A Brief History of Religion and its Modern Implications

*This is an updated and consolidated version of an old paper that I wrote as a student

It seems to me that we need to separate what we call “religion” in our modern world into two disparate entities. On the one hand, we have the moral ideas that a religious man views as central to his faith. On the other hand lies the spiritual connection aimed at achieving a higher purpose, generally displayed through prayer or ritual on both an individual or communal level. As we will soon see, these two entities or realms of religion — the “moral” and the “holy” — must be separated if we wish to discuss religion both historically and how it should relate to the modern world. Now, this split is an unconscious one, as will be made clear below, and each of the two entities is fueled by its own unique forces.

Many people make the error of thinking that conceptions of the “holy” and of “moral” conscious are fused or are one and the same. As we will see later, this is the root of most problems in the modern religious landscape. However, when we deeply analyze the history of religion and religious ideas, we will see that it is not only appropriate but absolutely necessary to treat these ideas as different from each other.

By way of introduction, I feel that it is necessary to lay out some of the premises and assumptions that this argument will be based on. First, I am assuming that the world has always run the way it does now and that the laws of the universe have remained unchanged. This premise does not allow one time events such as hierophanies or prophetic revelations to tell mankind what is true/untrue and right/wrong. Second, I am assuming that our species has been evolving both intellectually and morally from our inception. In other words, morality is something that can be somewhat measured by various methods that will not be delineated here. This is not to say, however, that there is one “objective morality” — I think that many different moral systems can individually reach the “end of the moral road” from a human perspective. It is our imperative as a religious community, as will be argued below, to allow our moral process to continuously evolve — without being stymied by issues of dogma — to ensure the continuity of our religion.

It has already been well displayed by religious theorists that man has an inherent spiritual dimension. Now, it is not my desire here to discuss whether or not this dimension is reflective of something that is true (which is my personal belief) or is simply an illusion; rather, I wish to make the claim that this spiritual dimension is at the center of religious belief. This connection to the “holy” is something that is completely separated from mundane or profane life. To be “holy” or to entreat some entity that is “holy” means that mankind must separate himself from ordinary or routine life and enter a realm where rationale and logic break down. Not to say that this is irrational but rather unrational. In this realm of the holy, there is no logic or rationale to be found: A community or individual may feel this connection that they have to something that is “holy,” and the only thing that we can say about this connection is that it must exist in some capacity (again, real or illusory), given that many have experienced it.

The realm of the “holy” is the realm of religion that is largely unchanging from generation to generation or from one religion to the next. A modern religious man can fully understand what another religious individual, no matter in what time or place, feels when he says that he is experiencing or connecting with the “holy.” As we will see in a moment, this is the half of religion that is philosophically immutable from one community to another, meaning that this is the common denominator between all groups that call themselves religious. By philosophically immutable, I do not mean that the form of the “holy” (Polytheism, Monotheism, Pantheism, etc.) does not change. Rather, I mean that the idea that there is something that is “holy” that mankind attempts to connect to is a constant. We can then define this “holy” aspect of religion by saying that it is “the attempt of an individual or group to connect to something outside the realm of everyday life or empiricism — via ritual, prayer, or other methods.”

Before we begin to discuss the “moral” aspect of religion, a couple of important points must be elucidated. Given that my definition of morality largely hinges on the rational capacities of man, it must be stated that the realm of the “holy,” which we defined as irrational, can often come into conflict with the moral realm. It is for this reason that often times religious men and communities are able and willing to carry out abhorrent acts for a “holy” sake while they would never allow the same act in the realm of the profane. Furthermore, in this dichotomy between the “holy” and the “moral,” we see that in the short term, the “holy” often wins but that in the long term the “moral” wins. This is due to the fact that something that is fundamentally non-rational cannot win in the long term against a direct challenge from something that is rational. When this happens, the form that the “holy” takes can even be changed. In this sense, the idea of what the realm of the “holy” demands from human beings can often be shaped by the rational realm of the “moral”.

I think that we can fully reduce the “moral” aspect of religion to societal needs. Every group of humans needs a system of ideas to govern their interactions with one another. For a society to work and thrive, this implicit social contract is needed to ensure that members of that society are able to leave their concerns of basic safety and thereby be able to climb the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now the idea of what is “moral” is an idea that is constantly evolving from one generation to another. Furthermore, for the purpose of this article, I am not interested in delving deep into questions concerning moral epistemology. Suffice it to say that there is an idea that we have called morality — whether the result of a Deity or nature — and that our idea of what is moral is constantly changing as we sharpen our logic and ration, as they are indispensable tools in the evolution of morality.

Now everything that I have written thus far regarding the split nature of religion is only applicable to a pre-modern or pre-enlightenment era. The modern idea of a separation between religion and the secular was non-existent, as all of humanity and society was involved in what we would now call religion. When this split happened, the realm of the secular attempted to extract the “moral” component of religion — leaving only the holy aspect. Religion, now feeling robbed of its control over the “moral,” fought back with the only tool that it had left, namely the “holy”.

Left in this secular age with only control over the “holy,” the post-enlightenment religious man has attempted to keep control over society by largely replacing the “moral” with the “holy.” Rather than allow their “moral” intuition to continue to evolve as its own entity, they infused it with the “holy,” stymieing its growth. Now, most of the modern religious world mistakenly thinks that “morality” is fundamentally a subset of the “holy.” These religious fundamentalists will then use their notion of the “holy,” found in the words of their holy scriptures and exegesis, and they think that these words contain all of human “morality.” In this scenario, the ration and logic that is the “moral” disappears, as it is fully subjected to the irrational whims of the “holy.”

