I vividly remember in my late teens thinking to myself, “Before I die I need to learn about religion.” It seemed to me that there was something important here that I could not avoid confronting.
My mother was a non-practising Catholic and my father was an atheist. And I would have to say in our family, and I suspect many other families, religion wasn’t discussed much.
Despite this unpromising start, surprisingly when our school awards nights came around, I more often than not won a book prize for “Religious Instruction.” Now I can assure you that this was not because I was devout, but just because I was an able student who was intrigued by religion. And the title “Religious Instruction” was certainly misleading because it was only a basic study of Christianity.
No doubt my interest had been somewhat aroused by those of my religious (but often poorly-informed) peers who insisted that the only path to “eternal life” was to adhere to the Christian dogma.
It came as a great surprise to me to eventually realise that rather than directly trying to approach God, Christians believed that they needed to do so through an intermediary – Jesus Christ. That seemed to me a rather convoluted way of carrying out religious worship. I can remember in my early twenties arguing with some of the earnest proselytes who would turn up at my door and try to convince me that I needed to take Jesus into my heart.
“But,” I would ask, “If I lived somewhere on a desert island and never got to know about Jesus does that mean I could never be reconciled with God. Or what about the generations that lived before Christ, were they all doomed as well? How unfair is that? Surely your God is more loving than that.”
I must say they could not provide very satisfactory answers.
In order to help my own thinking I read some of the works of the Swiss theologian, Karl Bath, the existentialist philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, and the German Lutheran theologian Rudolph Boltman. This was pretty daunting stuff which I found hard going and still all focussed on Christianity. (Luckily in recent times we have had writers who write more lucidly about religion and whose ideas, as a result, are more accessible to the layman.) Happily, during my searches I encountered a little book with the title (as I recall it) How the Great Religions Began. This was not a particularly scholarly work but it helped me (whose only religious knowledge was a scant acquaintance with Christianity) begin to have a perception of other religious viewpoints.
I came to realise that most religious people weren’t very religious at all, certainly not in the sense they were well-versed in religion. They might be well-versed in the dogma of their own particular religion but most know little about religion in general.
Which I suggest is rather strange. Many would agree that our spiritual beliefs are of huge importance in living a fulfilled life. Most of us when making a decision with little real impact on our lives, like buying a car, at least explore a few alternatives. But those who are conventionally religious seldom look at alternatives but merely fall in behind the choices that their families or friends have made with little questioning.
I suspect there is a socialising effect here. We subscribe to the religion of our friends and family because it gives us a sense of belonging. And even those who change religious beliefs will often attest that the assumption of the new belief resulted in them being welcomed into a new “family environment” where they felt valued.
But you might ask why religion is so pervasive throughout the peoples of the world?
Virtually every civilisation in recorded history was underpinned by religious beliefs. Religion seems to meet some innate human needs. The three most important needs seem to me to be:
- Putting a sense of meaning and purpose into our lives. (Meeting our spiritual needs.) We need to believe that somehow we make a difference and that our lives are not pointless. For many, striving to meet the moral requirements of our particular God or gods seems to help in that regard.
- Confronting the overwhelming forces of Nature. (Our prehistoric ancestors and indeed ourselves, bewail our inability to counter the forces of nature – storms, floods, cyclones, droughts etc. Most probably this was one of the original driving forces for religion – to help Mankind feel it could have some influence on or perhaps even an explanation for these catastrophic events.)[Humans in the face of the might of Nature seek ways to appease Nature. Robert Wright tells of the people of the Haida, a people indigenous to the north-west coast of North America. It is said that when caught in a storm whilst out at sea they would try to appease the gods of Nature by pouring a cup of fresh water into the sea or putting deer tallow on the end of a paddle. As he points out the myth is reinforced by the fact that those who return safely will extol the virtues of their efforts to appease the gods. We of course never hear from those who tried the procedure or indeed another method of appeasement but perished!]
- Providing hope for a future of some sort after death. (Countering the existential angst.)This is a potent human driver.The pyramids attest to that fact!
Of course some religions didn’t need gods. Taoism, Vedanta and Buddhism were all very influential despite the fact that they did not promote a particular deity. But these religions were often practised by people who retained some belief in the traditional animistic gods of their particular history.
Communist states have also survived for reasonable periods without any support for organised religion. But even in these states religions continued to thrive underground. One might even argue that for many, communism itself became a pseudo-religion.
So God or gods have been instrumental in meeting some basic human needs. In the beginning, before the evolution of large scale cities most people lived in tribal groups of perhaps no more than forty or fifty people.
The Gods of these people (just like Yahweh of the Old Testament) were seen as glorified chieftains with very human characteristics. They displayed such human emotions as jealousy and hate and even adopt very human habits.(In Yahweh’s case, he was pictured as walking in the evenings in the garden with Adam.)
The intense social pressures of such small, tight-knit communities would have made it extremely difficult for individuals to stray from the accepted, conventional wisdom of their tribe. Such pressures, not generally as intense, still exist in today’s societies. Most believers adopt their particular religion and their particular god because of their fear of death and in assuaging that concern they select a religion based on their need to belong and not from a reasoned assessment of available belief systems. Our social and emotional needs will often trump our rationality.
