Scholars may debate on how religions emerge though it would be valid to state that any religion appears from a need in it. Often, new religious movements emerge and evolve in response to the changing social, economic or political environments or, even more often, during turbulent times on the threshold of epochs, clashes of worldviews, or degradation of old values. At times, religion results from one person with a progressive view and ideas ahead of their time. The person becomes a prophet or a religious leader that gathers followers and shares his or her teaching aimed at anything ranging from peace promotion, to education or preparation for a spiritual revolution, etc. Let alone the differences in religions’ essence and scholarly approaches to them, one truth about religions is universal. Regardless of its reliance on the cult of nature, God or some higher power, religion is an artifact – man-made and man-oriented.
Christianity is an ideal case to study religion in cross-section, with a research focus on the mechanism of its formation. In historical context, Christianity was invoked by the other, already existing Jewish religion. The Jews had been anticipating the coming of the Messiah for a long time, and the waiting reached its critical point. In addition, in political terms, the Jewish priesthood was shaken by the rigidities, “haughty leaders” and “stiff rituals” (Guisepi, n.d.). The Christian faith resulted partially from a necessity to bring changes into the state of religious affairs in the region. In other words, it was called on as an instrument of religious salvation, although it was initially aimed to save the Jews, not the whole humankind, as it would later unfold. Christianity was conceived during the first decades of the Roman Empire, in the eastern part of the, as a half-conscious answer to the existing situation. Interestingly, it started as a deliberately separate local faith cluster to develop into a religion with a world-wide coverage, eventually (Guisepi, n.d.).
Aside from historical, political and religious predispositions and precursors, Christianity is an example of a religion initiated and popularized by a single man. In human terms, the Christian faith originated with the persona of Jesus of Nazareth, the claimed-to-be Son of God and a local prophet and teacher. Jesus was a charismatic leader who preached in Israel during the reign of Augustus. He urged a purification of the Jewish religion, advocated for freeing of Israel and establishing the God’s Kingdom on Earth. The code of Jesus’ preaching was based on the kernel concepts, such as humanism, mercy, forgiveness, love and peace. Because of his charisma and nontrivial leadership skills, as well as the appealing ideas that he reinforced in the people’s minds, Jesus became popular among the local poor and aroused concerns in the rich, along with the Jewish religious leaders who viewed him as a dangerous agitator (Guisepi, n.d.).
When Jesus’ teaching gained momentum, the empowered leaders of the Roman Empire tried to arrest the spread of the new religion by arresting and terminating the faith’s inspirer. As a result, Jesus was crucified. Nevertheless, the effects were contrary to the expectations: instead of losing faith along with losing their leader, the followers came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. The latter proved His divine origin and gave a new religion an even stronger momentum. Soon enough, it spread among the Middle-Eastern Jewish communities, over the Roman Empire and beyond its borders (Guisepi, n.d.). Some of Jesus’ followers left the territories to bring the message, as well as to avoid the intense persecution that did not cease with the death of Christ. In fact, during the first centuries of its existence, Christianity was considered a cult, and Christians – a sect. The pivotal event that ended the epoch of persecution for Christianity is Constantine’s conversion to it in circa 312 AD. The reconsideration of Christianity from a cult into a rightful religion did not happen overnight, but was a gradual evolution of social and political perception.
The traditional explanation and record of Christianity’s emergence is accurate and concrete. However, if one interprets the notions “origins” or “roots” in a more philosophical way, it would be possible to claim that the Christian faith is rooted in history, per se. According to Frans Jozef van Beeck, it is a historical religion, down to its core. Christianity makes people committed to the present moment, though at the same time being past-driven and future-oriented. From a Christian point of view, the whole history is the continuous story of salvation that has started with Jesus and lasts at present day. Thus, the historical origins of Christianity are grounded in the reinterpretation of the world history, as a whole, and Israeli history, in particular. “The Christian faith takes its origin from, and encompasses, historic events of divine origin”. Hence, Christianity is a historical religion, in all senses.
