How Did Universal Religions Change the World?
Universal religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and others mostly rose between 500 BCE and 600 CE. Over this 1000 year period, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of East Asia transformed from polytheistic worshiping to believing in a single god or universal philosophy. We often think of Christianity and Islam perhaps as the dominant universal religions today. Still, universal philosophies had begun before these religions, and through the vehicle of empires, universal religions spread.
Relevance of Universal Religions and Empires
Scholars and others suspect that Judaism may have been one of the first universal religions, where only one God was seen as existing, and the religion had a direct impact on all rather than a select people. However, when Judaism became universal is not clear, as evidence for its earlier worship suggests many believers likely worshiped other gods as well. During the rise of large-scale empires in Eurasia, we begin to see universal philosophies spreading, such as the Greek philosophy of universal world-order (kosmos).
Perhaps the biggest impact empires facilitated is they allowed people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds to more freely intermix (Figure 1). Ideas now began to be shared among many people, where even polytheistic faiths began to share similar concepts. After the 6th and 5th century BCE, universal ideals became more evident, and this could have been a key period in the formulation of universal philosophies. What is telling is universal philosophies first developed in limited regions around the Near East, where Iranian Zoroastrianism may have played an important, influential role, but this is not entirely clear. What is clear is those universal philosophies were geographically limited in spread until after the 3rd century BCE.
After Alexander had reached India, even Buddhism became influenced by the rising tide of universal philosophies. Zoroastrianism became an important universal faith that shared some common ideas as other universal religions, including Christianity. With the rise of Christianity in Rome, particularly in the early 4th century CE, the Persian Sasanian Empire, Rome's great rival, began to be associated with Zoroastrianism, and Christianity became Rome's supported religion. To create loyalty and obedience, empires began to increasingly support one religion rather than allow many gods and religions. Persecutions soon became common in the major universal states of Rome and the Sasanian Persians. This continued in subsequent periods when the Byzantine Empire succeeded, although the Iranian Sasanians were far more tolerant than Rome and Byzantium had been. Universal philosophies also became a type of political football. The rhetoric of invasions became justified by the often one god for the new universal faiths.
The immediate effect of many of the universal religions is they led to the downfall of many of the old religions that once spanned Eurasia. Gradually, either through persecution, financial incentive, coercion, or just normal belief, most polytheistic religions ceased to exist, outside of some lingering stories and traditions that often became incorporated into the new universal religions. For example, many saints' days were often days in celebration of ancient gods.
Impact of Universal Religions
The impact was more than the disappearance of the old religions. Many traditions that were associated with worship began to diminish or cease altogether. For instance, observations of the planets and stars became less relevant as the positioning of the stars and planets were not important in the worship of universal faiths. Old languages such as ancient Egyptian and Akkadian finally disappeared, which led to the possible loss of knowledge these ancient languages possessed. Other changes were more related to what universal religions achieved, which is a lessening of ethnic and cultural differences prevalent before and greater cohesion between multiple social groups.
Social mobility in the religious orders now occurred across ethnic lines, allowing states and empires to depend on people with the same faith rather than the same ruling ethnic groups. As ethnic groups shared the same god or religious ideas, some of the ancient cultural groups disappeared. Gradually, cultural identity in places disappeared.
Common universal religions did create conflict in places where large non-universal groups persisted. For instance, Egypt still had a substantial polytheistic population until the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed in the 6th century CE (Figure 2). Even sometimes within the same universal religion, such as the schism in Christianity over the nature of Christ, this created new forms of conflict that led to disputes between the Church and ultimately the establishment of church leaders in cities such as Ctesiphon, Constantinople, and Roman. Ultimately, universal faiths helped unite disparate people groups, but they also created conflicts within religions and states. In general, a conflict began to shift toward religious-based reasons, whereas wars in the past were not seen as divine battles of good versus evil but rather conflicts where the gods may or may not support their worshipers.
However, with universal religions, it was easier to inspire larger groups and create larger armies to support given factions. Such larger armies, such as in the 7th and 8th centuries during the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and parts of Western Europe, demonstrated that universal religions could now forge new, powerful armies that could more rapidly conquer much larger territory than in earlier periods. This was evident again during the period of the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, as large armies made up of a variety of Europeans invaded the Levant to establish new kingdoms in that region.
Modern Impacts of Universal Philosophies
Universal philosophies today have had the most impact in affecting our government systems. In Western states, which have been affected by Christianity, laws have been influenced by this faith. Governing styles, particularly kingship and later democracy, have been argued as justified by God. Similarly, Islamic countries have often seen the necessity of being ruled by a Muslim. This religion often influences laws and institutions in predominately Islamic countries. While clear differences in in-laws are evident in different universal societies, a commonality is universal religions and philosophies have been highly effective in creating common laws and social stability in societies, as greater order is required in all universal religions. The focus on orderly and moral societies emphasizes that governments should reflect the universal philosophy. The effect of this helped to create relatively larger political states in periods following the Roman Empire.
Thus, even as Europe recovered from the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, the power of the Church and religious belief helped to unify people around the figures of anointed kings. This was true in the Islamic world, as large empires and states ruled following the 7th century CE. Although the large empire initially created began to fragment, the successors were not many, and states were large. In effect, rulers could claim lineage to the Prophet and, thus, a right to rule, allowing them to have authority over wide regions and people. This helped to transcend many of the cultural barriers evident in antiquity.
While states in the Middle East have fragmented in the last century, ethnic identities have reemerged recently. However, despite this fragmentation, the number of political entities is still far less than what was evident in antiquity, particularly before the 1st millennium BCE. The role of universal philosophies and religions continues to allow cultural groups to be socially and politically united. However, this unity has begun to fray in more recent periods.
Universal religions fundamentally changed many societies, regardless of the specific religions or philosophies adopted. Universal ideas have helped shift previous philosophies and religions that worshiped many gods to one unitary authority. Empires, in particular, became associated initially with universal philosophies. However, ideas spread have meant that much knowledge of the ancient world was lost as old languages and beliefs were abandoned. The long-term political impact has been more unified states in the Middle East and Europe, as universal religions and philosophies have helped form states based on universal belief systems.
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- For more on universal philosophies, see: Najemy, R. E. (1990). Universal philosophy. Markopoulo, Greece: Holistic Harmony.
- For more on how universal philosophies and religions spread, see: Schott, J. M. (2008). Christianity, empire, and the making of religion in late antiquity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- For more on polytheistic faiths and the types of worlds they created, see: Johnston, S. I. (Ed.). (, 2004). Religions of the ancient world: a guide. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- For more on the impact of universal philosophies, see: Paterson, A. C. (2009). Three monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, Islam: an analysis and brief history. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
- For more on conflict and universal faiths, see: Tehranian, M. (2007). Rethinking civilization: resolving conflict in the human family. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
- For more on universal philosophies and government, see: Bowden, Brett. (2017). The strange persistence of universal history in political thought. New York, NY: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
- For more on recent politics in the Middle East and the intersection of religious justification, see: Tessler, M. A. (2015). Islam and politics in the Middle East: explaining the views of ordinary citizens. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Updated December 3, 2020