Finally, After My 70 Years of Searching, a Definition of Religion
By Ronald Brown
“Oh, God,” I thought, another temple. Like cows in India, taxis in New York, musicians in Mexico, and nuns in Rome, I barely noticed temples in China anymore. But that spring day in Shanghai in 2005 was hot and humid so I decided to stop in for a visit.
The “god” was a rather ruthless looking person, flanked by equally fierce sword-wielding guards, all enshrouded in incense. Compared to a loving Jesus, scroll-bearing Confucius, or a serene Buddha, this god seemed fierce. Not on the tourist beaten track, the signs were all in Chinese so I asked a young guy to translate one for me.
“Back a long time ago, the British Empire attacked the city to force the people to become Christian and take opium. Chen Huacheng was a Qing Dynasty general who vowed to defend his city to the death,” he freely translated. “He roused his fellow residents to resist but they were defeated and Cheng was killed.” In honor of his heroic qualities and dedication to his homeland, the government of Shanghai declare him a god, placed a statue in the temple in his honor, and instituted a priesthood to worship him forever.
The god of Shanghai was about as far from the almighty, eternal and omnipotent god of Jews, Christians and Muslims as one could get. Jews might write books about such great men, and Catholics might construct elaborate visions of heaven, hell, purgatory, and until recently limbo, but only Confucianists would make a hero a god and celebrate the survival of a city as the goal of religion.
Standing in front of the incense enshrouded statue of Chen, I realized that deep beneath the centuries of encrusted rituals, traditions, beliefs, and deities of the religions of the world was a common quest: The creation of a perfect human being and placing this human in a perfect human society.
The evolution of religions
As humans evolved from their tree perches in East Africa to orbiting space stations, they have elaborated a host of unique religions.
In the beginning, they were tribal, concerned with tribal solidarity, victory in battle, successful agriculture and hunting, social stability, and the afterlife. Each religion developed a, some, many, or no deity; elaborate rituals; sanctified certain spaces; speculated on an invisible spirit world; and supported specially gifted religious leaders. As humanity evolved, so did its religions, one developing into another until today. This evolution continues, but at an accelerated pace.
Humans early recognized that buried deep within is a hidden power that can rouse them to anger, love, dedication, obedience, loyalty, or hope. Rulers long recognized that religion granted an evolutionary advantage to a clan, tribe, nation, or empire. Kings claimed divine descent, peoples believed that god chose them for a special purpose, they fought wars in the name of god, and even defeat was attributed to the displeasure of god.
Religion also inspired poets, artists, musicians, architects, and writers to explore the furthest reaches of human imagination and creativity. They created imaginary universes populated by gods, angels, and devils, elaborated images of life after death, wrote blueprints for a perfect world, and elaborated methods to achieve human perfection. Birds rest peacefully in their nests, herds of deer roam the fields, and bees stock their hives with honey, but humans aim for the stars and human immortality.
Karl Marx was convinced that religions would eventually die out, Friedrich Nietzsche went so far as to pronounce the death of the deity, and the framers of the American Constitution banished religion from the state, relegating it to the individual soul and weekend morning worship. Until recently, societal elites, at least, agreed that material prosperity, modern science, medical advances, and space exploration presented ample evidence there was not and in fact never had been a deity, afterlife, creation, or a heaven or hell. But, religions somehow survived and even went on to thrive despite the onslaught of modern science, technology, medicine, politics, and philosophy.
Much to the world’s shock, in 1979, an obscure Iranian cleric in exile returned to Tehran, overthrew the Shah of Iran and established an Islamic republic. In short order, Menachem Begin of Israel came to power with the strong support of Orthodox Jews, Ronald Reagan mobilized American evangelical Christians and took the White House, the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, and on September 11, 2001 the planet was plunged into what Samuel P. Huntington prophesied would become a century of holy wars. Evidently, god was not dead and religion not destined to join the horse and buggy in the trash heap of history.
21st century religion
Like every living thing, religions are the result of millennia of evolution. Today, in the early decades of the 21st century, the pace of religious evolution has gone into overdrive. A host of new and exotic religious movements, breakneck technological advances, the revolution in mass communications, social and political upheavals, mass migration, rise of super-empowered individuals, medical progress, sexual liberation, nuclear weaponry, pollution and global warming, and space exploration threaten to relegate ancient religions to oblivion and create new ones. What passed for religion a thousand years ago today is as dated as the stone axe and bow and arrow.
What do these new religious movements have in common? What are the common bonds that, on one hand, unite them, and on the other, propel them to religious wars? The brutality of the 21st century wars of religion risk eclipsing the Hebrew conquest of the Land of Canaan, the expansion of Islam, the European wars between Catholics and Protestants, and European colonialism in brutality and global danger.
Religious leaders today are intent on throwing off centuries, even millennia of accumulated accretions and restoring their respective religions to their primal goal. What plunges these diverse religious movements into holy war in the early 21st century is their differing interpretations of the primal goals of all religions: the creation of a perfect human being and construction of a perfect human society for this perfect human being. All other aspects of religion — gods, heavens and hells, laws, rituals, theologies, meditation, religious architecture, and politics — are, to quote the second century Jewish teacher, Hillel, are but commentary on this quest.
The perfect human being
Many religions have formulated an image of god that is simply a human being, usually male, raised to perfection. Judaism, Christianity and Islam teach that this god created two individuals, Adam and Eve, in god’s own “image and likeness.” Tragically, these perfect humans rebelled against their god and consequently lost their perfection. With their fall, disease ravaged human bodies, ignorance reigned, women gave birth in pain, human labor was drenched in sweat, and death our only escape. Thomas Hobbes put it eloquently: “Life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The “Hail Mary” well expresses the Catholic teaching of human life: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.”
Recognizing this tragic fact, early religions elaborated laws, rules, traditions, and taboos to guide humans through their short and brutish earthly time in this vale of tears toward a state of perfection. Dietary laws from Jewish Kosher to Hindu vegetarian, and Catholic meatless Fridays to the Muslim Ramadan fast, aimed to purify the inner body. Muslim beards, Maori tattoos, Jewish and Muslim circumcision, African women’s purification rituals, Buddhist pilgrimages, and sexual taboos all sought to purge the individual of evil and transform him or her into a state of purity.
Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, and Catholic meditation practices sought to purge the soul of impurities. Confession of sins, penitential prayer, initiation rituals, and penances sought inner purification. The Islamic doctrine of jihad was likewise the inner struggle to purge the soul of impurities like a raw piece of iron on the anvil. Catholics celebrate those individuals who have approached individual perfection with the crown of sainthood and even attribute supernatural powers to them. Ultimately, it is hoped humans will reach an elevated state of perfection and merit union with their god as a result.
“Gods,” whether the warrior hero of Shanghai or the invisible and nameless god of the Jews, is in many respects the ideal human purged of all impurities. For those less religiously inclined, the hero, perfect citizen, great writer, philosopher, ruler, explorer, or sports star serves just as well. They are all ideal individuals who can inspire ordinary persons to greatness, if not holiness.
Modern religions have dramatically highlighted this primal quest to create the perfect human being. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale literally reinterpreted Christianity into a form of psychotherapy with his bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking. The popular Gospel of Prosperity preached by Creflo Dollar, likewise emphasizes personal happiness and financial success as the reward for individual perfection. The “born again” experience taught by evangelical Christians stresses individual salvation, a new beginning, and victory over the forces of evil. Gays and lesbians may likewise view sexual liberation as a necessary step on the path to individual perfection.
The tomb of Chen Huacheng.
The perfect society
This quest for inner perfection goes hand in hand with the search for outer social perfection. The ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Indus Valley, Chinese, Greek, and Roman civilizations traced their origins to divine intervention and even attributed divine status to their rulers. The Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas, and a host of African, Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic cultures likewise found legitimacy for their kingdoms, empires and rulers in religion. The Hebrew Bible, Muslim Koran, Confucian Analects, Hindu Gita, and teachings of Theravada Buddhism give eloquent testimony to the sacred origins of human society and hold out heaven as the model to guide them.
