Was/Is Religion Useful Even if it isn't True?

by cofty 74 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • Vidiot

    Once, maybe.

    Now, not so much.

  • David_Jay

    What is considered “religion” today was not necessarily the same thing in the past in all cultures. Ancient gods and their cults with their mythology served ancient nations much as flags, a coat of arms, and the political folklore serve modern societies today (consider American legends such John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and even fictionalized narratives and events in the lives of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Revere).

    Not all gods and their cults were as cohesive to ancient life and culture as others. The worship of YHVH by the Hebrews was at first extremely divisive. Monotheism, and the worship of an invisible deity that had no image was not an immediate crowd pleaser for the Israelites. Even the Scriptures tell of how often the Hebrews employed household gods and embraced idol worship as their neighboring peoples did, even for generations after the Exodus.

    It was not until the Davidic dynasty that archeology begins to find support for the mythos of the Nevi'im and the united worship of YHVH. King David appears to have made it his state religion at the expense of all the other Hebrew gods, and a conquest intended to bring the tribes of Israel under the one dynasty and worship of the one God failed when the nation divided into two: Judah and Israel.

    A peculiarity is also noticed in that the monotheism of YHVH under Judah was quite different than the formula used for heathen and later pagan deities and their cults. The gods of the Gentiles were made in the image of humans: they were anthropomorphic and were cursed with the same jealousies, vanities, and other failings mortals had to deal with, often mirroring them to their own detriment and the universes they ruled over.

    The monotheistic God of Abraham was the opposite. First and foremost this God resembled nothing human, nor was YHVH imagined to have the failings that humans did. There was a vast separation constantly portrayed in the cult between humanity and God, with even the only physical representations of God (the Shekinah and the Ark of the Covenant) hidden from view. No image of this God was possible because unlike pagan deities YHVH was not anthropomorphic. Even in the mythology of God, YHVH is a self-designation that is nothing more than circular reasoning: “I am defined by what I am.” While Xenophanes of Colophon came close to grasping the concept of a single and transcendent deity that was “not at all like mortals in body or mind,” for the most part YHVH didn’t catch on with Gentiles. YHVH hardly caught on with the Jews until after the Babylonian exile.

    But it should not be a foregone conclusion that religion was almost universally subscribed to in the ancient world. A University of Cambridge study on ancient history demonstrates that atheism thrived in the ancient world of gods and temples and cult priests and priestesses. Religion may never have been the “default setting” for humanity much as the worship of YHVH was not as useful a tool for national unity as some might suggest.

    One must also not excuse the earliest views of YHVH in the Torah and Nevi'im as devoid of all humanistic traits and faults. Often the God of Abraham comes across not too different from the gods of the nations. The sacrificial practices of the Hebrews (which they inherited from their Gentile neighbors) are often attributed to God as is their lack of egalitarian views when it comes to dealing with other races, cultures, and even among the sexes, all of which gets attributed to God as if such behavior is based on instruction is from heaven. The description of battles and their subsequent plundering (which in more often than not is over politicized in favor of the Hebrews, if not outright fictionalized in the name of poetic licence for Biblical narrative purposes) makes YHVH appear outright bloodthirsty and uncaring.

    The description of the God of Abraham changes almost overnight with the approach of the exile to Babylon however. The prophets describe a God that doesn’t require the sacrificing of animals or demands the spilling of any type of blood. YHVH of the prophets decries violence, claims that the religious priesthood is corrupt, and teaches that Torah is supposed to come from the heart and not from writings on stone. Even the psalms written in this era have God refusing the slaughter of beasts upon altars, like the prophets demanding personal repentance and faithful justice as offerings instead. Festivals are bemoaned, the Temple is condemned, and even the previous religious view the Hebrews had of God is challenged.

    It is in Babylon that the cult of YHVH becomes a religion and becomes the useful tool that preserves the identity of the Jews. Judaism is born, one that teaches the children of Abraham that they neither need to literally possess a land or have a temple or offer sacrifices in order to serve God. A religion of egalitarianism begins to start (albeit painfully slow), and even with the fall of the Second Temple it does its job of preservation.

