Jesus, Buddha, Abraham and Muhammed: Larger-than-life historic figures or largely legends?
Jesus casts the moneychangers out of the Temple (Shutterstock)

We all know that gods don’t actually have to exist for religions to spring up around them, so mostly we filter out the miracles and god-talk as mere mythology and tend to think of any so called “prophets” as simply human beings who were unusually wise, unusually deluded, or excellent liars. That said, we often accept that the biographical stories about these extraordinary personages are largely true. We credit religious patriarchs and prophets like Buddha, LaoTse, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad, with outsized roles in human history, much as we might credit Napoleon or Thomas Jefferson, or modern cultural icons like Elon Musk.

It turns out that we may be giving them too much credit. Even assuming that most of these iconic figures actually existed in some form in the flesh[1], religions may owe their current (and historic) forms more to social conditions—convergences of culture and technology– than individual founders.

Author David Fitzgerald has spent years researching the origins of Christianity and other common monotheistic religions. In this interview, we discuss some of the patterns and factors at play in how religions emerge and the forms they take.

Tarico: In your lectures and writings, you discuss patterns in how modern monotheistic religions have emerged.

Fitzgerald: Yes, although the doctrines, theologies and tenets all differ, the structures and development stages are remarkably alike—and the same largely holds true for the various non-monotheistic eastern traditions as well. If you go way back, the three Abrahamic faiths—the world’s largest monotheistic religions—have their roots in what is basically pantheism, which evolved into polytheism, and then monolatry. [Believers in monolatry accept that a pantheon or broad array of gods exist, but they commit their fealty and worship to only one of them and bank on his favor in return—to be their god’s chosen people] In western religion, this in turn finally evolved into monotheism—the belief that their god was the one true God and the others were fake; not simply rival deities, but either lower order beings like angels or demons, or outright imaginary.

Tarico: Ok, I have to expound here, because as a former Evangelical, I was fascinated when I first learned about “monolatry” as a transitional form—a bridge between polytheism and monotheism in the early Hebrew religion. Theologian Thom Stark first introduced me to the idea with his book, The Human Faces of God. Stark pointed out the remnants of polytheism and then monolatry in the Old Testament.

Early on, the god of Genesis sometimes is referred to using a plural—Elohim. (El is a god in the Caananite pantheon, and Hebrew-Christian angels retain his name imbedded within theirs: Micha-el; Gabri-el; Rapha-el; Uri-el; Jophi-el.)

Fitzgerald: Not to mention the land of Isra-el.

Tarico: Yes! Later, Jehovah or YHWH appears to be a national god, one in a pantheon of many. (An excavated inscription addresses the goddess Asherah alongside YHWH as his consort.) In the Ten Commandments, YHWH forbids his people to worship the other Canaanite gods, but doesn’t say they don’t exist. “You shall have no other gods before me.”[2] Ignoring the commandment, the Israelites make offerings to his enemy, Baal, the storm god, and are punished. Later still, as monotheism solidifies, one song of praise simply swaps in the name of Jehovah for the name of Baal. The whole trajectory is visible right there in the Old Testament!

Fitzgerald: Absolutely, and as I discuss in my upcoming book, (working title: Sex & Violence in the Bible) there are actually several places in the Old Testament where scribes have stolen hymns and paeans to other gods, and shaved off the serial numbers to turn them into praise for YHWH. As the Hebrew Bible says again and again, he is a jealous god—because there are rival gods for him to be jealous of. The idea that he was the one and only true god (and always had been!) came much later.

None of this is idle speculation; we have plentiful textual, archeological and epigraphic (inscriptions) evidence of how monotheism arose in ancient Israel.

Tarico: The psychology or sociology of this process fascinates me. I could imagine hypothesizing some generalizations here that might fit other religions as well. It seems that religions draw from earlier religions and surrounding religions, the same way that cultural remixing works more broadly. I could imagine that familiar traditions and cultural currents shape people’s sense of what is possible and credible—what stories, beliefs and practices they will accept without excessive skepticism.

Fitzgerald: That’s absolutely right; and they don’t just interact with the concepts and doctrines of the rival faiths around them; they also draw upon the ancestral forms of their own evolving religion. Fragments of older traditions get revised and carried forward, and what can’t be absorbed gets re-interpreted—or condemned as some foreign import or heretical relapse—as new beliefs supplant the old. Hebrews start as polytheists, then henotheists, before borrowing from Zoroastrianism to become monotheistic. Later Christianity shows up with a divine son of their God, coincidentally enough at the very same period that all of these Hellenistic religions have arrived, each featuring a son (or daughter) of gods that is a personal savior living in your heart; if you are born again into their faith.

