The Ancient Myths That Produced Many Religions
(Including a very famous one that, alas, still survives)
by Jeffrey M. Dean
When the facts get in the way of our beliefs, our brains are marvelously adept at dispensing with the facts.
Those who believe without reason cannot be convinced by reason. - James Randi
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Thomas Jefferson, 1802. Jefferson was President of the United States from 1801 to 1809.
Humans have long sought solace in the face of adversity and to find answers to the great questions. Is this all there is? Where did we come from? Is there a soul and do I have one? Is death really final? For hundreds of thousands of years, people have turned to a myriad of religions for comfort and answers. When I was a teenager, I found religion to be helpful as I gazed in wonder at the world around me, hungry for answers.
Thousands of years ago, in order to answer such questions, hundreds of itinerant prophets roamed the Middle East and other earthly regions purveying their particular religions (sometimes called "mystery religions") with their own myths to support them. They were, to use a modern phrase, “a dime a dozen.” It was a time of superstition and ignorance, long before they were supplanted by knowledge and science.
The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute has published a paper, The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity, including these comments:
Christianity was subject to the same influences from the environment as were the other cults, and it sometimes produced the same reaction. The people were conditioned by the contact with the older religions and the background and general trend of the time. Following the lead of the apostle Paul, the Christian missionaries on gentile soil finally made of Christianity a more appealing religion than any of the other mystery cults.
Christianity triumphed over these other mystery religions after long conflict. This triumph may be attributed in part to the fact that Christianity took from its opponents, and used them elements of the mystery religions were transferred to the new religion.
Over time, long before 0 A.D., elements of various religions were extracted and assembled into new religions. Religions have undergone elemental and routine borrowing and, yes, evolution. No comprehensive, consistent analysis of the evidence can pick out Christianity as fundamentally different from other ancient pagan religions.
Common myths advanced by these ancient prophets — Osiris, Mithra, Dionysus, Tammus, Horus, and others — included the following:
God came to earth as a human, born of a virgin.
His birth was prophesized by a star in the heavens.
Later, he turned water into wine.
He gathered 12 disciples.
He rode triumphantly into a city on a donkey.
He healed the sick, exorcised demons, and provided miraculous meals.
He was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver.
He died, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world by being hung on a tree, a stake, or a cross depending on the prophet’s tale.
On the third day after his death, three women found his burial place empty.
He returned to life and, later, ascended into heaven.
He will return in the “last days” to judge the human race.
All these ancient prophetic myths occurred in various prophecies hundreds of years before Jesus was supposed to have been born. All that had to be done to create the most famous of these primitive religions, what we call today Christianity, was to bring all the previous myths into an assembled work. That was done after ca. AD 45 over several centuries in what we would recognize today as being akin to political conventions. There were intense battles over what books would be included in the assembled work, the New Testament. Votes were taken. Favored essays were discarded and included. Eventually, after centuries of work, its 27 books, which were written by numerous authors, all born long after Jesus allegedly lived, were gradually collected into a single volume.
“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. I must say that I stand amazed at the highly intelligent people who have taken so much of the Bible so seriously. Nobody but a dedicated Christian could possibly read the gospels and not see them as a tissue of nonsense. Isaac Asimov, 1966
In short, Christianity is an assembly of much earlier myths, and its New Testament is a political document in which all these prior ancient myths are brought together in a single tome.
“If you weren’t indoctrinated [as a child] into [religion], it sounds like a far-fetched fairy tale.” — Adam Carolla, March 9, 2006, Penn Radio.
In my youth, I did not know these things. Now that I am grown up and do understand that all religions are myths I feel freed from them. I can face the world realizing that reality is what we see before us in nature, and that science provides all the answers that we know. It does not bother me that we do not know all of them, nor that it is unlikely humanity ever will. I do not need religious myths to provide the answers, because they do not. In the last analysis, they are just that — myths.
I understand why most people today wind up as “believers” in one religion or another. Nearly all were indoctrinated by their parents as impressionable children before they could reach the age of reason, thus keeping the religious cycle going. Believing gives such people comfort and answers so that they need not be confused by the world before them. Everything becomes “God’s will.” That is easy and comforting for them.
“We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I think religion stops people from thinking. I think it justified crazies.” Bill Maher
This would be fine were it not for the tendency of believers in one religion to find believers in other religions intolerable, often producing violent wars. Thus we found Catholics and Protestants in violent confrontations in Northern Ireland. Sunnis and Shias battle over who is the alleged real descendant of Muhammad. Muslims believe those who do not believe in their religion are infidels to be killed. Jews believe they have a divine basis for claiming lands in the Middle East and force intrusive settlements on the land of Paliestinians, and Muslims hate them accordingly – with 60 years of wars, and counting, the result. Believers of all stripes hate nonbelievers — attacking them, at a minimum, with aggression and profanity.
“Religious controversies are always more productive of more acrimony & irreconcilable hatreds
than those which spring from any other cause.” President George Washington
“The fact is that more people have been slaughtered in the name of religion than for any other single reason. That, my friends, that is true perversion!” Harvey Milk, 1978
Do you like TV evangelists? Here is a great one. Praise the lord.
Perhaps there are really two global crises facing mankind and its planet. One is environmental degradation and global warming. The other is that most people (if the polls can be believed) adopt religious beliefs with a sense of surety and certainty that theirs is the one true religion and that it alone represents the truth, and is not myth. Too often, this breeds a need to eliminate those who do not share that religion or do not believe in any religion.
Why am I an atheist? I ask you: Why is anybody not an atheist? Everyone starts out being an atheist. No one is born with belief in anything. Infants are atheists until they are indoctrinated. I resent anyone pushing their religion on me. I don't push my atheism on anybody else. Live and let live. Not many people practice that when it comes to religion. Andy Rooney, Boston Globe, May 30,1982
What happens when believers find that their prayers are not answered and that they are faced with the reality that religion is just myth and superstition?
Back in the 1950s three social psychologists joined a cult that was predicting the imminent end of the world. Their purpose was to observe the cultists’ response when the world did not, in fact, end on schedule. What they discovered ... is that the irrefutable failure of a prophecy does not cause true believers — people who have committed themselves to a belief both emotionally and by their life choices to reconsider. On the contrary, they become even more fervent, and proselytize even harder. 2008 Nobel Prize recipient Paul Krugman, New York Times, Dec. 24, 2012