    But is it still necessary? Today the concepts of monotheism in Judaism have evolved far beyond the static representations found in Scripture, so much so that Christianity and Islam which sprung from their cult has not (and may never) catch up. With the introduction and now rapid growth of post-denominational, post-rabbinical Judaism a new jump in monotheistic evolution is happening, and as the gulf widens between Jewish concepts of the God-concept and the still picture of the unchanging God adopted by Muslims and Christians, the line between religion and cultural identity of the Jews blurs. How much is worship of what was once called a deity thousands of years ago and how much makes up the earmarks of a people called the Jews? Is it all religion? Is it all culture? Is it a mixture, indivisible and now something different? And is this something different serving a new purpose yet to be understood until that purpose is served?

    And what will happen if the other monotheistic faiths catch up with this evolution of God?

  • Ruby456

    culture was the default setting not religion and this goes back to the stone age and even before that. even animals and insects and birds have culture. probably even vegetation. we call it ecology I guess. but there are studies underway to show that apes display the characteristics we associate with religion - they have been observed looking contemplatively at waterfalls.

    david-jay do you mean to say that it has taken humans a long time to come full circle and Judaism is leading the way? trying to be democratic here hope you don't mind

  • David_Jay


    No. Definitely not. I had no intention to say or imply that Judaism is "leading the way." Also, as included in that article from Cambridge I cited, it should be clear that I was also not saying that religion was the default setting for all culture.

    No, instead what I am talking about is that religion is often defined from a Western point of view, seen through a lens a bit tinted by Christianity. This is a bit close-minded but undertandable. Because we've been Jehovah's Witnesses (most of us have) and most of us nothing else (maybe a similar type of Bible Christian), we have been taught to see religion as a creed or set of beliefs one assents to. This leads to people debating with atheists and atheists with them over beliefs: one says they believe this, the other says they do not believe it. The two agree, however, that religion and God involve the requisite of "belief."

    But there are religions where belief plays little to no part. Buddhism and Judaism, for instance, are practiced, not believed in. Judaism doesn't require any of its adherents to believe in a creed or assent to any doctrine or even hold any particular concept of God, if any at all. Being Jewish is who you are and what you do. God to us will always defy conceptualization, and unlike Christianity we do not foresee a day in which "all will be revealed" and we will know God fully and see God face-to-face. Belief takes a back seat when your God has no face to reveal.

    What I was saying is that this very ingredient of religious people like that of the Jews, a religion that is performed not mentally assented to like Christianity, created a culture and a people based on their performance of that same religion. In turn it has allowed for God to evolve from that static concept confined to the pages of Scripture (at least in Judaism). You can believe in Judaism all you want, but it will never make you a Jew. Judaism is an active response to their God concept, even when the Jew who performs it is atheist. (And most of the debates here revolve around very ancient concepts of God which haven't been held in Judaism for millennia.)

    Like the OP stated, religion here has had a use. It created and preserved a people. But is this a use that can be discarded? Can you take away this type of religion and still have Jews who are defined by it? True, it may have introduced a concept (monotheism) that caught on, but its evolving view of God doesn't seem to be appreciated. My final questions in my post were therefore rhetorical. I don't see people willing to more past the "religion=belief" paradigm or the one where God is not limited to what can be read in ancient texts, not among Westerners anyway.

  • Ruby456

    christianity and western culture are in a kind of synergistic relationship. I guess we could call this evolution so long as evolution does not mean leading the way for others to follow and just means change (as you say). So I don't see how Judaism is that different from christianity as practiced here in Britain any way - what I'm saying is that christianity is practiced as culture. (just arguing this to test it and not committed to this idea).

    I guess pagan aspects are not christian though so this has survived alongside christianity and is expressed in culture nowadays

    cofty - still thinking about morals but getting there slowly

  • David_Jay


    Don't mistake my words as implying that others do not derive their culture from religion. My words also don't imply that we don't sometimes arrive at the same spots, Christians, atheists, and Jews (though rarely). The manner we travel can differ highly nevertheless.

