How do you classify religion? What are the fundamental traits which differentiate a religion from another? Or a class of religions from another? An interesting classification which I came across is the concept of Primary(Evolved) and Secondary(Created) Religions. The terms are self explanatory. Primary Religions evolve out of the customs of a small group of people which mature with time and Secondary Religions are just sudden creations – unlike the case of primary religions, you can draw a line to distinguish the world Before Secondary Religion and After Secondary Religion. In the contemporary world, we have at least three kinds of Secondary Religions –

  1. Those which are revealed and all faith is placed on the sanctity of the word of the person who claimed the religion is revealed to him – Judaism and Islam
  2. Those which questioned existing thought and are a rebel alternate to the existing system – Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Christian Protestantism
  3. Those which evolved as an answer to the ills which the current society is facing – Sikhism and Confucianism

Another classification of religion is based on the importance given to reason vis-à-vis faith. Would you question how is it correct, or would you say he hath said it, and hence, no more questions.? The legendary doctor of Rome, Galen is more direct – “It is Moses’s method in his books, to write without offering proofs, saying “God commanded, God spake”

This brings the discussion to the classification of knowledge and the concept of Mosaic Distinction.

Traditionally knowledge is classified as to be of four types – experiential (fire is hot to touch), mathematical (two plus two is four) and historical (Hitler died in 1945) and ethical (lying is wrong). But, with the advent of a different kind of religion which is centred around the teachings of a specific person limited by his human abilities, it is but natural that the person, and more importantly, his successors don’t have answers for certain questions. How do you bypass that? That’s how it is according to God, hence you should believe it. Why did God punish Adam more than Lot? Blasphemy!! In other words, if you are the adherent of such kind of a religion, you are expected to believe it at face value, even if it defies logic. There is a single rule book and a single code of conduct, generally. And here comes the concept of faith into religion. Thus, we see that based on the kind of knowledge allowed in the discussion, we have two kinds of religions –

  1. Those which place logic above acceptance
  2. Those which place acceptance over logic

This is called Mosaic Distinction – the preference to faith over logic. One may want to ask what’s the genesis of this Mosaic Distinction.

Two arguments can be put forth – you cannot accept rebellion, human mind is limited in imagination with all it’s human follies.

Rebellion in the earliest days will simply lead to destruction of religion. This becomes a massive problem when the earliest adherents can’t answer tricky questions relating to the religion. Moses and the story of Golden Cow is but an example of that.

Human mind is limited in imagination. Everything we do is modelled upon something we come across. The all pervading Abrahamic God has no precedent in world history(except for the Egyptian Aten, who was toppled as soon as he ascended. Some scholars propose that Yahweh is derived from Aten). So, how do you model him? What are the attributes you would give him? How do you write the moral code which defines your religion?

As it turns out, justifying the two points above, one would see that Abrahamism modelled it’s god based on the attributes of contemporary Cana’anite cults, sourced it’s mythology from Egypt and wrote it from a Babylonian perspective in Greek traditional structure. For example, an argument goes that Akenaten’s Amarna Garden is the actual Garden of Eden which was later considered to be based in Mesopotamia – the concept of Egyptian Garden of Heaven superimposed with the geography of Amarna Gardens. One would also notice that the Abrahamic God is an Emperor to whom the subjects and vassals should bow to as like in Deut 13 which is modelled on Hittlte, Neo-Assyrian and other contemporary civilizations..

Deuteronomy 13:1 vs Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty 4

The entire word that I command you shall you take care to perform; you must neither add to it, nor take away from it

‘You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, but heed this very Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate…’

Deut 13:13-19 vs CTH 133 ll. 25-26

12 If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in 13 that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), 14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you,15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. 

25 If in the midst of my country any city sins, then you people of Ismerika shall enter it, and strike [that city] 26 including the men. You shall bring the conquered civil folk before His Majesty; however, [you take] the cattle and the sheep.

On the other hand, one would notice that the Abrahamic God gets all the attributes of other contemporary gods like Ba’al and even his wife. He is not even a monotheistic supremo. Elephantine Jewism, for example, has a goddess Anatyahu – Anat, wife of Yahu. There, Yahweh is associated with Ba’al, Horus and everyone.

A prayer to Yaho

May Yaho answer us in our troubles.
May Adonay answer us in our troubles.
Be a bow in heaven, Crescent!
Send your messengers
From all of Rash!
And from Zaphon
May Yaho help us.
May Yaho give to us
Our heart’s desire.
May the Lord give to us
Our heart’s desire.
Every wish, may Yaho fulfill.
May Yaho fulfill,
May Adonay not diminish
Any request of our heart.
Some by the bow, some by the spear—
Behold, as for us, my Lord, our God is Yaho!
May our Bull be with us.
May Bethel answer us tomorrow.
Baal-Shamayin shall bless the Lord:
“By your loyal ones I bless you!”

