Why are "Semitic" religions so popular?

Basically roughly half of the world’s people, and nearly all religious people in Europe, the Americas, Northern, Southern, and coastal Africa, West, Central, and Insular Southeast Asia, Australia, Oceania, and parts of South Korea now follow religions that originated among the Semtic peoples of the Fertile Crescent and Arabia.

How did the beliefs of the Semitic peoples become so popular. Judaism is not a “missionary” religion, but it’s beliefs fueled two others - Christianity and Islam - that have spread from one end of the earth to the other. In the process, many other religious traditions…Greco-Roman, Zoroastrian, Celtic, Norse, Slavic, Amerindian, Aboriginal, and so on, have been wiped out, or persist mainly as syncretic elements of local popular religion in Christianity or Islam.

Polytheism has a very strong emotional appeal to the human psyche - I don’t think anyone ever fell dozed off during a worship service for Pan or Thor. Dualism is also very rational - perhaps more so than the belief in an “omnipotent” God who nethertheless allows misery to happen and has to eternally fight a “Satan”. Yet, monotheism replaced such religions almost completely in much of the world.

What is it about religions rooted in Semitic culture that gave them such power? And why wasn’t another area of early civilization (dynastic Egypt, pre-Islamic Persia, Ancient Greece-Rome) not the crucible of Western Religion, despite having produced ideas which could very well have sparked wider and longer lasting religious movements?

This article by Unca Cecil might be a good starting point, for Christianity at least.

You might want to read sociologist Rodney Stark’s book, The One True God. He argues that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have survived centuries precisely because they are monotheistic and demand an exclusive commitment from their members. If you believe that your god is the only path to salvation and that any rival god is an impediment to that salvation, you will be determined to whatever you can to ensure that people don’t believe in that rival god. Typically, these disagreements are resolved through proselytizing, but it can also explain the role of warfare and conquest in the early development of Islam and Christianity (i.e., the Crusades). There’s also a sociologist named Robert Bellah who developed a theory of religious evolution, which argues that societies tend toward a smaller number of gods of greater scope (eventually leading to monotheism), because interaction through trade, exploration, and conquest leads different cultures to merge their gods together.

Belive in my God or die.
'Nuff said.

The worldwide popularity of 'the big three" has little to do with Judaism, other than its being the seed for Christianity. Judaism never had conversion and spread as its focus; it was a tribal religion interested in providing the justification for the rules that facilitated survival of a group located in one geographic center, maintaining an identity and cohesiveness against the forces of the others.

As Cecil says, Paul’s version of Christianity was a great fit for the the state of the State. One reason that Cecil does not mention is that the Roman Empire needed a way to impose order by shared values. Rule by force was getting too expensive for an empire running out of steam. Roman mythology just wasn’t clear enough about central authority and consequences … Christianity allowed for multiple cultures to keep many of their own practices and yet be members of the group if only they believed … and complied. No past baggage came with it. You worship trees at the winter equinox? Well, do the same celebration but we’ll call it Christ’s Birthday Mass. And so on. It made for the “big tent” that was the need of the time.

Christianity took the tribal ritual and rules based religion that was Judaism and metamorphasized it into one that grew by absorbing (by whatever means needed) other cultures with a religious structure well fit for the needs of the dominant government of the time.

Islam also kept the concept of growth by conversion. Thus as governments grew militarily, these religions spread.

First, let me say that I do understand how some can find it difficult to believe in a single God Who allows evil to exist. However, the “strong emotional appeal” which cuate describes sounds like it results from the types of services they had, not from the theology involved.

I have always wondered how the polytheists theology had any appeal at all. Many (all?) polytheistic religions have a hierarchy among their gods. I could never understand why the followers don’t simply gravitate to the most powerful of them, and become monotheistic by attrition.

First, in polytheistic religions, gods tend to have different attributes. I assume you wouldn’t ask a MD to fix your car. You wouldn’t ask the god who rules the seas to protect your newborn baby from diseases, either.

Second, in many polytheistic religions, a city or region would give much more importance to a given god, assumed to protect the said city or region. The myths could be somewhat modified to stress the importance of this particular god. Ancient Egyptia would be an excellent example. But also Greece, to a lesser extent.

