11 July, 2001
Author: George Irbe
Back to George's Views
I have been busy during the last decade in pursuit of the evidence provided by the natural sciences, in tandem with what can be derived by rational reasoning, of what I prefer to call the natural Creator-God who is responsible for all creation; he is also known as the God of the philosophers. In declaring my belief in the natural Creator-God I have also had to declare my conviction that the conception of god of every religion that ever has been practiced or is being practiced now by men is absolutely wrong. I have also declared that believing in the Creator-God and his Laws is the natural genuine faith which requires no religion at all to sustain it.
But it is well known that from his primitive beginnings onward to this day man has been beset by a psychological quirk that has always driven him to invent some kind of god or gods and practice some kind of religious ceremonies and rites of worship of these phantom gods of his imagination. In my mind it is the greatest puzzle why man has had such wide-spread addiction for this psychological aberration called religion, and at the same time I am equally mystified by the fact that man has not paid any serious attention to this obsession with the intention of at least controlling it, if not eradicating it, like he does with other defects and diseases that afflict him. Religion certainly fits in the category of man’s debilitating afflictions; it has not only made him postulate every imaginable wrong god-idea, it has also been utterly harmful to man’s own development by making him commit the most awful acts against fellow men and the natural world in the name of some contrived god or gods. This puzzlement of mine is reflected in the title to this essay.
One of the main premises of my faith is that God – the Supreme Intelligence – has given us, Homo sapiens, a very powerful intelligence that far exceeds the intelligence of any other living being here on Earth; he has also given us the freedom to use this intelligence as we see fit. I further believe that God has done this so that we humans would have the ability to observe, understand, and voluntarily comply with, the Laws – both the physical and the moral – by and through which he manages the functioning of all aspects of his creation. Often the thought enters my head that perhaps Homo sapiens is an experiment in progress. In The dark side of human nature, I remarked that with regard to the challenge of living in accordance with his Laws, it is as if the Supreme Intelligence is saying: "You are largely on your own. It is very hard to do, but try your utmost to get it right." If I am wrong in my conjecture about this, then I have to ask this question: Why, then, has Homo sapiens been given this very powerful intelligence and the free will to use it if there was no real purpose behind doing so?
It is very discouraging to consider the possibility that man’s weakness for religion is a psychological flaw which he will never be able to shake off. If that is the case, Homo sapiens would appear to be the object of a failing experiment by the Creator-God. If the psychological flaw which always leads man to succumb to religion is incurable, it will forever prevent man from achieving a genuine understanding of the Creator-God, or of his Laws, or of how to live in compliance with the Laws. The purpose for which God has granted both intelligence and free will to Homo sapiens would never be satisfied.
I have expressed my despair at the lack of any indication of meaningful progress by mankind in shedding the religious impediment in the essay God, His Laws, and Mankind. I can placate my despair at this gloomy prospect somewhat by reasoning that it is possible that I might be too impatient in my expectations. According to the most widely accepted estimate in the scientific community, Homo sapiens has only been around for some 40,000 years. We know that on the geological time scale, and on the time scale of the cosmos itself, this span of time is a mere twinkling. Looking at it from this perspective, I can speculate that perhaps the intellectual maturation of the soul of Homo sapiens needs considerably more time and that this process has been barely started during the first 40,000 years.
Whichever is the case – a failing experiment or one that has just begun – I recognize religion as a major, stubbornly persisting, impediment that blocks man’s access to a genuine understanding of God and his Laws. Evidently, it has beset man’s mind since his primitive beginnings. I am quite confident that there has never been, nor could there ever be, evidence to indicate that “religion” has ever had any practical or intellectual utility that would serve to further man’s understanding of the Creator or his creation, even though it has been practiced in myriad different forms and manners through the ages.
My opinion on the great harm that religion has done to man’s intellect is stated in Finding God in three stages:
"My life’s experiences, observations of mankind’s behavior during my lifetime, plus the historical record of mankind’s behavior back through the ages, convinced me beyond any doubt that, with few exceptions, mankind in general has a very poor and erroneous understanding of God and an even poorer, or non-existent, understanding of God’s expectations of mankind. The three monotheistic religions which still dominate mankind’s thinking and attitudes give the wrong answers. Just because they claim as "truths" the tales of hallucinatory experiences millennia ago, does not make them so. But by insisting on these "truths" (of so-called Divine revelation, no less) they have been the primary instruments of mankind’s abysmal performance in every respect, because they have imposed their own primitive superstitions and fantasies on man’s intellect, thus stifling development of a true understanding of God and his expectations from us. In one word, the three main religions, with a common root going back to Abraham, have been disastrous for mankind.”
As indicated by the title, this essay is an attempt to look into the characteristics, history and debilitating effects of religion. I confess that my inquiry will be negatively biased and quite deserving of the criticism that the anthropologist Morton Klass states on page 9 of his book Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion, Westview Press, 1995. Klass says that very often investigators into the origins of religion are really searching for evidence that would confirm their judgmental question, which is:
When early humans, emerging from the primeval slime, became aware of the universe around them and began to consider it, why did they have to come up with such absolutely silly conclusions, ones without basis in reality and studded with outlandish nonexistent beings?
I also subscribe to asking of that question. Ironically, the above statement by Klass is, in my opinion, the most meaningful item in his book, even though I have taken its purport in a diametrically opposite sense to the uncomplimentary one which he intended to convey.
As I stated before, men have not shown much interest to pursue and perhaps to answer the question: Why, indeed, did they have to come up with such absolutely silly and irrational conclusions? Man has sought for causes and explanations for many other flaws in his psychological make-up that exhibit symptoms of paranoia and hallucinations. Yet, although religious belief is characterized by the presence of these very same symptoms, man has never regarded it as a psychological weakness to drown his reason and mental functions in the depths of religious fantasies. Instead, it has been accepted as a normal and even a healthy component of his psychological make-up.
WHAT IS RELIGION UNDERSTOOD TO BE?
