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This question builds on these previous questions:

I am attempting to create a monotheistic globally dominant religion. The religion will be:

  • Expansionist, by both missionaries and the sword
  • Centralized in a manner akin to Catholicism, though a decentralized (Orthodox Christianity or Islam) system is fine as well.
  • Have both a hierarchical priesthood and a militant arm
  • Able to motivate followers to violence against non-adherents

The question I have at this point is:

Does a religion that meets these criteria need a 'prophet'? Mainly meaning the role that Jesus or Mohammed played in the evolution of Islam and Christianity.

If it is not required does the presence of such a person make it easier, so to speak?

The answer I am looking for should have real world examples to support a yes or no answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ You've already found the two best real-world examples for a "yes" answer: Jesus and Mohammed. However, Jesus didn't advocate expansion by the sword or violence against non-adherents, but people did it anyway, so maybe the answer is "no". The medieval Catholics did have the Pope, but does that count as "prophet"? Do you distinguish between a spiritual/organizational leader and a prophet, and if so, how? $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Jan 13 '15 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ I think that, better than expansionist, you mean proselitist. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jan 13 '15 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Scientology exists and meets all of your requirements and doesn't have a central prophet. It's expansion by 'sword' is more by 'lawyer and antagonistic lawsuits', but close enough for modern era. Of course I'm also sort of loath to classify Scientology as a religion lol. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jan 13 '15 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ I think this needs some clarification on what you mean by "prophet." Jesus' role in the evolution of Christianity was arguably nil: it's Paul who did the organizational and structural labor (there were others, but Paul dominates). Muhammad, by contrast, had a central role in the formulation of the umma. Again, in Muslim thinking, Muhammad was a prophet, but in Christian teaching Jesus was not. So I'm unclear as to what role you're asking about with respect to necessity. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Apr 14 '15 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa welcome back. $\endgroup$ – James Apr 14 '15 at 21:03
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In order to address the question, I need to make a few assumptions. If these are invalid, please correct me.

By "expansionist," I take it you mean that the socio-cultural complex defined as "God-ism" [to use a dippy empty title] has a tendency, expressed as an overt desire, to extend its reach across other populations. This is not at all obvious. If Godism is "expansionist" in this sense, it does not, as did Cyrus for instance, wish to conquer other people and allow them to practice their preexisting traditions under new rule (i.e., pay your taxes and bow down before the elite natives, and you can otherwise do as you please). Again, it's not that Godism happens to be expanding effectively because, coincidentally, the Godist Empire is conquering very well at the moment, but rather, Godists deliberately wish to expand Godism for its own sake.

On this basis, it strikes me that the obvious counter-example to the "must have a prophetic figure" thing would be the Aztecs and the Triple Alliance. Not monotheistic, to be sure, but otherwise they pretty well fit your list of criteria.

Now if you define "prophetic figure" to mean any inspired leader-figure of some ongoing historical significance, you're going to be hard-pressed to find any socio-cultural complex that doesn't have these. But if the sort of prophetic figure you're looking for is a singular central figure, a name that acts as a core banner under which the faithful march to war and so forth, there actually aren't all that many examples -- and arguably, most of them are counter-examples.

Consider early Judaism, which fits every one of your criteria very effectively... except that, with some occasional remarkable exceptions, this was not a missionizing-converting sort of complex. Expansionist in every other sense, but not by way of conversion (usually -- there are some interesting moments when people are forced to circumcise at sword's point, quite literally).

And then there are many periods and moments in Islamic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox history when expansionism was emphatically non-violent, to the point that it produced far more martyrs than converts. Does that count?

The problem with producing a lot of real-world examples is that monotheism isn't really all that common, and on the whole, it has apparently happened with prophetic figures of some sort. On the other hand, you'd be hard-pressed to demonstrate that any one figure in these traditions so absolutely dominates as to obscure all others. (I am reminded of the Shi'ite fascination with figures other than Muhammad, the utterly central role of St. Paul in most Christianities until quite recently, and the wide variety of Jewish central-prophet figures apart from Moses.)

I am aware that some have argued -- Karl Jaspers' "Axial Age" [Achsenzeit, if memory serves] proposal is the most famous, though not the first -- that centrally-dominant prophetic figures are an essential characteristic of expansionist, civilizing religions. But there are an awful lot of vehement counter-arguments as well.

