© Roland O. Watson 2001-3
Follow me into the desert, as thirsty as you are.
Its always funny until someone gets hurt, and then its hilarious.
- Faith No More
In the last chapter we saw that family is the first social form, since a new child is born to a family (even if it is only the mother). In another way, though, religion can also be viewed as the first social form. Life - you and I - exists, and in a very important sense this is the most profound form of all. Religion is the direct consequence of the two basic conditions of existence: the unfathomability of the universe, and the certainty of death.
Because of its basis, religion is also a highly powerful form, and as we saw earlier, such forms are presented to us by society as being non-criticizable. They are above argument. I therefore intend to criticize religion, and in this regard I will not be alone.
Theology ... introduces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.
- Russell, page xiv
Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses; more accurately, it could be termed the placebo.
My intention in this chapter, though, is not solely to criticize religion, and any such criticism is a byproduct of its main theme. Indeed, I have the utmost respect for spiritual, or philosophical, speculation and belief. While I will consider some of the issues raised by such speculation, my main purpose is to consider religion as an organized institution, and to review the techniques of its conditioning and the consequences of its conformity.
Two other provisos are also in order. First, each religion, every religion, manifests itself in a wide range of practices. For example, the practice of Islam ranges from the tolerance exhibited in such nations as the Maldives, to the complete intolerance of the Taleban in Afghanistan. For every religion it is essential to consider its origins, and then, what has happened in the intervening centuries to its practices: the evolution of the belief instigated by its priests, ministers, monks and mullahs.
For Islam, The prophet made no claim to be divine, nor did his followers make such a claim on his behalf. He revived the Jewish prohibition of graven images, and forbade the use of wine. It was the duty of the faithful to conquer as much of the world as possible for Islam, but there was to be no persecution of Christians, or Jews, or Zoroastrians - the 'people of the Book,' as the Koran calls them, i.e., those who followed the teaching of a scripture.
- Ibid., page 420
It would seem that the practices of a significant number of Muslims, in many different countries, are now at variance with this.
Also, there is much to commend in religious belief, particularly the common focus and guidance on ethics, on the ways in which people should live their lives. For instance, the Western religious tradition begins with Judaism, and as a starting point there is great beauty and truth in the idea from the Talmud that a person who saves a life saves the universe. Judaism also encourages charity, and it is recognized as the founder of philanthropy. And, of course, you have to admire the resilience of the faith, and its adherents.
Jewish traditions were carried forward by Christianity, and Islam, particularly the support for charity. Christianity was also one of the originators of the idea of equality among all people, and in doing so it attacked the prevailing forms of the time: the existence of inequality to the point of widespread slavery; and the inequality that derived from the existence of markets - the moneychangers on the temple steps. In addition, Christianity introduced the ethic of forgiveness, of not responding in kind to personal injury. Furthermore, Christ's encouragement to love thy neighbor can be viewed as a solution to personal selfishness.
Christian churches have also regularly given sanctuary to people suffering from the effects of war, disease and hunger. And both Christianity and Judaism have had long involvement in volunteering and in supporting activist causes, with the former more in an organized sense and the latter more through the personal efforts of individuals. (However, regarding Christianity, while its legacy of charity is admirable, such good works are ruined when missionaries proselytize and encourage the destruction of holistic groups in their zeal to convert primitive savages and to increase their number of true believers. This is religious imperialism, and it constitutes one of the worst examples of cultural insensitivity.)
As to Islam (and with Moses and Judaism), the Prophet sought to drive idolatry from the temple, which is a direct assault on form. Also, and the Prophets background as a merchant notwithstanding, there is much to commend in Islamic business and financial practices, particularly in comparison to modern corporate policies. Islam does not believe in the concept of interest, much less in today's ideal of charging the highest possible rates. (Originally, all interest was called usury.) Islamic banks share in the profits and losses of the businesses that they fund, and this greatly reduces their tendency to speculate and to make bad loans.
You also do not tip in Islamic countries, which has a dramatic and positive consequence on standards of service. Muslims give good service as a matter of course, as a philosophy of life. They do not require a special payment as an incentive. Then there is the Islamic response to strangers. In Arabic countries travelers traditionally are welcomed openly, and with great hospitality; not with fear and suspicion.
For the Eastern tradition, Buddhism is to be congratulated for its compassion for all forms of life, its principle that you should seek to limit your desire, and its prescription of a Middle Way, a life not overly ascetic or self-indulgent, as a means to accomplish this. Hinduism also has great respect for life, as evidenced by the common practice of vegetarianism on the Subcontinent, and in addition Hindus are highly tolerant of other beliefs. Hindus do not seek to convert non-Hindus. You can only become one through birth. Furthermore, in Hinduism individuals are free to follow different deities and routes to salvation, all of which are consistent with the Hindu view of natural law, which is known as Dharma. Believing in a particular god is the same as believing in what that god represents. Also, Hinduism clearly recognizes an earlier described ethical complexity. One of the main lessons of the Bhagavad Gita is that the appropriate course of action always depends on the circumstances; that in every circumstance there are actions that are intrinsically right; and that whatever you choose to do, you must always make your decision without consideration of personal interest or sentiment.
Indeed, the Bible, Koran, Upanishads, Buddhist sutras, the Tao, etc., are full of wisdom and excellent advice. However, their advice is often obscure, couched in such things as parables, and therefore open to subjective interpretation. This provides an opportunity for an intermediary, someone to provide a standardized interpretation, or dogma. Personally, I prefer clarity: an approach to spirituality that does not require any such intermediation, which we all can understand.
Religions have also had many other general, positive consequences. First, they have traditionally been great supporters of the family, albeit in defense of their own interests, starting with to increase their number of followers. Secondly, religions have provided an outlet for creative expression, through such things as art and architecture, although this has also had the effect of strengthening their form. Thirdly, and this is uniformly positive, religious messages are a significant balance to the modern icons of youth, beauty and wealth.
Lastly, even pagan beliefs, in their celebration of life itself - what is a fertility god, if not a god of life? - make a positive social contribution.
