THE PATH BETWEEN THE DIVINE AND THE HUMAN
by Giuliano Di Bernardo
Religion represents, in all human cultures and in all times, the highest and most universal expression of man’s creative capacity.
Its universality derives from the fact that, in the evolutionary line of Homo, all human groups known to date have had a belief in the existence of a world, parallel to and distinct from the sensible one, and have practiced rituals and recited prayers intended not only to appease but also to endear themselves to the benevolence of the spiritual and invisible entities that inhabit that world, in order to induce them to turn their merciful gaze on human beings afflicted by continual suffering.
The ability to conceive of religion is the exclusive prerogative of human beings. In fact, there is not the slightest evidence that other living species on Earth have anything remotely resembling religion. This is not only because other species do not have language. Language is not necessary for religion to arise. It becomes so when one wants to formally define religious beliefs, specifying the nature of the deity one believes in and the characteristics of the otherworldly world toward which one yearns.
Knowing that we are the product of evolution, we should ask what selective pressures fostered the emergence of the religious impulse. If religion exists and is universal, what then is the evolutionary advantage derived from it? What purpose does religious behavior serve? Why do men and women in all ages kneel, scourge, kill and allow themselves to be killed in the name of God?
The answer to these questions is not simple. However, using the method of historical narrative, we can formulate some explanatory hypotheses.
The first basic question we can ask is, “When in human history did religion first appear?” To attempt an answer, we can use the comparative analysis between levels of intentionality, on the one hand, and brain size in fossil finds, on the other. What order of intentionality must a religious belief possess in order to manifest itself?
In its most basic forms, religion requires the existence of a world other than the one we live in and perceive with our senses. For this to be possible, at least second-order intentionality is required. As Dunbar pointed out, in the volume The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution, in order to be able to engage in religious activities, I have to believe that there is a parallel world, populated by beings who have intentions that can be influenced by my prayers. I, in other words, believe  that there are gods who intend  to influence my future. If these beings have intentions that I am unable to influence, then religion has no role to play: such beings are little different from the raging floods or erupting volcanoes that engulf us without warning. A religion, if it is to have real value, must be able to influence the future of us. But second-order intentionality is not enough to drive a metaphysical belief. If religion is to have any useful purpose, then these gods must be able to understand what I want. It seems, therefore, that religion must presuppose third-order intentionality: I believe  that there are gods who can be persuaded to understand  what I really desire  and who, having done so, will act on my behalf. This seems to me sufficient to explain the evolution of a religious sense. It is still not enough, however, to explain the communal sense of religion, the larger-scale phenomenon of rituals and public commitment that are so central part of religion as we practice it. Religion in its human form is nothing if it is not a social activity: we come together in common and shared rituals and beliefs to form a community. To achieve that, I need at least fourth (and may be even fifth) order of intentionality: I suppose  that you think  that I believe  that there are gods who intend  to influence our future (…because they understand our desires ?). Unless and until we come together in this way, we do not have religion but only personal beliefs. It is shared belief that make religion what it is.
All this presupposes the existence of well-articulated language: without language, consciousness cannot rise to the fifth order of intentionality, just as it cannot form highly organized social groups.
A consequence of what has just been said is that only human beings, unlike all other animal species, being able to aspire to fourth-order intentionality, can have religion. This also explains why, within religions, few humans, capable of rising to the fifth or sixth order, are the founders, such as Moses, Jesus or Muhammad.
At this point, we can use intentionality as a criterion for determining when religion first appeared in hominid evolutionary history. If religion requires, as we have seen, the fourth order to be understood, then we can say that its appearance is contemporaneous with that of language 500,000 years ago. This accords with the communal nature of religion, which needs language to express itself. Fifth-order intentionality, being associated with Homo sapiens, appears much later, about 200 thousand years ago. At this time, fifth-order intentionality and a well-structured language in grammar and syntax can cooperate to express religion not only as an eminently social organization but also as a metaphysical conception of the transcendent.
The evolutionary advantage of religion lies in its ability to foster cohesion among men and exercise social control. In doing so, it makes use of powerful tools such as immortality, metaphysics and mysticism.
