“The gods must die so that humanity might live.” (The Buddha)
Paul Kurtz has written that a modern ethical system cannot begin with the acceptance of the rule ethics of the ancient religious systems of the world. Not only people who regard themselves as “secular” accept this principle. Many people who regard themselves as religious believe it as well. The laws and commandments of the world’s religions, and especially the monotheistic traditions, are of immense historical importance in helping us to understand the slow progression of ethical thought from simple assent to critical examination over the greater part of three millennia, corresponding to the transition between relatively simple ancient societies to complex ones.
The same period witnessed the growth of philosophy, literacy, new forms of self-expression, changing attitudes toward prosperity and government, and above all, in the last two hundred years, the rapid growth of science and technology as a new paradigm for understanding the world and our place in it. To assume that the rules that held together ancient desert and agricultural groups are adequate to address the dilemmas and problems of the last two millennia is an assumption that critical examination does not support.
Yet, we are in history as a fish is in water. The early search of homo quaerens—man the seeker—for meaning was largely a religious quest. The sources or ground of value was projected to be beyond the individual, beyond the village and social unit, often beyond rational discussion. Belief in the gods or god was an efficient way of answering questions for which our ancestors had no ready answers nor the means to develop any. Today however, because we know much more about how values evolved over a long period of time, we realize that the ultimate source and responsibility for the creation of values is not a hierarchy of priests and kings, or myths shrouded with the authority of a distant past, but us—homo fabricans, man the maker and inventor. We are the ones who create the sources of strength and the basis for understanding our world. As many scholars have said, the gods are not simply symbols of fear and superstition, but projections of our strength and power, and our promethean effort to understand.
There is no good reason to study the past, including the religious past of our species, simply for the purpose of ridicule. The closest analogy would be to replace the heirloom photographs in our family album with cartoons of our grandparents and scorn for their customs and attitudes—or blaming the stars and planets in the night sky for not having developed more innovative orbits over the 14 billion years of their history.
Unfortunately this is the narrow view often assumed by people who believe religion has nothing to teach us–when of course what they may be saying is that the dogmatic acceptance of outdated belief systems has nothing to offer us by way of critical reflection on who we are and how our values are created. The scientific study of religion is an essential component in tracing the development of our social and moral intelligence; it can help us to chart the way forward by reminding us of where we have been.
Religion is a primary index in the development of our moral intelligence. It is difficult to imagine any journey worth making that does not involve a backward glance—first because we are not infinite; we are steps in a very long process, always in danger of losing our bearings and always tempted—just like our ancestors—by presentism: the belief that things will be in the future as they are now. But history tells us how wrong that attitude is, and that challenges ahead may require us to find better answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago. Second, because the answers to the moral challenges of our time, to be authentic, require the touchstones of history. Our human ancestors were not asking significantly different questions, but they were answering them in a significantly different way—attributing them to unseen authority, other wills, or to the certainty of “tradition.” A part of our enlightenment as a species has been the discovery that the simple repetition of a traditional answer is often the repetition of error. Yet that is what religion once required of us.
For these reasons the human prospect will eschew ancestor worship, supernatural thinking and dogmatism as dangers en route. But it will build a future with the souvenirs of the religious past as part of our moral intelligence. The poet and critic, who is best known for his work in fantasy, C.S. Lewis reached into Buddhism when he wrote, “The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination.” (Allegory of Love, p. 82). The formulation in Buddhism is more severe: “The gods must die so that humanity might live.” That is where we are, and the moral consequences of this awakening are human, ponderous, and global.