Religion and Mythology, Videos

What is Religion?

The following is a transcript of this video.

Religion has played an immense role in sculpting civilization throughout history. It is also a topic a topic of a lot of controversy and debate. In this lecture we are not going to examine the validity of different religious beliefs, nor the role organized religions play in current-day society. Rather, building on the ideas of thinkers like William James, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Abraham Maslow, we will examine the role religion plays in the life of the individual. More specifically in this lecture, we will examine questions such as: What exactly is religion? Why the central role in all civilizations throughout history? What is its place in the life of an individual? What is the relationship between science and religion? As well as examining the interesting question as to an atheist can adhere to a religion?

In general, when people speak about religion, they often, whether they realize it or not, are speaking specifically about religion in the sense of the major or organized forms of religion. In the West, the first one that usually comes to mind is Christianity. However, in order to grasp the fullness of the phenomenon of religion it must be stressed that these organized forms of religions are but a part of a larger concept.

The reason this needs to be stressed is that, all too often, people cast judgment on religion as a whole based on their opinions of the major organized religions. If these views are negative, they will sometimes write-off religion as something of little or no value. So it must be remembered that throughout history, and to the present day, there have been thousands of religions practiced by small groups of people and even personal religions, with little to no formal organization.

Another idea that often comes to mind when thinking about religion, is the belief in a god or gods. This is not surprising as the majority of the major religions in history have worshiped at least one god. However, again, this should not be seen as the defining essence of religion as not all religions adhere to belief in supernatural beings. For example, one of the major religions of the present day – Buddhism, is in fact a godless religion.

But is there an essence or definition of religion that is applicable to all the diverse forms of religion, past and present? Over time religion has been defined in many ambiguous ways and, while it is unlikely that one definition could encompass all there is to know about the nature of religion, there are certain elements of religion that seem to be essential.

The great philosopher William James in his lecture series ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, attempted to capture the essence of religion when he said:

“Religion…as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” (William James)

It is important to point out in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, James stresses that the word divine in his definition leaves open what one may consider divine. It could be a god, but it also could be nature, the unknown or any number of things.

Here, James with his reference to man in his solitude, emphasizes the personal nature of religion and this seems to be a common characteristic to one degree or another of all religions, even the mass organized ones. For not only do organized religions attempt to elicit personal experiences and emotions in their followers through rituals and worship, but as James points out, the major religions of the 20th century were founded by the personal religious experiences of a handful of individual prophets.

Robert Bellah, in his illuminating work titled ‘Religion in Human Evolution’, draws on the work of the Amerian anthropologist Clifford Geertz, to define religion in a similar manner to William James. As Bellah writes:

“Religion is a system of symbols that, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that makes sense in terms of an idea of a general order of existence.” (Robert Bellah)

Similar to the definition James put forth, Bellah does not emphasize the worship of gods in his definition. And again, like James, he stresses the importance of powerful emotions which all religions attempt to elicit in their followers. Furthermore, for both James and Bellah, these powerful emotions are elicited when the individual feels himself to be in a relationship with something he consider to be all-important. James labelled this ”the divine” while Bellah called it ”an idea of a general order of existence”. Such a relationship plays a crucial role in religion, as it is through this relationship one is granted answers to certain existential questions which have plagued the minds of humans since the dawn of civilization.

In other words, another primary characteristic of religion, is the attempt to answer fundamental questions about the existence of human beings in the universe. But this raises the question as to why it is that we as humans have for so long been concerned with such questions and why we need religion to provide the answers. A common suggestion put forth is that we look to religion for answers to these questions because of the inadequacy of the world of daily life. The world of daily life can be seen as that in which the majority of us spend most of our waking lives. It is in this world that we work, see to our practical interests and use means to strive towards our desired ends. However, as this theory goes behind the veil of our everyday lives, we are haunted by a fundamental anxiety, usually unconscious, of which our daily lives provide no relief. This deep-seated anxiety is none other than the fear of death. The fact that, in the blink of an eye, our existence or the existence of those we love, could be completely annihilated, is not a comfortable thought for anyone. But if we allowed such a fear to consume us all the time we would scarcely be able to function. So, in order to act in what is considered a socially normal manner, most of us push the existential questions out of the way.

But we cannot esccape this anxiety forever. Inevitably, such existential fears creep in at one times or another, be it after the death of a close friend or even just from a spell of boredom which causes our mind to wander. And when these fears are stimulated, we as human beings are driven to search for an escape or a place of comfort. Thoughout history, such an esape has predominantly been found what some have called ”a religious reality”. Religions provide narratives, stories and beliefs which ultimately quell the existential fear and doubt which inevitably come creeping in.

