Study of Religions
Religion as a phenomenon has been inherent in the overwhelming majority of the world’s population and human society throughout its history up to the present time. Nevertheless, religion is an area that is not understandable to many people. One of the reasons for this seemingly strange issue is the fact that religion is usually evaluated by its external features and the way it is practiced by its followers in private and public life. There are many different religion interpretations which see its essence either in the elements that are minor and insignificant or in its distortions, which not a single religion has escaped. Therefore, the question of the essence of religion and the characteristics defining it requires a special consideration.
Religion has two aspects: external, as it appears to the outside observer, and internal, which opens to the believer who lives according to the spiritual and moral principles of the religion.
On the external side, religion is primarily a worldview that includes a number of provisions (truths), without which (even a single one) it loses itself degenerating in witchcraft, occultism, or pseudo-religion forms, which are the products of its decay and distortion. It could also degenerate in the religious-philosophical system of thought that slightly affects the practical life of a man. Religious outlook always has a social character and expresses itself in a more or less developed organization (e.g. Church) with a certain structure, morality, regulations of life of their followers, worship, and so on.
On the inner side, religion is a direct experiencing of God – spiritual union and reverent communion of man and God.
The Importance of the Study of Religion
The study of religion is of crucial importance, because religion is the driving force, the foundation, and the core of every culture and civilization. Religions, until recently, were closely intertwined with all aspects of human life: science, philosophy, pedagogy, economics, politics, and everyday existence. To varying extents, they continue to influence even a normal life of non-religious people.
After all, if we forget about the world culture, which was almost entirely religious until the 17th century, it should be taken into account that a lot of religious ethical standards are firmly established in the everyday life of every nation. They formed what is now called the ethno-cultural traditions and thus continue to influence the lives and behaviors of people. Therefore, the world religions rightly deserve the most careful attention and study. After all, religions are the kind of a key to understanding the world of culture, knowledge, features, and world perception of the peoples inhabiting the Earth and a better understanding of its own historical heritage.
On the one hand, while studying many religions, one should better study religion in general, especially the religion which he belongs to; after all, the need to compare different doctrinal differences among religions with one’s own religion prompts to the more in-depth study of it.
On the other hand, the researcher, who is an ardent follower of one religion, is often biased towards other religions and looks at them through the prism of his faith. That is why good theologian should distance himself from his faith for the conscientious study of religions. In any case, the study of religions with even a little interest in religion is quite justified.
The Most Uplifting and Depressing Aspects of Religion
Every religion has the uplifting aspects. All religions of the world set the correct code values. Indeed, the meaning of life is not only to obtain the greatest possible amount of pleasure from material goods. Passions and desires need to be controlled and hold; love, kindness and mutual aid are, in fact, good while jealousy, anger, vanity, and pride are real evil. For example, Buddhism is a kind of doctrine of the personality development and its right upbringing; such doctrine carries wisdom.
Adherence to spiritual principles of faith disciplines person. Religion requires knowing a measure in eating, sex, and alcohol as well as performing the ritual prescriptions (prayers). It teaches to follow the movements of the emotional world (how to control emotions) and resist them when it comes to the forbidden passions. Such restraint generates firmness of character, strong self-control, and mindfulness.
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Belief in God is abstract in relation to everyday life, that is, it stands above all of the momentary issues, goals, and desires of a person. This sets some higher purpose, following which allows a person not to drown in routine and household chores and always keep attention on this high spiritual reference point.
Prayers soothe the mind and give a rest from all the problems. Focusing on the pronunciation of the text acts as a meditation. Daily prayers strengthen a nervous system and make a person more calm and relaxed. All sorts of religious rituals with their magnificent solemnity, framed in shining decoration of the churches, also have a calming effect. The strength of religion is in the power of art inspired by it. However, all the benefits of religions are positive as long as they do not take radical form.
The basis of morality in many systems of religion is unconditional submission and blind obedience. It makes people obedient and willing to follow any authority on the first team. This, of course, severely limits the freedom and independence of the will of the individual inspiring the eternal need for the leader and the inability to think and act independently in the absence of orders and regulations. Religion fosters and encourages the herd instinct, the lack of individuality, and one’s own opinion.
Some of the world’s religious systems (e.g. Islam) are based on intimidation: if you do not obey, you expect eternal torment; those who are not with us are against us. Biblical position of free will is just a profanation, because there is no freedom of will. None of theological speculation on this subject can force black become white. The fear of punishment is an essential element of faith. Fear and coercion are not the best incentives for the development of the individual when the actions arise not from some internal, sincere, and conscious interest in the development, but just from the fear to be left behind.
Few people attempt to think about the advisability of some religious regulations, such as the one forbidding catholic priests to get married. Sexual desire needs a sensible control, so as not to turn into depravity, but only a control, not a total ban. The instinct for procreation is the thing that is built into us by nature and one cannot just renounce it. This desire to go to the extremes manifests itself in many other religious prohibitions even if these prohibitions basically keep a good sense. The truth is in the middle, between religious radicalism and the complete lack permissiveness.
