THOUGHTS TOWARDS A CRITIQUE OF RELIGION
D. R. Khashaba
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
[The following is a skeletal outline for a Critique of Religion that at one time I had hoped to write. I don’t think it probable that I will live to do that. I offer the outline freely to anyone who would work it out. I have appended to the outline some disjointed but not unrelated thoughts.]
There is a fact so simple, so basic, that it is difficult to bring it to our attention. It is something I have reperatedly asserted in my writings but which I think bears endless reiteration and emphasis because its profound and far-reaching significance easily escapes us. It is that, in the literal and strictest sense of the words, we live our specifically human life in a world of ideas, ideas humanly created. As humans, in what characterizes us as humans, we live in a world of beliefs, conventions, superstitions, science-supported conceptions and theories — in a world of ideas. At the same time we live biologically as animals and exist physically as physical objects; in those dimensions we are subject to whatever physical things and animals are subject to; but in the dimension which gives us our human character we are nothing but ideas. These ideas coalesce in collections of loosely related systems on various levels. I will pass over my ideas about my daily routine of life, about my work, about my social relations. I will also pass over my ideas about the possibility of the human race colonizing the moon within, say, five decades and also my ideas about the chances that the party winning the next elections will address my worst grievances. These are all ideas that, strictly speaking, shape my day to day life. On another level I may have ideas signifying that if I pray, in proper form, five times a day and keep certain rites and rituals then when I die I will go to paradise where I will enjoy fantastic pleasures; or that if I go to church, attend mass, and take holy communion then when I die I will go to a celestial heaven where I will continue to be endlessly; or alternatively that whatever I do, when I die I will be no more and the body that now I call mine will disintegrate and become part of the earth where it will be buried. These systems of beliefs stand, prima facie, on an equal footing. (Many will jump at me for saying this; but patience; you may find me in the end to be on your side.) Now let me put the idea I have been putting forward in the above lines in a different form of words. Human beings, as human beings, exercise their living in, by, and through systems of ideas, the – let me not say highest – but most abstract and most rarefied echelon of which may properly be called ideologies. We could call those ideologies religions in a special sense of the word, but many will find this unacceptable. So let us say that a number of those ideologies are properly called religions, such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism; others may be called Weltanschauungen, which divide into a great number of isms, including scepticism and agnosticism which are decidedly positive systems of ideas.
Religion is a human phenomenon. One could justifiably say that religion is a human property, in the logical sense of the term, an essential attribute of the human species. It would seem that however far back in the archaeological records of the earth we may go, we cannot find traces of a human group without accompanying traces of acts and deeds indicating that they somehow related themselves to the powers they sensed or imagined behind the happenings shaping and governing their lives.
That the feelings of awe and wonder should arise in thinking beings in the face of the mysterious phenomena of life and death and the dreadful forces and happenings of the natural world surrounding them is not surprising. That these overwhelming feelings of awe and wonder should issue in imaginative attempts at explanation, in daring experiments at influencing those happenings, in desperate motions aimed at propitiating those forces, and that those explanations, experimentations, magical operations, should vary with time and place and appear in countless shapes and forms — all of that is only to be expected. All of that is amply exemplified in the records of archaeology, of anthropology, of history, of the extant human scene. This is the material of the study of comparative religion.
In time these primordial feelings developed into institutions, communal arrangements, behavioural patterns, speculative systems, that were often beautiful and precious, and as often or more often ugly and harmful. Hence the need for a critique of religion to help us discriminate between what is good and what is bad, what is essential and what is an accidental accretion.
For some reason, humans – alone among living beings as far as we can tell – are obsessed with the urge to seek explanations. ‘Why?’ seems to be a specifically human creation. To see something happen and not know what made it happen leaves us uneasy. An explanation, any explanation, puts the happening in a larger context which shows consistency, which shows kinship between the constituent elements of the larger situation, and that somehow relieves the uneasy feeling of puzzlement. Any imaginary explanation serves that primary purpose. It is only gradually that a primitive human being or a growing human child finds out that some explanations hold and some don’t. This has nothing to do with the emotional comfort given by the explanation; it has to do with its pragmatic serviceability. Thus it was inevitable that humans should at the earliest times form myths to explain the phenomena surrounding them and the happenings of their daily lives. Only later on did they begin to sort out and prune their myths, applying the criteria of rationality and serviceability.
