Did the religious founders even exist?

Start with Muhammad who lived from 570 to 632 AD. There is extensive proof of his existence, but he’s relatively recent, from the early medieval period.

Before him, Jesus. There are strong indications that a Jewish rabbi of that named lived from about 6 BC – 34 AD, and was executed by the Romans. But those were turbulent times in that part of the world, with insurrections and sieges and the destruction of cities. Certainly the stories told about Jesus were reshaped by Paul with a pro-Roman bias, and some people claim there was no Jesus at all, just an amalgam of Mithraic and other myths.

Moses parting the Red Sea

Some of the religious back stories have always been really, really unlikely.

And now Moses, purported to have been the Jews tribal leader around 1500 BC, is under increasing scrutiny. His existence is questioned on the basis of the entire Jewish-Exodus-from-Egypt story being likely mythical, because there is no trace of any of it in the detailed Egyptian records we have today.

The further back in time, the more dubious the founder looks.

What about Odin? He could have been a tribal leader, bringing the Aesir through Germany into Scandinavia around 300 AD. A trickster, a shaman, a warrior, and perhaps a man who had half-learned to write on the fringes of the Roman Empire, and created a runic alphabet for his own people. Archeology will have to devise fresh tricks before we have more answers.

And Gilgamesh, searching for the secret of immortality, journeying to Dilmun to meet Utnapishtim the Faraway, the survivor of the Flood. The Persian Gulf used to be dry land right out to the Straits of Hormuz during the last Ice Age. If the land flooded by cataclysm rather than gradually, whatever proto-civilizations there were on that fertile plain would have been wiped out. Perhaps a man named Utnapishtim survived, and lived out his days in Dilmun, which the Bahrainis think is the place now known as Bahrain.

And coming back to our own time, we have to consider the new religions of Mormonism and Scientology. Clearly, Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard existed. And equally clearly, the back stories to their religions were made up out of whole cloth, shared with a couple of close associates, and then used to gain access to the wealth and women among the gullible.

And they’ve grown! Mormonism has gone from zero to 14 million since 1830, and Scientology from zero to maybe 200,000 since the early 50s.

So the old religions may have come about in the same way. Yes, there was a founder. Yes, he had visions, or claimed to have visions, or just preached a good story. And a lot of what he preached, even if he made it up out of whole cloth, was believed because it proved to be something that a lot of people were comfortable believing.

And that’s how we got where we are.

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It’s not Hamza Kashgari who is blasphemous – it’s his accusers!

On the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, 23-year-old poet and journalist Hamza Kashgari sent out three tweets:

Hamza Kashgari calls it like he sees it

  • On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
  • On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
  • On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

This ignited a firestorm of indignation, with tens of thousands of his fellow Saudis calling for him to be tried for blasphemy and atheism, and executed. For some of the worst acting from a cleric, watch this short video.

Hamza flew to Malaysia, heading for asylum in New Zealand, but was arrested in the airport at Kuala Lumpur.

The irony is that his tweets are perfectly in line with the attitude that Muhammad himself tried to cultivate: that humans should never be deified, that neither Jesus nor Muhammad was anything but an ordinary man (though favored with prophetic gifts), and that, as he himself tried to prove, Muhammad could not perform miracles.

By the way, that’s the source of the story that ends “Well, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.” Very much like King Canute shutting his flattering courtiers up by setting his chair up on the beach and telling the waves to go back, which they wouldn’t.

But the followers and the religious organizers always take over after the great man is dead, and turn him into a god to be worshiped. It happened with Buddha, with Odin, with Jesus. Muhammad put as many firewalls in the way as he could, but all too many Muslims treat Muhammad the way Christians treat Jesus, and impute outlandish miracles to him such as splitting and rejoining the moon.

Realistically, therefore, it’s the fanatical and superstitious accusers of Hamza Kashgari who are the blasphemers. The young poet should be praised for trying to keep Islam true to the wishes of its Prophet.

A short, simplistic history of monotheism

Three or four thousand years ago the Jews decided to only worship one god, Yahweh; and some time after that they decided that Yahweh was the only God.

Symbols of the three major monotheist religions

Two thousand years ago, under cultural pressure from Egyptian neighbors, Greek settlers and the Roman occupation, Jews were sliding in their beliefs. Jesus was one of many preachers who tried to restore the people to hardline Judaism through an emphasis on the Shema as the basic prayer: “Hear, O Israel…”

After the Romans crucified Jesus for his Messianic kingship claim, Paul came along. Paul was a Westernized Jew who wanted to spread a religion throughout the Roman Empire, and he decided to do it by blending Jewish monotheism with the polytheist rituals of Rome and Egypt and with the popular military sun-god cult of Mithras. He made Jesus into a Jewish Mithras, elevating him to a divine – or at least mythic – status, and downplaying Jesus’ physical nature.

Fourteen hundred years ago Muhammad, knowing a fair amount about some forms of Christianity as well as Judaism, preached a return to pure monotheism, and the worship of a God who is “One, and eternally sought, who neither gives birth nor is born, and there is none like Him.” Jesus is given recognition as a prophet, but fully human.

So Islam is very close to Judaism and the actual teachings of Jesus, while Paul’s “Christianity” is the odd one out. Think about it: God cannot be human; God can’t be pictured, and you shouldn’t even try; pray to God, not to any saint or any other human; oh, and don’t eat pork. Judaism and Islam agree on all those, and Christianity disagrees. That’s pretty fundamental. And clearly, Christianity isn’t really monotheism at all.