But, to continue with the form, the purposes of religion, of any religion, are essentially four-fold:
- To describe and explain the universe: what it is, how it came to be, and how - or if - it will end.
- To explain and justify our circumstances as humans. For example, Buddhists believe that the fundamental fact of life, what they call the First Noble Truth, is that existence is misery and suffering. Many other religions share this view.
- To reveal the existence of a path to salvation from this misery: Heaven and Nirvana are the typical solutions.
- To dictate an ethical path for us to follow to achieve this salvation.
In this way, religions generate their own view of the purpose of a human life, which is that we should follow their guidance to achieve salvation.
The development of such a concept of purpose has had many important consequences. Traditionally, human purpose was seen as ones duty to the family (and also, implicitly, to oneself). Religion introduced the superseding idea of duty to god, even, for some religions, the goal of union with god. Paralleling this was another change: ones social objective evolved from meeting the needs of the group or tribe, to meeting the needs of the tribes religion and its priests.
The origins of religion lie in superstition. Early humans, in addition to the hard task of getting on in life, to defending, feeding and clothing themselves, also had to deal, mentally, with its inexplicabilities, inconsistencies and intangibles:
- Why did apparently healthy people suddenly fall ill?
- Why did one man die in battle, or one woman in childbirth, but not another?
- Why was the hunt, or crop yield, good at some times but not at others?
- Was there any reason why good fortune, why chance, favored some people?
- And could the chance characteristic of life, its uncertainty, somehow be appealed to: be communicated with and persuaded to be beneficial to a particular individual or group?
- How could powerful natural forces, such as lightening, thunder and torrential rain, be explained?
- What were the sun and moon, and eclipses, and the stars, and comets, and shooting stars?
- And what was to be made of one's consciousness, which seemingly existed independently of the body, and of one's dreams?
To early humans, ignorant of modern scientific explanations of these phenomena, such fears, curiosities and desires were not the subject of idle, intellectual speculation. Rather, their resolution was often a matter of life and death. Answers were required, and in response to this demand they were supplied by the most inventive and opportunistic people around.
And to these people everything had a reason. Chance could be appealed to. Bad luck, or evil, could be warded off. The universe, and life, were controlled by the gods (and other spirits), who lived in the heavens and on earth. People who, in the view of the gods, were good, had good fortune. Those who were not, suffered. And humans had a godlike quality as well, a soul, through which rewards could also be given and penalties enforced, and which served as the vehicle by which people could escape their fate: from death.
Such are the origins of some of our most profound superstitions, and they survive with us to this day. Religion originates, practices, reinforces and perpetuates these superstitions.
This is further evidence of the power of religious form: that it has survived with us, in many cases for thousands of years, and that it has survived in the face of the explosion of knowledge about the universe which has been provided by science. Religious beliefs die hard. Even the earliest, most primitive beliefs, such as in natural spirits and ghosts, remain commonplace around the world, either through having been incorporated into the now mainstream belief systems, or by being worshipped in parallel. (As another example of this, consider the history of heaven. Initially, it was viewed as in the sky, but once we became aware that the sky was merely filled with stars, heaven was forced to go extra-dimensional.)
As social conditions changed, so religious beliefs evolved as well, and in the process they acquired greater complexity and scope. The earliest beliefs focused on fertility, both human fecundity and abundant sustenance, and appeals to chance. But, with the increase in size of human communities, and the development of conflicts between them, gods of war rose in prominence. Still later, and in times of peace, times conducive to a greater depth of speculation, the abstract concept of a supreme god was formed, a creator god responsible for the universe, cosmic order, and other gods. Over time this deity became paramount: with the main exception of Hinduism the other gods were pushed aside, and the result is the modern focus on monotheism.
There are wide variations in religious belief around the world. For instance, there is the basic distinction of East versus West. Oriental religions describe universal existence as cyclical (reflecting the aforementioned patterns). The universe is born, goes through certain stages, declines, passes out of existence, and is then reborn. The parallel with the supposed reincarnation of people, and other species, is obvious. And, the goal of salvation is to escape from this cycle.
Religions in the West conceive of the universe as having a distinct beginning and end. Ultimate salvation is achieved following its termination, through admittance to heaven. In this tradition, the final four things are death, the Day of Judgment, heaven and hell.
Eastern and Western religions also differ with regard to the process of salvation. Christianity and Judaism, for example, require a savior. It is not possible for an individual to save him or herself, to reverse on their own the consequences of the Original Sin. For this, Christ's sacrifice was required (and the Jews await their messiah). But in the East (and with Islam), there is no need for a savior. Oriental religious leaders are viewed as teachers, rather than saviors, and salvation is essentially a personal responsibility. This can be achieved by following the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, or the Yogic system of Hinduism, etc.
In addition, in the Ethics chapter we distinguished two basic systems of religious purpose. The first, which is that you must follow Gods law, or be punished, is largely the view of the Western tradition. The second, that God is life is truth, and that you therefore should seek to learn about and assist life, derives from the Eastern tradition (in its less dogmatic forms). Also, as to the apparent cynicism of Buddhism, its fundamental message is actually quite positive. It is not obsessed with decay. Rather, it emphasizes that it is possible to transcend our conditions and reach a state where age and grief no longer affect the mind, and where earthly pleasure is transmuted into serene joy. (The Wonder that was India, A. L. Basham, Grove Press, page 370)
Eastern religions are also perceived as mystical, since they share the view that the universe is a unified and indivisible whole, and that the goal of an individual is to transcend his or her separateness, including ego and personal desires, and, so-to-speak, recombine with this unity. (Of course, this begs the question: if Oriental religions are mystical, what are Western beliefs, founded as they also are - on supernatural myths?)
Another common distinction among religions is the degree of emphasis on the afterlife. Western sects that stress the afterlife tend to be strict and ascetic, allowing no positive benefit or influence from the realm of the senses. Earthly pleasures are to be avoided as wicked and evil distractions.
There are just some kind of men who - who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one.
- To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee, Pan, page 57
This type of belief reflects the view that the highest purpose in life is ones quest for spiritual knowledge. (At this point the two traditions tend to converge.) That which furthers the quest is good. That which does not is evil. And, in the main, the latter is considered to be earthly or temporal desire, because it distracts you from the quest.
