The role of religion has changed tremendously throughout the course of history. In fact, it has evolved in so many ways that the primary question of religion has evolved too. It has changed from “What is religion?” to “What has religion become?”. To answer the first question, religion is a faith* based system that involves the belief in the supernatural, and serves to give meaning to and understanding of the world and its many quandaries. It also serves other purposes, such as a method of giving hope, or a way to bring people together. Religion has taken three main forms over the course of history including a demanding and exclusive practice observed by a specific group of people, a meditation and fellowship adopted by many people due to its qualities, and a form of integrated community that has shaped and influenced culture* today. This change can be observed in countries such as Greece, Italy (more specifically Rome), and Japan. All of these places have seen tremendous change of roles and practices in their primary religions, and this evolution will continue throughout the course of history.
This essay begins in Feudal Japan, also known as the Samurai Period of Japan. In 1185 CE, the beginning of the Feudal Japan period, Shintoism had just recently surfaced and was not yet Japan’s official religion. Since Shinto had just recently come into the light, it was still a selective practice only involving shamans, or the spiritual commanders of the land. It was because of the fact that Shintoism was participated by such a small community that it existed as an exclusive practice not known by many people. Another reason why Shintoism was not very well known or recognized in Feudal Japan was because Buddhism and Taoism were already established religions, as they were practiced by the daimyo (powerful families), shoguns (samurai leaders), and emperors, who were all in positions and power., these leaders used their royal platform to spread their religious influence to millions of Japanese citizens. However, in 1605 CE, nearing the end of the Feudal period, Taoism and Buddhism began to fade, along with the leaders who so dearly supported it., Shintoism fell into the limelight, and its qualities and practices appealed to the people of new Japan. From that period, Shintoism shifted to a meditation and fellowship adopted by many of the Japanese. During this time, the role of Shintoism was not the only part of the religion that changed, but the religion itself did too. Shintoism originally was a strict animistic religion, which means its followers believed in divine spirits of ancestors, and the sentience of nature. However, once it was adopted by a majority of Japan, the religion took an interesting turn. Although the nature of the religion remained the same, its specific practices and beliefs began to change. Shintoism became more visual than ever, as shrines, temples, and statues of honor were built as holy places where the religion could be practiced. Not only this, but the religion also received revisions and better translations to its holy texts, which include multiple volumes of the Tenno, as well as an updated version of the creation story. Many revelations from different spiritual leaders were uncovered, and more and more spirits of Shinto were given names and personifications. Since there were so many practitioners of the religion, many developments were made, making Shintoism an intricate and complex religion system. Today, Shintoism has evolved further. It has become a way of life, a culture for the people of Japan. Themes of the culture are integrated throughout Japanese entertainment and festivals. In fact, many gatherings of citizens include the worship of the Shinto god-spirits, or the flying of kites and other festivities that are symbolic of deities in the religion. Japanese manga and anime, or a specific style of read/watched animation or cartoons also feature themes and powers similar to those introduced in Shinto holy texts. Finally, Shinto beliefs and values are implemented into the infrastructures of Japan. Japan features some of the most beautiful floral prefectures in the world, and it sports thousands of its trademark pink and mauve cherry blossoms all throughout the country. This botanical development is mainly due to Shinto beliefs that humans and nature should coexist, and that humans should work hard to come to peace with nature, and cultivate its power and beauty. Shintoism is a textbook example of how religion can change and evolve over time.
In Greece, around the 18th century A.D., Hellenic Polytheism, otherwise known as Greek mythology was formally introduced. However, Greek mythology did not take the same course of evolution as Shinto. In fact, it took an unconventional route that led to the spreading of it in other countries. The evolution of Greek mythology involves creation stories, revisions, and competition. Although Greek mythology has been and remained as Greece’s official religion since ancient times, its practices still remained exclusive and not practiced by volumes of people. During this time period, most of the people who practised this religion were royalty, or in a position of power, such as tyrants and kings. Kings used it as a factor of control, or a way to guarantee that their actions would warrant prosperity or destruction for their kingdoms. Kings and tyrants prayed and made sacrifices to their gods without fail, hoping that it would mean that they would live longer, be in control for even longer, never be overthrown, etc. It was because of this that Hellenic polytheism was considered exclusive. Not because it was not known by a large population, or because it was being overshadowed by another religion, but because it was considered a religion of royalty, not a practice of commoners. The narrative that religion must be considered exclusive began to diminish, and many people began to practise Greek religion.
However, the religion did not have the aforementioned change from a demanding and exclusive practice observed by a specific group of people to a meditation and fellowship adopted by many people due to its qualities. The statement is revised for Greek polytheism to make the following: Greek polytheism changed from a religion practised by select kings for preservation to a religion practised by a majority of an entire country due to powerful influence. After many citizens and other Greecians were seeing the apparent effects of their religion, they began to practise it too, and their faith was only bolstered by the fact that their leaders believed in the same faith base that they did. From that time on, Greek kings became spiritual leaders of sorts, and their people prayed for their kings and things they needed to succeed.