Thus humans created myths to enjoy the sense of understanding, that peculiar human need. Over millennia the old myths were replaced with new explanations over a wide area of phenomena and happenings. But there remained other areas of human interest which proved impervious to the new methods of explanation. ‘How did it all begin?’, ‘What happens when I die?’ With regard to such questions we could adopt any of the following attitudes:
(1) We could say that they were unanswerable and leave it at that.
(2) We could hold on to myths of the old kind, as institutionalized religions do.
(3) We could attempt to force those myths into the moulds of the new methods, as either in various projects of pseudo-science or in proper scientific hypotheses and theories which, while extending our factual knowledge of the phenomenal, inevitably fail to reach ultimate answers to ultimate questions.
(4) We could produce new myths with a difference. This is the province of poetry and art. I maintain that metaphysical speculation also is such, creating myths that lay a veneer of intelligibility on the unintelligible. Such myths give us the ease of ‘understanding’ while preserving the integrity of our reason since we know our myths to be no more than beautiful tales.
Under the cloak of religion we commonly find four characters which it is necessary to distinguish and separate. First there is the religious feeling, the spiritual experience which in its most intense form is characterized as mystic. Second, there are beliefs and thought systems which may partly seek to interpret the religious feeling but which mainly seek to give answers to natural, cosmological, and philosophical puzzles. Third, there are rites, ceremonies, and rituals, which mostly have their origin in magic and in endeavours to influence the processes of nature. Fourth, there is morality, with principles, maxims and codes of behaviour. I think it imperative first of all to insist on separating this last character.
Advocates of religion are vociferous in claiming that moral and spiritual values are inextricably bound up with some form of religion. This claim does not bear serious examination; it is utterly groundless. Morality arises and persists in complete independence of religion even though the two often come mixed together. Religion is more often than not damaging to morality. We can all readily verify by surveying in our mind the people with whom we have daily contact that the most religion-bound among them are not always the most morally sound while on the other hand among the least religion-bound we may find the most morally sound.
Next we have to separate the element of inward feeling, religion as a spiritual experience. This we stand in need to preserve. It is the element which those who fight against the evils of religion risk sacrificing because they fail to see it as a separate and most precious element. This is the element A. N. Whitehead has in mind when he defines religion as what one does with his solitariness. It is also the element that Schleiermacher refers to in saying:
“To have religion means to intuit the universe, and the value of your religion depends upon the manner in which you intuit it, on the principle that you find in its actions. Now if you cannot deny that the idea of God adapts itself to each intuition of the universe, you must also admit that one religion without God can be better than another with God.” (1)
The combination of religious feeling with fixed beliefs – dogmas – is most damaging; even when the beliefs are refined, they still obscure and impair the purity of the feelings.
If rite and ritual could be kept completely free of any dogmatic admixture, they could be useful as a communal bond, bringing people together and giving them a sense of belonging; they could also have value as an art-form. Unfortunately, once rite and ritual relate in any way to religion, it is impossible to keep them free of superstitious overtones.
So of the four characters wrongfully forced together under the shabby cloak of religion:
(1) morality should simply be kept apart; it is secure in its independent life;
(2) spiritual experience has to be rescued and preserved;
(3) dogmatic beliefs and doctrines must be exposed and demolished;
(4) rites and rituals, however aesthetically and emotionally valuable, if they have to go with what is bad in religion, so be it; humankind will never cease inventing other forms of communal and social cementing.
(2) and (3) are what I am concerned with in this series of essays.
If we ask, are any religious beliefs true?, again we have to distinguish carefully between various types of belief. Beliefs about moral values should not, strictly speaking, be called beliefs, and they can neither be true nor false. They are real (2) and valuable in so far as they affirm our inner reality. They can be narrow and trite when they are the reflection of an impoverished personality, and they can be sublime when they reflect the inner reality of a Gandhi.
