Religion is usually defined as a belief in some entity or entities who exist(s) alongside but outside this material world. It can be one person, as in the monotheistic (one God) systems of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or the many gods of Hinduism, Shinto, Daoism and certain forms of Buddhism.
In the west, believing in one God, creator and sustainer of the world, lovingly concerned with His children, there are rituals to keep close contact with this father figure. At birth, marriage and death God joins His family, ratifying and consoling. At certain times of the year He is asked to bless and in times of trouble He is leant on for support.
Questions are put to Him. Why is there so much pain in the world? What happens when we die? And the answers are usually found in His holy word, the Bible. This gives rules of conduct in the Ten Commandments and in the Sermon on the Mount. Divided into a multitude of sects, often at war with one another, this religion shares enough common beliefs to give it one name, Christianity.
In this and other religions there are sacred spaces, godly areas set apart from the everyday concerns of our lives. In these, prayers are directed at the all powerful One, who is pleaded with and cajoled, but not, as in magic, commanded.
In the West a set of beliefs defines Christianity, which is both its strength and its weakness, since it can be divisive and intolerant. In other parts of the world there is often a more relaxed attitude. Different beliefs and rituals can be blended together. In a Nepalese village, for example, a person may call in a Hindu Brahmin to do a puja for success, bury an elderly relative with the help of a Buddhist lama and then try to cure a sick relation with a shamanic ritual.
In Japan, belief is partly dealt with by western philosophy or Buddhism, many rituals are performed by Shinto priests, and ethics are partly catered for by Confucianism. There is no single system. When I asked a group of Japanese schoolchildren what their ‘religion’ was they were puzzled. They did not recognize the word or a special thing one could call ‘religion’.
This often makes it very difficult for Japanese or Chinese visitors to understand western societies. Even a relatively secular country like England seems to them to be highly ‘superstitious’, full of the assumptions of religion. There are traces of God in our philosophy, poetry, art and everyday life and nothing makes sense unless we see the ghost of Christianity behind it. Many foreigners think of us, whether we go to Church or not, as religion-soaked.
Where is the sacred?
The distinction between the sacred and profane is more complicated than it looks. If we go up to the altar in a church, we feel we are in a sacred space. Yet there are many other places and actions which feel special, a cremation, a prayer before a meal, a moment of national celebration or mourning. Are these sacred?
In much of the West after the Protestant Reformation the division into sacred and profane was undermined. All of this world became a profane, secular, sphere and God was removed to another, distant, sacred space. So there is no obvious distinction of the kind felt in many religions whereby a particular day, or place, relic or icon is sacred. Many westerners lack a strong idea of ‘sacredness’ in their lives.
On the other hand, in many societies it is the opposite. Everything is to a certain extent sacred. In a Nepalese village, all of life is simultaneously and potentially sacred and profane at the same time. There is a little godling living in the fireplace, another in a basket in the corner of the living room, another in a bowl of water, others on the door-step and round the eaves of the house. There are numerous godlings in large trees or rocks. Divinity lurks everywhere and its power can be activated at any time by an appropriate ritual.
Religion is impossible to define precisely because it has so many features. Yet not all of them will be found in any specific society or in the same combination. This helps to explain the fact that though there can be no societies without a code of right and wrong, there have been some where it has not been possible to find a sense of a particular God or gods.
Are right and wrong the same everywhere?
In many societies murder is immoral, others consider it the highest of moral acts in certain circumstances. In many, sexual intercourse between unmarried people is sinful, but in the majority there is nothing wrong with it. In many it was fine to lie to a stranger, in others one should never lie.
It is even more confusing because ethical systems seem to be blown by the winds of change. In my life I have seen sexual ethics totally transformed from the system in which I was brought up. The concepts of right and wrong are being transformed by genetic engineering, which alters our basic attitude to the borders between the natural and the artificial. If we look at the ethics of our own country in the past we can see that they are very different from our own.
Furthermore, in most societies, ethics are not universal but contextual. The morality or immorality of whether to lie, kill or eat someone all depends on the circumstances. We know this in a mild way in that ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ evaporates quickly in war, or similarly ‘Thou shalt not steal or lie’ is forgotten in a famine or when faced by life in a concentration camp. Yet it is even more extreme than this. The ethical system usually varies for different castes or classes, men and women, differs according to whether one is dealing with relatives or not, differs if one is treating members of one’s own or another ethnic group.
One of the astonishing features of parts of western society is that we not only have a strong ethical system, which we pursue as an ideal, but that the foundations of this, the idea of innate ‘human rights’ is now proclaimed as not only incontestable but universal. These rights are believed to apply everywhere on the planet, to men, women, rich, poor, old, young, irrespective of class or kinship. This is an extraordinary claim.
