The Individual in Religion: The Shaman, the Priest, the Prophet & the Pioneer
Religions today seem to be in crisis. Old faiths are losing ground. A whole host of new faiths are attempting to replace them. At first glance, this crisis looks like uncharted territory for commoners and leaders alike. Upon further examination, though, we can see that the trends emerging today are part a far larger pattern – one that, throughout history, has come to define all religious developments. What, then, is this pattern, and how can we wield it in the modern day? The answer lies in exploring the evolution of both religion itself and how we experience it.
The origins of religion are shrouded in mystery. And, while much is still unknown, one thing is for sure; all our earliest religions resembled shamanism. Shamanism, although technically only describing tribal Siberian traditions, is nowadays used to describe a basic set of beliefs found across the globe in tribal cultures. Some people, especially among Australian Aboriginal, Native American, Oceanic and Siberian populations, still follow a form of shamanism today. In Africa, a similar system called animism is also still in practice among more remote peoples. In the modern world, shamanism has largely been tainted by exposure to and intermixing with modern monotheistic religions. Most ancient shamanic systems have been lost to time, but by studying their modern descendants and the archaeological evidence, we can piece together a good picture of what ancient shamanism looked like.
The shamanism of the ancient world was centered around an idea that sounds foreign to the modern ear – direct religious experience. People didn’t have doctrinal books or church services. They had themselves, they had the tribe, and the tribe had some sort of shaman. The shaman was a spiritual leader, a position which normally entailed a wide variety of duties. The Druids of the ancient Celts are a perfect example of shamans as jacks of all trades; they were experts in astronomy, astrology, medicine, law, politics, divination, and more. Regardless of what other peripheral duties they had, though, all shamans across the globe had one job in particular – acting as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds.
This is where the idea of direct religious experience comes into play. A central tenet of all forms of shamanism is that the physical world of our everyday lives is not the only world in existence. Our world is, in fact, being constantly acted upon by a separate, spiritual, world – one inhabited by the formless forces that guide all physical events. There was a spirit in every physical being, and this spirit could be contacted directly by the shaman through the entering of a trance or an otherwise altered state of consciousness. This was the central tenet of shamanism. Religion was not comprised of olden stories of convoluted gods, but a veneration for a tangible place that the shaman could travel to for wisdom and answers to important questions. How, then, did this system of widespread direct experience turn into one where no one but sparse prophets and wealthy priests had access to the divine?
At the beginning of the Bronze Age, the tribal world began to shrink, and the civilized world began to take its place. Whenever tribal societies transitioned into more structured ones, the roles of shamans seemed to diminish. They were largely replaced with priests; people who fulfilled many of the peripheral duties of traditional shamans, but rejected the traditions of venturing into the spirit world for guidance. Instead, perhaps brought about by the invention of writing, priests taught codified stories about deities and pantheons untouchable by mortal men. Spirits turned into gods. Shamans wearing the heads and skins of animals to channel their spirits turned into hybrid man-beast deities. Religion became less of a mechanism for communities to tackle their problems and more of a mechanism for the ruling class to exert control over their subjects. Shamans used their authority to benefit their tribes via visions. Priests used their authority to benefit themselves via demanding taxes and sacrifices. It is even speculated that some Bronze Age city-states, specifically those in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, were governed by priest-kings.
As time progressed, the priestly classes in these civilizations lost their authority to hereditary monarchies. The role of the individual in organized religion had, at first glance, largely died out among advanced peoples. Among the Semitic peoples of the Near East, however, it was very much alive and well. They, specifically the ancient Hebrews, developed prophets as a way to revive the role traditionally filled by shamans. As priests were doing very little to connect people with their gods by that time, the prophets took this position for themselves. While the priestly class basked in the wealth handed over to them by the commoners, the prophets gave these same commoners new advice and guidance from, allegedly, the gods themselves.
Prophets were not just the mouthpieces of old gods, however. They also served another function, and one that would shake the very foundations of the world – they facilitated the transition from polytheism to monotheism. Prophets, as far as we can tell, always only claimed to speak to one god in particular. Thus, if one prophet’s message grew particularly popular, their corresponding god would grow popular alongside them. This, in part, led to the rise of monotheistic religions, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam. Here, we see personal relationships with spiritual beings beating out impersonal religious establishments; a return to the proximity with the divine that was so central to shamanism.
This revival in direct religious experience ended up being short-lived. Prophetic religions, particularly those of Abrahamic descent, were soon codified and contained to religions of the book. As Christianity and Islam took over large swaths of the world, new prophets were largely looked down upon, and they eventually fizzled out entirely. Like the rigid polytheistic religions their ancestors overthrew, the Abrahamic faiths soon became governed by priestly classes with a very low tolerance for those who questioned their doctrines. This, however, was a shaky system, and it was soon to come apart.
As a quick departure, it is important to note that, while this article focuses mostly on the Western and Near Eastern worlds, the patterns that emerged within them did not emerge everywhere. In the Far East, shamanism and folk religions coexisted and even blended with popular philosophies like Taoism and Confucianism until the emergence of modernity. In India, Hinduism is thought to have originated as an outgrowth of the original Indo-European religion, never having fallen into conflict with monotheistic competitors. In Africa and the Caribbean, local shamanic and animistic traditions continued uninterrupted until eventually synthesizing with Christianity and Islam into what can be considered “creole religions”. Elsewhere in the Americas, Australia, and Oceania, shamanic traditions were almost entirely wiped out by Christian colonization. While these regions have often found themselves under the thumb of others in recent centuries, their religious developments are no less important, for they show the many ways the seemingly default religion of shamanism can develop.
Returning to the history of the now-dominant Abrahamic faiths, we can see that the religious stability they once brought about has now began to crack. Ever since the Reformation, the traditional doctrines of Christianity have been in constant question. Even new prophets, Joseph Smith most famous among them, have arisen. In Islam, too, divisions have slowly grown ever since the era of the caliphates. In the last couple of centuries, especially in the West, this process of Abrahamic religious balkanization has only accelerated. And, at the same time, these dominant religions have also encountered outside competition. Non-Abrahamic religions, like Occultism, Neo-Paganism, and New Age spirituality have all gained massive traction. The pattern is clear; the religious landscape, especially in the West, is rapidly fracturing. People don’t want to inherit religious systems that reek of institutionalization and deindividuation. People want to reconnect with their innermost selves, and they’re fully prepared to abandon tradition to do so.
This all leads us to the present day. We see that history is repeating itself – religious institutions are losing power to the attractive prospect of direct religious experience. We need not let this cycle continue for eternity, however. We can end it, and doing so only entails a realization. This realization, of course, is that religion was never meant to be a concrete institution. Religion began as an experience, and it refuses to let go of its roots. Timidly following others’ orders and blindly believing in their books is not the answer. Wielding religion as a tool to living your best life is the answer. Choosing the tradition that best leads to self-actualization is the answer. Letting religion work for you, instead of making yourself work for religion, is the answer. Choose whatever religious path you please, but do not do so for the sake of appeasement or conformity. Do so for the sake of discovering your own divinity, and you will make fulfillment inevitable.