By R.N. Carmona
In an attempt to avoid the intricate history of hell, Satan, and demons, Christians will often accuse atheists of blindly subscribing to Zeitgeist. I’ve gone on record multiples times stating that Zeitgeist is bad scholarship. In fact, it doesn’t even qualify as sound scholarship. Though Zeitgeist alludes to some truth, that is mired and obscured by its faults. Furthermore, though mythicist theory features in the film series, I myself have watched nothing of relevance related to our present topic. So to respond to these accusations, I turn to reputable authorities on these matters. Given this, any honest Christian shouldn’t be dismissive of such sources; as we’ll see later, one of my sources, namely Rikk Watts, is a Christian. The tendency to be dismissive of a source simply because it disagrees with or challenges one’s views is not a feature of intellectual honesty. Let us turn now to a brief discussion on the historical development of hell, Satan, and demons.
Michael Strausberg, Professor at the University of Bergen, surveys the development of Hell starting in the Rig Veda. He, however, says that passages in the Rig Veda do not lend much support to the notion of Hell though he agrees that “in the later Vedas the notion of hell seems to be well attested.”1 He continues by adding that developments in Buddhism and Hinduism soon developed the concept more fully. This is precisely why I specifically mention the Narakas whenever I encounter people who are unfamiliar with the nuanced history of hell. He states:
Voltaire claims that fundamental ideas such as god, devil, resurrection, paradise, and hell, which constitute something like the doctrinal kernel of Christianity, did in fact originate with Zoroastrianism. The presumed impact of Zoroastrian theological ideas such as monotheism, dualism, angels, demons, eschatology, paradise, apocalypticism, and pollution on the Judaic-Christian traditions have been an important stimulus triggering the academic interest in Zoroastrianism. Nowadays, such claims abound in cyberspace, often based on older scholarly literature. The Oxford Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, Robert Charles Zaehner (1913–1974), for example, writing in 1961, finds that “the similarities are so great and the historical context so neatly apposite that it would be carrying scepticism altogether too far to refuse to draw the obvious conclusion” (1961:57), namely that Christian concepts of rewards and punishment, heaven and hell, are dependent on Zoroastrian ideas.2
That the concept of hell comes directly from Zoroastrianism, as demonstrated above, is an oversimplification of the concept’s development. As it is related to Christianity, there’s also the fact that it’s a later development in the Christian tradition. Rikk Watts, Associate Professor at Regent College, states that Allen Bernstein’s fundamental thesis in The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds “is that the Christian notion of hell as “a divinely sanctioned place of eternal torment for the wicked” is a late development among views of after-death existence (p.3). In a partially thematic, partially chronological treatment, Bernstein briefly examines ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas before concentrating on Greco-Roman, Jewish, and finally Christian perspectives.”3
He goes on to highlight the neutrality of the afterlife, which more closely resembles the Jewish Sheol rather than the Christian Hell and the Islamic Jahannam. This neutrality led to a problem for some. They reasoned that they, being righteous, shouldn’t share the same fate as the wicked. A bifurcation, occurring in ancient Egyptian mythology, then stated that one’s life determines one’s fate. He concludes that Bernstein’s book has its weaknesses, but none are particularly damning. His main criticism is that Bernstein’s presentation is too linear to capture the intricacy of Hell’s development.
Likewise, the beings said to inhabit Hell, namely Satan and his demons, do not escape such a cross-cultural analysis. They too are derived from Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology. Satan, like Hell, is a concept that developed over time. In fact, he’s not original to Judaism. He’s a later Christian invention that resulted from Christian appropriation of Jewish texts. Elaine Pagel states:
In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an “evil empire,” an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike. As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (ma’lak) into Greek (angelos). In Hebrew, the angels were often called “sons of God” (bene ‘elohim), and were envisioned as the hierarchical ranks of a great army, or the staff of a royal court.
