What is Religion?

Why is this question so important? It is important because it is widely believed that religion is a thing of the past and that people “don’t need” religion. We still use the word “religious” to refer to something that is done with utmost conscientiousness and conscientiousness, but the connection of religion with what is responsible and careful is no longer made. Rather, it is seen as something old-fashioned and antiquated. A vague idea of something higher is retained in certain circles, but its vagueness is valued because it keeps it inaccessible and by no means authoritative.

You hear people complain that “Nothing is sacred anymore!” But what is sacred? What does that mean? It used to mean something worthy of respect or dedication, or perhaps something believed to be holy, and worthy of veneration. But do we actually understand these words anymore? Have they not become hollow? It would be important to find out what is worthy of respect or dedication, because that seems to be missing in public life. Newspapers and other media seem to be full of cynicism towards what some people respect, and figures in entertainment or sport are venerated by some and hated by others.

Someone on Wikipedia wrote: “The history of religion refers to the written record of human religious feelings, thoughts, and ideas.” Another has written: “Religion is usually defined as a sociocultural system of particular behaviours and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sacred places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations that humanity generally associates with supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements; however, there is no scientific consensus on what exactly constitutes a religion.” But sociocultural systems of behaviours and practices can be political belief systems, or belief systems around any issue deemed to be important, in which facts are secondary to beliefs.

So, is religion simply what people believe, and as diverse as the number of people on the planet? For surely people are variously influenced, not only by external pressures, but also through individual experience and perception? This will be true most of all of the West, where individuality is held to be extremely important, whereas many other countries have adopted a collectivist attitude, by which the majority, or some institution is authoritative. This may mean that the concept of religion is different, depending on whether one has been brought up in an individualistic or a collectivistic society. What does that say about Westerners attracted to Eastern religions?

This makes it clear that the definition of religion is hard to pin down, which means that we don’t really know what it is, but that it is certain aspects or practices of religion that we generally consider antiquated or old-fashioned when we are critical of religion. I, for example, have always disdained American evangelism and evangelism. As a Brit, I always felt it was an intrusion on my freedom, although I didn’t mind talking about religion and exchanging ideas. I also felt that there was something about Christianity that we did not understand, something that our modern culture could not uncover. Of course, I had a similar feeling when I read Buddhist or Hindu texts, which I felt were long-winded and didn’t get to the point. It was something like feeling that an idea was “on the tip of my tongue,” as we say, but I just couldn’t grasp it.

When I read Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter with Things” recently, he pointed out that we get excited by facts that we can grasp, that are clear and unambiguous. The problem is that this is only true in a particular setting, and when we try to apply these facts to everyday life, to a broader setting, we struggle to do so. Religion also has this effect, and statements of faith often clash with our everyday experience when applied literally. McGilchrist points out that poetic truth has a similar effect: it speaks loudly and clearly to our emotions, but as soon as we consider the metaphors used rationally, we realize our folly. Obviously, truth has different facets and can be true in one context but make no sense in another.

Perhaps this has been our problem with religion. Certainly, the scientific community has ridiculed the worldview of religious texts, with its reference to spirits and demons, or its cosmology. However, some “physicists have envisioned definite sympathies between science and religion, and sought to creatively deploy them in order to accomplish a diverse set of goals, sacralising science and invoking the themes and rhetoric of religion.”[i] Erwin Schrödinger, father of Quantum Mechanics and a Vedantist wrote in 1925: “This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as “I am in the east and the west, I am above and below, I am this entire world.”[ii] This was an autobiographical essay, in which he explained that his discovery of quantum mechanics was an attempt to give form to central ideas of Vedanta which, in this indirect sense, has played a role in the birth of the subject.

As we can see, it isn’t necessarily Christianity, Judaism or Islam that provides religious inspiration, as we in the West often presume, and Swami Prabhavananda (December 26, 1893 – July 4, 1976) an Indian philosopher, monk of the Ramakrishna Order, and religious teacher, wrote a book stating that what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount is the same teaching a Vedantist follows. The British writer and novelist Aldous Huxley wrote The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of mysticism, and attempted to present mysticism as the “Highest Common Factor” of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine.[iii] Werner Heisenberg, another “father” of quantum physics who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1932 is quoted as saying, “The first gulp from the glass of natural science will make you an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”[iv]

This obviously has gone against the common view that is widespread today, but it shows that religion isn’t just what many people believe, and that this may be because many adherent religious people take too little time to really investigate what their religion is about. It is also a question whether their Religion actually helps them in their understanding of their lives, or whether it is a distraction that takes their attention off of what is going on around them.

Years ago, I found Jack Kornfield, an American author and teacher in the Vipassana movement in American Theravada Buddhism, as well as having a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, to be a wonderful source of peace in his book, A Path With Heart: The Classic Guide Through The Perils And Promises Of Spiritual Life, in which he spoke about the problems that people have with spirituality and faith.

He writes as a conclusion to his own struggles, “To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous courage and strength, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place of this warrior strength is in the heart. We need energy, commitment, and courage not to run from our life nor to cover it with any philosophy – material or spiritual. We need a warrior’s heart that lets us face our lives directly, our pains and limitations, our joys, and possibilities. This courage allows us to include every aspect of life in our spiritual practice: our bodies, our families, our society, politics, the earth’s ecology, art, education. Only then can spirituality be truly integrated in our lives.”

I felt that this was missing in what I had experienced, and in 2002 I started meditating, which was seen critically from many of my peers, but I learnt what Kornfield says, is “a very basic lesson in meditation: facing our own greed, unworthiness, rage, paranoia, and grandiosity, and the opening of wisdom and fearlessness beyond these forces.” This helped me cope with a number of demons that I seem to have brought with me from childhood and put me back on my feet when my strength and above all, my faith was waning. Without this experience of rebuilding and regeneration in times of great stress, religion has no attraction. However, to get there requires the commitment Kornfield spoke of.

Another aspect of that seems to have been typical for our individualistic and consumerist age, has been the question, what do I get from it? Many were attracted by the promise of exalted states of awakening and enlightenment, and followed gurus to achieve this, only to be disappointed. Some seek the same promises in drugs and substances. Kornfield warned:

Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given with our hearts. In a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected to our heart.”

This has been, as far as I can make out, what has been missing in religious life for many people, and the scandals that have rocked the church as well as other movements, have driven people away from an aspect of life that seems to me to be integral, leaving many confused and disorientated, seeking distraction and ways to deaden the anxiety or rage that rises in their hearts. The complaint of many medical experts is that many illnesses and mental disorders come from an unbalanced lifestyle, misuse of food and alcohol, lack of purpose, too little exercise, and the influence of advertising on our consumerism. Hardly a good replacement for something as wholesome as Jack Kornfield described.


[i] https://metanexus.net/three-physicists-religion/

[ii] Quoted in https://www.hinduhistory.info/erwin-schrodinger-vedantist-and-father-of-quantum-mechanics/

[iii] Huxley, Aldous (1946). The Perennial Philosophy (1st. ed.). London: Chatto and Windus. p. Dust Jacket.

[iv] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/64309.Werner_Heisenberg

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