In the modern world our concept of a god (if we need one) must surely be more sophisticated than the one that evolved in our tribal history. As we have become more aware of the nature of our world, for example, there is no longer a need to have a thunder god, or a storm god.
But let me challenge you with the statement that our spiritual needs will never be satisfied by the application of rationality and science. The pervasiveness of materialism, supported by the success of science, would have us believe that the human mind has the capacity to understand the world without recourse to spirituality.
It is often argued that we need religion only because of our ignorance. Since the beginning of time people have stood in awe at Nature’s majesty and resorted to supernatural devices to explain its overwhelming power. All manner of gods arose to explain natural phenomena that were beyond the comprehension of the ancients.
As human understanding progressed and our understanding of the physical sciences evolved many of those mysteries disappeared. Scientists slavishly adhering to their rational materialism, disparagingly referred to the “God of the gaps” implying that any concept of God was only underpinned by our ignorance and the inexorable progress of science would render the concept of God redundant.
But this argument can easily be refuted by two facts:
- The scientific explanation of crucial phenomena, (like the explanation of the birth of the universe via the “Big Bang” theory) requires just as much reliance on faith as any religion.
- The assumption that an understanding of the world can be arrived at solely by study and analysis of the material world is demonstrably in error.
(For a brilliant expose´ of my first point see Cosmology on Trial by Pierre St Clair.)
The dilemma that reductionist materialism seems unable to resolve is if materialism essentially underpins the universe, how does consciousness arise? This is often called the “hard problem”.
Bernard Kastrop is a scientist who writes extensively about metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.
He summarises the “hard problem” thus:
The problem is this: according to current state-of-the-art materialism, the primary element of reality is a relatively small set of fundamental subatomic particles described in the so-called ‘Standard Model of Physics’. These particles are referred to as ‘ontological primitives’: they are materialism’s basic building blocks for constructing everything else in nature, from galaxies to chairs, to you and me. In other words we should be able to construct explanations for every object or phenomenon in nature in terms of the dynamics of these subatomic particles; how they move and interact with one another. The problem is that materialism ordinarily assumes these subatomic particles lack consciousness. So how do you get consciousness merely by arranging ‘dead’ subatomic particles together?
There are a few lessons to be learnt here, some of which I will come to later. But to me it is evident that concentrating on the physical does not get us far.
Religious historian, Karen Armstrong believes that in order to understand the world we need not only to embrace Logos (logic and reason) but also to embrace Mythos (the wisdom that arises from parables, intuition and mysticism).
Ken Wilber, the American writer on transpersonal psychology in his book A Brief History of Everything postulates an ascending order of understanding as follows:
- Physics – the understanding of matter,
- Biology – the understanding of life,
- Psychology – the understanding of mind,
- Theology – the understanding of soul,
- Mysticism – the understanding of spirit.
It certainly seems beyond the ken of human beings to have such a complete knowledge. That is why descriptions of this totality which makes up our universe is often described obliquely using parable and metaphor. We cannot know it directly. That is also why the most comprehensive understanding (as Wilber suggests) relies on mysticism. This seems to have been evident in some of the ancient writings of Eastern traditions. For example, Lao-tzu over 2,500 years ago in describing the Dao commented:
There is something formless yet complete
That existed before heaven and earth
How still! How empty!
Dependent on nothing, unchanging,
All pervading, unfailing.
One may think of it as the mother of all things under heaven.
I do not know its name,
But I call it meaning.
Yet others might choose to call it “God”. But if you do choose to do so, it is a far more subtle and complex god than that which is described in the Old Testament. And whether you resort to a belief in a god or not it seems evident to me that if you want to make sense of life you will need to resolve to come to grips with Armstrong’s Mythos or Wilber’s mysticism.
As an aside in the last decade or so we have had a number of books extolling atheism. Two of the most popular were Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. Both concentrated on denigrating the God of the Old Testament. Suffice is to say there are far more sophisticated versions of God.
One such version of a more sophisticated version of God was developed by St Augustine. Augustine of Hippo was a Roman African, early Christian theologian. He was also a follower of Plato and particularly Plato’s disciple, Plotinus.
For Plotinus, God is being itself, undifferentiated and timeless, while the things of this world are ephemeral and insubstantial. Humans are estranged from absolute oneness, which alone is truly real. Salvation consists in reidentifying oneself with this Absolute, which Plotinus– borrowing the term from Stoic philosophy (as did Karen Armstrong) – called Logos, a cosmic principle of reason. According to Plotinus, nothing in passing time is truly itself. Humans become what they really are only by emerging with the eternal Logos. Until then they are alienated from their true nature.
Augustine transferred these concepts into his version of Christianity. As author, John Gray writes:
In this vision, salvation is not an event in time but the act of exiting time. All that has made human beings what they have been – their memories, emotions and relationships – must be left behind as counting for nothing. There is no suggestion here that humankind can find redemption in history. Human conflicts are not staging points in a march to some higher state but recurring clashes of ignorant armies in the night.
