The Anthropology of Religion Part I: Definitions

Discussion in 'Comparative Studies' started by path_of_one, Jul 6, 2008.

  1. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    OK, so I figured I'd start a little series about the study of religion from the science of anthropology, which is the study of humans. I'm a cultural anthropologist, and particularly interested in cognition, environmental issues, and religion. I figured this might be a fun way for people to engage with the subject of religion in a new and scientific way, to reflect on their own definitions and assumptions, and for all of us to discuss and grow.

    So part one is how we define religion...

    This takes a lot more effort than most people would think. Most people go through their lives without thinking through their definitions much. They make assumptions and hold ideas without a lot of critical reflection, and the inconsistencies only show up when they get into debates or disagreements with others. If you're in any branch of science, debate is constant and is how we refine our theories, models, data, etc. so you learn that definition making and defending is a constant and difficult business.

    Religion is particularly difficult to define adequately, because there is so much variety. What does a shamanistic animistic religion, Islam, and Confucianism have in common? Where do we draw the line? What about social stuff that looks like a religion, but isn't very religious (some forms of Communism, for example)? Ooo, it's lots of fun.

    So, we have lots of different definitions in anthropology and we all defend them and it's a constant discussion in the field. We do this with other difficult concepts too, like culture. That said, I will put forth a pretty standard definition and the advantages and disadvantages of it. Then I'll put forth what I think is a really good (and more poetic) definition from the field of comparative religion (the science of religion), and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of IT. Unsurprisingly, if I ever get a book out on this subject, I will be forming a new definition that tries to get the best of both and eliminate the problems with each.

    First off- a standard anthro definition, put forth by Conrad Kottak, whose basic textbook is widely used for intro level classes because his definitions and treatment of the issues are seen as about the best you can find.
    “Beliefs and rituals concerned with supernatural beings, powers, and forces.” (Mirror for Humanity, p. G12)

    At first glance this seems fine. But what does it mean? What is a belief? A ritual? Supernatural? Beings? Powers? Forces? OK, for those of you whose eyes are not already rolling back in your skull, ponder all this for a moment. And then you’ll see the joys of trying to communicate as an anthropologist. So, if we unpack this, what Kottak (and us anthro folks) are talking about is that religion is social. Religion is a social organization, and I’ll get into why this matters and what it means in Part Two. But for now, understand that anthropologists define religion as a social phenomenon, and so these beliefs are not just personal ideas. They are socially held beliefs- beliefs held in a group (which may or may not be doctrine- we’ll get to that later). Which, as we’ll see as this thread progresses onward, comes with all sorts of issues in terms of how these beliefs are distributed in a group, who learns what from whom, and so forth. You see, nothing is simple about studying religion scientifically.

    So… we can say that beliefs are the socially held ideas about whatever this supernatural stuff is (whatever that means). Rituals, likewise, are very specifically defined. Just because you brush your teeth the same way everyday doesn’t mean you’re doing ritual. Ritual is, if we continue to read Kottak: “behavior that is formal, stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped, performed earnestly as a social act; rituals are held at set times and places and have liturgical orders.” As you can see, we get a definition of ritual that then requires a bunch more unpacking. A journey in anthropology is full of baggage. First off, since most people seem clueless about what a liturgical order is- it isn’t just a thing Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans do. A liturgical order is: “sequences of words and actions invented prior to the current performance of a ritual in which they occur.” So essentially, religion is not only about beliefs, but also about certain kinds of actions- rituals. These actions are (1) social (and there is a whole discussion I could have on this- do techno rituals count, do individually performed but group-based rituals count, etc.- suffice it to say they must be held in common with some group somewhere); (2) formal (this gets into the liturgical thing- ritual is planned, not spontaneous, though it can build in moments of spontaneity); (3) stylized, repetitive, and stereotyped (it follows a set sequence of events, a plan, is normally more or less the same or similar over multiple repetitions, and follows fixed ideas about what will/should happen); (4) performed earnestly (people think they should be in earnest during the acts); (5) are generally held at set times/places (i.e., at a church, temple, grove, monastery at 10 am each day or on 12/25, etc.); and (6) are planned in advance (they have a script, which is the liturgical order).

