And yet, with all of these positives there is an undifferentiated shadow.
Etymologically “religion,” is based on the Latin “religio,” which is used to denote obligation, bond, and reverence. Although the term religion has grown to have other definitions, the root of the term points to some important questions that are worth examining. What is it that we are obligated to? To what are we bound? To what do we hold reverence?
Although varying institutionalized religions have perpetrated morally and ethically bereft practices throughout history, paradoxically within many of those institutions remained some form of moral and ethical compass- often based on the teachings of their given prophets. Perhaps part of the many reform movements within religious traditions point to the challenge that such institutions have had in embodying the high ideals set forth by their given prophets, who often served as bridges between the human and the transcendent. Despite the shortcomings, hypocrisy and shadows of such institutions, they still held something for the larger population pertaining to morality, meaning, and ethical conduct. The separation of church and state was a necessary move for our society in order to prevent further religious oppression. However, it just so happens that instead of utilizing this separation to demand greater ethical and moral conduct out of both the state and institutionalized religions- a void was left on the societal level, an undifferentiated shadow.
David Loy in his new book A New Buddhist Path alludes to a similar realization. Although he talks about this void in relationship to Darwin’s scientific discovery, his conclusion is representative of a parallel phenomenon to the one I am pointing to. When referring to the impact of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in evolution he said, “Evolution by natural selection doesn’t need God to direct it. That final stroke stranded us, for better or worse, in a desacralized world that has lost the source of meaning, without a binding moral code to regulate how we relate to each other. The new secular universe, ruled by impersonal physical laws, seems indifferent to us and our fate. Human beings serve no function in the grand scheme of things, and that means that we have no role to play except perhaps to enjoy ourselves as much as we can, while we can, if we can,” (p. 68). Thus the shadow potentiality of these realizations is what I would call a nihilistic hedonism. That is, nothing really matters so let me feel good at any cost, as much as possible until I die.
So while Loy refers to this phenomenon in relationship to a philosophy, I am referring to how with the separation of church and state, it became possible to institutionalize the very view that Loy referred to. If moral, ethical, and meaning creation is in the realm of religion and that is relegated to private realms, then in public governance how can we actually conclude what is “right?” I know we have a judicial system in place, but clearly it is not without issues and has limited power. I am not entirely opposed to capitalism, but I would argue at least in part that it is economics based on social Darwinism that led our society to allow certain pathological embodiments of nihilistic hedonism to take the power that was left in the void of the separation of church and state. And as Loy points out, from a Buddhist perspective this economic effort is futile, because it is based upon the very principle of dis-satisfaction.
It isn’t clear collectively what we are bound to. It isn’t clear to what we are obligated. To what we hold reverence. It just so happens in this lack of clarity, we can both have the liberty to have whatever privatized beliefs we do, and institutions with power can as well. It seems that religion has become a dirty word in many respects. Of course violence perpetrated in the name of religion has contributed to that. However, I would argue that the problem itself is not religion. Religion is a word, it is a social construct, wherein people have committed crimes based upon their own hermeneutic fallacies and abuse of power. No, religion is not the problem- however what we bind ourselves to is.
Ignorance that promotes crimes against humanity is not a liberty that anyone should have- whether it be through the guise of religion or economics. If one knowingly impinges upon the human rights of another individual, this is a crime against humanity. Yet if one believes it is their liberty, or their human right, to practice or believe in hate and violence based on religion, economy, race, sexual orientation, gender in the privacy of their own home, their office, or if “no-one else knows about it,” then something is wrong here.
In ideal religion we hold reverence to our existence. We are bound to each other and the world in which we live. We are obligated to each other.
Let’s call a spade a spade.
Hate is hate.
Violence is violence.
If your beliefs, no matter how religious you think they may be include hate or violence- what makes that religious is that you are bound to violence and hate.
Religion has been abused by ignorance and corrupted by power, and yet at the same time our social institutions have turned their backs on using our knowledge to bind us to something greater. I envision a world wherein religion is not synonymous with violence, but transcendent of it. Where religion is not separate from our human connection with one another. If there is one thing that is sure about our world it is that we are bound together, whether we like it or not. Every action we enact has meaning, and affects those around us. We all have the opportunity to be a cause for joy, compassion, dignity, respect, rather than hate and violence. You have the power to enact any of those expressions, but know- whichever you enact you become bound to.