If one consults the various dictionaries one finds religion defined in several different ways, but all concern belief in some entity or entities who are endowed with some kind of supernatural powers and who demand respect and obedience from man in return for their cooperation and help. One of the broadest definitions of religion is given by Webster’s (1913) online dictionary:
Religion - the outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due; the feeling or expression of human love, fear, or awe of some superhuman and overruling power, whether by profession of belief, by observance of rites and ceremonies, or by the conduct of life; a system of faith and worship; a manifestation of piety; as, ethical religions; monotheistic religions; natural religion; revealed religion; the religion of the Jews; the religion of idol worshipers.
Religion can be considered in a commonsensical way or in the complicated and contorted way of the anthropologists. The anthropologists’ inquiry into religion, or any aspect of culture in general, is made tortuous and timorous (and in many respects laughably ridiculous) by their fear of a mythical beast of their own creation called “ethnocentric predicament,” which virtually paralyses their ability to draw any conclusions about anything that is not of their own immediate cultural environment. Therefore, I will not waste time with what the anthropologists have to say about religion, except to refer one more time, for a typical anthropologist’s definition of religion, to the above-mentioned book by Morton Klass, where it is stated on page 38:
Religion in a given society will be that instituted process of interaction among the members of that society – and between them and the universe at large as they conceive it to be constituted – which provides them with meaning, coherence, direction, unity, easement, and whatever degree of control over events they perceive as possible.
This definition may say something substantial about religion to another anthropologist, but it surely is without solid content for an ordinary commonsense individual like me. The same is true of Klass’ book in general; it offers to me very little comprehensible information about religion.
But, I was lucky to come across a book that was first published in 1895, written by Allan Menzies, D.D., Professor of Biblical Criticism in the University of St. Andrews. The title of the book is History of Religion; I have the fourth edition, reprinted by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1922. This book describes and discusses religion in a straightforward and solid manner. I am drawing copiously on Menzies’ work in this essay. I have emphasized in bold type some important portions in the passages I have quoted from History of Religion.
Menzies gives “a working definition of religion” [p. 9] very simply as “the worship of higher powers.” Although this definition is a terse one, it implies quite a lot. In Menzies’ words:
In the first place it involves an element of belief. No one will worship higher powers unless he believes that such powers exist. This is the intellectual factor. Not that the intellectual is distinguished in early forms of religion from the other factors, any more than grammar is distinguished by early man as an element of language. But something intellectual, some creed, is present implicitly even in the earliest worships. Should there be no belief in higher powers, true worship cannot continue. If it be continued in outward act, it has lost reality to the mind of the worshipper, and the result is an apparent or sham religion, a worship devoid of one of the essential conditions of religion. This is true at every stage. [p. 9]
But in the second place, these powers which are worshipped are "higher". Religion has respect . . . to beings men regard as . . . in some way above and beyond themselves, and whom they are disposed to approach with reverence. . . . And in the third place these higher powers are worshipped. That is to say, religion is not only belief in the higher powers but it is a cultivating of relations with them, it is a practical activity continuously directed to these beings. It is not only a thinking but also a doing; this also is essential to it .[p. 9-10]
Of course, the above definition avoids saying anything about the substance of the higher powers, because it is impossible to claim that they are anything more than phantasms of man’s imagination. And if the higher powers are imaginary, then the “cultivating of relations with them” as “a practical activity” seems like nothing else but an auto-suggestive surreal process of make-believe. Further on, Menzies completes his definition by adding to it the words “sense of need”:
Let us add what seems to be wanting; and say that religion is the worship of higher powers from a sense of need . ... Belief in gods and acts of worship paid to them do not constitute religion unless the sentiment, the sense of need, be also there. These three together, feeling, belief, and will expressing itself in action, constitute religion both in the lowest and in the highest levels of civilization. [p. 13]
A belief must exist . . . that the being worshipped is capable of supplying what the worshipper requires. Men do not pray nor bring offerings to beings they suppose to be incapable of attending to them, or powerless to do them any good or evil. It is implied in every act of worship that the being addressed is a power who is able to do for the worshipper what he cannot do for himself. It is his inability to help himself or to supply his own needs that sends the worshipper to his god, who has a power he himself has not. If he could help himself he would not need religion, if his life were either perfectly prosperous and even, so that there was nothing left to wish for, or perfectly miserable and unsuccessful, so that there was no room for hope, he would not resort to higher powers; but neither of these two being the case, his life on the contrary being a mixed lot of good and evil, in which there are blessings his own forces cannot secure, and dangers from which no efforts of his own can save him, and the belief having arisen within him, in what way we need not now inquire, that higher powers exist who can, if they will, defend and prosper him, in this way he has religion, he keeps up intercourse with higher powers. [p. 13-14]
However, expanding the definition of religion with the addition of the “sense-of-need” clause does not do for it what Menzies thought it does. According to Aristotle (and Mortimer Adler), “need” itself must be qualified with the adjective “apparent/imagined” or “real/natural.” Adler designates apparent needs as “wants”. Now, a man might have a universally recognized natural need for an essential of life, but it is disputable whether religion (i.e., appeal to a higher power) ever has or ever could fill that need. As a rule, essential needs are met through the efforts of man himself. If “sense-of-need” is taken in the narrower meaning of being only a sense of need to worship a higher power, then the need is again only an imagined one, because there are entire societies – the Confucian and Buddhist, for example – who show no signs of psychological deprivation of any kind by not worshipping a higher power. Therefore, I am going to modify Menzies’ definition of religion once more by adding the word “imagined”, so that it reads: religion is the worship of higher powers from a sense of imagined need.
This definition immediately raises the next problematic question, which is: why does man have this particular imagined need for – depending again on the interpretation – either for (a) religion, per se, or (b) to appeal to “higher powers” to satisfy his apparent/imagined or real/natural needs? Menzies dodges the question in the passage from p. 14, when he says: “the belief having arisen within him, in what way we need not now inquire, that higher powers exist who can, if they will, defend and prosper him,” and similarly on p. 27: “We cannot go into the philosophical question of the basis of religion in the human mind. It would seem to be a psychological necessity.” To which one can respond that the absence of religion defined as “worship of higher powers” from the Confucian and Buddhist societies disproves that it is a psychological necessity.