Tarico: Are there repeated patterns in when or why religions move through different stages—from pantheism to monotheism, for example?

Fitzgerald: Robert Wright laid this out in his book, The Evolution of God, historical period by period. In the earliest layers, there is no religion per se. It’s simply known that the sun and other natural phenomena are supernatural entities. But there are no priest functions, shamanic rituals, no interactions with the gods. It’s just a given that these spirits control things, and the gods are as wild and unpredictable as any other forces of nature. Throughout places as diverse as Siberia, South America, Africa, Polynesia and Europe, anthropologists find commonalities across the board—such as projecting consciousness into nature, or the capriciousness of gods.

Many others have noted evolutionary survival mechanisms that lead to religious impulses, starting even before we were human. For instance, many animals have a very high degree of overactive agency detection, that is, they tend to see threats that aren’t actually there. Animal researchers like Justin Barrett point out that this is because it’s far safer to be wrong about a tiger that isn’tthere stalking you, than it is to be wrong about one that actually is. Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell marvelously showcases how easily this and similar phenomenon become co-opted by religions.

Just by virtue of being social animals, we evolve particular traits. Like us, chimp societies have politics, alliances, cliques, competition for sex partners and other social dynamics. Biologists like David Sloan Wilson have shown how, for instance, reciprocal altruism naturally unfolds, by the raw fact that in small groups dependent upon one another, you really can’t misbehave without consequences.

Tarico: Some of this is inborn. Psychiatrist Andy Thomson, who studied both child development and suicide terrorism, wrote a book that pulls together some of the developmental patterns and cognitive shortcuts that explain, Why We Believe in Gods. Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, delves more into the brain science. The structure of the human mind and cognition may explain why religions around the world have features in common. But then there also are enormously consequential differences. It seems that some religious features require a certain level of social-cultural complexity.

Fitzgerald: Very much so, and the stage of any particular religious theology is predicated on certain levels of social and technological evolution. Once hunter-gather societies start specializing, you soon get to the Shaman phase; i.e., a specialist expert oracle, healer, and all-purpose go-between between humans and the gods/nature. A lot of them rely on sleight of hand, ventriloquism, and other chicanery. And very tellingly, they have no problem in exposing each other’s tricks.

Tarico: Do they know they are doing tricksy things and how much is self-serving elites, and how much is that they really do believe it and it helps society as a whole?

Fitzgerald: There may not be a single, not-messy answer to that. For instance, during the 1980s, a series of murders in Salt Lake City happened because Mark Hoffman, a notorious forger of Mormon artifacts, started bombing to cover up his scam. The Mormon leadership prides itself on their spiritual gift of discernment—but they were totally being played by this con artist.[3] There has to be a point where they can’t not know their claims are pure, unflinching bullshit. Same with the Vatican, Southern Baptists and all the rest: Some at the top have to know that on some level it’s just politics, power and money, but where that happens for people in leadership roles and where they draw their lines? Harder to say.

Tarico: What else do you see as necessary components?

Fitzgerald: Some are technological. Again, as Robert Wright demonstrates, to go from the Shaman to the Chieftain stage takes agriculture, which in turn relies on astronomy. Chiefdoms grow into city-states. At that stage, you need governmental bureaucracies and information technologies to support them: writing, mathematics, recordkeeping.

And along this trajectory, something very interesting happens. When a religion consists of one group that doesn’t think it can get along with some other group, first it’s all “our god will smite you.” But when you think you can do business with this other group, or even join with them in an alliance, then your god will warm up to others considerably.

This is what happened when the Jews became part of the Persian empire; their god didn’t lose, he allowed Israel’s enemies to punish his chosen people – and then went on to evolve into a universal god who was the god of everybody, you just had to choose to accept him or not. That’s when you get talk about eternal brotherhood and God’s love for all. All the old violent verses get reinterpreted. That intolerance/tolerance goes back and forth as history advances, depending on whether it’s the hippies or the fundies who are at the fore…

Tarico: Ok, so religions evolve in serious ways based on social and technological conditions, and degrees of interdependency. These changing patterns also spawn new religions. Sometimes—if I can draw an analogy to biological evolution—one could say that speciation occurs, meaning that the ancestor religion and the younger one become so different that they are two different beasts, mutually incompatible, maybe in conflict, like Judaism and Christianity.

I can see that. But most people would say that the emergence of Judaism or Christianity or Islam wasn’t merely a matter of gradual evolution—that there was a distinctive break at the beginning of each. A specific person founded the new offshoot—Abraham, Jesus, and then Muhammad. You aren’t so sure. You suggest that religions routinely produce a set of legends that take the form of a great men.

