Saturday, March 7, 2009

What should be the primary purpose of religion?

There has never been a civilization that did not have a form of diety worship. Widely accepted atheism is a relatively new development in human history. Some view this as an overall win for societal progress, and others view it as a loss. In America, the arguments against religion are often along theological lines, but not enough focus is paid to what I believe to be the paramount purpose of any religion: Influencing us to act in ways that makes others' lives better here on earth. The major religions of the world, Christianity, Judasim, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism all have sacred texts that demand certain behavior from us. Based off of my limited religious study, the religion that appears to be most concerned with our earthly behavior far more than afterlife, theology, messianic prophecies, etc. is Judaism, and specifically the first five books of Moses, also known as The Torah or the Old Testament. It is *obsessed* with ensuring that we act a certain way. I will give specific examples of this later, but I want to address Secularism and Atheism in a personal way for a moment.

I grew up with almost no religious teaching and still do not attend any religious service. The only exposure to church and the bible that I received was through occasional attendance of services in order to meet merit badge requirements for my Boy Scouts activities. I never felt connected to religion or God in any significant way, and as of yet I do not have a personal relationship with any God. I am open to the possibility that a God exists, and books like "The Science Of God" by Physicist Gerald Schroeder are certainly offering me compelling arguments in favor of the existence of a God. What is more important than whether I have faith in a God or not, is my behavior, and that is what I believe to be the primary purpose of religion. That said, I am not aware of any contribution from the secular world to this end. If there is a secular 10 commandments, I am not aware of it.

Examples of how Judasim improves our behavior:

These are just a few of the examples that have had the most profound impact on my life from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's fantastically simple to use book "The Book of Jewish Values":

Example 1:
From Mishneh Torah "The Laws Of Theft", Bava Kamma 10:9

It is forbidden to purchase an item from the person who is responsible for protecting that item. For example, if someone who works at a supermarket offers to sell you dairy products at a discount, you may not buy them because there is the possibility that this person stole those goods from the supermarket. This is so important because if everyone practiced this, there would be much less theft, as the market for reselling the stolen goods would not exist.

Example 2:
From Deuteronomy 22:1,3

This text demands that you return lost objects. From Telushkin's book: "Jewish ethics regards keeping a lost but potentially identifiable object as a particularly serious sin, for this is not only a form of thievery but a sin for which one can never fully repent. Even if one subsequently regrets one's dishonest behavior, it is very unlikely that he will be able to find the person to whom the item belongs; therefore the finder will have no way of undoing the evil he has committed (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Repentance", 4:3).

Example 3:
Ethics of the Fathers 6:6

If you repeat an idea that was created from someone else, you must always cite who created the idea, lest the audience believe that you created the idea. It is viewed as a form of double thievery in Jewish law: You steal the credit due to the person who first enunciated the idea, then you engage in what Jewish ethics calls "stealing the mind". You deceive your listeners into thinking that you are smarter or more knowledgeable and insightful than you really are.

So those are just a few examples from Rabbi Telushkin's book. There are 365 in all, one behavioral modification for each day of the year. I believe it is this Jewish contribution of behavior modifications that makes the largest impact for good in our world. In over 2,000 years, there has been no superior set of behavioral guidelines developed - even by non-religious thinkers during or since the enlightenment.


F. Daniel Pitney said...

I wonder if there was a mis-print in section:

1: From Mishneh Torah "The Laws Of Theft", Bava Kamma 10:9...

I don't get it. Is it supposed to say to not purchanse from someone who is NOT responsible for the item?

F. Daniel Pitney said...

regarding the primary purpose of religion being: "Influencing us to act in ways that makes others' lives better here on earth," I view this in different context. I would say this statement is about the benefits of religion in the instances where religious influences cause people to, as you say, "act in ways that make other's lives better here on earth." Although this may also be strongly related to the PURPOSE of religion, I believe to examine the purpose we would need to look back to the origins of religion, because the religion we have today is nothing more than a manifestation of what we inherited from the distant past (unless of course you are a mormon, then you believe that as recently as 200 years ago we recieved divine instruction). But for the most part, religious doctrines date back thousands of years, and in this regard, the purpose of religion have been greatly augmented. I believe the primary purpose of religion in the context in which it was concieved was to provide answers to the great questions of the time, such as what is below us? and what is above us? How far back does time go and how far ahead? How did we get here? It is hard to conceive how pressing these questions must have been (not that they are not still pressing to this day, but today they are scientific questions more so than religious questions).

Craig Glendenning said...

I don't know if there is an objective answer to the purpose of religion. It is my belief that if the primary purpose of any given religion is NOT to improve the way we act toward others, then the value to humanity of that religion is lower than a religion that does have that purpose. For example, Santeria, which is a modified form of Voodoo practiced in Cuba and other Latin cultures emphasizes ritual practices and mysticism more than making it's members act better toward others. This makes it a religion with little value, in my eyes.

I also believe that there has never been a time where behaving morally toward others has not been the most important aspect of society, after basic survival needs have been met. With this belief, I conclude that only religions that aim to help in this regard are of value.

Regardless of the original purpose of a religion, that religion should remain essential to helping with the timeless problem of reducing human immoral acts, so I don't know if there is any value in studying the original purpose of a religion, but what is of value is looking at how that religion can help us TODAY to act better. If the answer is "It Can't" then it should be discarded.

F. Daniel Pitney said...

To your point, there is certainly not an objective answer to the purpose of religion. We can only attempt to make our subjective assertions as rational as possible.

My assertion is that Genesis, being the foundation of the Old Testament, serves a purpose that to me seems self evident- to answer the questions of what is above us, below us, before us and after us. The concepts of heaven, hell, creation, and afterlife are established. In your inititial post you referred to the concept of "sin" which relies of the aforementioned foundation for it's meaning.

If I am diverging from your intended dialogue, perhaps it is because I am thinking of a different definition of "purpose" than you are. The first definition in webster's is "something set up as an object or end to be attained." I am asserting that "Genesis" is the something set up, and the "end to be attained" are the answers life's greatest questions (why are we here? how are we here? when are we here? what is above? below? etc.

Craig Glendenning said...

We agree on the Webster's definition of purpose. If we walked the 5 books of the old testament, we would likely find that most verses were descriptions of events or simply descriptions of occurrences, like Genesis is. However, I don't think that Judasim (and Christianity, to the extent it is based off of the old testament) could have survived 2,000 years without those verses in between that are designed to tell it's reader how to behave.

For example, I believe that this verse:
"Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour."

Is far more important to the central purpose of the religion than Genesis (8:1)
" And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters asswaged;"

If Genesis represented the primary purpose of Judasim, Synagogue would go: "Let's begin. God created the heavens, the earth, then us in six days. See you next Saturday. Shalom."

Craig Glendenning said... be clear - I don't disagree that *A* purpose of a religion is to answer "the great questions of the time" as you say. However, I just don't know that it should be the *primary* purpose of a religion. I am really asking the question as an inquisitive one. Should the purpose of religion to be to help us to behave better, or should it be to answer questions about heaven, hell, where we came from, how far back and forward time goes?