Religion—which is to say those activities we associate with concern for what we sometimes call “spirit” or the “soul” (perhaps, better, “spirituality”)—is a familiar and important part of human life. Everywhere we look across modern culture we see the practice of behaviors of this type, behaviors that express belief systems about how the world really is, and how we are within it. They depict the world as greater than our immediate experience of it through the medium of narratives that place that experience in a context that includes things like life after death, “end time” scenarios, the capacity to reach, through prayer or incantation, higher powers that stand above and apart from us or, at least, exist at the core of the world of our immediate experience and with whom “contact” can make a difference.
Religion is about depicting the world in a way that goes beyond what can be seen or otherwise known through our sensory capacities. It’s about organizing the information we associate with our experienced life in an overarching framework that puts our daily experience in perspective. And it does this in a way that is not, itself, susceptible to experiential confirmation.
Unlike science and its descriptions of the world, religious belief systems don’t hinge on factual assertions, although they will often include some of these (tales of the various founders, for instance, i.e., what such people are said to have done or what was done to, or for, them). But aside from these kinds of fact assertions, the particular assertions that characterize religious belief per se, those about how the world is, are different. Although they appear to have the same form as other kinds of factual claims, they do not actually assert facts in the same way (as science and common sense do, consisting of fact claims based on observations of events and their tendency to predict). Religious claims have a similar form to these, but no one expects religious claims to rest on evidentiary support or be provable in a logical way—although, when they sometimes seem to be, such assertions are rarely if ever rejected by their believers. That is, religious believers often do concern themselves with arguments or evidence for some of their overarching world describing claims. Concerns to prove the existence of God have a long history in many religious belief systems, particularly those native to Western cultures. In Medieval Europe and later, there was a long tradition of attempts to prove God’s existence and a strong desire that it should be proved or shown to be provable. Still, the original impetus to believe in a God in the Western tradition stems from a focus on personal experience. In the formative times of these kinds of religions, there does not seem to have even been a question in the mind of adherents. The idea of divinities was taken as a given. Only the nature of the divinity might be subject to dispute. Your nation’s gods or mine, being the primary question, your images or mine.
The notion of prophecy, the single person voicing his or her own experience of the divine, was taken as compelling by the people of these cultures and, later, the individual mystical experience, the self-reported evidence of a personal sensation or “vision” of the divine. Humans credulously accepted as veridical the testimony of others concerning divineness, the status of the gods in their world. Later, with the rise of a more skeptical because more empirically grounded notion of knowledge, individual experience lost some of its potency.
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Religious assertions, generally, are today taken by their adherents to be true without the warrants we expect and demand from scientific and common sense statements. They are taken on faith—unquestioned because they are deemed unquestionable from the outset. If earlier humans accepted the occurrence of divinities unquestionably as part of their world, people today must think of this in somewhat different terms. They must make a distinction between claims being true because our eyes confirm them for us and claims that are true for other reasons. As with empirical claims, not everything we believe can be believed only because of evidence we directly encounter through our senses. Much of modern knowledge, even what is empirically grounded, is taken by us, necessarily, on faith, a belief in the reliability of some authority or testifying source. We take the word of others for much of what we know and, similarly, in the history of human religion we have always taken the word of others concerning experiences of the divine. Shamans and seers, medicine men and prophets have reported experiences which humans take as truth because they have faith in those delivering such reports. There is a cloud of knowledge in which we describe our lives, the great bulk of which we cannot know directly through our own efforts at confirmation. We live in that cloud and much of what we do and believe, perhaps all of it, gains significance from its role within it. We inherit this cloud through our culture, through our training in society. We learn its touchpoints. In our modern world, though, the touchpoints involving religiosity have become more and more attenuated, more and more disengaged from the larger system of beliefs. Still, religion lingers, the idea that the world is greater than the parts we can see of it, that there are elements in our world picture which are beyond confirmation or even the need for that.
Religious assertions fall into this area and seem to consist largely of expressions of choices we make, decisions taken to believe, to accept, one picture of how things are instead of another. Faith is belief in some claim despite lack of evidence or proof for it. This is the currency of religion. We typically speak of having faith in some people but not in others. It’s a matter of trusting them, taking their word for something we cannot ascertain with sufficient confidence on our own. In matters of observation we are saying of them that we take their observation reports as reliable. In matters of understanding, we are saying we take their grasp of situations or complex claims to be superior to our own (or at least that they are better positioned to have an understanding of the matter in question than we are). This is the form of belief which religious thinking requires, too, i.e., we must decide to accept the authority of some person or document (a sacred text) in lieu of demanding evidence from our own experience (the reliability of what we have observed with our own eyes). But insofar as religious claims seem to be about what looks like it ought to be observable, and we have no such observations to rely on, we must decide whether a better way, or at least an acceptable way, is not just to suspend skepticism and accept the testimony of someone we take to be better positioned to know than ourselves.
Such fact-like assertions of faith underpin the belief systems that religions appear to consist of. Yet, there is always an open question of whether we should embrace any given doctrine or claim. Deciding to do so, in cases where we have no reason to decide to other than an interest in doing so is an act of will rather than the outcome of our receptivity to the experiences we have in the world. Ordinary beliefs—whether it is raining outside or whether Europe is a continent or merely part of one—will be subject to the factual feedback we get concerning them, but religious belief, faith, while having the form of an assertive claim of this same type, is approached in a very different way. It is the distinctiveness of this way that renders religious belief what it is. Instead of holding a religious belief to be tentatively true while awaiting further evidentiary support for it, we hold it to be true without need of such support. We hold it to be true because we will it so. We adopt belief in its truth as a gesture, as a way of proceeding in the world. On what basis can we do that? If we believe in the authority of someone who urges it, we can point to that. But sometimes even the belief in the authority of the urger requires a kind of faith. Sometimes we must just decide to accept. This appears to be what we mean, in the modern lexicon, by faith, the religious variety. We may have faith in our friends, faith in our teachers, faith in the government. All of that is tentative faith, however strongly we may feel it. But religious faith, to be that, is not tentative. It represents a personal decision by each faith holder to choose a path, embrace a narrative, regardless of the facts which may arise, going forward and, unless the source of those assertions in which we place our faith prove itself to be unworthy of our allegiance for some reason (falling from our good graces because we learn our prophet or teacher is a charlatan, for instance, perhaps reflecting evidence of insincerity) no amount of alternative information can normally shake us from our beliefs. If a prophet appeared tomorrow to deny what a prior prophet, in whom we had placed our faith today, had said, we would be moved to reject him or her because of the denial.
This is not to say that we could not be swayed. A sufficiently powerful personality or, perhaps, some overpowering events (the new prophet’s capacity to produce miracles) could always entice us to switch allegiance, of course. But, in the end, it is allegiance that is at issue here, not differing facts. Religious faith is like saluting, giving our loyalty to one flag rather than another.