All of the above traditions contain elaborate regulations for the founding and maintenance of a perfect society that would endure for millennia. Traditionally, the family has been considered the cornerstone of any stable human society. They elaborated marriage rituals, often made marriage obligatory, stressed children as blessings from god, encouraged ancestor veneration, idealized the Christian “Holy Family,” and imposed strict rules regarding husband-wife relations. Christians employ family terminology such as father, brother, sister, and mother to strengthen their churches, and of course god himself is “God the Father.” Unificationists refer to Rev. and Mrs. Moon as Father and Mother and stress the family as the central pillar of the movement.
Confucianism considers the family the base of human society, but goes on to elaborate a virtual blueprint for a peaceful, prosperous, and happy society with the emperor at the summit. This model is drawn from the perfect empire that existed during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 B.C.). Unlike most world religions, such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, that attribute their respective social blueprints for the perfect society to a deity or appointed prophet, Confucianism relied on human history and logic.
The teachings of Jesus and Buddha are exceptions to this universal pattern. Jesus taught that after his death and resurrection, he would return before the present generation had passed away, and reign forever. Thus, the four gospels contained no blueprint for organizing human society. Eventually, however, when the early Christians realized that Jesus’ return was delayed, they were forced to establish so-called “Christian” empires, kingdoms, political parties, and movements. These ranged from the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires to the European doctrine of divine right of monarchs.
The United States proved especially fertile for Christian groups that attempted to rectify the failure of Jesus to return as he had promised in spite of the American endorsement of the doctrine of separation of church and state. Beginning with the Puritans, Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Moravians, a host of European movements found refuge in the colonies.
In spite of the nation’s attempt to separate church and state, a large number of homegrown utopian experiments also flourished. The Oneida and Mormon movements remain the most famous, but the abolition, temperance, women’s rights, and Social Gospel movements also figure in this list. At the end of the 19th century, millions of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe found refuge in the country. In 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave eloquent to this American quest for a new Garden of Eden in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
The American experiment with separation of church and state, French Revolution, Marxism, and fascism continued this human quest for a perfect society but purged of any divine blueprint. However, during these first decades of the 21st century, the religious origins of this primal human quest to create a perfect society here on earth have reemerged as a determining, if not the determining force in society. Beginning with the establishment of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the rise of religious Zionism in Israel, ascent of the Hindu BJP Party in India, the evangelical predominance in the Republican Party in the U.S., utilization of Confucianism by Marxist China, institutionalization of Orthodox Christianity in Russia, among others, nations and political movements are adopting religious blueprints for their societies.
The vision of a perfect human society not only inspired the great religious thinkers and institutions, but a host of social reform, political, economic, utopian, Marxist, and fascist movements. The primal human quest for a perfect society cannot be quenched. Hollywood films, novels, and television programs abound with utopian and dystopian future worlds.
The quests for the perfect human being and a perfect human society have inspired humans since pre-history. Loincloths, tattoos, and sea shell jewelry became baseball hats, artificial hips, and computers. Caves, tents, and wooden shelters gave way to democracy, skyscrapers, and mega-cities. Religions hold up gods as the perfect individual that humans should aspire to and heaven as the perfect society humans should strive to create here on earth.
Today, this quest has broken through the accumulated commentary of thousands of years in what can only be called a Great Religious Awakening, the likes of which the world has never seen. In these first decades of the 21st century, religious leaders, writers and poets, and film and television directors are putting forward their conflicting visions of the perfect human living in a perfect human society. As an historian, my students often ask me, “If you could choose, what time in history would you like to live in?” Of course, I always answer, “The present!”♦
Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College, and teaches courses in world religions at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, he is author of A Religious History of Flushing, Queens; Into the Soul of African-American Harlem; and How New York Became the Empire City.
Photo at top by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash.