Monday, September 28, 2009

The source and evolution of religion within the rationality of humans

This essay will try to briefly explain the source and essence of religion. Before we start our analysis a few concepts on the different forms and characteristics of religions must be introduced. Monotheism is the belief in only one god and polytheism the belief of more than one god as the being(s) superior to the soul or spirit. The only god or the most important one is believed to have created and control the universe.

Polytheistic and monotheistic ideas are considered an evolved form of animism.

The opposition to monotheism or polytheism is pantheism. Pantheism is the idea that god is the universe itself and not a separated entity. Meanwhile deism is the idea that god as a separated entity created the universe but does not communicate to people or spirits. This in theism is the idea that god (or gods) as separated entities communicate with people and spirits.

By atheism we refer to the idea that god (or gods) does not exist and there are only the laws of physics.

On the other hand agnosticism is the idea that nothing can be said about the existence of god (or gods).

Unlike atheists or pantheists, agnostics do not deny the existence of god (or gods) they just avoid making any theories about it. Finally spiritualism is the belief that life after death does exist and materialism is the belief that life after death does not exist.

After this brief review of the main concepts we will start analyzing how religion has evolved. The most ancient form of religion developed by humanity is called animism. This was based on the idea that not only people, but also animals, plants and nature objects have soul or spirit which survives death. The worship of these spirits is the most basic form of religion. Old animism did not include the concept of god (or gods) but most modern animism contains either pantheistic or deist ideas. The idea of a human spirit started as an explanation for dreaming (temporal death) and death (eternal dreaming). It was reinforced lately by the idea of life after death. Nevertheless animist ideas started as a human explanation for diseases and nature phenomena.

Later on time we could see the development of a more advanced form of religion called shamanism. This is the name of the practices of a shaman as a healer and magician. It is based on animism, being the shaman the connection with the spiritual world. Nomadic people (hunters, gatherers and pastoral) practiced shamanism. As people become sedentary (agricultural) religion evolves to create an organized priesthood and separates itself from medicine and other practices. After that the figure of the shaman disappears or loses its importance. This is the time when religions start becoming more organized institutions and set of ideas. The more ancient of the modern world religions are the so called Indian and Chinese religions. Later on arrived the so called Abrahamic religions.

The so called Indian or Dharmic religions are the religions originated in India, i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism has always been polytheistic and Buddhism is agnostic, however both believed in the concepts of rebirth and karma. The idea of rebirth originated in the Indus Valley civilization (ancient Dravidians) before the arrival of the Aryans. However both the ancient Dravidians and the Aryans were polytheistic. Hinduism is the mixture of the Ancient Dravidian and the Aryan religious beliefs. Karma is a concept developed within Hinduism. However karma is a concept common both to Hinduism and Buddhism. This is that the effect of past thoughts and actions continues during subsequent lives. Hence Karma has a moral approach. Another way to call the law of karma is the law of cause and effect, i.e. it essentially means that what goes around comes around.

Buddhism originated when Buddha wanted to “purify” Hinduism by making it more like the original Dravidian religion (i.e. no caste system and more social equality) and by incorporating a solution for the continuous process of death and rebirth by achieving Nirvana. Nirvana or more correctly said the search for Nirvana or enlightenment in Buddhism attempts to break the life-death cycle (rebirth) and becoming one with the universe, this is to be absorbed or become part of the outer universe. Moreover according to Buddhists, Nirvana means to stop the rebirth cycle by reaching perfection. However in a more pragmatic approach, Nirvana is just life auto realization and is always perfectible. Hence it is indeed basically a continuous process of self-improvement and evolution. Nirvana is attained through the practice of the Buddhist law. The path to Nirvana is based on practice of compassion and no attachment. The last goal is self-realization and happiness.

We can see how strongly related to the idea of karma is the concept of Reincarnation, also known as rebirth. According to this idea although rebirth is always a choice for any spirit, the opportunity is not easy to get and is always based on karmic conditions. As a matter of fact many spirits might need to rebirth in more primitive planets or dimensions than earth because of karmic conditions. They might eventually rebirth on earth again and after that in more advanced planets or dimensions if they qualify.
Another aspect of Buddhism concerns the idea of Cosmic Realms, i.e. the mental states in human life according to Buddhism. Most Buddhist texts simplify them into nine basic mental states, though they recognize many more. These states are a reminder of how we should not think or behave if we want to enter the path to Nirvana, and of course to avoid all the negative responses that we will get from these actions and thoughts, i.e. karma. Traditional Buddhism also portraits these states as dimensions where people can rebirth.

The so called Chinese religions are the religions originated in China, i.e. Taoism and Confucianism. In the past like today people in China were polytheistic and believed in afterlife. Taoism started as a philosophy based on the Lao Tze philosophical writings -Tao Te Ching-. Combine with local beliefs it evolved into religion and Chinese medicine. On the other hand Confucianism originated in the writings of a bureaucrat called Confucius. He wrote extensively about the ideal form of government and society. Like Lao Tze, he did not intend to create a religion. The incorporation of his beliefs into laws and customs combined with local beliefs evolved into religion. Although both religions are currently polytheistic, the original Taoism is still considered pantheistic and orthodox Confucianism remains agnostic. Neither religion deals with the idea of life after death.

