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Is Religion Necessary

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by Sangharakshita

... is concerned a complete blank, just like someone whose never heard of Buddhism at all. Just go back as it were to the time before you*d heard of Buddhism, if you can remember that, and imagine yourself as it were quite devoid of any knowledge of Buddhism, not knowing anything, in a state of complete - I won*t say ignorance, but innocence - not knowing anything at all. And go back in imagination, even further than that. Go back to an even prior period, logically if not chronologically prior, and imagine yourself as it were even without any religion. Not only without Buddhism, but even without religion. Imagine yourself as it were getting up in the Thorning, doing your household work if you*re a woman, going off to the office ifyou*re a man, or wherever you work; corning home in the evening, reading a bit - a novel, newspaper, listening to the wireless or looking at the television, but being quite devoid of religion. Leading a life without any sort of religious (?) - just imagine yourself like that. And then further imagine yourseIf as it were, as one day, in the midst of this irreligious existence, asking yourself the question, the question with which we*re concerned this evening:'Is religion' - not even Buddhism but is religion necessary, is it necessary at all?'.

Now this is the sort of question that often comes up. In the course of discussion, in the course of conversation, as you move about, as you meet people, you might be asked this as it were quite casually - it might just occur - that `Is religion necessary?' It*s the sort of question that we all have faced, and which in fact we have still to face, if not so far as we ourselves are concerned, certainly so far as other people are concerned, we have to face it for them as it were, bn their behalf. Is religion necessary? It*s a question we can*t ignore living as we do in this modern world, in the middle, or just after the middle of the 20th century. We have to ask it, we have to try to answer it. Now the question really breaks itself down into three questions, interrelated or interconnected questions. The first question which arises obviously before we can even hope to answer this question of whether religion is necessary, is `What do we mean by this word `religion*?' And secondly, when we say that it*s necessary, or when we ask whether it*s necessary, when we inquire whether it is necessary, what do we mean by `necessary*? Even that isn*t really obvious, even that isn*t really clear. And then, necessary to what, or necessary to whom? All these questions of course are interconnected, and interrelated, like the three sides of a triangle, but we*ll take them up, consider them, one by one.

First of all, what do we mean by `religion*? Now there are very many definitions of this word, as you know. No doubt there are a number of you present who could quote all sorts of definitions of this quite protean word `religion*. We can as it were run up and down the whole gamut from that rather sarcastic definition or description of Voltaire*s, who said that `Religion originated when the first rogue met the first fool*. That was Voltaire*s definition - at least of the origin of religion. We can go at the other end of the scale, at the other end of the gamut, to Whitehead, who said that `Religion is what a man does with his solitude'. It certainly gives us something to think about. Though today, we*re not concerned, at least not concerned just now, at this stage of the proceeding, with abstract definitions, this doesn*t help us very much, doesn*t get us very far; just for the present at least, we*ll take the word, `religion* as meaning as covering, as a sort of collective designation for, of all the individual religions, just as a sort of collective term. We*ve got so many individual religions in the world. Sometimes we don*t even realize how many of them there actually are. We*re blind to all the others except that one in which we happen to be brought up ourselves, perhaps. There are so many religions, there*s Christianity, there*s Islam, there*s Judaism, in the East there's Buddhism, there*s Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Parsees that is; there are also modern cults like the Mormons, like the Baha*is, like the Theosophists; all sorts of tribal beliefs, all sorts of primitive cults, even all sorts of dead religions - religions of the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the Syrians, and the flittites and Aztecs and all the rest of it. So let*s take this word `religion* just for the present as covering all these different systems, all these different teachings, that are popularly described as or at least generally pass current as religions.

Now when we study them, when we look them over, at least casually, we notice of course that there are very very many differences among them. We see that they can be distributed into various classes. We see that some religions are what we call `ethnic* religions that is, they*re the religion of a single group, united by ties of blood, or by loyalty to a single piece of territory. Religions like Hinduism or Judaism, these are more or less ethnic religions. And then on the other hand we*ve got the universal religions - religions which don*t really recognize, are not based upon any distinctions of blood or soil, or culture and so on - religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam these are the three great universal, world religions. Then adopting other classifications, we*ve got among the religions, a theistic group, a group believing in a supreme Being, a personal God, like Judaism, and Christianity and Islam, and then a non theistic group,* quite a big group, not usually recognized very much in the West, that is the group consisting of Buddhism, some forms of Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism - a group which is non-theistic, not recognizing a supreme being, or personal God, or creator. Then there*s even another classification - we can say humanistic: those which posit certain human values, and those which are authoritarian, those which try to impose as it were upon man, values which come from outside man himself, which are usually considered to be given by God by way of revelation. So there are all these differences among the big family of religions, some ethnic, some universal, some theistic, some non-theistic, some humanistic, some authoritarian, and so on. But even though there are so many differences, even though there are so many important differences, one does find that there are a number of features in common. And we can say that all these religions of the world, whether ethnic or universal, theistic or non-theistic, humanistic or authoritarian, they are all without exception perhaps, basically concerned or revolve around three main issues.

First of all, there*s the great issue, the great question of man in relation to himself. All religions are concerned with this: man in relation to himself. Then secondly, man in relation to other men, or even in the case of some religions like Buddhism, other living beings. And thirdly, man in relation to ultimate reality.

They*re all concerned with these three man in relation to himself, man in relation to other men, man in relation to ultimate reality. All religions, whatever their other differences, deal with, revolve around these three main great basic. issues. We can illustrate this :from the various religions. Take for instance first of all, the religion that is best known to us in this country, first of all, take Christianity. In Christianity, or according to the Christian teaching, man is in relation to himself when he knows first of all that he is a creature, that he was created by God; when he knows that as he was created good, but that he sinned, and that on account of that, he is no longer good., but even in a sense, completely evil. Christianity of course further teaches that all men, in as much as they are children of the same father, or created by the same God, are brothers, and that therefore, the appropriate relation between them or among them is one of charity or mutual love. In Christianity of course, the ultimate reality is God, the Supreme Being, the Creator himself.

And he is considered to be known, not directly, but indirectly, that is through Christ, who is regarded by the orthodox, as the son of God. Christianity of course further teaches that Christ died on the cross for all men,, and that further, if one believes this, one*s sins will be wiped out, and that one will attain salvation.

So one sees that the pattern, the basic pattern of man in relation to himself, man in relation to other men, man in relation to ultimate reality is quite clear in the case of Christianity.

And it*s more or less the same one might say, with regard to Buddhism. Buddhism says that man is a conditioned being, he is conditioned because he is subjected to rebirth, that he undergoes this process again and again and again, of suffering, on account of birth, old age, disease and death. And it says that rebirth, either into this world, the human world, or into any other world higher or lower than this, is due to man*s ignorance of the spiritual truth, and due to his craving and selfish desires, based upon this ignorance and growing out of it. At the same time Buddhism says that though man is a conditioned being, there is in him something, some element which is unconditioned, which has some kinship, an affinity as it were, with ultimate reality. And that because of this unconditioned element in the midst of his conditioned being, man is capable of attaining enlightenment, capable of realizing the truth. Buddhism further inculcates compassion for all beings, not just for other human beings, but for all beings whatsoever without exception, whether human, or animal, even for insects, because all beings are subject to the same suffering that we are subject to, ...

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