Other, more tolerant faiths derive some benefits from the experience of life, but preach moderation, in a manner akin to Buddhism's Middle Way.
However, for all of these differences, in the most profound sense all religions tell us the same thing. Life is a test, which we can pass or fail, and they can tell us how to pass. (How one passes or fails may vary by religion, but the goal should always be to try to pass.) Religions take the view that there has to be an answer: there has to be a purpose for our existence.
No religion, with the possible exception of Buddhism in its earliest form, i.e., through the original teachings of Buddha himself, is willing to countenance the view that life simply is; that it cannot be appealed to or judged; that it can only be lived. To religion, there has to be a judgment, and they are going to make it, both on you and on life. But, in this regard they are willing to make you a special offer, an offer that it is almost impossible to refuse. If you follow what they say, they will assuage your greatest fear: of death. They will grant you immortality.
We all want to live forever. It is our common aspiration. In a sense, we even feel that it is our due.
Their lives, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?
- Orwell, Animal Farm, page 109
Indeed, there must be immortality; otherwise the good people who suffer greatly during their lives will never receive their reward.
It is natural, though not reasonable, to believe in the supernatural, because it gives us hope of a better life. Religions, and this is the foundation of their form, prey on us by saying that they have the keys to the afterlife. They (at least in the Western tradition) have been in direct contact with god, who has told them what we must do, and if we follow their guidance, we will achieve immortality.
In this way religions provide answers to both of the fundamental conditions, and hence questions, of existence: what is the universe, and what happens when we die? The universe exists as an example of, and to further, god's greater glory, and (again, for the Western tradition) we must submit to the rule of god, as revealed to the prophets of religion, or else when we die we will be subjected to an eternity of torment.
This is the practical source of their power. For instance, in the Middle Ages kings in Europe basically did as they pleased. They engaged in conquest, pillage, murder and rape. And the Catholic Church, a collection of unarmed priests, was opposed to this. Yet over time, the priests won. They converted and reformed the kings, because the kings believed that they - the priests - had the power to deny them eternal life.
However, if you look closely at the teachings and practices of religion, doubts about immortality begin to creep in. For example, the Eastern belief in reincarnation is itself a form of immortality, and one to be avoided! We just do not remember our prior lives. One might ask, if spiritual transformations from life to death to life to death occur, why are there no memories of them? Why is there no residue at all from such a past existence? Is not the belief in reincarnation simply a false nostalgia for immortality?
Israelites, Christians and Moslems profess immortality, but the veneration they render this world proves they believe only in it, since they destine all other worlds, in infinite number, to be its reward or punishment.
- The Immortal, Borges, page 114
The worst thing I could imagine would be to be immortal, and still not possess total understanding: to be doomed to an eternal ignorance of the mysteries of the universe.
The form of religion begins with faith; it is the basic tool or method of religious conditioning. You are told that while there may appear to be no answers, if you have faith, the answers will be revealed to you. However, the means of the revelation varies, e.g., for Catholics, it is through the Church; for Protestants, through the Bible and yourself.
The question is, why does god require faith? Why not simply reveal him, her or itself?
The argument goes something like this: I refuse to prove that I exist, says God, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.
- The HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Pan, page 50
I don't know: it seems a weak argument.
One might look for guidance to the analogy about the ant-farm. In a world without absolute knowledge there can only be belief. But some beliefs are more consistent with reason and the apparent order of the universe than others. Beliefs that are inconsistent require faith, often a great amount of faith, such as the statements: I have faith that objects fall up, not down, contrary to the perception of my senses, or I have faith that Jesus raised the dead and was the Son of God.
Since you cannot know anything - have absolute knowledge about the purpose of the universe and of life - this enables you to believe anything that you want, including anything you are told, no matter how outlandish it might be. (This also raises the question, if faith is the abandonment of reason, shouldn't we abandon reason for everything?)
I have no problem with this. People are entitled to believe whatever they want. If they cannot be content with our ignorance in the face of the scale and complexity of the universe, then they can believe anything at all, however unlikely it might be.
My personal belief is that an omnipotent being - if god truly is omnipotent - would not need, or want, faith. Perhaps a better explanation is that the real purpose of the need for faith is to limit the allowable views of the religious adherent. It is an ideal mechanism to ensure obedience: if you believe in X (our god), you cannot - you are not allowed to - believe in Y (theirs).
Which brings us to god.
The logic stream of existence, according to the Western religious tradition, is as follows: there is a god, and one god only, and it is aware of us in this universe, on this planet, and as a species. Furthermore, it is aware of us as individuals, and it is also interested in our behavior. It wants to see us behave in a particular way, and it is so concerned about this that it will punish us if we do not. But, the Ten Commandments notwithstanding, it will not tell us directly how to behave. Instead, it sends us guides in the form of saviors and prophets. And, if we misbehave, it will not punish us directly, in our terrestrial existence, because it wants us to have faith in its existence. But, it will not provide proof of this. We have to have faith that it exists and that it will punish us after we die.
This is preposterous. I did not ask to be born, so why should I be punished? If I have a mind, shouldn't I use it? Wouldn't it be a sin not to? An eternity in hell for a few sins is cruel and unusual punishment. If this is what happens, god is a tyrant.
Of course, throughout history people have had many different views on god:
- There are many gods, some superior, others inferior, or there is one.
- The gods, their attributes, are knowable, or they are not.
- They care about us, or they do not.
- We are made in their image, or we are not.
- They are good, or not. For instance, the gods of Olympus had human failings, and as mentioned, some people have even viewed the gods as evil, because of the evil that exists in their creation: in the world.
- Alternatively, god is seen as an ideal, an ideal that we can never attain, but through which is nonetheless offered the hope for a better world, including an afterlife.
- In this way, god is viewed as permanent, or existing outside of time, and perfect, and wise.
