Design of Religions

     Evolution of notion, motivating focus, developmental milestones, the establishment of structure, stretching out the reach and progressive modification may all be lumped together under the title of ‘Design’ of religions. Centuries prior to present day modes of communication and with limited movement of people between areas of land set apart by geographic limitations, religious tendencies and adherence to practices originated and evolved to far corners of the world. Fundamental motivation and impetus to cultivate distinct practices which we can now group as religions are almost exclusively based on a universal focus that is a god. Whether it originates from a blind belief and respect of something unforeseen or is born out of a primitive acceptance of the forces of nature being dictated by a supreme power, is a debatable issue. Perhaps it is a combination of both.
     When human intelligence started analyzing what they observed around them, happening with precision and dependable accuracy, it was obviously attributed to a higher power which eventually has been accepted as God. Perhaps out of respect, reverence, fear and most likely recognition of its overwhelming presence, the human mind might have decided to relate all that is around them and their own destiny to the intimate, indomitable control of such power. They must have been convinced that such power having so much control over the enormous nature must obviously be able to control their minute life and all that is happening to them.
     Such ideas about an ultimate universal power must have been recognized and analyzed by intelligent leaders who must have logically and sensibly inferred the concept of god and passed on such perception to the people around them. These leaders with wisdom and vision must have convinced groups of followers and guided them towards a practice of life beyond the basic animalistic existence. In order to abide by certain doctrines and follow the set guidelines to respectfully adhere to the principle, it must have required creating regimented formulas and ritualistic practices to keep the groups of people in similar mindset. Such practices indoctrinated as coming straight from divine sources would appeal to the masses as legitimate and consoling to guide them along noble paths of life. Assuming that such movements would have developed and progressed to take shape as today’s religions, it becomes possible to understand the present practice and to refer back to their origins.
     As distinct and different as they seem to be, in their behavior and beliefs, human beings from all corners of the earth and all walks of life share a certain commonality of culture. Their taste and their conduct exhibit a certain predisposition and penchant to perform alike in matters of functions which are collectively needed to exist and survive as communities and societies. As much as habits related to food, recreation, procreation and appreciation of arts and other niceties in life evolve, the basic human tendency towards accepting and adhering to a divine presence also seems to have flourished in almost similar patterns. (Development of Religion –from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
     There is a lot of discussion from different sources as to the development of many religions. There has been recorded, the gradual emergence of religious behavior during human evolution, the different models being not mutually exclusive, but with a lot of overlap between them. Religions are a universal phenomenon found in all human populations. Isolated from Australia, the Tasmanians have been found to have had practical religious behavior, 40,000 years ago. Using the principle of a cultural homology, scientists explain the ubiquity of religious behavior. It is mentioned that religious evolution follows a course similar to the evolution of the human mind.
     There have been suggestions that religion is hardwired into the human condition. One hypothesis refers to a God gene, identified as VMAT2, the presence of which in humans that are born being predisposed to episodes interpreted as ‘religious revelation’. Scholars suggest that the evolution of languages is a prerequisite to the development of religion. Ancestral humans in some African populations may have exhibited certain religious behavior as early as 50,000 years ago. A recent discovery even mentions a ritual site in South Africa as old as 70,000 years, which may indicate that certain religious rituals may have been practiced by certain groups prior to the origin of languages.
      Human mind always has remained interested in the affairs of other humans. This attitude may create a tendency for them to interpret all the events on common ground and may be tempted to attribute such events on a ground of commonality, influenced by supernatural agents. Religious and ritualistic behavior may have originated from such concerns and out of fear as preventive penance to please the heavenly powers and ward off such damaging influences.
   In larger groups, certain skilled individuals were capable of conducting rituals and gradually becoming leaders. As societies grew and encountered other similar groups, the fitter ones survived and gradually evolved to modify their practices and provide more abstract and more widely acceptable versions. Such a process eventually established systems that started imposing their version on wider sections of the population, using political clout and power manipulations.
     Anthony F. C. Wallace proposes four stages in the emergence of organized religion: out of individual experience from the most basic concept of divine influence, to a Shamanistic, healing application and acquiring religious authority, into a communal application of the belief into wider areas of knowledge and spirituality; most often practices which combine all of the above three.
      Rodney Stark and W. S. Bainbridge’s book ‘Theory of Religion’ and subsequent works present four models playing in the origin of religions. Psychopathological model, founded creating a theory to resolve personal problems; Entrepreneurial model, wherein the religion is created as a new product collecting concepts from different groups to appeal to consumers to follow them; Social model founded by means of social implosions with bonding between people in the group who develop new theology and rituals to go along with their accepted theory; Normal revelations where the founder interprets and ascribes natural phenomena as supernatural and attracts groups of people to accept and join the belief.