    OK, so far we have that in anthropology, religion is (1) social, (2) about ideas, and (3) about ritual practices. That’s nice, except it gets rather tricky with #3 because some religions that are *definitely* religions are not very ritualistic. I’ll put that aside from now, but it’s worth a note- #3 gets tricky. It’s kind of a “most of the time but not always” issue. It might be better to say that religion is socially held beliefs and practices… and then move on to trying to explain the focus (i.e., distinguish it from politics or economics). Also worth a mention that ritual does not need to be religious. Graduation ceremonies are rituals, along with swearing in a president. See- all social stuff shares a lot of stuff in common (more on that later).

    What is the focus? Supernatural forces, beings, powers. Now, here’s where the problems with this definition start. What is supernatural? Kottak doesn’t tell us. Is anything really supernatural? What do people mean by that? Do they just mean extra-mundane? Or extra-ordinary? Or… ? Here’s the issue: some religions *don’t* believe in the supernatural, or they think they are irrelevant to the religion. Confucianism. Buddhism. Also, some social groups that otherwise act religious (some types of Communism, for example, and some groups of Atheists), are clearly defined as against supernatural anything. At any rate, here’s where the problems really begin. However, it is worth saying that *many* religions have beliefs in supernatural somethings. As anthropologists, we enumerate forces, beings, and powers because we find that some religions personify the supernatural (i.e., there are supernaturals that have personalities, wills, etc. that indicate a being-ness) and other religions think of supernaturals as being forces or powers, which may be more or less mechanistic and more or less influenceable.

    At the end of the first definition what we’ve got is that religion is social and it has to do with both beliefs and practices, and most religions have practices that are ritualistic in nature. Also, most religions deal with ideas and practices designed to deal with the extra-mundane. These might integrate the beliefs/practices into everyday life, but it is still distinctive. Supernatural is probably not the best way to define this stuff, because something like attaining enlightenment in Buddhism is not necessarily supernatural, but it is extra-mundane, at least when it first happens. Finally, whatever we want to call that beyond-the-everyday-life stuff, some religions treat it as beings and others as powers or forces (and some as both).
     
  2. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    How about a different definition? This one was given to me by Vivian Lee-Nyitray, a professor of religious studies. It’s worth mentioning that her specialty is Asian religions, so that explains her careful attention to the problems of defining many Asian religions in Kottak’s way (which, incidentally, points out the Western colonial roots of Anthropology as a science). OK, back on topic, as more background- religious studies in the way she (and I) have studied it is not from a school of theology. That is, you study the religions in a comparative manner without any particular religious viewpoint from which you evaluate them. So, it is basically the humanistic and scientific study of religion. Some in the field lean more toward the social science view and hail from sociology and anthropology, others from psychology and tend to focus more on the individual, and others from the humanities and so study the religions more as a collection of histories, texts, and arts. It’s an interdisciplinary discipline, if that makes sense.

    The definition that she gives is quite different, but I find less problematic and more eloquent (and useful): “Religion is human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy.” What does this mean? First, that religion is a uniquely human phenomenon. Anthropologists think this too, but we just leave it as an unstated assumption in definitions such as Kottak. We see the first evidence of religious behavior about 100,000 years ago among Neanderthals who were burying their dead with flowers, ochre, and sometimes grave goods. Before that time and among other early human species, such as Homo erectus, we do not see this behavior. But for now, that is an aside. Suffice it to say that religion is one of the few things that is uniquely human.