The Choice of Religion
If to talk about the choice of religion, the founders of most religions are known historical figures, which have features in their personality that are not in harmony with the generally accepted moral norms. This point is important for me, because if a person behaves unworthily, I will not get a grasp of created by him (or “passed through it”) texts and his philosophy. I believe that the same philosophy encouraged that person to such kind of indecent deeds.
For example, I do not think it is right to kill people, so I will not follow the teachings of the people who killed people, directly or indirectly. Moses and Muhammad were warlords; therefore, they killed people or ordered the killings. Muhammad, in addition, had some strange relationships with women. Confucius was a prominent politician; people were killed on his orders.
Jesus looks nicer, but he also has a “track record” of words and deeds that have a clearly aggressive nature for example regarding the prohibition of divorce; an ugly scene with the merchants in the temple with a promise “to destroy it in three days” (John 2:19); phrases like “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34); a ban for a student to bury his father.
Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, is known for having deliberate attempt to discredit Buddha by different methods. Also, people do not know anything concrete about Laozi. There are problems on the part of morality in some founders of the modern teachings (Hubbard, Mun, Sai Baba, Osho, etc.).
On this background, Buddha looks very dignified. Given that he preached for 45 years, he faced many temptations. Nevertheless, the most “morally questionable” thing, which can be imputed to him throughout that big amount of biographical facts that reached us, is a kind of narcissism and “white lie”. On the other hand, there are a few outstanding examples of moral deeds of Buddha – the salvation of the sick monk and attempts to prevent the two wars (Magadha against Vesala and Kosala against Sakya).
The clarity of purpose is, perhaps, the main advantage of Buddhism. The purpose (freedom from suffering) in Buddhism is formulated very clearly, which cannot be said about other religions. The idea of afterlife bliss is not obvious in itself and sometimes is outlined in such a way that cannot attract the modern man.
In addition to the clarity of purpose, Buddhism is distinguished by the clarity of the way of reaching the purpose. In theistic religions, everything happens a bit strange – a righteous man suffered in life, then he died, and got to heaven. Conversely, a sinner was completely happy for a second before death – and then he is already in hell. In Buddhism, each link of the path is observed with complete clarity. First suffering leaves “rough” spheres of existence, then descends deeper into the subconscious, appearing only in unavoidable situations, until it disappears altogether.
Compared with all other proselytic religions (i.e., those that could be taken by a person from outside), Buddhism is an easiest way to become a spiritual person, that is, a monk. This process takes a minimal amount of time and effort in small communities in Asia away from the major centers. Moreover, in the Theravada, transitions of men from the rank of a layman to the rank of a monk or novice, or vice versa, can be carried out many times completely free.
Buddhism has no rude proselytism. Buddhists, especially in traditional Buddhism, do not try to “push” people all around into their religion, like many Christians and Muslims do. Buddhists, strictly speaking, do not care whether the neighbor is a Buddhist or someone else, because there is no such an opinion that all non-Buddhists are something worse than Buddhists. On the other hand, no one bothers others to take part in Buddhism and Buddhist activities even without going through a formal ritual.
With respect to all Abrahamic religions, Buddhism rituals play a ridiculously small role. Laymen cannot produce the rituals in general, and the monks (in Theravada) have the small ritual load – approximately like the Orthodox laity. Personally, I believe that the ritual is an empty and time-consuming matter, which creates the possibility of hypocrisy, that is, the transfer of all religiousness in observance of ritual but not the foundations of morality. Buddhist monks’ rituals are quite reasonable, almost do not contain symbolism, and are concentrated on chanting sutras.
The Rejection of Religion
Today, institutions and agencies representing and protecting atheists or campaigning for their rights are not a very common phenomenon. Supporters of religious traditions may explain this by the lack of unifying ideals, but one should not forget that an atheist is not just someone who does not believe in God. As for myself, I would not choose any religion if I had not feel the urgent need for self-organization. Also, I would not choose any religion if I believed in the ideas of humanism, freedom of thought, rationalism and secular society, emancipation, the fact that the world can be changed and in fact that freedom is a daily work, rather than a gift from above. If I would not choose any religion, I would be a doubting man, who dared to look into the life here and now without the soothing promises of life after death.
It might be said that today people have common problems and are equally looking for the ways to solve them. Many of these problems may be solved only jointly by finding an opportunity to unite. However, this is not an easy problem. The explosion of ethnic identity nowadays demonstrates the living fear of the leveling tendencies, fear of losing identity and national traditions. This is one of the factors that counteract the formation of the international community; at the same time, this is a measure of how a spirit of solidarity and cooperation is needed today.
If the human qualities of the billions of people are the most important thing on which depends the fate of humanity, then the future of religion depends on the social importance of the religion’s contribution to the search for an answer to the question of what it means to be a human.