Primitive beliefs about the creation and constitution of the world (which survive in institutionalized religions) were brave flights of the human intellect which have been and are being corrected by natural science. It is sheer stupidity to hold on to opinions long ago replaced by better ones.
Beliefs about a supernatural world, about life after death, and the like, were also brave flights of imagination. In time, intelligent humans realized that all answers propounded to such questions are pure fiction. Yet today we have many people, intelligent and seemingly learned, who hold on to certain beliefs in this area. These believers may be subdivided into two classes: (1) the ones who maintain that we have to accept those beliefs on the authority of divine revelation; and (2) those who, in addition to trusting revelation, attempt to show that the beliefs can also be supported by reason.
The argument for revelation is always circuitous. We have to believe the doctrines handed down to us by the sacred books. Why? Because those books were revealed by God? Who says the books were revealed by God? The sacred books say it. Well, we could perhaps turn a blind eye to the illogic of such a shaky argument if those sacred books did not (one and all without exception) contain much that is atrocious, absurd and morally revolting.
As for those who attempt to provide rational support for their favoured beliefs, not only do theologians of one faith contradict those of other faiths, but the more theologians of one faith and creed attempt to refine and sophisticate their arguments, the more does every one of them find her/him/self at variance with their remaining co-religionists.
First a word to remove a possible misunderstanding. I have sometimes been decried because I spoke of spiritual life. For some materialists and atheists to speak of spiritual life is tantamount to dogmatism and belief in superstitions. I insist that without the conception of a spiritual life our cultural life and our rational discourse are seriously impoverished. For me the spiritual life is our subjective, inner life, which is the focal point and the source of all our worth and our proper being as humans. Let me explain.
‘Man liveth not by bread alone.’ This is a profound saying. We become human when we realize that there is a side of us that is not body. Of course Plato had taught the same thing some four centuries before the Nazarene. And not Plato alone.
Imagine intelligent beings living in a world where they have ample, wholesome food without any relish, clothing good for winter and summer without any refinement, comfortable housing without a touch of beauty; they spend their day doing work well-suited to their strtength and abilities and spend the night fast asleep. If they had no idea of any life different from that, they might be content with their lot as we imagine ants to be content with their lot. (Actually, I consider that impossible, because without a sense of the zest of life – I believe – there can be no life, but let the supposition stand.) But would anyone of us humans, however tried with troubles and pains in our human world she or he may be, bear to live in that materially perfect world?
Without song or dance, without a touch of poetry even in everyday language, without a thing of beauty for the eye to light upon, who of us would rather live than die?
That is what I mean by spiritual life. A life in which not all our cares and concerns are for the needs of the body. A life in which philosophical questions tease our intelligence, in which a line of Wordsworth sends a vibration through our inner being, in which Beethoven’s Ninth makes us rise from the abyss of dejection to touch the stars; a life in which a kind word, a shy smile, gladden the heart — that I call spiritual life and have no other word for it than spiritual life.
Those who start in alarm at the word spirittual are like the proverbial one that dreads a rope because once bitten by a snake.
We need religion. We need to get rid of all religions. These two statements are not mutually contradictory. To accept either alone as sufficient is to risk ending up with a deformed humanity. The reconciliation of these two propositions is arguably the most urgent and most critical task facing human culture and human civilization at this juncture of human history.
Indeed, in one interpretation the claim that we need religion is justifiable — but that is an interpretation that sets Religion in opposition to all religions. That is the religion of the philosophers, the religion A. N. Whitehead speaks of in Religion in the Making and Julian Huxley in Religion Without Revelation. But since the whole issue of religion is submerged in confusion, mixing of issues, and muddled thinking, it would be best, in the interest of clear thinking, to avoid using the term ‘religion’ in that sterilized sense.
“Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” A. N. Whitehead repeats this definition more than once in his Religion in the Making.(3) By this definition Whitehead makes of rites, rituals, dogmas, and creeds mere external trappings. Unfortunately, these external trappings are the whole of religion for most followers of institutionalized religions. So it would seem that the simplest way, or perhaps the only way, to bring that religion of one’s own solitariness to its rightful place in human life is to do away with all ‘religion’. Today, nearly all discussion of religion, by advocates and opponents alike, tends to obliterate the notion of that spirituality necessary for a properly human life. To put it differently, it is bad religion that militates against our appreciating the importance of good religion. The word ‘religion’ has been thoroughly corrupted by bad company; it is best to give it up and speak of spirituality instead.