    Second, religion is about transformation in response to some perceived ultimate. All religions seek to transform the human being- to bring us from one state of existence to another. And all religions incorporate some idea about ultimacy- an ultimate, or goal, state that humans should reach. This may or may not involve gods, powers, forces, spirits, etc. The important thing, and what distinguishes religion from other modes of social behavior in this definition, is this transformation to reach a goal state. Religions pose: (1) a fundamental problem, (2) a goal state, and (3) a means to reach the goal.

    Let’s take a few examples and see how this definition has advantages over the standard anthropological definition. How about Christianity in the theistic camp? Traditionally, Christians see (1) a problem of a rift between humans (who have sinned) and God (who is perfect and can’t be in the presence of sin), (2) a goal state of restoring humans to being in the presence of God, and (3) faith in Jesus Christ as the means to overcome #1 and get to #2. Now, Christianity could have easily fit in with Kottak’s definition as well, though. So why is this one better in some ways? Well, let’s try Buddhism for a non-atheistic tradition. Theravada Buddhism did not focus on the supernatural, but rather on the natural. Gods, spirits, supernatural forces- were not seen as relevant to the religion, even if they did exist, and many thought they did not. So this poses a serious problem for Kottak’s definition. With this definition though, it is easy: Buddhists see (1) a problem of beings existing in a state of suffering, (2) a goal state of enlightenment in which suffering is ended, and (3) the Noble Eightfold Path to go from #1 to #2. Interestingly, we can run through this definition for things like secular humanism and Communism as well, which does not mean they are religions, necessarily, but that they are very much like religions (more like religions that some of the alternative categories of human social behavior).

    What’s missing from this definition, though? Well, notably, that religion is social. It’s worthwhile to try to separate out individual spirituality from social religion, because the two, while intertwined, are really operating at two very different levels of complexity and integration. So, this definition could be improved by adding that this is human social behavior. This distinction becomes important, as you will later see. Secondly, while the definition implies that there is both belief and practice in religion (i.e., the problem and goal state are beliefs and the means involves practices), it might be an improvement to spell this out so there is no confusion.

    This concludes Part One of the anthro view on religion. A basic discussion of defining religion is always necessary before embarking on the more complicated stuff, which will delve into how anthropology views religious belief and practice (oooo, more fun definitions!), functions of and theories about religion, how religion integrates with the rest of culture and society, how it reflects and impacts the larger social structure, how religion can be advantageous and disadvantageous, how it can uphold or alternatively change the accepted social structure, and then the really tough questions… how religion is or is not different from science and magic and how religion is or is not different from individual spirituality.

    I’ll try to be as succinct as possible, but I hope y’all can see the complexity of this matter. If at any point those who had wished for this information go “Ack! Enough already!” please let me know.

    Blessings,
    Kim
     
  3. Dawud

    Dawud Byfluga

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    However religion is defined, I believe its purpose is for love and unity :)
     
  4. dauer

    dauer Well-Known Member

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    Great start. I look forward to Part II.
     
  5. Tao_Equus

    Tao_Equus Interfaith Forums

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    Nice to see you have started it :) Be back tomorrow to comment on your opener :)
     
  6. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste path of one,

    thank you for the interesting OP, i look forward to reading more.

    a slight nit to pick if i may. whilst the First Noble Truth is oft transliterated into English with the term "suffering" Dukkha, which is the term used, actually has a much broader and more nuanced meaning than this.

    Buddhism does not teach that sentient life is suffering, rather, it teaches that sentient life experiences Dukkha. Dukkha spans the gamut from negative to positive, joyfulness to suffering and every emotional and psychological state inbetween.

    Hinyana Buddhism, of which Theraveda is the only extant school, does not contain supernatural teachings mainly due to the fact that what would be termed supernatural within a different world view is not within the Buddhist world view. beings that have taken rebirth within the 33 planes of existence are natural, not supernatural though from an outside point of view it could be seen in such a manner.

    metta,

    ~v
     
  7. Tao_Equus

    Tao_Equus Interfaith Forums

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    There is little from me but agreement on the definitions as you set them out.