Of course, religious claims, insofar as they appear to mimic empirical claims (those based on the sensory information we collect or the evidence of previously accepted as reliable exponents of complex ideas which, themselves, are empirically based) are at a disadvantage when compared to the claims of science, or even to ordinary common sense, at least if they are meant to compete for the same territory. But the religious motivation does not carve out the same territory as science does or as our activities in everyday life do. Religion addresses the world, but not in terms of this or that particular:
o What is that bus down the road about to do? Will it stop here and open its doors when it reaches me?
o What quantitative account best explains the behavior of an atomic particle?
Religion looks at the world in a different way than statements like these, a global way rather than in terms of this or that phenomenon. It expresses worldviews and so its various component assertions aim to describe them. Religion is metaphysical rather than factual, for worldviews are not merely a function of discovered facts but, rather, of the capacity of some overarching narrative to accommodate the facts we think we have, to weave them together in a comprehensible way. As such, there is a lot of leeway in religious accounts (many different variations are possible and none is more reliable than another except to the extent it captures our imagination as an explanatory system that makes sense of all the rest).
From mankind’s earliest days, our ancestors have had beliefs and practices about the world which go beyond the immediate facts of our experiences. Anthropological and archaeological studies show that ancient humans employed practices which betokened beliefs in more than the world of their immediate experience for they reflect concern with an afterlife (the idea that the world extends beyond the lived moment). We can see this even in today’s remaining primitive societies (those that have been left relatively untouched, at any rate, by more advanced cultures) and in the records of those cultures encountered in the recent past which have now lost their own primitiveness.
Ancient burial practices show that humans placed artifacts from the life of the deceased in their graves with them, indicating belief in a world unseen as much as in the seen, and in a level of existence extending beyond what is experienced in one’s own lifetime. At some point in our history, we humans came to differentiate between the physical phenomena of our bodies and the mental phenomena of the experiencing self, that which we sometimes call “soul.” It was to this, the soul apart from the flesh, that mankind came to ascribe a life beyond the body’s. In so doing our ancestors elaborated metaphysical accounts of who and what we really are.
If we live on after death, after all, what kind of a world do we live on in? What are our needs likely to be in such a realm? Who are we likely to be and how will we see ourselves and that world when we are there? What is the nature of this phenomenon, the presumably immortal soul? And how do we, as experiencing subjects persist in this world which is not the same sort of stuff that we are? From the earliest stages of human knowledge, into which narratives of the world beyond our present moment and place came to be incorporated, human beings began to develop alternate pictures of the world they inhabited and of the one they presumed to lie beyond it which, because it is beyond, can only be known on faith.
Partly this is a function of seeing the global environment in which we find ourselves in teleological terms (as driven by intentional decisions) because that is how we see causation in ourselves when we start to think about this. Applying the agential model we find in ourselves helps to make the world more comprehensible for we are creatures with will and awareness of it and so must not the world have will and awareness, too? Must it not be like us in this crucial way?
Given that our most immediate experience of causation is teleological (we move and something occurs as a result), we are motivated to view the exterior world in this same way, however much it appears inanimate on immediate contact. We are motivated, that is, to explain the action of events outside ourselves as mind-driven because we see our own actions as that. Yet, this teleological model on which we sketch out our world (the model of action as purposive) rests on something even more basic for, before we even come to think about causation at all, we experience living in a world of inanimate entities. We learn from our first encounters with the world that much of it yields to our force upon it and that its forces act on us, as well, and these do so with no apparent will behind them at all. While the child stretches his hand out to take the ball, he does not think about the ball’s willing itself to be taken. That kind of idea must come later.
Thus, we develop a bifurcated model of action, of activity, for we see ourselves in interaction with a world of forces but we see action, itself, as driven by a unique force, by our own will. In this, when at last we start to think about how the world works independently of us, we are moved to wonder whether there is will behind all forces or unintentional forces behind our will?
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When we start to think about causation, we recognize the causative role of agency, in particular of the conscious agency that characterizes our own activities. Seeing the rock move or the tree grow, we try to explain these phenomena as causal in this same sense, that is, as a function of agential will. But before even venturing to explain anything at all we are mere animals in a world that is separate from us, experiencing the world as such. Our effort to explain things, especially how and why the world works as it does, falls, then, into one of these two modes both of which are basic to our experience: The first is the model of impersonal forces, derived from our experience at the gut level before we are even aware of ourselves as entities having awareness; and the second is the experience of the personal, of the agential self, which we encounter as soon as we undertake to explain who and what we are to ourselves. This is when we become aware of our own awareness.
So, the very act of living in the world presents us with the impersonal while the very act of recognizing that we live in such a world, indeed that we live in a world at all, presents us with the teleological picture (where movement comes about through agential choice). Thus, when we come to explain the world, the needs of science to understand the forces that affect us, we come up against the needs of the self too, to explain the dynamic which emanates from a thinking, aware consciousness. We are motivated to reconcile the selfness of our own experience with what isn’t that self. Consciousness is as integral to our world, in fact, as the non-conscious phenomena which engulf us and so may be understood as another dimension of our being in the world.
It is here that religion takes its stand.
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In the early days of human history, religion and science were deeply intertwined. There was no clear distinction between the two and ancient priests and shamans (the spokesmen and primary practitioners of religion) doubled as the watchers and interpreters of the stars and planets, and as formulators of explanations, however flawed, concerning these and of all the other phenomena of life. The result of this conjunction of observation of the animate with that of the inanimate was magical thinking, the idea that the fundamental mode of the universe is teleological, that the forces of the universe are moved by will, not unlike the teleological phenomenon of selfhood which we encounter as soon as we find ourselves engaged in introspection.
Magic results from the notion that, where teleological factors control how the world works, the obviously optimal way to influence or understand the dynamics of things is to comprehend, and so relate more effectively to, the entities presumed to be behind their movements. Magical thinking leads to efforts to affect the world by incantation and supplication to unseen entities whose wills move the world as our wills move our bodies (and those things we move with our bodies). Thus, the fusion of external inquiry and internal models of movement leads toward credibility in magical notions which formed the stuff of our earliest human religions, informing the anthropocentric religious mentality which naturally also affected our earliest efforts at systematizing knowledge about, and its predictive capacity in relation to, the phenomena of the external world. Thus, religion and science were bound up together.
Yet, with the growth of knowledge about the world, and the gradual, if inevitable, separation of that knowledge from the kind dealing with our selves, as experiencers, as subjects, science and religion separated, eventually coming into conflict—creating a contest that became increasingly divisive to the degree religious practitioners sought to maintain the old bond with the body of knowledge that concerns itself with the natural world. Religion’s spokesmen struggled (and to some degree still do) to keep the claims of science within the jurisdiction of faith.