We return to that evolutionary stage of human beings (about 200,000 years ago) in which, through brain growth, they acquire fifth-order intentionality. With that capacity, they become conscious of their own consciousness and begin to look around, turning their gaze both to the natural environment in which they live and to the other human beings with whom they are in relationship. What they see is disappointing. Nature is hostile and inhospitable: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and sudden changes in climate keep them in a constant state of alertness and defense. Ferocious animals constitute a perennial daily danger against which nothing or little can be done. Other human groups, living in the same conditions, most often present themselves as enemies and destroyers. Living on our planet, in that distant time, was not only a daily struggle for survival, but also and above all a resignation to suffer all the hardships of life. Man lived in a helpless condition and was aware of it.
The Darwinian theory of evolution tends to favor anything that can help species survive. It did so with humans by favoring extremely rapid growth of their brains and thus also providing them with the ability to devise new ways to survive in a hostile natural and human environment.
The order of intentionality is already such that it is possible to create the arts (what is beautiful) and morality (what is good), but sapiens will wait a long time before doing so. From this it follows that art and morality were not functional for survival. Religion, on the other hand, while requiring a higher order of intentionality (the fourth to believe it, the fifth to create it), makes its appearance in human evolutionary history much earlier and spreads with such rapidity that it becomes universal.
We pose the question again, “How do we explain the fact, which has no parallel in the animal kingdom, that religion has such a strong hold on our species?” Why do we humans, who have developed rational abilities to the highest degree with logic and mathematics, still end up giving in to the demands of sharing a spiritual world, completely invented by men of great charisma and communicability, to the point of sacrificing our lives? The answer can only be one: religion is the only chance we must get out of a daily life of hardship, danger and overwhelm. It is likely, then, that the evolution of religion is because it is a useful mechanism for holding social groups together and ensuring that their members work together for the common good.
Religion, in fact, develops a sense of belonging to the social group: members who belong to an organized religious group are also part of a larger social group and use religious bonds to strengthen it. But based on what is the sense of belonging created. The answer is simple: through sharing in an otherworldly world populated by spirits who dispense support and privileges to us, where we will go after the death of the body. Here is the winning idea to get out of an earthly life that is a source of anguish and danger. Belief in a world parallel to the everyday world does not solve man’s suffering, but it helps him cope with it better, knowing that the sufferings in this life will be matched by the beatitudes in the next.
The existence of a world beyond life possesses and transmits tremendous power. Those who had the ability to master these experiences, to be able to produce them on command and to lead others to experience them, found themselves invested with extraordinary charisma and power. From the shaman of the primitive religions to the creators of the great prophetic and monotheistic religions (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad), human beings have been willing to blindly follow magical pipers. The shaman is one who is endowed with magical powers, who can control both the earthly and the otherworldly, who can perform miracles on behalf of poor human beings, who can facilitate the passage of the dead to the afterlife. The conditions are all there: it only takes one more step to reach the ecclesiastical hierarchies and the complex power apparatus of religious authority.
All religions, in addition to giving the illusion of surviving the death of the body, have always played a powerful coercive role on their adherents to reinforce their submission to the belief of the deity imposed by them. Thus, begins to emerge the other fundamental aspect of religion, which is closely related to the sense of belonging and cohesion of human groups: social control. The sharing of a religious belief operates as a factor in group cohesion, but such cohesion, once created, needs to be maintained over time. This is possible only on the condition that group members continue to act in accordance with the belief in that deity. If, conversely, different beliefs begin to exist within the group, then the entire religious group runs the risk of becoming conflicted and eventually extinct. In order to maintain the existing situation, therefore, it is necessary to exercise continuous control over the members to see if there is still loyalty toward the shared belief. Social control can only be exercised by representatives of the ruling class, who benefit from maintaining the existing situation. Changes, conversely, occur when a man of great charisma and authority breaks some rules of the religious game and initiates a new belief. Typical example is Jesus of Nazareth who, by rejecting some basic tenets of Judaism, originates a new religion.
The promise of life after death (immortality) and a strong sense of belonging that generates cohesion and social control are religion’s trump card in human evolutionary history. Having passed the first stage of origins, religion perfects its doctrine and power. Its primitive form of representation generally consists of a creation myth, explaining how the world began and how the chosen ones who share its belief can get there. It almost always gives secret instructions and formulas that can be accessed only by followers (e.g., the Jewish Kabbalah). Authority and power descend from the top down according to multiple levels of enlightenment. One chooses sacred places in which to invoke the gods, practice rituals and perfect oneself. One reaffirms the truth of one’s beliefs and the condemnation of the beliefs of others.