I have highlighted a revealing statement by Menzies in the passage from p. 13, i.e., if man could help himself he would not need religion. It is generally recognized as a fact that man prospers only by helping himself. There is no evidence (but of course, there are many myths) that mankind has ever experienced great blessings or perished in great disasters that have had other than natural causes. Of course, these causes are all instruments of the Creator’s Laws, but they certainly are not of supernatural origin as claimed by the religious. We know that great natural blessings can come indiscriminately to those who pray as well as to those who do not; and we know that of those who pray for deliverance in a natural disaster, just as many are liable to perish as survive, and that the outcome for any particular individual is determined by their own tenacity and endurance and the random specific circumstances of their predicament.
Let us consider the following: Is it not true that most of the time a man can and will help himself, and in the few instances when all the odds are against him he will still never stop trying to help himself? And is it not true that this is so whether the man worships a higher power or does not? Perhaps, then, the imagined need to worship a higher power has a less than a lofty reason. Is the reason perhaps man’s characteristic indolent nature itself? It is very natural to all the more developed animal species, and especially so to Homo sapiens, to avoid exertion, particularly the exhausting physical kind, as much as possible. At its worst, this avoidance of labor has produced slavery, and in its milder form it leads to procrastination and to wishing that a real or imagined need will somehow be provided for without the exertion that it would take for a man to provide it by himself. So, a man will pray to God or several gods to provide for his needs. What man is actually praying for is that the higher powers will change the conditions and circumstances in which man finds himself so as to diminish the toil and sweat that man must expend to eke out his existence.
However, there is still more to be drawn from the definition of religion as the worship of higher powers from a sense of imagined need. In The Dark Side of Human Nature I have described the more unpleasant innate characteristics of man. Man is capable of construing false justifications for bad desires and actions by seemingly rational reasoning; that is how he justifies his envy, greed, and lust for power. Man often does his best to disguise these unsavory desires as genuine needs. In actual fact they are only apparent (to him) needs, more specifically they are his “wants.” It is clear that we can now draw another conclusion from the definition of religion given above. Man can appeal to higher powers for assistance in fulfilling his imagined needs, which in actual fact are often his selfish wants. Religion can now be seen as a tool for auto-suggestive self-justification that man uses for various purposes, some good, some quite bad and some at times actually very evil. In the next passage Menzies explains the development of what he calls the “psychological necessity” for religion. He provides the motivational elements which certainly also include man’s imagined needs and wants:
We cannot go into the philosophical question of the basis of religion in the human mind. It would seem to be a psychological necessity. At all stages of his existence the world of which man is aware outside him, and the world of feelings and desires within him are in conflict. But the conviction lives within him that in some way they can be brought into harmony, and that a power exists which rules in both of these discordant realms and in which, if he can identify himself with it, he also will escape from their discord. If this be so, then the necessity to seek after a higher power must have begun to operate as soon as human consciousness appeared. [Primitive man] certainly was never unacquainted with the discrepancy between what he wanted and what the world would give him, between the inner man so full of desires and plans, and that outward nature which denied him his desires and thwarted his plans, and before which he felt so feeble and insecure. He also could not but be driven, if his life was to go on at all on any tolerable basis, to believe in something that had to do both with the world outside him and with the world of his heart, in a being which both had sympathy with his desires and power to give effect to them outwardly.
The whole of the early world did entertain such a belief. This is the first and the most important instance of uniformity of thought at a stage through which every nation once passed; all men at that stage believe in gods. [p. 27]
In the above Menzies concedes that primitive man had desires for things beyond what he could ordinarily attain and in frustration often called upon “a being which had sympathy with his desires” for help in attaining them. These desires were, by and large, selfish wants. In light of the above, I think that I can now expand the definition of religion one more time and state that religion is the worship of imagined higher powers from a sense of imagined need or want, good or bad. I must repeat again that this kind of religion has nothing at all to do with recognition and acknowledgement of the one Creator-God.
EXPLOITING THE IDEA OF RELIGION
I have concluded above that man uses religion on a personal level as a tool for self-justification and for expressing his needs and wants. A man, a group of men, and entire societies, can appeal to the imagined higher power or powers for approval and help for any one of numerous reasons that basically fall into four categories: (a) when they wish to do something, (b) when they wish not to do something, (c) when they wish something would happen, and (d) when they wish something would not happen.
