Why Religion

(Notes for a talk given to the Kilkee Civic Trust 19/08/2009)

For someone born and brought up here in the forties and fifties the question ‘Why religion?’ was a nonsense question. One no more questioned the why of religion than one questioned the sea, or the sky, or the fact that there were people. It was there, a fact of life, and belief was absorbed in much the same way as language, or manners. Nevertheless, there was an explanation for religion, just as there were answers for all the those impenetrable questions that young children ask – like, ‘Where was I before I was born?’. The answer is a story Christians know as ‘salvation history’.

The View from Inside

This story begins, appropriately enough, in the beginning with the creation of the world by God, then the creation of the first man and woman, followed by the story of their descendants and their long, often problematic, relationship with God. It is a story we all know well.
The story culminates, for Christians anyway, in the birth of God’s son, Jesus. He is the final revelation of God, God himself in human form. Interestingly enough, Jesus never says that he is divine. Nor does anybody, neither his followers nor his enemies, suspect for a minute, that he is anything other than a man. An extraordinary man, but a man nonetheless. It was only later, after his  resurrection, that it began to dawn on his followers that ‘God was in Christ’.
After his death his followers, the Apostles, spread his teaching which caught on with people to such an extent that in less than three hundred years the Church had become accepted throughout the Roman Empire and for the next twelve hundred years was to dominate European life, culture, politics and history. Today it has spread throughout the world and over the course of that time has produced many remarkable men and women.
That’s the Catholic story. I was quite proud to be a member of this privileged institution and happy with its answer to the question, ‘Why religion?’ Until, that is, shortly after I left school. I was in New York. I came to know a Jewish girl called Stephanie who was studying comparative religion at Columbia University. She was delighted to come across a cradle Catholic who, she hoped, might be able to explain some of the anomalies of Catholicism. It turned out that Stephanie knew more about my religion and religion in general than I did and that my answers to her questions were inadequate, to say the least. Wherever I went, America, the Far East, the UK, I found that I was a member of a small group of Catholics, sometimes the only member. I had become one of those slightly odd religious people. I did come across other religious people but I found their religion strange, just as they did mine.
I eventually ended up teaching in England. I often think you learn more from your pupils than they do from you. In one of my classes there was a girl from India, a Hindu.  She was very bright and unlike many of the other girls she was not vapid, or shallow, or bitchy. She had a deep faith and fasted one day a week. She sat at the back of the class and I often caught her shaking her head sadly at me as I explained some Catholic teaching or other. So one day I held her back after class and asked her why she shook her head. ‘Mr. Glynn’, she said, ‘you Catholics think you know it all.’ And I suddenly saw myself as she must have seen me – caught up in a very narrow mindset. And I caught a glimpse of another religion, Hinduism, a religion I then knew very little about, which had produced this remarkable person with such a deep spirituality. So what was the origin of Hinduism? God, we Catholics had been taught, had only revealed himself to the Jews and to Christians. Yet here was an undoubtedly holy person with a deeper and more profound faith than any of her Christian contemporaries – a Hindu. Educated in a Catholic convent school she knew as much about Catholicism as any of the other girls, yet it held no attractions for her. The level at which she lived her faith put pretty well everyone else in the school, myself included, to shame. I suddenly saw that thinking along the lines – true religion – false religion – (and the Catholic religion is the only true religion, we were taught – all the others are false) was to go about things the wrong way. There is no such thing as religion – true or false. Religion is an abstract concept. It exists only as an idea in the mind. What there is is religious people, people who are religious.
My encounters with these two girls, although there were years between them, were a reality check. They made me realise that mentally I was living in quite a small bubble and very ignorant of the mindsets, the thoughts, feelings, hopes and aspirations of my fellow human beings.

