The Case for a New Religion, Part I


 “One form of religion perpetually gives way to another.  If religion did not change it would be dead.  In the long history of man’s search for God and the basis for right living, the changes always come as something better.  Each time the new ideas appear, they are seen at first as a deadly foe threatening to make religion perish from the earth, but in the end there is a deeper insight and a better life with ancient follies and prejudices gone.”

Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way.

“God has become more remote and more incomprehensible, and, most important of all, of less practical use to men and women who want guidance and consolation in living their lives…However—and this is vital—the fading of God does not mean the end of religion.  God’s disappearance is in the strictest sense…a theological process; and while theologies change, the religious impulses which gave them birth persist.

“The disappearance of God means a recasting of religion, and a recasting of a fundamental sort.  It means the shouldering by man of ultimate responsibilities which he had previously pushed off on God…

“The prophesy of science about the future of religion is that the religious impulses will become progressively more concerned with the organization of society…”

Julian Huxley in Man in the Modern World

“…any such startling event as is sure to arise sooner or later, may serve as a nucleus to a new order of things that will be more in harmony with both the heads and hearts of the people.”

Samuel Butler in Erewhon

SYNOPSIS:

There can be no question but that, throughout history, religion has played a major role in human affairs.  Whereas its performance has been decidedly mixed—often advantageous, sometimes clearly detrimental—what cannot be challenged is the power it has demonstrated along the way.  In recent times, the influence of religion has been diluted largely by the advent of scientific knowledge, but, as anecdotal evidence repeatedly suggests, its latent power still resides alive and well in the human soul.  In the opinion of the author, that power, if harnessed, could be of major benefit to mankind.  To unleash this formidable force, he suggests that a new religion, freed from theist dogma and ancient texts, be promulgated.  And to this end, he humbly proffers “Cartism,” a set of twelve religious tenets compatible with science and in tune with today’s culture.  A distinguishing feature of Cartism is its applicability to the behavior of organizations, private and governmental, as well as to that of individuals.  Given the new lease on life offered by Cartism, religion could once more undertake its traditional role—that it to say, exert its extraordinary power to make us live more righteously than we would otherwise.  As to the practicality of his scheme, the author points out that our religious beliefs have already under­gone numerous instances of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and there is no reason to believe it is incapable of yet another such transformation.

A FEW PRELIMINARY REMARKS:

First, let me say it’s impossible to make a case for a new religion without risking annoyance on the part of both believers and skeptics who are, no doubt, perfectly happy with their chosen affiliation.  I would want to make clear, however, that, despite my differing opinion, I have nothing but respect for those holding strong, altruistic convictions.  Indeed, I will count on those qualities as I try to introduce a possible new way of looking at things.

Second, given the multiplicity of interpretations that can be drawn from the word, ‘religion,’ it would be virtu­ally impossible to discuss the subject intelligibly without initial agreement on a working definition.  For the purposes of this article, ‘religion’ refers to a system that applies a formalized, enforceable set of rules upon the personal behavior of the members of a given group.  In short, religion is treated herein, in its broader sense, as a social phenomenon rather than as an obser­vance of a particular accepted faith.

Third, one cannot discuss religion without invoking the name of God, but the question is always, which God?  Again exercising my prerogative as author, I intend to arbitrarily exclude those theist interpretations that refer to a nebulous, passive creator who had simply set things in motion and let them take their course thereafter.  Whether such a figure is called a life-force, fate, karma, nirvana or one of a dozen other similar terms, its vagueness precludes any useful role in debate.  The God of whom I speak is the same one who resides—albeit, I’m sure, more comfortably—in the Bible.

OUR UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Why stir up religious controversy?  Isn’t there enough controversy as it is?  Well, yes and no.  If one is sanguine about humanity’s future, the answer is, as far as religion is concerned, leave well enough alone.  And this view may well be justified.  On the other hand, there is plenty of room for an opposing, pessimistic view.  There are too many millions of underprivileged people living in squalor and billions in penury; too many tribal conflicts being fought by children bearing assault rifles; too many terrorist organizations; too many laboratories de­veloping biological weapons; too many nuclear weapons in our arsenals; too much economic turmoil; too many potentially dangerous technologies such as robotics, and genetics, and nanotechnology; too much envi­ronmental degradation; too much prevent­able disease; too big an increase in population; and so on.  Yes, maybe a new generation of visionary world leaders takng advantage of new technologies will put it all to right, but I wouldn’t count on it.  In any case, it wouldn’t hurt to have in place a second, more dependable, more powerful means of protecting mankind’s future, a new religion.

