Monday, May 5, 2008


When discussing religion a good place to start is by defining what religion is. This is not as easy as it first seems. For many years people have tried to define what religion is and what it is not. Even today people argue whether the eastern religions are really religions or simply philosophies. Also, people of the Eastern beliefs argue that they cannot find religion in the Bible of the Western world. Clearly, there is no consensus for defining what religion is.
When I try to tackle this problem I go about it by trying to understand what drives us to have religions -- or, more simply, what function religions play in our lives. It is helpful to try to understand the history of religion.
Anthropology shows us that the many ways we have to understand things were originally all parts of the same thing. That is to say that there was no difference between science and religion or religion and history -- it was all the same. Each culture had its own version of what seemed to be the truth. But as time has gone by we have diversified our understandings.
Now, when did we become human? At what point did we begin to distinguish ourselves from the other animals on the planet? We notice that we began doing uniquely human things at about the time when religious artifacts began to appear in our burial sites. This is what anthropologists see as the first signs of religion. It seems that we became human when we began trying to explain what happens after death -- trying to explain the unexplainable. I would argue that the one thing which makes us human is simply our ability to question -- to seek -- to try and understand things. After all, we are not the only animals who communicate, or even who use tools. Yet, we seem to be the only ones who spend our lives trying to figure things out. Perhaps in our prehistory something happened which piqued our curiosity.
In any case, it seems clear that our questioning was pretty basic until about the time of Classical Greece, when we began to specialize the disciplines for answering our questions. The Greek thinkers advanced the schools of Science and Philosophy as their legacy. They were the first to discover that the world is round, for example. Sometimes they were sentenced to death for their varied ways of thinking and teaching.
Since that time we have continued to refine our disciplines to make our answers even more specific. In the past few centuries we have honed our questioning skills, so that now we can ask very specific questions and get very specific answers.
So what are the basic questions we ask? From the time of grade school we have had these six questions ingrained in our minds: Who? What? Where? When? How? and Why? These have become our most basic questions. And we have made disciplines to answer them:

Who are we? -- This question is best answered by Biography. We learn about ourselves by learning about those who have gone before us. We spend so much time tracing our family histories. We look to the people of the past to help us define the people of the present.
What is reality? -- This is the realm of Philosophy. The Classical Greeks invested a great deal of time asking this question. For centuries people have tried to understand what reality is and what it means. Views on reality vary from the very solid view most people have to the idea that everything is an illusion -- a shadow of the way things appear to be.
Where are we? -- Geography defines our location. We map everything: our states, our planet, and even the stars! We like to know as much as we can about our neighborhood and the distant places beyond.
When are we? -- History is the study of past decisions and actions. We look to the past for direction for the future. We try not to repeat past mistakes. But we do try to build on our past successes!
How does anything work? -- Here we ask the question of process. We attempt to understand the building blocks, rules, and actions which govern reality. These are the sciences. We look to Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine, among others, to understand our physical reality. We have become so good at asking How questions, in fact, that science has become broader than the other disciplines.
Why? -- Finally we ask the biggest question to plague humanity: Why are we here? Here is where Religion enters the picture. It seems that Religion is our way of answering the Why question. Or, for the purposes of this book, Religion is our feeble attempt to understand the universe around us and our place within it. That is to say: Religion is made by humans to try and make sense of everything. It is perhaps our greatest and most mysterious discipline. It has caused more happiness and more misery than any other thing in human history.
Religion is both a personal and a cultural thing. It is defined by how we see things. It depends on our environment, our history, the influence of our neighbors, and any number of random things happening in our lives. The very way we understand things is so fragile that one tiny mistaken idea can mess up the whole thing. We build upon the beliefs of others: often our parents, teachers, and friends. Any misunderstandings along the way get ingrained in religious teaching until they are almost impossible to correct. Centuries down the road our misunderstandings may be repeated as facts.
Perhaps the greatest problem in Religion happens when people try to use it to answer questions it is not suited to answer. For many years people thought the Earth was flat -- a broad, round circle. This is reflected in many religious teachings throughout the world. However, Geography has taught us that this is not the case. Still, many of our religions talk about "the circle of the Earth" or even "the four corners of the world"! A more disastrous thing happens when people use their religious teachings as History or Biography -- to answer other questions it is not able to answer. Religion often clashes with Science when it tries to answer the basic How? questions. We need look no further than the Scopes Monkey Trial to see the problem. This is echoed by those who would try to answer Religious questions with Science -- it doesn't work because these are not the questions it was designed to answer.
Religion exists because we want to make sense out of life. We create religion. It is not given to us on tablets written in stone, or on scrolls handed down to us by the gods. Religion is a human way of interpreting the most important questions of existence.
Religion uses some specialized tools to achieve its goals. Myths and rituals are perhaps the two biggest. The lessons we learn in our myths can fire our soul, and our rituals help us connect with that which we call Sacred. These are some of the ways through which can find our spirituality.