“If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” – Voltaire
Human beings are religious because we know about death. No sooner had man learned to walk on two legs than he had fallen to his knees with the knowledge that he would one day die. It is widely acknowledged by anthropologists and theologians alike that the difference between man and other mammals is that we aware of own mortality. If this is true then it would explain the deep, lifelong search for certainty of what comes next. So deeply has this question moved human beings that it has often driven us to madness, as any study of human history will readily reflect. We have sacrificed children, animals, whole societies, even ourselves on the altar as we strove to know and appease God.
We have waged wars and sought peace, crafted empires and brought down other empires around the idea of finding the gods. The need for religion is one that has persisted throughout ten thousand years of human history and even though we live in a time that is more secular than any other, we have never given up the faith. It is a very hard idea for most people that everything about who you are will one day be no more than a pile of decomposing toxic mush. Why then do we bother to live at all? Why do we have such force and desire behind our emotions, our urge to prosper and build, and our need to make families? If there is no point to any of it, why does any of it even exist?
Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism taught people that through meditations on the attachment we have to worldly things, we could slowly become unattached and obtain freedom from an otherwise never-ending cycle of birth and death, liberating us from the suffering of living. This seemed to take a more thoughtful, personal approach, making reflection on God and life an internal experience to be sought through ideal living and the achievement of deep understanding. While certainly these ideas are not flawless, they were in keeping with Asian philosophies of harmony and duty to the family, as seen in the teachings of Confucius. Taoism also spoke about the need for balance and of flowing with the energies of nature.
The West also held ideas that an ideal life could bring one closer to God, but there was a strong sense of a need for an intermediary such as the priesthood, or the Pope, for the average person to find grace. Islam and Christianity even went so far as to prevent Holy Texts from being translated into the language of the common people for a very long time. The Bible was allowed only to be written in Latin (until the 14th century when a scholar named John Wycliffe labored to translate it to English) and only the clergy knew how to read Latin (1). According to lore, the Pope was so incensed by Wycliffe’s efforts that he had Wycliffe’s bones dug up, ground up, and scattered as punishment for this (1).
The Quran was transmitted in pure Arabic to the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, therefore to put it in any other language was blasphemy as not one single character could be changed (2), so to this day in many Islamic countries, children are taught to read the Quran in Arabic, even though they speak another language entirely (for example, Somalia). Religions have long preached that any aberration from the One True Faith (Islam/ Christianity/ Judaism) was cause for severe punishment. In Saudi Arabia, to this day, the crime of apostasy (abandonment of one’s religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause) is punished via death by beheading. (3)
Why must these religions compete for followers? Why do followers feel driven to convert all others to their way of believing in God? Terry Pratchett, a well-respected author in the United Kingdom as well as the United States, wrote a book (published in 1994) entitled Small Gods, in which he speculated that gods who lack believers cease to have power. This idea is not so far from a very real truth, that the dominant religion of a society wields power over its population of believers and that religious power translates often times into political power. God is something so deeply tied to the core of the human being, there is almost no way to approach the idea of the divine without fear.
A government can promise to look after a person’s physical well-being and that of their living family members, but a religion promises to look after the person’s immortal soul and their dearly departed loved ones. The latter has a surprisingly greater pull because our human fear of death and mortality means that we have been historically more likely to listen to the priests than the chiefs of our tribes and societies. Therefore, anything that grants significant power to a group will be protected and expanded as a survival strategy. Survival of the fittest is not exclusive to the evolution of species, but it is an also an idea that carries over to religious and social development of human societies.
It is to be hoped for that one day there can be peace and unity within the community of those who believe in a spiritual and/ or divine existence that carries over from this life. While it does appear on the foreseeable horizon, it is still a worthy goal to be sought by rational and peace-loving people. However, any idea like that of God and an afterlife, which has persisted through ten thousand years of human history into the era of space travel, is clearly an idea that is embedded in the human psyche and therefore worthy of study and analysis.
1. John L. Jeffcoat (2012). English Bible History Article & Timeline. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/. [Last Accessed 12/14/2012]. 2. Syed Abul ‘Aala Muadoodi (2007). History of the Quran. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dawanet.com/nonmuslim/intro/scriptur/scriptq.html. [Last Accessed 12/14/2012]. 3. Professor Will Huhn (02/12/2012). Hazma Kashgari Faces Death Penalty in Saudi Arabia for Apostasy. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ohioverticals.com/blogs/akron_law_cafe/2012/02/hazma-kashgari-faces-death-penalty-in-saudi-arabia-for-apostasy/. [Last Accessed 12/14/2012].
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