In short, I see no reason whatever that you can't have the situation you've described without central prophetic figures if you don't want them.

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    $\begingroup$ Circumcision as sword point ...now there's an ironic situation. Thanks for the answer, I particularly appreciate the Jaspers reference, I will give that a read. $\endgroup$ – James Apr 15 '15 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ Re Judaism: a strong defense is a good offense. They did not go on conquering missions, but they resist being erased by conquers. Their great strength is their cultual cohesion. You might have a winner where the hero-figure go-get-em cults die out through fighting each other, and what's left is a already-global smattering of former enclaves of the religion that rode it out, and are the same across long distances. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 15 '15 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @JDlugosz : On the one hand, there have been quite a number of strong conquest movements arising from Judaism -- read Judges, for a start. On the other, this argument of cultural near-homogeneity continues to be used as a weapon against Ethiopian, Chinese, and Indian Jews. So while I see what you're getting at, I am hesitant to agree. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Apr 15 '15 at 23:40
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The central feature of most religions is that all other religions are false or at least less correct. This means there must be some clear separation between the religion and its closest competitors that proves that it is entirely different from other religions. After that superiority is easily attained by the traditional method of shouting louder.

Prophets are necessary when the religion has a predecessor it wishes to be distinct from. The prophet himself usually only wishes to reform the previous religion and then gets promoted to a religion founder when political differences between their supporters and the old guard become permanent. But in case of Islam the breakdown of relations happened while the prophet was still alive.

Sometimes the breakdown never becomes final enough. Most Protestant faiths have a charismatic founder his followers idolize, but still consider themselves Christian and recognize both other Protestants and Catholics as fellow Christians. Islam and Buddhism also have several recognized forms. This is probably because these religions already have a highly respected founder figure believers do **not* want to replace.

There are other methods of separating the one true religion from the false superstitions of heretics. Some of them might work for your religion. Or not.

Dogma means in this context a permanent theological difference. While protestants consider themselves Christian, they do not consider themselves Catholic and in practice function as a separate religion. The same is true of Shiites and Sunnis. If the dogmatic difference is that the founder figure is no longer considered sacred, merely a very wise teacher among other teachers, the new religion might not have a prophet even if the previous one did.

Nationalism used to be central to religions. While the existence of other Gods and religions was recognized, you people would have a pact or connection with one particular God with particular rites and traditions. While such religions are originally limited to a single city or tribe and tolerant of what outsiders believe, there are numerous examples of the people becoming expansionist and intolerant, conquering their neighbours, replacing their temples with their own and forcing the conquered to change to the proper religion.

This historically has had unpleasant undertones of the Chosen People, who are superior to other people, which you probably wish to avoid. But there is the example of Judaism which went from an intolerant national religion to one of the most popular religions in the Roman Empire with universal appeal in a fairly short time. But this is probably explained by Judaism having both prophetic figures (Moses and Abraham) and strong dogma (the law) in addition to the nationalism. And a large empire might have an Imperial Cult it uses to unite its people regardless of ethnic origin into a single nation.

Ancient religions might simply be too old to have or need a founder figure. If the origin of your religion is lost in pre-history there is little need to make a big deal of how its founder separated it from its predecessor. Nobody cares any more. There probably still is some sort of origin story and it might even mention a specific person by name and people might have celebrations in his honour. But the founding celebration might instead be a pilgrimage to some sacred place where the religion originated. Or focus on a specific date when the God descended from the Heavens to reveal the truth.

