I was recently engaged in a very heated debate over which religion is the true religion. Now, I cannot exactly tell you which one is ‘the true religion’ but I can tell you that such discussions happen to be very mind blowing and enlightening in ways one could never have imagined. Consequently, out of curiosity and thirst for a better understanding, I decided to delve into the topic in my own time to have a better grasp albeit shallow but nevertheless enlightening. First written by the great German philosopher and economist Karl Marx in 1843, the statement ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ remains to be one of the most paraphrased of his statements. I do not want to take you back to class, but to put it broadly and for the purposes of this article, it means that religion opiates the masses. It causes them to overlook problems and to relax instead of doing things that need to be done.
I find it incumbent to make it clear that I am not anti-religion and I do not write this article to defame anyone’s religion. Neither do I write it to persuade or dissuade people to join certain religions. I barely write it to enhance people’s knowledge of other religions and to appreciate them as they are. However, also be ready for some criticisms and the perceived flaws each of them comes with.
While the statement was made well over a hundred years ago, it still resonates. In many parts of the world, organized religion remains the most powerful force in society. More than half of the world’s population identify with at least one of the world’s four biggest religions. Like Marx, I am not exactly against religion. I am a religious being myself, just like many of you out there. But outside or inside that fact, I view faith as something that people conjure for themselves as a source of phony happiness to which they turn to, to help numb the pain of reality. It is the sigh of the oppressed creature and I am one of the oppressed. It is reassuring to believe that a supernatural power is fighting your battles.
Our beliefs form our operating systems and therefore the programming through which we perceive the world and determine our thoughts, feelings and actions. Organized religion has been an integral part of all human civilizations since the first signs of homo sapiens behavior. Actually, same as signs of art, signs of religion form the major signs by which anthropologists and archaeologists determine whether remains and relics indicate humanity or not.
Religion is defined as a set of beliefs held by a group of people (text book definition). Explained more comprehensively, religion is a system of agreed common beliefs and practices shared by groups of people (usually about God and the meaning and purpose of life, but not necessarily, since there are various religions who do not even believe God exists). Common religious beliefs are meant to help us coexist within a set of rules, same as political and economic beliefs. Let us now explore and examine the most widespread sets of beliefs through the world´s most prominent religions and categories of world viewpoints. Of course, each one is subdivided into numerous denominations, divisions and sects, so I will be speaking of their commonalities rather than their divergences.
Christians believe in a benevolent, loving God with three dimensions, the father, the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. There is also the concept of Satan, the antipode of God, a malevolent being trying to win over human souls in competition and eternal battle with God. In Christianity, all humans are born with the original sin. Life is a behavioral trial culminating in everlasting heaven if all temptations of the flesh and the mind are overcome and humans suppress their animal-human impulses and instincts, or eternal hell if they succumb to their nature which is sinful by definition. All humans carry the burden of the ‘original sin’). Bottom line: Self-sacrifice and suffering, selflessness and humility combined with a culture of shame and guilt are integral to the various Christian beliefs, since the prime example, Jesus, sacrificed himself for humanity and paid for its sins. Love is the goal, and God loves us. Apparently, he does not love himself and we shouldn’t either. We should just love others and never ourselves!
Muslims believe in one God, Allah, and his primary prophet, Muhammad. The purpose of humanity is to serve Allah and obey moral rules. Human nature again is considered morally deficient, and Allah is a severe judge and a punishing God. A strict set of duties regarding the worship of Allah, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly practices and moral obligations must be unerringly performed to reach paradise, any diversion from the will of Allah will be strictly punished. Bottom line: humans are there to serve the one true God and worship him. We are inherently flawed immoral beings that need to be checked and kept in line strictly with a pervasive set of moral and legal rules and we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves in the service of Allah to reach paradise.
Hindus generally believe in one God, Brahman, through infinite representations of gods and goddesses. Hindus believe their position in this present life was determined by their actions in a previous life and that we as humans experience many reincarnations as many different creatures to absolve ourselves from our bad karma. If a person’s behavior before was evil, they might justifiably experience tremendous hardships in this life. Pain, disease, poverty or a disaster like a flood is deserved by that person because of their own evil actions, usually from a previous lifetime. A Hindu’s goal is to become free from the law of karma. To be free from continuous reincarnations. Only the soul matters which will one day be free of the cycle of rebirths and be at rest. Bottom line: We carry bad karma through numerous other lives, which, although we do not remember we carry the stigma and curse for them. Again, life is bad and something that we experience to pay and atone for earlier sins and then, only if we succeed in correcting our indignities from past lives (that we do not even clearly see and just need to take the guilt and responsibility for them) then we can get rid of the burden of material existence.
