20 May 2008

What is religion, really?

"Well that's easy isn't it?" my good buddy "Roger" asks rhetorically, who I used to call "Bob" on this blog, but occasionally, I get another reader named Bob who reads my blog, so I've changed his name. "Religion is where you have this central supernatural premise and you structure your life around that."

"But Roger," I say, "What about Confucianism?"

He scoffs, "It's not a religion. It's a code of ethics."

Now Roger might be on to something, but I tend to view this sort of thing a bit differently. When I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I had a real problem with his view of what religion is. Essentially, it's a belief system underpinned by some kind of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

The problem with this definition, is that according to Dawkins, we should now view such spiritual pursuits as acupuncture and feng shui as religions. You can, of course see the problem that I have with this, particularly when this definition excludes Confucianism, which doesn't really have much in the way of metaphysics.

So I'm casting my mind back to when I was a kid, and I asked someone something about what religion was. It might have been my dad. I'm not really sure.

Anyway, the person who I asked responded with this:

"Religion is a bunch of teachings. You know how there's Christianity? It's called that, because it's the teachings of this guy called 'Jesus Christ'. Buddhism is the teachings of this bloke named 'Buddha'. Confucianism is named after 'Confucius'. And so on."

"What about Islam?" I remember asking.

"It used to be called 'Mohammedanism'. The teachings of Mohammed."

So over time, religion has registered more with me as a code of ethics. I've largely viewed the fairy godfather thing as optional.

So how did the metaphysical aspect of religion take centre stage? I'd rather like to hear the answer to this one, because the whole point of religion, at least from what I can grasp is to impose a code of ethics on people. Sure, there's this almost Santa Claus-esque, "Scare the bejesus out of them and they'll obey," quality to it, but a lot of what's discussed in the major religious texts are fairly much just plain ordinary ethics.

Christ talks about doing unto others what you would have them doing unto you. Mohammed made the point that unarmed enemies are innocent, and therefore should not be harmed. In The Analects, Confucius discusses something similar to Christ, which was recorded by Mencius a good 550 years BC.

On the whole, if you take out the metaphysical stuff and the stuff which is clearly self-interested farting, you are actually left with a rather hefty code of ethics.

This is where the more smart-arsed of you lot are going to say, "Hey Dikkii. Don't the professional bodies representing acupuncturists and feng shui exponents publish codes of ethics for their members?"

They might, but if you're going to trivialise this by that reference, why don't we expand the discussion and call financial planning and medicine religions? After all, the AMA and the FPA have their own codes of ethics?

Of course, this would be silly. The ethics that I'm referring to are more generalised than professional ethics. What Buddha, Vyasa, Paul of Tarsus and the like are trying to convey in their writings is how one should live one's life. And they're using the tried and tested carrot and stick approach - do A and be rewarded. Do B and be punished.

The problem was a few of them got carried away: Buddha's central message was not, find nirvana or be endlessly reincarnated. Christ's was not, "Love me or go to Hell" although He did say this a bit in passing. Christ might have had His bad days where He thought everyone was fucked, but He was a moody bastard and prone to this sort of thing. Really, this was something that was blown out of perspective by later chroniclers in the same way that the media will seize on controversial stuff because it sells.

Buddha was all about finding peace. Christ (in His better moods) kept coming back to people being excellent to each other.

Tarsus is a real prick at this sort of thing. You know, the more I read the letters that Tarsus wrote, the more that I think that the guy was seriously pathological verging on paranoid - let's face it, the fact that he was a misogynist homophobe was just the tip of the iceberg. He was unafraid to just make shit up and he'd do this blatantly in order to get his point across.

John the Evangelist (who may or may not also have been John the Apostle) doesn't fare much better, although the Gospel according to John is seriously the most sabotaged piece of holy writing that I have had the bad grace to come across. Which is kinda weird, because when Christian apologists reference stuff from the gospels, nine times out of ten (in my humble opinion), they'll go straight to John to reference it. John is the only gospel to really bignote John the Apostle ("the apostle whom Jesus lurved"), and is also the only real attempt to explain the trinity model.

I should point out here that I'm using biblical references because they're the ones that I know best. I don't really know much about the qur'an, the mahabharata and the kama sutra except in passing only. But the end result is the same, except for the kama sutra. (It was porn then - and it really hasn't changed over the years.)