But as science grew as a source and repository of human knowledge, religion, as we have seen, lost much of its old status among human groups. Rejection of religiosity and expressions of faith become more common as cultures grew and became more infused with knowledge about the natural world, challenging the very idea of religious faith more and more extensively. To the extent religious teachings have sought to compete with scientific ideas, religions have suffered in the intellectual marketplace. Yet they have not wholly withered away. Whether because of human need for solace in a cold, unyielding world or just because of a demand for expansive metaphysical accounts, religions, even in a world of triumphant science, persist. Even in a world where atheism, the rejection of at least the notion of divinity as underlying the extant universe, has gained cultural respectability, the religious impetus has not been eradicated. The drive for an overarching narrative within which the varieties of our life’s experiences can be explained lingers, though it may take other forms more amenable to a worldview that rejects the analogy of universal forces to human will which modern Western religions rest upon.
For, indeed, why should anyone believe, in an era like ours, in a world shaped by an incomprehensible and all powerful deity in six days, for instance, or accept an account of creation that seems to conflict with what science has to tell us. Is it not as absurd, given what we know today, as supposing the world to rest atop the back of a giant turtle as one culture’s primitive myth has it? Why indeed, when science offers us more comprehensible stories with more predictive capabilities, embrace any of these archaic religious stories at all? The narratives of science can take us to the moon in a way that our dreams or prayer alone will not. Why then, given the successes of modern scientific inquiry, subscribe to an idea of a universe driven or controlled by divine will rather than the kind of universe made largely explicable by the very successful inquiry of the sciences in all their forms?
Of course, the argument remains that physics, the hardest of the hard sciences, never quite gets us to the end, either, despite the power of its methods and collected knowledge. We may have concluded that the universe consists of four fundamental forces, say, but where do these come from and why are they here at all? And how do we know there are not still more forces we have as yet failed to notice or that there are other factors which underlie these? Physics, indeed, may offer other possible answers in terms of mathematically described vibrating strings, or so-called membranes, or in terms of quantum events so strange they no longer fit the terms of ordinary explanation, but it comes to an end at some point, giving way to mystery again. From where do even these most basic forces and phenomena arise and who or what makes them occur, brings them into existence? Must we not, finally, come back to the teleological?
Nor does any of this help with the accounts we have elaborated of how our selves, as distinct teleological phenomena, fit into this otherwise completely physical world. Science answers a lot but does it answer enough?
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The religious motivation is not entirely eliminated or replaced in human life by science and its advances. It is merely moved aside and this only for a time, while we are exclusively engaged with the physical phenomena that are the proper subject matter of the sciences. Some of us can do that without giving attention, or very much attention at any rate, to the subjective aspect of our own existence for it is not illogical or impossible to disregard the religious dimension of explanation and fully embrace a different kind of global picture of how things are. But in the end one thing that is part of how things are remains untouched even by scientific effort: The occurrence of experiencing selves. Here science can tell us how the underlying physics work to produce such forms of existence, but it cannot help us explore the world of that form of existence. Science can give us neurobiology and psychology but, in the end, it cannot explicate the dimension of knowledge that consists of experiencing experience itself.
While we can and do seek to understand and adequately explicate how brains produce minds in physical terms, we cannot fully depict our world to ourselves without also seeing how we, ourselves, exist within it, and such existence is not simply defined by the blood coursing through our veins or the phenomena of our world. We also have a subjective dimension, an aware self that is also aware of itself.
The inquiry into what that is, and what it should be or can be (because we can act and feel in many different ways), is an area that science cannot address because science is directed elsewhere. Its concern is the world, in all its aspects, around us, while we are, in our intrinsic subjectness, an entirely different domain of consideration. We are about needing and caring and feeling the phenomena of our world, and of acting in regard to them.
In the end, the religious motivation remains because it is to this subjective dimension of human experience that it is directed. Having been peeled away from the sciences—or the sciences having been peeled from it—religion retains the focus on selfhood that science, in its attention to the world, cannot address. Religion, and the motivation that leads to it, addresses an aspect of existence that is not amenable to physical description, to reference by representation of the sensory inputs that our world consists of. Religion looks in another direction entirely, it looks inward not outward.
But this term, “inward,” is misleading, if only because it evokes a picture of vessels and their contents all of which are physically describable by reference to experienced phenomena, while the selfness of a subject is not inside some vessel the way milk fills a glass. In the case of selves, there are brains, of course, and these are found inside skulls, and electrical patterns occur inside brains, but the consciousness which these patterns underlie and which they make possible, that which has awareness of the world (and of its own awareness of that, too) is not, in any usual sense, inside the patterns that occur in the brain.
It makes more sense to say it is those patterns themselves, in the sense of it being another aspect of the physical reality which brain activity, the patterns, enables. But this is probably misleading, too.
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Religion looks not at the functioning of the brain which provides the platform on which the electrical activity patterns of brains occur, but to the experience itself that is those patterns when in play, at the dimension of awareness that arises in and through those brain events and which amounts to being a subject in the world. That is, religion consists of those ideas, and the practices associated with them (either to realize or express them), which constitute the experiencing entity. Religion’s subject matter, unlike the subject matter of science, is thus the experiencer and not what is experienced. For this reason, religion is unlike science and must be understood as practice more than inquiry. Its mode of operation: doing rather than analyzing or inquiring.
Religion concerns itself with the self as such, the self in its world. In this fashion, religion is not so much an inquiry that happens in parallel with the inquiries we engage in concerning the world, and which we call science, but another line of activity altogether, another area of thought but, in this case, is not exemplified by thought about how things are but about what they are. Religion does not and cannot compete as a knowledge gathering practice with the sciences because its job is fundamentally different. Its task is to provide the individual self with a means of orienting itself in its world, a means of putting the self into its proper role, acclimating self to world. Religion, in this sense, is practice, activity, the engagement of self with itself and the point of it is to lay out a way to live, to operate in the world as a self, as a subject, as a being that has awareness of itself. Religion seeks to consider the self as an existent in its own right, apart from the rocks and trees and all the other merely physical phenomena that make up any individual self’s world.
But to do this it must engage in an enterprise that aims to reconcile the self to the vicissitudes of its very existence and this, it does, by exploring the notion of selfhood to identify and lay out ways in which the self may achieve a status or condition which it has reason to prefer. That is, religion starts from the fact that we have a subjective self, a mental life, and that this is the nature of our existence, a nature that differs from the rest of the universe but is yet a part of it. Religion is ultimately a valuing project no less than the way in which we undertake to value all the things around us in our world is (to make our choices concerning the actions we will undertake with regard to them). Religion consists of systems of beliefs and practices that form a backdrop for all the other value parameters of our lives because valuing is a function of subjects possessing a certain kind of awareness (the occurrence of needs and wants that motivate and a cognitive capacity to recognize and represent them). Religion serves to focus our valuing efforts on the most basic and essential element in our universe, the source of the valuing activity itself: The acting self. It seeks to value the self as we value all other referential objects in our world and so it serves to establish the framework in which humans may live most fully and satisfactorily in the world.