Furthermore, they are increasingly dissociated from God or a particular religion. Rather they are based on ideas about what is the ultimate nature of human beings, love, respect, ‘do as you would be done by’.
So ethical codes have become more relative. We are aware of their limitations and the variations around the world. Certain old standards, for example in sexual behaviour, are abandoned. Yet ethical standards have simultaneously become more universal. They are now increasingly based on the local traditions developed in western Europe and America and are spread by a combination of military and technological supremacy. It is a truly confusing world.
Does religion mirror this world?
In most societies and over most of time, it was believed that God or gods came first and then they created humankind, often in their own image. Increasingly this was questioned. In the nineteenth century many people described religion as something constructed by humans. People made the gods to be like themselves.
Indeed the idea that we construct God, rather than the other way round, is an old one reaching back to the Greeks. Later, in the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne wrote that ‘Man is quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a maggot and he creates Gods by the dozen.’ Two centuries later another French philosopher, the Baron de Montesquieu referred to ‘a very good saying that if triangles invented a god, they would make him three-sided.’
This seems to make sense the moment we look at a range of societies, since it becomes obvious that their ideas of God, heaven and hell vary enormously. Those who herded animals, like the people who created the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, had a picture of God as the patriarch or father-figure of a tribe of herdsman who wanted animals as a gift. Those who grew grains and lived in settled villages often had a variety of smaller and larger gods who reflected their diversity, as in Hinduism, Daoism or Shinto.
It is even possible to find direct mirrors of this world in the ideas of heaven. In a Nepalese village, the dead spirits are believed to live in an exact copy of the ordinary village. In ‘soul village’, people keep similar animals, eat similar grains, dance in a similar way, and live in houses like those which they occupied when alive. The only difference is that there is no disease, hard work or death. The whole idea of such a projection is described by the English poet Rupert Brooke when he imagined the ‘Heaven’ of some fish.
‘Fish say, they have their stream and pond;
But is there anything beyond?’
Fish conclude that:
…. ‘somewhere, beyond space and time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!’
In such a world, all is perfect.
‘Oh! Never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair.
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.’
There is obviously something in this mirror image idea. In relatively uniform small societies, the group affirms itself in the supernatural realm, and then the moral rules of society and the present arrangements are endorsed by an apparently separate God.
Yet usually constructing a heaven is more complicated than this. People in most societies have for a long time become divided by class or caste, by gender and by occupation. If one group were designing heaven it would look like one thing, another group would design it in another way. Hence feminists see God as a She, young people would prefer her young, and black people may not be too keen on her whiteness.
The only solution is to make God, heaven and the spiritual world as vague and abstract as possible, as in Anglican Christianity. In the Anglican heaven, when I pressed my teachers on the subject, I learnt that there are clouds, a vague fatherly figure, but the rest is up to the believer to fill in. Dead friends and relatives can be placed in the context of one’s choice.
You Lily, as a child, could invent your own heaven where, as you explained to me, an endless game of ‘Pass the Parcel’ took place. Each person won a prize when they unwrapped a layer of the parcel, and the prized were their heart’s desire.
What is sin?
A society with a religion of rules imparts a strong sense of sin. To break the ethical rule is bound to displease God or the gods. In Christianity, to masturbate, to lie, to cheat, are widely thought to be sins which God will punish. On the other hand, in the majority of societies, where ethics are one thing, and religion and ritual another, it is different. In Japan, for instance, breaking rules of sexual behaviour might lead to social sanctions, but it does not upset God.
So when the Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in the sixteenth century they found one of their most difficult tasks was to persuade the Japanese that they were sinful. There was no such concept as ‘sin’. Many Japanese could see little reason to adopt a religion which preached salvation from the consequences of sin through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who had taken upon him the sins of the world. It was a big problem.
The same difficulty was faced by missionaries in other parts of the world. In many tribal societies people were believed to be good or bad human beings, moral or immoral, kind or unkind. Yet this had nothing to do with whether they would go to heaven or hell. Indeed, in most of them there was only a Heaven. There was no Hell at all, just a rebirth into this world in another form, or a land where all the dead went. So again the missionaries had first to persuade people of their sinfulness and then to provide the remedy in their teaching, just as merchants had to persuade people they needed their goods before trying to sell them.
One way some people have tried to explain the difference between attitudes is to note that in the majority of societies people feel shame when they do bad things, particularly if they are found out. The failure is in relation to other people.
On the other hand there are those religions such as Christianity where people feel a sense of guilt. That is to say, people experience an inner feeling that they have betrayed something beyond this human society. Even if they are never found out in their lies or sexual misbehaviour, God will know and they feel guilt. Robinson Crusoe on his island clearly felt guilt at certain times although there was no-one else on the island. This is because he had a sense of an invisible God watching him.
