What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?
The answer, which allowed the Greek King Oedipus to defeat the sphinx, is humankind. In our infanthood we crawl, from our childhood to old age we walk on two legs, and at the end of our days (the evening), we might use a cane to support ourselves.
While the fifth-century-BCE riddle might reference human physiology, I take it to mean something else.
Our focus will be the evening (the third leg). Our third leg has always been supernatural faith or belief. Whether in the elements, or later on in animals, then on to pantheons of mighty gods and goddesses, and now monotheism—our third leg, the leg we rely upon in times of need and despair, has always been there from the very beginning of recorded history, transforming and evolving along the way. This is not to say that irreligion has not been there too. The Epic of Gilgamesh displays clear sentiments of disbelief—or at the very least, doubt—in the religion of the time. The hero was a challenge to the gods, and the story ends with a quest for the meaning of life and death. This story dates to 2000 BCE.
The struggle between religion and irreligion is as old as Homo sapiens. If we look through a wide and somewhat generalizing lens of history, it will be clear that religion, for the most part, has prevailed and still does to this day. Even with the advent of the Age of Enlightenment, even among today’s statistics showing a decline in adherence to faith in some developed countries, the rest of the world—the majority of humankind—remains affiliated with one religion or another. And the reason for the prevalence of faith in the supernatural is as simple as Darwin, or one of his friends, put it: The survival of the fittest.
Before and during the times of the ancient Israelites, religion was confined to the robes, words, and special ceremonies of the priests. Whether you followed the cult of Dionysus or the cult of Demeter, you would go to the temple to participate in the rituals, which only the priests had the authority and knowledge to conduct. If you happened to be wealthy, you would donate to the temple as many head of cattle as were needed for sacrifice to the god or goddess. The more cattle, of course, the better chance the god would hear your plea. The temple was the only place where a god’s favor could be earned.
For some time, the Israelites had the same practice. The Hebrew bible still contains a plethora of sacrificial instructions meant for priests presiding over the temple during those ancient times. Their focus, of course, was on a single god and the ban of idolatry. Nonetheless for Israelites, too, religion was a social, not a personal, affair.
This put the Israelites at odds with the Gentiles. For even among the gentile cults, there was a mutual acceptance of all gods. Egyptian gods, Greek gods, and Mesopotamian gods—all were acknowledged among the citizens of the Hellenic world. At the end of the day, every citizen went to the temple of the god he or she preferred; after leaving, the religion, for the most part, remained within the temple.
The Israelites were known for their ardent, if not extremist, monotheistic beliefs. And history tells us of the many tensions between the Israelites and the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, and many others. But as the people of Israel saw that their beliefs were unwelcome and watched their temples burned and their families exiled, a spark of evolution ignited what would be known as organized religion for millennia to come.
Repressed yet unwilling to let go of their fanatical monotheism, the Israelites had to adapt to survive. And so if we take a step back to see what happened, it would be clear that religion in the case of the Israelites changed. From being a temple-centered social affair, religion burst into the homes of the oppressed. Prayers and simple rituals could no longer be performed at the temple; instead they were domesticized and sheltered in the privacy of home, far from the eyes of oppressive tyrants and a hostile public. Religion slowly transformed from a social activity into a personal activity that embraced a direct relationship with God. In the process, priests lost some of the powers and luxuries that temple life had provided. But they remained the experts on all things needed to please Yahweh—and remain so to this day.
The same story can be found in different forms within different ancient religions. Early Vedic religion, for example, had to divide rites between Sriha (rites performed by priests) and Grihya (rites that can be performed by lay citizens). Eventually Hinduism, too, migrated to the home of the individual.
But what happened in the Fertile Crescent and the western world was different. Much of the population was still polytheistic, and often violently resisted any influence of Judaism. This added to ever-thicker lines dividing Israelites from Gentiles. Then, we are told, a miracle happened. Jesus was born. And whether a historical Jesus ever existed, someone or some group of people developed new ideas based on Judaism.
Consider a farmer in ancient times. Disaster after disaster had descended upon him and most of his ancestors owing to endless conquests by men seeking glory and wealth. Even though his father might have sacrificed the last bulls the family had to Zeus or Jupiter at the temple, the family was not spared the calamities of war or natural disaster. And even though the son continued to sacrifice, but to Dionysus this time, and to give what he could spare to the priests in the name of the god, he has still seen no change. In fact, he now has fewer resources for himself and his own family.