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Although I was born and raised Jewish and had most of my education within a Christian culture—two of the three major religions in the West—I was always drawn to a broader range of religious possibilities. When still in my twenties, I gravitated to Zazen, a form of Buddhist meditation which is the Japanese variant of the Ch’an Buddhism of China, a relatively spartan system of belief, eschewing most of the rituals and folk beliefs of other Buddhist sects and certainly sparse in terms of Western religions.
Zen Buddhism is a branch of so-called Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) Buddhism, the tradition of Buddhism practiced in northern Asia, albeit with various distinct traditions (from Tibet to China, Korea and Japan). Zen rejects most forms of superstition and adheres to a very spare conception of the teachings of the Buddha, the founder of that Eastern religion. Unlike some of its sister forms, which elaborate complex metaphysical hierarchies of entities and rituals, Zen focuses on meditation, whether seated or in action, relegating the stories that typically accompany such practices to the margins of the tradition.
It’s not as if Zen has no mythology, no narrative, no metaphysical picture of the world, though. It just makes no big deal of it, counseling its practitioners to “just sit.” Too much involvement with ideas and theories is discouraged and when a practitioner falls into such things, whether mental reveries or extensive efforts to explain what is going on—to himself or others—the practitioner is directed back to the basic imperative of Zen: “Just sit.”
Of course, there are ways to “just sit” and these involve methods for clearing one’s mind, sometimes by elaborate verbal games designed to jam, and so short-circuit, the intellectual activity of the mind (the famous Zen koans which consist of hard to decipher brain teasers intended to tie the practitioner’s thoughts into knots until the only way out is by breaking the conceptual mold within which the koan has been framed). In the end, thanks to the constant direction of the practitioner’s thoughts away from theory and mental modeling, Zen’s emphasis can be seen to be on practice not talk; doing, not doctrine.
Nor are behavioral codes (moral concerns) or metaphysical accounts about the universe of great concern to the Zen practitioner. Neither are prayer and incantations as we have these in the Western sense—although Zen does make use of chanting, as another meditative aid rather than as a means of appeal to other worldly wills. In keeping with its austere understanding of Buddhism in its original form, Zen directs its adherents to return to the original practice of the founding teacher of the school, the Buddha himself, and “just sit.” If done correctly, Buddhist awakening, so-callled enlightenment, will come.
Zen tends to differ from many other Mahayanist schools of Buddhism within which it rests, schools which are more prone to elaborate metaphysical narratives underlying the basic Buddhist account, than it is. The northern schools elaborate a hierarchy of saintly teachers or “boddhisattvas,” enlightened practitioners who have foresworn immediate passage into the nothingness of the void which Zen practitioners seek in order to hang around in the world or in between worlds in order to help other unenlightened beings to reach enlightenment, too. While the Buddha, himself, is said to have passed out of existence entirely after roughly twenty years of instructing others on the path that will take them to enlightenment, and so is now quite beyond reach, the boddhisattvas are thought to be reachable in many Buddhist traditions of the north. Even Zen speaks of boddhisattvas though it makes much less of them than other northern Buddhist sects, some of which have replaced appeals to the gods in other religions with appeals to them.
The southern Buddhist schools, which the Mahayanists call Hinayana (or Small Vehicle)—or as they style themselves, Theravada—share with the Mahayanist Zen school the taste for spartan practice and spare metaphysical narrative. They are much less open to the notion of intermediate worlds and beings than their Mahayana brethren. Mahayana and Theravada schools differ, too, in how they conceive the world, and how they approach it. The Theravada Buddhist is rigorously deflationist, advancing a narrative that strips away the world picture we typically maintain about how things are by paring its elements until literally nothing remains. Engagement with the world for the typical Theravadist is vain, an illusion, and all life should be directed towards achieving a disengaged equilibrium within it. One should not become overly pleased or displeased with what happens and one should follow a path of right behaviors which, on examination, looks much like the moral principles espoused in most other religions, especially the three dominant ones in the West. Practitioners are enjoined from theft and murder, from lying and generally from causing harm to their fellows (though, of course, these types of injunctions vary in their expression and interpretation among the various religions, since some offer a narrower delineation of who the “other” with whom we are to be concerned may be, than others).
But all Buddhism, whether Theravada or Mahayana assumes the world is fundamentally illusory. For the Theravadists, there is nothing beneath it but emptiness, non-existence. Nothing more need be said. Non-existence is not even describable. The Mahayanists conceive of non-existence as an absence of all distinction, of differentiation. For them nothingness is everything roiled into one vast swirl of undifferentiated being, a Great Nothing, a description of the indescribable. A difference without a difference perhaps, but it leads to a very different style and approach to Buddhist practice.
The Theravada Buddhist seeks to attain the cessation of all being by erasure of all the elements that constitute his existence. He practices a life built around a set of moral precepts intended to bring him into harmony with the ultimate emptiness of the universe itself, acting in selfless ways because he aims to erase the self that binds him to existence. The Mahayanist thinks in bigger terms, conceiving of his or her practice in almost magical dimensions, as he or she seeks to connect with the infinite ocean upon which all existence rides but which, in its vast flow renders, individual existence irrelevant. It is as if there are a negative (Theravada) and positive (Mahayana) conception of nothingness. Both nothing but, at least as described, not the same nothing.
Of course, the essence of Buddhism is that description is, itself, part of the illusion, so in a sense both approaches to nothingness are wrong. They are a means to an end, the same end, i.e., the cessation of being itself, for the individual practitioner, as return to the primordial non-existence that all existence rides upon.
Zen Buddhism resonates more closely, in many ways, with its Theravada kinsmen than with other sects within the Mahayana school. And yet, it too conceives of nothingness as a vast something that is other than what we are, in much the same way other Mahayana Buddhists do.
Buddhism, in either of its major forms, offers an unusual metaphysical picture of the world, one that can seem strange to those more accustomed to Western notions of religious faith. In fact, in its most pristine form, Buddhism apparently involves no demand of faith at all—not as we understand that term in the West at least (i.e., as acceptance of some fact or facts without demand for proof or evidence). Buddhism demands no explicit commitment to any set of doctrinal dogmas in which belief, itself, counts as a qualifying feature for group membership. You can be a Buddhist and subscribe to lots of other belief systems as well, as long as you treat them all as part of the illusion that Buddhism essentially aims to teach you to reject.
