RELIGION AS ONE SEES IT
An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
Religions have been preached, practiced, and experienced in a variety of ways by countless people all through the ages and in all cultures. There are probably half a dozen religions with more than half a billion adherents. But there are countless sects, cults, and denominations within each religion, and also a great many independent numerically minor religions which are no less important for their respective adherents.
Religions have been and still are the source of many positive experiences in life, such as hope, love, compassion, charity, the urge to help, and so on. They have provoked profound philosophies and metaphysics. They have inspired magnificent art and architecture, moving music, and great poetry. Above all they have helped millions of people achieve what is described as spiritual experiences. Every prayer and meditation is an effort to connect with the Cosmos.
Given all this, one might wonder how religions can possibly have anything negative about them, and why they have sometimes been regarded with fear, suspicion, and derision by many enlightened thinkers. For one thing, the fact that some old religious doctrines as to the origin of the universe and of Homo sapiens are no longer tenable in the light of modern scientific knowledge makes religion science-unfriendly to scientifically informed people. Then again, there is often the conviction, explicitly articulated or implicitly practiced, to the effect that one’s own religion enjoys a superior status in the eyes of the God one worships. This does not seem to the practitioner as an unreasonable, not to say, arrogant self-appraisal, or as unworthy of a God that created all humankind. More seriously, the attitude this conviction engenders tends to write off or denigrate religions that others take seriously. This, in turn, sometimes prompts some people to enforce their own religious doctrines on others by force, ruse, or persuasion. At one time, such efforts led to intolerant persecutions and ugly wars that have marred the pages of the history of many otherwise great religions.
With all that, the vast majority of religious people today are moved to commendable and noble actions by their faith. They derive immense fulfillment from their religious affiliation, and desist from hurt and harm to others. Many deeply religious people engage in charitable deeds and social service. Moreover, it appears from human history that religion of one kind or another is a necessity for most of us. Religions sustain the human spirit as food, air, and water sustain human bodies.
If we can only transform religious beliefs and practices in ways that serve others and humanity at large, and is we build values that are conducive to social justice a healthy environment, and resonant with the findings of science, then our religions will become powerful arsenals for peace, love, and understanding. Serving this cause is one of the goals of IRAS.
In what follows, some IRASians are sharing their views on what religion means to them. I thank those who responded to my invitation to do this.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
What is Religion for Me
Sally K. Severino, MD
I am living the last phase of my life. My grandparents’ generation and all save one uncle in my parents’ generation have finished their journey. I am the second oldest living of my familial generation. The next generations are grown and growing. We are scattered, yet we connect as our busy lives permit. We always connect at Christmas.
Christmas maintains family ties; the Christian religion for me ontogenetically anchored my past life and anchors my life currently. Robert Bellah’s definition of religion fits my experience nicely; “Religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community” (Religion in Human Evolution, Harvard University Press, 2011, 1). Religion anchored my life from its origin in Kansas out into the world on my journey as a woman, mother, physician, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst. (See my memoirBecoming Fire: A Freudian Psychoanalyst’s Spiritual Journey, Epigraph Press 2009)
My adult identity has been that of a bridge builder—first between the science of mind and religion and more recently between neuroscience, psychiatry, and spirituality. In this regard, religion for me is a way of forming my identity in relation to the world. (See my book co-authored with Nancy K. Morrison, MD Sacred Desire: Growing in Compassionate Living, Templeton Foundation Press 2009)
Beyond ontogeny, religion for me ontologically structures a theory of human nature. It points me to the mystery of life – the unknowable. Here I agree with Freud: “The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. . . . Once again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system” (1930/1929 “Civilization and its Discontents” SE XXI: 75-76).
While religion structures my theory of human nature, science informs that structure. However one names the energy in creation—God, Nature, Absolute Reality, etc.—creation is ongoing. The energy of the Big Bang with its interacting dimensions of genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic (including religious) evolution is still unfolding. Science is still informing religious intuitions. As long as we human beings do not bring life on this planet to an end, we may be the creatures who awaken to the consciousness in our nature and enhance our consciousness.
Paradoxically, the crucifixion of Jesus that is at the center of Christian religion offers for me one way out of violence. One way to save the future of our planet is to abstain completely from retaliation as exemplified by the mob executioners. Applied to today, this means standing apart from the mob that is destroying our planet. Looking to the 2012 IRAS conference theme of “Saving the Future,” this means seeing the innocent victim planet that we are endangering with overpopulation and misuses of our resources. If we can own our own violence, perhaps we can see the innocent victim in time to prevent our demise.
In sum, religion for me is the basis of hope in life.