For example, a religion will often provide answers about our place in the universe, the purpose of our lives, what happens after death and how we should go about living this life in the face of so much uncertainty. In other words, through rituals, forms of worship, adherence to certain moral codes or relationships with what we consider divine, religions attempt to provide a realm of certainty in contrast to the world of daily life which provides no certainty but rather – uncertainty, doubt, and fear, with respect to such existential questions.

Up until a few centuries ago, religion was largely unchallenged in its role in human life. However, as is well known, that changed following the age of enlightenment. Since the Scientific Revolution, the belief in religious dogma has undoubtedly been called into question like never before. Some go as far as to say that science seems to be slowly but surely destroying the foundations on which religion was built, by revealing the flaws in religious dogmas. But is this a fair characterization of the relationship between science and religion?  

As the American psychologist Abraham Maslow astutely pointed out, in his work ‘Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences’, in reference to the relationship between science and religion:

“though he [the scientist] must disagree with most of the answers to the religious questions which have been given by organized religion, it is increasingly clear that the religious questsions themselves – and religious quests, the religious yearnings, the religious needs themselves – are perfectly respectable scientifically – that they are rooted in human nature….Though the answers were not acceptable the questions themselves were and are perfectly acceptable, perfectly legitimate.” (Abraham Maslow)

But that still leaves open the question as to whether science can provide the answers to the religious or what we have been calling ”the existential questions”. Science, like religion, has also searched for certainty, but the knowledge or certainty sciene has traditionally searched for deals with questions  usually related to the workings of nature, which appear to be of a fundamentally different type than the existential ones confronted by religion.

Such an idea seems to have been suggested by one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said:  

“The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (It is certainly not the solution of any problems of natural science that is required).” (Wittgenstein)

Wittgenstein, in a related manner, says:  

“There are, indeed things that are inexpressible. They show themselves. They are what is mystical.” (Wittgenstein)

Summing up the thoughts of Maslow and Wittgenstein, religion attempts to answer questions outside the realm which science deals with. And these questions are rooted in the human condition and so cannot be destroyed no matter how powerful science becomes.

This brings us to the important question of how religion, in the sense we have been using it, differs from philosophy. Obviously, the existential questions we have suggested – that religions attempt to answer are similar to those dealt with by certain branches of philosophy. However, while a philosophy is developed through the use of reason and argument, the beliefs of a religion may come from different sources. Myths, narratives, revelation or even just feelings, which as Wittgenstein suggested, may be inexpressible, can be used to form a religion. For religion, the most important thing is not how the ideas were arrived at, but the experiences and feelings they produce in the individual.

While we have been concentrating on the more personal aspects of religion, an interesting question arises as to why belief in a handful of religions has become so dominant. In other words, why do people have a tendency to congregate together into mass organized religions instead of attempting to answer the religious or existential questions on their own? While this question is obviously too complex to deal with in any depth at the moment, a quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky points to a possible explanation. He wrote:

“So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men will agree at once to worship it…For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but find something that all will believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time.” (Dostoevsky)

Before we finish we will briefly adress a phenomenon that has seen massive growth in the recent decades, that being the popularity of atheism. Atheism can be described as a view which rejects belief in a deity or, in other words, the belief in a god. Theism, on the other hand, is the belief in a deity. Often people mistakenly believe that atheism is a rejection of religion, and indeed, if one were to define religion in a sense that required belief in a god then this would be the case. But as we discussed earlier, such a definition is too narrow and rather religion in the more personal sense, or in the sense suggested by William James and Robert Bellah, does not necessarily require adherence to the belief in a god. What this means is that atheism is not a complete rejection of religion. An atheist, like all human beings, is still plagued by the existential questions we discussed above. Questions which, according to Wittgenstein, are outside the realm of science. What characterizes an atheist is that they search for the comfort associated with existential certitude in a way that does not require belief in a god.

Whether one adheres to an organized religion or if one finds such dogmas difficult to believe in and thus, strives for answers to the existential questions in a more personal manner, the goal for the individual is the same: to find comfort in a life filled with so much uncertainty.

We will conclude this lecture with another quote by William James, which nicely sums up how finding certainty in the face of such doubt, even if such certainty is fleeting, can improve one’s life:

“Religious feeling is thus an absolute addition to the subject’s range of life. It gives him a new sphere of power. When the outward battle is lost, and the outward world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which otherwise would be an empty waste.” (William James)

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