Unlike Christianity or Islam, which hinge on professions of faith by subscription to particular core doctrines, or Judaism which hinges on practices demonstrating loyalty to the divinity (a practical profession of faith), and so demand loyalty through expressions of belief from their adherents, Buddhism rejects the notion of faith entirely in this Western sense. In a sense, it does so because it rejects the notion of divinity that is familiar to Western modes of thought, divinity which is, in such systems, the object of that faith.
Without a divinity, whose ultimate reality must be granted without insistence on proof in the ordinary empirical way, Buddhism can hardly make demands on its practitioners for doctrinal purity concerning such belief, after all. So, it is never a question in Buddhism whether God or gods exist and, if they do, in what form, what nature should be ascribed to them, as it is in Western religious traditions. Buddhists simply presume that we cannot know the true nature of reality and that this goes as much for the divine as for the mundane.
What Buddhism seeks from its adherents is not an expression of beliefs but behavior of the right sort not because such behavior is deemed to be pleasing to a deity whom it is risky to displease, but because the behavior is thought directly beneficial to the agent engaged in it.
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Even though the three major Western belief systems admit of a notion of personal benefit (expressing one’s loyalty to the existence or power of a deity can lead to benefits in this world and the next), Buddhism rejects this concept of personal gain. For Buddhists, there is a gain to be had, yes, but it is not an acquisitive one, expressed as accumulation of worldly goods or successes, or of securing for oneself a place in a world to come. For the Buddhist, the gain the person seeks is constituted in what he or she does with his or her own existence, with the consciousness of his or her own being that animates each individual. The gain is personal liberation and the liberation is from the bondage of existing, itself.
Unlike western faiths, which seek to improve the status of the self—in this life or the next—through practices deemed pleasing to a divine author of our individual existence, Buddhism seeks to alter the very sense of self that informs how we live and act in the world and, in so doing, to enable each practicing Buddhist to break free of the hobbles that bind him or her to the world. There are elements of this in Western faiths, too, as seen in the mystical practices found in all three of the major Western religions, and in many of their offshoots, practices which elevate self-abnegation of the self into a form of enhancement of the self, aimed at achieving finer states of being. But in the Western traditions, this sort of thing is achieved by subordinating the self to a higher entity, to a divine being, while in Buddhism (especially the more austere forms like Zen) there is no such being to seek out or appeal to. Buddhism, like its Western religion counterparts, rejects the world as we find it—but not, as they do, by imagining a better one to be found after it (accessing, in death, a more blissful existence). Buddhism, whether of the Mahayana or Theravada varieties, rejects both the world in which we find ourselves here and now, and any world that is to come.
Buddhism, that is, does not pursue eternal life, albeit in a more exalted state than the life actually lived by its adherents in this world, but rather seeks to discard this life and world entirely. That would seem to be easily accomplished if one discards the notion of deities and their heavens and hells, for then only death should be needed to end things. But for the Buddhist this is not so easy as it might seem because of the background metaphysics in which Buddhism is rooted. Only by shaking off the bonds that tie us to this world, and to the lives we live within it (for Buddhists think we are bound to reincarnate again and again unless we can shake ourselves free), can we actually achieve a better state which, for the Buddhist, is the absence of being in any kind of state at all. Western religionists can find this hard to fathom for it is a religious practice that seeks dissolution of one’s very existence, something followers of the Western religions are at pains to avoid, fearing the cessation of being that seems to await us with our individual deaths. Yet, for Buddhists it is precisely this dissolution, the eradication of existence itself, that is the liberated state to be sought.
If Christians, Muslims and Jews dream of a heavenly afterlife (however defined in each distinct tradition), Buddhism rejects even the idea of an afterlife in some heavenly or less than heavenly place and actively seeks to avoid the rebirth into this world that it thinks humans are subject to. Buddhism has its view because it came into being in the shadow of another, older tradition: Hinduism, the religion characterized by the beliefs and practices of ancient India. According to the Hindu religious account, all existence is ultimately a mask, an illusion to which we fall victim because we believe in its reality, that belief giving it its potency. If once we could see how unreal that which we take to be real is, seeing this not merely in intellectual terms but at our deepest gut level, we would, the Hindu (and Buddhist) narrative holds, no longer be bound by its snares and so be set free in the only way that really counts as freedom: Cessation of all our pains and troubles.
Buddhists live in a world whose picture they take from this older Hindu tradition, a world of the real as unreal, and of human existence, itself, as a tale of souls traveling a path of illusion. For both Hindus and Buddhists, the universe is facade, one to which we are held by the binding ties of feelings which we have towards the world in all its manifest aspects. For both traditions, the purpose of religious practice is to find a way to live in such a world, enmeshed within it and constantly seduced by the illusion, but free to disregard it, free, that is, of the experiences of anguish which life’s vicissitudes must cause, and, of course, to find a way, ultimately, to leave it behind. Because of the belief in reincarnation of the soul, death doesn’t just end the story’s anguish.
The task for each of us, in the older Hindu view, is to constantly hone our soul—which is the very core of our human existence—so that it may follow a positive trajectory on a seemingly endless cycle of deaths and rebirths. Hindus think of existence as a great wheel around which the soul makes its way. When it dies, it is foreordained to come back in a new form, to take its place again on the wheel of death and rebirth, and the job of the pious Hindu is to live a life which will advance his soul to a higher, and therefore better, form of existence with each turn of the wheel. Failure to achieve this leads to rebirth on a lower level of being and so to increased suffering for that soul. Buddhism draws its inspiration and world view from this Hindu metaphysical picture, which holds that existence itself is illusion and that souls are bound to it by their own desires. At every level of being, in every incarnation, the devout Hindu will look to the future status of his or her soul. Although Hinduism has a tradition which teaches that the endless cycle of death and rebirth does, indeed, reach an end at some far off and perhaps infinitely distant point in time (when, it is said, the sleeping world soul, which dreams all existence and ourselves within it, awakens), that is little more than a theoretical possibility for the individual soul whose job is to advance itself—or avoid regression—on the continuing cycle of birth and death.
Buddhism, however, separates itself from Hinduism because it rejects even this. For the Buddhist, the point of his or her life is not to advance the individual soul along a complex path of gain or loss but to demolish the soul itself, disintegrate it and so return it to the primordial nothingness of non-existence that alone sets free all troubled individual beings.
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But unlike Islam and Christianity—and Judaism, to a lesser degree (because Jewishness includes an ethnic as well as a doctrinal component)—Buddhism is about practice more than doctrine, about how one comports oneself in the world, rather than about declaring a set of professed beliefs. Believing in ultimate nothingness is only an intellectual exercise. Feeling that nothingness, losing one’s dependence on its reality, that is the aim of the practicing Buddhist. The only metaphysical commitment Buddhism seems to ask of its adherents—on the surface at least—is belief that the world isn’t as it seems. Accepting this allows the Buddhist to embark on a path of behavior that is intended to aid him or her in realizing this not merely as a theory but as a truth.