In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary.” (The Greek term diabolos, later translated “devil,” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)4
Interestingly enough, this is what may have been at play in 1 Samuel 16:14. The notion of “a harmful spirit from the Lord” is foreign to modern day Christians. That’s why there are apologetic attempts to explain this verse—i.e., to explain it within the context of modern Christian theology. In line with my earlier point, the concept of Satan didn’t develop apart from cultural diffusion. J.B. Russell writes:
The Christian concept of the Devil was influenced by folklore elements, some from the older, Mediterranean cultures and others from the Celtic, Teutonic and Slavic religions of the north. Pagan ideas penetrated Christianity while Christian ideas penetrated paganism.5
The concept of demons also didn’t develop apart from cultural diffusion. Like Satan, this concept is also the byproduct of contact with other cultures. Dale Martin, professor of Religious Studies at Yale, demonstrates that the notion of fallen angels isn’t in the Bible. In fact, it’s an idea that hadn’t even occurred to the earliest Christian authors.6 Shaul Saked shows how the resurrection of the dead, the two judgments, and angels and demons are integrated into the theology of Zoroastrianism in a manner that’s more coherent than the way such concepts are incorporated into Judaism.7 The evidence for the fact that Christian eschatology and demonology was influenced by other religions is incontrovertible. Given this, a Christian arguing that Judaism and Zoroastrianism are false might want to consider whether Christianity is also false on the basis of similar reasons.
When attempting to recall the name of the adversary in Zoroastrianism (Angra Mainyu), I came across the following:
It is generally accepted that in the Abrahamic religions, the concepts of Heaven and Hell, as well as the Devil, were heavily influenced by Zoroastrian belief.8
As stated earlier, that Christianity was directly influenced by Zoroastrianism is an oversimplification, but Zoroastrianism had an influence nonetheless. There’s more from where this came from, but that’s certainly enough to put the accusation to sleep. It’s easy enough to accuse so called internet atheists of using Zeitgeist as a source, especially given their affinity for the December 25th graphic that shows that other demigods, e.g. Krishna, Hercules, Hermes, etc., were born on that day. However, one would be hard pressed to make that accusation stick with regards to the scholarship cited here. Voltaire, for instance, was an 18th century historian and philosopher who was born more than two centuries before the first working television set–let alone some pseudo-scholarly documentary that came more than three centuries after his birth.
1 Stausberg, Michael. Hell in Zoroastrian History. Numen 56, 217–253. 2009. Web. 27 Dec 2014.
3 Watts, Rick. The History of Heaven and Hell. Baylor Univeristy. 2002. Web. 27 Dec 2014.
4 Pagels, Elaine H. The Origin of Satan. New York: Random House, 1995. 39. Print.
5 Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer, the Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1984. 62. Print.
6 Martin, D. (2010). When did angels become demons? Journal of Biblical Literature, 129(4), 657-677. Web.
7 Shaked, Shaul. “Iranian influence on Judaism: first century B.C.E. to second century C.E.”, The Cambridge History of Judaism. Ed. W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. pp. 308-325.
8 “God, Zoroaster, and immortals”. BBC. 2 Oct 2009. Web. 30 Dec 2014.
By R.N. Carmona
Since it is a frequent go-to argument favored by some Christians, I’ve endeavored to repurpose a response to an interlocutor. I have, in other words, turned a response into a standalone post that addresses what Michael Sherlock has dubbed The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy. To be clear, this attempted argument isn’t a fallacy, but rather a slew of fallacies, most prominent of which is tu quoque. As Sherlock states:
The atheist atrocities fallacy is a multifaceted and multidimensional monster, comprised of a cocktail of illogically contrived arguments. It is, at its core, a tu quoque fallacy, employed to deflect justified charges of religious violence, by erroneously charging atheism with similar, if not worse, conduct. But it is much more than this, for within its tangled and mangled edifice can be found the false analogy fallacy, the poisoning of the well fallacy, the false cause fallacy, and even an implied slippery slope fallacy.1
It is a common retort used when someone reminds Christians of the brutality committed in the name of their god. Christians employing this fallacious argument offer a number of examples. I will be discussing the usual suspects: Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, and Joseph Stalin.
The first despot we’ll consider is Pol Pot. One may see this as splitting hairs, but Pol Pot was a Buddhist. Buddhism is often conflated with atheism because it’s a godless religion. Buddhism, however, differs from what I call normative atheism in a few respects.2 Kai Nielsen writes:
Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.3
Given this, it is simply dishonest to conflate Buddhism with atheism. We don’t believe in reincarnation, transcendent ancestors, and whatever else a Buddhist may believe in. Let us turn back to Pol Pot.