The earliest manifestation of the religious sense is that of hunter-gatherers, which characterizes our prehistory, which scholars call animism. Animism is the belief that animals, plants, mountains, rivers and stars have souls. Animists believe that each soul is a powerful spirit that must be worshipped, from which to receive good or evil. There is no barrier between spirits and humans who can communicate through dance, music and ritual ceremonies. The main characteristic of animism is that spirits are local entities, such as a particular tree, a particular rock or a particular stream. They are not universal deities acting according to a hierarchy of rules. Animism is not a specific religion but a set of beliefs, very different from each other, united by the same way of relating to reality and humans.
The history of Homo sapiens evolves rapidly. About 12,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution occurred, which would radically and permanently change the human condition. In assessing its significance and scope, scholars have different points of view. On the one hand, there are those who positively see in it the beginning of a development that will give humanity prosperity and stability. On the other, there are those who see it as the greatest imposture in human history. Let us see the reasons for this.
Hunter-gatherers were profound connoisseurs of the secrets of the plants and animals that constituted the main source of their food. They formed small groups that moved constantly in search of game to hunt. When one territory had no more animals, they would move to another not far away. They were not sedentary. These living conditions were comfortable and had some advantages. First, the food was balanced and nutritious. In addition, movement for hunting kept their bodies well trained and in perfect physical shape. Finally, diseases were rare. When people talk about the Golden Age of mankind, they are likely to refer precisely to the living conditions of hunter-gatherers.
The agricultural revolution gave farmers more food but also imposed a life of hardship, suffering and disease. In reconstructing historical facts, there is a tendency to look for relevant causes. This is not always the case. The agricultural revolution was not brought about by kings, priests or merchants but by certain vegetables such as wheat, rice and potato. It is precisely wheat that drives the emergence of agriculture. Sapiens began to devote more and more effort to the cultivation of wheat. After a couple of millennia, wheat is the main crop in many regions of the planet. Wheat, however, required a collective effort from dawn to dusk. It was necessary to remove the stones from the fields, pull out the weeds that smothered it, defend it from organisms that wanted to eat it, irrigate it with water so that it would not dry out, and fertilize it with animal feces.
The price farmers had to pay was high: studies conducted on the skeletons of early farmers indicate that the shift to agriculture produced diseases such as arthritis, herniated discs and inguinal hernias. Nutrition, moreover, changed for the worse. Whereas hunter-gatherers ate a balanced diet by having a wide variety of foods available, farmers fed almost exclusively on grains. A grain-based diet is low in protein, minerals and vitamins. It produces difficult digestion and damage to teeth and gums.
The continuous attention that wheat required forced farmers to settle permanently near the cultivated fields. This had, therefore, the construction of permanent houses and the development of villages. Violence began from other groups who wanted to appropriate the wheat. In addition to natural disasters, such as droughts or floods, farmers must also learn to defend themselves against attacks from other human groups.
The settled life of farmers had fostered the domestication of sheep, chickens, donkeys, goats and pigs that provided food (meat, milk, eggs), raw materials (wool, hides) and muscle power for transportation (plowing and grinding). Unfortunately, these animals transmitted diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis to humans.
Agriculture, however, despite the accompanying difficulties, allowed for more food to be available. Thus, sapiens were able to multiply exponentially. Surplus food supplies had the consequence that more and more individuals lived together first in villages and then in towns connected by trade networks. Hunter-gatherers had given way to farmers. By now the die was cast. Humanity has embarked on a path that does not allow a return to the past. The only thing it can do is proceed toward an uncertain but already written future.
It was under these historical conditions that the division of society into classes made its appearance. The elementary agricultural economy, based on surplus food supplies, enabled the emergence of political and social systems. Everywhere, power groups emerged that deprived peasants of the surplus food they produced, leaving them with the bare minimum to survive. Thus, was born, in human history, the first social injustice, from which would follow, in the following millennia, the class struggles described and theorized by Marx in The Communist Party Manifesto. However, and this is the flip side of the coin, the surpluses of sequestered food fed politics, war, art and philosophy. Kings, bureaucrats, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers constituted an elite that derived its existence and power from them. It was on this basis that great civilizations were born.