The notion that the world is illusion, of course, is a metaphysical proposition no less than belief in a world of divinities or of a transcendent ultimate divinity that exists outside the world it has made. The Buddhist notion, that the world is finally illusion has resonances with some historic elements of Western philosophy, too, at least since Rene Descartes first introduced the distinction between mind and body, in the 17th century and the Irish bishop and philosopher, George Berkeley, followed this by positing all existence to be mental since the main characteristic of existence, itself, as he considered it, seemed to be a matter of perceptions. That is, on this view, whatever exists does so because it is knowable by some conscious being. As Berkeley pointed out, what we know of the world is always and finally characterized entirely by our observations, the sensory inputs we, the sensing entities, experience. Thus, reality, Berkeley concluded, must exist because our minds experience it. What exists does so most basically as mental phenomena (our experiences of the world). On this view, the world is seen to be mental first and what we think of as physical to merely consist of how we understand the world of experienced phenomena, that is, to be merely constructs of the mind.
This leaves us in a kind of quandary, of course, since everything we know today (and the naïve experience of it that we have and which our forebears had as we do) affirms that minds are products of our bodies—in modern scientific terms, our brains which are physical organs inside our skulls. But if mind is the more basic reality than what we experience as physical, then brains cannot be the first things, our minds merely their products. The causal relationship between brains and minds, in fact, must be reversed. And yet all the evidence the world hands us informs us of the opposite—that our minds are functions of our brains for, if we drink too liberally at the local bar, our perceptions and comprehension are impaired, reflecting the effect of alcohol upon our physical brains. If our brains are damaged so, too, are our mental capacities. If our brains are destroyed, so, too, is the self. More, no amount of thought seems capable of changing the physical world’s actions upon us, or of affecting the world without the intermediary interventions of our bodies. If I step into the midst of a busy street, I cannot will the cars to pass me by without harming me. So, the mental may appear, in terms of epistemological relations at least, as more basic than the physical, but in our experience the reverse always seems to be true.
Buddhists do not expect to work magic with their minds when meditating, however. They do not aim to break the laws of nature, to make water run uphill or pigs fly, but this doesn’t undermine their mentalistic vision of how things are because that picture is taken, by Buddhists, and others with such views, to be subtler than it appears. The failure to suspend the physical laws by mental effort is not taken as evidence that the physical is ultimately more basic in some ontological sense than the mental since they explain the rules of the physical universe as part of the very same illusion. It is not that these rules cannot be suspended but only, for Buddhists, that we do not suspend them while we remain formed souls, embedded in the universe. Thus, the Buddhist seeks to liberate himself from these bonds by disassembling the components that are his soul and so to exit the trap that is the universe in its physical manifestation.
This view, that the world is really mental at its most fundamental level, “Idealism” in Western philosophy, has often linked closely to religious beliefs since religion likewise purports to tell us how things really are—even if all religions do not avail themselves of this mentalistic picture of reality. How things really are is determined, in the religious telling, by reference not merely to physical phenomena but to the occurrence of knowing beings like ourselves, knowing, that is, because we have a mental life. But how that mental life fits into the universe may be explained in more than one way.
If Buddhists and some others adopt a view that presumes the soul to be an illusion because of its connections to a surrounding illusion, Western faiths can and do offer other pictures, e.g., that the soul is a product of a creator god and under his control because of that, owing allegiance to that deity because of this. Or, as in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition (a form of Jewish mysticism), the soul is conceived as a fiery spark of the divine soul itself (God) forever in search of reconnection to its source.
The point is that religions—whether of the Western sort or like Buddhism—concern themselves not with the objects of the experienced world as such (with what we, as individuals, busy ourselves with in the course of living, that is) but with experience, itself—with what it is to life a life. Thus religions, understood as a class of activities we humans engage in, are those activities that address the experience of the subject as the object of itself. Religions, whether Buddhism or one of its Western relations, look inward at the subjectness of existence and so create and maintain extensive explanations and narratives to make subjectness coherent and intelligible to the subjects themselves.
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What is known has a knower and thus the world runs along at least two vectors, the presence of that which is known and that which knows. That is, the world is characterized by the dimension in which things are seen to relate to one another through a myriad of observable features, and to relate to the subject who observes them insofar as those features tend to appeal to or repel the observer.
In the religious telling, this knower, the subject, is often thought of as a soul, a non-physical spirit that subsists within or alongside the physical phenomenon of the body. However, many different stories may be elaborated to describe the subject, the observer, and thus we get this multiplicity of metaphysical accounts in religion.
Although there are many explanations of what the soul is, depending on the source of the narration, at bottom understanding the subjective dimension of existence is to understand that we are not merely physical entities, mere automatons, but conscious, aware subjects (whatever the cause of this awareness, whether physical brains or something else yet to be unidentified). Thus, religions and philosophical Idealism, both, make common cause here, in that both aim to consider the role of the subject (the aware entity) in a world of objects (those things that are seen or otherwise apprehended by subjects).
Our modern Western religions make much of the idea of the soul and see it in bottom-line terms, as a kind of ultimate being, the most basic form of the subject. This notion is consonant with the philosophical Idealist picture of existence as mental at bottom, rather than physical, a picture that is close to the religious heart, whether Western or Eastern. Religions concern themselves with who and what we are, and the why of our presence here. Their interests are, finally, not in how the world is what it is, or how it works, but in how we are and come to be in the world.
The point of religion, at least in its contemporary forms (since we only have records of the past to rely on and these may only be partial or may otherwise mislead), seems to be to tell us something about ourselves as mental beings, to focus on the mental lives we live, as opposed to the physical dimension of those lives. Whether it is our souls or our minds that we take as object of such concerns—however these may be defined—religion concerns itself with this dimension of our existence and not with the realm of our merely physical interactions with the world all around us, the experiences via the senses which display our world for us.
Religion, that is, has the self or soul, the mind or spirit, in its line of sight. It aims to put us—that is ourselves in terms of our most basic nature—into perspective vis a vis the physical phenomena which make up the world in which we stand. Religion’s concern is to develop and elaborate a narrative about the personal or mental aspect of ourselves and so it targets questions about our subjective lives, how we see ourselves and who we are and what the implications of such thoughts will be for what we do in the world.