I have digressed, but the central point is clear - amongst the fire and brimstone, heavenly virgins awaiting martyrs, expectant mothers holding off births in the hope that their child is a reincarnated lama - the central messages of these religions has been completely lost. And that is a short bunch of tips to live your life as a better person. The metaphysical part remains incidental, and so it should.

This brings me up to a couple of things that I noticed when I read The Da Vinci Code, originally. Dan Brown got a lot of stuff way wrong when he originally wrote this, but there were a few things that he hinted at, or discussed explicitly which make some sense. And I might just point out, again, that while this is specifically biblical, it could relate to any holy text out there:

1. It's not just commentators like Leonardo da Vinci who are capable of inserting injokes into Christian history

This is pretty clear from the outset. There are some obvious errors which are dead giveways for this. Matthew Levi and Luke the Gentile are pretty darn skeptical about the virgin birth. So much so, that they preface their accounts of the virgin birth with conflicting genealogies of Jesus... on Joseph of Nazareth's side!!! Levi and The Gentile have cleverly inserted their own commentary regarding the claims of a virgin birth - and it can be summed up in one word: "rubbish!"

The other theory is that the bits about the virgin birth were pious frauds inserted later on. Again, someone, if not Levi or The Gentile were clearly having a good chuckle in leaving Nazareth's genealogies in. You've just gotta laugh, dont you?

This second one makes more sense - Brown writes that Christ's divinity was in doubt until the Council of Nicaea, and given the much later date of the (finalised) gospels, what's a little bit of pious fraud here and there? And if you were serious about the virgin birth, wouldn't you erase the genealogy bits? Someone had a sense of humour.

2. Patriarchal religions expose the worst aspects of male bonding

Really, you get a bunch of blokes together, they're going to come out with stories about how good/powerful their dads are sooner or later. Christ was surrounded by a bunch of guys who were either family, former outcasts or notorious two-faced toadies like Simon Peter. So of course, when He comes out with stuff like, "My Father will smash everyone," this is the signal to change the subject over to fishing or carpentry.

We only remember Christ's words on this stuff, because He was the alpha male, but it would be interesting to know what went undocumented from the mouths of His mates. Judas Iscariot, James The Brother Of Jesus and John The Apostle are the only ones in the group who appear capable of following orders.

Someone who would be interesting would be the aforementioned Peter. Peter himself was nearly as much of a sexist as Tarsus, and was a treacherous hard-arse to boot.

So really, is it a surprise that the early Christian church owes it's very livelihood to sexist pigs like Tarsus and Peter?

And why wouldn't they beef up the metaphysical aspect to further their own agendas while the ethics message - the core message vanishes amongst the whizbang special effects that seems to typify Christianity these days?

So back to my original point.

Would it be fair to say that where there's the faintest hint of something supernatural, the original ethical message gets completely forgotten? I asked Roger to suppose that if we viewed religion as the ethical bit and considered the supernatural side of things to be incidental might this change his view of what a religion is?

"No." said Roger. "A religion is just as much shaped by it's subsequent practitioners as by it's original crafters. Confucius' work has largely remained untouched by a dogmatic hierarchy. Plus, he didn't see the need to muddy the message with even the vaguest hint of metaphysics.

"Really, if you're inclined towards religion, isn't hard-core ethics just the slightest bit unsexy?

I'm not sure if I agree with him. What do you think?


Ms Chris said...

I don't think the ethics came first in most organic religions; rather, we now focus on the ethics because it's what modern thinkers find most appealing about religions. Even if Jesus' contemporaries actually perceived him as an altogether human ethics teacher, they still believed in Yahweh, and would have seen Jesus' teachings as supplements to their existing belief system. (Also, the teachers who are still remembered today generally attracted some attention in their day; it's entirely plausible that they were able to do unusual things that looked like miracles to their peers, leading to claims of supernatural abilities.)

Most religions, or rather religiosity in general, started when pre-scientific peoples sought to explain why bad things happen: why is there a drought? why is there a flood? what happened to the sun? why did my crops/cows/children die? Why are bad things happening to us?