Under these particular historical, social and economic conditions, a profound transformation takes place in the conception of the human-god relationship. The animism of the hunter-gatherers had made men, animals, plants, rivers and stars sit around a round table giving them equal dignity. Man hunted the deer but did not consider it inferior to him. The farmer, on the other hand, establishes a relationship with animals that is no longer equal. Animals (sheep, pigs, goats and the like) are his property and he wants absolute control over them. Events such as epidemics, earthquakes and floods, however, do not depend on his will. Thus arises the problem of safeguarding the life and fertility of the flocks. In what way? The answer lies in the invention of deities to whom humans promise absolute devotion in exchange for total control over animals and plants. The role of the deities is to mediate the relationship between humans on the one hand and animals and plants on the other. Humans offer sacrifices of lambs, wine and sweets to the gods in return for bountiful harvests and fruitful flocks immune to disease.
Thus, polytheistic religions are born. Their fundamental characteristic is that deities appear personal while their activities are circumscribed to their respective sphere of competence. In this way, each deity is limited and is, in turn, a limit for the others. This does not exclude a hierarchy that proves necessary for the orderly performance of the functions pertaining to each deity. Polytheism is a vision of life to overcome the uncontrollability of human and natural events.
Thus, the birth of agriculture is presented as a world controlled by powerful deities: the goddess of fertility, the god of war, the god of rain, the god of medicine and the like. They participate in human affairs by manifesting hatred or love, reward or punishment, revenge or glorification. The passions of the gods are the same passions of humans.
Above the hierarchy of gods rises a supreme power that dominates the world. In Greek polytheism, the Olympian gods were subject to Fate, which, unlike the gods, was indifferent to the affairs of humans. For this reason, the Greeks did not turn to Fate to win battles, prevent droughts or heal diseases. Nor did they erect temples to him.
The birth of agriculture is the most obvious example of how human thought invents religion. Hunter-gatherers found answers to their needs in animism. The needs of farmers are no longer those of hunter-gatherers. Consequently, animism is inadequate for them. They need new gods capable of solving their economic and social problems. Animism ends and polytheism begins. In the following millennia, when humans build empires and form communication networks to spread trade, polytheism will no longer suffice. It will be necessary, then, to invent monotheism.
Homo sapiens is now the one and only hominid inhabiting our planet and, slowly but surely, is gaining control of it. There are already all the preconditions for drawing the possible consequences. Particularly important among these are the establishment of kingdoms and empires, the birth of writing and the minting of the first coins.
The agricultural revolution had transformed hunter-gatherer huts into permanent homes that formed ever-larger villages until they formed cities. The surplus of grain production had given rise to dominant groups that held power. The combination of these two factors, larger and larger cities and increasing power, had marked the rise of kingdoms and empires.
Kingdoms appeared as territories in which the king, assisted by a group of loyalists, exercised all forms of authority (political, social, economic, cultural, military). He defended his subjects from whom, however, he demanded part of their possessions in the form of taxes. The basic characteristic of the kingdom is that the subjects have elements in common, such as language, religion, and culture.
Kingdoms, however, inevitably turn into empires. This happens when kings conquer regions inhabited by peoples who have different languages, customs and religions. The empire, therefore, is a political order in which the emperor governs a diversity of peoples, each with its own cultural identity and separate territory, without altering its fundamental structure and state identity. The boundaries of the empire are flexible due to the conquest of new territories and other peoples.
From the moment of their birth, empires play a central and important role as they succeed in unifying, at least in some respects, such diverse ethnic groups under the same banner of power, setting humanity on the path toward the process of globalization that has reached an advanced stage in the world in which we live today. Their contribution to the reduction of human diversity has been and still is relevant.
If we look at human history, we find that empire has been the most successful form of political organization. Also because of its stability (empires last for centuries), most of humanity has spent its life within an empire. Subjugated peoples, on balance, have shown that they have liked their subordination to the authority of the emperor. The ravages of bloody and violent wars, however, were counterbalanced by the development of the sciences, arts and philosophy whose activities were financed by the proceeds of conquests. It may seem paradoxical, but humanity’s greatest cultural achievements are a consequence of the exploitation of conquered and subjugated populations.
Empire is an expression of a particular conception of the world and of life, based on the unity of the world, on a coherent set of principles for governing humanity, and on the quasi-divine role of the emperor. This vision characterized the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. It was taken up by the Persians and Alexander the Great. It continued with the Roman emperors, the Muslim caliphs, the Indian princes, the emperors of Europe, China, and South America, and on to the present day.
The empire thus established must be preserved. How to preserve it? By social control. The organization of the state in the empire sees at the top the emperor who holds all forms of power. He exercises them by delegating certain functions to a close circle of collaborators, chosen by him and loyal to him. Thus, is formed the structure (which will assume various designations over time) that will govern the empire. Social control will be exercised by trained military corps and a network of informants. Their task is to report possible deviations from existing laws to the authorities. Representatives of religions will assist the empire in exercising social control.
The function of social control is necessary because, within the empire, there are individuals or groups who do not share that form of government. Their plots may have the characteristic of revolt or revolution. Social changes occur when they achieve success. Human history is, therefore, made up of groups that hold power and want to keep it and other groups that fight for it. So, it has been in the past and so it will be in the future. Social control will be reinforced by factors that foster communication within and outside the empire: money and writing.
Hunter gatherers used barter: the exchange of goods for goods. Each group was self-sufficient and procured from other groups what they did not have but wanted. Little changed with the emergence of agriculture. The village was also a self-sufficient economic unit, relying on mutual favors and by bartering with other villages.
The emergence of cities and kingdoms marks a decisive turning point in economic relations among human groups. Barter is effective but only on the condition that the range of products to be exchanged is limited. When, however, the economy becomes complex, barter is no longer sufficient. One of the greatest difficulties of barter lies in determining the price of goods when they number in the hundreds, thousands and perhaps more. The human intellect, confronted with this necessity that could make it falter, finds the right solution in money.
Money does not exist in nature but is a creation of man. Money exists if one believes in it. It ceases to exist when one no longer believes in it. Despite this, the power it wields over human activities is immense. Ultimately, money is a universal and efficient system based on mutual trust such as had never been conceived until then. When the first forms of money were created, there was little trust in it, so it was necessary to consider money something that had intrinsic value. The first money in human history is the barley measure of the Sumerians, which appeared around 3,000 BCE. Barley-money was simply barley. The fixed quantity to be used as a measure was the sila, which roughly corresponded to a liter. Barley was believed to be money since it could also be used as a foodstuff. If barley served the function of money, however, difficulties existed about its storage and transportation.
This limit was crossed when confidence was gained in money that had no intrinsic value. Money that had this characteristic appeared in Mesopotamia around 3,500 B.C. and was named the silver shekel. The silver shekel was a piece of silver weighing 8.33 grams.
As time passed, money took the form of coinage. The first coins in history were minted around 640 B.C. by King Aliatte of Lydia in western Anatolia. These coins, made of gold or silver, had a fixed weight and bore an identifying mark, which consisted of the effigy of the king that guaranteed both its weight and the authority that had issued it. Any counterfeiting was to be understood as an act of subversion against the established power and was severely punished. From these early coins descended all other forms of currency to the present day.
With the invention of money, a universal trust system was created that was able to overcome all discrimination with respect to language, religion, skin color, gender and culture. Money is the answer to an important difficulty that had manifested itself in human communication. But it is not enough.
For millions of years, humans have recorded information coming from the outside world in their minds. The mind was the reservoir of all information, which became increasingly insufficient as the transition from the hunter-gatherer group to the village and the city took place. The mind, in addition to having a limited capacity, also had the drawback that it ceased to exist with the death of its holder, thus irretrievably losing all the information it had stored.
An early and partial solution to this difficulty came with the invention of numbers. Hunter-gatherers and early generations of farmers could also do without numbers, but to rule a kingdom or empire, numbers were essential. Only through the collection of millions of data, which had to be catalogued and preserved, could one have an approximate idea of the amount of money to flow into the state coffers, to finance the many activities from war to culture. No collective mind could have coped with this need.