But as the example of Buddhism shows, the idea of religion does not imply a single, exclusive picture of how things are. Indeed, there is no reason to think religions must be about divinity at all as ours in the West tend to be. Even in ancient China we see how a religious sense and tradition can develop independently of the notion of the divine. While the ancient Chinese certainly had a belief in divinities, their religious traditions were not dependent on this. Their two main traditions, Confucianism and Taoism, both grew up without a dependence on a notion of the divine in any core sense, at least not as we understand that concept in the West. In fact, it can be argued that the belief in gods and demons is ancillary in these traditions and not central as it is in the religions of the West. While neither Confucianism nor Taoism (“Tao” translates roughly as the Way) denied or disregarded the gods of their culture, both elaborated a narrative of the self that runs parallel to the gods without making the self dependent on gods. Confucianism, which was largely a codification of cultural mores, taught people to respect and honor gods but merely as a way of undertaking those acts deemed essential to refining the person within the context of his or her social life. Confucianism’s focus is ethical rather than metaphysical even if it operates within a particular metaphysical worldview. Its focus is on our behavior towards other human beings, expressed through our capacities to conduct ourselves within certain proprieties. In this Confucianism feels more like a philosophical compilation of ethical precepts, elaborated to enable people to perfect their characters in a community milieu, than like a religion in our Western sense.
At the same time, the other major native Chinese tradition, Taoism, is traced to a teacher who was a contemporary of Confucius (K’ung fu-tze in modern Chinese transliteration). That teacher, called Lao Tzu, taught the ancient Chinese a different approach than the one offered by K’ung Fu-tze. While the latter taught his followers to perfect themselves within the constraints of their civilization’s mores, which emphasized respect for the traditions of the culture, for the family and one’s family’s ancestors, and for the state and the state’s and family’s gods, in order to find a wholeness of the self through right behavior rooted in tradition and ritual, Lao Tzu rejected these things as superficial in favor of urging others to get in touch with the natural flow of the universe itself. Lao Tzu made the case for accommodating oneself to the natural order of the universe and thus for finding harmony with it. As in Buddhism, the gods are not seen as authors of the universe but as fellow travelers within it and the universe, itself, is seen as the most basic reality of all, a flow of energies that, in their activity, give rise to the natural world. Lao Tzu proposed that the universe is just a vast flow of forces, some energetic and powerful, others passive and unresisting and that we are not separate from any of it but manifestations, too, of these same forces. He counseled non-resistance to those forces but, rather, practicing a form of life that would put one in harmony with them. In his case, too, the ethical element is strong. Where Confucius taught piety and respect for traditions and the place of others in our lives, Lao Tzu taught an ethic of non-resistance and giving up, that living the right life was achieved by learning to flow with the forces of life all around one, neither contending with others nor striving to resist those forces which buffet the world.
Both these native Chinese traditions were preserved in texts, treated as sacred in their respective schools of thought just as the Bible and Qur’an are sacred in western traditions—even if neither of the Chinese traditions bothered much with the gods whom the population they spoke to concerned themselves with. Yet neither Confucius nor Lao Tzu denied the gods either. For the former, they are just objects of reverence, important in the pursuit of ritual which, itself, serves to cement human beings into the culture of their community where individual value is redeemed. For the latter, they are largely ignored, or at least they were in the early days of Taoism although in later times Taoism appears to have reverted more and more to a magical version, based on learning the mysteries of the energy flows in the universe in order to make better use of them.
Sacred books played a part in the development and, of course, the passing of these ways of thinking about the place of human beings in their world onto subsequent generations just as they did in the traditions of the West and in India where sacred writings, like the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Baghavadgita record sacred tales of Hindu tradition, and the various Sutras of Buddhism carry the records of that tradition. In every case, there is a narrative of sorts, a record of the journey of human beings who wrestled with and developed a means of relating to the world around them and, most especially, to the world of other human beings, other subjects who share the world with them. The metaphysical component seems always to be connected with an ethical one, whatever the variations in ethical expression. It is, it seems, this link to the ethical, the concern for the best ways to behave, that truly distinguish what we think of as religion from the activities of science.
The metaphysical account fills invariably provides the backdrop for answering the questions of selfness, the sort of things subjects like ourselves ought to do. Whether we see ourselves as souls on an endless journey in the Hindu fashion, or headed home to a fatherly deity in a heavenly place—whether conceived as stern or as loving or a little of both if only we do the right sorts of things (as found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam)—or whether as victims of a vast cosmic joke, trapped in a fog of illusion that conceals from us our real natures, as Buddhism and Hinduism have it, or whether we see ourselves as social beings alongside an incomprehensible but occasionally influenceable spirit world (Confucianism) or merely as blown leaves on a ceaselessly flowing current (Taoism), the religious impulse in man seems directed to a common object: The self in the world.
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Buddhism teaches that nothing is as it seems, that what we think our world is is, in fact, merely façade because what is really there lies behind a curtain. It cannot ever really be known, not in any intellectual or conceptual way at least. So the job of the Buddhist is to shuck off this intellectual aspect of being, the tendency to question and seek answers, along with all the other connecting features that tie us to the façade of “reality.” This, of course, is its own kind of metaphysic to be sure, one characterized by the idea that the world in which we live has the same quality as our dreams, a concept presumed, as noted, to have derived from ancient Indian Hindu traditional teaching (although there is some dispute as to whether or not the Hinduism of today, which contains such beliefs, really was the Hinduism of old to which Buddhism reacted in its formative period and from which it grew into a belief system in its own right). Buddhism, like its Hindu contemporary sees the world as an illusion in which human souls are trapped.
While for Hindus each soul pursues a journey through many lives in the ongoing task of advancing to a final, optimal state (union with the ultimate godhead), though susceptible to various pitfalls and the possibility of backsliding along the way, Buddhism rejects this narrative as just another manifestation of the attachment that binds us to a world of suffering and distress. Buddhism chooses, rather, to pursue practices intended to shatter all the chains of attachment in one fell swoop so that liberation may be had in a single lifetime. Rather than a lengthy, perhaps unending quest to reach a higher and higher level of existence with the objective being ultimate union with pure divinity itself, as the Hindus imagine it, Buddhism, while partaking of this same metaphysical picture (of souls on a carousel endlessly delivered back into existence from non-existence), diverges from the traditional Hindu metaphysical narrative in favor of a rejection of the many levels of existence Hinduism posits.