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM:

Consider the set of skills demanded of the successful cave dweller.  Throughout the dim begin­nings of human evolution, the contest between different species of humanoids must have fueled a never-ending, life-and-death struggle for resources and ter­ritory.  Heads were bashed in first and ques­tions asked later.  Nor would conflict have necessarily been confined to skirmishes between species thanks to interspecies rivalry between clans.  And even within his own clan our cave dweller would have had to demonstrate aggression whenever his place in the hierarchy was challenged—‘might makes right’ being not merely a slogan, but a fact of life learned at the knee.  In short, the traits we now regard as anti-social—brutality, enmity, short-temperedness, hatred, cunning, greed, fear, domination, distrust—would have been essential adaptations.

More amiable traits must have been useful to our cave dweller as well.  We can surmise that—all other factors being equal—any clan whose internal dynamics depended exclusively on every-ape-for-himself brute force would have been at a disadvantage against more cohesive clans that placed a high priority on cooperation, altruism, and self-motivation.  Thus evolution would have favored groups in which a cave dweller’s standing depended on whether he displayed friendliness or hostility toward fellow clansmen; whether he shared a kill he had made; whether, in the hunt, he had stepped  forward to help spear the beast; whether his mate provided care when fever struck; and so on.  For the most selfish of reasons, then, cave dwellers must have polished their social virtues within the group with the same ardor they exhibited viciousness outside it.

Given these conditions, need there remain any mystery as to the origin of our so-called dual nature?  Obviously not.  For the overwhelming preponder­ance of human history—something like ninety-five percent—mankind wasn’t schizoid.  The traits that we now distinguish as good or evil were both good.  Thus we are stuck with eradicable enmity towards those we regard as foreign and eradicable bonds of friendship toward those with whom we are familiar.

THE PROBLEM’S SOLUTION:

Based solely on the forgoing, one would have to conclude that the barbaric side of human nature would have forever restricted us to primitive, self-contained hunter-gatherer clans.  Obviously that has not been the case.  Some additional factor must have intervened to make larger groupings possible.  That factor was religion.

Both the archaeological evidence and our investigation of the great apes suggest that, from the very beginning, our primitive ancestors had the ability to abstract information.  We can assume, therefore, that as they acquired the abil­ity to capture those abstractions as words as early as 200,000 years ago, they went about naming everything that impinged upon their lives—rocks that they could shape and those they could not, plants edible and inedible, woods that could be worked and those that were too hard or soft, and, of course, animals that could be safely hunted and those too dangerous.  And once those things had been named, our ancestors found their new labels could convey some corresponding, more abstract, characteris­tics.  For example, they might have applied the word ‘deer’ to a particularly fleet-footed boy and, with the addition of verbs, Tom the ‘deer’ could be dispatched to fetch firewood before a waning campfire died.  Thus, as time went on, words served to cre­ate more and more interconnecting strands linking the primi­tives to their environment and to each other.

Among the elements affecting our ancestors’ lives most forcefully were those over which they had no control.  One week their waterholes would be filled with sweet refreshment and, a fortnight later, be caked with mud; their foodstuffs made plentiful or scarce; and their personal com­fort either advanced or denied.  And since they recognized a cause-and-effect linkage in those things they could control, it was only natural for them to assume there was likewise a cause behind those things they could not.  Surely there was some power that made the skies blacken and storms unleash, the air electrify, and forests catch fire.  Just as there must have been a cause for one woman to be fertile and the next sterile, for some children to succumb to disease and others spared, for one hunter to be trampled to death and another miracu­lously escape injury.  It is not difficult to imagine, then, that our ancestors would give these unseen, but very real, powers, the name of gods.

As they crouched on the floor of their caves, these forebears of ours made note of the hierarchy that pre­vailed in the forest outside.  Thanks to their improved stone tools and hunting skills they had no trouble anointing themselves king of beasts, but they could not help being acutely aware of their inferiority compared to the gods so they unhesitatingly raised them to the very apex of the power pyramid.