Buddhists do not believe in God at all but rather the attainment of divinity through enlightenment. Buddha himself being not a god but a human that has ascended through self-realization and enlightenment attained through meditation and self-discipline, as well as the eradication of all wants, temptations, weaknesses of the flesh and desires as well as of the ego. Like Hindus, they believe in multiple reincarnations full of suffering in order to achieve divinity, the ultimate prize being freedom from endless cycles of life and death. Bottom line: Our nature is against our divinity, life is bad, through self-discipline, relinquishment of earthly wants and desires, enlightenment through meditation and deprivation will lead us to get rid of our material existence and ascend spiritually.
Although the least populous of the major religions, it has the distinction of being the first monotheistic religion. The most practical and dedicated to this lifetime. The only one where humans can argue with and question God and the only one that is genetically restricted and not possible for all humans, but only for the “chosen people”. As such it is an ethnic, non-inclusive religion. Judaism also imposes morals and practices to be strictly adhered to. And punishment is mostly in this life, although the concept of heaven and hell still exists, hell often referring to this lifetime. Multiple interpretations of the Bible and the Torah and vigorous debates are not only permitted but encouraged. However dogmatic parts also exist in the belief system. Bottom line: Ethical rules, intense study and intelligent debates, maintenance of a separate identity from everybody else, the keeping of traditions and practices of worship and a wide net of rules is the key, with survival of the race and preservation of tradition as the main objective.
New Age: New Age spirituality
Although not a declared religion per se, believes that divinity is in every being. The need for the extermination of the ego and selflessness are at the forefront and it encompasses not only many practices mostly from eastern religions and ancient indigenous beliefs, but also forms an amalgam of beliefs centered on the wrongness of our human nature and the dangers that humans pose on the universe as well as the desirability to escape the form, the material world. Tight moral and behavioral rules apply. Judgment and guilt are prevalent. New Age spirituality is also the harbinger of the era of the feminine to correct the “evils and abuses” of thousands of years of masculine rule. Bottom line: our nature is wrong, human beings are inherently dysfunctional and dangerous to the planet due to their destructive egos. We should be ashamed of our nature, act against it and abolish it so that we can ascend to an ethereal, formless, non-material existence.
Animism, Paganism, Heathenism, Romanticism
They all represent belief systems and practices that glorify nature, including human nature. There are numerous ethnic and historical variations but they share an extraordinary distinction. They all believe the divine made things right, that we should be happy and enjoy life and that we should get our lessons from our nature and the way things are around us. Animism, for example, a scientifically constructed term that describes a wide range of indigenous religious beliefs, basically suggests that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human (the concept that plants, animals, rocks, rivers, clouds etc. all having a sense of self and thus are “persons”), and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Thus, we should live our lives in respectful relationship with all other beings. Paganism or Heathenism are also constructed terms, this time not by scientists but by the early Christians, usually used as slurs against non-Christians. They generally refer to seeing divinity in nature and all other beings.
Paganism came to be equated by Christians with a sense of hedonism, representing those who are sensual, materialistic, self-indulgent, unconcerned with the future, and uninterested in sophisticated religion. Pagans therefore are people who like to enjoy life and not live in constant anxiety of the future, including in fear of afterlife. Paganism is also associated with 18th and 19th century Romanticism. Astoundingly, all the above categories are to collective opinion like a red cloth to a raging bull; causing fear, anger, disgust and generally an unspecified and fuzzy feeling of disapproval. They seem vile, dangerous and immoral.
