can determine the value of an idea or belief, which mitigates assertions based on any appeal to archaism as a religious apologetic.


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