Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 15, Chapter 14
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 15 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 14 Summary: Conclusions and Futures
The Evolution of Religion
All the current major religions are the result of thousands of years of cultural evolution. In apparent response to many different human needs, all of these long-lasting religions have developed many strands with variations in details or emphases. Islam, the youngest of these faiths, despite a Qur’anic call for unity, has split into multiple sects and sub-sects including some violent fundamentalists willing to use terrorism to achieve religious or political goals. The other great religions have had at least at some times similar splits and problems with confident and violent fundamentalists.
The vigor of religious belief in the United States may reflect the lively religious market place that has been present here for hundreds of years. Adam Smith in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations made such an attribution. He felt that religions that had official state support tended to be complacent while those that needed support from voluntary adherents were more dynamic and service oriented.
The Good of Religion
Religion has at least some of the time over the past few thousand years supported many good things such as education, morality, charity and humane treatment of others. It has served to organize communities for various common and important needs. Unfortunately it has also been used to justify hierarchy and the oppression of the common man by his “betters” and to validate the destruction or impoverishment of those who don’t share the preferred belief system.
All civilizations have been built on some supernatural religious belief system. The Marxists were unable to provide a viable alternative. Supernatural beliefs may seem quite “natural” to a majority of humans and may partly work because they reinforce our intuitive optimism.
The Possibility of a Universal Ethics
Going back to the Axial Age (800-200 BCE) there is a strand somewhere in each great religion that says the most important thing is to rise above sectarian or theological concerns and apply a sophisticated form of what is often called the “Golden Rule,” making respect for others, even all life, the ultimate concern.
Perhaps someday our religions could agree on a common human ethics that would be taught in all educational establishments. Religions refusing would face public criticism but not be made illegal and adherence to these rules would be expected of exemplary citizens but not enforced by law—perhaps a dream.
Accommodation with Science
Scientific discovery has done more to change human life, mostly for the better, in the last few hundred years than occurred in modern man’s tens of thousands of prior years. Some religions having made claims about the natural world find themselves in conflict with science. In the short run they can reject the findings of science but over a period of many generations it seems likely they will find it necessary to bring their beliefs into rough agreement with science—or lose adherents and power.
A new religion that was science friendly and exploited an admiration for scientific discovery might have some chance of thriving, but so far that is an unfulfilled wish.
Tolerance and Pluralism
Global media coverage has made religious violence more visible to all, but the news coverage we see doesn’t always explain the religious mandates that drive this violence. Fundamentalists with Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh affiliations have in my lifetime caused terrible atrocities that seem to the uninvolved observer senseless. Removing the turn to violence from the religious traditions would seem a wonderful possibility—unlikely to be achieved because many find it useful for political goals.
Both primitive and civilized humans like confident black-and-white understandings, classifying others as good people like us or dangerous people who are different. Education of young people about the great variety of religious beliefs in our world might defuse some of the intolerance that comes from this intuitive practice.
The Future—Seen Darkly
The conflicts between religion and science could largely disappear over many generations. There may always be some risk related to the development of messianic cults with tight bonding, unusual beliefs, apocalyptic expectations and suicidal solutions all justified by some leader’s dissociative private experiences.
The world would not be better off if there was only one great religion. Competition makes religions better providers of their kind of goods and protects us from their fundamental conservatism—idealizing the past. Far into the future our religions are apt to still be here offering solutions that, though possibly imaginary, are more congenial for many people than the stark answers of the objective student of reality.
Religious representatives and interested secular parties should be involved in establishing, disseminating and teaching universal ethical standards. Society might also benefit from providing a universal education about the many forms of religion present in our world—in an attempt to improve religious tolerance.
A future worry is the acquisition of weapons of “mass destruction” by apocalyptic sects with “holy goals” justifying the killing of large numbers of people. Another concern is the ruthless politician who in times of societal stress will target as scapegoats religious minorities—for oppression or extermination.