Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Should laws governing social behavior be considered religion?
Here's how I arrived at this question: Having become distanced from Protestant beliefs by the time I was seventeen years old, I had a powerful insight that all existence was the manifestation of a mysterious spiritual Source. "Spirit" underlay all that we perceived.
That realization led me to a mystical attitude toward whatever it is we call "God". Rather than in the Bible, I found help in the Upanishads and other Vedantic writings, in Taoism, in the reports of mystics in all religions. For me religion became a matter of personal awakening and enlightenment aimed at comprehending more about our spiritual Source and living in harmony with it. I retained a strong sense of justice and fairness but it was unrelated to religious teachings.
When I said to my college philosophy professor, "I think it was a mistake when religion became equated with morality", he agreed.
A lawgiving God, particularly as described in the Old Testament of the Bible, will dispense rewards and punishments depending on how His laws are obeyed or disobeyed. When I look at the much-vaunted monotheistic religions, most of what I see mostly rules of social behavior, and mostly in the form of what not to do.
A person's behavior toward other beings is of course significant in forming that person's spiritual condition, but it is misguided to consider a system of social rules as "religion". The purportedly divine laws often emphasize restrictions on sexual behavior --masturbation, fornication, adultery, homosexuality -- but much more is included, such as laws concerning food and drink. In some Protestantism even a sip of beer considered almost fatal, dancing is prohibited, gambling is a sin (not just unwise), and even playing cards on a Sunday is a punishable offense. It is not a big jump from there to the Jewish tradition that even flipping a light switch on the Sabbath is a violation of Jehovah's law against working on that day.
The most famous set of supposedly God-given laws is probably the "Ten Commandments", presented as the foundation of Judaism and its offspring, Christianity. Those laws pertain almost entirely to human social conduct, although in the first commandment Jehovah talks about having brought the Jews out of Egypt (a myth rather than an actual event) and tells them to have no other god before him. This is essentially an ancient tribal god saying, "Don't put any of those other tribes' gods above me!" In the same vein is the prohibition against making images -- i.e. idols representing Jehovah's competitor gods. But most of the commandments are a code of interaction among humans, the likes of which could be drawn up by any committee of intelligent and well-meaning people.
I therefore suggest that the concept of religion is degraded when it is reduced to a set of laws, and that the concept of God is degraded by depicting the deity as greatly concerned with humans' sex lives, diet, and work schedules.