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Home > Key Themes > Seven

Key Theme 7: Spiritual Life and Moral Codes


Are morality and spirituality unique to human beings? How has human spirituality changed in the course of history? How have changing ideas of morality and spirituality shaped history? The word spirituality refers to human awareness of a transcendental state of being, one that is beyond the material world of everyday life. It may mean belief in a supreme creator, in an afterlife, or in the existence of mysterious spirits and magical forces. Our sense of spirituality shapes how we think of the world and our place in it. It also shapes our sense of morality, that is, the way in which we recognize differences between right and wrong. Spirituality has been a powerful force in human history.

Do animals have a sense of spirituality or morality? All animals have to learn that some behaviors work well and others do not. A young deer that strays too far from its herd may be “punished” by being killed. Those who learn these rules of behavior survive. Those who do not learn them may die.
We have no evidence, however, that animals think in moral terms, no sense that they are aware of doing “good” things or “bad” things. Being aware of morality, like being aware of identity (Key Theme 5), appears to be uniquely human. Only we humans have language, which allows us to think about the rightness or wrongness of our behavior. The same is probably true of spirituality. Symbolic language allows us to express and share information, not just about what is in front of us, but also about things that we cannot see with our eyes or hear with our ears. Language lets us think and talk about God, angels, saints, demons, fairies, heaven, and hell. Only humans, it seems, can imagine a spiritual realm.

As far as we know, all human communities have had ideas of a spiritual realm and of rules for right and wrong behavior. Different communities, however, have thought about those things in an astonishing variety of ways. People have often fought, killed, or died to put forth or defend their own ideas of spirituality and morality. A belief or practice that one community considers normal may seem totally unacceptable to another. For example, in some communities people have traditionally regarded public nudity as normal. In others, they have seen as shocking and offensive.

What can we know of the spiritual life of our distant ancestors in paleolithic times? Archaeologists have found many objects that look as if they had spiritual meaning to those who created them. Fifteen thousand years ago, people in southern Europe took the trouble to crawl far back into the dark reaches of a cave to carve clay statuettes of bison that hardly anyone was ever likely to see. We do not know why they did this but certainly not merely to amuse themselves or to make "art for art's sake." What about cave paintings that show hunters stalking animals? Were these works possibly designed to cast a spell over animal prey? One cave painting includes the picture of a man who looks to modern eyes like a priest or wizard. We do not really know if he was or not. The problem is that we know so little about the wider social or cultural contexts in which works like these were produced and used.

We do have some ideas, however. Anthropologists have studied the spiritual beliefs of small, relatively isolated communities that exist today. Scholars of paleolithic history base many of their ideas about early human thought and behavior on such studies. In many of these communities there may be no clear borderline between the human and spiritual worlds. One feature that seems to appear in all small-scale communities is animism. This is the belief that the world is full of spirits and that to survive one must coexist and communicate with them. One must pray to them, bargain with them, and even try to ally with them in disputes with human or non-human enemies.

The community may regard natural objects and forces, such as rain, wind, thunder, trees, the sun, the moon, and stars as members of a huge and varied family. People, however, may not always think of spirits as more powerful or more moral than humans. Spirits may be like family members. Some are good and helpful, and some are bad, fickle, dangerous, or stupid.

In some parts of the world societies have totemic beliefs, that is, ideas about close spiritual ties between families or clans and particular animals. The members of a “jaguar clan,” for example, might forbid killing jaguars because of the belief that these animals are in some sense also part of the extended family.

How did people contact the spirit world? They might hear spirits in a thunderstorm, or they might make contact through dreams or rituals. Religious ceremonies might involve dancing, chanting, or taking mind-altering drugs to induce a trance-like state and a feeling of “crossing over” to the spiritual realm. Frequently, communities looked for help from individuals believed to have special gifts for communicating with the spirits. In Siberia and some other parts of the world, such specialists have been known as shamans. These are women or men who have the power to go into a trance. In that state they may “fly” to the spirit realm to talk, fight, or plead with spirits—even to marry them. Upon returning to the human world, shamans tell other people what happened. Their pronouncements may have a powerful effect on people, curing their diseases, cursing them, driving them to war with their neighbors, or encouraging them to make peace. A shaman could be an extremely powerful man or woman in a community.

Cave Painting

Hunting and foraging people painted this rock art in Zimbabwe in Southern Africa about 2,000 years ago.
The scene depicts a ceremonial dance whose purpose may have been to animate the life force.
The large figure in the center, very likely wearing an antelope mask, is lying down
and perhaps in a state of trance, or altered consciousness.

“ Diana’s Vow" site, Manicaland, Zimbabwe
R. Dunn

In small-scale societies, most spirits were local, and people identified strongly with particular ones. After about 12,000 BCE, however, larger-scale societies began to appear. When that happened, people’s sense of spirituality also changed. As communities became larger and more powerful, their gods, too, became more potent and awe-inspiring. These deities were often venerated beyond the local community.

Priests and rulers began to take on the power that shamans once exercised. Rulers of city-states and kingdoms that existed 5,000 or 6,000 years ago often claimed spiritual power and identified themselves with particular gods. In Sumer in lower Mesopotamia (the Tigris-Euphrates River valley), each city had its own major deity, which people represented in images of stone or wood. For example, in the city of Uruk the goddess of love, known as Inanna, inhabited the “white temple.” This building stood atop a ziggurat, or stepped, pyramid-shaped structure, which dominated the whole town.

