By Roland Watson

I now intend to shift my focus from the positive to the negative, from the good works of organized religions to the nature and consequences of their behavioral form. And, to begin, we need to understand that the purposes of religion, of any religion, are essentially four-fold.

Religious purpose

1. To describe and explain the universe: what it is, how it came to be, and how - or if - it will end.

2. To explain and justify our circumstances as humans. For example, Buddhists believe that the fundamental fact of life, what they call the First Noble Truth, is that existence is misery and suffering. Many other religions share this view.

3. To reveal the existence of a path to salvation from this misery. Heaven and Nirvana are the typical solutions.

4. To dictate an ethical path for us to follow to achieve this salvation.

In this way, religions generate their own view of the purpose of a human life, which is that we should follow their guidance to achieve salvation.

The development of such a concept of purpose has had many important consequences. Traditionally, human purpose was seen as one's duty to the family - and also, implicitly, to oneself.

Religion introduced the superseding idea of duty to god, even, for some religions, the goal of union with god. And, paralleling this was another change. One's social objective evolved from meeting the needs of the group or tribe, to meeting the needs of the tribe's religion and its priests.

Origins of religion

The origins of religion lie in superstition. Early humans, in addition to the hard task of getting on in life, to defending, feeding and clothing themselves, also had to deal, mentally, with its inexplicabilities, inconsistencies and intangibles. For instance,

- Why did apparently healthy people suddenly fall ill?
- Why did one man die in battle, or one woman in childbirth, but not another?
- Why was the hunt, or crop yield, good at some times but not at others?
- Was there any reason why good fortune, why chance, favored some people?
- And, could the chance characteristic of life, its uncertainty, somehow be appealed to: be communicated with and persuaded to be beneficial to a particular individual or group?
- Also, how could powerful natural forces, such as lightening, thunder and torrential rain, be explained?
- What were the sun and the moon, and eclipses, and stars, and comets, and shooting stars?
- And what was to be made of one's consciousness, which seemingly existed independently of the body, and of one's dreams?

To early humans, ignorant of modern scientific explanations of these phenomena, such fears, curiosities and desires were not the subject of idle speculation. Rather, their resolution was often a matter of life and death. Answers were required, and in response to this demand they were supplied by the most inventive and opportunistic people around.

And, to these people everything had a reason. You could appeal to chance. Bad luck, or evil, could be warded off. The universe, and life, were controlled by the gods - and other spirits, who lived in the heavens and on earth. People who, in the view of the gods, were good, had good fortune. Those who were not, suffered. And humans had a godlike quality as well, a soul, through which rewards could also be given and penalties enforced, and which served as the vehicle by which people could escape their fate: from death.

Such are the origins of some of our most profound superstitions, and they survive with us to this day. Religion originates, practices, reinforces, and perpetuates these superstitions.

The power of religious form

This in turn is further evidence of the power of religious form: that it has survived with us, in many cases for thousands of years, and that it has survived in the face of the explosion of knowledge about the universe that has been provided by science.

Religious beliefs die hard. Even the earliest, most primitive beliefs, such as in natural spirits and ghosts, remain commonplace around the world, either through having been incorporated into the now mainstream belief systems, or by being worshipped in parallel.

As another example of this, consider the "history" of heaven. Initially, it was viewed as in the sky. But, once we became aware that the sky was merely filled with stars, heaven was forced to go extra-dimensional.

The evolution of belief

As social conditions changed, so religious beliefs evolved as well, and in the process they acquired greater complexity and scope. The earliest beliefs focused on fertility, both human fecundity and abundant sustenance, and appeals to chance.

But, with the increase in the size of human communities, and the development of conflicts between them, gods of war rose in prominence. Still later, and in times of peace, times conducive to a greater depth of speculation, the abstract concept of a supreme god was formed, a creator god responsible for the universe, cosmic order, and other gods. Over time this deity became paramount. With the main exception of Hinduism, the other gods were pushed aside, and the result is the modern focus on monotheism.

East and West

There are wide variations in religious belief around the world. For instance, there is the basic distinction of East versus West. Eastern religions describe universal existence as cyclical, which reflects the common cyclical pattern that we see in physical reality. The universe is born, goes through certain stages, declines, passes out of existence, and is then reborn. The parallel with the supposed reincarnation of people, and other species, is obvious. And, the goal of salvation is to escape from this cycle.

Religions in the West conceive of the universe as having a distinct beginning and end. Ultimate salvation is achieved following its termination, through admittance to heaven. In this tradition the final four things are death, the Day of Judgment, heaven, and hell.

Eastern and Western religions also differ with regard to the process of salvation. Christianity and Judaism, for example, require a savior. It is not possible for an individual to save him or herself, to reverse on their own the consequences of the Original Sin. For this, Christ's sacrifice was required - and the Jews await their messiah. But in the East, and also with Islam, there is no need for a savior. Oriental religious leaders are viewed as teachers, rather than saviors, and salvation is essentially a personal responsibility. This can be achieved by following such things as the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, and the Yogic system in Hinduism.

In addition, in the Ethics series I distinguished two basic systems of religious purpose. The first, which is that you must follow god's law or be punished, is largely the view of the Western tradition. The second, that god is life is truth, and that you therefore should seek to learn about and assist life, derives from the Eastern tradition - in its less dogmatic forms.

Also, as to the apparent cynicism of Buddhism, its fundamental message is actually positive. It is not obsessed with decay. Rather, it emphasizes that it is possible to transcend our conditions and - according to A. L. Basham, from the book The Wonder that was India - "reach a state where age and grief no longer affect the mind, and where earthly pleasure is transmuted into serene joy."

Eastern religions are also perceived as "mystical," since they share the view that the universe is a unified and indivisible whole, and that the goal of an individual is to transcend his or her separateness, including ego and personal desires, and, so-to-speak, recombine with this unity. Of course, this begs the question: if Eastern religions are mystical, what are Western beliefs, founded as they also are - on supernatural myths?

The role of the afterlife

Another common distinction among religions is the degree of emphasis on the afterlife. Western sects that stress the afterlife tend to be strict and ascetic, allowing no positive benefit or influence from the realm of the senses. Earthly pleasures are to be avoided as wicked and evil distractions.

As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill A Mockingbird: "There are just some kind of men who - who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one."

This type of belief reflects the view that the highest purpose in life is one's quest for spiritual knowledge. Indeed, at this point the Eastern and Western traditions tend to converge. That which furthers the quest is good. That which does not is evil. And, in the main, the latter is considered to be earthly or temporal desire, because it distracts you from the quest.

Other, more tolerant faiths derive some benefits from the experience of life, but preach moderation, in a manner akin to Buddhism's Middle Way.

Life is a test

However, for all of these differences, in the most profound sense all religions tell us the same thing. Life is a test, which we can pass or fail, and they can tell us how to pass. How one passes or fails may vary by religion, but the goal should always be to try to pass. Religions take the view that there has to be an answer. There has to be a purpose for our existence.

No religion, with the possible exception of Buddhism in its earliest form, through the original teachings of Buddha himself, is willing to countenance the view that life simply is; that it cannot be appealed to or judged; that it can only be lived.

To religion, there has to be a judgment, and they are going to make it, both on you and on life.

In the next article, I will discuss the idea of immortality, that in one way or another we can live forever.

© Roland Watson 2014