How natural it must have been, then, for our ancestors, eager to influ­ence the mighty gods in their behalf, to begin hurling linguistic messenger lines at them.  And when it appeared that they had indeed responded favorably to at least some of their entreaties, our ancestors must have been sufficiently encouraged to pass along ever more ro­bust lines of communication until man’s two-way link to his new gods was capable of channeling their prayers and receiving return messages.  Now our forbearers could imagine they had answer to their many perplexities.  What made the sun rise and the moon disappear and the sea­sons change?  Why did a few brighter stars move dif­ferently than the others?  Their all-powerful, all-knowing gods controlled all these things.

History does not reveal how long it took for the shrewdest clan members to seize control of these communication channels.  I suspect it was not long because the takeover was so rewarding.  Once a new shaman established himself as the god’s exclusive mouthpiece, he was in position to dispense their favors and punishments.  And with that authority came the perks of the office.  While the clan’s laymen were out risking their necks hunting boar,  the shaman could contentedly stay in the cave, chow down last night’s leftovers, and, having eaten his full, turn his attention to the handsomest of the clan’s unattended females.  And thus was the trail blazed for the many generations of holy men to follow.

More pertinent to our story was the spiritual authority assumed by the new shaman.  Thanks to his ability to call upon his flock’s religious impulses that reached practically as far back in time as their most basic instincts, he could, as it were, fight fire with fire.  In short, the brutish side of mankind’s character had met its match.

RELIGION OPENS THE DOOR TO CIVILIZATION

Clans would always have had reason to coalesce.  Larger groupings would have been better able to defend themselves, secure more territory, and support more specialists.  On the other hand their mutual enmity would have made them so chary of uniting that they would never have gotten around to it but for the intercession of religious authority. With shamans running the show, neighboring clansmen could be persuaded to merge their circles of brotherhood and peaceably join.  The two united clans would then have had the numbers to subsume a third, and so on, until entire tribes took form and the march toward ever larger groupings begun.  A turning point in the cultural history of mankind had been reached.

There might be reason to quibble over some particulars with my thumbnail (some might say “oversimplified”) account, but not its main point—i.e., religion played an essential role in the evolution of modern man.  That seemingly sweeping statement is irrefutably anchored in the historical record.  My proof: the fact that every known culture on earth has a religious history.  This holds true for peoples in all climes from the most tropic to the most frigid, for every size grouping from the lowliest hamlet to the largest metropolis, from the most primitive isolated tribes to the most sophisticated populations, and from the most poverty stricken to the wealthiest.  There can be only two explanations for religion’s universality. One option is that religion was already embedded in mankind’s makeup before individual branches diverged out of Africa and that each of those branches retained its original religiosity through the ages.  Alternatively, it could be argued that each culture developed its particular religion independently.  Either way, it is clear that the universality of religion was no accident.  Religion must have been an indispensible adaptation for human survival.  Could there have been groups that failed to develop a religious defense against extinction?  Possibly.  The point is that they are not around to tell their story.

THE STATE OF RELIGION TODAY

Throughout recorded history religion continued to play a major role, both beneficial and malevolent, in mankind’s affairs.  It spurred exploration of the seas, moved armies across continents, seized lands, evicted entire populations, sponsored artistic endeavors, persecuted dissenters, initiated bloody conflicts, preserved ancient writings, administered far flung areas, dispensed charities, swindled the poor, appointed and dethroned monarchs, and, for diversion along the way, burned martyrs at the stake.  Indeed, mankind’s political history and religious experience are so interlocked it is impossible to separate the two.

In opposition to my thesis, I’m sure there are those who would grant the validity of these historical arguments but nevertheless consider them irrelevant in today’s world.  Religion, these sophisticates would say is an artifact of bygone days being swept aside by science.  They might grant that remnants remain as the detritus of thousands of years of acculturation, but these too will inevitably disappear with time.  In any case, my atheist friends would argue, there is no legitimate role for religion in today’s events.