The View from Outside

So what is the origin of religion? Or better, why are there religious people? My Hindu pupil and I, in our different ways, were religious because we had been born into societies where religion was taken seriously. It was part of the mindset. But how did these societies come to be religious in the first place? There are a multitude of reasons for the existence of religion in societies – some historical, some sociological, others psychological, some philosophical, some purely economic, and of course the theological reason I suggested at the beginning. I am going to pass these by and get to what I think is the fundamental reason for religion – but before I do just consider for a moment the economic reasons for religion. Just think of the economic resources our ancestors poured into religious activity. The mediaeval cathedrals of Europe required enormous resources and sometime hundreds of years to construct. Likewise the Aztec and Maya temples of central America, the elaborate and fantastically carved temples of southern India, or the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt.
According to the Christian story (and it is a story) we are religious because God would have us so. It was God who told us how, what and when to sacrifice, what clothes to be worn for worship, what rituals to be followed, what rules applied. This is a superficial reading of the Old Testament. Read more carefully we see that Judaism developed in a centuries long struggle against other religions of the Middle East. There are no explanations given for the existence of these other religions other than the implication that, as they are false, they must have been invented by those who belonged to them, or perhaps they are the invention of the devil as a weapon in his never ending struggle against God.
But there is another reason for the existence of religion. This reason, I would suggest, with apologies to Richard Dawkins, is that people are naturally religious. We are religious because it is in our nature to be religious. The person who did most to develop this idea was Alister Hardy, professor of zoology at Oxford University in the nineteen forties and fifties. As a boy he was not very religious in a formal sense but he had a profound feeling for the beauty and mystery of the natural world. It aroused in him a sense of wonder and awe. Later in life as a zoologist he was struck by the fact that we humans have always been religious. Is it in our genes, he wondered? He suspected that religious awareness evolved in response to an awareness of a transcendent dimension of reality, in response to the feeling that there is much more to life than what appears on the surface. As a good Darwinian, he wondered whether there was an evolutionary advantage in possessing this religious awareness, or sensibility. When he retired from the chair of zoology he set up the Religious Experience Research Centre at Oxford and I will come back to this in a moment but first let’s go back again to the beginning and look at religion in some of its variety.
Mankind has always been religious as far back as we can go. Even Neanderthal people were religious. There is evidence from a grave found in Shanidar in Iraq of ritual burial with flowers placed in the grave – surely a religious act. This was 60 to 80,000 years ago. If we look at the ancient civilisations, the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks – religion occupied pride of place in their societies and they devoted enormous resources to building temples, statues, pyramids, etc.
Nineteenth century anthropologists and ethnologists thought that the best way of discovering how religion evolved was to study primitive tribes.  Sir James Frazer looking at Australia concluded that Australian Aboriginal religion was the simplest, least developed, most infantile, form of human consciousness. Others, like Edward Tylor, concluded that the Nuer, a tribe in Southern Sudan, because they had no priesthood, or cult, or ritual, that the had no religion. Unfortunately they went as cultured Europeans judging what they saw from within the context of a modern society and religion as they understood it. We now know that these so-called primitive peoples have a deeply religious sensibility and awareness of the transcendent. In a very real sense Aboriginal religion is not a function of Aboriginal society: rather, Aboriginal society is a function of Aboriginal religion. In other words, you could almost say that society exists for the sake of religion rather than religion for the sake of society. Technologically and materially Aboriginal culture is of extreme simplicity, religiously and spiritually that culture is of extreme complexity and subtlety. It has even been argued that the Aborigines deliberately chose a simple technology and style of economic life so that they could devote themselves to the elaboration of a rich and intricate social and religious life. This from an aboriginal creation myth –

In the beginning the land was flat, dark and featureless. It had neither shape nor meaning. It had no places in it, or on it, until the ancestors went travelling the paths of it. The ancestors did not create the land but they created its meaning and shape. As they travelled they were creating the mountains and the hills and the rocks and the animals, people and places. They did not do it once and for all, they do it still – they do it in the walking and the dancing and the singing and the dreaming. The paths must be walked. The creation work must be done.*

There is something really profound here – this sense of participating in creation, in the making of meaning. Paul has something not all that different when he talks about making up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24).

Numinous Experience

This is the religious sensibility that so fascinated Alister Hardy. I think tribes and people who live very close to nature are much more aware of the mystery that underlies the surface appearance of things. They have a sense of awe and wonder that is not easily found in our modern urban environments. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian published a book early in the last century called Das HeiligeThe Idea of the Holy and he coined the term numinous to describe this sort of experience.
It is an experience marked by awe, a sense of something uncanny. It evokes feelings of wonder and fear at the same time. There is a terrible attractiveness about it. The Old Testament and the new are shot through with accounts of these types of experience. Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush is one, his experience on Mt. Sinai another. But the one that really expresses something of the awesomeness of the experience is that of Elijah on the mountain.

Then the LORD said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD–but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake–but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire–but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-12.