The sudden spark of religion also caused Greek kings to ask for religion prodigies who would help in understanding messages of the gods, such as dreams and worldly signs. Some prayers to the many different gods in the religion were done communally, and with many sacrifices that they believed would strengthen their empire and civilization. With this, many stories and myths of the religion were created, thus increasing the complexity of the religion, just like with Shintoism. Eventually, the effects of Greek mythology expanded to the point where its influence spread to other empires in different countries. An example of this is in Italy, with the namesake Romans. Hellenic Polytheism, and the many stories that came along with it were adopted into Roman culture, and changed to fit the Roman beliefs. Many of the names and properties of the gods were changed, but the roots of the religion stayed the same, and it is historically obvious that Greek and Roman mythology are heavily linked. In fact, the liaison formed between Greek and Roman religion is so strong that their mythologies are commonly referred to as Greco-Roman mythology. This shift can be referred to as the sharing phase, in which one religion expands and is adapted into the religion of another place and is altered to form an entirely different, yet similar faith base. Today, Greco-Roman Mythology is implemented in cultures and entertainment all over the world. Rick Riordan, one of the world’s most renowned authors, writes different series, such as Percy Jackson, that explore a new adaptation of Greco-Roman mythology into fiction, despite not being of that religious background. This shows how Hellenic polytheism has taken the turn into becoming a form of culture and enjoyment, which can be practiced by anyone.
The final example of religious shift is in 380 BC with Christianity. Christianity is an amazing example of religious evolution, as it has many branches and forms of itself, including Orthodox, Methodist, and Catholic, which are practised in many different places by different people. In 380 BC, the Christian religion was brought to Europe by Constantine I, where it developed and changed to an extreme degree. In fact, it is one of select religions that has caused an extremely obvious change in world view. Many Europeans built churches and made paintings in honour of Christianity, which has existed in many places for a very long time. By the time Christianity was introduced to Europe, it had already undergone its primary and secondary changes, and was in the process of evolving into a form of culture, and it even evolved beyond that, into multiple forms of culture in society. In Europe, Christianity branched out into many different sectors, which caused many people to have different views of the world. This did not bring about a great result, as many Christians of different denominations actually began killing each other in a battle to prove who was right. This shows how much influence Christianity becoming a culture brought about. It was so eye opening to people that they were dead set on their ideals, and were willing to kill people over it. This is an extremely exaggerated example of how the evolution of religion into a culture can actually become many things, including a war-starter. After all of the war, there was quiet after the storm. In fact, different denominations managed to accept their differences, and were even willing to learn from each other, which was an option that was not originally there amidst the turmoil. Although Christianity remained a point of contention in Europe, it was still a part of culture and remained that way to date. Christianity also underwent a sharing phase, as many Christian beliefs of numerous denominations are observed in the United States. Many schools, including Moravian Academy are Christian-based and involve prayer to Christ and the Holy Trinity. Christianity has also evolved into a piece of history, as England features some of the largest and most historic churches in the world, and the crucifixion as well as communion are well known Christian facts among millions, if not billions of people, whether they are Christian or not. Christianity has also grown exponentially in number since it was first introduced, and there are many Christian radios that feature gospel songs and Christian forums. Christian beliefs have also been implemented in media, such as in old shows such as Bible Man and Veggie Tales. Also, many churches have become mainstream, and some feature newer developments, such as concert lights and recliner chairs. Christianity is a perfect example of how a religion can evolve beyond the archetype and become so different that it can be practiced and participated in by nearly anyone.
It is apparent that many religions follow the typical evolution cycle mentioned before. The role of religion has evolved in the following ways:
- A demanding and exclusive practice observed by a specific group of people
- A practice of kings and queens
- A meditation and fellowship adopted by many people due to its qualities
- A meditation adopted by many due to its apparent effects and because of their leader’s involvement
- A form of integrated community that has shaped and influenced culture today
- A form of many different types of cultures that have been passed down and changed through history
All religions follow the start point and end point one way or another, and this beautiful change can be seen by anyone who observes religion closely. Eventually, all of these evolutions in religion come together to form a chain linked to culture that cannot be broken. In totality, the role of religion has evolved through the course of history due to its practitioners, and those who are willing to share and pass on their tradition, whether it be for benefit or authentic love for one’s background. So, what has religion become? Well, the answer is up to everyone. Religion is amorphous – it is not anything specific. It is the power of culture and faith.
*Faith – the strong belief and knowledge of the values of one’s religion
*Culture – Continued practices, beliefs, and customs of a group of people united by any characteristic that is shared amongst themselves
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