      Throughout the development of religions, charismatic figures have been instrumental in creating and propagating the philosophy which explains and establishes the connection with the god. These leaders may have been either the central teachers and founders of religion like Jesus, Muhammad, or Gautam, who gradually became the revered figures and often representing the god concept or becoming the only intermediary. Many others who have been intellectually elevated and charismatically influential, played significant roles in modifying and reforming the original concept about their religions. Such leaders include Sri Sankaracharya, Swami Vivekananda, Saint Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King and the like who created glorious examples in reforming their religious philosophy and practice.
      Organized religion periodically goes through adjustments between traditional tendencies and personal spirituality. Thus Buddhism and Vedanta were reforms of the Vedic Brahminism, Zoroastrianism evolved from Iranian Gnosticism, early Christianity subverting Greco-Roman Paganism, Medieval Catharism subverting Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism subverting mainstream Protestantism. The people involved in the organized religion support the exercise with a prescribed set of beliefs often resembling a legal entity. The concept of religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith or belief system.
     From a strictly religious standpoint, several accounts can explain the historical development of religions. Many Abrahamic religions are founded by enlightened figures establishing a doctrine based on revelations to them. Ethnic religions are primarily based on traditions and spiritualistic guidelines. We can surmise on a concept of progression of revelation regarding most world religions. The patriarchs and prophets played a significant role in Abrahamic religions, the Rishis in Hinduism, the Bodhisatvas in Buddhism, the Tirthankars in Jainism, the Saoshyants in Zoroastrianism and so on. In the Bahai view, religion develops through a series of divine intervention from God.
     Religions are often developed as a cultural matrix which combines a conceptual set of ideas, values, and experiences, which are closely entangled with the feelings, attitudes, and sentiments of the group of people following the religion. There is often a question of whether the concept of a god figure or ‘transcendent absolute’ is instrumental in the organization of religion or not; whether a complete dependence or awareness of a ‘divine’ entity is a necessity or it could be just a set of value system which guides the conscience in a particular prescribed fashion. Such discussions are meaningful in deducing the nature of the social, cultural and psychological behavior of the adherents.
      When we use such a broad definition to explain religious conduct, it may be surmised that almost every culture exhibits a certain degree of ‘religious’ tendency, a certain regulation, conscious or imprecise guiding, and providing models of acceptable behavior. When patterns of activities are built around such dimensions of approved directives, the structure, in the long run, could assume and constitute the historically acceptable form of religion. Most of such organized entities center around designated concepts of god or spiritually transcendent ultimate.
     It is a constant practice for religious believers who subscribe to a certain faith to label others as ‘non-believers’ and many of their actions as ‘superstitious’. The act accompanies a declaration of possessing the essence of knowledge about the ultimate and a statement that anything outside their philosophy is unfounded. The tendency often reflects a certain amount of audacity to assume superiority and exclusiveness of their status and thus viewing the others with ignorance and even irreverence. The concept of god is purely a faith and devotion in the unknown which comes with an obvious assertion and acceptance of superstition, a subscription, and submission to a superior existence. One who truly understands the generosity of that spirit should have reverence to similar belief in whichever fashion it is subscribed. Perhaps the statement can be modified to label certain practices as ‘superstitious’, when they excessively and exclusively embrace and promote a ‘perverse excess of religion’, stressing the importance of miracles, omens, incantations and the like beyond a certain limit. Even then, faith being such a private issue, the sanctity of one’s personal, intimate belief should not be questioned or ridiculed, especially on a nebulous issue as worship.
     Development of religions may be classified as happening in three phases: The ‘Axial Age’, wherein there was very little recorded communication between regions, but religious philosophies emerged based on the profound influence of charismatic thinkers. Examples include the development of religious practices in India, China, Greece, and the ancient Near East, like the notion of Atman in Vedanta philosophy, Platonic realism, and Neo-Platonism in Hellenistic philosophy and that of Tao. The ‘Middle Ages’, found the present day world religions establishing themselves; Christianization of the western world, Buddhist missions in East Asia, rise of Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent, the spread of Islam in the Middle East, central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe and India. The ‘Modern Period’, perhaps from the 15th century found European colonization and spread of Christianity to northern Africa, Australia, and the Americas. In the twentieth century, the communist regimes in Eastern Europe and China were antireligious. The world population remains more than 75 % as religious, where about 15% identifies as non-religious.
