Essay on the Philosophy of Religion

Published: 2021/11/23
Number of words: 3291

Throughout history, mankind has tried to make sense of the world and universe around them. Religion is the result of this quest. David S. Noss, in A History of the World’s Religions, writes, “Myths and rituals provide ways of feeling at home in the universe, ways of behaving with the least strain toward mysterious realities in the immediate environment—natural forces, ancestral spirits, and the powers felt to be functioning through the social institutions of communal life” (2). Religion is created to make sense of the world. Divinity is what follows when something in this environment cannot be made sense of, or even explained. What once started as survival myths eventually lead to the origin myths and the ritualizing of deities. In other words, what mankind sought to know is what divinity is, or who God is.

Many try to answer the god question through scholarly and scientific means. While the philosopher-theologian, Paul Tillich, and the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, “represent scholarly and influential efforts […] to move the question of god and religion away from its traditional understanding to something which can be recognized and accepted by everyone because it is close to, possibly the same as, the human (Hagan 14-15). To try and make god understood by everyone is to trivialize the nature of deity. To find God is a personal experience that is the fundamental spiritual awakening in the life of every human being that seeks it out. If God were revealed for all the world on such easy terms, both believer and non-believer, then the purpose of religion is lost. God is elusive for the strength of belief, for the refining of mankind. The problem arises when one tries to label what deity is. Noss lists prehistoric and primal cultures as trying to find god. In ancient times, when hunting was the sole source of survival, god was an animal. When the food source changed to planting, then the god became more feminine and of the earth. And when the small families become more communal, the gods changed again to more human. And when the minds became enlightened then God becomes the word. Even now God is money; God is technology. There are so many labels that one tends to forget what God represents and is more concerned about what God can do for an individual personally. And this is not religion. What then is religion?

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Tillich and Maslow respectively attempted to define religion in two different ways. “Where the philosopher-theologian, Tillich, saw God and religion in the depths of culture and the human spirit, the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, (who died in 1970) saw the high points of human experience as authentic, transcendent, religious experience” (Hagan 12). However, I think that the most important point is missed in both of these. Maslow and Tillich define man as trying to set limits and controls over God and religion. Whereas religion, if viewed from a religious view, is God giving limits and controls to mankind to live in harmony with each other and nature. This is the problem with religion today. If one purports to believe in a god, any god, no matter if that god is science or a U.F.O., then it should be legitimate. But the problem is that more than focusing on what God says they focus upon what God is. Other religions of the past relied upon the rituals to explain what God was or what the god wanted. Thus, we have “uncomplicated beliefs that all is forgiven, one is saved, born again into a new, happy life in Jesus, as well as the added benefits of positive and possibility thinking, healing, the gifts of the Spirit, and science of mind” (Hagan). It’s too easy. It requires no effort to find out any relationship between the soul and nature, or the soul and God. It is now just giving money and a hallelujah to be saved. This is no more applicable in Christianity than it is for me to kill the sick and dying calf that won’t cost me anything to lose in an altar sacrificing religion. Religion should not be alterable to the whims of mankind, but the wisdom of divinity. If religion is so easily altered, is it still religion?

This is not to say that religion cannot change. It must change to survive but not in the way Frederick Ferre sees it. “Frederick Ferre explains religion as meaning that which one values comprehensively. He calls for a complete and substantial change of religion into other forms, other models, corresponding not to some supernatural revelation, but to contemporary needs, values, and concerns” (Hagan 10). Here I think religion changes because of divine, or supernatural, revelation. If religion doesn’t change over time, it is like a bridge that is not built to withstand the change of seasons; it will crumble and fall with the first blazing heat or freezing snow. All religion starts as regional. In Judeo-Christian religions, God gave laws and commandants for specific people in one region. When the religion spread beyond boundaries and borders, new people accepted it; new cultures embraced it. If there is no leeway for at least some change within the religion it will crumble and fall under its own incongruity. This is not to say that God changes or any other deity was wrong. It shows that religion adapts to the necessity of its survival without compromising the original structure. What may be legal to practice in one country is illegal to practice in another. For the religion to survive it must change some basic principles or be forever destroyed. It is not a contemporary need, value, or concern, but that God has seen fit to embrace the new members in a larger scope. When the twelve tribes of Israel first entered Canaan, they were commanded to destroy all the inhabitants that worshipped other gods. Eventually, this changed to a policy of “love thy neighbor.” The religion had spread to the point where it wasn’t a few struggling to survive in a world of overwhelming odds. At first, it was kill or be killed, but once the Jews established themselves as a nation and were secure, God chose to incorporate the neighboring states into the religion as well.

