Religion Impact on Many Civilizations
Throughout the course of human history, many civilizations have risen to prominence as well as having collapsed into nothingness. One commonality that each civilization has had, regardless of the respective outcome, was the impact that religion had on them. Democracies such as Greece, empires and kingdoms like Rome and Egypt, and even the many great dynasties of China all had religious beliefs in some form or another that greatly impacted their ways of life. Religion played an essential role in how these societies functioned. While other civilizations may have had less value regarding their religious views or the impacts that they had, these belief systems have played a hand in just about every member of society’s life in some form or another. It impacted day-to-day life, views of death, politics, and wars, and continues to do so today. Religion has played one of the biggest factors in any civilization in world history when it comes to the impact of the society, more so than any other contributor.
To understand Ancient Greece, you must take a look at their religion. The Greeks were basically bound to their religion. The religion of the early Greeks is vastly different from Christianity or any other monotheistic religions.
The Greeks had many gods, but only the gods that lived on Mount Olympus are talked about in literature so frequently. The gods are distinguished by their attributes or purpose, they came to form a system in which each deity had their own special place in relation to the other gods. Although there were many gods, there were only a few major gods that are spoken of. These were the “twelve gods”, talking about the twelve principal divinities. Zeus, god of the sky, lighting. Thunder, and justice as well as ruler of Mount Olympus. Hera, queen of the gods and the goddess of marriage, women, childbirth, and family. Poseidon, god of the seas, water, storms, and hurricanes. Ares, god of war. Athena, goddess of wisdom, knowledge and reason. Aphrodite, goddess of love, pleasure, and fertility. These are just a six of the twelve divinities. In the Greek’s eyes these were the highest power that they should pay respect to.
It was very wise to pay the gods honor, and not to offend any of them. Depending on specific actions, the gods decided any outcome they would place upon a person. In the book, Odyssey, Odysseus has multiple encounters with the gods. The gods either helped him on his journey back home, or they hurt it. For example, Odysseus offends the god Poseidon when he blinds his son Polyphemus, while trying to save the lives of him and his men. Poseidon wrecks havoc on Odysseus by making his journey home nearly impossible. The Greeks believed that for every action they had there was a reaction that followed. Another example in Greek mythology of the gods and goddesses roles is in the Trojan War.
The Trojan War was caused by a feud between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite. Eris, the goddess of discord, had a golden apple which symbolized the fairest of them all. The goddess began to argue who the apple was intended for and took the argument to Zeus. Zeus sent them to the Prince of Troy, Paris. Each goddess bribed him with something to try and win him over so he would pick them. It was Aphrodite’s bribe that won Paris over. Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful women in Sparta, Helen. The problem was Helen was already married to King Menelaus. Paris went to Sparta and stole Helen away in the night. This made Menelaus furious. He gathered an army and headed to Troy. The gods and goddess started to choose sides. Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Hephaestus, and Thetis, Achilles’ mother, sided with the Achaeans. Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Artemis sided with the Trojans.Many times, gods themselves did not fight but rather “inspired” warriors to commit acts for them. This example shows that because Paris chose “wrong” or was misguided by the gods there were consequences.
Greek religion contains an element of monotheism, where although there are many gods and sometimes they argue with each other, Zeus is the one that they looked to. The Ancient Greeks also had nothing like Christianity when dealing with the afterlife and the conception of soul. For the Greeks, the spirit left the dying human and traveled through the underworld less than half alive. There was no heaven for the spirits after death and everyone would go to the underworld. The Greeks had no church with authority to explain the ethics on this belief system. They had priests, the person that was in charge of taking care of the temple. They didn’t have a sacred book where everything was written down people. People learned about the gods from word of mouth or the early poets like Homer. Today, you can find literary texts that historians have written on documents that have been prescribed on stone.
Again, it is very difficult to look at the life and development of civilizations such as ancient Greece and Rome without looking at their religion. As Wasson states, religion has performed major role in development of many societies, both ancient and modern. The religion in Rome is broken up into two main eras: polytheism and judaism/christianity. In the beginning, religion in Rome was much similar to Greece. With polytheistic views, the gods they believed in were all the same, with only the names being different. Rome’s polytheistic religion was also slightly more tolerable, as a whole, than the Greeks as any society that was conquered by Rome was allowed to retain their own culture and religion, with some cases of gods being incorporated into Pantheon of Roman gods. This served the complex society well as it showed just how adaptable the society and culture could be. The roles the gods played were almost an exact match to Greece, but Romans believed that these gods were “not as playful” and were to be considered far more harsh than the gods of Ancient Greece. This had a greater impact on the Romans as they believed they needed to live a stricter lifestyle in order to appease the gods. Human sacrifices were made as they had been thought of as necessary to keep the gods happy. Holidays celebrating religions halted all businesses, schools, and other state institutions were shut down in order to celebrate.
Rome had a drastic shift in religious views when Judaism and Christianity began. These two religions absolutely refused to participate in the worship of any kind to the old Roman. This opposition created a rift between those who believed in the polytheistic views with those of these newer religions. Romans considered Jews intolerant, and this was very irritating. Jews and Christians were persecuted by the Romans.
China is one of the few ancient civilizations that, for the most part, was able to successfully separate religion from the rest of the state. While not necessarily religions; Daoism, Confucianism, and Legalism were the three main philosophies that were used in place of religion and dictated the ways people lived their lives.
Daoism, also known as Taoism, was a basic Chinese philosophy that one should live in harmony with nature. Like other religions, Daoism had a higher being Legalism Egypt had, by far, the greatest impact of religion in any of the four civilizations looked at. Throughout the course of three thousand years, religion in Egypt remained rather homogeneous. State and religion were inseparable, as the pharaoh was head of the state as well as the divine representative of the gods on earth. Another polytheistic religion, Egypt
In today’s world, religion is still one of the most impactful factors that make up the life of an individual. According to the Washington Times, eighty-four percent of the population identify with a religious group. These people, just like in ancient times, use their religion as a foundation as to how they live their life. We also see similarities between today and ancient times for how great of a role religion is allowed to play in government. In America today, we see that it is important, and can be beneficial, to have a seperation of the church and the state. Some past civilization were unable to thrive and continue because they could not separate these two. Religion is distanced from government as much as allowably possible. However, government still sees the importance of religion within a civilization.
The First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution allows for the freedom to celebrate any religion however one sees fit. America’s founding fathers recognized the importance of religion and the impacts that it can have on a society as a whole, and made sure that America was a country that valued all religions and those who celebrated them. We also see the similarity of how different religions can create friction and hostility. One of the worst disasters, not only in the 21st century, but in American history as a whole, was the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. These attacks, as well as the repercussions that followed, had some religious foundations behind it. Another outcome of the 9/11 attacks was an increase in religious attendance. According to Uecker, people exhibited renewed religious commitment as religious attendance increased six percent the weekend following the attacks than the week prior.
Religion has had such an impact on these, and many other, civilizations, that they are still discussed in great depth today. A great deal of time and effort is spent looking into just how much religion had factored in to the overall and daily lives of a member of a civilization. Religion has touched the lives of every member in society, new and old, in some shape or form.