What is Religion for Me
When V.V. asked me to write this piece, I first had to admit it simply isn’t anything I ever think about. That is probably because the things that DO mean a lot to me are things I don’t usually put in the category “religion.” But maybe I’m looking at it inside out – perhaps I should be thinking that whatever does mean a lot to me should be defined as religion for me. I suppose that is what Tillich was talking about. Nonetheless, I tend to think in terms of what means a lot to me, NOT in terms of what religion means to me. For want of a better description I suppose I’d rather look at it from the bottom up (what does mean a lot to me), than from the top down (what does religion mean to me).
Friendship, thinking, good conversation, adequate food, good rest, reasonable health given my age and my genetics and my past decisions. Having a great life-partner. A group to identify with, a worldview to call my own, a sense of hope for my species and the earth. Fun, even sports though they often seem ridiculous, laughter, yes especially laughter. Jokes. Math (simple math, not complex math), words (simple AND complex), learning to more-or-less master a few fields of endeavor. The law, not only laws but the procedures by which laws or made (the old saw about sausage notwithstanding). Dogs, and indeed all animals, but there is a difference, because in the case of all other animals what is meaningful to me is learning something about animals and their behavior and their evolution and their kinships and their way of making a living and their sociality or lack of it. But with dogs I want to not only know all of that but also be friends with a few dogs – I just love watching them and interacting with them, and yes I find that meaningful, only partly because it gives me ideas to contemplate in watching myself and my fellow humans. It is meaningful for its own sake.
Agriculture and all sorts of trades seem meaningful to me, and although I know intellectually that agriculture should be the most meaningful, the one that IS most meaningful to me is carpentry. That we can construct structures to keep out of the weather is just amazing and wonderful. Which reminds me that the history of all the things above is meaningful to me – I mean, who first figured out how to construct a lean-to, and how did that slowly evolve into a house and then a home? And oh, oh, oh; we cannot forget tools. Tools and the human creativity and history that produced something like my nail-puller (a tool I only learned about a few years ago and am enamored with) are very meaningful. One of my mottos is “where there’s a tool there’s a way.”
Fortunately I’m finally running out of the stream-of-consciousness listing of all the things that seem meaningful. But one more: Every morning at breakfast I mediate on where each part of the meal came from, and what kind of people produced it and transported it and packaged it and inspected it. That may be the most meaningful.
I never thought of all those meaningful things in terms of religious meaning, but I think that is my problem and not religion’s problem. Henceforth I WILL think of it as religious meaning. So thank you V.V. for asking me to do this.
What Religion Means to Me
I see religion as a framework of values to which I can commit. To say what it means to me, defines my religion. This undoubtedly will be different from many around me. It is how I view my existence and respond to being. It is not what I do on Sunday mornings or read in an ancient text. This doesn’t prevent me from being spiritual, with a holiest god perspective. I do not look to an anthropomorphic god for an eternal life or to forgive me. Forgive me for what? For being human, a consequence of the universe? I’m human with all that implies! Being human is being spiritual.
My religion is the way I live. It is how I think about things, my ethics and what I consider holy. They determine my behavior. There are guided by an objectivity and subjectivity which are limited by innate propensities. These tendencies are a blend of life experiences, attributes and education. There is also a whim or two tossed in. Being raised by a Bible reading mother in a Christian culture was part of that education. In my early teens I broke away from this indoctrination. This does not mean that I now besmirch them.
I could not buy into virgin birth and rising from the dead. Nor a supernatural god who seemed to have the characteristics of a bad human being. He was in my view not such a super guy. I had trouble accepting a book written long ago by unknown authors as a source for authority. I was not sinful because Adam was. I rebelled against the non-reason. I did accept much of the moral teachings. They seemed to be the reasonable way to conduct life. Living in a society however requires a morality more extensive than 1, 8 or 10 ethical rules. There are logically sound, non-theistic ways to formulate a moral code other than religious ones. But the old ways are a good starting point. They have been tested. My search for meaning has been based on reason rather than wishful desires or magical events. This approach has served me well while maintaining a pantheistic view of reality. My ethical behavior leaves me reasonably at peace with myself. I am not at odds with my society. I am a decent citizen without being traditionally religious. My good karma is a result of good self direction.
My way is not necessarily the way for others so I have not preached it. I have become an advocate for Religious Naturalism (http://religiousnaturalist.org/). Developing it now seems like the proper thing to do. It is a concept I walked into via agnosticism, neo-Pantheism (http://neo-pantheism.info/), humanism, love of reason and respect for nature and science. This emerging perspective promotes rationality. It uses science to understand the universe and my being. Its subjectivity addresses my feelings, emotions and states of mind. It accepts the realism of the natural world as something to be felt. I see Religious Naturalism as the intersection of reasoning and feeling. It may be the world’s oldest religious philosophy.