Fitzgerald: That’s certainly how I used to see it, too, but when you look closely at the world’s major religions, you find a striking pattern: biographical information about the founder doesn’t appear initially, but only generations after the fact, sometimes even hundreds of years after. And typically there is enormous confusion and contradictions about even the basics of their lives and teachings. So a major world faith starting with a purely legendary founder in a golden-age founding myth suddenly doesn’t seem far-fetched; quite the opposite: it seems to be the norm.

Tarico: But why would you question whether there was a real person at the beginning? Q-Anon has been called a new secular religion. With good reason, I think. The person behind it may not actually be whoever adherents think, but there is someone behind it.

Fitzgerald: Oh there absolutely is someone behind every religion—it’s just not who we’ve been told it was. In every case, it seems to be the faceless, nameless real authors behind the scenes who used their founder figure as a placeholder for all the wisdom and guidance they wanted to convey. Whether they themselves sincerely thought in all innocence they were doing the Lords’ work, or were deliberately and cynically manipulating their flock (or some unconscious blend of both) for, say, political or other reasons, remains an open question, then as now.

And yes, “Q” is a perfect example of that phenomenon playing out today. The “real” “Q-anon Source” is not some anonymous high-level Trump administration insider, or JFK, Jr. returned from the grave, or whatever other new crackpot theory pops up next week – it appears to be a pair of dodgy online influencers currently under heavy scrutiny.

Tarico: You think that the social and technological evolution is both necessary and sufficient to explain the emergence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikkhism and more—with or without a powerful founding figure?

Fitzgerald: If we’re talking Christianity, there are scholars who think the point is moot, because we can account for its rise and origin whether or not there was a single founder. It was certainly comprised of several movements, but even if it had begun as a single one, the spread and geographic distribution don’t appear to have come out of Galilee or Jerusalem. Multiple Christianities appear in a very short amount of time, all over the Mediterranean world, yet they can’t agree on what Christianity is, or what Jesus was. His biographical narratives only emerge generations later. Christianity before the gospels were written is a very different animal than after.

Tarico: Does it really matter if we understand these hypotheses, with the answers so shrouded in history? So much is conjecture—or arguments about trivialities. There seems to be serious, perhaps unanswerable debate, for example, about whether big gods (i.e., universal religions) brought about big complex societies, or the reverse.

Fitzgerald: It’s important to learn what we can, because these evolutionary processes are still going today. You mentioned Q. There are small modern day cults, but also important political movements that take on religious aspects, be it the more extreme forms of Wokeism or the Trump personality cult. A little bit farther back in history are the Luddite movement and William Tell, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. We can look for patterns.

For just one example, it’s no accident that Islam emerged at a time of political vacuum and conquest, or that the burgeoning Arab caliphate needed to develop their own universal-style religion. Muhammad, as described in the traditional biographies that came much later, may or may not have existed—but if there wasn’t such a figure in reality, he certainly needed to be invented. Even before the more well-known rift between Sunni and Shia, early Islam was torn by so-called “wars of apostasy” over many would-be prophets. “Muhammad” (“The Praiseworthy One”) could simply be a title instead of a name, possibly even originally referring to one or more of these other prophets altogether. It’s interesting to see how up for grabs Islam was in its early decades; things could have played out very differently—exactly like Christianity. Or Judaism. Or any other major religion you can think of.

If we understand the birth and evolution of religions as natural processes, we can predict what kinds of religions may emerge in the future. For example, any emergent religion right now would have to be science compatible, or science-proof. As Robert Wright pointed out, as societies and religions become more interdependent, grow bigger and bigger, they have to be more inclusive, or they simply won’t be able to compete with those that are. The definition of your brother has to expand with the size of the social unit—unless you want to go extinct.

It’s ironic that fundamentalists in every religion deny evolution so adamantly, when the origins and adaptations of every sect in human history are textbook examples of Darwinian theory in action. And if you are attached to any one religion, there’s an important take-away from all this: if you look at other faiths and see how they came about, how they changed in response to their changing environment, it isn’t hard to recognize how those same processes played out in yours, too.

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David Fitzgerald is the author of Nailed and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion series, including The Mormons, Jesus: Mything in Action, and the forthcoming Sex & Violence in the Bible.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

[1] The historicity of almost all religious founder figures appears to be questionable; see Part 1 of this series.

[2] The Prophet Ezekiel complains about Hebrews worshipping idols, the sun and the Sumerian god Tammuz occurring right in the Jerusalem temple itself (see Ezekiel 8, esp. 8:3-5, 10-16)

[3] See David Fitzgerald’s book The Mormons for the whole story of the Hoffman affair.