The opposition between shame and guilt is a little over-simple, but it is a useful first way to start to try to understand the difference. Too much sense of sin and guilt has weighed down and even destroyed many people. Equally, an absence of a sense of sin and guilt has turned others into ‘amoral supermen’, that is people with no real sense of good and bad. A little more sense of sin and guilt might not have been amiss in the case of Stalin or Chairman Mao, perhaps a little less might benefit some of the anxious and guilt-ridden individuals you are bound to meet.
Does Evil really exist?
It is not widely recognized that Evil and the Devil are so closely linked as to be inseparable. In the Lord’s prayer ‘Deliver us from Evil’, used to be ‘Deliver us from the Devil’. Yet the word Evil with a capital E has come back into fashion lately with a great deal of talk of this or that action being ‘utterly Evil’, of the ‘Empire of Evil’, the ‘Axis of Evil’. So what is Evil and does it exist?
There are clearly many wrong, immoral or criminal thoughts and actions and when we condemn them we call them evil. In this sense we refer to anti-social acts as evil. We consider rape, cruelty to animals, serious lying, incest, and many other things as ‘evil’, that is ‘seriously not good’. No-one would have difficulty with this. In this sense, almost all behaviour, if carried to extremes, or done for the wrong reason, can turn into evil. ‘To tell a truth with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent’.
The problem comes when a Bishop or politician condemns a barbaric murder or genocide or terrorist attack as ‘Evil’ with a capital ‘E’. Sometimes the use of this word is an attempt to deal with the extreme feeling of revulsion and outrage people feel. To call it ‘absolutely Evil’ is the strongest condemnation we can make. Hitler or a suicide bomber who kills dozens of innocent civilians are condemned as ‘pure Evil’.
The word gets its power from the often hidden connections with its history and link with the Devil. An Evil person or act is completely unacceptable. People often feel that there is no purpose in trying to understand it, no way we should try to think whether we might have done such a thing in the situation of the person we condemn. It is pure corruption, pure irrationality, pure evil intention. Evil comes from some dark force that hovers on the edge of our world, Satan, the Devil, the Anti-Christ, the opposite of God.
This absolute Evil is only sustainable in a world that believes in the radical opposition between Good (God) and Evil (Devil). Most civilizations do not have this opposition. Some Japanese may consider the dropping of atom bombs on their cities as ‘evil’. Yet since they have no Satan or Devil, a concept absent in Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto and Daoism, they cannot think of a conspiracy of Evil, or pure Evil.
Why does God allow so much pain?
One of the greatest puzzles facing all of those who seek meaning in this world is how to reconcile a loving, caring and all powerful Creator with the horrors we find every day in the newspapers and television, and in our personal lives.
It was a problem seriously examined by Shakespeare whose character King Lear concluded that ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport’, or by William Blake who asks the tiger ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’, or by Tennyson when he tried to understand why his dear friend had died but could only see around him ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. Or by Joseph Heller when he half facetiously wrote ‘Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of Creation?’
We seem to be trapped. If God is what he is claimed to be, why does he allow all this suffering? Or, putting it another way, can I believe in a God who seems to preside over such mayhem? Where was God in the Ruanda genocide, where was he in the death trenches of the World Wars or in Stalin’s gulag or Hitler’s concentration camps or Pol Pot’s killing fields? Where was he in the floods, fires, volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes?
The conventional answers do not seem totally satisfactory. We are told that humans brought all this pain on themselves through an act of disobedience, that we are being punished for our ‘original sin’. But surely God, being all wise and all powerful could have foreseen this outcome and killed the serpent or provided an alternative apple tree, or talked the over-ambitious angel out of rebelling?
Another suggestion is that God, like a loving parent who gives his children the exercise of free will, has to allow them to make mistakes and hence to suffer. If a small child is to be sheltered from all risks it would have to be locked up in a padded cell. God made us a wonderful world in which we can make good or bad choices, and the latter can lead us into dangerous situations, injury or death. This sounds vaguely plausible, but of little comfort.
An alternative solution in some religions is to treat the world as a painful illusion. There are a set of trials and apparent miseries, from which we can withdraw into our inner selves and await the bliss of Nirvana or extinction. Another alternative is to accept that biology, society and economics control our lives. We do appear to have some free will, and we will try to increase happiness for ourselves and others. Yet, in the end, pain is present from the moment we are born. It is part of being human and something which constantly asks us to wonder with the philosopher Nietzsche ‘Is man one of God’s blunders or is God one of man’s blunders?’