Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Basic Religions

Chapter 1 of "Religions of the World" (Hopfe/Woodward 12th ed) discusses what the authors call "basic religions."  These are religions that are passed along through oral tradition.  The belief put forward by the chapter is that these are the closest examples of how religions began.  Since they are not recorded in written texts, archeologists rely on cave paintings, statues and other objects, and monuments to piece together the beliefs of these religions.

There are contemporary groups that the chapter says practice these same kind of basic religions, with features such as animism (the world is inhabited by spirits), magic (post-hoc reasoning-after this therefore because of this), divination, taboo (set aside objects considered too holy for ordinary people), totems (identification of clan or person with animal), sacrifice, myth, rituals, rights of passage, and ancestor veneration.

It may be true that this form of religion is very ancient.  It may also be true that it generally persists in groups that are isolated in various ways from the kind of interaction with other humans that creates dialogue and critically questions assumptions.

And yet I'm not sure we can conclude that it is the original religion.  The book argues that we do not know when humans invented religion.  In my last post on the origin of religion I argued that religion is co-extensive with human history in that humans are thinkers who interpret their experiences in light of basic beliefs.  The question is not whether a person is religious, the question is what religion that person holds.

It is noteworthy that many of the groups that the book considers are focused on overcoming natural evil through integration into the natural cycles.  This is one way of affirming that the earth, or nature, or the material system, is eternal and the good is to be in harmony with this eternal cycle.  These almost inevitably worship the mother goddess or the mother earth.

There are other groups that affirm the existence of the creator God, although they also argue that God is distant and uninterested in humans (even asleep).  Both groups seem to affirm that the current system is somehow broken and needs to be fixed.

As a philosopher here is my question: the chapter seems to imply that persons in these basic religions are doing the best they can with the material at hand.  Is this true?  Is it consistent to believe that God who created all things is uninterested and asleep?  Or that the material system is involved in an eternal cycle which at some point (after an eternity of existence) got broken and human efforts can fix it?  Or while there is a "high God," he is so distant that he leaves humans to be tormented by lesser gods and spirits who must be placated by rituals and sacrifices?

The claim that the book seems to hold is that persons in these religions aren't critical thinkers or haven't been exposed to advanced philosophy classes.  I'm arguing that one doesn't need to have had an advanced philosophy class, indeed I've known people who go through such classes and still can't recognize the contradictions in the above.  As thinkers, any human can ask questions about the beliefs they are being asked to accept, and any human who accepts a belief that involves a contradiction is responsible for this failure.

To conclude, I'd argue that as humans it is our basic responsibility to critically examine our most basic beliefs for meaning and coherence.