    The one nit pick I do have is in this statement ; " We see the first evidence of religious behavior about 100,000 years ago among Neanderthals who were burying their dead with flowers, ochre, and sometimes grave goods. Before that time and among other early human species, such as Homo erectus, we do not see this behavior. But for now, that is an aside. Suffice it to say that religion is one of the few things that is uniquely human."
    DNA evidence does not support the idea that Homo sapiens are descendants of or interbred with Neanderthalis and there is evidence that our common ancestors Homo heidlbergensis
    and Homo erectus were performing ritual burials 300,000 years ago. I would therefore say that religious ritual and belief pre-dates "humanity".

    The earliest undisputed human burial dates back 90,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qazfeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons. As old as anything Neanderthal. Clearly a common ancestor first developed such behaviour.

    Personaly my instinct tells me that ritualised animism appeared much earlier, at around the time we began to control fire and hunt big game as an organised team effort. This takes us back as far as possibly 1.7million years ago. Art can be seen much earlier still (2.3my) in the form of tools that took considerable foresight and craftsmanship to create. Materials were collected from a considerable distance and transported at some effort to population centres which to me suggests rudimentary civic planning. The scarcity of remains from these earlier times of ritualised burial could as well mean that the normal funeral ritual involved the destruction of the body as we see in Hindi or Tibetan Sky Burials. So I think looking at the very few burial sites spanning the period 30,000 to 2.5 million years is fraught with uncertainty. From my point of view the emergence of artistry and planning are much greater indicators of when the brain had developed sufficient conceptual thought ability for primitive religions to have developed. For me this is clearly the Olduwan peoples of the early lower palaeolithic period. Somewhere around 1.7 - 2 million years ago.


    tao
     
  8. Dondi

    Dondi Well-Known Member

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    Why would ritual burial be deemed as religious? Couldn't it be that the species evolved to the point that they wished to cope with death of their loved ones in some respectable manner? That by burying them, that brought some sort of closure?

    Do not athiests bury their dead, too?
     
  9. bananabrain

    bananabrain awkward squadnik

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    has anyone here read daniel dennett's "breaking the spell"? i think it's a jolly fine book, by a philosopher for a change. even you'd like it, tao.

    b'shalom

    bananabrain
     
  10. Snoopy

    Snoopy Well-Known Member

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    Wow. :D

    OK people to show our appreciation to Kim for all this great stuff I want you to (log in and) go to the top and rate this thread.:):):):):)

    Kim: this is so interesting; not to detract from further posts but I would very much appreciate any recommended books too.

    s.
     
  11. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    Thanks, Vaj. This is a good thing to bring up. I was being succinct and sloppy in my description of Buddhism in an effort to keep the text short. Of course, you are correct that the way we (in English) think of suffering is not equivalent to how this is meant in Buddhism. Like "fear" in Greek, as presented in the Bible, in needs unpacking to be properly conceptualized. As I understand it, Dukkha is a form of... not sure what emotion to use here- anxiety? Because even in moments of happiness we are, on some level, aware that our happiness is transitory and will not last. So we suffer even when we are experiencing joy. This is because we want the universe to operate a certain way, and it doesn't. But when we accept how the universe operates, then we can be freed to be truly happy without this anxiety, since we will be accepting each moment without worrying about how long it will last. I'm not sure if I'm saying what I mean, but I'll end there for now. Is that at all accurate? It's kind of hard for me to discuss Buddhism because while I intuitively grasp a lot of it when I read the teachings, I haven't spent a lot of time trying to articulate it to others without some guiding texts that help with translating into American-eze. :)