There have also been variations in our response to god. Normally, the response is one of fear and supplication, as expressed through devotion, worship and sacrifice. But this has not always been the case: humans have not always been so servile. In some cultures humans have humiliated the images of their gods, if the gods failed to deliver. And, of course, many groups, following their defeat in war, redirected their worship to the gods of their conquerors. Such gods were viewed as better, more powerful, and hence more worthy of devotion.
God is also a term in many ways similar to human nature. We use it when we do not know what to say; when there is nothing left to say. God is a perfect example of the minds, and language's, ability to express ideas about things that do not exist, things that are mere fantasy.
There is little that can be said, using reason, about god. As to the universe, god (or whatever) is responsible for it. Of course, this is also viewed as self-evident: the universe is the subject and god the predicate. (This is the idea that in some way they cannot exist without each other.) For example, the universe could be god itself, god manifested into material reality. (This is known as pantheism.) Or god could exist separately from the universe, in some unexplainable way (the view of Western religions); or god, through the creation of the universe, may have ceased to exist. (This is similar to, but perhaps not necessarily the same thing as, the first option.)
As to the power of god, given the scale of the universe it truly, from our relative perspective, is great, but (as Graham Greene has pointed out) it cannot be said to be unlimited, or omnipotent, unless it is able to alter our future. And, if god does not have this power, it is arguable that it (the being god) is of no consequence. As to the question of the existence of this power, though, it is completely unknowable. There is no way to know if it exists or not.
The major inconsistencies of different religions reflect the ways in which they attempt to confront this difficulty. God will not reveal itself, hence the need for faith, but, surprise, surprise, there are exceptions:
- God has communicated directly with the prophets (and the enlightened), in other words, with the chosen few. Indeed, He has even sent His son.
- God periodically provides visions and miracles.
- And, god can be appealed to through prayer, and may even bend the rules of the universe a bit and grant one.
When one's faith is weakening, these are the artifices that the purveyors of religious form have constructed to shore it up.
Also, viewed philosophically, from the perspective of what constitutes knowledge, such techniques are extremely clever. We have seen a number of times that complete knowledge of a system requires both the inside and outside views. Unfortunately, we have no access to the outside view, and hence the total view. But, wait a second, these events: the existence of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed; the Resurrection; hearing the voice of god; the revelation of faith; visions and miracles; and answered prayers, are messages from the outside. Thanks to the benevolence of god, we have been given the total view after all.
As all of this shows, the form of religion is highly complex. To the believer, it is the need for and the path to salvation, and insofar as the path prescribed, the ethical guidelines, are reasonable, this specific part of the form is not necessarily bad. However, the demand that these guidelines be followed, on the threat of punishment, perhaps even eternal punishment, and with the most severe kinds of torture imaginable, is truly despicable.
Of course, when we consider this there are a number of additional points that need to be made. The first of these is to take a look at what we have specifically been told about heaven and hell. Indeed, it turns out that we know a lot about hell, but very little has actually been said about heaven. (This is why I said that the form that drives ethical behavior in the Western religious tradition is largely negative. It is based on negative reinforcement, or punishment, of sin. Also, it is worth noting that the Ten Commandments is a list of things that you should not do.)
As to heaven, we know it is a great place, a utopia in fact, but not, precisely, why. What is it that makes it so special, other than through being the abode of god, the angels and the just? In other words, what is it really like?
One view of such a heaven, ironically, comes from the East:
In the early days of the cosmic cycle mankind lived on an immaterial plane, dancing on air in a sort of fairyland, where there was no need for food or clothing, and no private property, family, government or laws. Then gradually the process of cosmic decay began its work, and mankind became earthbound, and felt the need of food and shelter. As men lost their primal glory distinctions of class arose, and they entered into agreements with one another, accepting the institutions of private property and the family.
With this theft, murder, adultery and other crime began.
- Basham, page 82
This sounds idyllic, at least at the start, but what about other forms of life? At least the Garden of Eden accounts for nature, although we now understand that its diversity requires evolution, and death. But, since there is no death in heaven, we are left with a seemingly unresolvable contradiction.
Hell, on the other hand, is very well thought out. This is because it plays on our fears and anger. All you have to do is consider the worst, which any sense can experience and any thought can imagine, and thats hell. Also, we are told that the reason hell is so bad is because God hates sin. But what this means is that our ethical system is not only negative, it is based on hate! God wants his revenge, and the colder the better. But, even with all of this god is still viewed as just, and his relationship with us is seen as one of love.
The fact that god has the power simply requires that he use it.
God would not be God if he did not punish the transgressor.
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, Signet, page 140
In this way we can see that God is like any other self-absorbed leader in love with his power.
Why were Adam and Eve tested? Because Im God, and Im the boss. You must accept my authority or suffer the consequences. Indeed, the point has been made (by Douglas Adams) that a being which would set such a trap - the forbidden apple - would not be satisfied until it had been sprung. In other words, You will know I am God, through suffering my consequences.
Through the concept of original sin, we are all born guilty. But this guilt is derivative; it is inherited from our first parents. And this is a very primitive idea: that we could be held responsible for the actions of others over whom we have had no influence. (It even holds for unbaptized infants.)
Through all of this we can see that such a depiction of god is not real; rather, it is a reflection of us. God is in fact the ultimate projection of humanity.
Hell is replete with its own contradictions as well:
- There is no discrimination on the basis of sin. Both petty thieves and murderers (and even the sayer of an unkind word or the thinker of a sinful thought), receive the same punishment. (This same phenomenon also occurs in heaven, where there is no distinction between being good and being a saint, although such an issue is addressed in the Eastern tradition of reincarnation. In the East, your fate in the next life, bad or good, is relative to your behavior in this one. Also, if heaven is inherited by the meek, what does that say about those who are not meek? What does it say to people who are strong, and people who desire to be strong, and not only through physical strength, but through all manner of personal development, including ethical development?)
- You can be the worst of sinners for your entire life, but a heartfelt apology at deaths door will earn you a full pardon. (Thats forgiveness!)
- The good also suffer from the existence of hell, from the pain of separation as they see their sinful friends and family members banished forever.
- The torments of hell require senses to appreciate, but these died with the body.
- Finally, hell is meant to be infinite - its torments will never cease - but by what measure of time? What relativistic Einsteinian clock is ticking away in hell?