Religious Naturalism starts e narratives (Bible, Koran). They are actualized by practices, concepts, aesthetics and institutions with naturalism (http://www.iras.org/perspectives.html). Its premise is that reality is all there is. There are no super beings, happenings or mystical realms nor life after death. Nature is sufficient to explain all. Here logic rules. However, we can not as yet understand some aspects of being human. We need to somehow account for a destiny, rightfulness and the purpose of our being. Why do we find richness in aesthetics? Logic does not rule here. This is the territory of the self and spirit. Life is spiritual – a self thing. A continuing creation is spiritual. This sensing necessitates transcendence beyond one’s self. That has a kind of substance to it. It is based on realness that is. The self is one with it all.
What Religion Means to Me
Religion is a box for my stuff. It was a gift I received as a child, provided in a standard form, but I changed it round and made it my own.
It contains scissors, a seed, a magnifying glass, and questions, dreams, sorrows, joys, and fears. It includes tinted glasses that let me see the world a certain way, and books with rules for games that we play. It contains images and music and poems, and puzzles of all sorts, and some gizmos (with no apparent function) that are fascinating and fun to behold. Some of these things are organized, and some are jumbled together in random piles.
When I open the box, ancient smells trigger feelings and thoughts. This can sharpen the senses, and add focus to colors and details. It may prompt me to notice the warmth of the sun, the breeze through my hair, and the sound of rain on the roof. It can bring comfort and calm and a sense, at times, that everything is ok.
The box can bring a little bit of magic to life – something different from what I look at every day. As I dig through it, I find things I’d forgotten, and I enjoy seeing and holding them again. I know it’s always there. And, while I may ignore it at times, I know I can go to it whenever I choose.
What Religion Means to Me
As a searcher for truth, my personal quest began in my mid 20’s for seeking answers to fundamental questions: What is the purpose of life? How best to live this life? What lies beyond death?
To me, religion means "guidance" on such big questions: how to optimize living, and find solutions that best serve mankind. But to do so, religion has to be unique. No human can aspire to answer what lies beyond, not even science. For such guidance to be definitive, it has to emanate from a source infinitely more capable and knowledgeable than any set of humans; i.e., direct from the Creator, Sustainer, Nourisher of the universe.
But does such a Creator really exist? This cannot be answered by bottoms–up enquiry because science, with all its awesomeness, has not even managed to understand the world, let alone fathom a far more intricate entity. But surely the Creator can answer. While searching for top–down guidance from the Creator, lo and behold, we find such guidance existing since Adam--the first Homo sapiens sapiens- sent to mankind, through a long line of messengers who taught man “What he knows not and cannot know otherwise” in the original versions.
This acknowledgment, far from faith, has to be supported by convincing evidence, as Bertrand Russell said “Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence”. Could it be that the evidence is there but evaded Russell? Another well known skeptic, Carl Sagan, was more specific by contending that all God had to do was say things through the prophets which could not have been known in their times to any human and were discovered centuries later by modern science.
Amazingly, both Russell and Sagan have been adequately responded to by the Creator in His guidance. But the skeptics ask which guidance should be looked at of the various ones around? The answer cannot come from “faiths” that are notoriously culturally biased, but reason and science which has devised tests for validity.Why can't we develop tests for verifying the authenticity of revelation such as the attempt made by the author - See Zygon, Sept 2008
Such guidance can emanate only from the one and only Creator. It devises a complete system of life, nourishes humanity through dignity, and reaffirms the highest order of moral strength. It claims:
No conflict between the work of the Creator (universe/science) or His/Her/Its words.
The creation (mankind) perforce has to be one brotherhood, “It is a self-evident truth that all humans are born equal”. There is no room for kings/dictators priests/mullahs, racism, original sin, chosen people or promised lands, slavery or subjugation. Genders have equal rights, and obligations towards each other, to uplift one another.
Piety (closeness to natural laws) is the sole criterion of human superiority.
Man, as vicegerent of God, is endowed with consciousness, with the ability to think and reflect.
There is no compulsion in faith, even to the point of denying the Creator; however, freedom comes with accountability for choices made.
Beliefs and deeds are equally important.
Humans have an honored place in the universe, which evolved with a purpose.
Humans are children of stars, not just poetically but literally, since the heavy metals essential for life were created in Supernovae explosions; thus, each human life has incalculable value which should be recognized to respect ourselves in order to respect others.
Human body developed through physical evolution, but human personality (soul)-the distinctive characteristic-- is a special gift of the Creator. It continues to evolve after death, upon being freed from its material bodily constraints.
