I was frustrated today to be reminded of how much the Eurocentric/"Western" viewpoint still dominates American education. I subbed for a social studies teacher last week, and again today, and as she laid out the plan for the class for me we were commiserating over how her students didn't know or care about why the History of the middle East and Israel is important, and then she said something I thought about for the rest of the day. Speaking of Egypt, Jerusalem, and the events she was having them study between 3000 and 200 B.C., in three different parts of the Mediterranean, she described it as "The beginning of religion." The religions of the Book, I clarified, and she agreed, but I didn't contradict her overall thesis. Meanwhile, at another point in the conversation she had indicated that she would love to just teach European History, like especially World War I, that era.
And I think, honestly, that she has probably never deeply thought about the fact that people had spread out across India and Asia, and even to the Americas, thousands of years before 3000 BC. And that those people developed their own religions and beliefs without having any connection to the culture of what Western history calls "The cradle of civilization." She might not even know that many world scholars would consider Hinduism to be the world's "oldest" major living religion of which we have historical record.
Or that, written history or not, as Jill Lepore puts it in These Truths, "People order their worlds with tales of their dead and of their gods and of the origins of their laws."
People populated the Americas about 20,000 years ago across the land bridge, and then the water rose again, cutting Asia and North America apart from one another. This was about 18,000 BC. By 1000 A.D, the great city Cahokia, on the Mississippi floodplains, had been built, housed over ten thousand people, and been abandoned. The Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, with a population of over a quarter million people, was founded in 1325. By 1492 when Columbus landed in Haiti, there were an estimated 75 million people living in the Americas--15 million more than in Europe. And even the fairly simple Taíno villagers of Haiti had their own religion. which did not begin, in any way shape or form, in the Mediterranean post 3,000 BC.
(in case you're wondering, in 1500 AD there were approximately 125 million people in China, in the Ming Dynasty, many of whom were Taoist, Buddhist, etc, but some of whom were also Christian or Islamic. There was trade between China and Europe overland, which is how the Europeans came to possess gunpowder and the Compass, both first established in China during the Song Dynasty, before the Mongol-led regimes took over around 1271.)
I believe religion begins in the natural tendencies of human being to a) wonder about the nature of the universe and b) create stories that explain our world. this is also, in fact the origin of science. Both science and religion arose in various forms around the world. They did not "begin" in the Mediterranean any more than did music or dance or other elements of culture, and I hope that future course materials will make that more clear to teachers and students alike.
(as a side note, if you are interested in this sort of thing, look up the recent discussion between Stephen Colbert and Neil Degrasse Tyson.)
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