Sunday, October 26, 2014


We mortals are composed of two great schools--
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools. 
--Abul 'Ala al Ma'arri 

It is very important to live in harmony and analyse where the opinion of the other lies. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue, dialogue and dialogue.
--The 14th Dalai Lama

Photograph I made on our visit to

What is religion? The Oxford Dictionary offers us little help: "The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods." In order to begin a discussion of religion, the distinction has to be made between established and organized religion and personal religion which may or may not adhere to the tenets of a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or shrine. There must also be some discussion of the relationship of a religion to its scriptures, its acknowledged sacred writings, and the body of work created by the revered leaders of the religion. The greatest problem in discussing religion exists in the equivocation of going from personal religion, to generally practiced religion, to shared beliefs of the majority of those practicing a religion, to the pronouncements of the officials and leaders of an established religion. The Bible, for instance, forbids eating shrimp. It would be ridiculous now to say that Christians, generally, condemn the eating of shrimp and find doing so to be abominable. 

There are, as I see it, two starting points for any essay on religion:   first, the views of skeptics, agnostics and atheists such as Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, etc.; and second, the exploration of the meaning of what is sacred, in the vein of Mircea Eliade, Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Joseph Campbell, Ernst Cassirer, Susanne Langer, and one of my favorite novelists and philosophers,  Iris Murdoch. (click for an essay on her views on religion). I shall take up the meaning of the sacred.

         The Parthenon, Athens

If I were to ask what people hold sacred, I imagine I would receive a wealth of answers. There are sacred spaces or places many of us hold dear. For me they are many, the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, Delphi, Tōdai-ji in Nara, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Kalani on the Big Island of Hawaii, homes I have inhabited, Big Sur, Mt. Rainier, to name a few. There are things I consider sacred; there are people I consider sacred. Does that mean I consider what I hold sacred to be holy or have some ultimate value beyond the value for me? When I find something to be sacred, I do not expect everyone else to appreciate it as such. The sacred is subjective, not objective, as I see it; even though thousands may share in holding a specific site holy.


Carl Jung, like Eliade, found the experience of the sacred to be universal in human kind. He wrote of and illustrated mandalas as an example. There are patterns of experience of the numinous we all share. For Jung, the experience of god as well as the sacred took form in his idea of the Collective Unconscious. Alfred North Whitehead, among others, attempted to comprehend god as a collective process. For most modern philosophers the idea of a personal god who acts like an individual is inconceivable. Jean Paul Sartre and his companion, Simone De Beauvoir, gave convincing arguments that traditional views of god as an individual who acts and influences world events are self-contradictory. 
That is not to say that holiness is meaningless. Art especially has the ability to embody the sacred. From the poetry of Rumi, the biblical Psalms, and the Hindu Mahabharata, to the paintings of DaVinci and the sculpture of Michelangelo, to the poetry of Keats and Yeats, from the paintings of Schiele to the music of Bach, the arts are for many of us sacred. There is a spiritual reality in the world, quality and value not definable by science alone.

       Huichol Jaguar

That being said, there is also the profane. By the profane, I do not mean the merely neutral, valueless entity or being, but rather that which negates the good and the sacred. It is impossible to discuss religion without discussing evil. Most religions have presented us with a path, a Tao, a means to a holy life, a way to enlightenment, or a code of conduct that will lead to some reward, whether in this life or in an afterlife. The path is always toward the good and away from evil, a path to avoid the temptations and pitfalls of life that might lead us astray. Evil need not be so blunt as Satan or host of devils, it can be something as seemingly innocuous as ignorance. In the Bhagavad Gita, a prince resists the call to war, not wanting to kill friends or relatives on the other side. Yet a deity, talking of immortality, convinces him to accept his caste, to become a warrior. How, we must ask, are we to know good from evil, right from wrong, correct action, noble endeavor, in the modern world.

"There is nothing either good or badbut thinking makes it so." --Hamlet 

My view is in accord with the existentialists that each of us must determine what is right or wrong subjectively. I am responsible for my acts. There is no one else to blame. When it comes to religion and society, however, how can we find consistency and guidance? My answer is to affirm what Eleanor Roosevelt, our first United States Ambassador to the United Nations, advocated and persuaded the U.N. to pass--

    Rights override rites; that is, Human rights as outlined above must, in the eyes of justice and the law, outweigh acts in the name of religion or tradition that take away those rights. For it is in this arena that the most egregious evils take place. In the name of faith and God, the Inquisition burned so-called heretics and witches alive. The practice of burning witches continued for centuries. Christianity can never free itself from the shame of this atrocity, nor can it forget the mistreatment of Galileo and other scientists who spoke the truth against the absurdities of religion. The Crusades were no better. War in the name of religion is the true abomination. No theocracy should have the power to punish those who do not adhere to its religious mandates.

    Rose Window, Notre Dame

    Similarly, belief in a god or gods often leads those in power to assume that they know what god wants. Since many holy writings, like the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, allow for interpretation, whether literal or allegorical, who has the authority to apply sacred texts? What if religious and cultural traditions lead to harm of others, or to destruction of the Earth and its animal inhabitants? Killing elephants and rhinoceroses come to mind. More devastating, climate change arises as a problem. Those who believe in an afterlife and in all-powerful gods may take destruction of the planet as unimportant. Religion has become in some cases adjusted to capitalism. The ethical problems go on and on.

    Today, there is a heated debate between those who support human rights, who are agnostic or atheists, and those who defend the basic traditions of religion. The former have singled out (always a questionable tactic) Islam as especially hostile to rights of women and minorities. Rather than cite both sides and whether this or that practice falls under the banner of Islam or not, the point I want to make is that there is no reasonable defense, religious or otherwise for the mistreatment of any class of people, whether women, children, gays and lesbians, or an ethnic minority. Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, we consider a hero because she resisted mistreatment by a religious sect, and risked her life for the good of girls wanting an education.The Caste system is a violation of human rights, as Gandhi eloquently argued. Female genital mutilation cannot be defended in the name of religion or for any other tradition. Male circumcision, though far less serious, has nonetheless been called into question. All religions need reform and it does not matter at all which religion needs more reform than another. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” The same enlightened response must attend ethical analysis based on human rights. 

  1. Church in winter, Santa Fe
  2. One other criticism of religion is that established religions have become tools for those in power to stay in power, to lull the masses into behavior that benefits the state and its leaders, and give them false hope for an afterlife. Marx's perceptive analysis of how capitalism in particular does this is devastating. That religion is co-opted and misused for power rather than love or whatever other good motives initiated the religion, does not negate the religion; but it gives us all good reason to ask who speaks for the religion and to what end.

    To conclude on an uplifting note, look at a few more artistic achievements directly resulting from religion. All the photographs on this page are by Darryl or by me:

  3. Tōdai-ji
  4. Search Results


      The Alhambra

      Notre Dame

      The Pantheon

      Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

      Sitting Ramesses II Colossus inside Luxor Temple


      Kasuga-taisha Shrine

      Daibutsu, Tōdai-ji

  5. --Jack, October 2014 

1 comment:

  1. Well written and thought provoking essay. I've always liked what Swift famously wrote about religion: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."

    Thanks for posting this...