Just as Physical laws govern the universe, moral laws affect human personalities.
Our life on earth is a journey in preparation for what is to follow after death. What we spend on ourselves is used up but what we spend on others-- wealth, time and energy-- truly belong to us.
Willing acceptance of the unique Creator- Beneficent, Merciful and brotherhood of mankind via the timeless word of Qur'an telling Man “what he knows not" to live in a win-win manner leading humanity to its highest potential. That is what Religion means to me.
What Religion Means to Me
I view religion very broadly, as the framework we use to create meaning and purpose in our lives. Religion relates our beliefs about reality, our attitudes towards reality, and our choices of how to live in reality. Religion doesn't have to tell us what reality is, but it does have to connect with whatever we consider reality to be. In my naturalistic view, everything is part of the natural world - including human beings and human culture. So, my religion is grounded in my understanding and experience of nature.
Similarly, religion doesn't necessarily have to prescribe what we ought to do; though it often does so. I think that we learn how to behave properly mainly by the examples of those around us, especially our parents. To the extent that this is unconscious - and I think it largely is - it doesn't require any explicit religious input. I think that a society develops a system of ethics largely through a natural, evolutionary process, dependent on all kinds of environmental and social circumstances, of which religion is just one.
The unique role of religion, I think, is in providing a framework that unifies a society's view of reality with the ethical system which that society has evolved. In traditional religion, this framework usually takes the form of a narrative about how moral behavior is prescribed by the ruling power(s) in the universe, who also created the universe. Thus, the "is" and the "ought" are related through a supernatural, personal, entity.
For a naturalist like me, such a supernatural framework doesn't work. As modern philosophy tells us, I don't think there can be a universally acceptable revelation for ethics; but neither can there be a proof for an ethical system. Without falling for the naturalistic fallacy, which to me simply is a corollary to the impossibility of proving ethical rules, we can still develop our ethics from our common understandings, as biologically and culturally evolved.
Spirituality is individualized religion. One might say, conversely, that religion is communal spirituality. We need both the individual and the communal aspects. My own spirituality is based on my awareness of the evolving unity of nature, of humanity, and of our social and ethical practices. Nature can fill me with awe, and humanity can (at times!) fill me with love. The narrative that makes it religious by tying it together, with other people and all of existence, is what Loyal Rue has called "Everybody's Story: The Epic of Evolution" in his book of that title.
As for religious practice, I still find connection and value in some of the Jewish rituals I learned as a child, which with my own family I can modify and re-interpret in a naturalistic way. As for public observance, though, I'm more comfortable with services at a Unitarian Universalist church, which celebrate humanity and our place in nature, rather than worship of a personal, supernatural God. This is the kind of continuing evolution of religion which I am looking forward to emerging in a true, robust religious naturalism.
What is Religion? My Personal View
I see religion as the institutional form of a community’s collective endeavor to experience and to understand the sacred dimension of human existence, and to discover and live out its ethical imperatives for human life.
As individuals and as members of various communities, we all confront the same existential questions:
Who am I? Who are you? What is the nature of the world?
What is the world like in its aspects that are accessible to our physical senses and our powers of reason? What is above, or beneath, or behind, or within the world accessible to our senses, that may be accessible to other dimensions of our human nature? What is ultimately real?
What must we do to lead lives that are loving, joyful, meaningful, useful, and in right relationship with the ultimately real?
Our answers to these questions -- always tentative and subject to revision on the basis of new knowledge, experience and insight – shape for us an understanding of what is sacred in our lives, of how we are touched by the sacred, and of how we are to live in faithfulness to it.
The lifelong process of wrestling with these questions is often daunting; thus we benefit from the support of others who are engaging the same struggle. Such fellow travelers can be found in our religious communities. They are the great teachers of our tradition, others who have preceded us in history, our contemporaries, and even our descendants; and we interact with them by means of the stories, texts, customs, and rituals of our religious traditions. Through these elements and these relationships, we are grounded in a religious home that sustains us in our struggle with ultimate questions, and, at its best, also challenges us to look for wisdom beyond the confines of the comfortable and familiar.
From the description above, I hope it will be evident that that I find great meaning and value in my own religious tradition, Christianity, while aspiring to be respectful toward and appreciative of those belonging to other religious traditions, or to no particular tradition. I do experience some frustration, though, at the tendency of some religious and non-religious people alike to characterize religious engagement as simply the acceptance or rejection of a set of prescribed “beliefs.” In my opinion, this view is far too simplistic. It reduces religious faith to a laundry list of creedal statements rather than acknowledging it as a multi-faceted matrix of values, principles, practices, and relationships that supports members of a faith community in their confrontation of existential questions that have no simple answers. It ignores the variety and complexity of current religious traditions, as well as the long history within which current traditions have evolved. It invites members of one religious group to disparage other groups for “incorrect” beliefs. And it sets up religious narratives as competitors to a modern scientific description of the world in a way that I see as completely unnecessary.
