“The gods must die so that humanity might live.” (The Buddha)
The naturalist philosopher Paul Kurtz has written that a modern ethical system cannot begin with the acceptance of the rule ethics of the ancient religious systems of the world. Not only people who regard themselves as “secular” accept this principle. Many people who regard themselves as religious believe it as well.
The laws and commandments of the world’s religions, and especially the monotheistic traditions, are of immense historical importance in helping us to understand the slow progression of ethical thought from simple assent to critical examination over the greater part of three millennia, corresponding to the transition between relatively simple ancient societies to complex ones.
The same period witnessed the growth of philosophy, literacy, new forms of self-expression, changing attitudes toward prosperity and government, and above all, in the last two hundred years, the rapid growth of science and technology as a new paradigm for understanding the world and our place in it. To assume that the rules that held together ancient desert and agricultural groups are adequate to address the dilemmas and problems of the last two millennia is an assumption that critical examination does not support. The book religions taken as diagrams for modern life are irrelevant, regressive and inadequate. In the case of some, the religious practices are more than irrelevant: They are dangerous and inhumane. They are incompatible with common sense and moral intelligence.
Yet, we are in history as a fish is in water. The early search of homo quaerens—man the seeker—for meaning was largely a religious quest. The sources or ground of value was projected to be beyond the individual, beyond the village and social unit, often beyond rational discussion. Belief in the gods or god was an efficient way of answering questions for which our ancestors had no ready answers nor the means to develop any.
Today however, because we know much more about how values evolved over a long period of time, we realize that the ultimate source and responsibility for the creation of moral values is not a hierarchy of priests and kings, or myths shrouded with the authority of a distant past, but us—-homo fabricans, man the maker and inventor.
We are the ones who create the sources of strength and the basis for understanding our world. As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our Promethean effort to understand. At the same time, in a strictly literal sense, these gods do not exist and have never existed. To the extent that people continue to believe that there are sources and standards of authority beyond humanity, that belief has to be accounted irrational. Individual religions become dangerous and irrational precisely to the extent they maintain that morality is not created but revealed or dictated by unseen powers.
At the same time, there is no good reason to study the past, including the religious past of our species, simply for the purpose of ridicule. The closest analogy would be to replace the heirloom photographs in our family album with cartoons of our grandparents and scorn for their customs and attitudes—or blaming the stars and planets in the night sky for not having developed more innovative orbits over the 14 billion years of their history. We cannot be guilty of what we once believed or what we did not know three thousand years ago, or five hundred years ago. Yet we are guilty if we continue to believe it today. As rational creatures, we have a moral responsibility not to believe it, and a moral responsibility to embrace the description of the world that science provides and every day makes more clear to us. It is intellectually important to know our religious past. It is intellectually irresponsible and absurd to let the world-view and life-stances of our ancient predecessors determine the way in which we should lead our lives, make decisions, or form political communities.
It is not true to say that religion has nothing to teach us. It is true that the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created. The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.
Religion is a primary index in the development of our moral intelligence. It is difficult to imagine any journey worth making that does not involve a backward glance—first because we are not infinite; we are steps in a very long process, always in danger of losing our bearings and always tempted—just like our ancestors—by presentism: the belief that things will be in the future as they are now. But history tells us how wrong that attitude is, and that challenges ahead may require us to find better answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago. Second, because the answers to the moral challenges of our time, to be authentic, require the touchstones of history. Our human ancestors were not asking significantly different questions, but they were answering them in a significantly different way—attributing them to unseen authority, other wills, or to the certainty of “tradition.” A part of our enlightenment as a species has been the discovery that the simple repetition of a traditional answer is often the repetition of error. Yet that is what religion once required of us.
For these reasons morally responsible women and men will eschew ancestor worship, supernatural thinking and dogmatism as dangers en route. But they will build a future with the souvenirs of the religious past as part of this moral intelligence. The poet and critic, who is best known for his work in fantasy, C.S. Lewis reached into Buddhism when he wrote, “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” (Allegory of Love, p. 82). The formulation in Buddhism is more severe: “The gods must die so that humanity might live.”
That is where we are, and the moral consequences of this awakening are human, ponderous, and global.
That was a brilliant essay. Your writings have been an education, sir.
I enjoyed this column; however, I do feel that there are actually many misunderstandings of other ancient religions and what was felt by their practitioners of the presence of the Gods. Specifically, I deal with the threskia (rituals) of ancient Hellas and a bit of the metaphysical understanding of the deities. First, the deities were not omni-anything. In the Theogony, Hesiod starts the generations of the Gods along with the self-creation of the universe. The mythic underlayments to many theological assumptions just are not present here at all. None of the Gods proclaimed any commandments. Solon and other philosophical sages had ethical epigrams of a positive variety, rather than the negatively stated commandments of the Torah. These were incised on Apollon’s temple at Delphi. So, as far as divine authority went, people were far more concerned with keeping ritual purity within a temenos than in actually fearing a deity. Another thing which I really must take strong exception is the subject of honouring the ancestors. We are here today because we have ancestors. They always need to be acknowledged because we need to know that we are indeed a part of a chain — a chain that goes far back into time. There are far more positive things from this practice for an individual than negative. I still remember Simon & Garfunkel’s song “I Am a Rock, I Am an Island.” This is one of the most nihilistic sentiments expressed in the late 60’s – early 70’s. I remember teaching an English class contrasting it to Donne’s “Do Not Ask For Whom The Church Bell Tolls” in the early 1970’s. Aristotle would be ashamed of you for suggesting that ethical principles would change that much. Technology is only technology. Science is science. There is nothing of ethics about them. We are the ones who imbue them with ethics. That is a major problem over this capitalistic-technological age in which we live. Excuses are given for Greed run rampant. People are so beaten that they can no longer stand. Yet the people who do these things are psychopaths, are Greed incarnate, and lie that they have “been saved by the blood of the lamb.” There are probably equivalents for Islam as well. Guess what, your old Gods are still there, wondering when you will wake up.