Dimension of Religions Essay

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¶ … Religion and Religious Belief

Modern and Pre-modern Concepts of Religious Belief

In ancient times, it was perfectly understandable that man would imagine "gods" because so much of the environment around primitive communities was completely impossible to understand. Lightning bolts from the sky that ignited whatever they touched and torrential downpours that devastated manmade structures would have seemed to be volitional acts. The principle that modern psychologists refer to as "projection" would have caused early man to assume that the divine beings he imagined had the same kinds of thoughts and impulses as he experienced himself (Sagan, 1997).

In the same way that some people today develop superstitions and "luck" rituals, ancient man would have connected events that were merely coincidental rather than causally related. Perhaps a tremendous wind storm or a violent hail storm occurring the night after a successful hunt was assumed to be related to the spirit of prey; or it could have been perceived as the anger of "gods" who expected tributes or expressions of gratitude (Armstrong, 1993).

"During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution, human fantasy

created gods in man's own image, who, by the operation of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate, to influence the phenomenal world."

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Essay on Dimension of Religions Assignment

Furthermore, because ancient societies had no experiences beyond their immediate environment, the images that they imagined for their gods typically reflected indigenous wildlife connections (Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992). Early humans and proto-humans left visual records of the images of their societies in the walls of caves across the continents of the world. In almost all cases, the available record documents the prominence of indigenous creatures as well as imaginary combinations of parts of indigenous creatures combined with human features. Even today, societies on every continent maintain "religious" or spiritual beliefs, themes, and rituals that incorporate snakes, or tigers, or shark, or elephants, based on locally recognized animal species (Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992).

In pre-historical eras of human societies, it also seems clear that the concept of human death held a particular universal significance (Sagan, 1997). Individuals were very carefully and deliberately buried with possessions and supplies for the future; in some instances we know that family members of individuals who died of natural causes were buried with companions or children who were killed, presumably to join their family patriarch. Naturally, ancient people would have never imagined the existence of alternate explanations for everything that seemed to require "supernatural" powers.

In early-modern times, extended wars persisted through successive centuries over religious differences. Almost as soon as human societies became aware of the existence of other cultural or "religious" beliefs, those differences became the basis for violent antagonism (Armstrong, 1993; Smith, 1952). Modern psychiatrists recognize that the basis of the intensity of the animosity among different religious beliefs is the fact that mutually exclusive religious beliefs necessarily threaten religious-based beliefs about such things as the afterlife, the whereabouts of their deceased loved ones' "spirits," and the truth or falsity of fundamental cultural beliefs. As between Christian and Muslim societies, vast armies crossed the oceans to wage wars, some of which lasted as long as two human lifetimes, predicated on the rightness and "godliness" of their perspective (Armstrong, 1993; Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992).

"The universal moral idea owed its original psychological potency to the link with religion. Yet, in another sense, that close association was fatal for the mora lidea. Monotheistic religion acquired different forms with various peoples and groups. Although those differences were by no means fundamental, they soon were felt more strongly than the essentials that were common, and in that way, religion often caused enmity and conflict instead of binding mankind together with the universal moral idea."

(Einstein, 1939 in Rooney, 2006)

While human religion still exists in myriad forms today, the some of the developed regions of the world have modified their common beliefs based on centuries of human knowledge about the physical and biological (among other) worlds. On one hand, religious antagonism still account for more war and human atrocities throughout the world than all other motivations for armed conflict between nations (Sagan, 1997). At any given time throughout the second half of the 20th century, there were perpetually four or five dozen wars ongoing between nations various nations (Sagan, 1997).

Nevertheless, religion does not dominate human communities, at least not on any large scale in the Western Hemisphere. In the United States and other nations, government authorities are kept completely out of religious matters and religious differences are not a source of overt antagonism. That design was specifically inspired by the rejection of government-mandated religious affiliation that still existed in Great Britain well into the 19th century (Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992). Even in the U.S., religious prejudice, persecution, and discrimination existed into the second half of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, religion still dominates the lives and beliefs of substantial portions of modern human societies, although hardly by ancient and early-modern religious standards.

General Religious Elements and Concerns

Despite the cold realism of his characterization of human religious beliefs, Einstein himself mentioned the "universal moral idea" (1939). What Einstein referred to is (along with the significance of human death) one of the most common shared concept of modern human religious thought. Different cultures and religious traditions may hold diametrically opposite beliefs about the nature and character of their gods, but most human religions emphasize general "goodness" and a system of social morality (Armstrong, 1993; Sagan, 1997).

Certainly, substantial evidence exists detailing religious beliefs that apparently included ritual human sacrifice, and our written historical record demonstrates the tremendous harm that religious antagonism and intolerance can provoke. However, in many modern societies, the negative aspects of ancient religious "impulses" have largely been eliminated and the socially beneficial aspects of religious orientation in the human community have been emphasized. Modern religious institutions are typically heavily involved in charitable activities and in providing hands-on assistance, food, clothing, and shelter for those in need, as well as funding numerous other socially beneficial projects. This communal spirit, to the extent that it exists in modern societies is an obvious benefit of religiously motivated social consciousness.

Cynics would argue that much of that religious "spirit" is less a matter of genuine benevolence or social concern and more a matter of self-interest (Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992). By that, they mean that, especially with respect to the Western Judeo-Christian religious perspective, some of the most powerful motivation for human morality is self-preservation rather than a direct concern for the benefit of others. That is not to denigrate or devalue worthwhile social contributions because of the underlying reason or motivation.

On the other hand, the objective moralist would suggest that it would be "healthier" for all concerned (including those performing charitable acts for religious "reasons") to derive their motivation from genuine concern for their fellow man than because they believe their conduct on earth might determine how they spend an "afterlife." The objective moralist would applaud the effort but point out that there is substantially less moral "credit" in doing what is right to protect one's supposed "soul" and that any "god" who demanded human moral thought and motivation would obviously know the true reason for charitable acts. Either way, the fundamental concept of being morally "good" is one of the most common areas of focus of modern human religions (Armstrong, 1993).

Another ubiquitous concern of contemporary (and ancient) human religions is the concept of communication with gods (Armstrong, 1993; Homer, 1952). Virtually every human religion ever studied features some form of presumed communication between man and his gods (Einstein, 1954; Homer, 1952). The major religions in Western societies today include beliefs about communications supposedly handed directly (and literally) from god to man. Likewise, most contemporary religious perspectives share the belief that gods require worship and also (in many cases) that man is capable of communicating directly with god. Sometimes that takes the form of seeking guidance from gods; other times it may involve apologizing or seeking forgiveness for actions considered to be "sins"; and very often, communications from man to gods involve specific requests and the expression of hopes, wishes, and desires (Einstein, 1954; Homer, 1952; Sagan, 1997).

Of course, the objective moralist has a different point-of-view; if anything, this apparent belief among the religious that their gods hear their prayers seems like nothing more than a self-centered and childish psychological perspective (Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992). That is particularly true (to the objective skeptic) because of the illogic of praying to any "god" who (as most of the religious believe) already knows our thoughts as well as everything else conceivable (Russell, 1961 in Egner & Denonn, 1992).

"Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of the old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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