Enter the one god who sees all and hears all. The one god who doesn’t need the sacrificing of already scarce resources. The one god who can answer a prayer within the boundaries of a home. The one god who does not need a temple flowing with expensive foods and drink. It was a logical conversion, and, I could say, an easy one—but the facts are that Christians went through much torture and hardship from Roman rulers determined to hold onto tradition. Even when conversion to a newer, more logical religion should be easy, old traditions die hard—and not without a fight.
But where was the transcendence of dogma during those important historical events?
Diluting our generalist vision of history, we take a closer look at the present day. In an article published in April 2017, the Pew Research Center predicted a changing religious landscape. At current birth and death rates, it projected that the Muslim and Christian populations of the world will increase, and that the Muslim population will match the Christian, if not surpass it. But the worrisome projection concerns the unaffiliated population. According to Pew, the unaffiliated are expected to decline by 3 percent as a share of world population by 2060. This group includes atheists, agnostics, and essentially every individual who is not affiliated with a religion. While the goal is not to convert anyone to atheism or agnosticism, it is a worrisome statistic; in a supposed age of critical thinking and scientific advancement, we are seeing projected an overall decline in religious skepticism and criticism, while watching an increase of religiosity. But this is no coincidence.
Although there have been no major world wars in more than seventy years, there is still soul-crushing hardship in almost every nation in the world, even in the developed nations. Inequality is on the rise, as we know, and wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands. But to blame it all on economic inequality is not a balanced view.
In ancient times, the rich sacrificed just as much, if not more, than the poor did to their gods. The wealthy in ancient times thought sacrificing their resources would please the gods, and now, because religion has evolved, there is no need to sacrifice material resources to have an audience with God. Still, out of a sense of pleasing God, those resources can be, and have been, used to follow the violent commandments of the Qur’an. I don’t think I need to mention that Bin Laden belonged to one of the richest families in the world. Yesterday it was slaughtering bulls at the temple; today it’s using resources to support the slaughter of God’s enemies.
Wealth and economic equality are not magic wands that will turn a religious population into one that uses critical thinking to separate superstition from fact, much less to dissect organized religion to separate the wheat from the chaff. In fact, as wealth inevitably becomes more religious, atheists, agnostics, and any critics of religion might find no recourse in legal institutions or systems of government, no matter how strong they seem to be now. If history can teach us anything, it is that institutions and governments are built by people, not the other way around. And if enough people demand superstition over reason, superstition will prevail.
And so, the Riddle of the Sphinx remains true, medical advances notwithstanding. We still need a third leg to prop us up when we are down, when life appears meaningless, and when hardships pummel us mercilessly, regardless of our material wealth or lack thereof.
Although we can trace some skepticism of religion as far back as 2000 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh and then some more historic footprints during the Renaissance all the way up to today, irreligion or skepticism had a faint impact on history until perhaps the nineteenth century. Now we are seeing this impact slowly fall back into the shadows of history, eclipsed by a new era of technology combined with superstition.
It may be that ever since we dwelt in caves, some of us were skeptical about the spirits and ghosts that others insisted they could feel. There has always been a voice of dissent leavening the religious majority, yet it comes and goes; it is never here to stay. Sometimes it was loud, as during the Age of Enlightenment. But before that it was mostly quiet; and now in the age of Islamic terror and laws against blasphemy, it is becoming quiet once again.
If critical thinking and skepticism of religious superstition are merely a symptom or side effect of superstitious zealotry, then it is just that—a mere side effect, which is not meant to be a destiny of its own. But if we want skepticism or even critical thinking at a basic level to become a destiny of its own, we must offer more to that ailing person who needs a third leg.
We must offer hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless, and alms to the needy. But above all, we must offer a cohesive meaning to life and turn our backs on pure materialism. The church, the mosque, and the temple have all laid claims to our souls. And while the soul might be a collection of memories and experiences in our brain—or, like others say, an eternal living spirit—at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that as humans, we have an unquestionable need to rely on something or someone else other than ourselves in times of distress.
For an average person to free him- or herself from the claims of dogma, he or she must compare the religious message to the message of nonbelievers. This is a fundamental problem with the way our brains are wired; we can’t help understanding skepticism of religion and superstition as the opposite of all hope.
But what if we as secularists, atheists, agnostics, and the like can organize our thoughts into a cohesive message of fact-based or science-based hope?
It is by no means an easy question, and the pitfall is always falling into the trap of creating or organizing a new religion, which of course defeats the purpose. However, I am still hopeful that there is a way to give people hope and meaning without superstition.
Pew Research Center, “The Changing Global Religious Landscape,” April 5, 2017. http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape.