KARL JASPERS FORUM
Commentary 11 (to L Sundararajan)
TOWARDS A DESCRIPTIVE DEFINITION OF RELIGION
by V. V. Raman
26 March 2008, posted 29 March 2008
Like science, religion is a collective enterprise. Individuals may formulate their own worldviews, but in order for a system to become a religion, it needs to be shared, both in theory and in practice, by a large number of people. The tenets of a religion have to be accepted rather than proved or confirmed.
The totality of human consciousness that experiences, reflects, and creates may be called the human spirit. For science, the human spirit is an emergent property of some combinations of atoms and molecules. For religions, no matter what the origin, the human spirit is central. There is in each of us an element that is essentially personal. This is the experience of an inner self that is unique to each individual, an individuality that separates every person completely from every other living being, human or whatever. We go through life carrying this intense ego-lamp, as it were. But we have a need to be connected to other members of our species: to family, friends, community, and more. There is a darkness in total isolation that is injurious to our psychological integrity and sense of security. Religions provide a framework for such connections.
An extension of this is that in many humans there is also a subtle longing to become part of the cosmic whole, a yearning to become one with the universe at large. Whether ingrained or taught, whether latent or explicit, this bridge to the Beyond may be called communion. Communion is a profoundly meaningful bond between two entities, one of which is our individual self. Most religions offer a framework for such a link to the Cosmos, through rite, ritual, meditation, prayer, and more.
Then again, like science, religions see order and structure in the universe. Science says the world stumbled upon itself through a blind Big Bang that was unleashed for no apparent reason. In the religious vision, the universe did not come about by unpremeditated chance, like fumes from a volcanic outburst, but as an intended creation of a Cosmic Principle, leading to a world endowed with meaning and purpose.
Meaning and value refer to the relevance, significance and importance, contextual or absolute, of something. Therefore, meaningfulness implies the presence of an entity to which something is, or becomes, relevant, significant, and important. There can be mere existence without any meaning to anybody. The stone and the star exist this way. Value is a measure of the worth or desirability of something, and is there only for a conscious entity. That is why the human spirit is different from anything else that simply exists.
Religious experience is deeply personal and doesn't require the intellect for analyzing, proving, categorizing, etc. However, the doctrinal formulations of religions involve the activity of the mind; hence can lead to arguments and controversies.
From these considerations, we may define religions as collective expressions of the yearning of the human spirit to seek communion with the cosmos and to find meaning and purpose in human existence in a cold and apparently indifferent universe.
Religions are concerned with fundamental questions, such as "How did the world come to be and why?" Science is a collective quest; religions are particular answers to such questions, given by different personages in the past. This is why there are many different religions, but only one body of science at a given time. This is also why religion-oriented discussions look into the past: the answers of the founders are more important than the quest of later individuals. Religious answers are enshrined in sacred texts. Science-oriented discussions look for new ideas and insights, and future solutions, often indifferent to ancient masters.
V. V. Raman
e-mail <vvrsps (at) rit.edu>