Monthly Archives: January 2016

What is Religion? Part 1: Making Sense of Things

Today’s Post

Having taken a brief look at the evolution of religion over the last several weeks, today we will begin a final look at religion by addressing the question, “what is religion”?

The Many Manifestations of Belief

In previous weeks, we have looked at religion from a secular point of view: as simply the ongoing human attempt to make sense of our surroundings and develop strategies to help us cope with it.  Both history and even the most casual look at the world today, however, shows these attempts to result in a bewildering array of beliefs, practices and social structures which fall into the general category of ‘religion’.

Ian Barbour proposes a general definition of the term ‘religion’:

“A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

This sort of definition rolls up an understanding of our environment into beliefs about the causes of this environment and the practices to be observed for us to appropriately deal with it.

East vs West

The content, modes and expressions of such beliefs, however, vary significantly among the many manifestations to be found among the many cultures in the world.  The differences between East and West beliefs and practices, for example, are significant enough to suggest that conventional definitions of the term ‘religion’ will not stretch sufficiently to encompass them all.

For example, there are significant differences between understandings of the human person and his place in society between the West and East.  In the East, ultimate fulfillment of the person consists in ‘dissolution’ into the ‘whole’, while in the West, it consists of articulation of the person in the form of a ‘soul’, which is gathered into the ‘whole’ intact.

Even the basic understanding of time is different between East and West.  The Western understanding of time as an ‘arrow’ preceding from a beginning and eventually coming to an end.  This is contrary to the Eastern understanding of time as cyclical, with its vision of the unending repetition of birth, death and rebirth on both the personal as well as the cosmic level.

Karen Armstrong comments on such differences:

“The idea of religion as an essentially personal and systematic pursuit was entirely absent from classical Greece, Japan, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, China and India.  Nor does the Hebrew Bible have any abstract concept of religion; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to express what they meant by ‘faith’ in a single word or even in a formula.”

All expressions of belief, however, having occurred over such a great span of time and including the thoughts of so many thinkers, have accumulated diverse and often bewildering explanations and claims to truth.  The evolution of religion as the human attempt to make sense of his surroundings has gone on for such a long time that every possible belief (attempt to make sense) has evolved along with it.

Understanding Ourselves

The history of religious thinking, therefore, can certainly be seen as an often clumsy, un-integrated and contradictory attempt to articulate the personal aspect of the forces by which we, and the rest of the universe, have come into existence.

Teilhard noted the need for an understanding of both these forces and the persons which emerge from them:

“To explain the workings of the universe we must understand the forces and process by which it comes to be, and this understanding must include the human person.”

This simply stated approach to such an understanding is also the basis for our approach to God from the perspective of science (“understanding the forces and processes”) and extending this perspective to religion (“including the human person”).

So, In keeping with the insights of Teilhard de Chardin, one way of understanding religion is to place it into the context of human evolution.

The Next Post

Next week we will address the question ‘what is religion’ from this point of view.

The Evolution of Religion, Part 10- Applying Teilhard’s Evolutionary Insights to Religion

Today’s Post

Having seen Teilhard’s unique insights into evolution and how it proceeds in the human person and his society, this week we will take a look at how these insights apply to the phenomenon of religion.

The Evolution of Religion

Teilhard’s approach to picturing evolution illustrates the evolutionary nature of belief.  Religion, like any other form of human activity, evolves.  Threads and streams of thinking branch off into new thinking, just as can be seen in the arms and branches of the biological tree of life.  However, as discussed last week, in human evolution these branches are not doomed to remain disconnected from each other.  As we have seen in the entwining of Greek and Jewish thinking which result in the new Christian stream, in human evolution each branch has the potential for reconnection.   In this particular mapping of modes of thought, we have also seen the double result of increased use of the neocortex brain:

Increase in the skill of using the left brain modes of understanding

Increase in the skill of thinking with the modes of both the left and right modes

The Evolutionary Perspective on the History of Religion

As we have seen here, an equally important measure of human evolution (in addition to the increasing skill of using the neocortex to modulate the stimuli of the ‘lower brains’) can be seen not only in the increase of right and left brain thinking but the use of them in balance.  For several thousand years, the religions of the world showed a preponderance of domination by right brain modes of thinking.  The skill of using the left brain increased more slowly, bursting into florescence with the flowering of Greek philosophy and science in about 500 BCE.

The convergence between Jewish thinking and Greek thinking in the new Christian religion in the early first century AD resulted in the first recorded synthesis between the two modes.   The right-brained thinking of the Jews began to be supplemented by that of Greek left brained thinking. We have followed Jonathan Sacks as he traced this thread through the evolution of language, thinking and the understanding of the increasing influence of the left hemisphere.

In the last post, we saw Teilhard’s observation that in the human, different branches of evolution are not doomed to the three options of continuing to evolve, stopping or dying, but are open to future convergence.  This observation is confirmed when we see the subsequent connection of the Hebrew right-brained modes of thought described above, and that of the Greek left-brained modes into the first human dual-brained mode of thinking, that of Christianity.

It should not be a surprise, then, that such a new connection of the two primary seats of consciousness would open the human person to a wider world of potential and thus result in the success which can be seen in Western civilization.  As Teihard remarks,

“The whole world is advancing through application of the thinking processes and ideas which took root in human enterprises as a result of this unprecedented turn of evolution”.

With the two hemispheres beginning to balance, the true potential of the human person increases from when one or the other was more influential.  Openness to the next step of human evolution becomes more assured.

The left brain influence in the new holy book of Christianity eventually resulted in the emergence of science in the seventeenth century.  That this rise of left-brained thinking, bolstered by the cohesiveness of society fostered by the Jewish right-brained precepts, should have continued into the flowering of Western science in the seventeenth century, therefore, should come as no surprise.

However, as Jonathan Sacks points out, conflict between this ‘new’ activity of the left brain and the traditional right-brained thinking as entrenched in institutionalized Western religion was eventually bound to happen.  The rise of empirical thinking slowly came in conflict with the old intuitive traditions marked by metaphors and myths.  Unfortunately, in his opinion, the emerging influence of left-brained empiricism ultimately opened the door to a materialism which denies right-brained humanistic values.  While resulting in a newer, stronger science, it also can be seen to attack the historical right-brain foundations of instinct, intuition and integration.

All 0f which leads us to the crossroad that we face today:  How can these two deeply rooted modes of thought be brought into better balance?

Teilhard addresses the need for balance between these two human modes of thought:

“To outward appearance, the modern world was born of an anti-religious movement: man becoming self-sufficient and reason supplanting belief.  Our generation and the two that preceded it have heard little but talk of the conflict between science and faith; indeed, it seemed at one moment a foregone conclusion that the former was destined to take the place of the latter.   But, as the tension is prolonged, the conflict visibly seems to be resolved in terms of an entirely different form of equilibrium- not in elimination, nor duality, but in synthesis.  After close on to two centuries of passionate struggles, neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary.  On the contrary, it becomes obvious that neither can develop normally without the other.  And the reason is simple: the same life animates both.”

 As can be seen in the social experiments of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the Korean Kims, science and society without religion can become very anti-human, but as can be seen in the case of religious fundamentalism, religion without science can become, in its own way, antithetical to the human spirit.

The Next Post

If this blog is to address a secular approach to God, such a synthesis as proposed by Teilhard must address religion in its secular context.  Next time we will take one last look at the phenomenon of religion, and attempt to answer the question,” What is Religion?”