By Roland Watson

In the last series, I said that family is the first social form, since a new child is born to a family - even if it is only the mother. In another way, though, religion can also be viewed as the first social form.

Life - you and I - exists, and in a very important sense this is the most profound form of all. Religion is the direct consequence of the two basic conditions of existence: the unfathomability of the universe, and the certainty of death.

The power of religion

Because of its basis, religion is also a highly powerful form, and such forms are presented to us by society as being non-criticizable. They are above argument. I therefore intend to criticize religion, and in this regard I will not be alone. Here is a quote from the brilliant philosopher, Bertrand Russell.

"Theology ... introduces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales."

Karl Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses. More accurately, it can be termed the placebo.

My intention, though, is not solely to criticize religion, and any such criticism is a byproduct of this series' main theme. Indeed, I have the utmost respect for spiritual, or philosophical, speculation and belief.

While I will consider some of the issues raised by this speculation, my main purpose is to consider religion as an organized institution, and to review the techniques of its conditioning and the consequences of its conformity.

The range of religious practices

Two other provisos are also in order. First, each religion, every religion, manifests itself in a wide range of practices. For example, the practice of Islam ranges from the tolerance exhibited in such nations as Malaysia, to the complete intolerance of the Taleban in Afghanistan.

For every religion, it is essential to consider its origins, and then, what has happened in the intervening centuries to its practices: the evolution of the belief instigated by its priests, ministers, monks and mullahs.

For Islam, Bertrand Russell also commented as follows: "The prophet made no claim to be divine, nor did his followers make such a claim on his behalf. He revived the Jewish prohibition of graven images, and forbade the use of wine. It was the duty of the faithful to conquer as much of the world as possible for Islam, but there was to be no persecution of Christians, or Jews, or Zoroastrians - the 'people of the Book,' as the Koran calls them, i.e., those who followed the teaching of a scripture."

It would seem that the practices of a significant number of Muslims, in many different countries, are now at variance with this.

Religious ethics

Also, there is much to commend in religious belief, particularly the common focus and guidance on ethics, on the ways in which people should live their lives. For instance, the Western religious tradition begins with Judaism, and as a starting point there is great beauty and truth in the idea from the Talmud, that a person who saves a life saves the universe.

Judaism also encourages charity, and it is recognized as the founder of philanthropy. And, of course, you have to admire the resilience of the faith and its adherents.

Jewish traditions were carried forward by Christianity, and Islam, particularly the support for charity. Christianity was also one of the originators of the idea of equality among all people, and in doing so it attacked the prevailing forms of the time: the existence of inequality to the point of widespread slavery; and the inequality that derived from the existence of markets - the moneychangers on the temple steps.

In addition, Christianity introduced the ethic of forgiveness, of not responding in kind to personal injury. Furthermore, Christ's encouragement to love thy neighbor can be viewed as a solution to personal selfishness.

Christian churches have also regularly given sanctuary to people suffering from the effects of war, disease and hunger. And both Christianity and Judaism have had long involvement in volunteering, and in supporting activist causes, with the former more in an organized sense and the latter more through the personal efforts of individuals.

I would note, though, that for Christianity, while its legacy of charity is admirable, such good works are ruined when missionaries proselytize and encourage the destruction of holistic groups, in their zeal to convert primitive savages and to increase their number of true believers. This is religious imperialism, and it constitutes one of the worst examples of cultural insensitivity.

For Islam, and as with Moses and Judaism, the Prophet sought to drive idolatry from the temple, which is a direct assault on form. Also, and the Prophet's background as a merchant notwithstanding, there is much to commend in Islamic business and financial practices, particularly in comparison to modern corporate policies.

Islam does not believe in the concept of interest, much less in today's ideal of charging the highest possible rates. Indeed, originally, all interest was called "usury." Islamic banks share in the profits and losses of the businesses that they fund, and this greatly reduces their tendency to speculate and to make bad loans.

You also do not tip in Islamic countries, which has a dramatic and positive consequence on standards of service. Muslims give good service as a matter of course, as a philosophy of life. They do not require a special payment as an incentive. Then there is the Islamic response to strangers. In Arabic countries travelers are welcomed openly, and with great hospitality; not with fear and suspicion.

For the Eastern tradition, Buddhism is to be congratulated for its compassion for all forms of life; its principle that you should seek to limit your desire; and its prescription of a Middle Way, a life not overly ascetic or self-indulgent, as a means to accomplish this.

Hinduism also has great respect for life, as evidenced by the common practice of vegetarianism on the Subcontinent, and in addition Hindus are highly tolerant of other beliefs. Hindus do not seek to convert non-Hindus. You can only become one through birth.

Furthermore, in Hinduism individuals are free to follow different deities and routes to salvation, all of which are consistent with the Hindu view of natural law, which is known as Dharma. Believing in a particular god is the same as believing in what that god represents.

Also, Hinduism clearly recognizes an ethical complexity that I described earlier. One of the main lessons of the Bhagavad Gita is that the appropriate course of action always depends on the circumstances; that in every circumstance there are actions that are intrinsically right; and that whatever you choose to do, you must always make your decision without consideration of personal interest or sentiment.

Indeed, the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Buddhist sutras, and other such religious texts, are full of wisdom and excellent advice.

The rise of religious leaders

On the other hand, there is a problem. The advice in religious texts is often obscure, couched in such things as parables, and therefore open to subjective interpretation. This provides an opportunity for an intermediary, for someone to provide a standardized interpretation, or dogma.

This is how we get religious leaders, who we not only must pay, but who we must follow without question.

Personally, I prefer clarity; to make up my own mind; and to save my money. I believe the best approach to spirituality is one that that does not require any such intermediation, and which we all can understand.


Organized religions have also had many other general, positive consequences. First, they have traditionally been great supporters of the family, albeit in defense of their own interests, starting with to increase their number of followers.

Secondly, religions have provided an outlet for creative expression, through such things as art and architecture, although this has also had the effect of strengthening their form.

Thirdly, and this is uniformly positive, religious messages are a significant balance to the modern icons of youth, beauty and wealth.

Lastly, even pagan beliefs, in their celebration of life itself - what is a fertility god, if not a god of life? - make a positive social contribution.

In the next talk, I will examine the origins of religious form.

© Roland Watson 2014