Under this religious system, our purpose is to save our souls from eternal damnation. But as the structure of hell is not very persuasive, logically, it does clearly demonstrate one thing, which is the power of a threat. God is presented to us as a bully.
Also, there is one other major problem with hell, and heaven, and even nirvana, which is that they all require the existence of a soul, which somehow encapsulates us, all of our identity, and which survives our death. But as we have seen, the historical derivation of the soul is as an explanation for consciousness and dreams, and also as the mechanism by which the immortality myths work. But the former is now insupportable, and the latter clearly reflects, like god, human attributes, hopes and aspirations.
The only honest portrayal of the soul that I have read comes from early Buddhism:
The universe is soulless. In transmigration nothing passes over from one life to another - only a new life arises as part of the chain of events which included the old.
- Basham, page 270
Also, Buddha said: I have not said the Arhant [one who has achieved nirvana] exists after death, and I have not said that he does not exist ... because this is not edifying, neither does it tend to supreme wisdom. (Ibid., page 271)
This is a major departure from religious tradition. Buddhism is not even a religion in the formal sense, i.e., of proposing belief in the soul and proffering ideas on its maintenance. Transmigration is actually non-Buddhist; it is an older superstition that was incorporated into the belief system.
So, what is the soul, if anything? We saw earlier that there is a life force present in all of us, and all species. But this is obvious. We also saw that some people seem to have a greater life force than others, but in a fundamental sense this is probably not the case (nor that the life force has a unique aspect relative or designatory to every individual). Some people do have a lot of spirit, or energy, but it is unlikely that this derives from - that it actually precedes - their birth. Instead, what varies is not your amount of life force, but your awareness and control of it, i.e., how free versus how determined you are. Also, it is worth mentioning that by adding the existence of the soul, we compound our problems. As if explaining the universe were not difficult enough, we are supposed to believe in something that is part of us but which we cannot see (as opposed to something of which we are a part and that we can see). One unsolvable puzzle seems enough; there is no need to create another.
After considering all of this, it is clear that religion is the greatest confidence game ever devised. The arguments of religion are used to gain our confidence, and faith. Then, given this faith, in the soul and hell, or reincarnation, the punishment is such that it must be avoided. Indeed, it makes Ponzi look like an amateur. Also, there is no possibility of argument. Religions have a failsafe defense against any doubts and criticism. If you question a religion, it is your problem, not the religions. You simply lack faith.
And, as the greatest con game ever, it is of course highly successful. Also, since we will never stop sinning, it will work as an oppressive mechanism forever.
Now, to move on to the practical consequences of all of this, the basic negative effect of religious form has to do with universal uncertainty and chance. As we have seen, in its earliest applications religion attempted to reduce the effects of chance. However, in its modern form it magnifies them. The biggest chance in your life now is the religion to which you are born. Children copy their parents, first and foremost their religion. And, as a religion represents a philosophy, a way of life in relation to all aspects of existence, children inherit this too. If you are born into a Christian family, you undergo all of the conditioning, both good and bad, of the Christian existence. Similarly, if you are born Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, much of your identity is all but sewn up. There is little room for the expression of will, for the making of a personal choice. Religious form is truth, and through birth it becomes your truth.
Furthermore, such an effect regularly reinforces the standard social form of know your place. There is even class structure in heaven itself, such as through angels and arch, or ruling, angels. Satan himself was expelled from heaven, and it has been inferred that this was for questioning god's authority, in other words, for not accepting the prevailing social order. (As another example, Islam means submission, as in, you must submit to the will of god.)
The imposition of know your place is particularly apparent in the religions of the Orient. For Hinduism, one of the three aspects of Dharma is the natural social order, which among other things justifies the rigidity of the social castes in India. For Buddhism, the similar doctrine of Karma also serves to justify social inequalities. If you are born to a low station, it is because of your behavior in a prior life. Indeed, such beliefs justify the positions for all life, not just for humans. They effectively subordinate all other life. But here I would point out that there is a logical flaw in the argument of reincarnation. If your behavior in this life causes you to be born as some other species in the next, how can you possibly make merit as such a species and hope to be born human again? Other life forms truly are subject to natural law, and have no ethical options. In this sense, they are determined. (And if this happens to you, you are stuck. Also, it is interesting that in reincarnation cultures you can come back as a rat or a bird or a snake, but never as a tree. Reincarnation does not occur cross-kingdom.)
Regarding Confucianism, which still retains great power in China and other parts of Asia, one of its basic messages is that you should submit to authority, that you should not even question it. A legacy of this is seen clearly in the fact that in Asia it is difficult, if not impossible, for young people - including both women and men - to disregard their parents choice of a spouse for them, even if they love another person. (When Asian parents choose spouses for their children, whose needs are fulfilled: theirs, or the childs?)
As this suggests, these values are enmeshed in society and manifest themselves in many troubling ways. For instance, many Buddhists are fatalistic. They believe that whatever happens to them, happens - nothing can be done about it - but, counterintuitively, they also believe that they are responsible for it. They are never victims. (There are almost no personal injury lawsuits in Buddhist countries.) If something bad happens to them, e.g., if they suffer abuse as a child, it is both their fault and their fate. Indeed, they are psychologically trapped by the structure of this form, and this has innumerable derivative and devastating effects, including both on individual mental health and social harmony.
(This reflects another, deeper inconsistency in the logic of reincarnation: in which life are we free to act such that the conditions in our subsequent lives are a legitimate reward or penalty? In which life can we exert will and thereby initiate the subsequent deterministic chain? For such a system to work there has to be a break in the cycle, a starting point.)
In addition, and as we have just seen, religion reinforces human chauvinism. The final judgment teachings of the Western religious tradition were conceived in a day when humans reigned supreme. (The consequences of our behavior toward the planet had not yet rebounded back onto us.) No thought was given to other species, much less to the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
It is remarkable that we remain so chauvinistic. What about other species? Some mammals have advanced central nervous systems and personal consciousness: isnt it possible that they have a conception of god, too (and I dont mean us, that they consider us to be god!)? And, aren't they of concern to god? Also, if other planets in the universe harbor life, as they surely do, what about gods for this life? If there is such a thing as god, we can only assume that it relates in some way to the universe, and all the life in the universe, not to a particular planet or species.