Millennia after millennia, the human intellect produced and refined numerical calculation systems that interpreted the needs of different political and social realities. A decisive breakthrough came in the ninth century CE, when a new system was invented that could store and process mathematical data with unprecedented efficiency. It was a system consisting of ten signs, representing the numbers 0 to 9, referred to as Arabic numerals. When addition, subtraction and multiplication signs were added to the system, the foundations of modern mathematics were laid.
The invention of mathematics contributed greatly to the recording and cataloging of human activities, but something was still missing. Social obligations, although facilitated using numbers, remained stored in men’s minds, which had the limitations outlined above. It was necessary to find a solution to the problem of managing mathematical data. It was the Sumerians, who lived in southern Mesopotamia, who first found it.
Some Sumerians, between 3,500 and 3,000 B.C., invented a system, called writing, that allowed them to store and process all kinds of information without having to keep them in mind. In doing so, they freed their social order from the limitations imposed by the mind, paving the way for the development of cities, kingdoms and empires. At approximately the same time, the Egyptians invented and developed another writing system, called hieroglyphics. Similar systems were also developed in China around 1,200 B.C. and in Central America around 1,000 B.C.
A note of disappointment strikes when we learn that the earliest written texts in human history are trivial documents certifying tax payments and acquisition of property. We would have wished that they contained poetry, philosophical musings or legends. Art, science and philosophy, on the other hand, follow the economic affairs of men. Marx is right when he says that structure (economics) and not superstructure (culture) is the determining factor in human societies.
With the invention of numbers and writing, the human intellect has provided the necessary tools to proceed proudly into the future. Man, however, makes the “Grand Refusal” of his immense capabilities, resorting once again to the deity and subordinating himself to his will. What deity?
The birth and developments of agriculture had been accompanied by polytheistic religions, which had replaced the animism of the hunter-gatherers. The following millennia are characterized by the building of empires, supported by the invention of money and writing. Polytheism is no longer enough. There is a need for a single, powerful, unifying deity to rule the world. In polytheism, such a deity existed and was represented by a supreme and inescapable power that in ancient Greece was called “Fate.” But Fate, unlike the gods who were subject to him, was indifferent to the desires and concerns of men. As powerful as one could imagine, Fate did not intervene in human affairs. What is now needed is a deity like Fate but fully involved in the historical events of the people who believe in him. He is the god of this people whom he defends and upholds. He is the one and supreme god of the universe. The first of the Ten Commandments of the Bible admonishes, “I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt have no other God beside me.” The god thus invented is the absolute truth. All other gods are false. In this statement, are contained all the premises of the religious wars that would characterize humanity in the following centuries.
The first relevant monotheistic religion is Judaism, which begins with the covenant that Abraham, prophet and progenitor of the Jewish people, made with God. The chronology of the Bible places Abraham around 2,000 BCE. The founder of the Jewish religion was Moses whose existence is dated to 1,200 BCE.
Judaism, however, although it has all the characteristics of monotheism, is the religion of only one people, the Jewish people. It lacks the requirement of proselytism. Despite this limitation, Judaism spawns two religions that make proselytizing a key feature: Christianity and Islam.
Christianity began as a Jewish sect that would soon have died out if Paul of Tarsus had not decided that the message of Jesus should be transmitted not only to Jews but also to all peoples. Thus, it was that Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire with Constantine the Great.
Another religion, born in the 7th century CE in the Arabian Peninsula as a religious sect, also quickly but ineluctably emerged from the deserts of Arabia and conquered an immense empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India. This is Islam. From this instant, Judaism, Christianity and Islam became the protagonists in human history.
Monotheistic religions have presented, from their origins, a problem that is not easy to solve: evil. How is it possible that an infinitely good god allowed evil to produce pain and suffering to man? Theologians and philosophers have written countless books to answer this question. Among the many solutions is that of free will, which God granted to man and which man would use to act according to evil. One could argue that if God is omniscient, why did he create a man whom he knew would act evil? It seems that, within monotheism, any solution to the problem of evil raises equally insoluble problems. Ultimately, there is no satisfactory solution to the problem of evil.
Starting precisely from the problem of evil, some religions, called dualist, arise that postulate the existence of two independent and opposing powers: good and evil. The universe is understood as a battlefield where the two deities face each other. Human affairs are nothing but the result of this cosmic and eternal struggle.
If dualist religions can provide a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil, they face a difficulty: who decides the rules by which the forces of good and evil confront each other? Should it be an entity above them? If so, which one. Should there be no rules? Then the struggle is dominated by chaos. Here, too, the solution of one problem gives rise to other problems. We begin to glimpse the doctrinal disputes that will plague theologians and philosophers in later centuries.
The role of dualist religions, in human history, is far from marginal. Its oldest and most important form is Zoroastrianism, which around 1,500-1,000 B.C., was active in Central Asia. Its founder Zoroaster regarded the world as a battlefield in which the god of good battles the god of evil and humans are allies of the god of good. Zoroastrianism exerted an influence on all the religions of the Middle East and Central Asia and inspired Manichaeism, which spread rapidly from China to North Africa and rivaled Christianity in being granted state religion status by Emperor Constantine.
It would be a mistake to think that the birth of a new religion marked the extinction of the previous one. Earlier religions are absorbed into later ones. Thus, the Christian believes in the one monotheistic god but also in the dualistic devil, polytheistic saints and animistic spirits (the statue of the weeping Madonna).
In the West, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are also considered religions. According to Buddhist sources, Gautama was born in Lumbini in northern Nepal in 556 B.C. and was heir to the throne of a small kingdom in the Himalayas. He was deeply afflicted by the suffering he saw in men, women, children and old men. The causes of suffering were not only the external ones produced by wars, diseases and natural disasters. Human beings also suffered because of the anxiety that plagued their minds. Humans, even when they accumulated knowledge and built palaces and cities, were never satisfied. Those who lived in poverty dreamed of riches. Those who had riches always longed for more. Those who had achieved success were tormented by the anguish of losing it. Life is a mindless rush toward something you do not have but desire. How to avoid it?
When he was twenty-nine years old, Gautama abandoned his palace, his family members and everything he owned. As if he were a wanderer, he traveled throughout northern India in search of the means by which he could overcome suffering. Since the solution did not come from the world around him, he began a journey within himself, which he would continue until he discovered a method by which he could totally rid himself of suffering. After six years of meditation, he came to understand that suffering is not caused by misfortune, injustice or the whim of the gods, but by the human mind. His insight was that the mind creates desire and unfulfilled desire creates suffering. When the mind experiences pain, it desires to get rid of it. When it experiences something pleasurable, it wishes for the pleasure to continue. When pain does not go away or pleasure ends, there is suffering. The mind, always unsatisfied, generates suffering.
Gautama discovered that there was a way out of suffering. The mind must accept things as they are. In that way, there will be no desire for them to be different. If there is no unfulfilled desire, there will be no suffering either. If you experience pain without wishing for it to go away, you will continue to have pain, but you will not suffer.
How can the mind accept the state of things without desiring them? How does one accept pain as pain? Gautama invented meditation techniques, which train the mind to experience reality as it is and not as one wishes it to be. When the flames of desire are completely extinguished, one reaches a state of serenity called nirvana.
According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama attained nirvana and became totally liberated from suffering. He became known as “Buddha,” which means “awakened.” He condensed his teachings into one law: “Suffering arises from desire. The only way to be completely free from suffering is to be completely free from desire. The only way to be completely free from desire is to prepare the mind to experience reality as it is.”
The South-Central region of Asia, which includes India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism is believed to be one of the oldest conceptions of man and life whose origins date back to prehistory. Hinduism can be regarded as a set of practical rules for living a happy life, revolving around a few basic aspects: dharma, karma and moksha.
By dharma, we mean the order of all moral laws that define the concepts of “harmony,” “sharing,” and “peace among people,” which sustain and preserve human life in its essence, both individual and social.
Karma, on the other hand, expresses the relationship of cause and effect in the conduct of man, who is endowed with free will that places his fate entirely in his own hands. Man can also be said to be the result of what he has accomplished in his past and solely responsible for what he will do in his present and future.
As with Buddhism, there is no denial of the divinity (understood not in the sense of monotheistic religions) that finds expression in moksha, but it is asserted that, for human decisions, it is irrelevant.
Another religion is considered Confucianism, named after its founder Confucius, who was born in China (551-479 B.C.). It is a conception of life in which a mythical golden age is assumed at the beginning of civilization, from which mankind would gradually decline, leading to an era, like Confucius’, characterized by a severe economic, social and spiritual crisis. To get out of this crisis, man will have to return to the past to restore the ancient golden age. What are the means to restore it? The practice of virtues and the exercise of study.