Perhaps only the most primitive of religions, living in isolation, did some good and little or no harm. Apart from these, all religions have done much more harm than good. And yet we cannot live without religion. Without religion we cannot be whole human beings. We desperately need an alternative to religion: not an alternative religion; that would only perpetuate the harm; but an alternative to religion. The alternative I propose is a culture, and education in a culture, that frees the human mind of all shackles and at the same time leaves it fully aware of its own reality and of a reality above and beyond its individual being and above and beyond all the finite and ephemeral existents and happenings of the natural world in which we have our finite and ephemeral being.
Our myths are the substance of our spiritual life. That is the paradox of human culture. Without myth our life is barren, bestial, banal. With myth unsubjected to critical reasoning it is stultifying. Only intelligent creative imagination can secure for us a spiritual life consistent with human dignity.(4)
So to the question, Do we need religion?, our answer should be, There is an element in what is commonly covered by the term religion that is necessary for true human life, but that element has to be very carefully and delicately isolated because it is always covered by layers upon layers of foul dross.
One thing that I never cease to find most bewildering is how highly intelligent persons, many professionally trained to think scientifically, accept unquestioningly the dogmas of whatever established religion they happen to be born into. Even in the case of religious conversion, the conversion rarely rests on intellectual grounds, and once the new faith is taken to heart, the dogmas and superstitions associated with it are accepted without question. I cannot help feeling baffled by this, but there are in fact multiple explanations for it. There are good psychological and anthropological explanations which I do not intend to go into here.
The religion of mystics, poets, and philosophers is all subjective, is an inner experience. The religion of the followers of the established religions is primarily objective, extraneous; it is bound up with creed and dogma, rites and rituals. These two types are so different, so opposed, that it would be best if they are not referred to by the same word. But good philosophers have spoken of religion, meaning the purer type; good poets have used religious language when giving expression to their subjective, spiritual, experience; and good musicians have composed great music on religious themes. All of this cannot be reversed. The resulting confusion is regrettable; all we can do is to draw the distinction clearly and try to keep it in mind.
I have often argued against reductionist thinking. To track the origins of something, to enumerate and describe its constituent elements, however accurately, however comprehensively, does not exhaust the reality of the thing. To suppose it does is the deadly error of reductionism. On all planes of being – on the most exalted plane of spiritual experience, on the most highly abstract plane of theoretical thinking, just as on the plane of emotional reaction or physical action – the activity is a modification of the whole person and is subtended by the totality of the individual. This does not in any way detract from the reality of the final flowering just as the origination and the grounding of the rose in soil and water and sunshine does not negate the reality of its fragrance and its radiance. So, on the one hand, I appreciate the theoretical justice of the protest against attempts to denigrate religion by showing its origins in magic, sorcery, shamanism, and the like. After all, art too must have grown out of such origins, and that does not belittle the importance of art and its necessity for a fully human life. On the other hand I say that an objective, a clear-headed study, of the history of religious beliefs, an unprejudiced and clear-sighted look at the phenomena of diverse religious beliefs and experiences displayed side by side, should convince any intelligent observer of the fictitiousness of the claims of all such religious beliefs and practices. In holding these two apparently opposed views I am not contradicting myself. The natural origination of religious beliefs and practices does not negate the emotive and spiritual reality of religious and mystic experience. The religious attitude and the religious feeling are part of the most valuable treasures of humankind. But this true core of religious experience necessarily always comes clothed in external trappings, the product of contingent circumstances, historical, cultural, social, etc., and it is imperative that we see these artificial trappings for what they are, that we clearly recognize the illusory character of the outward raiment shrouding the true essence. Without this insight we are trapped between two equally damaging intellectual tyrannies. On the one side, the tryranny of reductionist scientism, demanding that we forgo our inner reality, and on the other side, the tyranny of religious dogma, demanding that we forgo our right to question and to understand.