Fierce wind, earthquakes and fire can all be terrible experiences but the one that really gets to Elijah is described as ‘a tiny whispering sound’, or in other translations ‘ a still small voice’. The translation that I think best evokes the experience is ‘a sound of gentle silence’. Elijah’s experience on the mountain top is not of storm, fire or water; not of force, or violence. There is something in that silence that moves him to the core. The numinous experience is at the heart of the religions of the West, the religions we are familiar with are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These are three branches of the same tree, descended from the Ancient Abrahamic Religion, which in turn derives from the Ancient Indo-Iranian Religion. What they have in common is the way they think about God. God is up there, in heaven, transcendent, beyond the world, the cosmos. From God comes everything, human beings, the world. He is the creator. They depend on him and ultimately everything returns to him. He communicates with us, if he communicates at all, through prophets and in the case of Christianity, through his son who is the incarnation of God. The interesting thing about the god in all these religions is that he is an ethical god. He demands moral behaviour, unlike say, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome who simply required worship if they were to grant favours.

The Religions of the East

Now the religions of the east, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, are also descended from the Ancient Indo-Iranian Religion but they have a very different look and feel to them. Instead of being centred on a transcendent god, outside, up there, the focus is on inner experience. These religions start from the human viewpoint. Awareness of the Transcendent starts from within rather than being revealed from without as in the case of the theocentric religions. The Transcendent is not so much up there, or out there, or in heaven, as within the person. God, or Brahman, or Absolute Reality is not so much revealed as discovered within and united with, rather than separate from, the world.
Why are the religions of the east so different? To my mind one of the most interesting examples of how experience shapes the development of religion is to look at what happened about 4,600 years ago in what is now north East India and Pakistan. We know very little about the Indus Valley civilisation which existed there then. They had a number of enormous cities of which the best known is Mohenjodaro. It was excavated in the early part of the 20th century. The reason it is so interesting in tonight’s context is it may provide a clue as to why the religions of the East, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, are so different from those of the West.
Now, why should the western set of religions differ so much from the eastern set, given that both are descended from the same source? The clue to the answer, I believe, is to be found with a figure inscribed on a tablet discovered in Mohenjodaro. Here we have a mysterious person sitting in the lotus position. The Harappan script has not been deciphered so we do not know who this mysterious figure sitting cross legged on a stool is. Was this where the type of meditation found throughout the East was discovered? And did the practice of this type of meditation shape the development of these religions?
I believe so and I think it is because of this type of meditation that the eastern religions are so different to those of the West. There are many variations in the way this meditation is practised across India, China, Japan and SE Asia but they boil down to two. The first (Samatha in Sanskrit) is aimed at concentrating and detaching the mind from the everyday kaleidoscope of thoughts, feelings and emotions. The second  (Vipassana) focuses on simply being aware. Imagine that the mind is a bit like being caught up in a TV soap opera – very busy –  all sorts going on. By focusing the mind on a mantra, or counting the breaths, one detaches from this busyness and it is as if one one was in the room, aware of the television but no longer paying it any attention. One becomes aware of oneself in the context of the room as a whole. As the meditation progresses one becomes simply aware without being caught up in what is going on all around.
The lotus flower is a favourite symbol for Buddhists. Its roots are buried deep in the mud. The flower is above the surface in the light of the sun. The aim of this type of meditation is to become fully aware.
The important idea here is context. David Hay and Rebecca Nye in their book The Spirit of the Child describe their research into the spirituality of children. The striking factor which emerged from the interviews with these children, two thirds of whom came from families with no religious affiliation, was their awareness of relationship – the relationship with self, with others, with the world and with God. Hay termed this relational consciousness. It signified a profound aspect of what it means to be human. It is an awareness that we are immersed in being. This is something much deeper than the discursive intellect.
Now there are many types of religious experiences. And not all of them are religious. There are the experiences of people at revivalist meetings which are more akin to crowd hysteria than an encounter with the divine. Experiences under the influence of drugs. Descriptions of experiences resulting from experiments with mescaline by people like Alduous Huxley are are not very different from those described by mystics like Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross. Mystical type experiences have also been triggered by mental conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some scientists would like to dismiss all religious experience as simply something going wrong with the brain.
Obviously all experience is mediated through the brain. Dr. Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist in Toronto has invented what has come to be called a ‘God Helmet’. He claims that by applying electrical fields across the temporal lobes of the brain he can induce a mystical experience.
Persinger persuaded Richard Dawkins to try his helmet to see whether he would have an experience. Nothing remarkable happened.
So, is there any way of determining whether any experiences of this type might be genuine, i.e. result from awareness of God, or some transcendent reality, or being? We can rule out many experiences – those which are the result of drugs, or madness, or the sort of collective hysteria you get at revivalist meetings. When Alister Hardy began his research he asked a fundamental question – Had they ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether they called it God or not, which was different from their everyday selves?’ More than 50% responded positively.
Again – The really important criterion in all this is context. Context and relationality go together. It is not really a good idea to be so caught up in our feelings and emotions that they are all that matter. It is important to remember the fourfold relationality that Hay and Nye found was so apparent in children’s spirituality. If we are so caught up in self that we become unaware of the other dimensions of experience we are not coping very well. This is why Hardy and Hay concluded that religious awareness gives us an evolutionary advantage. But I am not sure that attaching the label God to the fourth dimension is a good idea.
The fourth dimension is awareness of transcendent reality. Beyond conception – speech – definition etc. Beyond beyond. The really strange thing is that at times we are aware of this transcendent reality, although theoretically this should be impossible. It is a sort of tacit knowledge – not explicit, not something we can articulate. Hay in his research with people in Nottingham who were unchurched, who were either agnostic or atheist found that there was general agreement that there was something there. Not God perhaps, but something which defied explanation.
But what is that something? Traditionally that something has been named God, or Brahman, or Nirvana, or Allah. There is a temptation at this stage to get side-tracked into a theological discussion about God. One factor which emerges very clearly from the many, many accounts of religious experience is that what is experienced is not easy to label, or even describe. Here, less is better than more, silence in the face of mystery better than speech.
I conclude with some examples of religious experience. The first is that of a woman recalling the event when she was very young.

I was three years old. I crouched down, as children do, very close to the ground. A black slug moved across the path, slowly, silently, leaving a shiny trail, and I sat back on my haunches to watch it. My cotton print dress circles the ground round me. Overhead the sky was blue, the sun shone … a tune was in my head and I hummed it…. There was a movement in the trees. Not the movement made by someone passing through but an overall rustle of attention as in a crowd before the arrival of royalty. Each leaf was aware, expectant. Each blade of grass alert. God was everywhere. I felt secure; held; at one with everything around me.2

This is a numinous experience, not dissimilar to that of Elijah. You could say it is a sort of non-experience because nothing really happens and yet it was so memorable that it was never forgotten.
The second is from the archives of the Religious Experience Research Centre.

At the age of fourteen, standing alone in the stem of a steamer taking me to France, leaning over the taffrail, watching the wake and smoky wraiths from the funnel diminishing to the horizon, rising from the water as if the waves spoke to me, I heard a voice saying: ‘All men are brothers! Every land is home’. And I felt quite stunned with joy. Henceforth I had a sublime faith. The whole world would be home and every person in it my brother. National frontiers and racial differences would be no more than walls between rooms and variations between members of one family. Every journey would be from home to home. Thenceforth all barriers of class, religion, colour, culture, race, for me broke down, and all people in truth became my brothers. I travelled all over the world, and everywhere people were akin to me. With such a religion, no supernatural beings were necessary or needed. I feel no lack of one, rather joy. It is much easier to explain many problems – example, of evil – without god and devil etc. than with them.

I wish I could impart to everyone else my happiness and relief in being freed from any supernatural-centred religion – and I have studied them all with the deepest attention and sympathy – The universe became for me much more sublime and wonderful when I ceased to believe in such a faith. Man must be his own salvation. He can be, if he wills to be. So could he be his own destruction.

This points up the dangers of attaching labels too easily. Was the God she ceased to believe in the the God of philosophers and scholars that Pascal criticised? Her profound relationship awareness is truly transcendental. As Bede Griffiths in his autobiography The Golden String put it, “we are no longer isolated individuals in conflict with our surroundings; we are parts of a whole, elements in a universal harmony.”
To sum up — Why religion? – because we are naturally religious i.e. we have this natural ability, some more than others as with all our talents and abilities, to be aware of the transcendent dimension of reality.

One Response to “Why Religion”

  1. Really Sir very good explanation of religion.

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