It is quite remarkable, but not that surprising in view of man’s powerful intelligence, that very early in his existence Homo sapiens developed this psychological tool for self-justification which had practically unlimited applications. What is even more remarkable is that early on men figured out that one can turn this tool back on its user, so to speak, and by doing so bring the other man under one’s psychological control. Menzies discusses at length both the psychological development of religion and the development of the various applications of it; I am including here some significant passages from Menzies’ work. In the first one he describes the intellectual limitations of primitive man and how these limitations caused man to invent fantastic (and often childish) explanations for things and events in the natural world, including (I suppose) the existence of “higher powers.” Menzies, too, appears to be among the judgmental people identified by Morton Klass (see above), because Menzies is actually trying to provide an explanation to the query: “Why did they have to come up with such absolutely silly conclusions, ones without basis in reality and studded with outlandish nonexistent beings?” Menzies writes:
Evidently we cannot make any progress with our subject till we have taken a general view of this religion of [primitive men] and come to some conclusions regarding it. . . . We cannot hope to understand the thoughts of those people without knowing how they came to have such thoughts, how they were accustomed to think. Now of [primitive man] we may say that he is just like a child who has not yet learned to think correctly, or to know things truly. He is making all kinds of experiments in thought, and being led into all sorts of errors and confusion; and if the child takes years, [primitive man] may take millenniums, to get free from these. He does not know the difference between one thing and another, . . . He does not know how far things are away from him, nor what makes them move and act as they do; . . . He cannot tell why things have this or that peculiar appearance; . . . And he wants to know all these things, and is for ever asking questions. But almost any answer will do for him, the first explanation that turns up is accepted; and while a child finds out pretty soon if he has been told wrong, [primitive man] is so ignorant that he cannot see the absurdest explanation to be false, but sticks to it seriously and goes on using it. There is no consistency in the contents of his mind, and inconsistency does not distress him. He has no classes and orders of things, but considers each thing by itself as it occurs, without putting it in place with reference to other things. He has no idea of what is possible and what is impossible; these words in fact would have no meaning for him, since he is not aware of any laws by which events are governed. His imagination, accordingly, is not under any restraint; he hits upon all kinds of grotesque theories, and, having no critical faculty to test them, he repeats them and seriously believes them. The stories of the nursery, in which there are no impossibilities, in which a man may visit the sun and the winds in their homes and find them at their broth, in which the beasts can speak, in which the witch or the fairy knows at any distance what is going on and can turn up just at the nick of time, in which ghosts walk, in which anything can be changed into anything, a hero going through a half dozen transformations to escape from so many dangers, - these are to the [primitive man] not incredible nor foolish tales, to him they are very real, and very serious matters. He lives, in fact, we are told by the authorities on the subject, in the myth-making period of the world; in the period when such incidents as occur in the tales of fairyland and in the stories of mythology are matter of common belief, and even, it is thought, of common experience, so that when the story is put in a good form, it lives and is believed as a true record of what has actually taken place. [p. 23]
In the above passage Menzies provides a very reasonable explanation for the intellectual shortcomings of primitive man. As I said at the beginning, perhaps I have greatly underestimated the time that Homo sapiens would need in order for his intellectual development to reach a stage where a run-of-the-mill human with average intelligence would, first of all, understand the Creator, his Laws, and man’s place in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and second, based on this understanding, recognize the irrationality, uselessness, and actual harm of religion. I concede that I might have been too hasty by saying in God, His Laws, and Mankind: “It is understandable and excusable that man was ignorant of the Laws at the dawn of his intelligence. But today, no longer can man's non-compliance with the Laws be excused by a lack of his understanding of them, as it could be at the beginning of man's ascendance. Today, there is not one primitive, ignorant society of humankind left that cannot be reached and taught by our most knowledgeable and enlightened members. Where the various societies of men spurn such knowledge and enlightenment – and all do, to varying degrees - men stand and act in cognizant defiance of the Laws.” In the same essay I also write: “Maybe it is time mankind stops regarding itself as something very special. It is not. It is also time for man to shed all religious dogmas that preach a concoction of self-serving notions of exclusivity and privileged status in God’s creation for the ‘believers’, and promote hate-breeding attitudes toward those who are not. It is time for mankind to acknowledge the Creator and his Laws simply and honestly, in thoughts and by deeds, each person within one’s own soul, not in temples and shrines. It is time to smarten up, time for teachers to teach and the ignorant to open their minds and learn.”
Perhaps mankind needs more time to reach this level of intellectual development, but I still cannot put away the suspicion that much of the present ignorance might be willful, because it appears to me that religion is an instrument which also serves man to justify his base desires and vices. And that leads to a consideration of a much baser reason for the origins and persistence of religion in man’s psychological make-up, that being the lust for power in the form of domination and exploitation of the naïve and ignorant many by the knowledgeable clever few, i.e., the elite ruling class that is organic to every organized society.
There is good reason for raising suspicions that through the ages it has been rather in the interests of certain elites of society to deliberately maintain, perpetuate and embellish the practice of religion while suppressing and excluding development of understanding and knowledge of the genuine Creator-God in the mass of common people. Among primitive people religion was used in a rather blunt manner to instill fear and obedience in the simple minds of ordinary people. In modern times the same objectives are achieved by more subtle application of religious threats. In complete contrast to that, belief in a Supreme Being, the Creator-God, and understanding of how the natural world functions according to his Laws is attained through common-sense philosophical reasoning and scientific inquiry. This belief and the knowledge that goes along with it can be instilled into the people through common-sense rational education. This belief in a Creator-God is not a religion; it requires no temples, rituals or priests or sacred symbols and objects. It is therefore of no use as an instrument of power that could be applied by a select few to intimidate the masses and compel their obedience.
The conception of one Supreme Being as the creator of everything in the universe is the most natural one that a man could arrive at and therefore we can surmise that the concept has always been alive in the minds of at least a few men all through the millennia. Quite a number of historians and anthropologists who have investigated the history of religion from its primitive beginnings believe that there are sufficient indications that initially men believed in a Supreme Being who had created the universe as well as themselves. Curiously enough, this monotheistic faith, which could have naturally matured through the millennia into a rational knowledge-based understanding of the Creator-God, withered away and was replaced by various forms of religion worshipping imaginary spirits and gods beyond counting; every family and tribe had its own gods; there were fetishes, sacred objects and sacred places. In many cases there was also propitiation of the gods through sacrifice, even gruesome human sacrifice. It was the antithesis of a positive belief in a Creator-God; it was the triumph of willfully conceived phantasms and scary superstitions over rational thought and knowledge.
Menzies writes [p. 47-8] that he is convinced that all religion came from the worship of nature and that “the motives which first caused man to worship the heavenly powers surely arose from other needs than that for food alone. The intellectual craving, the desire to know the nature of the world he lived in, and to refer himself to the highest principle of it, as far as that could be attained; the aesthetic need, the desire to have to do with objects which filled his imagination; the moral need, the desire to not to occupy a purely isolated position, but to place himself under some authority, and to feel some obligation, these also, though in the dimmest way, as matters of presentiment rather than clear consciousness, entered into the earliest worship of the heavenly powers.” To this statement I would like to add that these same motives, this intellectual craving, encourages men to practice rational thought, and rational thought leads to monotheistic beliefs and eventually to a knowledge-based understanding of God.
In connection with the Egyptian religion, Menzies writes:
There are some texts which seem to point to ... the conclusion that Egyptian religion started from the belief in one supreme deity. ... M. de la Rouge maintains that Egyptian religion, monotheistic at first, with a noble belief in the unity of the Supreme God and in His attributes as the Creator and Law-giver of man, fell away from that position and grew more and more polytheistic. "It is more than 5000 years since in the valley of the Nile the hymn began to the unity of God and the immortality of the soul, and we find Egypt arrived in the last ages at the most unbridled polytheism.” [p. 145]
It is not impossible for the human mind, starting from the works of God, to rise by its own efforts to the belief in His invisible power and Godhead. … Monotheism is thus approached in thought, but only in a prophetic and anticipatory way; the circumstances of the country forbade its realization as a general belief or as a working system. [p. 146]
No one will dispute the fact that in ancient times religion was used, first and foremost, by the patriarch of the family group to exert control over the family members and to have his will obeyed in the name of a god or spirit. With time, this religion-based physical control and political control extended to larger social entities like tribes and eventually nations and empires.