Hence the original Taoism is the no polytheistic but the pantheistic one. The basis of Taoism is the idea of Tao (also known as the Way), which is difficult to explain. A near explanation would that Tao is the cosmic or universal order. However Taoists mention how difficult is to try to describe the Tao and just try to experience it. Another important concept is the idea of Ying and Yang as the only forces shaping the universe. In the universe there are always neutral or mixed forces or energy along with pure positive and negative forces or energy (i.e., Ying and Yang). Furthermore it is important to emphasize the idea of universal change since no matter, force or energy -be it positive, negative or mixed- remains like that forever. The only permanent thing in the universe is change. Also the idea of passivity and acceptance of the Tao is not exclusive to Taoism. It happens in all religions, i.e. passivity and acceptance of god’s wishes or people’s destiny. However the main difference with Taoism is that acceptance of the will of the universe is not a moral concept, but a natural and more philosophical concept. This makes it very different from other religions, like the ones with human-created laws of morality (supposedly given to the “prophets” by God) implying that therefore these are god’s wishes or people’s destiny.

The Tao or Way is attained through the belief and practice of the fundamentals of Taoism. The last goal is self-realization and happiness. It is simply to be in harmony with the universe or cosmic order and to improve our energy (Chi). The Way looks for the joy of life and “active inaction”. This means to take control of your life through accepting things just as they are and trying to do the best out of them. The idea is that if things must be changed, they will be eventually, but first we must accept them as they are. The so called Abrahamic religions are Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the three only major monotheistic religions. They all believe in the existence of a personal human-like God. The name comes from Abraham, the first known monotheistic religious leader and considered the founder of Judaism, from which Christianity and Islam originated. Before him the Jews were polytheistic, like everybody else in that time. Abrahamics believe in the idea of life after death, but not in rebirth or karma.

In Christianity the goal is the search for salvation. Salvation is attained through the practice of the Gospel. This is essentially to imitate Jesus life and behavior as describe in the Gospel. This includes the practice of compassion, unselfishness, humbleness and especially an unconditional love for God, also known as the Lord or the Father. The final goal is self-realization and happiness. Christians believe that the only god judges all sins and has the right to absolve them. They also believe that the only God is the creator of the universe and the father of Jesus. Hence Jesus is not just another prophet but Gods own son. In addition God is the only that can forgive sins and judge people, especially on weather they will go to heaven or hell after death. Judaism and Islam are similar to Christianity in many aspects and beliefs but strongly disagree with it in the rejection to the idea of Jesus as Gods son, as according to them God cannot have any sons or children whatsoever. In addition both the Torah and the Koran include rules and norms for almost anything in life while the Gospel does not and leaves more gaps open to self discretion. This is due to Jesus disdain for everything “earthly” and a major emphasis on the “heavenly”. As a result Christianity has evolved as a more tolerant religion that the other two.

Finally we must consider the beliefs of the atheists. They claim the nonexistence of God. Their argument is that if you blink to the idea of the nonexistence of God, then look at the way humanity has approached the idea of God throughout the times. The concept and characteristics of God in primitive times is not the same as the later Jewish God, and even the Jewish God characteristics differ from the later Christian God, which also differs from the Muslim God. According to atheists every man or religion creates its own God (or gods). Hence people decide what kind of God they want and then the concept of him will change as people change and evolve. Atheists believe that the idea of God we have today is different than the idea of God we have say one thousand years ago, and will be different one thousand years from now. Furthermore in closer analysis every person has her own concept of God. Every person’s concept of God is not only different but usually reflects individual characteristics and personal ideas that keep changing throughout the person’s life. Hence this is strong evidence, atheists say, that somehow we all create our own God (or gods). In other words our idea of God is only the reflection of in what level of psychological and sociological evolution we stand–which are changing. So they claim why should anybody accept the characteristics of God that someone else has created? Who was Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed or anybody to decide how God was? It was their God. But for example Buddha never mentioned God explicitly, only Nirvana. Here atheists attack again by questioning who is to say that Nirvana is the only way to self-improvement? In the same order of ideas atheists question other beliefs. For example Hindus say we are condemned to reincarnation. But who is to say that we are condemned to reincarnation? Their final conclusion is that men has created and create religions and after all since they were just men, all religions are faulty. They claim that the idea that man created God and not the other way around is proved by the many different and always changing psychological and sociological definitions of God. That is why our God changes and evolves as our personality evolves and as society evolution affects our own conceptions and personal evolution. However the more open minded atheists acknowledge that all main religions show a way to self development and self improvement, but it is important to find the path to happiness and self realization that really fits our interests and goals in life. It can be in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist or any other path, but we must be happy and fully satisfied with it, otherwise there is no purpose in having such religion unless we just want to be victims of absurd fanaticism and superstition.

Another idea of the atheists is the concept of survival instinct sublimation (SIS). SIS is based on the concept of the need of humans to believe that there is life after death, even though there is no scientific proof of that. They claim this is supposed to happen because human beings as rational creatures have sublimated the survival instinct that is actually present in all irrational creatures. Since we normally are not exposed to life threatening problems as animals do, forcing them to develop certain physical evolutionary mechanisms for survival, we have canalized this instinct into a desire for living permanently. Hence the idea of life after death or “eternal life”, and also the equivalent idea of reincarnation or “rebirth”.
Finally, although not the goal of this essay is to explain the difference between philosophy and religion. Philosophyis simply a framework of ideas - too often an intellectual exercise that contains no motivation to cause the observer to act. This is not to detract from the fine efforts of my favorite philosophers. I personally enjoy serious philosophy (Wittgenstein, Russell and others). But there is a clear distinction between the philosophical endeavor and religion. Religion is the transformation of philosophy into behavior. It is the adherence to a framework of ideas so strongly that we cannot look upon the world without consideration of them.

Cesar Ramos, ph.D in Economics

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