    Our brief conversation here may illustrate how difficult it can be to explain a non-Western concept to someone who has only been exposed to Western ones influenced by Christianity (in this case likely the "black-and-white" compartmentalization of Jehovah's Witnesses). A secular Western society built upon and/or having emerged from Christian culture can differ from that of a culture built upon another religion. If that other religion is not based on adherence to a creed or beliefs, how is "secularization" defined? How would you do it?

    In Christian based-cultures secularization gets defined by a lack of belief or faith. Those who "go through the motions" but do not "believe" are not considered good or authentic Christians. When one does not mentally assent to the creed, one becomes "faithless," and technically that usually spells a loss of religion.

    In Jewry one's belief has no salvific value nor ensures or denies membership. Jews can have all sorts of beliefs and can even reject certain standards of Judaism (Reform Jews, for instance, don't accept the concept of a coming personal Messiah). Humanistic, Reconstructionist and Jews that claim atheism have no "belief" in God but can still clearly practice the religion: lighting candles and reciting prayers on Shabbat, holding a Seder on Passover, etc. Zionism is totally "secular," so to speak, but it is founded on concepts from the Jewish religion.

    See what I mean? What is "secular" has to be defined by something totally different when belief, creeds, and faith do not play a part.

    To conclude, there is the example of one of my best friends, Wally. Wallace is an atheist, born into an atheist family. He never practiced any religion (except for perhaps "worshipping" Richard Dawkins for a short time...until he saw "militant atheism" backfire in his home state of Louisiana and then Dawkins started saying things like God "probably" doesn't exist--Wally, really lost a hero there for a while). Today Wally practices Buddhism, and we get along fine. Oddly, however, Wally didn't immediately recognize that his "anti-religious" stand was being violated by himself. Buddhism, as you know, is a religion but it doesn't actually involve the worship of deities (though some debate this). After a bit of self (soul?) -searching, Wally came through this, still practicing Buddhism where it adds meaning to his life.

    But I found it odd, in the end, how he was terrified about "coming out" to his family as gay. There has been no religion in his family for a few generations. All of them are atheists. Still, he had misgivings, had something inside him that made him feel it was wrong to not be heterosexual, and we had many talks about this for almost 6 years before he was able to come out to his family. (They weren't surprised and were totally accepting.) Today he has a great husband and is raising a family (with a mixture of Buddhism tossed in). Wally is a great example of the questions of what makes a religion, a religious person, what defines "beliefs," where secular does and/or doesn't mean, and an example of crossing or blurring lines.

    So what I've been saying is that there are perhaps more questions than definitive answers.

  • Ruby456


    I think it is cultural that gay people have such deep misgivings about being gay - deepseated morality (to come back to the topic of this thread) regarding one's inner essence. Cultural ideals that are internalised - what I mean is that children grow up with the ideal that their parents are male and female and then being male or female is essentialised. In reality people have more mixed identites.

    imo people express these essentialised identities through symbols that have meaning and these can be conveyed in a variety of ways.

  • Chook

    All religions have common denominators, priest class don't work at the expense of the fold. All religions have a money collection method. They all have an after life story , the better the story the more money.

  • cofty

    There is absolutely no doubt that religion has been responsible for a huge amount of harm and oppression. I have often described myself as anti-theist .

    My question is about the roots of religious ritual. Was it necessary in our transition from small bands of related hunter-gatherers into larger groups of people?

  • Xanthippe

    When hunter-gatherers settled down and developed agriculture they were beset by the problems of all farmers, drought, floods, pests and animal diseases. Which explains why ancient peoples had a deity and ritual for everything in the agricultural life, gods for protection of crops, gods for appeasing the weather, gods to watch over their animals and harvest festivals to give thanks. Without science they were at the mercy of the climate and biological forces so they sought help from the supernatural.

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