It is well known that in many primitive societies control of quite large populations by a small elite was exercised by what can only be termed as religious terror. I call these particular societies “sinister primitive”. They have existed in many parts of the world, but are known to have achieved particularly notable levels of infamy in Central- and South America during the first half of the second millennium up to the time of arrival of the Spaniards. Huge temples were built there to honor exceptionally nasty gods who had insatiable appetites for human sacrifice, especially of youthful men and women in their prime; these temples were nothing other than human slaughterhouses. The mass murders (for that is what they were) were carried out by tyrannical priests. One can imagine the peasant class of people living in a constant state of terror under their malevolent gaze.
At a more advanced level, religion has often served as the glue for a kind of national socialism. Menzies makes numerous mentions of this fact, e.g.:
… the small [primitive] communities have their small local worships – each clan, almost each kraal, has its shrine, its god, and limits itself to its own sacred things. Religion is a bond connecting together the members of small groups of men, but separating them from the members of other groups. [p. 57]
Religion is thus both strictly tribal and strictly local. It is for his brethren of the tribe, for those in whose veins the blood of the same divine ancestor runs, that a man’s enthusiasm is kindled in acts of worship; it is his duty to his clan that he realizes, the prosperity of his clan that he desires. [p. 61]
… religion was in [ancient] times the most important branch of the public service. Every uncommon occurrence had to be laid before the god, and no important step could be taken without consulting him; and it was a principal duty of the head of the state to keep the god on good terms with the tribe, and to apply to him for all the aid and protection the tribe required of him. … Individual cares and needs may form the subject of prayers and vows, but religion on the whole has to do with the tribe, not with the individual, or with the individual only as a member of the tribe. [p. 76]
The god being the parent of the tribe, its customs had his sanction, he had no higher interest than its welfare, he was identified with all its enterprises, its battles were his battles also. The worship of the god therefore made strongly for loyalty to the tribe, and for the observance of its customs; it caused a man to forget his own interest where that of the tribe was concerned, and unhesitatingly to sacrifice himself for the public cause. [p. 77]
The permanent union of the tribes under the monarchy soon showed Israel to be possessed of much greater force than could have been imagined, and within a century the people of Jehovah formed a considerable power, which was heard of in all ends of the earth. Instead of a set of scattered tribes they were now a homogeneous people, conscious of a great past and looking forward to a still greater future. As they passed rapidly from barbarism to civilization, Jehovah shared their rise. His energy had always been unabated, but he now put on in addition all the settled attributes of kingly power - he was a great god, and a great king, a just judge, a liberal friend - all his doings were wonderful. He had chosen Israel for his people, and by a series of mighty acts had guided and preserved them, and made them great. His people stood in a peculiar position in the world; with such a god they must rise higher still, there could be no limit to what he could do for them. [p. 186]
However, the control of social behavior through religious dogma and taboos has not been universal. It never got established among the Sinic peoples. But here, too, the real purpose of religion as a control of society is proven by its absence, because the Sinic peoples developed a very strong culture of obedience to, and veneration of, ones elders and superiors. The veneration was imparted with a quasi-religious nature by extending it to one’s departed ancestors. This kind of obedience and veneration performs the same function of social control as religion, which we have defined as “worship of higher powers.”
In the quotes that follow, Menzies describes the Chinese as a pragmatic, industrious and practical people, but ones who are also devoid of imagination and are indisposed to philosophy. These characteristics ensured that the Chinese would not entertain nonsensical ideas about worshipping higher powers. Unfortunately, they also stifled the philosophical process that leads to the recognition and understanding of the Creator-God. Most students of the history of the Sinic peoples agree that in antiquity they too believed in the Creator-God; the notion of a Supreme Being is echoed still in the Chinese concepts of “Heaven” and “Supreme Ruler”, used interchangeably and rather indiscriminately by the time of Confucius. Obviously, the pragmatic Chinese had no interest to pursue the “Supreme Ruler” idea any further, seeing that society functioned quite well through a hierarchical structure, which commanded veneration and obedience of one’s elders and ones betters. In Menzies words:
The Chinese have always been a world in themselves, remote from other races of men; ... Their civilization ... has exercised no influence on the world outside of China, nor has it advanced to the higher achievements of the human mind. ... their mental habits prevent them from a free interchange of ideas with foreigners. The Mongolian race, indeed, from which, like the Hungarians and the Finns, they are descended, is so different from other races ... Phlegmatic and matter-of-fact by nature, exact and careful in practical matters, and to a high degree imitative and industrious, the Chinese are singularly devoid of imagination and indisposed to philosophy. Their monosyllabic and uninflected language, belonging to one of the earliest strata of human speech, and ill-fitted to express abstract or poetical ideas, is an index to their whole nature. [p. 106]
Like the Chinese language, the state religion belongs to a very early formation, and presents the symptoms of a development which was rapid at first but was early arrested. [p. 107]
China has no Bible, no book guarded by the ministers of religion as the basis of the system they conduct; the religious teachers of China, if there are any, are the literati, the books they preserve and study are the Classics. ... No people was ever more completely under the influence of a book, or set of books, than the Chinese. [p. 108]
The Chinese religion ... is a religion in which, just as in the primitive stage, outward acts are everything, the doctrine nothing, and which is not regulated by an organized code but by custom and precedent. [p. 111]
The Supreme Power directs all things, and is an ever-present governor both in the natural and the moral sphere. These two spheres indeed are not regarded as distinct. Nature reveals in all its changes the mind of its ruler, and human conduct is regarded as an outward thing, a phenomenon on the same plane with the movements of nature; the two are supposed to be part of one system and to act directly on each other. [p. 113]
Heaven makes its will known in a natural way. It is one of the most peculiar features of Chinese religion that it knows no revelation, no miracles, no divine interferences. [p. 114]
The last quote above actually proves that the Chinese have no religion because the essential components of religion are not there.