Now this latter statement by Gray is an interesting one. Western civilisation has been besotted with the notion of chronological progress. The “religions of the Book”, viz Christianity, Judaism and Islam reflect that same thought. Their religions are underpinned by a basic belief that religious history basically began with “The Fall” and then progresses through the intermediaries of prophets (particularly Jesus) leading the way finally to redemption and salvation. Whereas Augustine (following Plotinus) is telling us that the salvation of humankind lies outside the realm of time and that in fact time is an illusion that serves to hide us from our true nature.
The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, made a similar point.
A religion that has as its foundation a single event, and in fact tries to make the turning point of the world and all of its existence out of that event that occurred at a definite time and place has so feeble a foundation that it cannot possibly survive.
How wise in Buddhism on the other hand is the assumption of the thousand Buddhas.
The many Buddhas are necessary because at the end of each kalpa (cosmic epoch) the world perishes, and with it the teaching, so that a new world requires a new Buddha. Salvation always exists.
Schopenhauer thought that the basis of ethics was in feeling – the emotion of compassion for others that may come with the realisation that selfhood is an illusion. Salvation was the dissolution of this illusion. The liberated individual entered into a realm where the will is silent. Hints of this realm are glimpsed in moments when we are entranced by beauty. Schopenhauer was influenced by Indian philosophy – particularly the Vedantic school – which he was one of the first European thinkers to study.
Schopenhauer proclaimed himself an atheist but it would be hard to deny he was a mystic. In concert with the notions of Eastern wisdom traditions he proclaimed:
…the human mind is itself nothing, and looking beyond itself it is seeking to pierce the veil of ‘maya’ – universal illusion – and come nearer to reality.
Just before and during the alleged life of Jesus Christ another religious sect that had morphed out of Judaism was beginning to have an impact on the religious thinking of the Middle East. This sect was the Gnostics. A summation of Gnostic thinking can be found in the works of the German scholar, Hans Jonas.
The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness …..the transcendent God himself is hidden from all creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of him requires supranatural revelation and illumination and even then can hardly be expressed otherwise than in negative terms.
So in this respect the Gnostics believed that gnosis (knowledge of God) was derived from Mythos and not from Logos at all.
In modern times, evolutionary psychologists concede that evolution seems to have fashioned Mankind to have religious beliefs and that it must therefore confer some evolutionary advantage. (See for example Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God”.) So in some sense it might be inevitable that we pursue religious beliefs. But the question I am seeking to ask in this essay is if we take the time to pursue religion, and not just comfortably fall in line with the mainstream beliefs of our family or our society, what options might we pursue?. In this essay I have tried to show you some of the major considerations that believers might want to consider when choosing a belief system.
Now I could give you many other examples of the sorts of questions (other than those outlined above) that those who quest after God need to answer. But let me make a few, probably controversial, statements.
Firstly, most of those who believe in a God generally have some sort of an elevated anthropomorphic figure in mind. But other religions, as we saw, such as Buddhism and Vedanta, which in their own way are very spiritual, require no God at all. Others have a notion of God that is far more transcendental than the God who is normally pictured in the “religions of the Book.” And certainly in our modern world there can be no place for a parochial God that champions a “chosen people”.
Many of our greatest philosophers (such as Schopenhauer above) although they declared themselves atheists had a concept of some transcendent presence. In some instances they thought such a presence shaped the universe and in others that this presence lay outside the material universe.(I’d be bold enough to proclaim that that presence was God and they were not really atheists at all.)
But this leads to another choice that religious believers must inevitable make. Is the God of their choice embedded in the material world? Does such a God intervene in history? As we saw many believers have succumbed to the notion that history is linear and the Mankind must inexorably move from the indignity of “The Fall” to the glory of “Redemption”.
On the other hand (as per the Gnostics and many others believe) perhaps God exists outside time, and time and indeed matter are merely an illusion.
Thus any earnest explorer of religions who seeks to settle on a belief system has far more important things to consider than the mundane questions that many ask in support of their religion, such as:
- What should I wear,
- What should I eat,
- How should I celebrate on holy days,
- Should I have my sons circumcised,
- Should my priest be celibate,
- How should I pray,
- How might I atone for my sins,
And so on. All such concerns are of little consideration when the true nature of the relationship between God and Man is understood.
My own conclusion is that historically we have allowed Logos to dominate Mythos.
One of the outcomes of this imbalance is that the teaching myths and parables of religion have too often been taken literally. As a consequence too many of us have become obsessed with reversing history (which is built on the edifice of a notion of progress and linear time). What they want to see is a return to the way things were before the Fall where Humankind purportedly lived in Paradise. But in the religious parable the Fall was the price of consciousness and there is no way back! And it amazes me that there are people who might think otherwise.
Human beings have spiritual needs and for many of us those needs are met by our religious beliefs. I am in no way conventionally religious but I understand the importance of religion. My plea to those who are religious is don’t take your religion lightly. It is consequential enough to explore your options and not just follow slavishly the belief systems of your family and friends.