     The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam originated in the Middle East and form the largest group of adherents, comprising over 53 % of the world population. The Indian religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism have about 20% of the world population as followers and the Far Eastern religions which hold about 6.5% and the rest belong to irreligious and other smaller groups. The Abrahamic religions are widely spread around the world mainly because some of them are vigorous proselytizers. Hinduism dates back to many thousands of years with no founders and based on the concept of dharma and karma. The different Indian religions have a common origin, mostly based and deviated from Hindu philosophy and founded by leaders who impressed many followers with their philosophy. Far Eastern religions consist of many concepts like Taoism, Shintoism, Chardogyo, Caodaism, and Yiguandas. Far Eastern Buddhism and Confucianism are included in this group. Apart from these, Iranic religions like Zoroastrianism, Sufism, and Bahia faiths along with African religions form another section of followers.
     In general, a multitude of religions sprouted from far corners of the earth gained popularity and practicing followers based on the fundamentals of their principles, influence of their intellectual leaders, the verve of their proselytizing philosophy and the ease and practicality of observing their principles. Essentially ,they all amount to convincing the believer in the basic concept of the ultimate, controlling power through their particular viewpoint and value systems. The virtues and interests of all the faiths remain to enhance human behavior and motivate them to function through the path of righteousness. The followers mostly directed by the leaders often go beyond the prescribed functions and tenets of their faith and its intentions to promote a variety of self-serving agendas. As human nature has ascertained such of its tendencies through recorded history, consequential changes have resulted in social reorganization to business promotions to mass conversions to the annihilation of cultures and wars. Cultivating a culture of mutual respect, accepting others as they are, and accommodating differences would benefit humanity in tremendous ways.
Intelligent Design: As we cover a topic such as ‘Design of Religion’, we cannot exclude the new entrant into the arena, the ‘Intelligent Design’. The terminology is creating ample confusion as well as controversy in the already rebellious arena of religions and providing tasty fodder for people in the field who can see nothing but black and white and no trace of gray, and they are convinced that their side is all white.
     Intelligent Design theory is based on the hypothesis that life cannot happen by chance but has to be based on some ‘intelligent’ agency putting together certain pieces to have come up with the complex living organisms as we experience around us. As it sounds like a logical explanation which should appease the proponents of creation as well as evolution, it seems to have given rise to more debates than agreements. The natural question which has followed the theory behind such an entity as Intelligent Design is whether it is a religion or not. If it does not fit into the definition of a religion, then how do we accommodate the concept within the discussion where only religious dialogs are allowed? According to definitions of ‘religion’, a supernatural power such as a creator, a god, has to be accepted and revered as in ultimate control where the followers subscribe to an unquestionable entity as in charge. If we receive that entity as anything less, like the term ‘Intelligent Design’, the concept leads to the realms of science manipulated by humans and less ‘sacred’ to earn reverence.
     It is obvious that such a discussion or controversy is based on a concrete belief that ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are two distinct entities traveling perfectly parallel to each other and never having a chance to meet or merge at any point, now or in the future. It seems that the proponents of the two belief systems have unshakable confidence and conviction in their stance that the two viewpoints are mutually exclusive and cannot be argued or accepted as overlapping. Ironically and unfortunately, either science or religion has not been able to conclusively establish the exact nature of life, its origin, its variations, and its purpose. If religions command that the higher power, respectfully recognized as god figure is in total control, all the existing religions in the world only possess certain statements and dogmas that demand to be blindly followed by its believers; no questions asked, no doubts expressed. The scientists, on the other hand, remain dogmatic that there is always an explanation, there are only happenings which can be proven by scientific hypothesis; even if such is not presently available, they are bound to come along, sooner or later. They are adamant that all that is around us can be explained on a logical basis using physics, chemistry, biology and the like. The missing point in the discussion between the two opponents seems to be the answers to the two questions, ‘Who’ does it and ‘How’ it is done! If our simple minds can accept the answers to the above questions as ‘god’ and ’science’ without a blind assumption that the two are not mutually exclusive, that ‘god’ may be something outside our limited understanding and that ‘science’ has come up with answers to many things. Once we can figure it out and modify it with a humble acknowledgment that such matters will ever remain above the reach of human comprehension, at that point we may have an amicable understanding, a consoling perception. Many of us, sadly, may never reach that point.

Author: Dr. Venugopal Menon

Was born and raised in a loving family in pre-independent India, became a doctor, served Indian army, got married, then came over to America with wife and a daughter, established as a successful Allergist, raised a family of three children, was involved in many social establishments, retired, and wrote memoirs, 'My Mother Called Me Unni, A Doctor's Tale of Migration'.

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