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10 Religious Beliefs That Have Changed with History
Over the millennia, religions have behaved like organisms. They’ve interbred, evolved, gone extinct, and been replaced by newer rivals. Even the staunchest of religions with their sacred texts (literally) set in stone have mutated over the years, morphing and adapting to new societies, politics, and philosophies.
This flexibility has led to tension between competing ideologies, yes, but also a certain beauty. As scholar Joseph Campbell put it, the interpretability of religion makes it like a stained-glass window, letting you see “the light” through it in the color and shape of your choosing.
This list collects ten of those colors, from the beautiful and the ugly. Here are ten religious beliefs that have changed with history.
10 Practicing Polygamy
To many who aren’t well-acquainted with the term, “Mormonism” usually brings to mind a few buzzwords, one of which is polygamy. In reality, polygamy has fallen out of favor with the Mormon Church, now banned by living prophets from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In the early 1840s, the church did practice polygamy, a concept widely accepted biblically and in many other cultures around the world. Within 50 years, Smith’s nephew Joseph F. Smith (by then the Church’s president) declared the practice forbidden, threatening ex-communication to members and any church officials who performed the ceremonies.
Today, a rift between religious groups exists, with some of the more extremist and fundamentalist Mormon groups still considering it canon. However, the practice is still strictly against official policy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
9 Slavery is God’s Will
The relationship of world religions to the practice of slavery has changed frequently throughout history. To make an incredibly long story short: there’s no one way to describe any major religion’s views on slavery without subdividing into different eras and sects. At times, slavery has been a divine right of the chosen people and its methods written in sacred texts, and other times the most demonic evil in canon.
One common belief that has arisen in multiple religions like Islam and Judaism, for example, is written doctrine that determines how to treat slaves depending on their religion. The early Quran outlines one method of treatment for Islamic slaves and one for non-Islamic slaves, as does the Hebrew Bible for Jewish or non-Jewish slaves.
8 Christians Go to Heaven or Hell
Believe it or not, the concepts of heaven and hell are pretty new. The specific images of fiery pits and cloudy meadows in the sky are even newer. Neither the Bible nor the Quran, for example, say very much about heaven or hell at all.
Mostly, the two texts adamantly attest to the infinite nature of the human soul but provide little detail about what happens to it. There are many vague mentions of its salvation after a life in service to the lord, but not very much heaven and hell talk. It was only in the centuries after the Bible’s completion and proliferation that the idea of the afterlife began to mutate.
To quote theologist Bart Ehrman during an interview with Terry Gross, “since these people believed that the soul was immortal… they thought, well, okay, so our soul will go to heaven to be with God, but then they realized, well, what about the people who are not on the side of God? Well, if we’re being rewarded, they’re going to be punished. And that’s how you start getting the development of the idea of hell, that it’s a place where souls go to be punished—as the opposite of the people who go to heaven to be rewarded.”
As people and religious leaders have hypothesized about what happens in the next life, concepts of the great beyond have evolved too.
7 How Many Gods Are There?
Though many of the world’s major religions today are monotheistic, meaning they believe in the existence of only one god, essentially all of them began as polytheistic in one way or another. Take Judaism, for example. Today, it solely believes in Yahweh, the same one god that Christianity and Islam pray to. When Judaism was young, however, many of its followers worshipped Yahweh as “the one god above all others,” meaning there were others to be above.
For example, in ancient Canaan pre-Judaism, polytheism was the rule of the day, with various gods known as Baal’s all receiving worship. Even when Judaism entered the picture, Yahweh was initially considered just another deity. Then, as cultures continually warred, Yahweh came to be held above the rest, and then every Baal became one Baal, and then the one Baal became an archenemy of the true God, Yahweh.
6 …and How Many Can I Worship at Once?
Even when supposed monotheistic religions began emerging in opposition to their polytheistic counterparts, the competing ideologies often didn’t compete so fervently. There are numerous examples throughout history of newly-acquainted religions sharing worship.
A famous example is the coexistence of both Christianity and Celtic paganism in Ireland for hundreds of years. No one would call the relationship perfectly harmonious, but nonetheless, there were places and times where equal worship of the two religions was common and accepted. Christianity took the same course, again in certain tolerant places and times, with Norse paganism, Roman polytheism, and many others.
5 The Universe’s Structure
It’s no secret that geocentrism, the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, was commonly held before the Renaissance, scientific observation and modeling, and Nicolaus Copernicus. But the belief also competed with its counterpart (and the actual truth) heliocentrism, two millennia previous.
Scholars in Ancient Greece held varying opinions on the structure of the universe. Some, like the famous Aristotle, were convinced of the Earth’s position at the universe’s center. Others, like Aristarchus of Samos, believed (correctly) that their observations proved the Earth to the orbiter, with the Sun as its center. It was the Roman-Egyptian Ptolemy in the later years of the empire’s influence who won the culture war and brought geocentrism front and center for the next 1,500 years (until that Copernicus fellow won it back).
4 The Image of Jesus…
There is a prevailing modern image of Jesus Christ as a white man despite essentially all historical evidence pointing to the contrary. The idea of a white Christ is a relatively new one and one that evolved in response to political and social pressures. Several influential artistic portrayals of Jesus as white helped spread the idea widely until it became the norm.
Though theologists and historians still hotly debate the issue, some scientists have approached an accurate answer. Archaeologists using skeletal evidence and anthropologists using DNA evidence have concluded that Jesus was almost certainly not white. He was almost certainly not black, either. The reality is likely in the middle, and most scientists describe Christ’s most likely skin color as “olive,” most akin to modern Mediterranean peoples.
3 …and Everything Else About Him
It’s not just Jesus’s skin that has changed through the years. Jesus, the historical figure, was a tremendously successful prophet during his life, but one that was forced to compete with more deeply established religions. As a result, his followers employed a selective form of syncretism to help non-Christians convert. To put it plainly, many of the more fantastical aspects of Jesus’s life were adapted from the Roman deity Mithras (and before that, taken from the Zoroastrian Mehr, and likely the Egyptian god Horus, as well).
Mithras (and his many forms) was born on December 25 to a god and a virgin mother, traveled the land as a prophet, healed the sick, walked on water, was called a savior and a shepherd, was followed by 12 apostles, and died—only to be resurrected after three days. Sound familiar?
In Japan, their word for emperor still translates literally to “heavenly emperor.” That’s because, as recently as World War II, the emperor of Japan was believed to be a demigod descended from the sun god Amaterasu. It was only after the Japanese surrendered at the end of the war that their leadership was forced to renounce their status as more than human.
The practice wasn’t limited to Japan, though. A huge portion of monarchs throughout history have been declared, or declared themselves, god-kings. Examples include the Egyptian pharaohs, Roman kings, and Iranian shahs. Some maintain their belief to this day, including those that contend that the Japanese emperor never truly renounced his divinity.
1 Whatever Is Convenient
Ultimately, thousands of details, from massive tenets to tiny suggestions, have changed over time in every world religion. The important point to make, therefore, is that those changes don’t have to diminish or demonize religions. Beliefs have grown as cultures have evolved, and in general—they’ve been good changes.
Despite what many ancient sacred texts still say, slavery is no longer widely accepted. It is no longer common practice to stone anyone who offends you. Women who are menstruating no longer have to hide in huts on the outskirts of villages. You can wear both linen and wool at the same time. You can plant multiple crops on the same farm. Those changes have shown the true endurance of religions, not through absolutism, but through empathy and elasticity.