I don’t dispute the importance of identifying what one believes most deeply to be true; indeed, this is a crucial aspect of coming to terms with life’s fundamental questions. But as we strive to articulate our deepest convictions, I believe that we should proceed with humility and respect, acknowledging that our fellow humans may in good faith arrive at answers that are different from ours. Chauvinism and arrogance are the hallmark of religion at its worst. Nourishment and enrichment of the human mind, heart, and spirit characterize religion at its best.
What Religion Means to Me
What does religion mean to me? I have simply found that “religious meanings” from my perspectives are best functionally understood and meaningfully defined as what the person thinks reality is, how they think that reality works and what they think can and should be do with this knowledge. But like most people, I find many other religions personally disturbing, because they are either disconnected from or inconsistent with my perception of reality, which I believe is similar to our ever increasing scientific and technical knowledge s. Many are good steps in the right direction, that may have gotten us here, but they are far from their potential for being where we could be, if we were to take the time and effort to evaluate them honestly and more completely.
My religion’s meaning then, for me, emanates from being consistent, correlative, coherent, and complete with our ever developing scientific and technical models of understandings of what influences our conscious being and our actions as they are played out by what we do to create for ourselves and by what we do to build a future. I find meaning in these abstract symbolic models, because they are ever more comparatively complete as compared to other religious and or philosophical approaches to my understandings and my meanings of who I am and what my surroundings are. This knowledge comes from the models abilities to make distinctions and relationships among those distinctions, consistent with the limits and characteristics of time, energy, mass and locations which are correlative with physical realities of which I am composed and that which interacts with me. My truths lay in their correspondences with reality; and its wisdoms are the options we have with their rational selections for applications to our well being.
With my increasing understandings and applications of technology I become a “free-er” person, who can understand, control, create, and contribute to my own future and those of others. In hyperbole my God is technology. The God that created me and the God that will determine my future. To those ends, with my fellow human beings, we are all fellow Gods with all the rights and responsibilities of Gods, whether we like it or not. Our future is only as good as the models of goals we create and our abilities to work together to achieve those goals with our applications of our technologies and the prudent uses of our surrounding resources. I believe symbolic systems used as guidance without material correspondences are blind paths disconnected from realities, leading to unknown and probably destructive consequences.
I strive and get meaning from my religion as a system of abstract symbolic representations that are consistent and coherent informational interactions with my aware nesses of me and my surroundings. My religious moral and ethical systems are decisional systems which are only meaningful for me, when they have their origins within and are consistencies with the interconnected and complete nesses of the unavoidable physical world. Ones that we can apply to our dynamic unique parts of influences over the ever changing evolving and emerging flows of resources over the surface of this earth. Guiding our participation in a dynamic holistic interactive system that has evolved to where there are parallel interactive informational exchanges, when at least one of which is how we experience as our transient consciousness of being.
My most meaningful religious goals are the creations better methodological and material futures. My only possible existences are in these futures, which certainly will change with time consistently with the underlying physics. So in part I create my own future and in part my own meaning with the help of other people and relational ideas that we can amplify with our technologies into future being.
What Religion Means to Me
Tanya B. Avakian
Religion is belief in what is of us, but more than us. It is also the practice surrounding the living of that belief in personal life. Those two things are common to all world-views that claim the status of a religion. They distinguish religion from an attitude to life, a set of values or ideals, or a practice for mental hygiene, though these attributes will follow from the first two characteristics. Religion does not require faith in what is beyond nature. Many religions include a supernatural and/or a transcendental element with respect to what is real, in the sense of physical reality, but this element is not inseparable from what is religion. The most integral element in all religions is the conviction that humans and human perceptions matter in the scheme of reality and yet partake of what is beyond any one individual human being’s perceptions, and perhaps beyond human nature itself. It follows then that the behavior and the experience of human beings are important in the scheme of reality. Reality (not restricted to nature) is in some way enhanced by our behavior being in tune with what is ethically right; and by our surviving the inevitable suffering associated with our existence in reality, with open eyes, yet with courage and honor. To believe these things goes well beyond the belief that humans are valuable, or that nature is valuable, though the first is inseparable from religion and the second comes to seem increasingly an obligation. It thus represents a leap of faith whether or not that leap implies additional leaps in the naming of our perceived reality.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science