The pre-scientific answer to these questions, particularly the ones that involve weather or other things falling out of the sky, is that Someone Up There can and will harm us sometimes, for his/her own inscrutable reasons. This Big Bastard in the Sky might simply have an arbitrarily cruel and capricious nature, or might occasionally play favorites against us, particularly if we don't provide enough sacrifice or tribute. These were especially common traits of gods in polytheistic cultures, as it was then possible to believe in gods of limited authority, differing opinions, etc., who'd fight over how a particular person or nation should be treated. (Note that in the earliest written bits of the OT, Yahweh is portrayed as the best or most powerful of the gods, due to his favoritism toward the Israelites; he's not seen as the only existing god until much later. If nothing else, the OT is an interesting study in the evolution of a particular religion.)

As monotheism gradually replaced polytheism in most cultures, it no longer felt right to attribute favoritism or random cruelty to One True God who supposedly cares about everyone, all the time - so this Someone came to be seen as a Big Judge in the Sky, watching us and doling out punishment and reward on a merit basis. At this point, ethics by necessity moved to the foreground, but without displacing the supernatural beliefs.

(Over time, even the Big Judge in the Sky theory seemed too simplistic; anyone with eyes and a finger could point to a virtuous man who'd suffered and a vile man who'd prospered - so new explanations like "god enables evil to exist in the world to give mankind a chance to prove its goodness" and "good people will meet their true reward in the afterlife" began to crop up.)

Apologies for the length here - this is a subject I'm slightly obsessed with, when I'm not obsessing over the (US) elections...

Dikkii said...

Hi Ms Chris, and welcome back.

I don’t think I dispute the bit about the supernatural coming first, I just don’t understand why so much importance is placed on it by the religious, when the really good bit is the ethics.

The thing is, Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and everyone else (when they weren’t being sidetracked by the metaphysical aspect) were really about trying to get people to just be nice.

Take this as an example: if you ask a Christian or a muslim about why one should consider Christianity or Islam as a lifestyle, you are likely to get the spiel about rewards and punishments first, and then how it can make you a better person second.

(Which really raises the question – do the religious adhere to their ethics out of a genuine desire to be nice to people, or is it because they are motivated by self-interest? I should create a questionnaire around this.)

On the other hand, because Confucianism (and to some extent Buddhism) has nothing except ethics to offer, if you were to ask a Confucianist about embracing Confucianism, they would have no choice but to point out the ethical side of things.

Of course, as Roger points out, ethics on their own are decidedly “unsexy”.

phoenix said...

Hello Dikkii,

Now, MY idea of a religion is that it is a teaching that is based around the power of some ultra being or 'God'... something that is greater than any of us. In Christianity we are told that we have to follow His word but that we can never hope to emulate Him. He tells us that we will never be equal to Him, but He demands that we live by His laws regardless of whether or not He's following the same laws in respect to us. At the same time we are told that God is the father of all of us, and as such he can do whatever he damned well pleases with us... fair or unfair... by whatever means he sees fit to employ. And if, by chance, one of us questions His decisions, He demands that all others reciprocate against us on his behalf.

If this is religion, then perhaps we could look at the laws of the Mafia as a religious teaching as well. Many of the same rules apply. For that matter, theoretically an animal trainer could proclaim himself to be a god simply because there are other, lesser beings who follow his word and do as he teaches them to. :o)

On the other hand, Buddhism and Confucianism are the words of humble humans. Neither Buddha nor Confucius ever pretended to be gods, I don't think. They simply made observations on the world and came up with some wise words that took into consideration the other humble beings on the planet. Their basic teachings are much the same as religion though, if you take out all the fire and brimstone stuff. They also preach love, peace and understanding. The difference is that they don't find the need to use terror as a tool. They don't scare people into believing as mainstream religions do, they put forward their case and say 'this is what has worked for me, I hope that it helps you'... they coax and urge gently, one could say.

Perhaps this is the difference between a religion and a following. Religious tenets require no proof and depend on fear and superstition to promote the word (eg, this is what I say, follow my word or else burn in hell's fires), whereas men like Buddha and Confucius used the world around them to illustrate what they thought were virtues (eg, even a lowly ant deserves the same respect that we would wish for ourselves).