The word cult has at least three meanings, the first of which is just choosing to love or admire something or somebody “too much”, like the Elvis cult. The second is just an “unorthodox” religion with fewer followers than the major ones, a non-mainstream set of beliefs. Many major religions like Christianity, the most populous in the world today, were considered cults when they first started out. The third and most common one refers to a group venerating a specific symbol, person or object instead of any notion of the divine as the creator or the One, and carries many negative connotations that have to do with authoritarian, secretive, abusive, exploitative and often even deluded leadership. Bottom line: Absolute dedication to a cause, a symbol or a leader in the few positive connotation cases, blind obedience, abandonment of personal judgment, relinquishment of personal will and responsibility are the most common negative connotation cases.
Atheism, Scientism, Scientific Materialism
Although again there are numerous variations and long-standing debate as to whether atheists are by necessity materialists, what all of these belief systems share in common, regardless of their variety of beliefs, is the belief in the non-existence of a creator entity or intention and the concepts of “spirit” or “soul”. The world works through purely statistical probability obeying similarly random natural laws that are measurable. Bottom line: If you cannot measure or directly observe it through empirical data, it does not exist or is a random, non-meaningful event.
Secularism, Agnosticism, Skepticism
This diverse, wide category of beliefs is more of a stance or philosophical viewpoint than an actual religion as we perceive it, signifying rather a lack or refusal of any religion, and there are infinite variations sharing either an indifference to anything other than purely material life issues, or the admission of an inability to understand or know anything more than a restricted range of the purely physical experiences. The similarities between this category and the atheist-scientist category are many but the main difference is lack of interest, passion or willingness to be bothered, namely lack of strong beliefs. Where atheists and materialists can be very passionate about their beliefs, these belief systems focus on non-beliefs and indifference. Nihilists also fall generally in the same category, but in this case driven by disappointment rather than indifference or resignation. Bottom line: Nothing exists or matters except living a comfortable, safe, good life. Life is a dog eat dog proposition and anything else is a baseless concept.
If we now examine first all religions based on the existence of an all knowing, all powerful creator force or entity we can see the paradox right off the bat: They are all based on the divine having made a mistake in creating humans which we must suffer to rectify and to discipline our inherent dysfunction. Basically, they say that God made a mistake in making us and we must be guilty and ashamed of our nature and try to defeat it. In religions not accepting the existence of a creator entity such as Buddhism and a potpourri of ethnic religions, the same disdain at our nature is displayed, most of the time directed against our sense of self, our ego but also extended to condemnation of sexuality, desires of the flesh, pride and everything else that constitutes our material existence.
In all these sets of beliefs our material existence, our lives are undesirable, a horrible wretched suffering and we should suffer even more to get rid of them. In order to achieve paradise, nirvana (the state of perfect happiness and peace in Buddhism where there is release from all forms of suffering), nothingness or any other kind of super blissful afterlife promised by each one of these religions, we must actively refrain from being happy and enjoy no pleasure in this lifetime, instead we must live a life based on sacrifice and discipline!
The greatest paradox of them all is that every organized religion is against nature and life, and if it believes in some concept of the divine, proclaims that the divine made a mistake in how humans are, for which we need to be personally guilty, ashamed and punished. To ascend, we must overcome our humanity and repair our erroneous nature.
Their common message is: Suffer, relinquish the self and all your pleasures and sacrifice yourself in this undesirable life in order to achieve happiness in a theoretical afterlife!
All categories of the non-religious, such as Agnostics, Atheists, Scientific Materialists, Secularists and others, are almost invariably chosen by people disillusioned by the hypocrisy and rampant contradictions in all religions, thinking that they are escaping the paradoxes, but actually falling into the same paradoxical traps. To give an example, a Scientist that believes in random probability and natural selection as nature’s way of evolution are paradoxically blind to the fact that if the best solution survives, then we as humans are also the best solution! However, they end up believing like everybody else that there is something wrong with us!
This is because the collective and universal paradoxes are just that: Collective and Universal! They are installed in every human being irrespective of ethnicity, culture, geographical location or historical period. All of them see physical life as a burden even if they profess otherwise.
Religions or sets of beliefs that see oneness as the ultimate objective that we humans should be striving for, paradox themselves equally impressively: If everything is one, how could we be wanting and striving to be one, which by definition assumes that we are not?
Actually, Animism, Paganism and Heathenism are the only belief systems trying to stay out of the universal contradictions and the guilt, shame and fear of the afterlife that comes with it. This is why they are the most detested, the most feared and the most morally judged and persecuted.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful.