Religion is More Mythical than Atheists Think

Maps of War has a Flash movie depicting 5,000 years of religious history in 90 seconds. Or, more precisely, 5,000 years of idealized religious history that grants religion a lot more credit than it deserves. It starts with the birth of Hinduism 5,000 years ago, continues with Judaism 4,000 years ago, then Buddha, then Jesus, and then Muhammad, and ends at the present boundaries of the five religions.

All atheists and most other nontheists deny the existence of every religion’s deities. But they will often accept the basic historical truth of each religion – for example, the existence of the Three Patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judea.

The History of Religion feature is no different. Its part about Judaism concedes that Abraham existed and that the conquest of Canaan was real. Real historians of religion beg to differ: there’s no archeological or linguistic evidence Judaism even existed before the early 1st millennium BC.

Similarly, Hinduism dates way later than 3000 BC. At the time, the inhabitants of India were all Dravidians; the Indo-Aryans only reached India around 1500 BC. It took that long for Sanskrit to even split from Avestan. The Rig-Veda dates to 1500 BC at earliest, based on linguistic evidence.

As for Islam, there isn’t any evidence the religion even existed before the 8th century AD. It’s a lot likelier that an Arab empire developed Islam after coming into contact with Jews and Christians in Syria than that a merchant invented Islam and then proceeded to conquer the entire Arabian peninsula.

But the weakest part of the Flash clip is the one about Buddhism. Non-monotheistic religions display extreme levels of diversity, which Westerners (including Muslims, since Islam is essentially part of the West) tend to be very bad at categorizing.

Of the five religions listed in the clip, what is practiced in China or Japan is closest to Buddhism. But there are more than these five religions. Japan is supposedly Shinto and really nonreligious. China has three teachings – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – of which the latter is the most important both historically and in terms of what the current government is gravitating toward.

4 Responses to Religion is More Mythical than Atheists Think

  1. The history of religion movie just reinforces the fact that culture is always influenced by religion. Even those who otherwise recognize religion as the whimsical angel-on-pinhead counting that it is often get duped into believing that it’s self-compiled history is accurate.

    And look at the religions mentioned. Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. No mention of any of the Pagan traditions which no doubt influenced later versions of the Abrahamic traditions (especially Christianity, which was originally just a Hellenized version of Judaism), no mention of Zoroastrianism, despite the influence of it’s dualistic thinking. And, as you point out, mention of Taoism or Confucianism.

    This isn’t history, it’s lazy Western pseudo-history and mythologizing.

  2. The Alpha says:

    I thought Islam did not begin at the birth of Muhammad. I thought it didn’t get started until Muhammad was 40.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Officially, Islam began with the Hijra in 622. In reality, it probably postdated the Hijra by 100-150 years, just like Christianity postdated Jesus’s purported crucifixion by 30-40 years.

    Tyler, I’ve just read a book, An Angel Directs the Storm, which reinforces that myth even more. It’s too Christian-Marxist for me to bother with a full critique, but I imagine I’m going to have to have a lot of words to say about the myth that e.g. the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is about religion and the US supports Israel because of Evangelical beliefs.

  4. Steve says:

    I am constantly irritated by the casual acceptance of “Biblical Historicity” both in my past and in the popular media – even purportedly ‘academic leaning’ channels like “The History Channel” and “The Learning Channel”, or in magazines and books. I was surprised to learn, many years ago, that there is virtually no historical evidence outside of the biblical record for the existance of, say, King David, or Abraham, or any of those old patriarchs… we’re so steeped in it here in the US that it seems ‘obvious’, right?

    Thanks for taking the time to kick this particular horse in the ass!

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