Michael Sherlock had the following to say about Pol Pot:
This [Pol Pot’s regime’s] line of thinking about revolutionary consciousness directly parallels Buddhist thought, with the “Party line” and “collective stand” being substituted for dhamma…One could certainly push this argument further , contending that the Khmer Rouge attempted to assume the monk’s traditional role as moral instructor (teaching their new brand of “mindfulness”) and that DK regime’s glorification of asceticism, detachment, the elimination of attachment and desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors, sentiments, and attitudes), and purity paralleled prominent Buddhist themes…
I have only presented a small snippet of the available evidence that points to religion’s role in Pol Pot’s crimes, and there is not one single piece of solid evidence that Pol Pot was an atheist, so let us once and for all dispense with that speculative piece of religious propaganda. Pol Pot spent close to a decade at Catholic school and nearly as long studying at a Buddhist institution, so religious education was something he had in common with both Hitler and Stalin, but I would never use such data-mined facts to assert that religious education invariably inspires tyrants to commit atrocities, although a case for such a proposition could probably be made without committing too many logical and historical inaccuracies. I won’t even bother sharing the un-sourced quote from Prince Norodom Sihanouk that Christians present as “proof” that Pol Pot was an atheist, as its origin is not only dubious, but its contents reflect a belief in heaven, which, if genuine, negates any claim that Pol Pot was an atheist.4
Given this, I reiterate, it is irresponsible to conflate Buddhism and atheism. Pol Pot certainly didn’t believe in a god, but he was by no means a normative atheist. Atheists, like myself, do not believe in reincarnation, transcendent ancestors, and whatever else a Buddhist may believe. What Pol Pot did is, in fact, quite similar to what Stalin did. At any rate, Pol Pot wasn’t some atheist who killed in the name of no god. Therefore, citing him as an instance of a radical atheist is moot.
I turn now to Stalin. This is definitely entering murkier waters. We’ll see, however, that Stalin also wasn’t an atheist who killed in the name of no god. He certainly was an atheist, but his motives were demonstrably ideological and political. Sherlock also quotes Hitchens, but I can quote him directly and more extensively given that I read his book, God is Not Great. Hitchens states:
For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. “How many divisions,” he famously and stupidly inquired, “has the pope?” (The true answer to his boorish sarcasm was, “More than you think.”) Stalin then pedantically repeated the papal routine of making science conform to dogma, by insisting that the shaman and charlatan Trofim Lysenko had disclosed the key to genetics and promised extra harvests of specially inspired vegetables. (Millions of innocents died of gnawing internal pain as a consequence of this “revelation.”) This Caesar unto whom all things were dutifully rendered took care, as his regime became a more nationalist and statist one, to maintain at least a puppet church that could attach its traditional appeal to his.5
Indeed it was a question of power. Stalin was a man so paranoid of losing his influence and power that he sent an agent to murder Leon Trotsky because Stalin thought Trotsky was exerting his influence on Soviets from all the way in Mexico!
This was, in fact, the same reason he was banished from the USSR in the first place:
In 1924, Lenin died, and Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the USSR. Against Stalin’s stated policies, Trotsky called for a continuing world revolution that would inevitably result in the dismantling of the Soviet state. He also criticized the new regime for suppressing democracy in the Communist Party and for failing to develop adequate economic planning. In response, Stalin and his supporters launched a propaganda counterattack against Trotsky. In 1925, he was removed from his post in the war commissariat. One year later, he was expelled from the Politburo and in 1927 from the Communist Party. In January 1928, Trotsky began his internal exile in Alma-Ata and the next January was expelled from the Soviet Union outright.8
Going back to the Hitchens quote, there are a couple of things that are quite curious. First, that a shaman had disclosed the key to genetics is quite curious. Shamanism is mystical and supernaturalist or at the very least, paranormalist. Normative atheists wouldn’t agree with forms of shamanism. Furthermore, this “making science conform with dogma” business is undoubtedly appalling to most atheists–even if they aren’t in any way scientistic. Like I said, murkier waters. For anyone employing this fallacious argument, there’s a fact about Stalin’s regime that they would like to be nothing more than a historical footnote. Unfortunately for them, the fact that Christians were among Stalin’s faithful supporters is a glaring issue. Hitchens continues by quoting Czeslaw Milosz:
I have known many Christians—Poles, Frenchmen, Spaniards— who were strict Stalinists in the field of politics but who retained certain inner reservations, believing God would make corrections once the bloody sentences of the all-mighties of History were carried out. They pushed their reasoning rather far. They argue that history develops according to immutable laws that exist by the will of God; one of these laws is the class struggle; the twentieth century marks the victory of the proletariat, which is led in its struggle by the Communist Party; Stalin, the leader of the Communist Party, fulfils the law of history, or in other words acts by: the will of God, therefore one must obey him. Mankind can be renewed only on the Russian pattern; that is why no Christian can oppose the one—cruel, it is true—idea which will create a new kind of man over the entire planet. Such reasoning is often used by clerics who are Party tools. “Christ is a new man. The new man is the Soviet man. Therefore Christ is a Soviet man!” said Justinian Marina, the Rumanian patriarch.9
In brief then, Christians were enablers. Rather than stopping this bloodthirsty “atheist”, they sided with him and asserted that he was performing god’s will. I’ll give my readers the same advice Sherlock gave: read Chapter 17 of Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great. Here’s a PDF copy.
