Monday, April 05, 2010

The Decline of Religion

The nature of the one Reality must be known by one's own clear spiritual perception; it cannot be known through a learned person. Similarly, the form of the moon can only be known through one's own eyes. How can it be known through others?

- Shankara



Why does a religion decline? There are likely many causes:

1. External - natural or human disaster
2. Internal - social and scientific advancement while the religion fails to keep up

Religions die just like other human institutions die. In the market of free human thought and ideas, religions are born, bear fruit, like any blossom or flower, then wither and die. Sometimes, the religion dies suddenly along with the culture that spawned it. Witness the Aztec and Inca religions that were abolished by the conquering Spaniards. A religion can die from internal rot and decay. This is partly due to an orthodox belief system that becomes overly brittle and rigid due to a lack of debate and introspection - there is the Teaching and only the Teaching! Except for the fact that the essence of the Teaching is the truth that emerges from the individual human consciousness stripped of all illusions and inhibitory beliefs. Most all religions share this core value because they are the products of inquisitive human minds. In the past, religion served a useful purpose in guiding and educating societies and their cultures. Religions also were repositories of human knowledge and learning. Monks and priests had to know how to read and write when the vast majority of people in the society were illiterate. Often the religion was ahead of society, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism, to name a few, were advanced for their day. Judaism promoted one incorporeal God, while Christianity promoted sexual and human equality before St. Paul fell under the sway of Roman matriarchs. Both Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity promote peace and tolerance, yet Buddhism and Christianity were embraced by warrior cultures in Japan and Europe, and now, in the United States. Yet, when one looks at the spirit or essence of these teachings, nonviolence is the rule, not the exception.

Why am I even asking this question? It's because from my perspective (which may be flawed), Buddhism is dying. One of the most introspective and pacifistic philosophical systems to emerge from the human mind is being destroyed. I wondered why this should be. I think part of it is due to external and internal reasons. In India, its place of birth, the culture itself changed. The cause was internal due to societal change. In China, the cause was also internal due to the rise of an atheistic political belief system called Communism. In Tibet, the cause was external due to invasion by the Communist Chinese who are destroying the Tibetan culture. In Japan like China and India, the cause is internal as well. But in Japan, the internal cause is more subtle. I believe that the rise of universal literacy due to education is the central cause of the decline of Japanese Buddhism. Buddhism has to compete with many different ideas and philosophies in these modern times. This is the same dilemma that Christianity finds itself in. In some ways, modern society has caught up and surpassed these religions in terms of sexual equality(1), human values, and understanding nature. I believe that where these religions are still superior is in terms of compassion, humility, and introspection in the case of Buddhism. It may be that Christianity and Buddhism will evolve with the times along these core values with the help of science. There's always been a give and take dynamic between society and religion. In the past, religions generally gave up or subdued their teachings on human and spiritual equality because society was still mired in sexual and social inequality. (Jesus forgiving the woman adulteress is a lesson in sexual equality because her male companion in the "crime" was not going to be punished even though it was Jewish Law.) So, when one criticizes a religion for oppressing women or dissent, it's very likely that at some time in the past, those views were a cultural norm and were imposed on the religion by the culture to promote the status quo. Religions are supposed to be liberating, directing people towards freedom and enlightenment - salvation. But religions can be used to misdirect people into harming themselves, such as covering themselves with burkas, which is the opposite of liberation. True spiritual leaders realize that the past is not this present, and illusions for what they are, so liberating change has already happened for those people wise enough to see through such falsehoods.

Perhaps Buddhism and Christianity will see a rebirth. The future is uncertain. What is certain is that sooner or later, illusions will be stripped away and the spiritual core will burn as brightly as the heart of a star. This will be the result of the evolution of the human mind should we humans make it as a species.

Notes:

1. Dan Knight who was the minister at Culver City Church of Christ pointed this out to me when we discussed the dynamic between religion and society around 1993 or so. So long as there are spiritual leaders like Dan Knight, Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions that share these core beliefs or ideas will survive.

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