Third, the evolution you described actually took place in some cases. In the middle-east, one of the gods (Baal or El, for instance) would slowly gather the attributes of the others, which would become secondary figures, while the worship would be monopolized by the main deity. It could go to a point where the other gods would totally lose their divine status and become mere servants (angel-like) of the main god. I believe it was the case in the dualist Zoroastrian religion, where the servants of the “good” god can be linked, IIRC, to earlier deities, related to several Hindouist gods.
May I add that many believe it’s exactly what happened in the case of the Hebraic religion?

I forgot to add that in polytheistic religions, gods aren’t there only (not even mainly) to help their worshipers. Their role is maintening the order of the world (physical world and social fabric). They’re necessary and have a duty. Worshipping a god is in turn necessary to make sure the world won’t fall apart, it’s not a personnal relationship like in christianism. You don’t offer your blood to the sun god because you love him or because you expect him to be nice with you in the afterlife, but because he’s thirsty and would die if you didn’t. In some cases, a god could be “punished” if he didn’t do his job properly (offerings could be denied if there was a drought, for instance). It’s more a contractual kind of relationship. So, picking a god because he seems toughter than his colleagues would in most cases make no sense in a polytheist religion.

semitic religions are not popular anylonger. Many turned to “new age” back in the 70’s and 80’s. Atheism is growing faster than both islam and christianity.
I’m an agnostic my self.

Hinduism makes a good account for itself in terms of followers, and it is basically a mix of the Greco-Roman gods and the various tribal beliefs of the Indus Valley civilizations. (w/ lots of evolving afterwards)

Jewish beliefs were really more tribal than anything untill Christianity came along and took Europe in one fell swoop. Islam got a big chunk of geography too, via brute imperialism.

And finally that special blend of imperialism/“missionary work” that Christian nations mastered so effectively accounts for the destruction of all of those tribal religions from South America to Indonesia to North America.


too sleepy to write anymore… hope I’m making sense… :slight_smile:

That is a VAST overstatement. Adherents of Islam and Christianity ( admittedly in the loosest, self-identified sense ) make up a little over half of the world’s population ( around 3.2 billion, I believe ). Hardly “not popular” :wink: .

If by “many” you mean several million people in europe and North America, I suppose.

Possible, but I’d like to see a cite on that if you have one handy ( not that I don’t believe you, rather I’d actually be curious to see that info ).

Although I’m sure there has been a lot of cultural borrowing ( from the pre-Aryan civilizations in India in particular ), my understanding is that Hinduism has much of its roots in ancient Aryan religious practice, in common with other old Aryan traditions, like those of the Persians and Hittites ( they certainly share a number of gods, with their associated attributes ). I was unaware of any major Greco-Roman influence, though I certainly wouldn’t completely discount some via the Bactrian and Seleucid Greeks.

As to the OP:

They are proselytizing religions ( that is Christianity and Islam, if not Judaism ) :slight_smile: . None of the others you mentioned were - Not in any real sense. Most were essentially ethnic religions. Yes Zoroastrianism spawned Manichaeism and mystery cults like Mithraism, but they weren’t actively and aggressively promulgated like the Judeo-Christian faiths were ( eventually - neither Christianity, nor Islam despite its geographic conquests, were aggresively proslytetic(?) at first - at least not outside of certain confines ) - In fact they were actively suppressed in Persia as deviations from orthodoxy. The enormous geographic spread of pagan Greek belief was just a byproduct of Alexander’s conquests and the colonization policies of the height of the Hellenistic age and was never more than skin deep. Roman paganism was actively and purposely syncretic - It spread by Latinization of Roman territories and by grafting itself on to other pagan faith systems. But it didn’t really prosyletize as such, either. It just adapted. When it ran up against a religion that refused to be co-opted and instead counter-proselytized it didn’t really have a co-ordinated “defense”, especially given its very de-centralized nature, other than political repression.

Add in the official adoption of Christianity by the “Roman” west and the conquests ( largely by lucky timing ) of Islam in the Near East, you have a prescription for eventual dominance. It is conceivable Christianity could have been at least impeded in its growth had the Roman and Byzantine emperors remained staunch pagans for whatever reason ( though it seems likely that one of them would have converted eventually as the movement grew ). And it is very possible that Islam, given a slight change in timing, could have been limited to the Arabian penninsula for a long time, if not forever. But ultimately, I think these faiths were just more aggressive in their universalism ( once adopted ). Also what Cecil said about the power of their appeal as belief systems :slight_smile: .

