Religions are double-edged swords. They can contribute a lot to improve men’s life, but they can also destroy it. Of all elements that can compose religious systems, I think the most dangerous is absolute faith. Even though not all religions preach it, some, including the ones of Semitic origin (Christianism, Islamism and Judaism) regard their doctrines as absolute truth and only path to God, and encourage believers to pledge full allegiance to it, many times under the threat of divine punishment. In my experiences I’ve seen three main problems generated by this kind of doctrinal, absolute belief: inflexibility, intolerance and imposition.
When believers adopt absolute faith in the religion they become blind followers. They stick to the practices and ideas and will hardly rethink or change their views. So they lose the flexibility to abandon practices they realize as unhelpful, to recognize mistakes and to try better approaches if necessary.
Blind believers tend to see different ideologies as bad even if they don’t know them. Not only they lose the opportunity to see reality from different angles and learn from others, they may start to discriminate against other faiths or treat them with disdain. Sometimes people are so deep-rooted in their views that they can’t convince each other, they can’t understand each other, they end up rather clashing with each other. That’s how religious wars start. Soldiers, on both sides, going to war led by blind passion, certain that they are heroes fighting for justice. But the result is very far from anything like justice. One only has to remember of the 30 Years War, where Catholics and Protestants burst into the most violent conflict of western history before World War I.
When one is convinced he knows the true religion, he feels justified to impose it on others. It’s like you have a medicine for a disease, but the sick reject it. If you give them freedom, they will refuse to take the medicine and the disease will kill them. So it’d be justifiable to take them by force and inject the medicine into them. You will save their lives. But reality is much more complicated than that. People are different: something that is helpful for one is not necessarily helpful for another. It’s always better to let people realize what is best for them by themselves instead of imposing it on them.
Indeed these kinds of problems appear with more intensity in fundamentalist groups and cults, but we should remember that the founders of such radical groups were usually members of mainstream denominations before, where they acquired the elements of doctrinal faith and, by seeking to be a better believer, were led to overemphasize them.
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF RELIGION
So of course religions can be destructive and irrational, especially when the element of absolute faith is present. But my opinion is not radical, I think many religions do have something good to offer, something actually beyond their traditional social role.
In their earliest form, religions are just a set of explanations about nature. Men try to explain unknown phenomena by assuming there is some sort of superior conscience behind it, more or less similar to their own human conscience. That’s pretty much how the gods and deities are born. Once people believe in super-powerful gods, they suppose they can ask for their help by doing something in exchange. Rituals are then born. Rituals are designed as ways to communicate with the gods, to please them, so they will use their powers to bless us.
And that’s what I think the essence of traditional religion is. Basically it’s a system of rules on how to perform rituals properly: how to do a dance of the rain, how to sacrifice animals, how to pray, how to chant. Accordingly, followers seek religion in order to use supernatural means to solve problems they can’t solve through natural means. At least, that’s what they try to do.
But somewhere in their history, many religions suffer an interesting transformation. They start to associate their beliefs with philosophical ideas and moral teachings. One of the main reasons seems to be the dissatisfaction of some people with religion, as they notice that rituals don’t always work, and even when their life problems get solved, they still can’t solve the core problem of human suffering. They realize a good part of their suffering doesn’t come from family, health or money problems but from their way of living and perceiving reality itself. So they start to create ideas, insights on how to live a better life and cope with the difficulties of our world, and which, unlike previous religious dogmas, are to a large extent based on rational observations and self-reflections.
The largest religions of nowadays are especially influenced by the golden age of the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, a time when great ideas arose in various parts of the world. The Greek philosophers of the 6th through the 4th century would later serve as great influence for Christianity; in Palestine, the pre-exilic Prophets reformed Hebrew traditions and set the moral basis for the Semitic religions; in 6th century India, the teachings of the Buddha flourished and spread, influencing most of the subcontinent and beyond; and in China, Taoism and Confucianism changed the country’s religious life and state ideology forever. Such precious ideas were not necessarily religious in nature, but were preserved and made accessible to all classes thanks to religion.
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO RELIGION
I totally think it can be worth learning from religions and even practicing them. And yes, it’s possible to do it in a healthy way, without doctrinal faith or dogmatism. I know it’s possible because there is one successful religion that serves as a great example of that: Buddhism.
The beauty of Buddhism is that it never demands faith. As a matter of fact, in the Kalama Sutta, as well as in other records, the Buddha urges people NOT to believe any of his teachings by faith, but to follow him only if they see sense in his words and confirmation in their experiences.
Buddhism did acquire many dogmas throughout history, like the belief in transcendental buddhas and boddhisatvas who help people through prayers, chanting or offerings. But such beliefs are by no means demanded, or regarded as absolute truth. In fact, the Buddha apparently refused to discuss unverifiable subjects, like facts about the spiritual world, the afterlife and gods. For him, we are like a man shot by a poisoned arrow, in pain, almost dying. Our main goal should be on how to take the arrow out and heal the wound, that is, on how to get rid of suffering. If we concern ourselves with knowing where we are going after dying, where our world came from, what the spiritual world is like and things like that, not only we won’t find the answers, we will also lose time and the arrow will kill us.
So the focus of Buddhism is rather on developing better life styles and attitudes, teaching about morality and philosophy, love and selflessness. Belief in the dogmas is merely optional. Followers are not required or pressured to believe anything, they believe only if they want to, if they find it helpful.
If Buddhism can separate ideas from dogmas, without resorting to absolute faith, why can’t followers of other religions, like Christianism, do the same?