1.2 A Riddle Couched in Three Questions


Among human cultural activities, religion has been one of the hardiest and most pervasive in effects on everyday life, as that remarkable old catalog The Golden Bough (Frazer, 1890) may remind us. Religion fathered the first profession; it fills vast sections of the world's libraries; and the spires, domes, and minarets that express its call on human devotion pierce the sky on countless horizons. It survived the disproof of the claim for God's children that they stand at the center of the universe. It rose again after the guillotine slash of rationalist logic at the French Revolution. It continues despite the inexorable advance of nineteenth and twentieth century science, which marches with the youthful militancy of new knowledge into the long sacred views about the nature of our world, the origins of life, and the manner of God's creativity.

The young are the hope of every new cultural development, yet religion and morality except when dressed as a Crusade have never been an enthusiasm of the young. At adolescence, the intelligent young become much concerned with morality and justice, but scarcely with the dogma and moral scruples of intuitive religion. Indeed, today, among the mainly scientifically educated adult generation of Western culture and the atheistic or secular Russian and Asian cultures, the religious spirit is barely tolerated, as a puzzling, and, at worst, misleading anachronism. Nevertheless, one must admit that whatever the social role of religion should or should not be, there must either be some tremendous and mysterious vitality in its ways of thinking and feeling, or some addictive weakness in human nature. This is surely true of the whole range from religious emotionalism to the philosophical religions, and, over time, from the pre-Socratic period, through Stoicism, Epicureanism, down to present Existential adjustments.

What is the common element in this persistent claim upon human thought? Surely, when dogma, ritual, priesthood, and ornate accretare set aside, the common appeal of religions is not only that they seem to answer to the same tormenting questions as do the sciences or the arts, but that they do in a way that gives richer emotional satisfaction. Throughout history, wherever the daily stress and struggle for survival eased as when primitive man, the hunt finished and the food eaten, watched the lights go on in the quiet evening sky vast and vague surmises would arise. The answers of religion, though not as astonishing as those later to be offered by science, satisfyingly filled the intellectual twilight. And even today, when science throws a brilliant arc light into our lives, it is still only through a crack in the door, and beyond this narrow beam we are still haunted by the wildest speculations.

Regardless of our opinions of the relative values of the answers from religions and other sources, we should recognize though those born in the generations of intellectual warfare between science and religion may find it hard to do so that the questions which religion and science have asked are virtually identical. First: "Where am I? What is the nature of the universe in which this small, pulsating bit of protoplasm finds itself?" Secondly: "What am I? What are the properties the limitations, the needs, the full possibilities of this bit of living matter I call myself?" Thirdly: "What shall I do?"

The first two questions concern the stage and the actor. But what is the play? What is the purpose of the individual's appearance? Here the individual seeks an answer to, "What ought I to do?"; and religion gives him an answer in terms of a greater purpose and plan. The fact that science disagrees in several ways with the answer by religion still does not detract from the debt we owe religion for having helped to raise the question. And the fact remains that the emotionally more primitive approach of religion has attracted the bulk of mankind to that gateway. Only in the last century of more universal and intellectually disciplined education has an increasing section of the population been able to tolerate or embrace with some enthusiasm the scientific world view. Our task is to examine the validities of these answers by science and by religion, as well as of that given in the more direct emotional answer of art.

In doing so, let us recognize that we shall encounter some obstacles from the fact that hitherto the majority of mankind has not been in the habit of attempting to reason individually and independently of authority on these questions. In earlier times perhaps with a realistic regard for the average citizen's lack of training authorities have preferred to do the reasoning. Today, there is enough spent on education and enough leisure for large numbers seriously to devote themselves to fine reasoning on issues beyond the banal problems of everyday. Indeed, a truly participating, democratic culture can only be maintained on the basis of such moral sophistication.

Yet even in our unfortunate age, the big questions, "Where am I?", "What am I?", and "Why am I?" tend to be set aside in the busy period of practical responsibilities between the brief fresh freedom of adolescence and the equally brief serenity of stocktaking in age. In the first place, the average intelligent majority find their early sensible and serious concern soon blunted and stultified by failure to get comprehensible answers. Later, distracted by the drain of economic needs, professional ambition, and family cares, they are compelled to settle for ready-made, approximate solutions. It is surely a sane solution to adjust to the approximate answer and the traditional authority except for those whose vocation it is as philosophers, priests, and scientists to pursue the questions over all their lives. At least it was in other ages, though with the advance of the social sciences and the provision of leisure, there may now be both material and time for every citizen to become a serious student of these problems. Otherwise, for most people, questions of basic values rise into poignant illumination only when crises thrust upon them some sharp point of moral decision, some endurance of a crushing disappointment, a deep love affair, or the heard but unbelieved summons to one's own imminent death. These, whom Thoreau believed to be "the mass of men" leading "quiet lives of desperation" can today, if they wish, find their way more surely to a serenity of reasoned insight. However, perhaps what is said in this book has its best chance of being useful to the intelligent who are also young in mind. These are readers ready to follow an argument wherever it may lead, yet disciplined enough to be mature in reading and mature enough to consider momentarily unpleasant conclusions.

The motive force to participate in this odyssey of social thought will, however, in most readers, spring from a realization that with a decline of the moral authority of revealed religion we are in imminent danger of entering a general moral morass. The mere advance of scientific knowledge of the workings of society cannot save us from that. No increase in the general level of education still less any rise in the noise level of mass communication can be a substitute for the patient and creative pursuit of necessary, new, ethical values.















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