HISTORY OF IDEAS – Religion


For most of history, religion has been a central focus of human concerns. But now in large parts of the developed world, it’s become a side show or even an irrelevance. Because its been declared untrue by the most powerful force of our age: Science But debating whether religion is true or not may not in the end be the most important move we can make. Its also key to understand what needs have traditionally driven people to religion. So we can go on recognizing and answering these needs, even outside a supernatural structure. 4000 BC, Arnhem land, Australia An aboriginal Australian paints an image of a serpent on a rock. The so-called Yingarna Serpent is a key part of aboriginal religion. This creature and a few other associated
divine serpents are worshiped for having done everything: [They] created the sky, the lagoons the
mountains, they colored the birds, they decreed laws relating to marriage, food
distribution and death ceremonies. The serpents also generate rain and storms when anyone breaks the rules of the tribes. The belief structure of the early
Australians is almost identical to that found in primitive religions pretty much
everywhere around our planet. Religion has its origins in a desire to
explain a very confusing world. It is a wild projection onto the natural
realm of all kinds of human concerns. It becomes the focus of rituals to appease
the possibly angry gods. Offerings are made in return one hopes for favors and kindness. Always there is the terror of death and the hope that the worst of it
can be handled by an alliance with the gods. One comes away from the study of
primitive religions full of compassion for the terrors and confusion that were
responsible for generating these beliefs. And for the frightening ignorance in
which our for-bearers were fated to live. But one also comes away with respect for
our own psychological ingenuity, For our cleverness in telling ourselves stories to calm ourselves down, hold the community together and deal
with the unknown. 400 BC, Kushinagar, India A kind philosophical Indian prince, Siddhārtha Gautama meets his end, his other title Buddha means awakened or enlightened one. He teaches his followers of whom they
will soon be millions, to expect constant suffering in life but also to strive to detach themselves from their immediate circumstances and the anxious spasms of what Buddhists call the “monkey mind” through reflection and meditation. In Buddhism we see a characteristic attempt of religion to calm the minds of
followers in relation to anxiety, poverty, illness and death. The task of religion is to keep us hopeful, to stop our minds caving in to terror and to hold our
hands through the worst last days of our lives. 1025 AD, Song Dynasty, China A sculptor produces this representation of a beautiful kindly female Buddhist deity
called Guanyin. Guanyin is the Buddhist counterpart of the Virgin Mary. And she fulfills a similar role as this lady: that of hearing us in our distress,
meeting us with tenderness and strengthening us to face the tasks of
life. The centrality of these maternal figures
in both Buddhism and Christianity suggest that mature adult lives share moments of terrible and lacerating
self-doubt which breed longings to recover some of the security and
coziness of childhood. Being reasonable and adult doesn’t always work. In our worst crisis we regress, we want to be held and understood and forgiving like we were five years old. All this religion knows, honors and does
not mock us for. 1133, Winchester, England The poorest people in the parish of Winchester in Southern England take up residence in hospitals
?? and the almshouse of noble poverty. This is the oldest charitable
institution in the United Kingdom, founded by the Bishop of Winchester who
has read the Gospels thoroughly and taken inspiration from Jesus command to
treat the poorest with special dignity. They’re destined for the poorest, the
almshouses are built on the scale of an Oxford or Cambridge College with the
most beautiful noble architecture of the day. The almshouses are typical example
of a theme found in all world religions: that of charity and of the duty of the
rich towards the poor. That there may be a regressive aspect of this, religions can be praised for moderating egoistic impulses and urging the powerful to
think of the defenseless. It can be tempting to think of the poor
as evil and responsible for their fate but religions ask the powerful to
imagine them always as unfortunate and worthy of a special place in the divine
scheme. 1543, Nuremberg, Germany Nicolaus Copernicus publishes “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”. This post a heliocentric view of the
universe rather than geocentric version widely accepted at the time and based on
the book of Joshua. In 1616 the Catholic Church moves to declare this heliocentric theory nonsense and angrily bands Copernicus’s
work. However, Copernicus’s revolution will not
