modern skepticism, religion, and prophecy

Jesus. Ellen G. White. Noah. Muhammad. Buddha. Abraham. Moses. Joseph Smith.

What do all of these names have in common?

These people were all believed by a significant number of people to be “special.” In most of those cases, I mean they had visions from God. Or, at least, people believed they did. Some of those people are now founders of major religions. Others are at least major influences on religion. The most recent of them is Ellen G. White, whose first vision was in 1844 and who died in 1915. The earliest was thousands of years before that.

Why were these people not seen as crazy or fraudulent? Why did so many people actually follow them? Why do large numbers of people continue to follow their teachings?

Part of the development of any religion is the culture and circumstances surrounding it, which I won’t get into with the above because this is not an analysis of the beginnings of specific religions. But what makes these figures not insane cult leaders? Conversely, who’s to say that insane cult leaders aren’t really divine visionaries?

Why is Ellen G. White the most recent of those names, and not one of the most major (she was a Seventh Day Adventist reformer, in case you didn’t know)?

All valid questions, I say. While I could analyze each case individually, and might at a later date, right now I want to make some broad statements.

First of all, to be followed, one has to have the right type of personality. Leadership ability and charisma play a big part here. What you say must also be attractive to a significant number of people, for whatever reason; they must be unsatisfied with what they currently have (for example, Buddhism appealed to lower castes in India because Hinduism was unsatisfying to those whose lives were already set to be less than wonderful, and who could not change that).

I also think that we’ve grown more skeptical as time goes on. People today know far more about the world and how it works than people thousands of years ago. With scientific explanations in place for those unsatisfied with traditional religious beliefs, we have less of a need to turn to the supernatural to explain our world. And with more knowledge and education, we become more skeptical. We don’t believe everything we’re told. We are constantly drowning in a flood of information; we have to be discerning. We can’t believe everything that is shoved in our faces on a billboard as we drive down the highway. We can’t believe everything in the magazines at grocery store checkouts. We can’t believe everything we see on our television screens or read on the internet.

We want proof. We check our facts. We’re right to do this; plenty of false information is floating around out there (my grandmother, for instance, believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim terrorist who hates white people and America). We have learned not to trust advertisements.

Overall, as a society, we are more skeptical. This provides less of an opening for someone to step in and start a new religion. We also have contact with far more people. If we encounter half a dozen different religions, we know they’re not all right, so why add more to that confusion? A few hundred years ago, most people didn’t travel far from home, so they didn’t encounter too many different sets of beliefs.

These days, someone who would formerly have been a prophet is a lunatic. What does that make the names I mentioned at the beginning of the article? I’ve no idea.

It’s a combination of factors, obviously, and I can’t explain it all, but it’s certainly food for thought.

1 Comment »

  1. girljordyn Said:

    Ugh. I would comment on this post but my state of mind is currently too crappy. Sorry.

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