As all of this reflects, there are many messages in religious form, and it also makes use of a number of tactics. One of the most important of these is inflexibility. Dogma is dogma: the Word is The Word. It cannot be questioned. For example, for Islam, Mohammed was the last prophet, and his revelation was Gods final message to man. (Understanding Islam and the Muslims, The Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C., 1989) And, for Christianity, from their establishment, the Churches, everywhere, opposed as long as they could practically every innovation that made for an increase of happiness or knowledge here on earth. (Russell, page 528)
The reason for such resistance and inflexibility is that it enabled the religions to protect their power.
In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.
- 1984, Orwell, page 157
The analogy of the ant-farm serves to define the limits of human understanding, but within these limits there is plenty of room for speculation. Religions, however, take the diametrically opposed view. Everything that is worth knowing about life is known, and it is available solely from them. No important questions have been left unanswered, and hence there is nothing left to learn.
Religions are absolutely resistant to change, which is highly ironic, since Christ (and the Prophet Mohammed, and also Buddha) was a rebel. To the modern Church, though, rebellion is abhorrent and anathema.
Inflexibility and resistance to change inevitably lead to persecution, and this brings us to the other major religious tactic, which is us versus them: the creation of a common enemy. Indeed, the most important practical consequence of religion is the intolerance it engenders toward others, and this is a very sad commentary, that it is not increased love for one another, or a common aspiration to find truth and enlightenment.
As to them, the Jews are the leading them of all time. (This could have an ethnic as well as a religious basis.) They have been vilified and persecuted throughout the ages. Christians, for instance, began their persecution of the Jews as early as the fourth century, as soon as the Catholic Church was well established. They were one of the primary targets of the Inquisition, and, of course, also the leading target of the Nazi holocaust. (Germany is Christian.) Even today, they are attacked by far-right hate groups, many of which are nominally Christian.
Indeed, whenever and wherever Christianity as an organization has been in power, it has engaged in persecution. (What would happen if it were in power again?) This is because it is underlined by a revenge psychology. (Russell, page 309) Our circumstances here on earth are the revenge of god for the original sin. An eternity of torture in hell is the revenge of the good over the evil. And persecution of others, such as of the Jews, who failed to recognize Christ as the savior, who actually crucified him, is a revenge as well.
Of course, there are other explanations for such revenge. The first is that it is very effective as a form for persuading people to join the religion. As Russell points out (Ibid.), everyone understands revenge, at getting back at someone - for whatever reason. It is not an abstract and obscure ideal. It is not difficult to understand. Rather, it is an appeal to our most primitive behavioral patterns, something that we all have and know.
On the other hand, revenge often has other psychological derivations, e.g., to hide from one's own inadequacies. In this way it is a transference, of frustration, about oneself, or one's beliefs, to others. Perhaps the revelation of faith is not enough. Perhaps it does not fully explain:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark, xv, 34)
This raises an interesting question. At the time of Christ all popular religions professed the ability to accomplish miracles. (Many still do. Indeed, to become a Catholic saint you must accomplish three miracles.) This is because miracle-working is one of the best ways to manipulate uneducated populations and, once manipulated, it reinforces their belief, or fear, that the leaders of the religion truly do control access to life after death.
But, to the extent that a religious leader pretends to have supernatural recognition and power, he or she is a sham. Now, the quote from St. Mark would lead us to believe that Christ himself thought that he was the son of god, which is fine. He was either right, or deluded. The real problem is his miracles. If he did accomplish what is said about him, including raising the dead, curing lepers and the blind, and multiplying fishes and loaves of bread, etc., then, again, that's fine, he is the Son of God, and we have much to fear: the universe is the product of a vengeful deity. But if he did not, then he may well be a fraud, even if only a self-delusional fraud.
The question is: to what extent were Christ's miraculous powers publicized while he was still alive. The earliest books of the New Testament were written decades after his death, and what they say, although it is revered as the uncriticizable truth, cannot in fact be trusted. But if Christ did claim miraculous abilities, in the knowledge that he did not have them, then he was a fraud. However, if these powers were appended, written in, perhaps to make the story more convincing, then this is not the case.
At this time I want to make three other comments regarding Christian form.
The first (and this applies in principle to most other religions as well) has to do with the treatment of women. Women under Christianity are the weaker sex, and are in fact derived from men; specifically, from Adams rib. Man is actually in Gods image. Men have His form, and therefore are closest to Him, and best. Also, a woman caused the downfall of man, through eating the apple. Furthermore, since the mother of Christ was a virgin (if this is to be believed), such a life represents the ideal for women, perhaps even the only way that a woman can be good. And sex itself is bad, particularly when a woman wants it.
All of this has led to a typing of women as inferior, and subordinate, and even evil, and given us a legacy of sexism that we still must fight today.
As we have seen, though, such attitudes are hardly limited to Christianity.
Why women are forbidden to testify in criminal proceedings.
1. Women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony.
2. Women do not participate in public life, so they will not be capable of understanding what they observe.
3. Women are dominated completely by men, who by the grace of God are deemed superior; therefore, women will give testimony according to what the last man told them.
4. Women are forgetful, and their testimony cannot be considered reliable.
- Saudi Arabian rules of evidence, Princess, Jean P. Sasson, Bantam, appendix
Secondly, the Christian view of nature is that it is wild and undisciplined, i.e., sinful. It therefore needs to be controlled. This has served as further justification for the rampant environmental destruction that accompanies commercial development. Such destruction is not even viewed as a negative: it is actually seen as an improvement.
Thirdly, I would comment on Christs saying that we should turn the other cheek, which is remarkable because it is a clear focus on our greatest ethical challenge, to forgive. However, it also must be noted that this is at odds with the revenge motivation of god, and therefore that the message of Christianity contradicts its appeal. Also, this maxim has another problem as well: it conflicts with the basic rule of life, that actions have consequences. If we love one another, even when we are harmed, then there is no consequence for the person responsible for the harm. It is an admirable saying but, if only because of this, completely unrealistic and unworkable.