be quelled. Galileo Galilei will defend the system in “The Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” published in 1632. Again the papacy is furious. It curses Copernicus once more and put Galileo under house arrest. It’s tempting to laugh at the catholic
church but the church is trying to hold on to something rather lovely that had
served humankind well: the idea of our cosmic significance. The idea that we matter, that someone out
there cares. Copernicus and Galileo’s theories are like
the very painful end of the childhood of man kind. Their discoveries that we are
but a tiny forgotten meaningless blue dodge in the randomness of space is akin to a child discovering that his or her parents are in truth really unimportant
in the scheme of things. A new existential terror will echo down the
ages from these scientific discoveries. We are still dealing with it. July 1830, London, England Charles Lyell publishes the first of
three volumes of his geological masterpiece: Principles of Geology. The book uses new geological methods to show that the earth is far older than was
ever previously believed. The Bible had said it was 6000 years old. Lyle says the fossil record proves it
must be at least 240 million years old, based on this observation of marine
fossils. Modern science now puts it at 4.5 billion years. In response to Lyle’s discoveries the British social critic and essayist John Ruskin abandons belief. He says his faith has been beaten to the
thinness of a gold leaf by such rockbound evidence. If only the geologists would
leave me alone he writes I could do very well but those dreadful hammers I hear the clink of them at the end of
every cadence of the bible verses. Science now makes it almost impossible
for any intelligent person to believe in the Bible is literally true. 1835 Tübingen, Germany 27 year old David Friedrich Strauss publishes the first edition of
the first volume of an epochal work: “The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined”. Strauss advances the view that it doesn’t matter whether or not Christ
really was the son of God or worked miracles or came back from the dead
after being crucified because what’s important about him is the moral example
he gives: his generosity, his immense tenderness to the week, his commitment to forgiveness: “You must forgive your brother seven times seventy” he notes. His humility: he lived as a carpenter had a simple life lived amongst the poor. Strauss initiates a new way of looking at religion: It isn’t a true description of how the
world actually is. It something humans have invented to
comfort themselves in highly valuable and important ways that deserve are
selective reverence. 1885, Amsterdam, Netherlands A new national museum, the
Rijks Museum officially opens. The architect Pierre Kuiper has spent his career designing and restoring churches and it shows. The building is quickly dubbed a
new cathedral devoted to art with it’s stained glass and ecclesiastical
solemnity. The museum is one of many to open the
second part of the 19th century. It’s the result of a widespread panic as
to what can replace religion now that belief is in decline. One leading answer is that Culture can replace Scripture. The argument is that art can achieve for us many of the things that religion once did: It can be a guide, a source of consolation, a teacher of wisdom and
compassion, a reminder of our better nature and something that can
imperfectly but still to a real extent reconcile us to our mortality. 2006, Oxford, England An English biologist Richard Dawkins publishes “The God Delusion”. Dawkins argues that religion is
intellectually wrong and delusional and therefore should be removed entirely
from public culture. There Dawkins has just about stops from saying
that people should be prevented by law from being religious in private but only
just. Dawkins’s mocking view of religion
coincides with deep disquiet about militant Islam in the West. The murderous
ways of fringe Muslim groups seems to be Dawkins is real target. Religion just
comes to seem like something a bunch of mad people could ever be interested in. Dawkins insists that reasonable people
can find all the consolation they need in science and medicine. The doctor can replace the priest, the welfare state can replace charity, and the laboratory can
replace rituals and ceremonies. For the rest we have television and the news. The needs that religions answered were real and important and despite
science and TV and theme parks and cancer treatment centers we still have
many of these needs. We still have to die, we still need to be
comforted, we still need to be reminded in conditions of aggressive capitalism
of our duties to the community and to the poor, and we still need somewhere to
take are disappointed ambitions, frustrations and sorrows. Religion may
well have been a deep illusion but it was an important illusion that we need
to understand with sincere depth and compassion in order to know how to
create functioning secular societies in our own time.

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