With Pol Pot and Stalin now moot points, we turn now to Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong is a favorite among Christians and Christian sympathizers because he was brutally cruel to Christians:
Christians in China have long suffered persecution. Under Mao Zedong, freedom of belief was enshrined in the new Communist constitution (largely to accommodate Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in the west of the country). Yet perhaps as many as half a million Christians were harried to death, and tens of thousands more were sent to labour camps.10
He was such an atheist that he accommodated some religions and oppressed, in particular, Christians. It’s useful to note here that Mao was a Buddhist during his younger years. In fact, he followed after his mother:
Mao would talk about his mother with emotion all his life. It was in her footsteps that he became a Buddhist as a child. Years later he told his staff: “I worshipped my mother … Wherever my mother went, I would follow … going to temple fairs, burning incense and paper money, doing obeisance to Buddha … Because my mother believed in Buddha, so did I.” But he gave up Buddhism in his mid-teens.11
His entire regime was an imitation of the Buddhism he once knew. His Little Red Book is a great place to start. Alexander Cook states:
Associating Mao’s book with the religiously venerated canons of classics, Charles Fitzgerald noted that Mao Zedong Thought has “become to his own people in his own age what the sayings of Confucius were to the Chinese people for the past two thousand years: a source of inspiration and guidance in matters social, political, and moral.” The format of quotation, yulu, not only echoes the terse and fragmented maxims of Buddhist sayings and Daoist epigrams, but most significantly the lunyu, the Analects of Confucius. In this lineage Mao became a modern sage-king by virtue of a reactivation of China’s long-entrenched text-based heritage. The widespread and constantly enacted rituals of reading, studying, and discussion of Mao’s quotations and writings, the telling of success stories in applying Mao’s teachings to all occasions and looking for answers to all problems, the passionate intensity with which the readers adhere and defend Mao’s words–all this warrants religious terms in the characterization of Mao’s Little Red Book.12
Now, would a normative atheist like myself write such a book? No. The book has clearly religious influence. Of the book, Cook also stated:
[T]he little red book is not just a text. It is an object that moves around and has a life of its own. Often, people are not really reading it. Often reading the thing is not important. Often it’s waving it at somebody or having it in your pocket, the symbolism of the thing that allows it to be used in many different ways.
I don’t know what it is about the text, if it is the little size or the red color or the words that are inside it. But the text seems to have had a sort of talismanic property such that someone who is holding the text feels empowered to violence.13
I’ll have more to say about his followers shortly, but you can already see how this is veering far and wide from the atheism proponents of this argument are looking to attack. This isn’t atheism at all. This is ideological and political fervor similar to what we saw with Stalin. Cook then adds that the Little Red Book can be viewed as an authoritative quasi-religious text. He compares it specifically to the Bible and the Qur’an.14 Lastly, it has to be noted that, like in Stalin’s case, religious people ran to Mao’s defense. Not surprisingly, they weren’t the Christians whom he oppressed, but rather, the Buddhists he showed favor to.
“The Tibetan people regard Chairman Mao as their sun, their star and as a living Buddha,” exclaimed the Panchen Lama a few months after the bloody suppression of the Lhasa uprising. Mao’s application of the laws of Marxism-Leninism “is in harmony with the laws of the heavens,” wrote a Chinese magazine.15
With that, I rest my case with regards to Mao. Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao have now been rendered moot. I would hope that some Christians are not like some idiot apologist who asks us to forget the people who have died because of Christian dogmatism and focus instead on the blood on these atheists’ hands. Perhaps they’re, instead, arguing that there’s no connection between religion and atrocities. If that’s the message they’re trying to convey, this is certainly the wrong route to take.