I doubt this answers your question, but it should give some food for thought.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Or focus on a specific date when the God descended from the Heavens to reveal the truth." I was wondering if you were going to mention that, lol. To me, a prophet or "founder figure" is necessary if the god in question hasn't been 100% proven. So if he has a direct, tangible impact in the world, then there's no need for someone to come along and tell you what to do, as the god can tell you himself. Otherwise, without the influence of the god, it's almost required that a person be in charge. $\endgroup$ – EFrog Jan 13 '15 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @EFrog actually people have no more proof that Jesus or Buddha existed than they have of God existing. That said the actual difference in the example would be that instead of a single named important prophet, the religion would have multiple, potentially unnamed, and much less central, people founding it. It would still be a story about people founding the religion, just different. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 13 '15 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ "The central feature of most religions is that all other religions are false", this isn't actually true. Rather, it's a central feature of the Abrahamic religions, two of which are the most successful religions in the world today. But traditionally, most animist and so-called "pagan" religions happily co-existed with each other. Indeed the initial reasons given for the persecutions of first Jews and later Christians was that this unwillingness to acknowledge other people's gods was socially disruptive and violently provocative. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jan 19 '15 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung You really should quote the entire sentence. It continues "or at least less correct". It is still misleading as I do not explain what I mean with "less correct" and I think the first guess of the meaning would be wrong for most people, but it is there precisely to cover the issue you mention. I would need to expand it to make the meaning clear and it is not really on topic.. so I just left it vague and misleading. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 19 '15 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi I missed the end in the cut and paste, but I had read it and taken it into account in my answer. To be clear: even the position of "less correct" was not tolerated in the syncretistic pantheons of ancient times. These pantheon-type religions were mere social fusions of other individual religions into a conglomerate mythology. The god that you worshipped was in no sense "more correct" than the others, it was just your personal god/choice. Abrahamic religions uniquely refused to participate in any form of syncretism, though newer religions appear to follow this practice. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jan 19 '15 at 21:57
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What you have to understand about religion is that it's about supernatural revelation, let me explain by contrasting science to religion:

Science is all about making observations in the past and then using them to 'predict' the future. It can never explain why something is the way it is, all it can do is say 'based on what we saw in the past the following is likely to happen'. Simply put, science has nothing to do with understanding, truth or meaning. Religion in contrast is able to make a claim on truth, but the way it makes this is by claiming some kind of 'contact' with absolute knowledge. Thus, regardless whether the claims or truthful or not, religion is all about understanding, truth and meaning.

Now, the way normally this claim is put forward is that there is a single individual who has 'received' such supernatural (as in, outside of the natural world, not as in: ghosts, spirits etc.) contact/revelation/whatever. You seem however to totally misunderstand that this is always by a single figure. In a religion like the Islam or Buddhism this is somewhat true, however in religions like Christianity and Judaism there have been very many prophets. Take for example Christianity in the early days, it was 'started' through the revelation of Jesus, however individuals like Peter had a very prophet-like role as well and on top of that you had thousands others who by definition could be called prophets as well.

So, to answer your question:

  1. First decide whether the religion is real. Has there truly been a case of supernatural revelation, or is this something started by just humans.
  2. If started by just humans a single central prophet figure makes sense, as he will be the only one putting forward the claim on having a supernatural message and others will not be able to 'check' whether it's real. And yes, you could also have a group that puts forwards their stories as a coordinated effort to start some religion, though in this case do note that you're somewhat limited in time (setting up such effort over the course of hundreds of years would be... hard to say the least).
  3. If within your world the religion is 'real' then you do not need a central prophet figure. Every individual can somehow see some of this supernatural revelation. As you however wish for a hierarchy some will need to be 'better' at this than others, but you can just as easily have a circle of guys in the middle as you can have a single individual. A real God isn't limited to communicating to just a single person. He can choose to, but it's not a requirement and he could just as easily give hundreds of people little instructions to create the kind of religion you wish to use for your story.

PS. Just to discuss polytheistic religions, in those cases they can be fake without a central figure for the following reason:

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However their knowledge claims (as in, 'amount' of supernatural knowledge) will be relatively weak.

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Establishing any religion on marketplace of ideas requires a a prophet /master salesman, selling this ideas and promoting it over competing ideas (of which are plenty).

BTW "market of ideas" is not demeaning. It just means that ideas need to compete with other ideas in minds of audience. Ideas able to win most of the mindshare win "the market". So promoting the idea means it needs to satisfy some needs of the audience, and prophet needs to understand the audience. It is not easy, and having divine help is obvious bonus.

Is there an example of an religious idea flourishing without a prophet figure? I am not aware of any, but I am eager to improve on my ignorance.

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    $\begingroup$ Examples (AFAIK, anyway - I don't claim to be an expert on religious history): Hinduism, Shinto, the Roman/Greek religions, Norse religion, Celtic/Druidic religion, North American Indian beliefs... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 13 '15 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - perhaps his question should be restated to a 'monotheistic religion flourishing without a prophet figure'. This answer seems more like a comment $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jan 13 '15 at 18:56
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I would say that a single prophet is not needed, with a few caveats.