My opinion is this... religion demands that we are lowly creatures that can never hope to amount to anything other than to be some supreme being's favoured pet. In that case, I think both Buddha and Confucius would be all too happy to have their teachings seen as decidedly un-religious.

Dikkii said...

G'day Phoenix. Welcome back, and say hi to Gryphonn for me.

You wrote:

Perhaps this is the difference between a religion and a following. Religious tenets require no proof and depend on fear and superstition to promote the word... whereas men like Buddha and Confucius used the world around them to illustrate what they thought were virtues (eg, even a lowly ant deserves the same respect that we would wish for ourselves).

This is true. I suppose that I wrote this post because I tend to look beyond the reward and punishment system to see what really is being taught. Your mafia example, by the way is a good one, except that kinda takes the reward and punishment thing to the extreme, and forgets about the ethics bit almost entirely - and yes, I do get that "loyalty" and "silence" are meant to be mafia ethics. But can you call a paragraph a "code" of ethics?

Buddha, incidentally did push karma as a sort of reward and punishment system, but it does appear that he mercifully didn't appear to need to mention it all the time.

My opinion is this... religion demands that we are lowly creatures that can never hope to amount to anything other than to be some supreme being's favoured pet.

I like this definition, because it manages to remove feng shui and acupuncture from the list. Sadly, though, if I was to make up a religion that had us as beings in a cosmic goldfish bowl with no ethical requirements and the only constant was that there was this owner looking at us all the time, this would classify as a religion. I like to think that a "religion" has more to offer than this.

I think both Buddha and Confucius would be all too happy to have their teachings seen as decidedly un-religious.

I think that you could be right. And if they were around today with your American Christian right and your (mostly) middle eastern muslim fanatics, they would be the first to agree.

Here's one for you - what do you think about corporate cults like Anthony Robbins, Landmark and Amway where there's no "ultra being", just (questionable, IMHO) instructions for living one's life? A following? If the fans are fanatics, does it still continue to be following and not a religion?

morisetn said...

Tarsus? Not the city or the eyelid but the person? This is a new one for me. I've read Dan's seminal work and it pissed me off.

As per ms chris, primitive religion had nothing to do with ethics. It had everything to do with trying to exert control over a life that seemed random and unexplainable. Some "wise" person would be asked to make sense of the chaos and out of this a religion was born. That person would be seen as a leader in the tribe. When sedentary living and urban centres first appeared due to the spread of agriculture and domestication, issues of ethics and how to live as communities came to a centre stage of religion. People now owned property and didn't want it stolen. It was now possible to covet someone's wife. The religious code of ethics is for me an early court system.

Dikkii said...

Tarsus? Not the city or the eyelid but the person?

Morisetn, I've been reasonably consistent, I think, in following my style guide decrees to date - this one is to refer to people by their surname (no matter how silly) in the second and subsequent instances.

Thus Paul of Tarsus, Joseph of Nazareth and Simon Peter become "Tarsus", "Nazareth" and "Peter" respectively.

This is a new one for me. I've read Dan's seminal work and it pissed me off.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed it the first time around - although I recently re-read it, and I'm a little bit embarrassed with myself. Mind you, knowing the plot spoils it a bit. Try watching that excellent movie "The Usual Suspects" a second time - you'll see what I mean.

I'm not disputing the order in which things happened, as per Ms Chris and yourself. I just don't, as I said before, understand why the supernatural part is given prominence - it should really be obiter dicta. The ethics is the bit I focus on.

Mind you - here's another question: if a religious system focuses on the supernatural or the rewards and discipline at the expense of the the ethical, is that a sign that the ethics is deficient?

I wish I'd thought of that question before typing my post.

Dunc said...

Thought-provoking stuff, but I'm afraid I think you're barking up the wrong tree. Religions are not primarily systems of belief or ethics - they are social and political institutions. They use the ethics as means to attract members, and the supernatural metaphysics both as an in-group marker and as a means of asserting power over their members.

There simply isn't a hard-and-fast rule as to what makes a religion different from other social and political institutions. It's a rhetorical term, not a scientific one.

Dikkii said...

Hi Dunc,

There simply isn't a hard-and-fast rule as to what makes a religion different from other social and political institutions. It's a rhetorical term, not a scientific one.

That's a bit disappointing. At this rate, I might just dispense with the term "religion" outright.