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
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