Tag Archives: religion

Religion from a biological or anthropological point of view

It seems to me that everything we do is for one purpose and one purpose alone, and that is to survive. We eat, sleep, exercise, work, play, wear clothes, buy houses, read, write, speak, listen, study, teach, sing, have sex, defecate, pretty do everything as a way to survive.

We create institutions to survive. Health care, education, science, philosophy and religion are just some of the institutions we have as a way to survive as a group rather than as an individual.

Seen this way, religion is no different to the ballroom dancing club, tennis club, academic associations that we create in order to survive. Religion, God, souls, mind and self, therefore, are concepts to help us, and should be studied as a biological and anthropological necessities. It should be off-limits to scrutiny.

Soul, spirit, psyche, mind

Language influences not only the way we think but also the words we use. In many cases it also limits our choices.

The soul, incorporeal part of which makes a material being “alive”. Seen as that which survives the body’s death. It is what imbues the being with reason, decision and action. The soul is the seat of consciousness, self and essence. Starting with at least Socrates and Plato the soul is seen as separate from the body it occupies.

Related to the wider spirit which is not individuated but animates (giving breath to) matter and sometimes defines what is life from non-life. Spirit, unlike soul, may infuse all things created. In this sense, animism is a religious belief of the spirit in all things.

Psyche, the Greek term for soul and the root word for psychology has to do with the mind in which, in part, is hinted to be more than simply its neuroscientific functioning (by implying soul).

Willing suspension of belief

Most people have heard the phrase willing suspension of disbelief where we ignore inconsistencies in film and fiction in order to allow the work to work its magic, as it were.

So I am suggesting, if one is to move on from their religion one must, in the same manner, be willing to suspend their belief.

When does a soul get created?

As a Buddhist, I do not believe in souls. Talk to most people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and even Buddhists – and they talk as though something survives after death. Such is the power and attraction of the concept of the soul.

Out of curiosity, I asked an American Muslim when is the soul created. He said, “at the moment of conception”. And thereafter it remains either in Heaven or Hell (and also Purgatory if you are Roman Catholic). So the mystery, it seems to me, is that the eternal soul did not start off as eternal but was created out of the grace of God or gods (of which again in Buddhism are concepts).

The problem here is that we have no evidence for these, only that of the textual sources, and not any independent or direct proof of souls and gods as such. Apart from being told by someone else, namely the sacred texts and by those who believe in word of the sacred texts, there is no other proof. Buddhism’s claim that everything is impermanent can be verified by observation. While we cannot observe everything, the weight of non-contrary evidence is substantial. Inferential logic tells us that the soul is perhaps one of these “things” which stands counter to impermanence even though no one can show us any evidence for its existence.

This alone should sound off alarm bells in your head.

While I do not have a problem with the concept of the soul, I do have problem with the belief in the existence of a soul. But at the same time, it is normal to think and believe that such a thing exists. This is something humans do very well, and perhaps defines us from other animals. But it is also natural that some for the human species (Buddhists) to “see through” it, that is, to understand the nature of it.

So it is baffling that in this day and age, where our understanding of the natural physical world has progressed this far, to be still caught in the grips of such an illusion. Powerful indeed is this illusion, passed on from generation to generation through speech and action.

Souls are not created. The concept of a soul is. The concept is perpetuated by its continued reinforcement. The root is therefore in the nature of words and not in the nature of the thing.

Religion is man-made

To me, religion is man-made, not god-made. It serves a purpose similar (if not identical) to that of philosophy and science, two other man-made concepts.

There is nothing “natural” to religion, philosophy or science. If the Christian God were natural then every person and culture would have naturally gravitated toward Christianity. That God is not known to people unless they are told about his existence is proof that God is a construct. If philosophy and being a philosopher is natural then it would have been of the same structure across all cultures. Again, the fact that Confucius is considered a philosopher is wholly a Western construct. The word and concept “philosophy” is Western, and completely foreign to Eastern thinking. Yet again, if science was natural it would have been the same across all cultures at all times. The fact we needed to discover and develop it means it is constructed.

The only thing not “man-made” is matter. We are part of the material world. We come from the material. So are we not part of nature? In other words, we are nature-made. And it is nature, ironically, which had made us to believe in things that are man-made and the god-made.

The Book of Warren (The Unauthorised Revised Version)

In the beginning was a “big bang”. No one is sure how it happened but it happened about 14 billion years ago (in Earth time, that is). All the material in the universe came from this event. The material in the form of dust slowly gathered to form galaxies, suns, planets and satellites through attraction. The planet we call Earth was formed about 4 billion years ago, a little after the formation of the Sun, the star which gives us the energy for our survival, around which we revolve. Life on Earth began around 1 billion years ago in the form of simple cells. Our species – Homo – is perhaps one to two million years old. Civilisation in the form of societies and writing came about perhaps 20,000 years ago. Recognisable society is perhaps 7,000 years old. We know these things because we are smart.

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What should we believe in?

Perhaps you are wondering how I can be a Buddhist and not believe in a god. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English religion is defined as “a belief in one or more gods”. Few would argue with this definition.

I said few.

There are thousands of religions out there. If Justine religion does not include a god or gods within it, then, the definition fails. And Buddhism is one such religion. (Another is Jainism.)

Buddhism is atypical of religions in that it rejects the worship of gods. Buddha is not a god and had never said he was. It should be noted it was those who came afterwards that added the gods, perhaps incorporating aspects of the local culture.

But far from rejecting existence of a god or gods it is, in my opinion, far healthier to accept the concept of a god or gods as part of what it means to be human.