Virtually no one in the West takes religion seriously. This is fortunate, because if people did, there could be no such thing as “Western civilization.” With 82% of Americans professing a belief in God, does this sound like a silly statement? Let me explain.
The Origin of Religion
The definition of “religion” varies between cultures and scholars, but generally speaking, it originated in pre-history as a solution to a problem:
At some point at the dawn of history, men discovered themselves to be in possession of powerful mental abilities able to perceive the events around them and communicate them to others, but they lacked an explanation for most of the cause of these events. These men needed to know how to act in response to these events, both social and natural. Instinct and imitation no longer sufficed in complex social structures and dynamic environments. Men responded to the challenge by inventing religion. Religion provided both an explanation of natural phenomena and a set of rules for social behavior. It was a primitive form of philosophy — a set of beliefs about the fundamental nature of existence and man’s relationship to it. The nature of these beliefs evolved dramatically over time:
1. The Animism of Primitive Man
Primitive pre-literate man dealt with the chaos of nature by creating animistic spirits which he begged to improve his condition. Since his prayers and offerings were no better than chance, he led an unpredictable existence dominated by fear. Nevertheless, a philosophy of existence, crude as it was, was an important survival asset to the first human settlements. Many thousands of years of pre-history passed in this state.
2. Technological Priesthood & Early Civilization
The first civilizations organized spirits in polytheistic anthropomorphic cults, which held centralized political and religious power. The technological priesthood was an elite which was either closely related to or was ruling elite and monopolized the dissemination of both practical knowledge and supernatural doctrines (there was little distinction between the two), and was thus able to control the peasant masses which it taxed and enslaved to remain in power. Their monopoly of technical knowledge was the cause of their eventual downfall: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoa, the Indus valley civilization, the cults organized around the Hebrew temple in Palestine, and the native New World empires successfully kept their secrets from the masses, but were all destroyed by innovative external invaders.
3. Classical Civilization and the Discovery of Reason
At some point, around 600 B.C., several classical civilizations developed an innovative intellectual elite which was distinct from religious cults which catered to the masses. The first Greek, Indian, and Chinese philosophers introduced a secular natural philosophy, and broke the monopoly of the theistic cults. In these societies, and especially in classical Greece, the invention of a rational worldview, and the decentralization of knowledge made possible rapid technological progress, a rich cultural tradition, and military and trading empires spanning the globe. Technocratic bureaucracies swept away the old pre-literate world in the Hellenistic world, the Roman Empire, and in imperial China.
Materially, the classical age was a time of great progress. Yet there was no unified philosophical basis for personal freedom, no systematic application of reason to nature, or a moral basis for self-improvement and ambition. Self-sacrificing and self-abnegating philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism provided both stability and stagnation in the East, while the West gradually forgot its philosophical traditions under increasingly totalitarian political regimes.
4. Mysticism & Medieval Civilization
The invention of Christianity was an evolutionary yet radical change. Its chief innovation was an individualistic moral theory. Its success is due to two factors:
First, it is non-falsifiable, because it does not need validation by any specific material events or rewards (unlike animatistic and anthropomorphic polytheism and sacrifice cults, and much later, Marxism). A policy of strict informational hygiene (often by the simple expedient of killing all apostates) kept the emphasis on the core ideology of individual reward in the afterlife.
Second, Christianity devolved secular authority from religious authority. “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” implied a distinction between ideas about existence at large and submission to “practical” political authority. Unlike most previous religions, Christianity did not depend on a central political authority, and could persist as a philosophy of existence apart from the current political regime.
5. The Re-discovery of reason and Enlightenment Civilization
The distinction between secular and spiritual subjects was not realized until the thirteenth century, when, due to the re-introduction of Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas, the idea of reason-based thinking was distinguished from revelation. This distinction is unique to Western civilization and is the origin of the Western concept of “religion” as a realm of thought distinct from “philosophy.” From this point on, religion was increasingly seen as having a special domain apart from ideas of “practical” matters. This distinction made all rational studies of nature, including what we know as “philosophy” and “science” possible.
The Enlightenment was the product of the recognition of reason as a tool for learning about and manipulating reality, first as a supplement, and later as a replacement for revelation. Gradually, as the power of reason was discovered and applied, the role of religion was delegated to ever-narrower domains. While the word “religion” (from the Latin “religare” meaning “to bind”) originated in 1200 as a reference to monastic life, the modern concept itself dates to the 1530’s, when it became necessary to distinguish rational philosophy from non-rational mysticism. Western philosophers eventually replaced all the functions religion provided with rational (or at least what they claimed to be rational) explanations. Today, every field of knowledge known to man has been transformed by the power of reason.
This is a controversial claim, because the majority of Westerners, at least in the United States, claims to derive ideas in certain fields from religion. But the evidence is easily seen if we compared a medieval man from the tenth century to a modern man. The modern man’s metaphysics, epistemology ethics, politics and even aesthetics have been all radically transformed by secular philosophy. This was not always an improvement, as in terms of their validity and morality, some secular modern philosophies have been worse and more destructive than the worst of the mystical ones: such as, Kant’s subjectivism, Marxist materialism, and all the varieties of Socialism, Communism, and Fascism which derived from them. But in its essence, the Enlightenment was based on sound premises and vastly improved the fortune of mankind.
Conclusion: What does it mean to “take religion seriously?”
The concept of “religion” as it is known in the West is a modern invention made necessary by Western civilization, due to the need to distinguish between rational philosophy (I mean its archaic meaning – the examination of the natural world) and the remnants of pre-rational philosophy.
While Western ideas have spread rapidly across the world, we can still witness the state of philosophy as it was prior to the split: For example, in many Muslim countries the idea of a separation of church and state is absurd – what other source could there possibly be for law other than revelation? In some African countries, albinos are hunted and eaten as a cure for disease – not as a “religious” practice, but as “practical” medicine, because what’s so impractical about casting out evil spirits? The unity of “practical” matters and “spiritual” matters is the default historical state for man – it is the classical Western world, and specifically the Greek philosophers which are responsible for recognizing reason as the proper means of discovering reality and discrediting mysticism and revelation as serious guides to existence.
So what would it mean to “take religion seriously”? It means reversing 2500 years of Western philosophy and discarding the separation between rationality and mysticism as sources of knowledge and guides to action. Whatever a priest, rabbi, imam, shaman, or holy book says would be just as valid a source of knowledge in any field as any rational consideration. This means re-introducing, witch-hunts, astrology, tea-leaf reading, and flagellation to ethics, alchemy to chemistry, and the Inquisition and Crusades to politics. No criticism could be made of these practices if no systematic distinction between supernatural and natural explanations were recognized.
And this is why I am glad that Americans don’t take religion seriously. The near-universal acceptance of the concept of “religion” itself represents the progress of reason over pre-rational mysticism. It is a largely unheralded and unrecognized victory, which leaves room for uncertainty, but is nonetheless a victory which is sweeping every field of human study and every part of the world, and I hope will never be extinguished entirely.