In Sumer every urban temple had its religious leaders, or priests, who had the job of pleasing the gods in endless rituals, festivals, and sacrifices. People dedicated all their labor to the service of the city’s gods. Therefore, the priests claimed the right to command the population and economy, ruling the city as the top social class. Religious teachings supported the right of the city-state’s rulers to accumulate wealth and wield power. Priests instructed ordinary people that, if they wished to receive the blessing of the gods, they should obey their rulers. The priests might try to dull people’s willingness to protest against abuse and exploitation by threatening them with the wrath of the gods or by promising them a better life in the afterworld if they remained obedient.

In the third millennium BCE, when bigger states began to appear, rulers almost always associated themselves with the most powerful deities. In ancient Egypt or the later Roman empire, for example, rulers claimed to be not only the deputies of gods but deities in their own right. In the ancient Mediterranean region and other places, people thought of their numerous gods and goddesses as part of a pantheon, or “household” of deities that controlled the universe as one big and sometimes quarreling family. Stories about the gods were at the heart of oral and literary traditions, and children learned about duties and obligations, right and wrong behavior, from the examples that gods and goddesses set.

In Afroeurasia in the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE, belief systems began to appear that eventually became world religions. These systems focused on a single supreme god or cosmic, creative power. They also appealed to people of differing languages and cultural traditions, not just the members of a single city or local area. Most of these systems, though not all, were “universalist” in that they preached their message to whomever would listen, not just to particular groups.

The major universalist religions to appear so far—all of them by the seventh century CE—have been Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism,
Daoism, Christianity, Manicheanism, and Islam. Among these, Hinduism has remain closely associated with South Asian and, to some extent, Southeast Asian societies. People have practiced Daoism mainly in China. Confucianism also emerged in the mid first millennium BCE, but as a belief system it has emphasized moral and ethical behavior much more than spiritual doctrines. Also, it has remained firmly linked to East Asian societies, especially Chinese. Judaism, which took shape as a distinctive belief system in the first millennium BCE, shared its monotheism, or belief in one God, with Christianity and Islam. Jews, however, did not take up a universalist mission but rather have transmitted their faith mainly within the community believed to descend from the early Hebrews.

Today, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population identifies at least nominally with Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. In the past millennium, however, Manicheanism has faded from global view, and Zoroastrians (called Parsis today) number fewer than 500,000

Belief Table

Table data from Ninian Smart, ed., Atlas of the World’s Religions
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 13.

All the world religions embrace varying beliefs, practices, and sects. None is homogeneous or uniform. For example, in Islam, Sunnism and Shi’ism constitute two major branches with somewhat differing beliefs. In fact, the Shi’ite tradition has several branches of its own. In the Christian tradition Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox Catholics, Protestants, and other groups all share basic monotheism but with numerous differences in doctrine, ritual, and practice.

Most major religious traditions also incorporate two important dimensions. One of them involves people joining together for public worship, communal prayer or ritual, scriptural study, and mutual moral and social support. The other, which in some traditions is characterized as mysticism, is concerned with the individual’s search for knowledge of God, union with the divine, transcendent experience, healing, and salvation. For millions of people, religious experience may involve both of these dimensions.

A final point about the varieties of religious experience is that people in many parts of the world, and in rural areas more than in cities, have professed one of the major religions but assimilated older animist beliefs into it. For example, a Christian community might honor a local saint who is a Christianized version of an ancient god or spirit. For another example, Muslims in some places wear a little box around their neck with a piece of paper in it carrying an inscription from the Qur’an. They display this charm, or amulet to ward off evil, even though Muslim scripture does not condone such a practice.


Churches

The architecture of Christian churches varies greatly depending on the denomination and the region.
On the left is a Methodist chapel in Wales. On the right is anancient Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul, Turkey.

R. Dunn

Today, many people argue that modern science presents a powerful challenge to religion because it offers explanations of nature, the cosmos, and human origins that require no reference to God or any other manifestation of spiritual power. Also, the material evidence that science presents to support its description of the natural and physical universe has continued to pile up, especially during the past century. Few doubt that science, technology, and medicine have benefited humankind in countless ways. For some people, however, science and religion start from such contradictory premises that they cannot be reconciled. This perceived contradiction may even be a source of profound bewilderment or dismay. Other people, however, find no trouble accepting the propositions of modern science while at the same time expressing faith in a transcendent creative power.

Principles and standards of ethical behavior are as important to peace, order, and social cooperation in the world as they have ever been. Science, however, has very little to tell us about ethics. Also, persistent poverty, environmental degradation, epidemic disease, and crime have defied the best efforts of humanity’s scientific imagination. Amid the distresses and dangers of our contemporary era, people have sought not only communal ties to one another but also moral and spiritual certainties. Spiritual quests and ethical questions continue to be a vital part of human cultural

Why Do We Need to Understand this Key Theme?

  • For most of human history, spiritual ideas have been at the core of how humans understand and explain the workings of the natural, physical, and social world. No wonder that people have stood up, and sometimes died, for their religious principles, or that societies have built their sense of unity and identity around their spiritual traditions. How people explain the world and find meaning in it shape their hopes, fears, and behavior toward one another. Young people who struggle today with spiritual questions and uncertainties should understand how and why these yearnings have always been among the most powerful shapers of the human past.
  • Human beings learned long ago that peace, order, and cooperation within social groups, whether they be families, foraging bands, business partnerships, or nation-states, depend in the long run on guiding principles, standards, and rules of moral behavior. Systems of morality and ethics vary around the world, but all of them are founded on ideals of social harmony and trust. Moreover, successful collective learning among human communities requires forthrightness, honesty, and trust between both individuals and groups. Belief systems embody the shared moral and ethical expectations that allow humans to get along in peace and to learn systematically from one another.

Three essential questions explained

Landscape and Closeup Teaching Units that Emphasize Key Theme 7:
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