The other historical testimonial to the fact that not only can man live without religion but perhaps even live better without it, is a shining one indeed. It is that of Greece in the five centuries preceding the Common Era. I will have more to say about the achievements of the Greeks further on. Here I wish to give the Greek experience with religion, mostly quoting from Menzies, as the only historical example of where religion was discarded not because a substitute means of social control was established, as in China, but because it had no application at all, except perhaps as a form of artistic expression of mythological lore, in a society which was taking giant steps towards rational thought, individual freedom and democratic self-government.
Menzies writes [p. 275] that “the Greeks had an unrivalled talent for doing what they saw others do, in a much better way, and so making it their own. They had an inborn disposition to what is reasonable.” The Greeks never took their religion as seriously as other peoples and the early Greek religion had a most disorganized and disintegrated character. According to Menzies [p. 279], “Every town, every family has its own religion. There is no central authority. ... the same god is represented in different places in entirely different ways.” As a result, the Greeks were able to gradually discard the shackles of religion.
Continuing with Menzies:
As the Greeks never succeeded in forming a central political system, so they never attained to unity in worship. ... The Greeks were less than any other people under the sway of religious authority. ... A religion ... among a people of lively imagination and specially gifted in the direction of art, must necessarily receive its forms rather from the artist than the priest. … Long before Homer they had been making their gods such as free men, and men endowed with a sense of beauty, could worship. They were not content to worship lifeless objects, but must have living beings. They were not content to worship beings without reason, they must worship reasonable beings. [p. 280]
The thorough humanization of the gods, the clothing of the gods in the highest types connected with free human society, is the first great contribution made by this gifted race to the progress of religion. [p. 281]
Taking them together, we do not find the Olympians an impressive set of beings. [p. 286]
Each man has a fate or destiny, which the gods did not fix and with which they cannot interfere. ... What the mind of the Greek has done up to this stage is to discover that nature is not above him; the powers of nature are human to him; they are divine not because they are essentially different from himself, but because they are matchless ideals of his own qualities. It is a religion of free men. [p. 289]
Civilization advances in the sixth century B.C. with immense rapidity [p. 296]
... the individual learns to value himself more highly and to assert himself more strongly. ... the religious movements of a people [were] thus passing into the self-conscious stage, and unfolding with unparalleled freshness and power all the various activities of the human mind. ... we notice the rise of rationalism ... Reason asserts its right to judge of tradition; ... As reason knows not gods but only God ... The poets of the fifth century reflect the conviction which all the higher minds of their country were now coming to hold, that the world is under the rule of one god. [p. 297]
... to the educated Greeks of the fifth century the old religion had in its essence passed away. [p. 298]
The last two quotes are very significant; they state that men of reason can recognize the existence of only one God, and that religion has no utility for the person who is educated to think rationally.
It has been shown, then, that religion has always been used as a tool to gain and maintain power and dominance by, first, a patriarch of a clan, a chief of a tribe, and subsequently, in larger societal organizations, by a clever elite (who do not, as a rule, themselves believe in the myths of the religious dogma they impose on the population at large). That this is so is proven best in the negative, i.e., by the absence of religion, as in China and classical Greece: in China because other means were instituted for social control, in Greece because there was no need for religious control in a rationally thinking free society.
RELIGION: THE BREEDER OF DISCORD AND STRIFE
If religion was only an innocuous foible there would hardly be reason to ask the question: Why religion? Unfortunately, as everyone knows (but not as all would concede), religion has been the chief cause of hate and warfare between people and nations throughout history. Therefore, one actually wants to scream the question “why religion” at the top of ones lungs.
We can pass over history and look directly at the present to see the damage that religion is inflicting on mankind’s future prospects for reaching accommodation between the different races and civilizations. Samuel P. Huntington gives perhaps the best assessment of the post-Cold War status of the world and likely future trends in terms of geopolitics and relations among the several civilizations of mankind in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1997. Huntigton looks at all the factors that create conflict between the different civilizations today; he recognizes religion as being the most important cause for discord and conflict. Conflicts between civilizations occur mainly along centuries-old “civilizational fault lines” which Huntington identifies in his book. That such fault lines prevail today as strongly as ever was illustrated by the reception of the Pope on his recent visit to Ukraine; in the Orthodox eastern part of Ukraine the populace was downright hostile to him, whereas in the western Catholic part the people greeted the Pope with unbounded joy. The following selected quotes from Huntington’s book make the point about the divisiveness of religion with good effect.
