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Thread: Why did certain religions manage to become world religions, while others ended in historical obscurity?

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    Why did certain religions manage to become world religions, while others ended in historical obscurity?

    Have you heard of Mithraism? Likely so, if you have engaged at all with Jesus mythicism, regardless of your position on it. Have you heard of Zoroastrianism? Also pretty likely. It was the dominant religion in the Persian Empire before the Islamic conquest. Zoroastrians still exist today as very small groups in Iran and India, and other places, including the West. Have you heard of Zalmoxis? Perhaps not. A popular god among the ancient Getae and Dacians (who lived in modern-day Romania), notable enough that Herodotus bothered to write about him.

    In all of these cases, we are talking about religions that in the course of history lost it. They never became world religions. Instead we got primarily Christianity and Islam (and the latter would not have existed, at least not in its current form, without the existence of the former, as it was deeply influenced by it).

    My thought is, those religions who became world religions, did they have some sort of competitive edge? Some qualities that attracted adherents (and conquerors) more effectively than those religions that never made it big, like those mentioned above? Or did they just get lucky?

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    Major world religions usually share a few qualities:

    - they were born in major civilizations
    - they became associated with a ruler of those civilizations, causing them to grow and spread

    Notice that Christianity accounts for about a third of the world's religion? Read: Early-Modern Europe.

    In terms of their qualities that likely made them more sellable? Probably more successful sects were better as resolving our cognitive dissonance.
    Last edited by rousseau; 06-10-2019 at 08:13 PM.

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    Successful religions often have a growth oriented philosophy.

    The Shakers were a popular cult in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, they forbade sexual reproduction, and quickly died out.

    Christianity and Islam encourage both conversion and reproduction, and are very successful.

    Judaism and Hinduism both encourage reproduction, but not conversion, so are behind.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tammuz View Post
    In all of these cases, we are talking about religions that in the course of history lost it. They never became world religions. Instead we got primarily Christianity and Islam (and the latter would not have existed, at least not in its current form, without the existence of the former, as it was deeply influenced by it).
    Christianity "grew" at knifepoint primarily due to the fact that Constantine (Roman emperor) made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, which was one of the largest empires to have ever empired and in turn became the Spanish Empire which gave rise to the British Empire (the largest ever) and in turn became the American empire, etc.

    Iow, it's had two thousand years of top-down convert or we will torture and kill you crusades and general forced adherence. Iow, it didn't just spread on the power of its message or anything; it was brutally and officially mandated for centuries and throughout the world's largest empires.

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    Contributor DBT's Avatar
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    Plus a certain appeal in the form of the promise of eternal life, death not being the end, reunion with loved ones after death, ultimate justice, God looks after you, etc....as the carrot. Then comes the stick, eternal damnation if you don't believe, or don't conform.

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    They were born in resource rich regions amidst major civilization.

    They're easy to follow and economically simple.

    They do not welcome open competition, in fact they openly oppose competition.

    They're anti-scientific but depend on scientific advance for their existence.

    They fragment easily into competing sects.

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    Fair dinkum thinkum bilby's Avatar
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    Religions evolve. It's natural selection - in an ecology, there tend to be a small number of dominant species, and a large number of species that constantly teeter on the edge of extinction, and occasionally fall over the edge.

    The more stable the environment, the less variation there tends to be. Not much has happened to shake up the environment for religions in large parts of the world for a long time.

    Successful species often shape their environment - and religions are aggressive at doing this. Tall trees kill shrubs by denying them sunlight. Christianity kills heretics by setting them on fire in the town square.

    But the collapse of Christianity in Western Europe has allowed all kinds of 'New Age Woo' to flourish, like shrubs in a clearing; or like mammals after the dinosaurs disappeared.

    Whether one or more of these will grow to replace Christianity, or whether they will in turn die off remains to be seen - ask me again in a thousand years.

    The fact is that it doesn't even matter if you don't believe in evolution through natural selection - any more than it matters if you don't believe in gravity. You are subject to it regardless of your beliefs.

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    Senior Member Tharmas's Avatar
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    It turns out I have just been reading a book on this subject, at least with regards Christianity: Bart Ehrman’s The Triumph of Christianity, which covers the history of the early church from Jesus’ death through to Constantine.

    The first point he makes, at some length and with some force, is that “paganism” was not a religion at all, in the modern sense. It wasn’t a set of beliefs; it was a large number of cults that that generally involved propitiating, or petitioning, various gods with sacrifices. There were tens of thousands of gods, including family gods, civic gods, gods of different places, national gods, dead rulers (living rulers were more like demigods), mystery religions, and general pantheons like the Jupiter/Venus/Mars one that we’re used to from reading about mythology. The number of temples in even small towns was staggering to the modern sensibility, even compared to the number of churches in small town Bible Belt America.

    There was no standardization of worship from one area to another.

    Paganism didn’t involve any particular morality or ethics – those were the province of philosophy and law.

    Paganism wasn’t exclusive. You could belong to the Isis cult and still worship your household gods and all the others around, not forgetting the emperor.

    Along comes Christianity. It is exclusive: If you were a Christian there was only one god; you couldn’t worship any other gods. They were not real or, at best, they were demons. When Christians were persecuted, it was for being “Atheists,” not believing in “the gods.”

    As a Christian there were certain ethical behaviors expected of you, and morality. Christians took care of each other, nursed their sick and fed their poor, in a world in which 98% of the population was living on the edge. Finally, unlike any pagan cult, Christianity offers eternal life – either in paradise or in eternal torment – depending on how you live the Christian ethics.

    Christianity evangelized aggressively. Every pagan that converts is one less pagan (unlike say Mithraism, where when one is initiated into the cult, he* still remains a pagan). Furthermore, when the head of a household converted, that would automatically bring in all household members including even slaves. In this way Christianity “naturally” grew in almost logarithmic fashion (he includes the math). Ehrman quotes someone named Goodman: “[before Constantine, Christians] will have been running in a race of whose existence most of the other competitors were unaware.” Ehrman claims that Christianity would have become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire not long after Constantine even if Constantine hadn’t himself converted. And Constantine didn’t make paganism illegal. He merely made Christianity, not only not illegal, but favored. There was only one emperor after Constantine who didn’t identify as Christian.

    Finally, Christian evangelists promised miracles. Early Christian literature is full of miracle stories. Ehrman tells a few of them (without of course endorsing them). My favorite is of the missionary activities of John the son of Zebedee, who one night in an inn finds his bed is full of bedbugs. He tells the bedbugs to leave him alone and let him get a good night’s sleep. In the morning the bedbugs are all gathered by the door. John awakes, gets up, and gestures, and the bugs all pile into the bed again. Every early Christian had heard of dozens and dozens of miracles, both great and small.

    *I am not a traditional grammarian. Mithraism was closed to women.

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    I'd say partly circumstance. Constantine saw an opportunity to use Christianity as a tool of state. He had the power and wealth of the Roman Empire. The ancient Hebrews were a minor group in a region of superpowers.

    Christianity in the beginning appears targeted at the lowest in society. If you are slave be a good one. love god and you have eternal happiness awaiting you. 'Give us this day our daily bread' in the Lord's Prayer was truth. Enough food for one more day.

    It was also simple. Practicing Buddhism requires following a strict code of conduct.

    Both Christianity and Islam became historically dominate because both were mixed with the state, political power, and military power. Christians and Muslims battled for a long time for control of Europe.

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