All established religions are shrouded in deception. Ordinary Christians are encouraged to believe that Christianity came into being whole and entire. They do not know that Christianity began to be forged by various persons and influences shortly after the departure of the putative founder of Christianity and that the new religion that was built up over generations and centuries has little to do with the thought or teaching of the man of Nazareth. This false belief is carefully guarded by the Church.
Mircea Eliade in Cosmos and History (5) recounts an incident that illustrates how the commonest of events can be mythicized within the lifetime of some of its original witnesses, or even of its participators. When we read that, we find it easy to understand how, within a few years of the tragic death of Jesus of Nazareth, that audaceous moral reformer could be transformed into the Saviour, the Son of God, and God incarnate.
Beside the queer conceptions of Paul and the strange fantasies of John, Christianity had the good fortune of absorbing much of the cultural milieu of Hellenism. The best of what is in Christianity is borrowed from Platonism. What gives Christianity its lure to thoughtful and sensitive spirits is its Platonic core. Christianity is a core of Platonism hidden under layers upon layers of superstition.
Similarly, in the best specimens of present-day Islam there are embedded borrowings from Greek wisdom and Persian mysticism. Ordinary Moslems are encouraged to believe that all the highest ideals of humanity which have been absorbed by Moslem culture came to light only with Islam. This deception is perpetrated, consciously or unconsciously, even by writers and thinkers who should know better.
Again, the Buddhism that is followed by millions and that in many ways may be much better than all the other world religions has departed far from the teaching of Gautama Siddhartha. Are common Buddhists aware of this?
We may readily admit that every one of the major world religions played an important role in human history, but this does not mean that we have to submit to those religions and accept all the junk they came with originally and all the junk they accumulated along the way.
The argument that defendants of religion continue to advance in spite of its patent banality, namely, that without belief in an overruling God and in reward and punishment after death all people would behave immorally does not deserve serious consideration. Let any decent person look within her/him/self. A decent person does not behave properly for fear of punishment here or hereafter. There are two sources for the behaviour of ordinary decent human beings. On a lower key, people behave properly because they want to conform to social norms, because they value belonging to society. On a higher key, people do good deeds because, to put it simply, it feels good to do good. Benevolence is as natural as selfishness and anyone who has grown up in a good ambience soon learns by experience that benevolence gives greater satisfaction than selfishness. Providing the opportunity of such experience is indeed the essence of moral education in childhood.
Every time-honoured religious system existing in the world today is the dead body, dried and fossilized, of myths and rituals that may have at one time represented or symbolized something with some meaning in it. It could not have turned up as an established religion if it had not already lost all life and all meaning. It is possible that even today the dead body of a religion may house a living emotion for some of the followers of the religion. The living emotion is the subjective reality of the person concerned and is only accidentlally related to the beliefs and practices of the particular religion. In fact the beliefs and practices hamper and constrain the living subjective experience. But in most cases only individuals with sufficient intelligence, intellectual integrity, and moral courage come to realize this. Unusual circumstanmces may also lead other individuals to this conclusion. It is the duty of thinkers to widen the scope of this realization.
The history of religion on the world scale from the most primitive to the most sophisticated provides a coherent continuity, or at any rate a coherent progression, with the coherence of the evolution of species from primitive protozoa. The valiant, rather quixotic, efforts of theologians of the various religions – even students of Comparative Religion among them – to invent arguments founding their creeds on special revelations are exemplary instances of failure of self-criticism, or refusal to see the simple truth.