To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world's great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, and the Subcontinent. [p. 42]
The West ... has never generated a major religion. The great religions of the world are all products of non-Western civilizations and, in most cases, antedate Western civilization. ... The Westphalian separation of religion and international politics, an idiosyncratic product of Western civilization, is coming to an end, and religion ... is increasingly likely to intrude into international affairs. The intracivilizational clash of political ideas spawned by the West is being supplanted by an intercivilizational clash of culture and religion. [p. 54]
In the modern world, religion is central, perhaps the central, force that motivates and mobilizes people. ... The Cold War division of humanity is over. The more fundamental divisions of humanity in terms of ethnicity, religions, and civilizations remain and spawn new conflicts. [p. 66]
In the mid-1970s, ... the trend to secularization and toward the accommodation of religion with secularism went into reverse. ... fundamentalist movements arose committed to the militant purification of religious doctrines and institutions and the reshaping of personal, social, and public behavior in accordance with religious tenets. … The cultural resurgence in the secular Confucian culture takes the form of the affirmation of Asian values but in the rest of the world manifests itself in the affirmation of religious values. [p. 96]
Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and nonbelievers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group. [p. 97]
The breakdown of order and of civil society creates vacuums which are filled by religious, often fundamentalist, groups. [p. 98]
... people see communism as only the latest secular god to have failed, and in the absence of compelling new secular deities they turn with relief and passion to the real thing. Religion takes over from ideology, and religious nationalism replaces secular nationalism. The movements for religious revival are antisecular, antiuniversal, and, except in their Christian manifestations, anti-Western. They also are opposed to the relativism, egotism, and consumerism associated with what Bruce B. Lawrence has termed "modernism" as distinct from "modernity." [p. 100]
"More than anything else," William McNeill observes, "reaffirmation of Islam, whatever its specific sectarian form, means the repudiation of European and American influence upon local society, politics, and morals. In this sense, the revival of non-Western religions is the most powerful manifestation of anti-Westernism in non-Western societies. [p. 101]
... the crucial division in Europe [is] ... the ancient cultural fault line between East and West which places the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire as well as Poland and the Baltic states within the Europe of the West and the other East European and Balkan countries outside it. This was ... the great religious divide ... between the Eastern and Western churches: broadly speaking, between peoples who received their Christianity from Rome directly or through Celtic or German intermediaries, and those in the East and Southeast to whom it came through Constantinople (Byzantium). [p. 160]
Some Westerners, including President Bill Clinton, have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamic extremists. Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise. The relations between Islam and Christianity, both Orthodox and Western, have often been stormy. Each has been the other's Other. ... At times, peaceful coexistence has prevailed; more often the relation has been one of intense rivalry and of varying degrees of hot war. ... Across the centuries the fortunes of the two religions have risen and fallen in a sequence of momentous surges, pauses, and countersurges. [p. 209]
The violent nature of these shifting relationships is reflected in the fact that 50 percent of wars involving pairs of states of different religions between 1820 and 1929 were wars between Muslims and Christians. ... The causes of this ongoing pattern of conflict flow from the nature of the two religions and the civilizations based on them. ... Both are monotheistic religions ... which see the world in dualistic, us-and-them terms. Both are universalistic, claiming to be the one true faith to which all humans can adhere. Both are missionary religions believing that their adherents have an obligation to convert nonbelievers to that one true faith. ... Within both Muslim and Christian societies, tolerance for the other declined sharply in the 1980s and 1990s. [p. 210]
Fault line wars are off-again-on-again wars that can flame up into massive violence and then sputter down into low-intensity warfare or sullen hostility only to flame up once again. … Since religion ... is the principal defining characteristic of civilizations, fault line wars are almost always between peoples of different religions. [p. 253]
Millennia of human history have shown that religion is not a "small difference" but possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people. The frequency, intensity, and violence of fault line wars are greatly enhanced by beliefs in different gods. [p. 254]
The overwhelming majority of fault line conflicts ... have taken place along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims. While at the macro or global level of world politics the primary clash of civilizations is between the West and the rest, at the micro or local level it is between Islam and the others. [p. 255]
Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. [p. 256]
Muslims and Hindus on the Subcontinent, Russians and Caucasians in the North Caucasus, Armenians and Turks in the Transcaucasus, Arabs and Jews in Palestine, Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox in the Balkans, Russians and Turks from the Balkans to Central Asia, Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, Arabs and blacks across Africa: these are all relationships which through centuries have involved alternations between mistrustful coexistence and vicious violence. A historical legacy of conflict exists to be exploited and used by those who see reason to do so. In these relationships history is alive, well, and terrifying. [p. 259]
In the course of the war, multiple identities fade and the identity most meaningful in relation to the conflict comes to dominate. That identity almost always is defined by religion. Psychologically, religion provides the most reassuring and supportive justification for struggle against "godless" forces which are seen as threatening. Practically, its religious or civilizational community is the broadest community to which the local group involved in the conflict can appeal for support. [p. 267]
After reading and absorbing the import of the above quotes one cannot help but lose all hope for the future. Religion is such an entrenched component of all the major civilizations, save perhaps the Sinic, that mankind is not likely to ever get rid of it. That means that we will never see a break from the millennia-old pattern of hate and warfare between peoples, even if we were able to meet the utopian goal (also an impossibility) of satisfying the material needs of every human being on the planet.
There is only one instance in history when a people recognized the absurdity of religion and used their reason to develop a belief in a single Creator-God. The people who did so were the Greeks. It is significant that the repudiation of religion was accompanied by the development of concepts of individual freedom, political equality, and a universal code of ethics. All these ideas grew out of the development of a system of rational philosophy, logic, and scientific inquiry. Without a doubt, development of the one Creator-God concept and the repudiation of conventional religion could not have happened without the other intellectual developments. Menzies makes some trenchant comments to this fact, some of which are quoted below:
When the mind of Greece awoke to intellectual life, and the demand was made for an explanation of the world, and for a view of the origin of things which should explain man to himself, the Greek religion was manifestly little fitted to meet such a demand. But man has everywhere looked to religion to do him this service, and a religion which is incapable of rendering it, or which like Buddhism explicitly refuses to take up the task, stands in a perilous position. If the shrine has no doctrine enabling man to understand the origin and the connection of things, he will seek such a doctrine elsewhere, and religion will have no control over it. Another alternative is that of Buddhism where in default of such a doctrine man is condemned to subside into intellectual apathy.
This, however, could never be the case with the Greeks, and their fate in this respect proved different from that of any other people. After their intellectual awakening took place, and when they had begun to seek in every direction for a first principle of all things, never doubting that the world was a system of reason, but trying one key after another to unlock its secret, we find that religion itself became aware of the need of the times, and that the attempt was made, late in the day but with deep earnestness and great ability, to construct out of the myths a reasoned account of the origin of things. [p. 301]
It was not from the priests that the growth of the higher faith of Greece was to proceed, but from the philosophers. [p. 302]
... the course of Greek philosophy was, on the whole, constructive, even in matters of faith, and labored to provide religion with a stable foundation of thought. In this great movement of the human mind the thinkers of Greece - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, to name no more - were working at the same problem which occupied the prophets of Israel, and building up the rule of one God, a Being supremely wise and good, source of all beauty, and the worker of all that is wrought in the universe, in place of the many fickle and weak deities who formerly bore sway. In many ways the schools of Greece were the forerunners of Christianity.
