By Roland Watson

I concluded the last article by examining some of the contradictions that exist in how religions present us with the idea of hell. This is important, because hell is the threat that they use to back up their demand for faith.

The soul?

However, there is one other major problem with hell, and also heaven, and even nirvana, which is that they all require the existence of a soul. They all require the existence of some entity, which somehow encapsulates us, all of our identity, and which survives our death.

As I described, the historical derivation of the soul is as an explanation for consciousness and dreams, and also as the mechanism by which the immortality myths work. But, the former argument is now insupportable, and the latter clearly reflects, like god, human attributes, hopes and aspirations.

The only honest portrayal of the soul that I have read comes from early Buddhism. Again, to quote H. L. Basham: "The universe is soulless. In transmigration nothing passes over from one life to another - only a new life arises as part of the chain of events which included the old."

Also, Buddha talked about this directly as well. To quote him (from Basham): "I have not said the Arhant - this is a person who has achieved nirvana - I have not said the Arhant exists after death, and I have not said that he does not exist ... because this is not edifying, neither does it tend to supreme wisdom."

This is a major departure from religious tradition. Buddhism is not even a religion in the formal sense, meaning of proposing belief in the soul and then giving ideas for its maintenance. Transmigration is actually non-Buddhist. It is an older superstition that was incorporated into the belief system.

The life force revisited

So, what is the soul, if anything? I said earlier that there is a life force present in all of us, and all species. But, this is obvious. We also saw that some people seem to have a greater life force than others, but in a fundamental sense this is probably not the case. Some people do have a lot of spirit, or energy, but it is unlikely that this derives from - that it actually precedes - their birth.

Instead, what varies is not your amount of life force, but your awareness and control of it, how free versus how determined you are.

Said another way, just because we have a life force inside us when we are alive, doesn't mean that it survives our death as a soul. Indeed, the obvious conclusion would be that it does not. If there is no life, then there is no life force.

Also, it is worth mentioning that by adding the existence of a soul we compound our problems. As if explaining the universe were not difficult enough, we are supposed to believe in something that is part of us but which we cannot see - as opposed to something of which we are a part and that we can see. One unsolvable puzzle seems enough. There is no need to create another.

After considering all of this, it is clear that religion is the greatest confidence game ever devised. The arguments of religion are used to gain our confidence, and faith. Then, given this faith, in the soul and hell, or reincarnation, the punishment is such that we must avoid it.

Indeed, it makes the financial fraudster Ponzi look like an amateur. Also, there is no possibility of argument. Religions have a failsafe defense against any doubts and criticism. If you question a religion, it is your problem, not the religion's. You simply lack faith.

And, as the greatest con game ever, it is of course highly successful. Even more, since we will never stop sinning (meaning at times behaving unethically), it will work as an oppressive mechanism forever.

Consequences of religious form

To move on to the practical consequences of all of this, the basic negative effect of religious form has to do with universal uncertainty and chance. As we have seen, in its earliest applications religion attempted to reduce the effects of chance. However, in its modern form, it magnifies them. The biggest chance in your life now is the religion to which you are born. Children copy their parents, first and foremost their religion.

And, as a religion represents a philosophy, a way of life in relation to all aspects of existence, children inherit this, too. If you are born into a Christian family, you undergo all of the conditioning, both good and bad, of the Christian existence. Similarly, if you are born Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, much of your identity is all but sewn up.

There is little room for the expression of will, for the making of a personal choice. Religious form is truth, and through birth it becomes your truth.

Know your place

Furthermore, such an effect regularly reinforces the standard social form of know your place. There is even class structure in heaven itself, through angels and "arch," or ruling, angels. Satan himself was expelled from heaven, and it has been inferred that this was for questioning god's authority, in other words, for not accepting the prevailing social order.

As another example, "Islam" means submission, as in you must submit to the will of god.

The imposition of know your place is particularly apparent in the religions of the East. For Hinduism, one of the three aspects of Dharma is the natural social order, which among other things justifies the rigidity of the social castes in India. For Buddhism, the similar doctrine of Karma also serves to justify social inequalities. If you are born to a low station, it is because of your behavior in a prior life.

Indeed, these beliefs predetermine the positions for all life, not just humans. They effectively subordinate all other life. But here, I would point out that there is a logical flaw in the argument of reincarnation.

If your behavior in this life causes you to be born as some other species in the next, how can you possibly make merit as such a species and hope to be born human again? Other life forms truly are subject to natural law, and have no ethical options.

In this sense, they are determined. And, if this happens to you, you are stuck. Also, it is interesting that in reincarnation cultures you can come back as a rat or a bird or a snake, but never as a tree. Reincarnation does not occur cross-kingdom.

Regarding Confucianism, which still retains great power in China and other parts of Asia, one of its basic messages is that you should submit to authority, that you should not even question it.

A legacy of this is seen clearly in the fact that in Asia it is difficult, if not impossible, for young people - including both women and men - to disregard their parents' choice of a spouse for them, even if they love another person.

I might add, when Asian parents choose spouses for their children, whose needs are fulfilled: theirs, or the child's?

The pervasiveness of religious form

As all of this suggests, religious values are enmeshed in society and manifest themselves in many troubling ways. For instance, many Buddhists are fatalistic. They believe that whatever happens to them, happens - nothing can be done about it. However, and counterintuitively, they also believe that they are responsible for it. They are never victims. (There are almost no personal injury lawsuits in Buddhist countries.)

If something bad happens to them, such as if they suffer abuse as a child, it is both their fault and their fate. Indeed, they are psychologically trapped by the structure of this form, and this has innumerable derivative and devastating effects, including both on individual mental health and social harmony.

I might add, this reflects another, deeper inconsistency in the logic of reincarnation. In which life are we free to act such that the conditions in our subsequent lives are a legitimate reward or penalty? In which life can we exert will and thereby initiate the subsequent deterministic chain? For such a system to work, there has to be a break in the cycle, a starting point.

Humans uber alles

Also, and as I just implied, religion reinforces human chauvinism. The final judgment teachings of the Western religious tradition were conceived in a day when humans reigned supreme. The consequences of our behavior toward the planet had not yet rebounded back onto us. No thought was given to other species, much less to the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

It is remarkable that we remain so chauvinistic. What about other species? Some mammals have advanced central nervous systems, and personal consciousness. Isn't it possible that they have a conception of god, too? And here, I should point out that I don't mean us, that they consider us to be god! More importantly, aren't they of concern to god?

Also, if other planets in the universe harbor life, as they surely do, what about gods for this life?

If there is such a thing as god, we can only assume that it relates in some way to the entire universe, and all the life in the universe, not to a particular planet or species.

In the next article, I will examine the specific tactics by which organized religions impose their form.

© Roland Watson 2014