The two dimensions to understanding a concept are to know what it is not ( in a way, what is not in its heart of existence) and to know what it is (what it should be bothered about). I shall continue to briefly discuss religion in light of these two dimensions. It is important to also have a scope for all this. Firstly, I am for practical utility and making strives to better our lives and societies. Secondly, I shall attempt to separate the discussion under the themes of the inner/personal sphere and the social sphere. While the former is the manifestation of faith, the latter brings in the discussion of organized religions and their institutions.
“It is like a man to be curious, to understand his being, his environment and his purpose. To those things he couldn’t understand, faith was introduced to fill the void, and religion became a tool to direct faith.”
The principle behind the inner sphere of religion (the faith aspect) is as old as any human civilization. The argument is that we have a spiritual dimension, and a yearning to dissolve in some greater whole. Somehow, to be all enlightened, we must first know and understand ourselves. The sigma of “know thyself” is echoed in almost all religions all over the world. It postulates the existence of an entity that is supreme and has dominion over all things; and that the best way to reconnect is first, through an inner introspection.
Now, I find this particular aspect of religion uninteresting for this discussion. The loopholes found here are numerous. What if the entity is simply a conjuring of our minds? John Milton argues, “The mind is its place, and in itself, can make a heaven of a hell; a hell of heaven”. Perhaps this may be taking it too far. But the science of mind over matter gives grounds for such a discussion to be entertained. Having a supreme being that promises good tidings and deters bad behaviour is simply problematic for some. It is perfect for me when it comes to ethics, which will be my main discussion. There, I shall take a bold step to ignore the means and focus on the ends.
The problems with religion as a valid construct are numerous. There are arguments to support labelling religion as mere geographical accidents/ parental influence/ genetic markup. If so, then which is the true/right religion? There is too much bigotry and bad blood in everyone claiming to be right and insisting everyone else is wrong. There are other arguments though, to dispel the rational crisis. That after following a certain pattern of questioning for the necessary conditions for establishing a supreme entity, you’d find only religion with the right answers, thus eliminating the “true religion dilemma”. Still, I find religion in this sphere a little manipulative as it bases its root on the fear of death!
Religion is popular because it serves as one of the escape mechanisms from death. The promise of an afterlife. Resurrection. Immortality. The fear of death biases people to believe in God and follow a religion. We are terrified by the idea of death. In a quote, Stephen Cave dramatically exclaims, “even those who want to go to heaven, don’t want to die to get there”. I am not against religion having a solution to the death question. I am disheartened that most conversations end with one person condemning all those that are not them.
The theory that deals with this bias are called terror management theory. It is argued that we have a bias when it comes to death. So, confront anyone with the idea of death, and they’ll believe any story you feed them. There have been over 400 empirical studies carried out in this regard and the results have been outstandingly similar. Tell one group of people they are going to die and not the other. This biases the behaviour of the first group when asked about the existence of a supreme entity. People are more likely to believe stories that they can escape death and live forever when they become aware of their mortality. Even among agnostics (people undecided whether God exists or not), the result showed the treated group were twice as likely to believe in God and religion. But as I earlier stated, this is all uninteresting to me and the solution lies with Epicurus “Death is not of this world; when we are here, death is not; when death is here, we are not;” so, beyond death, the personal/inner sphere of religion is mum. Perhaps my point hasn’t been made clear. I am not belittling anyone’s religion. Or the idea of religion in itself. Hopefully, with what I’ve raised, you should second guess feeling important/superior/disdain when you meet someone of a different religion or who doesn’t believe in God. We all share the same fear and burden of death. you find your solace in a certain way, he/she does in another.
Now to the main discussion. My thesis argument is captured by the question: What is good for our societies and collective humanity? How do we, from the knowledge we have, develop practical models of ethics that are universal? I feel it necessary to give a crude definition of religion here. I say crude because it is from Wikipedia, it says,
“ A cultural system of behaviours and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, a social organization that relate humanity to what an anthropologist has called “an order of existence”. It has rituals, sermons, sacrifices, festivities, processions, prayer, music, art, dance, public service…. ”
Wait…? Do atheist have their sermons and sacrifices too? I bring this up because there have been discussions that label atheism as a new religion. If so, do they also fall under the sting of “opium of the masses” by Marx? Either way. It is imperative to point religion out for its faults. The sheer Dogma and crises of authority. Crises of methodology. And to some, it enables bad behaviour because you have a chance of absolution at every point. A recent article published by the independent of research carried out over 6 years, showed that people who watch porn more than once a week, became more religious over time. It could be translated to mean, subconsciously, that Religion re-enforces the idea of being bad as long as you repent. perhaps this line of reasoning is far-fetched. And religion has been blamed for more than it is responsible for. For example, extremism should be called out for what it is; a human tendency and not a construct gotten from religion. Of course, we must also acknowledge the correlations. The deaths in the name of religion. But the bloodiest wars in history were not in the name of religion.
My point is beyond all that, what does religion have to offer? A large body of moral values. There is a strong connection between epistemology ad ontology within religious circles. Establishing an order of existence with God at the top, automatically makes that being the source of all knowledge. Now, morality and ethics are also very much intertwined. While the former is contextual, the latter tries to be universal. I mean, if Religions are said to be the primary source of morality, and every religion has a set of rules/codes of living to adhere to, different from other religions, then the principle behind every moral code should be the same. so different morality, same ethics.
Humanity has always been with the idea of religion. In their private and social lives. In their practices and way of living. And it shall continue to be so. There is no point arguing which is the true/right religion. There is no point in arguing what is blasphemous and what is not.
The main point of this discussion is to identify what each religious and non-religious entities have to offer for progressive discussions. We must consolidate our knowledge and effort to produce an ethic that will represent our shared humanity. We need a religion, as a starting point in our discussion. The modern-day atheist through Hitchens, down to Dawkins are simply re-iterating Hume’s ideas. There is no point in discriminating against the other. We need independent rational thinkers as well. To be true, we must accommodate everyone at our table. As Tariq Ramadan repeatedly says, “I need you, but you also need me”, referring to the atheists in context.
But we cant present Religion as it is. We need to reform our minds and our hearts to be productive in this discussion. We need to be critical in the way we think, talk, act, be… we need to be critical and as fairly objective with ourselves as truly as we can, and
hopefully, we shall benefit from the fruitful convergence between knowledge and ethics.