As any ambiguous, controversial or complex phenomenon, religion has its negatives. Among the commonly mentioned negative effects is the idea that religion deprives a person of the right of a free choice and free will. In other words, some people consider religion a force that “brainwashes” people and transforms them into an obedient crowd that is easy to manipulate. Another negative aspect of religion is its connections with politics. Indeed, religion has always been inseparable from the political life. Often, political authorities used religion as a means of collecting money, shaping political views, or merely as a means of control (all three via the institution of church). Basically, the two aforementioned concerns are interlinked, though their validity is subjective. Among the objective negative effects of religion is the believers’ frequent refusal to get medical treatment. Above all negatives, religions can clash and become the reasons for wars. “If there were no Hindus and Muslims to fight each other, perhaps India and Pakistan would not be on the brink of war. If Jews and Muslims/Arabs hadn’t been at it for millennia, maybe there would be no conflict in the Middle East”.
The choice of faith may result either from the environment into which an individual is born (as an inter-generation religious continuity) or from a conscious, informed choice (as a rule, while already being an adult). In the first scenario, a child is born into a certain religious community and raised in it. Inevitably and naturally, he/she absorbs the religious teachings, norms and traditions from the immediate environment of a family, a wider society or church. In the second scenario, an individual may be born into an atheist environment or grows up as such, and starts to feel propensity to a particular religion based either on subjective perception or objective factors, such as extensive information search or education. Thus, one may visit a church of a particular denomination and feel “at home” in it, or attend a university course on the world religions and decide that one of them resonates with his or her personality. At times, people convert from their “born-into” religions to the ones of their choosing. Speaking poetically, sometimes a religion finds a person and not vice versa.
According to an eloquent title of an article in The Christian Post, “Most Americans pick and choose religious beliefs”. People become Christians for various reasons. Among the most appealing are Jesus’ teachings on love, humanism and peace. By focusing on these values, people who convert to Christianity seek to become better persons. A belief in afterlife and God’s reward is the second reason. A belief in the judgment day (or, better to say, a fear of it) is another “popular” reason for people to become Christians. Interestingly, the recent studies say that people not only choose religion for themselves, but also “customize” the religion of their choosing. Among the people who consider themselves Christians, many prefer to ignore some of the religious dogmas of their denomination while favoring those that they like or can follow. Inter alia, half of the Christian respondents in the USA believe that Satan is a fiction, one-third think that Jesus was a sinner, two-fifths believe they are not obliged to share the Gospel with other people, and one-quarter consider the Bible inaccurate in some/many aspects.
It is difficult to qualify the phenomenon of “customized faith” as either negative or positive though the tendency to manipulate religious beliefs in a convenient way is hardly a good practice. The essence of any religion is to teach the followers a set of basic rules and values. Dismissing some of them means betraying the original teaching and giving oneself freedom in deeds that the religion considers unworthy or sinful. Some may argue that religions change with time and there is nothing wrong about “modern” interpretations of religious teachings. However, there is a difference between a religion’s attempt to keep up with the times in order to remain appealing or valid, and a person’s attempt to reshape religion, self-handedly and single-mindedly, for meeting personal needs. The author of the article calls such people “the pack of pick and choose your religious beliefs”.
People become religious for many reasons. Perhaps, the most widespread scenario is distress, illness or a near-death experience. In situations when people need help or hope and science, medicine or psychologists cannot give either of the two, people seek some higher power. In other words, they seek support from “above” and ask for a miracle. Both components are integral parts of religion. In fact, people are ready to gain faith in any god that can offer help, comfort or salvation. Another reason for becoming religious is an attempt to grow up mentally and/or spiritually. Sometimes ordinary people turn to religion for a similar reason as those in distress, pain or illness, i.e. they cannot find answers for their questions in books or everyday life. Thinking that only the poor and uneducated are active religious followers is a widespread bias. In fact, the recent data shows that the truth is contrary to prejudged beliefs: the more educated a person, the more likely he/she is to become religious. Here is a good phrasing for the newly-found truth: “With more years of education, you aren’t relatively more likely to say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ but you are relatively more likely to say, ‘I believe in a higher power’” (Schwadel, cited in “The More Education”, 2011). In general, people do not have to be religious to have faith. One may have faith in oneself, in luck, in an idea that everything is orderly in the Universe and happens as it should. Above all, one may have faith in other people.
In conclusion, any world religion is an artifact – man-made and man-oriented – that emerges from an ideological, political, revolutionary, or enlightenment need. In spite of a high purpose, religion has negative side-effects that a person should take into account in case if he/she wants to convert. A new religion may be a relatively “original” formation though most religions rest on the postulates of older teachings or are other religions’ successors. Lastly, religion may originate from one person, as it was with Jesus Christ, and transform from an illegal local cult into a worldwide religion.