This essay is about something we all likely know, or at least should know. The term “religions” refers to various historical movements that captured the religious imagination of believers through human history. The term “religion” refers to these phenomena generically. Religions are only temporary manifestations. They come and go with time and competition. Religion as such, on the other hand, seems to be endemic to the human condition.
I do not know if this is because such a thing as a “God gene” exists,1 or because human beings are simply incurably superstitious.2 The God gene option explains that we are innately predisposed to religion in some form and cannot help ourselves. In other words, religion is a part of the human DNA. The second option explains that human beings cannot rid themselves of a predisposition to superstition. In other words, we seem to be naturally superstitious. Human history is awash with odd beliefs, supernatural beings, and gods that were invented to explain what were found to be unexplainable.3
Here are two brief scenarios illustrating the rise and fall of two religions. The universal religion of Manichaeism was founded in the third century C.E. by the Iranian prophet Mani. The religion was universal in appeal and moved beyond the Mesopotamian region in which it was born. It was a successful competitor with the indigenous religions it encountered in the regions it entered before it passed from the pages of history. It survived for twelve hundred years and traces of the religion can still be seen datable to the 17th century C.E.4
Christianity, a religion that emerged in the first century C.E. successfully competed with the indigenous religions of the Roman Empire with the help of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The fortunes of orthodox Christian churches prospered under Constantine. By a decisive victory at the Mulvian Bridge north of Rome Constantine became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 317 and in 323 its sole ruler. His victory at the Mulvian Bridge he credited to a vision of a single cross and the words “Be victorious in this.” He sent his soldiers into battle with the sign of a cross painted on their shields. Although outnumbered they won the battle, and Rome and Africa passed under Constantine’s control. Constantine saw the hand of the orthodox Christian God in the victory and to ensure continued support by that God the church was everywhere granted freedom from persecution. He restored church property that had been confiscated, gave privileges to the clergy, and undertook a building program in the church’s behalf. It appears that Christianity initially received preferred status by the Roman government in the competition between religions.
Christianity was a way for Constantine to unify his empire and in 325 Constantine called and presided over the first Ecumenical Council of orthodox churches at Nicea, where in a climate of theological controversy separating the churches, the Trinitarian Creed was pushed through.5 Constantine further directed that the orthodox Bishop Eusebius procure for the churches, which Constantine intended to build, 50 copies of the Holy Scriptures.6 This action forced Eusebius to decide what books he would include in the New Testament, an issue that was then still in flux, as he reports in his Ecclesiastical History.7
After 440 C.E. no pagan names are listed among the elite at Rome,8 and over time the indigenous Roman religions were driven into the countryside. Today, so far as I know, no one worships Zeus/Jupiter any longer, and the indigenous religions of the Roman empire have effectively disappeared from the historical scene.
The passing away of even one religion raises the question of the permanency of any religion—even Christianity. It causes one to ponder what is meant by the term “true religion.”9
Missouri State University
2See, for example, Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 1-12, 20-22.
3Hedrick, “Forces at Work in the Garden of the Lord,” pp. 20-22 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.
4Paul Mirecki, “Manichaeans and Manichaeism,” vol. 4:502-511 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).
5R. P. Davis, “Constantine I,” Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; 1999), 378-80.
7Ecclesiastical History, III, xxv.
8Charles Hedrick, Jr., History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (University of Texas; 2000), 57.