written by John Waddington
Why do we have religions? They are everywhere. In the present we are down to a few big ones, but it wasn’t always that way. It seems that our ancestors had belief in many gods – explanations for the operations of the world around them that they did not understand, which was almost everything. Understandable when you think about it. Also, ancestor worship. Seems reasonable: no ancestors, no descendants. I suspect that originally religion developed from a general respect or awe of life and death around and among our ancestors. Over time and as relationships developed into groups, tribes, local states, with power concentrations in fewer individuals, so those few with power adjusted beliefs to enhance their positions in the groups they controlled. In the past several thousand years there has been a clear decline in the number of gods from gods everywhere and in everything to a few gods with limited scope (sea, war, love, etc), then to the development of a primary god with helpers, then to one god who has become more elusive in the sense of presence but not visibility. So it is not surprising that some should recommend that the trend from many gods to one god should continue to zero god.
I don’t think it will work. Because we have logical explanations for much of the world around us, and every likelihood of understanding even more, it would seem that there is less or even no need for religion if the intent of religion is to fill those gaps in our understanding. And yet most people still are attached more or less to one of the major religions of our time. Is this because those operating our religions have convinced us that the truths of their religions are not to be questioned for fear of the consequences to our bodies while we are alive, and to our souls on our death? Or is religion as we define it a fundamental part of being human? An aspect of our consciousness that guides us throughout our lives. A moral-ethical aspect of our minds.
Wrapped inextricably in this is the meaning, the purpose of life. To me, the answer is simple. The purpose of life is to live. As long as possible. No matter the circumstances. And this applies to ALL life. So the moral-ethical aspect reduces to a simple matter. To support, promote life is good. To destroy, denigrate, deny life is bad. Of course, all of us kill some life every day when we eat. That tomato we ate for lunch was alive when we ate it. When we bought the hamburger at A&W, we didn’t kill the steer that produced the ground beef, but part of the price we paid was to pay someone to kill it for us. And self-protection is needed at times. We swat the mosquito that is trying to get a meal from us. We kill the cougar that is trying to kill us. We take drugs to kill the pest and disease organisms that are attacking us. But also we encourage life. We help the old lady to cross the road. We try to help animals in trouble. We have a plant or several (preferably flowering) in our homes. We give money to life supporting causes. We volunteer with good or at least useful organizations in our neighbourhoods. I read somewhere that some hunter-gatherer groups hold a ceremony when they kill an animal thanking it for supplying them with food. Perhaps they are really forgiving themselves for killing it.
Recently there has been a flood of books, talks, and presentations that can be found on the internet that tell us in some detail what is wrong with current religions. Their internal inconsistencies. Their limitations and errors because they were written in times of human ignorance compared to the present. Suggestions that dictatorial rulers in the past have modified the message to improve the security of their position. The absence of good evidence that their god exists at all. These authors, while not entirely consistent between each other have one clear message – religion is a sham and should be discarded. They are less clear on what should replace it.
The current religions all promise us an after-life experience. The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have a linear approach: they promise an eternal paradise if we obey the dictates of the faith and eternal torture in hell if we don’t. The Vedic religions (Hinduism and variants) have a cyclic approach: new life as a superior being (a scientist perhaps?) if we follow the faith, and a new life as an inferior being (a snake, a mosquito?) if we do not, both possibilities repeating through many cycles, perhaps indefinitely. The problem I have with all of the current religions is that no matter how good I am, I have to die to collect. I think there is a need to replace the current religions with something based on the reality of life in the present, rather than the imagined existence after death that they promote.
Spending time in green spaces containing grass, flowers, trees is beneficial to our health. Cleaning up abandoned city lots, planting grass and trees, and maintaining them has been shown to improve the mental and physical health of local residents. The effects are greater the more blighted the area was initially. Landscaping the abandoned railway high line in New York has been immensely popular. People can stroll among the vegetation, meet friends, have lunch. Other abandoned railway lines have been converted into cycling/walking paths. The latest trend is “forest bathing”, contemplative walks through the woods to reconnect an individual with nature, leading to decreased stress, natural mood elevation and even a stronger immune system. Clearly we are part of nature, and respond positively when a nature environment is around us, even when it is an arrangement of living plants that is not natural. Contrast this with the messages in our religious texts – wars, famines, environmental disasters, general mayhem all at the behest of a ‘loving’ god who demands absolute obedience or else our souls will be consigned to an even worse hell when we die than the one we perhaps are living in now. Isn’t it obvious what our beliefs, our souls, our humanity should be supporting? It certainly isn’t any of the current religions. Frank Lloyd Wright is reported to have said “I believe in God, only I spell it N a t u r e”. Good point. Should we start treating nature as a whole as god instead of believing in one of the current lot?