Saturday, March 1, 2008

The roles of religion

In the last chapter of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, he discussed the four main roles of religion in human life: explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration. The intention of that chapter was to demonstrate that religion was not the sole source in fulfilling such roles. There were many ways of meeting these needs whether there is or is not a god or religion. Dawkins put up strong arguments in a logical manner and I am convinced of his point of not having indispensable religion. However, I took a further step and deduced that there was also no doubt that religion could fulfill these roles effectively to some people, as shown in history.

Explanation. Historically, religion aspired to explain our own existence and the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. In the modern age, this role is being superseded by science in many areas. This is where religion failed most. There are many hard line fundamentalists who still insist on the creationist theory; not just on the mysterious origin of life and universe, but on everyday phenomenon such as flowers and insects. However, notwithstanding the great achievement of science in modern times, there are still many things unexplained. While science is moving forever closer to the truth, there are always more puzzles behind it. In the course, it is convenient to bring in god to fill the gap.

Exhortation. By exhortation, it means the moral instruction on how we ought to behave. Such instructions now come in many forms: legislation, rules, education and also religious dogma. In modern democratic societies, there are legislation and rules established by majority votes for all to comply. In many other societies, theocratic societies in particular, authority from a higher power is more effective. Many sociologists and psychologists have shown that human morality does not come from a divine belief. However, the temptation of heavenly reward or punishment of hell is always a good incentive for some people to be moral.

Consolation. This is the most effective delusion of religion. Some people caught in a disaster or a misfortune could find consolation in religious belief that good would eventually come out of it in time. The biggest consolation is life after death. It would be comforting to think that death is not a misfortune but a gift. Many delusions such as empty promises or lies could only last until they are exposed. But consolation of life after death would last until one dies, and then there is still no way of knowing whether it is true. Bertrand Russell is a famed non-believer. He said it well in a 1925 essay What I Believe:

"I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I shall scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open window of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own".

These atheists do not need consolation of life after death. They do not have the fear of hell nor the hope of heaven. Such no fear no hope attitude provides comfort in enjoying life and accepting its sorrow.

While I accept there is a god filling all the void of human knowledge, but not the religious delusion of such places as heaven and hell, I think religion does provide the consolation it is so proud of. The human mind is fragile and is prone to all kind of mental attacks. Consolation in any form, be it religious belief, drugs and medicine, logical explanations, superstition, or just kind words from family and friends, are all welcome if they can induce calmness and peacefulness. Among all these, religion still ranks very high in effectiveness.

Inspiration. It is arguable whether religion is a source of inspiration. Dawkins used many examples to show that the claim of religion inspiring people of a world view was only a delusion. The scientific view of our perceived model of the world is a legacy from our ancestors. It is a three-dimensional world of medium-sized material objects, moving at medium speeds relative to one another. However, our brains are actually more powerful and are capable of accommodating a much richer world model than the mediocre utilitarian one that our ancestors needed in order to survive. As a result, art and science are runaway manifestations of this ability. In a narrower sense, I think Dawkins has ignored the environment created by religion. In the confined space of religious dogma, the creativity of many people is focused at the niche of worship. In a way, this can be said as a source of forced inspiration because for some people it is the only outlet of their brain power. Although human can be inspired in many different ways, religion is still one of the forces. It is particular so some centuries ago in some places where religion is everyday life. In the last two hundred years, human minds have largely been liberated in all areas. It started from arts and literature where religious subjects were no longer in favour, and flourished with science which broke many religious truth.

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