The discrepancy where religion must change is where it tends to split. Those that do not accept the reform continue in one course while those who do continue in another. The best example I know of is Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, appearing to his people as Jesus. Jehovah gave laws that were exclusive to the twelve tribes of Israel only. This once united theocratic nation split into two kingdoms over the issue of taxes (Noss 388). With the scattering of the ten tribes of Israel in the north, two tribes were left in the southern kingdom, Judah and Benjamin. The fact that the Jews continued to worship Jehovah exclusively not sharing it with other nations, and Israel fell into Baal worship by being overwhelmed by their neighbors, totally severed the two nations. Jesus finally came to the Jews with an improved law that would not exclude the world. Many of the Jews did not see their strict “chosen” religion as changeable. A rather drastic split occurred over what should be changed or not, and the rest is history. There are still the Jews and now the Christians all with the same God but different Savior.

Which brings up the issue of belief. Often religion is attacked for its belief, be it sacrificial rites or strict obedience to tradition. Belief is often confused with an assumption, which is the distinction between divine intuition and base. Belief is something that is hoped for but not seen. And part of the trial of life is the exercise of this belief because without belief there is no hope. For example, a Christian has a belief in prayer and that through prayer the answer to inner peace and answers to difficult questions can be found. Through this belief comes the hope that a person can improve for the better. It requires a genuine recognition that God exists so that one can speak with him on a personal level. No, God cannot be seen, nor can it be proved either. There just isn’t sufficient evidence that prayer works. Without this belief, a person doesn’t have any hope of improvement because ultimately he would tend to shift to the worldly point of view and negative influence of those around him. But with this belief that one can improve and find real solutions to problems, after the trial of this belief through personal experience, one may receive a witness of this, after which it is no longer a belief but a fact.

On the other hand, many see belief as an assumption, which can be harmful and devastating. As the dictionary defines assumption, “something taken for granted or accepted as true without proof” (“Assume”). Thus, if one just assumes that praying to a supreme being would improve his life and his life didn’t by stumbling through pitfall after pitfall. What does that prove? Does that prove God doesn’t exist? Or that God is evil? Or that he doesn’t care about those who pray to him? Belief leaves it so that even if the prayers weren’t answered, and life wasn’t the way one wanted it is through the will of God who has greater reasons that we don’t understand. If one just assumes that God must do as asked, one will be left in serious trouble indeed. Right or wrong the assumption creates trouble both morally and ethically. Secular belief, the assumption, is not, in fact, religious belief.

This is why in the quest to find truth it is important to realize that for religious matters one can only use religious ways. “In the last few centuries, Western philosophers refined this idea, of a natural world open to study by the ‘scientific method,’ and just possibly (IF it existed) another which is not open to such study and is thus called ‘supernatural,’ i.e. above and beyond the natural world” (Kuykendall 28). One cannot use science to find God. That’s too easy. Look through a telescope and see a glimpse of heaven, or calculate the amount of faith one has will do no more for us individually than getting the answers to an exam before it is written. If one wants to believe in a God but is not sure, use the method set by God, or any other deity of religion. The tools designed must be used for a specific purpose; one doesn’t eat with a hammer or try to drive a nail in the wall with a spoon. Thus, a Christian will kneel and pray to God to ask if a certain thing is true. “Do you exist, God?” This is the ultimate purpose of religion, to find deity in our lives. If one asks with a sincere heart, with real interest, and putting faith in the deity to answer, the truth should be made manifest, and anyone can know the truth of religious things. But it must take belief first and a little trust.

There can be a balance between belief and knowledge, however. “A much more common idea is that of a world consisting of two interlocking aspects, one of which can be approached directly and the other of which must be approached ritually, with both being necessary to any successful operation” (Kuykendall 28). Just because there is religion does not mean that there cannot be science or vice versa. There must be belief in anything before there is perfect knowledge. For example, one can go into the past to try and prove that what happened in their scriptures is true, the facts, the dates, the events, and so on. One can even research the areas and search for artifacts. But does this improve belief any? No, it just confirms it. There was already enough belief in it to do the research and when it is found to be true the science of that belief is affirmed but not the supernatural, for there is no solid proof of any supreme being, nor will there ever be until it is made manifest. But if one believes that not drinking or smoking will improve spiritual life as well as secular life, and it so does improve, this belief moves into knowledge and that person is better for it. But does this give one the right to force others to accept the knowledge? No. First the other must come to believe before they can accept it. The same process must apply to everyone. The purpose of science and religion coexisting is through the marriage of belief followed by knowledge. Einstein knew the theory of relativity; others only believe in it. It cannot be proved yet one hundred percent. Does that make it stupid or false? If I believe in it, must I be persecuted? If I don’t believe in it, must I be persecuted? You shine light in my face and explain the particle-wave/theory and that light has a speed limit and E=mc2. The light is proof, but is it enough to turn my belief into knowledge? No. It is only enough to help me understand more. It is not until I act upon the belief does it become knowledge.