I cannot stress enough that this fundamentalism is not how religion has functioned over the vast majority of human history. We see examples in all religions of religious thinkers using their sense of “morality” to change their religion. It is obvious that these religious thinkers are not using the “holy” to dictate what is “moral”; rather, they are using their rationale to dictate what is “moral” and then subsequently redefining the realm of the “holy” to jive with their moral thought.

If we take Judaism as a test case, we can see this entire process play out in a less abstract manner. Ancient Judaism started with an idea of the “holy” along with a “moral” code — the two entities that make up religion. The moral code of ancient Judaism had basic, rational laws of morality such as “do not kill” and “do not steal”. However, often times the conception of the “holy” came into conflict with these “moral” laws. Often times Jews would kill, steal and pillage when they thought that it was desired by the “holy.” In the short term, the idea that Yahweh desired sacrifice, whether in the form of animals, enemies or even Jews themselves (human sacrifice has been well documented in ancient Canaan amongst our ancestors) overpowered the strength of the “moral.”

However, as argued earlier, in the long run, the realm of the “holy” was overpowered by the “moral.” The age of the Jewish prophets was ushered in, with morality at its center. It was determined that sacrifice was negative and that resources should be used to help the poor rather than be thrown at the temple. Furthermore, the early seeds of universalism were planted, causing some prophets to argue that non-Jews also have a place in the world and in divine service. In short, the realm of the “moral” overpowered the “holy” and actually caused Jewish thinkers (the prophets) to change or reevaluate their conception of the “holy.” Again, it is important to note that the moral evolution was based purely on ration and logic. The prophets logically realized that it made no sense to rank sacrifice over the basic livelihood of their fellow men. Only once this idea of morality had evolved did the idea of the “holy” change with it.

While the prophets were a major step in the moral evolution of Judaism, there were still many “moral” precepts that were in nascent or immature stages. The era of the prophets is the era where the Torah was written, and the struggle between what is “moral” and what is “holy” is a struggle that is ubiquitous throughout the text. On the one hand, we seem to have rules set in place by pure “moral” reasoning, such as the laws of business, charity, and other areas of civil law. However, the laws that were created via an allegiance to the “holy,” even if they contradicted the “moral,” were still followed. Thus, a man could be killed for breaking the Sabbath or an entire city could be destroyed if the majority worshiped idols. As we will see shortly, it was only a matter of time until these “holy” laws were overtaken by the “moral” force.

About 500 years after the era of the prophets marks the beginning stages of rabbinic Judaism. Over hundreds of years, people began to realize that many of the “holy” laws in Judaism were in direct contradiction to their “moral” intuition. In an effort to keep Judaism relevant, the Rabbis were forced to reinterpret the entire religion according to the moral weltanschauung of the time. No longer was breaking the “holy” laws of the Torah punishable by the death penalty, as the Rabbis interpreted many of these verses and laws in ways that were so fantastical, that they were completely stripped of their original intent. Again, the Rabbis used their moral intuition to change religion, and their idea of the “holy” changed with it. The Rabbis now claimed that the desire of the “holy” was almost completely subservient to the desires of the interpretive community. It was not the “holy” that demanded these changes, but rather these changes demanded changes from the “holy”.

In every subsequent generation of pre-enlightenment Judaism, we can find this same pattern on a micro scale (the many Tekanot of the Geonim, Maimonides, the Zohar, etc). It is crucial for my argument to reiterate the fact that this split between the “holy” and the “moral” is a fact that has lay in the subconscious of religious thinkers all throughout history. I say subconscious because an admittance of this idea would necessarily contradict what the religious man thinks he is doing in being religious. In other words, while in truth it is the maturing of human logic and rationale — as seen via “moral” intuition — that drives religious evolution, religious men in every generation are blind to this fact and think that their conception of right and wrong stems from the “holy.”

With the advent of the enlightenment, Judaism was forced to defend itself against the secular. We can now see that the creation of the secular moral realm is really just a conscious split between the “moral” and “holy” aspects of religion. The consequence of this was that the realm of the secular was able to advance moral thought at a speed unheard of throughout history, as they did not have to compete with the “holy.” In disposing of the “holy,” the secular realm was able to accomplish in a few generations what religions have been doing throughout the course of hundreds of years.

At this moment, religion felt under attack by the secular. Orthodox Jewish thinkers did not want Judaism to be devoid of the “moral” aspect, and so they fought back with the only tool they had left, the “holy”. They attempted to reaffirm their religious community, but this time they only used their notion of the “holy” to interpret the world. Thus, the “moral” became fully subservient to the irrational realm of the “holy,” and it has blocked all further evolution from within the new fundamentalist Jewish community. Now this fundamentalist, Jewish community mistakenly thinks that they are continuing the tradition from the start of their religion, while in reality they could not be more wrong. They block all sense of the “moral” because it does not jive with their sense of the “holy;” however, this cyclical phenomenon has been stuck in time, since the “holy,” which is based on pre-enlightenment morality, has been unable to evolve.

Thus, the fundamentalist sects of religion are a modern beast that must be dealt with on their own terms. Since the fundamentalist does not allow for “moral” arguments, given that it contradicts their notion of the “holy,” we must constantly be pushing back and arguing against their conception of the “holy.” It is only through a recognition that the “holy” does not teach us the “moral” that we can continue the religious process of moral improvement — and truly save religion from becoming completely obsolete.

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