    Now what is much more important here, in a broad sense, for anthropology is that you've hit the nail on the head with the issue of supernatural vs. natural. This is why Kottak's definition (and all such of religion that base it on supernaturals) is insufficient. I was, again, being kind of sloppy the other day (sorry, everyone), which another anthropologist pointed out to me over dinner last night as we discussed this little bit I wrote. It isn't just that some religions are not concerned with supernaturals, but more to the point that *many* religions fail to distinguish between natural and supernatural at all. This distinction seems to be largely related to the modern Western world and traditional peoples everywhere don't seem to operate in this way. For example, animistic people see everything as both natural and supernatural. Ghosts, spirits, gods are just as natural as crows, wolves, and cattle. Conversely, crows, wolves, and cattle have spirits and sentience and must be appeased and respected and so forth just as when one relates to ghosts, spirits, and gods. In many traditional myths, people can shape-shift into other animals and vice versa. In some, the animals spirits are also the creators. To define religion as the cultural space, so to speak, of supernaturals is to ignore that this supernatural vs. natural distinction is relatively limited and recent.
     
  12. Dondi

    Dondi Well-Known Member

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    A look at the Wiki entry sparked my interest and I just put a hold on it at the library. Thanks for the recommendation, BB.
     
  13. Snoopy

    Snoopy Well-Known Member

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    I won't whine on about dukkha's translation here cos I've done it elsewhere; this broader issue may be found within Buddhism itself in both "forms."

    Although Nikaya/Hinayana/Theravada and the Mahayana share the core texts it may be appropriate to consider "early Buddhism" as "natural" in that it takes a broadly psychological approach to The Big Question whereas the Mahayana texts were composed by mystics (or the Buddha and hidden for 500 years...) who were attempting a more transcendental or "supernatural" approach.

    s.
     
  14. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    I would say the jury is out on this. I know very well respected biological anthropologists on both sides of the debate. We don't know at this point if H. sapiens interbred with H. neanderthalensis or not.

    Do you have some references for this? I'd be really curious, because so far I have not run across any widely accepted evidence for ritual burial predating 100K years ago. There is a difference between ritual burial and burial. Until people add grave goods, we can't even know that their practices implied the type of social concern modern humans have. Plain burial could just be a way to dispose of a body so predators don't come near camp. I hadn't seen any articles on ritual burial (i.e., with grave goods or positioning of the body) before 100K years ago, so I'm very curious.

    On the grounds of instinct, I would tend to agree, but it isn't scientific. We can't publish facts based on instinct. This is why we put it at around 100K years ago. Lots of us suspect that many things that are not in the archaeological record actually were much earlier, but without evidence we can't say for sure, but only speculate.

    This would be an uncommon definition of art. We distinguish between art and tools. Tools indicate some sort of learning/teaching behavior but not the same type of philosophical mind that leads to things like cave paintings and Venus statues. Easy to see a modern human mind behind paintings and statues... harder to see philosophy behind a hand ax.

    I'd be curious about references. I studied with a leading lithic expert who dealt with hand axes and he said people went to quarry sites where the rock was, made hand axes on the spot, and then left with a finished product. I'm sure people took some stone sometimes for later. I haven't heard about population centers.

    The problem is that we have no way of knowing, so it has to stay outside the realm of scientific inquiry. It is also likely that we don't have many remains because there weren't that many people at the time and it would be so old that most would have completely degraded by now. Additionally, scavengers at the time would have scattered many remains.

    Art, yes but planning, no. Art in the sense of stuff that is not just functional doesn't show up until quite late. Tool-making shows up incredibly early, and does indicate planning. However, we know that chimps and gorillas and capuchin monkeys can plan and make/use tools. So tool creation and planning is not uniquely human behavior, though obviously it was developed to an extreme degree among modern humans. Language is a strong indicator, but is fraught with difficulties in terms of assigning its origins. There is no way to have clear evidence for language so far, and debates abound about if language was necessary for cooperative hunting (because chimps do this without it), stone tool making (perhaps, but chimps learn to make tools from observation, and Kanzi figured out how to create stone tools), fire creation, etc. Lots of speculation, but the debates rage on because the evidence is just not there either way. Spoken language leaves no archaeological evidence, and the biological evidence is unfortunately tied to structures that are soft tissue (placement of tongue, vocal tract, esophagus) and bones that are incredibly delicate and never seem to survive (the hyoid, for example).

