...So we can see how various stories and traditions became established in widely seperated geographical locations over time, and how they subsequently spread through conquest, merging of similar traditions (Hinduism and Shinto, as examples, have thrived by bringing many local gods into the fold of a pantheon), word of mouth, and occasionally, conversion of rulers.
Through centuries of practice, traditions become established as truth. Religious institutions, most notoriously the Catholic church, have amassed great wealth by usually highly dubious means and have used this wealth to build awe-inspiring cathedrals and temples which they fill with gold and images of gods or saints (isn't a pantheon of saints, each of whom you should pray to for different problems, really a form of polytheism in disguise? think about it!) designed to stun the ordinary mortal with the power of God - or at least the ability of God's workers to gather wealth from the gullible and pious.
It is worth noting one of the more the cynical methods by which the Catholic church collected such wealth, too, as to our (non-catholic!) eyes today it seems like nothing more than a massive con trick. Perhaps it seemed that way to those who instigated it too, though I might be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that they really believed they were doing God's work and that would be enough to justify being so ludicrously rich, just as 'doing God's work' is enough to justify the slaughter of people of a different faith, even today.
I'm talking about purgatory, of course. It seems that the idea of heaven and hell as the only options available after death were somewhat too simple, so, some clever-dick came up with the idea that souls of individuals who were not quite good enough to go to heaven straight away, yet not bad enough to go to hell, would spend some time doing penance in a place called purgatory before they were allowed in to heaven. Genius!
It followed from this that the church could calculate how many years you would spend in purgatory by how pious you were whilst alive, and even better still you could reduce the amount of time spent there by paying money to the church. What a truly world-class con trick. Pious and wealthy people could put their minds at rest by simply paying a cash sum to the church, so, everyone's a winner!
Another way of looking at it is to say 'what incredible arrogance!' how could these people really think that God would be happy to see his followers ripped-off like that, just to fill the coffers of an already bloated church, which up until modern times had more wealth than most of the European empires, kingdoms and principalities combined?
Such is the power of mysticism. A few words spoken in a dead language by a man in a colourful frock transforms a wafer of bread into the flesh of Jesus, and a cup of wine into his blood. Does it really though? Catholics would say 'yes, of course'. Jews would say 'nonsense' as would Muslims and in fact any follower of any other faith.
So who is right?
Lets take a look at the situation we are in today. Perhaps seven major religions (depending upon your definition of a religion) are followed around the world. Which of these belief systems an individual follows is almost invariably just an accident of birth - taking Palestine/Israel as an extreme example, it could even just depend which side of a wall you're born on.
Children are told by their parents, who were told by their parents, and so on, that their beliefs are right and those of the chaps on the other side of the wall are blasphemous and wrong. They follow their traditions, pass them on to their own children and so the cycle continues.
But how can any of them say 'we are right, they are wrong' when the fact is that all of them say that? Clearly, it is impossible for all of the world's religions, and the many different sects of each individual religion, to be fundamentally right. Does it follow from this that one of them must be right, and the others wrong? Surely, if there were any truth to any of the myths, people could look objectively at all the myths available and say 'that one looks to be true, it fits the world I see around me' and would choose that religion?
The position I arrived at, after much thought, is to say that they must all be wrong.
All of them claim to be true, and yet all of them are based upon myths and stories that are extremely unlikely or impossible. When a religious person looks at another faith, they have no problem dismissing as ludicrous that other faith's miracle stories, yet they find it easy to believe (or at least to convince themselves that believing is the right thing to do) their own incredible stories. An objective observer, such as an atheist, can see how ridiculous are the claims of all the religions. I have no problem dismissing the story of Mohamed flying up to heaven on an angel-powered horse, just as I have no problem dismising the idea of a virgin giving birth to the son of God (who also happens to be himself - neat trick). A muslim can laugh at the story of Jesus' birth, but is forced to take seriously the ridiculous idea of a horse flying (Pegasus, anyone?).
Bear in mind that I arrived at this decision before I had really had time to learn about the alternative, knowledge-based theories and explanations for the existence of the universe and life here on Earth. I was about fourteen when I realised that my Anglicanism had no right to call itself superior to Catholicism, or Islam, Hinduism, or any other religious system. No one, single religion or sect's interpretation of a text can be said to be right, ergo they must all be wrong, ergo all religious teachings are fundamentally wrong. You do not even need to have an alternative explanation for existence to reach this logical conclusion!
We cannot doubt that the Universe does need a pretty damn incredible explanation for its existence, but to accept that any ancient story, from any of the world's myriad cultures, can in fact be that explanation is patently ludicrous.
Of course we don't have to accept what we were told when we were young, or even what somebody else was told when they were young. We can actually try to find out what the real world is like by looking at it, testing it, thinking about how it could be and then designing ways in which we can establish how it really is. This process has been going on quietly for thousands of years, and now we do actually know quite a lot.
At the age of fourteen however, I had barely begun to take a serious interest in this process of accumulation of knowledge that we call science; that would come later, as it must now, in part three.