It’s the wrong route to take because in employing this argument, they commit a slew of fallacies jumbled into one. To reiterate, there’s poisoning the well. It also contains, at its core, tu quoque: “we committed atrocities, but so have atheists.” Even if that were the case, two wrongs don’t make a right. It also relies on a false analogy and leads to a slippery slope.
In any event, if like an idiot apologist, they’re looking to disprove atheism by pointing to atrocities, they miss the mark. Christianity and Islam aren’t false because of the atrocities their adherents committed. The atrocities committed by Christians and Muslims are certainly a problem, but it doesn’t follow that these religions are false because adherents of these religions murdered countless people–including their own. This is essentially a non sequitur. Therefore, even if an atheist walks into a church and guns down some congregants, this isn’t a necessary consequence of atheism. It certainly wouldn’t follow that atheism is then rendered false. This is precisely why I stay away from pointing to Christian and Muslim atrocities. Christians like to make use of the words radical or militant, but they don’t realize their misapprehension of such terms. Charlie Hebdo-esque mockery and Dawkins-like tweets and Facebook updates aren’t anything like suicide bombing, acid bathing, and pipe bombing abortion clinics. If our radicals are strident authors and bloggers, then I’m happy with where we stand.
Lastly, even if I were to shred everything I just wrote above and grant that these men were atheists, it matters that modern atheists are not committing atrocities on that scale. Furthermore, atheists aren’t even committing atrocities on a smaller scale. For all that’s said of the moral depravity that would follow from rejection of usually the Judeo-Christian god, secular societies fare better than religious ones.
As University of London professor Stephen Law has observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.”
Consider some specific examples.
The Save the Children Foundation publishes an annual “Mother’s Index,” wherein they rank the best and worst places on earth in which to be a mother. And the best are almost always among the most secular nations on earth, while the worst are among the most devout. The non-profit organization called Vision of Humanity publishes an annual “Global Peace Index.” And according to their rankings, the most peaceful nations on earth are almost all among the most secular, while the least peaceful are almost all among the most religious. According to the United Nations 2011 Global Study on Homicide, of the top-10 nations with the highest intentional homicide rates, all are very religious/theistic nations, but of those at bottom of the list – the nations on earth with the lowest homicide rates – nearly all are very secular nations.16
It’s simple to pretend that there’s no connection between the fundamentals of this or that religion and the behavior of extremists, and refrain from blaming a religion when said religious person kills for their beliefs. If, however, a religion’s fundamentalists are problematic, perhaps the actual problem is its fundamentals. Christians, for the most part, aren’t killing people for their beliefs anymore. They are, however, hurting people and infringing on their rights. Never mind that they hurt their own children: death by exorcism and faith healing. There’s also forced indoctrination and shoving their non-believing children into a closet (see here). The law in the US has some of these people straight. Just look over at more theocratic countries and what you’ll find are radicals who are murdering for their religion. Move over to hyper-religious countries like the Philippines and you’ll find self-depracating radicalism, e.g. flagellation. There should be no reason why kids in the Philippines whip themselves over the back and nail themselves to a cross!
The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy is a failed argument that commits a number of fallacies. Rather than employing this argument, Christians should be concerned with the behavior of some of their peers. As a humanist, I would be very concerned if there were a group of extremist atheists torturing and murdering religious people. I would stand against them. Though it is difficult to endure the rhetoric of so called “new atheists” who seem to want nothing more than to remind you of the horrors committed by people who believed as you do, tu quoque isn’t the best route to take. There’s also the fact that said atheists (usually) have a good reason for brining that up. As mentioned, atrocities are still being committed by religious people. Though it isn’t on the scale of past atrocities, the fact that children are dying due to outmoded beliefs should concern modern Christians. Also, atheists who mention the Inquisition, for instance, are simply frustrated with your continued advertisement of the good your religion does. Setting aside the fact that there’s usually an ulterior motive underlying these purported acts of kindness, Dennett expresses this frustration best: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.”
1 Sherlock, Michael. “The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy–Hitler, Stalin, & Pol Pot”. WordPress. 21 Oct 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
3 Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
4 Ibid. 
5 Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 84. Print.
