THIS week, the only time when we think of things beyond, even as rituals of Christianity dominate our days, perhaps is a good time to critique, as modern man has to, what centuries or even just decades ago, we could not question at all religion.
Evolutionary scientists have pointed out that even without religion, homo sapiens through millions of years of its biological and cultural evolution had to develop—or perish—what clerics mystify as God-given values of charity (cooperation) and love. (See for example, Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.)
Indeed, there hasn’t been found yet a tribe or society built on the values of selfishness and cruelty. Of course, no such society will ever be found since the members of such a tribe or society would have over the centuries killed each other to extinction. In the long run, as archaeologists have argued quite rigorously, the selfish member of a tribe gets to be exposed as such and either exterminated or banished.
As sociologists using game theory have pointed out, the best game plan is to be sometimes selfish, sometimes selfless—which is after all how most rational people live their lives. Even the most selfish individual in his twilight years gets to be good.
Is it just a coincidence that nearly all religions that flourished in humanity’s history were not just state religions, but religions of empires — Christianity that of the Roman Empire since Emperor (“Saint”) Constantine, and its successor the European states; Islam that of the empires of the caliphates and sultanates up to the modern era’s Ottoman Empire. No wonder Zen Buddhism — whose teachings rulers can’t use to subjugate peoples — never got to be a widespread religion.
Is it coincidental that that kings and their nobles claimed and ruled as God’s representatives on earth which allowed them to live off the blood and sweat of the toiling tenants? Did Spain get to rule over us for three centuries through force of arms and its higher level of culture, or through religion that convinced the people that they were children of God, whom the friars and the Spanish conquistadores represented, and therefore must obey?
Humanity’s real problem has been the penchant of a tribe or a nation, because again of human evolutionary history, to exploit and even exterminate the other tribe or nation. The reasons for this run deep, perhaps ingrained in our DNA from the time millennia ago when resources were so scarce that a tribe’s survival required it to take the other’s hunting and foraging lands and get rid of the other. Or because it is etched in our collective mind that strangers bring disease to a tribe, which has not developed the immunities required.
Religions seem powerless to solve this problem, and may even have worsened it. Religions, which most tribes use as one of their distinguishing feature as against other tribes, have been used as justification for the cruelest wars in history.
How many times have we heard in YouTube videos that spine-tingling cry “Allahu Akbar!” while humans are beheaded, or even torched. But wasn’t it Christians and their Crusades in the Middle Ages who invented the notion of a Holy War, in order to expel the Muslims and recapture where Yeshua their founder walked the earth?
It is only religion, and nothing else, that can prod a young man to kill scores of infidels with the bomb that also blows him to smithereens, since he believes that there will be an afterlife for a mujahideen like him where he will enjoy 72 virgins.
The most basic appeal of religion is that it brainwashes one into believing that he is immortal, that he will be merely moving to a different kind of existence when he dies; for Filipinos perhaps, just like migrating to the US or Canada.
That’s certainly an attractive notion for one of the exploited class who has lived a life of misery and pain. Death will mean his moving to a better world.
That’s also great news if you’re with the exploiting class, that your huge donation to build your local church would get you the visa to enter that territory Christians call Heaven.
It’s a recurring notion in most of the world religions: Muslims call it Jannah, the Hindus Swarga Loka, Romans the Elysian Fields, and the Vikings Valhalla, with its giant beer-drinking hall. But it is no longer a universal belief: ask a Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or a Scandinavian and he’ll reply a bit embarrassingly, “We hardly think of that.”
Still, the notion of a heavenly afterlife is so powerful that modern man is unable to shed it off, even if it goes against his rationality. There has been in fact a resurgence of the fantasy, with the plethora of best-selling books on “heaven” that have made millions of dollars for their clever authors in the US.
This is despite the fact there is nothing in the “heaven” they depict that hasn’t been in Christian depictions of it in art and fiction for centuries. A book written about a mujahideen’s encounter with 72 virgins in the afterlife, I bet, would probably be an instant hit. (The doctor who attended to best-selling “Proof of Heaven” author Dr. Eben Alexander when he claimed that he had died, reported in Esquire that he was in a medically induced coma, and was hallucinating.)
New scientific discoveries understood really only by professional physicists through abstract equations have been hijacked by creative writers to propound a theory that when one dies, he lives “alternate lives” – a la quantum physics’ “multiverses”– as a recent movie, The Discovery, dramatized.
What religion robs us of with its fiction that we are immortal is life itself, the enjoyment of the here and now.
Is it so terrible that in this vast cosmos, this unique creature, because of random events in immense stretches of time we cannot comprehend, has been given the opportunity, even if only for a limited time, to become aware of himself and of the universe, to enjoy life, love, family, friendship and achievements?
Why is that void in the future so fearsome when we really came from a void we don’t even remember?
“Be here now” is the mantra not just of mystics through the centuries, like Ramana Maharishi, Osho, and now Eckhart Tolle, but of a scientist like Sigmund Freud, who wrote:
“A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely.”