The ultimate goal for the Buddhist is not just a happy end to the soul’s journey, however conceived, but liberation here and now from the binding fabric we take as reality but which isn’t. Buddhism, that is, aims at the instant removal of each individual soul from the endless cycle of death and rebirth and all the suffering that that entails in a single lifetime—even if it allows, in accord with the Hindu picture, that many lifetimes may ensue before the successful Buddhist achieves his objective. For the Buddhist, the world is torment, even when we are happiest because even joy is fated to end and all such endings are painful and cause regret. This Buddhist notion of existence, as a kind of hell in itself, is alien to most of our Western religious notions which are built around making our lives better in this place at this moment, either in the here and the now or by setting us on a path to a happier “eternity.” Where Western religious traditions ultimately look to achievement of a good metaphysical end via residency in a heavenly domain (rather than doing time in a hellish one), Buddhism seeks obliteration of the self entirely, the self, that is, that resides in the world—indeed that resides anywhere at all. Yet, unlike Hinduism and our Western religions, Buddhism rejects even the reality of divinity as such—whether represented by many deities or by one alone. While Buddhism doesn’t actually deny the presence of gods and demons—not in the sense in which they may seem real to human beings—it denies their reality in a basic sense. It equates their reality to the reality human beings take to be real as well, but which, according to Buddhism, is not. All reality, ours and the reality inhabited by gods and demons, has, finally, the quality of dreams, say the Buddhists, and so, not only is our life unreal but theirs is, too—although the gods and demons may not know it any more than we poor humans do. Thus, the teachings of Buddhism are seen as a boon to the gods and demons of the universe, no less than to mankind. They are real enough to benefit from Buddhism by coming to recognize their own fundamental unreality.
Just as we may live in illusion and think ourselves real, so do gods and demons. Buddhism, opting for a mentalist description of existence, offers the view that gods and demons, and other fey folk, are not just unreal in the bottom line metaphysical sense that we are, but that, in that sense, they are as real as we are, too, for all are trapped in illusion. Buddhism, in this sense gets to have it both ways.
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The classical Greek writer Plato advanced a picture of how things are which resonates with this Buddhist metaphysic when he described human knowledge as equivalent to shadows on a cave wall viewed by prisoners within who are unable to fully grasp the significance of the shadows they see because they cannot see what lies behind them, the real facts of existence. Plato’s description of humans as dwellers in a cave observing shadows cast on the wall has a metaphorical quality, a poetic resonance of course, but, more, it appears more epistemological (a commentary on the limitations of human knowledge) than metaphysical (a claim about how things really are). For Buddhists this image is not merely epistemological. While Plato’s story has philosophical, it is not necessarily religious in its implications (although it can be). But Hinduism and Buddhism, by urging those who embrace the notion that reality is mere illusion to live their lives in actual rejection of reality’s claims upon their choices, move decisively from philosophy to religion.
Their interest in what actions, what behaviors, such “knowledge” suggests to us, rather than in how we should think about and explain things around us, their interest in replacing one view of reality with behaviors appropriate to another makes Hinduism and Buddhism religious enterprises and not merely philosophies. And yet there is a connection between faiths and philosophies. Religions have often spurred on philosophical thought while philosophies have led to religious belief. But religion is not the same as philosophy for the former’s interests lie in the choices we make when we interact with the world in all its parts while philosophy aims to enhance our understanding of the world in which we stand as observers of it.
Religion concerns itself with action while philosophy addresses thought alone. And yet these are not neatly so divided, for thoughts drive what we choose to do as much as our actions help shape how we think. The things we choose to do can and often do change us in ways recognizable and otherwise while the choices we make are driven by the beliefs we hold about the world, i.e., what we expect doing one thing and not another will result in. But philosophy, like the sciences, looks to the way things are in the world although science is distinguished from philosophy because it directs its concerns to how things operate in the world while philosophy turns its attention to how we know the things about it that we know. Religion, unlike these other two, however, is not about knowing but about doing, even if we must know to do and doing implies knowledge.
We cannot separate entirely the knower from the known, the knowledge which the knower has, when it knows something, from that which it knows, and so the religious impetus must necessarily be about knowing, too. To the extent it concerns itself with the state and status of the self, such concerns must be about knowing where we stand in our world, locating a place for ourselves within the world framework, the conceptual picture we build and maintain to organize our ideas about the world and allow us access to it.
Yet religion is also, at bottom, moral because it directs itself to the choices we make in life and this is no doubt why every sophisticated religion we find in human culture has a moral focus, even when they don’t all agree on the specifics. They are always concerned with the courses of action we are to choose for ourselves, the things humans ought to do.
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The term “moral” is, at bottom, about discriminating among our actions in order to identify those that represent better options from those that don’t. It comes from the Latin “mores” which refers to the kinds of actions or practices human beings are accustomed to perform. While all our actions, insofar as they are deliberative, imply valuation, the specifically moral sort refers to those actions we take ourselves to have reason to perform within a certain sphere. Religions, insofar as they are about how we fit into our world, provide the basis for these kinds of reasons. The concept of moral valuing has broad application for there are any number of reasons we may think some action better than another, many of which will hinge entirely on the action’s potential to achieve certain goals, whether in the form of acquisition of some desired object or achievement of some preferable state. Following the rules of a community in which we are enrolled can be a reason to act. But if we dig deeply enough we find that mere enrollment in communities is often not enough for not all communities are the same and the question of the moral value of any community’s set of practices is always, itself, a further moral judgment. Religion helps provide us with a basis for distinguishing morally between competing practices from community to community because religion looks at the self and its role in its community and, indeed, in any community. Religion attends to the status and place of the self.
Religion, insofar as its focus is on the self, the subject in the world, addresses the state in which any self may be and so provides the basis for distinguishing between better or worse selves, a question that is bigger than any community’s standards alone. Communities are defined by their shared narratives, their shared beliefs, and religions elaborate and explore precisely these kinds of stories to establish a place for the individual self within the larger context in which he (or she) finds himself. And since acquisition of a desired thing (the valuational motivation underlying deliberative action) involves the self that desires it, the religious interest can be seen to have primacy, i.e., the state of the self is more significant to the self, the acting agent, than the things the agent stands to acquire. This is why moral claims have prominence over merely prudential valuational judgments and why we don’t accept prudential valuations as sufficient to support our particular moral claims. The self that acquires has, first of all, a concern with what it is, with how it, itself, fits into its world and every action involving acquiring anything at all is an expression of that self. Thus, before we concern ourselves with the value of getting this or that item of wealth, this or that advantage, we concern ourselves with the state of the self we see ourselves to be in as it is expressed by the intended action and as it may be affected by it. Because of the centrality of the self, in terms of its motivations, to every deliberatively performed action, the moral dimension of our acts takes precedence over their instrumental possibilities and, insofar as the moral dimension is conditioned by an understanding of the states in which a self may be, the province of the religious project, those acts that conduce towards the best states, will control such judgments.
This is why the religious impetus, in whatever form or tradition it may manifest, plays a crucial role in our moral considerations and why, from culture to culture, we see similar human concerns about the proper ways to treat other human beings and, frequently, similar conclusions about the right way to behave. While different cultures often maintain different standards and answer moral questions in different ways, what does not differ, from culture to culture, is what human beings are in terms of their experience of being cognitively capable subjects who are—or can become—aware of themselves in the world.