Thus there arose on Greek soil, after the temples had grown cold, what may truly be called a second Greek religion. ... Both in its outward forms of association, in its doctrine of God, which went through later developments very similar to those of Judaism, and in its concentration of thought on ethical problems and on the moral life of the individual, it powerfully prepared for Christianity. It was not a religion, for it had neither any historical root nor any belief and practice definite enough for the guidance of the common people. Yet Christianity could not have conquered the world without it. [p. 303]
I find a great irony and a great tragedy emanating from Menzie’s statements (he himself is, of course, a devout Christian) that “the schools of Greece were the forerunners of Christianity,” and that the Greek intellectual enlightenment, even as it sought after the non-religious Creator-God, prepared the road for Christianity which then did its utmost either to smother, or to assimilate within the Christian dogma, concepts belonging to the Creator-God idea.
I have remarked before on the tragic consequences to Western civilization of the fact that Christianity and its parent – Judaism, smothered the Greek enlightenment in its infancy. In Rejuvenating moral duties, I say in connection with the consequences incurred by making religion the keeper of our morals:
“I have often wondered how much better off Western civilization would be today if Christianity would not have appeared on the scene. I’m quite sure that if the philosophy of ethics and morals begun by the ancient Greeks had continued to evolve and flourish as an independent discipline, unmolested and uncontaminated by religious claptrap, we would today have a solid moral and ethical tradition of nearly three millennia-worth of unfettered thought inculcated into us. This tradition would stand strong on its own feet.
Instead, starting already in the early centuries of the Christian era, the Church has carried on a constant and systematic eradication or usurpation (as the case may be) of all other sources of philosophical and transcendental thought in order to achieve a totalitarian monopoly (the totalitarians of the 20th century could not do as good a job) on all intellectual and spiritual endeavors of men under its control.
So it was that the sources of the ancient moral and ethical philosophy were deliberately occluded from public view, and the contents of the philosophy contorted to fit the Christian myth. Thus, instead of encouragement to do good and admonishment not to do evil for the sake of one’s own benefit and that of one’s fellow men, Christianity enmeshed these concepts and teachings into the myth of heaven with its accompanying rewards of immortality and eternal bliss in the presence of Jesus for the good folk, and the myth of hell with eternal burning and suffering for the bad people. It cannot be denied that Christianity was very effective with this carrot-and-stick approach. The by-and-large naïve, uneducated and superstitious society it controlled was conditioned and coerced to behave. Most people were constrained from doing bad things by the fear of ending up in hell, and not necessarily because they had the moral foundation within themselves that commanded them not to do bad simply because it hurt other people and things. However, it must also be recognized that for so long as the concepts of “good” and “bad” have been subordinated to the religious myth, that is for how long society as a whole has been denied access to a genuine understanding and appreciation of these moral and ethical concepts. There has now been a hiatus of close to two thousand years in the cultivation of moral and ethical ideas for their own sake, and the catastrophic consequences of it are becoming more glaring every year.”
In What could have been and what yet could be I mused as to what the course of Western civilization might have been without the religious influence:
“As I have become more familiar with the venerable philosophers of antiquity, the thought has often crossed my mind: What if the ethical and moral tradition of Western, or European, civilization had developed unhindered by religious dogma? What if the history of the West was free of religious hate and the many, bloody religious wars which are still besetting us today? In other words – can one not speculate, on the basis of quite logical assumptions, that the very ethos of Western man would have an entirely different character, and for the better, if the ethos had matured solely on the philosophical foundations laid by the Greeks some 2500 to 2300 years ago? For had it been so, the revered founders of our moral and ethical heritage would be Socrates and Aristotle, and not the sundry prophets, from Moses to Muhammad.”
In this essay I have expressed a pessimistic outlook regarding mankind’s ability to eliminate the religious obsession from its collective psyche and to recognize the natural Creator-God and his Laws. As we have noted, there was only one time in history when it appeared that the Creator-God idea might take hold and replace religion. That was in ancient Greece, where man experienced an unprecedented and never afterwards equaled intellectual growth in a span of only some four centuries.
Unfortunately, the philosophy of the Greeks, which carried the seeds of the Creator-God idea, did not appeal to the conquering Romans, who, in Menzies characterization [p. 305] “were not a thinking so much as an organizing race; in politics they were far ahead of the rest of the world, but in thought and imagination they were children.” The abstract thought and ideas of Greek philosophy did not appeal much to the pragmatic Romans whose interests were focused rather on the science of engineering. Besides, the Roman ruling class were masters at exploiting religion –their own as well as that of other peoples – for their political purposes. When monotheism started to gain in popularity in the Roman Empire, the God of Abraham, which the Jewish Diaspora had first carried to every corner of the empire and which subsequently metamorphosed into its Christian form, attracted many followers. The rational concepts of Greek philosophy and the idea of the Creator-God were swept aside like dust by the promise of immortality and paradise offered by Christianity. Thus ended the only attempt in history to guide man, intellectually, on the right road to understanding the true reasons why the Creator placed him on this Earth.
Today, mankind is in an ambiguous situation with respect to religion. In the industrialized Western world science and technology is making religion less and less meaningful to more and more people. However, it has also aroused a strong reaction from religious fundamentalism. Western man is in a mess because, although he is gradually discarding religious myths and superstitions in the face of startling new discoveries by science about the natural world, he is making absolutely no attempt to revive, in a deliberate and organized manner, the teaching of the Creator-God idea, in spite of the fact that most new scientific discoveries increasingly provide evidence for his existence. As a consequence, Western man lives today in a distressing vacuum of belief. The only force standing ready to fill it, once again, is irrational religious extremism.
In the rest of the world, also, extreme religious fundamentalism is on the offensive. Huntington gives an excellent and complete overview of the situation in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The fact is that the world is accepting, selectively, Western science and technology, but detests and shuns Western culture and political ideas; that includes the core of Western thought which rests on the philosophy founded by the ancient Greeks. Therefore, the likelihood that a revival of the Creator-God idea can happen in the rest of the world is even smaller than in the West, where it is already small, indeed. The best that one can say is that while a spark of the classical Greek philosophy survives in the West (and that it does), there is still hope.
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