  • Tamerlane

Oh I will add that if Islam not exploded on the scene, I could well imagine Zoroastrianism continuing to this day as the dominant faith in the region of Iran/Persia, much as Hinduism survived in India. It was an ethnic religion, more or less, so it likely wouldn’t have expanded unless some radical change had occurred. But it was a vigorous, somewhat centralized faith, with strong ties to the ruling class and a powerful and easily comprehensible tenet of good/evil dualism ( that almost certainly had a considerable impact on early Christian thought at one level or another ).

Then again Nestorian Christianity was in the majority in Persian Mesopotamia at the time of the Islamic conquests, so maybe not.

  • Tamerlane

Wasn’t Nestorian Christianity sort of a “Zoroastrian Christianity”? I mean it was dualistic right?

Could you provide a cite for the atheism claim? I am also an agnostic and would take comfort in the fact that the world was weening itself off of religion, if it were true.

To the OP.
The religions that you speak of appealed to the oppressed because they made promises of salvation. Been kicked around? Well give us what little money you have and we’ll make sure you don’t get kicked around after you’re dead. Sorry, we can’t do anything for you here on earth though. Amazing what people will grasp on to when they’re drowning, but then look at Germany in the late 1930’s.

I myself am a Wiccan, or a Pagan. The appeal? What’s the appeal of Christianity? Of Hinduism? I can’t tell you that, but I know the appeal of Wicca. Its a harmonious religion, that celebrates the beauty and respect of all nature’s creatures. Its not about the fact that there are many Gods and Goddesses for different religions, its celebrating the fact that you live in a beautiful world and that you have FAITH in SOMETHING.
Many people turn to New Age religions because they are not as Damning as some of the Organized Religions out there. It allows you to explore different avenues for yourself and celebrate something that is on the same level as you are.
Think about it this way, everyone is different, everyone has a different view. A long time ago when the messiah or the Goddess or Buddah, was introducing beliefs, some didn’t like a certain thing so the changed it around to fit their ways, and we get all the different ways of the world. Each generation seems to have its own mood and belief structure…now it seems to be leaning towards the Semitic.

Yawn I’m not here. Need more sleep.

But as to Nestorian Christianity’s “dualism”, it was of an entirely different sort than that of the Zoroastrian tradition. Nestorian Christians believed that Jesus had two natures, the divine and human, but that these two natures were separate in a way I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend ( Polycarp, Libertarian or some similarily informed poster might be able to explain it better ). They did not believe, therefore, that Mary was the mother of God ( theotokos ) or that Jesus’ sufferings were divine acts ( I think ). Whereas most other Christians regarded the divine and human to be an inseparable part of the whole.

This is separate from Zoroastrian dualism, which is of two forms - 1.)Either the struggle between Ahura Mazda ( God ) and Angra Mainyu, the spirit of evil, which is waged on a cosmic scale and among which humans must choose sides. It will eventually end with the victory of God and the end of this dualistic opposition. Good will triumph.

2.) The ethical struggle internal to us all between the dualistic impulses towards good and evil within the human consciousness.

  • Tamerlane

clairobscur, thanks for your comments. they are interesting.

Generally because polytheistic religeons tend to have the concept of “ecological balance” worked into them. And no matter how powerfull the God or Goddess, they’d probably go nuts if all their friends and family were to dissapear and all they were left with for company was a bunch of whiny worshippers.

:smiley: Maybe that explains some of the behaviours of the so-called one god of the semitic religeons…:stuck_out_tongue:

Actually, more accuratly Hinduism can be traced to Indo-European influence mixed with the local stone age earth-cults. Greek has IE influence for certain, however twas heavily influenced by Egyptian material which is definately not IE. Right concept wrong root name. Or were you just assuming that people would get confused as the mention of Indo-Europeans?

Essentially, it makes for a fun study to look at the similarities between various IE inspired faiths. For fun and good reading you might try and do a comparison of the various entities of the Rig Veda and the Aesir of the Norse folk. :slight_smile:

But I digress, simply put, the Greco-Roman Gods and Goddesses are simply too watered down (in terms of IE heritage to make that direct an association with Hindu formation. Never mind that it would age them to have pre-dated the cultures which worshiped them as we know them anyway. Interesting theological pondering, however if I was going to do that I’d probably start hunting around Proto-IE for common Deity root names and assemble a reasonable guess of the origional set from there.

I really I ought to resist adding this to my last post but…

“Gotta catch 'em all!”