As I see it, in philosophy humanity has attained a level of intelligence above that of religion. It is simply unacceptable for humans to continue to think and live on the lower plane of religious thought and feeling. All the reasons and arguments advanced in defence of such religiosity is nothing better than self-deception. And – being the fool that I am – I will go on to alienate those who thus far will have been on my side. I will say that I speak of humanity attaining a higher level of understanding in philosophy, not in science. I reiterate here a position I have often stated.(6) It is not the function of science to give us the understanding we crave; that is the role of philosophy. I readily admit that science has been a most powerful tool in freeing human beings from the slavery of religious superstition. But we still have to realize that while science gives us power and gives us informational knowledge of the phenomenal world, of natural actualities and natural happenings, there remains a kind of epistêmê or rather a kind of insightful ignorance that it is the function of philosophy to give. A scientist finds satisfaction in knowing that water is reducible to hydrogen and oxygen. S/he is content with that knowledge and calls it understanding. A philosopher will say, with Socrates, that that knowledge does not answer the question, What is water? The mystery of oxygen and hydrogen becoming water with all its amazing original characteristics persists. It is the philosophical aporia, the confession of ignorance, that gives us the experience of the immediacy of awareness of that mystery, an awareness that is necessary for ridding us of the worst ignorance, the ignorance in the soul, that enslaves us to the delusion of understanding what we do not understand. In philosophy we learn that the only understanding we have, the understanding we should seek, the understanding that is possible and simultaneously is all important for us, is the understanding of our motives, our emotions, our feelings, our attitudes. This is the understanding that constitutes true liberation. This is the essence of the injunction gnôthi sauton that Socrates gave us for heritage.
As I have put it elsewhere, though perhaps not in these same words, I care little for the god whose creatures we are; I care more for the God whose creators we are.
We humans are all fools and half-insane; it is good literature that gives us a flicker of sanity.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” — We are only wise when we know that all our wisdom is foolishness.
The worst effect of institutionalized religion is that it blocks the way to contemplation, to looking for reality and truth within one. Institutionalized religion is the worst enemy of that religion which A. N. Whitehead finds in what one does with one’s solitariness.
If we choose to take our leave from reason, we can always find a sophisticated Kierkegaardian interpretation of any deed, happening, or text, however irrational; we can invent a higly sophisticated construction for any statement however banal, as the pundits of the so-called scientific interpretation of the Koran have been nauseatingly demonstrating. Or even as some literary critics from time to time demonstrate. True, there is wisdom in folly and sometimes we have to be mad enough to break beyond and through the bonds of accepted wisdom; but we are only properly human when we reason. Some poetry, some art, designedly shows want of coherence and rationality. But unless beneath the apparent incoherence and irrationality there is discoverable coherence and rationality it is not poetry and it is not art. Poetry is communication and art is communication and the condition of communication is intelligibility, coherence, rationality.
A human being cannot live by reason alone, but s/he cannot be human unless s/he live always under the searching beam of reason.
Perhaps a more serious evil that religion wreaks than even all the conflicts, animosities, and killings it inspires is that it kills the sense of wonder in a person. A person who has been fully saturated with religious thought may no longer be liable to experiencing the creative unease which impels a person to keep wondering why and how, since s/he has been habituated to the comfort of being contented with the ready answer: because God wanted it this way; because God made it this way. I will not delve into regions that are not mine, but perhaps historians may find in this an explanation for the stagnation of many a society.
I am all for the Sermon on the Mount. I take its injunctions more seriously, more foolishly, than this or that Pope. But if it comes packaged with Matthew’s hell-fire, with Paul’s obsessions, with John’s mystifications, I would rather give up the whole package. I have all the morality I want in the Crito and the Gorgias and all the spirituality I need in poetry, in philosophy, and in music.
(1) Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers, tr. Richard Crouter, 1988, 1996, p.52.
(2) I use the term ‘real’ in a special sense, for which I would refer the reader to “On What Is Real: An Answer to Quine’s ‘On What There Is’”: http://khashaba.blogspot.com , “Must Values Be Objective”, http://www.philosophos.com/philosophy_article_52.html , and Chapters 5, 6, 7 of Plato: An Interpretation (2005).
(3) A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 1926, pages 16, 47, 58.
(4) The role of myth in human culture – in the spiritual life of humans – is a theme that runs throughout my writings. For a short presentation, see “Philosophy as Prophecy” in my blog: http://khashaba.blogspot.com
(5) Mircea Eliade in Cosmos and History, tr. Willard R. Trask, 1954, 1959, pp.44-6.
(6) See “Explaining Explanation”: http://www.philosophos.com/philosophy_article_135.html - also in my blog: http://khashaba.blogspot.com )
D. R. Khashaba