6 “Aug 20, 1940: Trotsky assassinated in Mexico”. History. 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
7 Lanchin, Mike. “Trotsky’s grandson recalls ice pick killing”. BBC. 27 Aug 2012. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
8 “Jan 11, 1928: Stalin banishes Trotsky”. History. 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
9 Ibid. 
10 “Cracks in the atheist edifice”. The Economist. 1 Nov 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
11 Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon. “First Chapter: ‘Mao’”. New York Times. 23 Oct 2005. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
12 Cook, Alexander C. Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2014. 267. Print.
13 Stevenson, Jim. “Q&A with Alexander Cook: The Powers of Mao’s Little Red Book”. Voice of America. 6 May 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
14 Ibid. 
15 Ullman, Bernard. “The Long Shadow of Mao Zedong”. New York Times. 16 April 1961. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
16 Zuckerman, Phil. “Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies”. Psychology Today. 13 Oct 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2014.
By R.N. Carmona
The Argument From the Multiplicity of Religions, though not as strong as the Argument From History, is saliently connected to it and thus, these arguments will be presented jointly. Talk of how many religions there are is lacking without first consulting the historical development of religions. Given that these arguments are designed to show a more general response to religion, Christianity’s connection to Judaic and Hellenic traditions will not be mentioned. Instead, there will be a summary of the connection of other religions with an arguably richer history.
The history of any given religion has to take two things into account: historical development–which will show how a religion has changed over time and which will hopefully preserve what it originally was; cultural background–which will show how a religion ties into the culture of its adherents and which will preserve any connection it has with preceding religions. Of these considerations, preservation of a religion’s original form is often the most difficult achievement. This leads to the Argument From History:
P1 If the inception of a religion can be traced historically and if salient connections can be made between a religion and other religions that came before it, it doesn’t have a divine origin. (P -> Q)
P2 If it doesn’t have a divine origin, it can make no claim to being true. (Q -> R)
C If the inception of a religion can be traced historically and if salient connections can be made between a religion and other religions that came before it, it can make no claim to being true. (∴ P ->R)
Recall the two historical conditions: the manner in which religions change over time and the preservation of its original form. It’s arguable whether something of divine origin would lose its original form. It follows that it’s also arguable whether it will change over time–taking cultural, sociological, and political shifts into account. In fact, the claim to divine origin is often included in a religion’s historical development. The claim usually isn’t original to the earliest version of the religion. As is the claim to absolute truth, which will be covered later.
As examples of historical development, the ties between Hinduism, and Buddhism and Jainism will be discussed. The historical development of Hinduism will be summarized. There are ties between Christianity and Islam and between Islam and Sikhism. There are also connections between minor religions like Thelema and Wicca. In the interest of brevity, these will not be discussed.
Hinduism emerged in around 2000 BCE. It’s precise origin is, like most other religions, hard to pinpoint.1 In the fifth century BCE, Buddhism and Jainism emerged. The emergence of these religions aligns with the emergence of the Upanishads, which are the source of Vedanta philosophy. The Upanishads concern themselves with ultimate reality and salvation. Only one of these concepts is central to Buddhism and this is where we can observe a key difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. “Hinduism sees the ultimate reality as being all things united as one glorious divinity. Buddhism sees the ultimate reality as nothingness. While Hindus gain Moksha and become one with everything in the universe; Buddhists gain Nirvana by detaching from everything until nothingness remains.”4 Jainism, on the other hand, views ultimate reality similarly to Hinduism. One way to accomplish this is via harmony with the self and the environment.5
Another salient connection can be made when considering asceticism. However, Jainism’s view on asceticism differs greatly from the idea as seen in Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea originates in the Kalpa Sutra:
Henceforth the Venerable Ascetic Mahavira was houseless, circumspect in his walking, circumspect in his speaking, circumspect in his begging, circumspect in his accepting (anything), in the carrying of his outfit and drinking vessel; circumspect in evacuating excrements, urine, saliva, mucus, and uncleanliness of the body; circumspect in his thoughts, circumspect in his words, circumspect in his acts; guarding his thoughts, guarding his words, guarding his acts, guarding his senses, guarding his chastity; without wrath, without pride, without deceit, without greed; calm, tranquil, composed, liberated, free from temptations, without egoism, without property; he had cut off all earthly ties, and was not stained by any worldliness: as water does not adhere to a copper vessel, or collyrium to mother of pearl (so sins found no place in him); his course was unobstructed like that of Life; like the firmament he wanted no support; like the wind he knew no obstacles; his heart was pure like the water (of rivers or tanks) in autumn; nothing could soil him like the leaf of a lotus; his senses were well protected like those of a tortoise; he was single and alone like the horn of a rhinoceros; he was free like a bird; he was always waking like the fabulous bird Bharundal, valorous like an elephant, strong like a bull, difficult to attack like a lion, steady and firm like Mount Mandara, deep like the ocean, mild like the moon, refulgent like the sun, pure like excellent gold’; like the earth he patiently bore everything; like a well-kindled fire he shone in his splendour.6
In early Jainism, it was usual for an ascetic to die during meditation. This particular sort of meditation is called samaadhi marana.7 Hindu asceticism is rooted in the Vedas. In fact, the greater asceticism veered from the Vedas, the more it was criticized.8 Buddhism, for example, features up to 13 ascetic practices.9 Hindu and Buddhist ascetics, however, don’t get as extreme as Jainist ascetics.