    It is possible to have sign language without the vocal tract-- which is interesting to me as a possibility, that people developed the sign language first and vocalized to punctuate the sign language... then there would have been evolutionary pressure to develop better vocalization over time. However, this is purely speculative on my part and not commonly accepted. I'm no expert in linguistic origins. But it seems to me that the thought process and signing/vocalizing (much as chimps do today as origins among early humans, leading to ever more complexity to a modern human language like ASL) could put the pressure on humans to favor any mutations of the vocal tract that could produce better, more nuanced vocalizations. There must be a huge evolutionary pressure for language in humans because we have a huge cost with the way our vocal tract operates- a very much increased risk of choking.
     
  15. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Apparantly the Buddha did not accept his mission as teacher until visited by a spirit. Also, he was tempted with wordly things by a spirit being (as Jesus was).
     
  16. Netti-Netti

    Netti-Netti Well-Known Member

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    Interesting. I see the Mahayana texts as signifying a popularization of what was an esoteric, monastic, otherworldly world view and lifestyle that was in decline. Its popularization via Quick-Fix methods for salvation was what kept it going (e.g., chanting to the Buddha). It was like salvation for everyone without really trying.

    Tibetan Buddhism is an example of Mahayana being introduced in such a way that it would have broad appeal -- namely, by wedding it to the indigenous Bon folk religion, which was full of ancient forms of sorcery.

    I have not looked at the history in detail, but it seems Chinese Buddhism incorporated age-old local deities that andedated by hundreds of years before Buddhism got to China in the 2nd century. (fact check somebody!)
     
  17. Dondi

    Dondi Well-Known Member

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  18. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    It could, but putting grave goods in a grave indicate the first possibility through evidence that they had an idea about an afterlife. Most modern people who put grave goods in with the dead do so because there is an idea about an afterlife in which the dead will need them. It is burial under these circumstances that indicate a strong possibility of religious thought. Religion could have started before or after this point, but this is the first point at which we have reasonable evidence.

    Well, yes. But this is also why we distinguish grave goods. Burial without grave goods or positioning of the body (for example, in the fetal position, which is pretty popular) could even just indicate that people had noticed that if you leave a dead person around, predators come. But the presence of ritual in burial indicates higher level thinking.

    Religion is not necessarily theist. It is, given the evidence that hunter-gatherer religions are often animistic, most likely that early humans did not have a concept of gods and rather had beliefs about spirits and some sort of afterlife.
     
  19. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    As we go through, I'll try to post some relevant books for each section. :) I need to do the book posting at home in the presence of my library. :D

    By the way, BB, thanks for the book recommendation- I'll have to put it on the reading list. Sounds very interesting, though Dennett's definition seems limited the way the anthro ones often are.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2008
  20. path_of_one

    path_of_one Embracing the Mystery

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    From my classes in comparative religion, I was presented with the same view from Asian religions scholars. The understanding was that Theravada Buddhism was awfully difficult to do and even more difficult if you weren't a monk or nun. It would be difficult for it to survive the popular religions like Hinduism and the folk animistic religions if it couldn't be practiced by ordinary people, and also lacked compelling spirits. So it blended with different religions in different areas.

    This can be compared to early Christianity, which has been described to me as "Buddhistic Judaism" (something I can kind of see after having gotten basics of both Judaism and Buddhism), that transformed as it took on local dieties and spirits as saints and demons throughout Pagan Europe. If you look at Christ's teachings, they aren't necessarily appealing to the masses. You are supposed to DO an awful lot of hard stuff. Much more appealing if you only have to BELIEVE certain stuff.
     

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