July 28, 2016
Hell, Heaven, Potentates, Priests and Politicians and the Business of Religion–Coping with Uncertainty
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
[R]eligion has an “autoimmune disease”, a critical flaw … that leads to its misuse…. The disease’s two main symptoms are “God intoxication”… and “God manipulation”.
From ‘Religion’ , Brook Wilensky-Lansford’s review of “Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself”, The New York Times Book Review, July 17, 2016, p. 26.
The only constant is change. It’s the most basic fact of human existence. Nothing lasts, nothing stays the same. We feel it with each breath.
From birth to the unknown moment of our passing, we ride a river of change. And yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we exhaust ourselves in an endless search for solidity. We hunger for something that lasts, some idea or principle that rises above time and change. We hunger for certainty. That is a big problem.–Adam Frank
Malaysians watching with bewilderment and dismay as politicians, ulamas, and evangelists expound the superiority of their religion and promise milk, honey and paradise for their followers, and the fires of hell for those who do not belong, shouldn’t be surprised. The antics of these fire and brimstone practitioners follow a well trodden pattern going back hundreds if not thousands of years.
Any basic course on religion run not by graduates from religious institutions but by reputable scholars would teach about the history of the estimated 6,000 religions of the world, the differences, commonalities and patterns, and associations with cultural and ecological features, especially political.
Using scientific evidence, logic and rationality, such courses can help put into proper perspective the so-called universal truths and answers peddled by the religious books and scriptures of the literate Abrahamic religions, as well as the other absolutist claims made by them.
My design of a course on “Comparative Religion 101” will begin by pointing out that the idea of an ultimate creator responsible for all living things on earth, including man, is one common to many of the established religions found in the different parts of the world. It would also make the argument that the origin and spread of religion is inextricably connected with the quest for authority, power and followers.
The search for a supreme maker goes very far back in history. We do not have a precise dating for it. However, some idea of how far back it goes can be obtained if we look at the history of evolution.
Irrefutable scientific evidence has shown that the physical and behavioral features shared by all people originated from ape-like ancestors and that these evolved over a period of 6 million years. The ability to walk upright evolved over 4 million years ago.
Other important human characteristics such as a complex brain, ability to use tools and capacity for language have developed more recently. More advanced traits such as complex symbolic expression, art, cultural diversity, etc. emerged over 100,000 years ago. With this emergence came ideas and beliefs of hell, heaven and the worship of gods, goddesses, spirits, deities and other man-created objects or points of veneration to facilitate the ascent to a better existence after death.
What Happens After Life’s End?
Questions and answers about where we come from and where we go after the end of life on earth have been voiced in all kinds of ways without any resolution. Archaeological evidence suggests that early man such as the Neanderthals who can be dated to over 50,000 years ago had some sort of preoccupation with death. They were self-conscious beings and were likely to have an awareness of death and the meaning and implications of death. Such consciousness has continued unabated and unresolved with modern man; it will remain unresolved until all humans die off – whenever that may come about.
Most if not all religions have been especially concerned with man’s destiny after death. They probably began with some notion of an Underworld as an abode for the dead. Evidence from ancient burial sites and rituals also indicates concern with ensuring that the spirits of the dead were appropriately sent off or they would not rest peacefully which explains the presence of priests and other before and after-death guides and experts.
A parallel role in society was performed by soothsayers, seers, oracles and diviners who were seen as able to foresee the future by magical and other means. The roles of priests and diviners and oracles were often integrated in the ancient religions. Predicting the near and distant future as well as promising some form of paradise after death proved a lucrative and privileged undertaking for those who belonged to these occupations.
From its earliest too, priestly and equivalent personages have exploited man’s sense of insecurity and fear of the supernatural and made it their powerful ideological tool. This modus operandi served the needs of its founders and prophets who could then impose on their tribes their understanding of ‘truth’, ‘hell’, ‘heaven’, ‘light’, ‘darkness’, and ‘paradise’ and their solutions to human anxieties.
These ‘holy men’ can be considered to be among the world’s first politicians. They still are. Women priests have been relatively sparse in history except in matrilineal societies. Perhaps if they had become dominant, it could have made a difference to the history of the world.
Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
Above the witch doctors, shaman, priests and similar personages holding positions in the little or great religions of the world have been the chiefs, lords, emperors, sultans, caliphs, sovereigns and other similar potentates standing at the highest rung of their society. Whether it is with pre-Homeric Greek religion, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the religious systems of the world can be seen not only as providing explanations for our earthly existence. They also provided strategies for managing the distribution of political and socio-economic power.
Today, despite the advancement of science and knowledge, the gullibility of the believers of religion continues as also its exploitation by the leaders and charlatans of religion.
In the past primitive societies were petrified and mystified by natural phenomenon such as thunder, lightning, floods and earthquakes. Modern science has demystified these phenomena and enabled us to conquer our fears about this aspect of the unknown.
In contrast to the fear of unknown nature, some primitive societies were relatively stoic about death. Hunter gatherer societies such as the Hazda, for example, have no particular belief in an afterlife, and the death of an individual means a straightforward end to their existence.
It is paradoxical that such societies rather than our modern ones seem to come closest to the current scientific position regarding the mind–body dichotomy which sees consciousness as derived from and/or is reducible to physical phenomena such as neuronal activity occurring in the brain. The implication of this premise is that once the brain stops functioning at brain death, consciousness ceases to exist.
Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
Acceptance of a straightforward end to life – that humans, on death, simply become part of the earth, sea or river that we evolved from without any further afterlife – would, however, run against the world wide industry that is organized religion, and the political and religious elites who exploit and benefit from it.