But with the Babylonain Exile creating a version of Jewism practiced in Judah, we have a rigid monotheistic structure which cannot fit into the grander mould.

As what Symmachus-Ambrose petitions on the removal of Altar of Victory tell us,

Symmachus: For each person has their own custom, each their own religious rite. The divine mind distributed different cults to cities to be their guardians. Just as souls are assigned to the newborn, so tutelary spirits of destiny are assigned to peoples. Besides this, there are the benefits which especially recommend the gods to men.

Ambrose: The church does not want your gifts, because you have adorned pagan temples with gifts. The altar of Christ spits on your offerings, since you have set up an altar to idols. For yours is the voice, yours the hand, yours the signature of approval, and yours the deed. The Lord Jesus rejects and refuses your worship since you have offered worship to idols. He has said to you: “You cannot serve two masters.”

The crux of the argument is this. While Symmachus says we will accept Yahweh as another god, Ambrose says everyone except mine is a false god. In fact, this is the period in history which demarcated between the old world and the new. What is the defining factor? Assmann sums it up nicely.

During the last three millenia b.c.e., religion appears to have been the promoter of intercultural translatability. The argument for this function runs as follows: peoples, cultures, and political systems may be sharply different. But as long as they have a religion and worship some definite and identifiable gods, they are comparable and contactable because these gods must necessarily be the same as those worshiped by other peoples under different names. The names, iconographies, and rites—in short, the cultures—differ, but the gods are the same…The Hittites, in the middle of the second millenium, inherited this legal culture from the Babylonians and developed new and much more elaborate forms of international contract. The treaties they formed with their vassals had to be sealed by solemn oaths invoking gods of both parties. The list of these gods conventionally closes the treaty. They had necessarily to be equivalent as to their function and in particular to their rank. Intercultural theology thus became a concern of international law. It seems to me probable that the interest in translations and equations for gods of different religions arose in the context of foreign policy. We are here dealing with the incipient stages of “imperial translation” destined to reach all the politically dependent states, tribes, and nations. Later, in the age of the great empires, official multilingualism becomes a typical phenomenon.

A by-product of this thought is that there can be no war on religion. After all, my Indra and your Zeus are identical, what’s the point of fighting a war in their names?

But, Ambrose counters it by saying You cannot serve two masters.

Thus we would see, with the rise of political Christianity, it becomes the obligation of the king to make people see the truth – that the god they are praying to, is not the true god. And because the war is waged against those who believe a false god, there is no going back – the war should be taken to it’s conclusion. As a natural progression, it’s a matter of time people were declared as unbelievers and orders were passed to destroy them, with the destruction of Knights Templar or the Shia-Sunni schism being the most prominent examples.

Augustine takes it even further by saying if law of the land diverges from the law of god, law of god takes a precedence.

If God’s law diverged from Roman law, then the Heavenly City and its inhabitants were compelled ‘to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently’

Shenoute takes it even further by saying it is legal to break law if law is against religion.

There is no crime for those who have Christ

It is interesting to observe that he said this in his trial for breaking into the house of the Governor of his province and desecrating his personal chapel.

Forced and dictatorial atheism as propounded by Karl Marx is but another dimension of the same argument.

One would see that it becomes the personal responsibility of a believer or adherent to rid the world of unbelievers and he should not shirk from the responsibility.

On the other hand, you have rebel religions like Buddhism or Protestantism which were created to correct the issues in the contemporary society. As a by-product, these religions have an end period and at best, exist as a fringe in the society unless they persist on politically. While Protestantism and Buddhism persisted on as state religions, Buddhism and Jainism are nothing more than fringe religions in the country of their birth, which is one of the last outposts of old world religious structure in the world.

 Sikhism also follows the same pattern, but is a more special case in the sense that it didn’t think of correcting the ills of the society but emerged as sword arm of those fighting against the religious excesses of the state but diverged as time went by.

Ultimately, one would attempt to identify the difference between a cult and a religion. Who are more similar? Adherents to Shakta and Adherents to Madhwa or Adherents to Christianity and Adherents to Islam? Which of them will you call a cult and which of them do you call a religion? One would see that there is no clear distinction either – while Madhwa and Shakta are treated as cults, the more closer Islam and Christianity are treated as religion.

But, the ultimate situation is this. Whatever the religion it is or whatever its definition is, can the world live in peace amidst multiple religions propounding Ambrose’s line of thought and which are at odds with everything else in the world?

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.