Understanding is also the point of emotional involvement in religion. “Some writers point out that although emotional involvement with one’s religion is so common as to be universal, there is another commonality, that of devices used to control this involvement” (Kuykendall 27). Yet I think there is a misunderstanding of the purpose of devices such as “hymn singing, readings, and symbolisms to focus the attention of the worshipers on the subject of their devotions” (27). Emotional involvement is important but not through just the use of instruments. From the outside looking in it must appear so, but in reality, it is not. There must be some sort of device to bring the worshippers from the world of the mundane into the world of the divine; a gold statue of Buddha, prayer beads, a sacrificial calf. A man comes off of the busy street and sits down in a church to pray, yet his mind will still wander from the everyday events of the day or previous days. He is not focused, but if he sits down, takes time to meditate, sings a hymn to bring his mind to a higher level, then he is ready to give his full mind, heart, and strength to his religion without any more interference. These devices serve as an elevator to a higher plane and not as a control of our emotions. A spiritual experience is not to be confused with everyday emotion. I stub my toe, I cry. I sing a reverent hymn I cry, yet two different emotions.

To pinpoint it a little more let’s examine happiness and joy in a religious sense. What is the difference between the two? One can go out drinking with his friends and get blind drunk and also be quite happy. When he goes home after to his barren apartment and life, this happiness leaves as the reality of a hangover sets in. One cannot be happy and sad at the same time. But one can have joy and still be sad. To clarify, every human being has a need. From this need rises many activities to fill this void, one of the most popular being religion. If this religion fills the void in our hearts then we have joy and are happy. Even when we experience deep sorrow, we still have the religion to fill the void and give us joy. If a loved one dies and a person mourns for them, they still have joy that the loved one is going to a better place. On the other hand, if a man finds something that only makes him happy instead of giving him joy then when adversity hits, happiness leaves and he is sad; depression sets in. He has filled the void with something that does not last, so he may drink to fill the void but never be satisfied or listen to loud music, or any other limiting activity. However, when it is all over, he is no better than when he started, for he lacks joy. Find the lifestyle that brings joy and one has found religion; otherwise, the only thing found is a gimmick.

How does one use religion?

Sir James G. Frazer […] developed a theory of evolution of the three modes of thinking, which had the human race begin with magic. The partial failure of our ancestors’ attempts at magic led them to religious modes of thought and continuing the chain, we have recently developed science. Noting the similarity between science and magic, so far as the basic attitudes are concerned, he coined the term ‘bastard or pseudo science’ to describe magic (Kuykendall 30).

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Again, from an outside view looking in it may appear this way. But I see the use of religion as the opposite. The human race began with religion. Noss writes of the Neanderthals treating “the cave bear with special reverence” (4). Partial failure of our ancestors’ attempts at religion led them to magic because they could not comprehend the nature of the world around them. “‘Magic’ may be loosely defined as an endeavor through an utterance of set words, or the performance of set acts, or both, to control or bend the powers of the world to one’s will” (Noss 10). First, religion was on the earth to bend the will of mankind to a deity to better understand. With the failure of understanding arose the importance of shamans to explain the unknown and act as a surrogate for deity and mortals. Religion explains the world in codes so that only those in tune with the divine can comprehend. For those who could not comprehend a more scientific explanation was needed which produced magic. Magic being the “bastard or pseudoscience” tried to explain nature and religious happenings in a more comprehensive way. Science followed much later when a more concrete definition was required of the world and its surroundings.

In conclusion, the philosophy of religion does depend upon the point of view of the individual. As Paul Kurtz, a Philosophy Professor, writes, “Religionists need not be obliged to see the personal philosophies of those who disagree with them as superficial, selfish, or the work of the devil. If they believe their god gives intelligence and integrity to his human creatures, they could well honor that belief” (Hagan 16). However, in trying to make sense of the world and universe around them the philosopher of religion, the seeker of answers, should first try to see the truth of religion, any religion, through the methods established. Those with the answers have done it the hard way, at the cost of time, money, and life; it is tragic to think religion can be understood through any method other than the trial of faith.

Works Cited

“Assume.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd ed. 1992.

Hagan, William M. “What Is Religion?” Humanities 547: Images of Humanity: World Religious Perspectives, published by the Humanities External Degree Program, California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1997.

Noss, David S. A History of the World’s Religions. 10th ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1999.

Kuykendall, Kenneth L. “Religion, Magic And Magico-Religious Systems.” Humanities 547: Images of Humanity: World Religious Perspectives, published by the Humanities External Degree Program, California State University, Dominguez Hills, 1997.

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