1) Some prophets are needed. Religions are not rationale, so you cannot reason people to accept them. You need some people to claim supernatural inspiration.

2) From 1) and your question, it follows that you need a corpus of prophets. This brings another issue: discrepancy. If they are of the same religion, most of what they say will match, but the differences will be crucial (look at Christianity if you want some examples). You need some mechanisms to balance that:

  • For example, censoring the prophets'teachings so newer generations only get access to the prophecies accepted by the "church". Maybe your prophet Ronald preached that people should donate their riches to the church, and that priests should be castrated. Most probably, newer generations will only hear about the first part.

  • Another method is denouncing those prophets who are more openly against the church as heretics or demonic agents, but that approach is less subtle and more open to provoke conflict, specially if supported by terrenal powers$^1$.

In all situations, it is important for the church to keep control of the culture (even to the point that only priests know to read) and the access to the divinity (the priest is the mediator between the people and the god$^2$).

I think a model could be Jewish religion, which draws from prophets, patriarchs and other books and which shows the evolution of the religion (from Babylonian legends to adoration of a single mountain, to its final forms).

Of course, Jewish religion is not proselitist, but that is because it is old and, as such, is henoteisc$^3$: you cannot justifiy that the hebrews are "the chosen people" and special because of their origins, and then explain that they should try to convert all of the world to their faith (if all the people become "chosen people", what is the fun in it?). Apart from that origin, you could use the same structure of the Old Testament/Torah to found a proselitist religion.

$^1$ Heresies similar to Luther's had begun during the Middle Ages, but got no political support and were quickly crushed. Now, Luther came at an age when many princes got more political control and wanted to become free from Papal pressure.

$^2$ In a sense, the priest becomes the god. The more complicated and obscure the ritual to access to the god, the more important the priest will become.

$^3$ That is, every nation, tribe etc. has its own god/s that protect them against other nations, tribes and their gods.

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  • $\begingroup$ Although it's not talked about much, there has been quite a lot of Jewish proselytizing over the millennia. Read up on Masada and the Maccabees, for instance. In a remarkable number of circumstances in which Jews have been wealthy and powerful, too, gentile servants have been forced to convert. As to heresies, the most significant -- the Cathars, Albigensians, Hussites, and so forth -- got immense political support and thus prompted violent attacks. And I don't see how Luther is a good model here: the 30 Years War was the single most destructive war in European history until World War I. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Apr 15 '15 at 3:23
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A prophet is not needed, but is convenient. What is needed is something to keep the message coherent.

Your expansionist religion is willing to push against the world to convert people, rather than waiting for the world to come to it (which would be more Buddhist). When it does so, it will encounter opposition. If the opposition detects a message that is not coherent (i.e. there is not one message, but a fractured body of competing messages), the opposition will play this to counter your religion. The harder you want to push, the more important this will be.

The easiest way to do this is to have a definitive source of "truth." A prophet is very effective for this. However, it doesn't need to be a person. A tightly knit priesthood could control a message well enough to create this coherent message without a prophet.

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  • $\begingroup$ Buddhist proselytizing has been extremely common over the last 2000 years. Again, the idea that religions are reducible to particular messages that must be transferred coherently is almost entirely without warrant. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Apr 15 '15 at 3:19
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An expansionist religion almost certainly needs a single, compelling message to deliver unto the heathen and convert them. It seems human nature that whoever comes up with this message, be it one man or a even a small committee, would then be imbued with the aura of a prophet or the equivalent. For example, the US "Founding Fathers" have a certain degree of that aura even though the creation is secular.

I can only see it not being so if the document produced is something like the volumes that bureaucrats turn out these days...huge volumes nobody reads. And then nobody would adopt them and the religion would fade.

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  • $\begingroup$ The missionaries of the early medieval period, preaching to the Gauls and Goths and Germanii and so forth, tended to sidestep this whole "single compelling message" business. Following from their predecessors' successes around the Mediterranean, especially North Africa, they tended to begin by promoting themselves as exorcists and healers. The centrality of a single text or message was, in Christianity, immensely late, in fact something we usually associate with the Reformation. $\endgroup$ – CAgrippa Apr 15 '15 at 3:25

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