But, to return to the issue of tactics, if you want to understand the concept of us versus them, you need look no farther than the Jews. They are a small, independent and self-sufficient cultural group. They are well educated. They have had great economic success.
Given these attributes it is guaranteed that they will be viewed as an ideal target by the leaders of other groups. These leaders have persecuted the Jews by creating volatility. They have unified their own groups by creating and inflaming a hatred of them. In this process they have diverted their groups from their own problems; they created new problems for them; they consolidated their own power; and they stole the wealth, and the lives, of the Jews.
It can be a very effective tactic, and it has great appeal to megalomaniacs everywhere.
Of course, every story has two sides, and certain actions of the Jews have worked to their own disadvantage. Their belief, for example, that they are the chosen people, actually serves to define them as Them. However, this tradition also underlies their immense cultural loyalty, which is a positive. The Jews have survived when many other cultural groups did not, and this is the reason for it. They are actually one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet. And, to counter their insularity they have reached out to others, as through their activism and philanthropy. The problem is, if some elements of a local majority whip up sentiment against them, create volatility against them, there is little they can do to stop it. Indeed, you might ask: could a group be so generous as to forestall bigotry against them? The answer is, perhaps, but that such generosity would be akin to ransom. The problem, ultimately, is not with the Jews; it lies with the people and groups who create and use hatred of them for their own purposes.
To continue, the enemy tactic is implemented in a number of ways. It may entail labeling them with a pejorative name, such as infidel (or gentile!); or in the consideration of them as heathens and savages, for instance, because they are unbaptized. And, of course, if may even be necessary to fight a Holy War with them, to do anything at all to ensure the dominance of your faith.
Religions are not above using a little force, commandments and other rules notwithstanding. In fact, probably a majority of all the wars that have ever been fought have had a religious component. Christ, the Prince of Peace, would be appalled at the violence that has been committed in his name. He would turn over in his grave, if he had one!
My apologies to Christian readers. Christ, in his omniscience, is appalled.
My apologies again. I made this joke, which will be viewed by some as a blasphemy, for a number of reasons. But one thing I want to make clear is that I did not do it to be vindictive. I have no intention to insult the Christian faith, and the many, many Christians who have performed good works, particularly all those who have died in the process. Also, I will add that I have focused on the Christian tradition to a greater extent than those of other religions because it is my tradition, the one I inherited at birth. Had I been born a Hindu, or a Buddhist, I likely would have found more to criticize with them. (I will offer a few additional critical comments on them in the final chapter of the book.)
I would say, though, that as much of the modern social system is the product of the West, and Christianity is the dominant religion of the West, it deserves great scrutiny. Religions in the East, for example, seem to be taking on aspects of their Western counterparts, such as by sacrificing their humility to the idea that bigger is better and that they therefore should accumulate great financial resources (and their leaders should live lavish lifestyles). Also, it is very disturbing that there were corporate sponsors of the Popes visit to Mexico in January 1999. The modern system seeks to co-opt all dissent, and this extends from individual rebels, to the family, and to religion.
However, while I may not want to be vindictive, I do want to be very, very strong. I am angry at this form, at this cross I have to bear. And I believe that Christians, and the followers of all other religions as well, should also be angry: at all of the above described unethical beliefs and actions of their faiths. Such anger is completely justifiable. It is legitimate.
I am particularly angry at the Church for its totalitarianism. There is nothing more totalitarian than infinite torture. In a dictatorship, you may be tortured, but it can only be for life: until you die. Under Christianity, for the mildest of sins, including the sin of free belief, which is also a crime in a dictatorship, you will be tortured, and forever.
Said another way, I get angry when people break a bond of trust, particularly a public trust, since such a trust grants them great power. When power freely granted is abused, when it is redirected back at us, by the police, or by any other institutional officials, including religious leaders, this is completely and unequivocally reprehensible.
And, it is not just Christianity; it is all acts of faith. I object to the entire facade: to the belief in prayer; in heaven and hell and nirvana; to the belief that the Dalai Lama was reincarnated; and to the myth of Islamic martyrdom (see below).
If you are a believer, I am sorry if I have caused you any hurt. I simply want to show you the power of the form that you have accepted, which in most cases was actually imposed on you in childhood. I believe my criticisms, and this joke, are the best way, quite possibly the only way, to get you to understand the seriousness of what I have been talking about. Behavioral form completely penetrates, permeates and overwhelms our society. The only way we can change our behavior, and society, is to reject it, starting with the most powerful form - the strongest and most entrenched belief system - of all.
Viewed another way, the problem I have with religion is akin to the problem environmentalists have with loggers. Environmentalists say, with great evidence to support them, that if you log all the trees, the sawmill will eventually shut down, you will be out of a job, and your family and community will suffer. Similarly, if you keep believing in a dogmatic faith, in anything that causes as many problems as it solves, the problems will never go away.
To have as a cultural tradition the fact that you formerly accepted a supernatural belief is fine, and of great interest and value, and which can be viewed with pride. But, you should recognize that to continue such a tradition, knowing what we now know, while it is a decision that is completely up to you, is essentially insupportable.
In summary, I am an advocate of philosophy, not religion; of free speculation and inquiry, not dogma. I also want to emphasize that the results of such inquisitiveness should remain speculation. They should not be allowed to become entrenched. We must retain our skepticism, and our wonder - the famous perspective of through the eyes of a child - even as we search for deeper understanding. Anything that presents itself as truth, including my analogy about the ant-farm, should be subjected to the closest examination. We must recognize that as with any scientific theory, any such speculation will quite possibly fall by the wayside as further, more sophisticated explanations, even paradigm shifts, are developed or occur. Indeed, new philosophical speculation will likely follow, mirror or even precede new developments in basic science.
