Sunday, August 5, 2012

14. Religion without a God

The human being has a religious drive towards transcendence, a rising above the self. That can be but is not necessarily oriented towards a god. In its evolution, human society also needed God as a kind of policeman, to compel people to behave towards each other, on pain of damnation. Now we have regular police and laws for maintaining order, and for that we may no longer need God. But the religious thirst for transcendence remains.

The etymology of ‘religion’ is contested. According to one view it derives from the Latin ‘religare’, connecting, with a tie of the human being to something divine or higher than the self that is ‘holy’, cannot be fully grasped and is awesome, inspires admiration and instills modesty. Transcendence does not imply that there ‘is something’ for the self beyond life, it can be ‘immanent’, part of life, though in life one can aim beyond it, to the life of others and to what one leaves behind after life.

The higher can be the whole or part of nature, such as spirits of rivers, mountains, forests, as with the American Indians, or the gods of the classical Greeks, carousing on mount Olympus, spirits of ancestors that intervene in the world, or, ominously, national spirit or character, revived in present populistic nationalism.

Robert Bellah spoke of a ‘civil religion’ in the US, in an American cultural and political tradition, with sacralization of symbols. The sociologist Durkheim proposed human rights as a new religion. The idea of a civil religion or religion of the state goes back to Rousseau, in his book on the social contract. With Schopenhauer, in aesthetic contemplation the self can momentarily escape the relentless drive of the will. Here we have art as religion. For Friedrich Schiller also art was the replacement of religion.

Emmanuel Levinas sought transcendence in the relation between self and other. He rejected traditional notions of God. After the holocaust, the murder of his family by the Nazis, Stalin, Pol Pot, Ruanda and the like, that idea no longer has any credibility. Yet the tone of Levinas is religious. He still talks about God but not in any usual sense. Levinas allows only for some non-ontological notion of God, not as something that exists. There can be no comprehension of God; we cannot have direct access to him, but ‘we hear his voice’ in the relation between self and other. Levinas said, somewhat paradoxically, that this is all that survives after the death of God. In a sense, the other has replaced God. So, perhaps we can say that Levinas is offering a ‘religion of the other’, in a link of the self to the other who is higher than the self. Now it is the other human being who inspires wonder, admiration, and awe. The beauty of this is that the religious source of awe for the other now coincides with morality. The vertical transcendence to God is replaced by a horizontal transcendence from human being to human being.

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