The Essential Nature of Religion

A scientist at the University of Michigan asked,

"My whole life has been about being a scientist. Religion has been a confusing concept for me. When I look at religion historically, it seems its purpose is to help us understand what we don't understand. But since science has evolved, religion has also been evolving. What do you think the role of religion is in this world? How do you think it will continue to evolve in the future?"

Religion has created a sacred space around their ideology so people don't get to ask questions about religion. I think it's time for those untouchable walls to come down. Because we should be able to ask questions if we are curious about something. Religion is a cognitive artifact created by human beings to comfort them about those things they are afraid of. For example, fear of death...so how do we deal with it? A comforting thought is that you go to a good place after you die. Saying goodbye is hard, but if that person is going to a better place, it is comforting to some extent. This idea is practical and useful. However, it is unknown whether this better place does exist. But that's not that important because the idea is useful. So there are two separate issues: whether you accept something because it is useful and practical or whether you accept it because you believe it is the truth. But believing it doesn't make it true. So, from now on, I think eventually, we will have a choice not to accept those declarations as truth. For example, here is an object. We can examine it from a religious perspective, from a scientific perspective, from a social-science perspective and from a philosophical perspective. If it is a religious object, you might be told you shouldn't approach it from a scientific perspective. But I think we should be free to question religion. Looking back on history, they said God controlled the movement of the cosmos, and people believed that. But then one person had a question about whether that was true. He made a lot of scientific observations and found there were contradictions on this belief. And then he spent many years trying to resolve these. One of the contradictions was resolved when he discovered that it was the earth that revolved around the sun. That led to what we now know. But people at that time thought that was ridiculous. Because if you stepped outside, what you appeared to see was the sun going around the earth. But what we see is not always the truth because it could be an error in a perception. These misunderstandings were corrected over a long period of time and through countless efforts. Today you don't need a prime mover for the cosmos. Everything should be approached from the perspective of what is the truth.

Jesus said the truth will set you free. This means that you should pursue the truth at all times. This is the essential nature of religion. But is today's religion open to pursuing the truth? No, because the purpose of religion today is serving people's desire. If you pray, you'll receive a blessing. How do you explain that according to a religious principle? It's like trying to get a lot of money without earning any. I believe those transactional types of religion will weaken over time because it is a very primitive form of religion. We should try to go back to the actual teachings of the sages. There are many religions or ideologies that insist only they have the truth. Those are fundamentalists and they bring about conflict. That fundamentalism will weaken in a society as diverse, dynamic and interrelated as the one we are living in today.

This is a question that was asked during a live Dharma session at the University of Michigan in October, 2014.