Hinduism has a long historical development. The beginning of Hinduism is usually marked by the emergence of the Vedas. They are a collection of hymns in a version of Sanskirt that’s no longer used. There are four Vedas: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda. The Vedas were later followed by the Upanishads, which are the central text for Vedanta philosophy–Vedanta meaning the end of the Vedas.10 There have been many other changes since then. The nature of the Brahman, for instance, though associated with Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva, in the modern day, Advaita Vedantists don’t associate the Brahman with any of those deities. There have also been many changes in the bhakti traditions. In other words, many devotional cults have emerged–each worshipping their own deity. The history of Hinduism simply cannot be surveyed in a short span. An exhaustive presentation would be required. Endeavoring to do that, however, will be to venture too far from the topic at hand.
Given this brief survey, the inceptions of Buddhism and Jainism can be traced back to Hinduism. The historical development of Hinduism can also be tracked and upon doing so, Hinduism is shown to have taken many turns. Some of these turns were dictated by cultural changes. Others by a shift in religious thinking–as was the case when some Hindus regarded the Upanishads as greater than the Vedas. Others still by socio-political changes. Therefore, any school of Hinduism that claims divine origin is false. The knowledge in the Vedas doesn’t descend from a higher realm, but rather, originates in purely human thoughts. The same can be said of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which borrowed heavily from Hindu philosophy. The fact that they borrowed and then changed that philosophy shows that they’re both human constructs–born out of shifts in religious thinking. This can be seen in the difference between Hindu and Buddhist concepts of ultimate reality.
Aside from a shift in religious thinking, there are other reasons why religions change over time. One of the primary reasons is due to cultural shifts. This was, for instance, what led to changes in Hinduism once the Upanishads emerged. Socio-political pressures also contribute to change in a religion. Though there are exceptions, monotheistic religions thrive in larger cultures; some, like Christianity, began to thrive during the reign of an empire.13 Polytheistic religions thrive in local regions.14 This is true of bhakti traditions in India. Given that religions are dependent on culture, a multiplicity of religions should be expected. Naturally, this leads to The Argument From the Multiplicity of Religions:
P1 Since each religion offers various and contradictory interpretations of god, salvation and other religious concepts, the probability that one religion is true is negligible. (E -> F)
P2 Since the probability that one religion is true is negligible, the probability that a god exists is negligible. (F -> G)
P3 Since the probability that a god exists is negligible, it’s reasonable to believe that no gods exist. (G -> H)
C Since each religion offers various and contradictory interpretations of god, salvation and other religious concepts, it’s reasonable to believe that no gods exist. (∴ E -> H)
Given the epistemic nature of the conclusion, elucidation is required. In epistemology, a distinction is drawn between belief and knowledge. A further distinction is drawn between knowledge and truth. In the last proposition of the conclusion–which follows from P3–knowledge is tacitly implied. If it’s reasonable to believe that no gods exist, it’s likely that one knows some of them don’t exist. This tacit implication can be found in most people. Near universally, people don’t put stock in the possibility of the existence of Thor or Wotan or Hercules. To many, these gods are relics of mythology and aren’t worth serious consideration.