As this demonstrates, I am not secular, at least not in a narrow sense, and I am certainly not an atheist. (When someone is branded an atheist, this is the same as when an environmentalist is called a terrorist.) And what, after all, is atheism? Is it not believing in your god? You are the theist and I the atheist, which is a form of bigotry and volatility. Or is it not believing in any god, or creator? The universe is an illusion, and meaningless. Both of these positions, theist and real atheist, are non-demonstrable. Agnosticism, accepting that we will never know the complete truth, but realizing that we can nonetheless use our abilities, our reason, to search for it, particularly for a workable purpose, seems the obvious alternative. To pursue such a search even appears to be a purpose in and of itself. (The purpose of life is to search for its purpose.)
In other words, you should experience life, and as you do apply your reason to it. Combine empiricism (the scientific method) with reflection and logical analysis, and see what you can learn.
To close out this discussion, my final point about the power of religious form is that you know it - a form - is strong if you cannot make a joke about it. (Your form is also strong if you get your own system of time!) For instance, there are lots of jokes about rabbis, priests and ministers, but few about mullahs. People are afraid of Islam. After all, if you say the wrong thing you could even have a fatwah, or religious edict, issued calling for your death.
Muslims are serious. They have been taught that the world must be conquered for Islam (this is a form), and that if they die in the process they will be martyred and immediately ascend to heaven. (This is also a form, and a lie.) But, they believe all this so fervently that many non-Muslims are afraid of them. Because of this, we look the other way when they practice the worst forms of dictatorship, intolerance and sexual discrimination, and we disassociate the religion from blame when its adherents commit real terrorist acts.
However, to follow up the earlier point about the wide variety of practices for any given religion: Muslims follow a religion of peace, mercy and forgiveness, and the majority have nothing to do with the extremely grave events which have come to be associated with their faith. (The Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington, D.C.)
The last negative aspect of religious form is the high prevalence of corruption within any given faith, starting with its spiritual leaders: all the evidence that shows they care only for themselves. Of course, this is not that surprising. Given the power of religion, it inevitably attracts people desirous of abusing it, and it also leads to the corruption of many whom initially come to the faiths with a noble purpose. In addition, the leaders of all faiths have regularly conspired and intrigued against each other, to protect and increase their power. (An occurrence of the last, in Islam, is the charge of apostasy, or not being true to the faith, which is a charge punishable by death, and which competing leaders frequently level against each other.)
Also, in the modern world the power of religion has come face-to-face with the power of money, and in many cases it has lost. Evangelists beg for money on the TV. Buddhist monks sell good fortune, even lucky lottery numbers. (In Japan, Buddhist monks sell auspicious, high-ranking, death names, to grieving relatives. If the latter pay for a good name for the deceased, it supposedly improves the chances that they will get a higher rebirth.) In fact, the whole set-up for religion is also the best possible design for abuse. A religious professional is basically saying: I cant work, since I have to devote myself to the spirit. And you should pay me so I can do this, and thereby make merit. And the more money you give me, the more merit you make.
(What we can also see from this is that religion has given us a new perspective on death: it is something to profit from!)
Finally, there is the common man. Not only are many religious leaders corrupt, this holds for many of their followers as well, from the so-called (only on) Sunday Christians, to the many Buddhists who have forgotten their renunciation of desire, in their lust to acquire the trappings of the modern world. You have to wonder, given all that has happened and all that now takes place, if in today's world Christ would be a Christian; Mohammed a Muslim; or Buddha a Buddhist?
Because of this, and all of the good deeds notwithstanding, the use of religious belief as a foundation for ethics is fundamentally flawed. Religion is based on mysticism, not reason, and as such it is a barrier to creating an advanced ethical system that is harmonious with our needs and also those of the planet and other forms of life. Indeed, the essence of religion is that it has no faith in humanity. This is why we must have faith in the supernatural, and also why Christianity and Judaism require a savior.
This is defeatist, determinist and totally unacceptable. We do not need a savior, or even God, to be good. Further, any services offered by religion can be provided without the religious aspect: the mandated belief. Religious charitable and activist organizations should evolve into general philanthropic groups (This is happening already. In many such organizations, dogma is downplayed.)
Anything that gets in the way of reason, including faith, will make a truly ethical society more difficult to achieve. Ethics must be derived from reason, not form. Religion is form.
Jesus, Moses and Mohammed worked out their philosophies with their reason, and in the context of the prevailing opinions - the forms - of their times. Because of this - these forms - they felt obliged to cloak their philosophies in voices from the supernatural. And, their ploy worked. Their willingness to include such forms as attachments to their reasoned arguments made the latter more persuasive to the uneducated people to whom they preached. But now the public is no longer so uneducated. It is less willing to accept such forms. These religions, therefore, should update themselves. They should rid their systems of the supernatural and of faith, and instead focus on what they have to offer that is reasonable.
In conclusion, the record of the human experience shows a passage from spirituality to form. And this form was made up a long time ago, and it has been refined ever since. The need for religious solace is great, and it increases in intensity as you age: as you approach death. We must beware: this is one of the foremost forms that we must fight. These people are out to pray on you.
Please recall that your best defense is education. Beliefs in superstition are rife among the uneducated, but very few people with PhDs accept such things as astrology, channeling and ghosts.
As to religious activism, if you are a believer you should reject the us versus them messages that your religion purveys. Ask why such people are your enemies, and why they have to be converted. Your goal should be to reform your faith, to get it to concentrate not on issues that enhance its leaders' power and prestige, but rather on the real issues of religion and life: how to be ethical; how to help other species and people; and how to solve real world problems.
In particular, you should feel free to disagree with the leaders' views on intractable social problems. And, regarding the deepest questions of existence, you should encourage the faith not to concentrate on the fear and uncertainty of death, but rather on the celebration of the universe and of life.
Indeed, if you want to believe in a superstition, pick a fun one: be a pagan! Early pagans believed that the universe was the product of a primeval sacrifice, or of a union, usually sexual, between the gods. (The god of time in bed with the god of space! But what would happen if their union ended?) Following this tradition, but without the sacrifices, and with birth control, neo-pagans celebrate the Earth as the creator of and the provider for life. And this is a good religious form, one that you would do well to emulate: revere the Earth, and do everything in your power to protect it.
(For an extensive presentation of an alternative basis for spirituality, please see the final chapter of the book.)