And they would not have to look far for evidence in support of their opinion.  Signs of religion’s impotence are everywhere.  In Europe young people have left the church in droves.  In the United States, the once dominant, traditional faiths are being elbowed aside by a factious array of evangelicals, new era enthusiasts, and an assorted collection of nondescript cults.  Rather than a sign of religious renewal, the proliferation of mega-churches is another symptom of the same downward trend.  Religious services in themselves are not popular enough stand on their own; what it takes to hold the faithful together is a massive investment in bowling alleys and basketball courts.   Similarly, the rise of Islamic extremism, beneath its histrionics, is one more indication of religion’s internal weakness in today’s world—its rabidly insecure leadership understandably terrified that Islam cannot survive modernity.

In its less benign manifestations, religious divisiveness yields not simply discord but out and out brutality ranging from sectarian violence to ethnic cleansing,  from outright persecution to final-solution extermination, from terrorist attacks to open warfare.  Against a background chorus of pious mumblings from church leaders on be­half of world peace, Muslims and Christians attack one another in Egypt, Lebanon, Chechnya, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Sudan, and God knows where else;   Catholics and Protestant still skirmish in Ireland; Greek Orthodox Slavs vie against Albanian Muslims  in the Balkans; Hindu versus Sikh on the Indian subcontinent; Israeli Jews struggle with Palestinian Muslims; and the melancholy list goes on.  All too often, it appears, God’s message of universal love has to be emphasized by bursts of machinegun fire.

UNDERMINING RELIGION’S POTENCY

The multiple difficulties faced by religion nowadays primarily stem from their blind adherence to their ancient texts.  Like Morley’s ghost in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, they are immutably bound by heavy chains to these dogeared volumes—destined to painfully drag them through time come what may.

Really I cannot cease to wonder what it is about these holy writs that so binds the faithful to them.  Surely these people are aware that they hearken back to a time when writ­ers were notoriously lackadaisical with respect to accuracy.  The priorities of scribes back then were to amuse, to dramatize, to enhance their individual reputations, and, most importantly, to dish out wartime propaganda in support of their particular tribe. Verifiable truth was the last thing they had on their minds.  Even if one sets aside the sacred texts’ hyperbole, ignores their fiction, and tries to concentrate instead on their substantive meaning, he will still find them frustrated reading—their kernel of instructive moral messages all but smothered in repetitive, mind-numbing exaltations to their respective divinities.

Then, of course, is the question believers should ask themselves: which of these texts is the authentic one?  Should one embrace the King James version of the Christian Bible, the Roman Catholic version, the Koran, the Veda, or the Talmud to name but a few of the score or so holy writs being heralded as God’s irrefutable word?  To my mind, any impartial person faced with a choice between them would have to conclude that only one, at the very most, was legitimate.

Religion’s obsessive habit of digging into the past exposes it to a contagion best left buried, the ancient plague of absolutism.  Absolutism practically guarantees that the uncompromising position of one denomination will encroach on that of a competing faith, and tensions rise accordingly.  As a result, even in its most benign version controversies such as whether or not to approve abortion, allow or disallow polygamy, honor the Sabbath on Saturday or on Sunday, consider the collection of interest a normal business practice or as usury, taxation of church property or not, subsidize religion or not, require women to wear a headscarf or not, allow religious observances in public schools or maintain strict separation, and so on.  Thus the adherents of religion are forced to fritter away their moral authority on spurious issues—issues that have nothing to do with religion’s core responsibility and everything to do with distracting it from fulfilling its vital role.

Then there is the more serious matter of interpretation.  The more liberal minded among the faithful feel they may pick and choose as to which portions of their holy books they adhere to and which may be dismissed as illustrative fiction.  The insolvable problem this presents is how to separate the wheat from the chaff if, indeed, there is any wheat to be found.  Such confusion can be readily solved by assuming its wheat all the way—that is, by taking the entire ancient text literally.  But this creates a new and larger problem than before.  It puts religion squarely in opposition to science—a fight that religion cannot win.  So, whichever way the holy books are interpreted, there is no question of the damage they inflict on religion’s cause.

Thus, whereas in its earlier incarnation one could have expected religion to roll up its sleeves and lead the way to world peace, that is not what one sees at all.  The muscle-bound giant lies sprawled on the deck half comatose—a shadow of its former self worn down by its burden of chains and books—a pitiful victim of its self-inflicted injuries.

Part 2 of 3

(Visited 40 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Comment


− two = five