Given this implied knowledge, a transfer to truth isn’t impossible. Religions offer multifarious and contradictory interpretations of god, salvation, and other religious concepts. Some religions make no use of certain concepts. Buddhism, for example, makes no use of the concept of salvation.15 The dependence on culture and the ensuing diversity greatly lowers the probability of any religion being true. The probability is thus negligible. Another tacit assumption is found in P2. Since gods are intimately connected to the religions they pertain to, the probability of one of these gods existing is also negligible. If the religion is dependent on culture and is thus volatile, the gods of a given religion certainly aren’t exempt from this volatility. As already mentioned, the Brahman, though once associated with Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva, it is now dissociated from those gods. Advaita Vedantists have divorced the Brahman from any and all Hindu gods. Given that the gods aren’t exempt from this volatility, it’s reasonable to believe they don’t exist and therefore, it’s reasonable to regard the statement “gods do not exist” as true.
Religions also change due to socio-political pressure. For instance, the prevailing Hindu attitude toward the so called untouchables changed after protests from the likes of Gandhi and Ambedkar.16 As already discussed, shifts in religious thinking can contribute to changes in a given religion. In some cases, it can give rise to a new religion. This might have been the case with Islam.17 The claim of absolute truth, in and of itself, may be due to socio-political, cultural, and religious pressures.
Given that there are now many religions, some may claim absolute truth to garner support. Others may claim absolute truth to stamp out the competition. The claim to absolute truth isn’t original to the oldest religions. It also isn’t original to the earliest versions of monotheistic religions. Islam, again, is a good example. Disagreements over the teachings of Muhammad led to myriad Hadiths–most of which contradict one another on key details.18 The Qur’an itself is controversial. Though some Muslims claim its the version contributed by Uthman, there is no evidence in favor of that conclusion.19 The Qur’an also borrows heavily from the Bible. Given the many Hadiths and the controversial nature of the Qur’an, that claims to absolute truth were an afterthought rather than original to Islam is the more reasonable conclusion.
Ultimately, a religion cannot be traced historically without a consideration of the culture it emerged from. Political, sociological, and religious pressures must also be accounted for. This analysis makes it impossible to separate the two arguments here presented. Since a religion’s history is intimately connected to cultural, political, sociological, and religious shifts, an analysis of the former requires analysis of the latter. Therefore, the strength of the arguments are best seen in conjunction. Given the strength of their conclusions, arguments to the contrary are not only weaker but wrong. For instance, an argument stating that since there are many religions, the probability of one being true is high is a weak argument for two reasons: it is offered by someone clearly favoring one religion over the others; given this, it is likely that this person didn’t account for the variables that must be considered when drawing a conclusion.
Any conclusion that doesn’t account for a religion’s history and all factors leading to its changes over time isn’t a conclusion worth serious attention. Religion is best seen in the backdrop of its cultural conditions. Given cultural evolution, it’s to be expected that a religion will change over time. Claims to absolute truth will sometimes arise given certain pressures. These must also be understood in their proper context. Its simply wrong to consider the truth value of a religion or its god without an understanding of that context.
1 “Religion Library: Hinduism”. Patheos. 2008-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
2 “Religion Library: Buddhism”. Patheos. 2008-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
3 “Religion Library: Jainism”. Patheos. 2008-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
4 Ambaa. “How Does Hinduism Differ From Buddhism”. Patheos. 22 Nov 2013. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
5 Shah, Pravin K. “Jain Path to Liberation”. Harvard University. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
6 “The Kalpa Sutra of Bhadrabahu”. Hindu Website. 1884. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
7 “Jainism”. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
8 V, Jayram. “The Role of Asceticism in the Development of India”. Hindu Website. 2000-2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
9 “The 13 ascetic practices”. Dhammadana. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
10 Das, Subhamoy & Sadasivan, Manoj. “The Vedas: A Brief Introduction”. About. 2014. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
11 “Roots of Hinduism and Buddhism”. History of Hinduism. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
12 Knapp, Stephen. “God Is Both Personal (Bhagavan) and Impersonal (Brahman)”. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
13 Ibid. 
14 Wilkins, John S. “Does religion evolve?”. Science Blogs. 2 Feb 2008. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
15 “Buddhism vs Hinduism”. Diffen. ND. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
16 Kashtan, Miki. “Gandhi and the Dalit controversy: The limits of the moral force of an individual”. Waging Nonviolence. 27 Feb 2012. Web. 30 Nov 2014.
17 Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist?: An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins, p. 179. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. Print.
18 Ibid., p.77-78
19 Ibid., p.192-193