I believe that existing organized religions are all culture products, expressions of a deep spiritual truth.
All religious faiths emerged in specific cultural and geographic contexts. While many espouse universality, belief in them is usually an accident of birth. Islam and Christianity spread farther because they emerged from more violent cultures. The Christian West colonized the world and used its religion as a rationale for destroying indigenous religions and exploiting colonies for resources. Muslim leaders and later the Ottoman Empire used Islam as a rationale for conquering northern Africa, the Arab world and parts of Europe. Each might point to their growth as a sign that they are favored by God, but that’s a little obscene: God favors violent conquerors?
Buddhism and Hinduism claim universality with a kind of caveat. Hinduism seeks to understand the laws of the universe and claims that all of reality is ultimately indistinct from the Brahman, or supreme spirit. Life is about ethics, livelihood, pleasure and freedom. They lack a concept of heresy and thus are open to other expressions of belief. There is only one God or ultimate spirit, but since we cannot fathom it, they express God in multiple forms. This makes it appear polytheistic, but there is only one Brahman. Buddhism sees desire and addiction to the material world as the source of misery, and tries to plot a path for liberation.
The fact of the matter is there is absolutely no objective reason to take any religion literally, and a plethora of reasons not to. The only way one can hold on to a faith — especially the fundamentally exclusivist ones of Islam and Christianity — is to defy reason in favor of faith. An example: Christian fundamentalists who think Jesus is the only way to heaven and God will punish those who reject Jesus are in direct contradiction with the core values of their belief system. A God of love and forgiveness would never act is such a cruel, arbitrary manner.
Yet religious belief remains powerful. Deeply shared cultural beliefs are taken as “natural” and “normal” by people, and thus things contrary to those beliefs seem strange and wrong. In the past it was women in the work place or blacks as equal to whites, now gay marraige is the classic case. There is no reason-based rationale for opposing it, but culturally it seems to many to be weird and unnatural.
Religion is like that, people grow up with it permeating their culture and being taken as natural — it is a powerful psychological force. There are also social reasons for people to stick with it — when ones’ family, community and life has been defined by religion, breaking from it could mean immense personal costs. Often when people get doubts their response is to double down and dive deeper into the faith.
Beyond that, religious beliefs can be profoundly powerful for people who face crises or otherwise feel as if they are drifting in life. Consider the conversion experience. It is almost always a purely emotional affair — a sense of fulfillment and joy at accepting a power outside oneself, realizing that life has purpose and there is a plan that one can be part of. Conversion unleashes joy at letting go of the pain of feeling tied down by the limits of human frailty and material reality. For many, it is a vehicle for embracing a positive view of reality.
These are powerful because there is an element of truth in that experience. Letting go of worries, fear, and feelings of inadequacy is necessary for happiness. That’s the core message of Hinduism and Buddhism as well. It’s hard for individuals to do that, it’s easy to get swept up by self-doubt, comparisons to others, wondering ‘what’s the point,” and thinking that others have it better. One glimpses the insignificance of an individual existence in the grand scheme of things and feels down. One looks to relationships, work, children for meaning and is disappointed. Life becomes a series of distractions and a sense of dissatisfaction.
The only way out of that is to break away from the weight of material conditions and live each moment as it is. One has to accept reality and not fret about what is outside ones’ control (which includes past mistakes and bad luck). To do that requires reflection, self-honesty and confidence. One also has to overcome the most profound fear of all — the fear of meaninglessness. That fear drives modern humans to depression, addictions and sociopathic behaviors. Letting go of fear is not easy in a world where magazines tell you how your life should be — where we’re told to live according to the fantasies of marketers.
Religion can be a short cut to that point. If you use a God concept to create an entity that brushes that aside, it’s easier. People then equate faith and connection to God with the removal of meaninglessness and as a vehicle to overcome fear. At it’s best, it can create joyful lives, devout folk of various religious beliefs who take life as it comes with a sense of joy and understanding. At its worst it can torment. If one believes but is not able to translate that into a removal of fear, material discontent or even self-loathing, it can create powerful contradictions that do more harm than good. Hence the religious life is a ‘fight of faith’ for Christians, the “higher jihad” for Muslims, and a difficult path requiring teachers for Hindus and Buddhists.
Reason can destroy religious teachings and dogmas but cannot destroy the core truths and values that underlie all great religions. Therein lies the paradox. Reason cannot prove or disprove statements about values, ethics and morality, but it can show particular stories about how the world operates to be non-sensical, contrary to reality, or extremely unlikely. When a candidate for President says the world is only about 6000 years old, we realize he’s believing a myth, out of touch with science and reason.
But reason cannot give us what religion provides — a way to overcome fear, to see through the illusion of material worry and despair, and grasp higher values and a sense of meaning. We need that. Yet reason ultimately destroys religious belief.
Or does it? What reason and evidence destroy is belief in a particular story or individual as the key to faith. It can make it seem ridiculous to believe only Jesus is the path to heaven, or that Islam is the one true faith. It can poke holes in Buddhist teachings and philosophy. But reason doesn’t destroy the core power of religious faith – the power of the spirit to transcend the material.
In the debate between atheists and theists, both are right — atheists are right that religious dogmas are not credible or worthy of belief; theists are right that reason cannot disprove religion and is itself an empty vessel: a tool, not an answer. While Hindus and Buddhists may claim their approach merges reason and religion (and in many ways it does), it is part of a culture that doesn’t translate well into western thought.
So where does that leave us? Despite my rejection of organized religion, realizing the power they grant to individuals in overcoming the immense burden of life in the material world, especially in these times, I must respect those of sincere religious faith, those who don’t try to force others to live by their beliefs. They often live with more meaning, ethics and value than atheists and materialists.
Ultimately, though, that isn’t going to be enough for society to deal with the dilemmas of the modern and post-modern world. Reason is powerful. It is a tool that humans underestimate. We believe it liberates us, but it also can imprison us as we use it to justify and rationalize inhumane actions, or to dissect life and find it empty and meaningless. Many embrace ideologies that they think reason provides, using them as ersatz religions to give their life meaning. Devout Marxists or followers of Ayn Rand believe ultimately absurd ideologies in order to find a way out of the jungle of meaningless that reason provides.
My answer, pragmatic and for one wanting demonstrable truth unsatisfying, is to look at the values behind the great religions, and reflect on ones own emotional and spiritual self. That can provide the capacity to break out of the chains of meaningless that materialism and reason can build, to overcome fear and find joy. But this path also requires letting go. To the reason-bound, it still requires a leap of faith, that there is something outside the material world — a spiritual essence — that we need for valuable lives. To the religion-bound it would mean giving up a story and the existence of an authoritative set of teachings one simply believes in. Religion still works for some, but is becoming increasing un-credible in the modern world.
One needs both: mind and soul, reason and sentiment, rational thought and spirituality.