Once upon a time, man, realizing his time here on earth was limited, but desirous of passing along the important lessons learned, developed the written word. Regardless of from where or how he sprang, his first and most important imperative was to relate the story of his creation. These narratives, again regardless of location and/or time, included insights into his Creator, the Creator's gifts to him, the Creator's demands on him, and the Creator's punishments when he (inevitably) committed some displeasing act.
To alert succeeding generations of these pitfalls (and to demonstrate the power of his creator) a body of "dos and don'ts" was scrupulously compiled, recorded, and transmitted to the general population. This was accomplished most effectively through the written word but, more often (as illiteracy was the rule and not the exception), by word of mouth from traveling story tellers with great memories and the ability to tell a tale in metered verse.
The oldest recorded tale we have is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Like the Old Testament, the Gilgamesh epic includes the creation of the firmament, the dry land, man, and the beasts. It also chronicles a female seductress compromising our heroic male, a Great Flood (following a divine "heads-up"), land rediscovered by our winged friends, a duplicitous serpent, and the creator's subsequent forgiveness, followed by man's grudging acceptance that he will indeed not make it out of this world alive.
The Old Testament, as noted, is a remarkably similar tale except that the Hebrew story dispenses with the multiplicity of competing gods in place of one, all powerful being. His initial humans are given everything with but one prohibition - which proves that one can be "one too many," and the initial pair are "cast out" to live out their lives in pain and toil…but not before receiving a promise that a "seed" of the woman would conquer the serpent.
Subsequent generations created several Books of law, designed to instruct the faithful, directing them to avoid those transgressions most offensive to the Almighty (in numerous instances, the lessons were outlined in allegories, featuring noted personalities, their transgressions, and eventual punishments).
Nevertheless, the laws were broken with stunning regularity, resulting in setbacks of various magnitudes and durations; but the Almighty (sometimes immediately, sometimes lingeringly) forgave His people and instructed them to carry on. Some 6000 years later, having endured repeated purges, wars, and oppressions, remnants still carry on and still appeal to those ancient laws (as well as ten additional stone engraved proscriptions) for support and guidance.
The ancient Greeks had numerous gods and goddesses who differed from humans only in their immortality. In every other way they were just as capricious, unpredictable, and morally lax as any human. Hardly the stuff of heroic stature. But along came Homer and with him, Achilles. In the Iliad, Homer presents a man with all the strengths and weaknesses, loves and hates, confidences and doubts we all possess.
However, like our other storied heroes, Achilles cannot tolerate betrayal; dissimilarly, he has a history of flying into a rage when he is victimized and seeks immediately to address the injustice. This compunction drives him into a situation where, should he let the transgression pass, he can expect a long, comfortable life at home; if he insists on righting the wrong, he will die (a prophecy given to his mother at birth).
Achilles achieves his heroic stature by insisting on "doing the right thing," regardless of the consequences. He fulfills the Greek ideals of self-knowledge. "Know thyself" and "realize thyself though the cost be death." "No man is greater than his soul." Despite its age, the Iliad remains the first of Mortimer Adler's Great Books - and, most likely, among the least read (which may go some way in explaining Greece's debt problem - or maybe not).
Ancient Rome lacked a classic. But upon the conquest of the Greeks, they developed one through Virgil and his Aeneid (it should be mentioned that Cicero and Terence were also significant in creating a "Roman story'). Virgil kicks off the Aeneid with the oft repeated question: "why do good individuals suffer misfortunes?" Sure enough, Aeneas winds up shipwrecked upon the shore of Carthage, where he meets the lovely Dido who falls in love with him. But, like Achilles, he is driven to accomplish what he set out to do and, leaving Dido, sails on to Italy.
Upon arrival, and armed with the Golden Bough, he enters the "land of shades" where he learns of Rome's great mission: "…Oh, Roman remember to rule the peoples; that will be thy art; and to impose the law of peace, to spare the submissive and bring down the proud." Armed with this insight, Aeneas proceeds to conquer King Latinus and oversees the initial days of the Roman Empire. Like Homer, Virgil gives his hero an admonition: "Do thy duty; let neither danger nor woman keep thee from it."
In Christian theology, Christ is the One promised back in Genesis, the Messiah, the Son of God. His message, almost always delivered as stories (parables), are chronicled in the New Testament. Although Christians differ over the meanings of certain scriptures and the authority to interpret it (sola scripture vs. the Magisterium), all Christians are urged to refer to it regularly (e.g., 2 Chr. 17:9, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Rom. 1:20, Eph. 6:4, and John 1:17).
Jew, Christian, Muslim: all identify themselves as "People of the Book." All regard their books as sacred, providing insights into the plan, will, and proscriptions of the Almighty. And each finds itself under varying degrees of attack from a world that has become increasingly secular. Religiously denominated schools are becoming fewer and the public school system actively mitigates against on-campus religious discussion.
As a result, scriptural study becomes more important; where it has not been deemed important (e.g., Europe), adherence to any of the three has diminished noticeably (while a number of countries have experienced a growth in Islam, that has largely been accomplished through immigration and higher-than-average birth rates).
Finally, atheism/agnosticism has gained significant traction and boasts a number of well known spokesmen. Additionally, groups of believers, housed under the umbrella description of "the emerging church," pose additional challenges to traditional Christianity. They, too, have a number of very literate, very telegenic personalities who have been described as Relevants, Re-constructionists and Revisionists. Generally speaking they believe the "old time religion" is irrelevant in a post-modern society. And they've published scores of books outlining their positions.
I could go on to draw parallels with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, but I believe the point has been sufficiently made: history's longest enduring belief systems share many foundational similarities. But their conclusions, modes of worship, acceptance of others, codes of law, and world views can differ dramatically. To discover why can be found only in learning from their books. They most certainly have studied ours and have used them quite adeptly in arguing their case. This was embarrassingly evident in a number of debates when Christopher Hitchens demonstrated a greater knowledge of Christian teachings than his clerical interlocutor.
The Jesuits addressed this problem in the early 1700s at the College de Louis-le-Grand where only the brightest young men were admitted. Not only were students given an intensive education is rhetoric and disputation, but were also encouraged to raise objections to what they were being taught. To accomplish this they were encouraged to read contradictory accounts. (Imagine, a university that promoted learning both sides of an issue!!!)
The results weren't always as desired as both Voltaire and Victor Hugo not only strayed from the faith, but also became ardent anti-clerics. But faith is a not-easily-acquired gift and if neither man desired it, they were availing themselves of one of Christianity's greatest attributes: free will.
If you don't believe it - it's in the Book.
And, lest you believe the age of heroes has passed (along with our will to believe in the outrageous), let me quote Stan Lee:
If one can find a superhero lurking in the person of Robert Downey, Jr., one can believe in almost anything...but probably doesn't.