There are numerous virtues: goodness, selflessness, justice, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom and filial piety. The latter is an indispensable element of an ordered society centered on respect for superiors. Confucianism believes in a highly hierarchical society, not only in the state but also in the family and the relationship between men and women. Filial piety is also identified with love and respect for all that belongs to the past. This results in a form of unconditional conservatism. The exercise of the virtues, however, must be accompanied by study. Studying means approaching classical philosophical-literary texts to understand what lessons to draw from them.
The improvement of the individual is never seen as an end or as a function of an otherworldly reward, but always within the context of the society in which he lives and works. By behaving well, practicing virtues and devoting himself to study, man will be able to contribute to the betterment of himself and society.
In Chinese civilization, the place occupied by philosophy is comparable to that held by religion in other civilizations. Observing the life of the Chinese people permeated with Confucianism, the West believes that Confucianism is a religion. In fact, it is more of a religion than Platonism is. Philosophy is understood as systematic and reflective thinking about life. The philosopher must think reflectively about life and then systematically express his thoughts. Such kind of thinking is called reflective because it takes life as its subject. When it is said that ethics, not religion, is the spiritual foundation of Chinese civilization, does this mean that the Chinese have no awareness of higher values than moral values themselves? Certainly not. In their view of life, there are meta-moral values, which are higher values than moral values. The aspiration for something beyond the present and present world is one of the innate desires of humanity, and the Chinese people are no exception to the rule. Through philosophy they fulfill the aspiration toward what lies beyond the present and the actual, they express and appreciate meta-moral values, and by living according to philosophy, they experience these values.
According to the Chinese tradition, the function of philosophy is not to increase knowledge of the external world but to elevate the spirit, which means to strive for the highest of moral values, beyond the present and current world. Religion, on the other hand, claims to inform about the external reality, but what it offers us is not in harmony with the results of scientific research (the Bible‘s account of the creation of the world with coincides with the “Big Bang theory”). Fortunately, beyond religion, there is philosophy, which offers man a direct route to the highest values that is freedom from superstition and dogma. In accordance with Chinese tradition, in the future world man will replace religion with philosophy.
In the history of Chinese philosophy, there is a common foundation that is considered its spirit. To understand it, it is necessary to answer the following question, “What is the highest form of development of which a man as a man is capable?” According to Chinese philosophers it is that of the “sage” while the ideal of a sage is the identification of the individual with the universe. Must those who wish to achieve such identification necessarily abandon society and even deny life? According to some philosophers, this is necessary. Only in this way can ultimate liberation be achieved. Such a philosophical orientation is called “ultramundane philosophy.”
There is another philosophical orientation that emphasizes, instead, society and human relations. Such a philosophy speaks only of moral values and not meta-moral values and is called a “philosophy of this world.” From the point of view of a “philosophy of this world,” an “otherworldly philosophy is too idealistic and has no practical function. From the point of view of an “otherworldly philosophy,” a “philosophy of this world” is too realistic and superficial.
Many people believe that Chinese philosophy is a philosophy of this world. It cannot be said that they are entirely right or even entirely wrong. The conclusion is that the main current of Chinese philosophy cannot be considered entirely of this world just as it cannot be considered entirely other-worldly. The task of Chinese philosophy is to create a synthesis between the two currents. How is this possible?
According to Chinese philosophy, a wise person is one who succeeds in creating such a synthesis, not only in theory but also in practice, which finds expression in the statement, “inner wisdom and outer kingship.” In inner wisdom the sage fulfills his spiritual education, in outer kingship he fulfills his social function. The task of philosophy is to make man capable of developing this character of the wise.
The reference to the Platonic theory of the philosopher-king is evident. In The Republic, Plato argues that in the ideal state, the philosopher should be the king, or the king should be a philosopher. To become a philosopher, man must undergo a long period of philosophical education so that he can convert from the world of changeable things to the world of eternal ideas. Thus, also for Plato, as for the Chinese philosophers, the task of philosophy is to make man capable of inner wisdom and outer kingship.
The Chinese philosophers are all, albeit to varying degrees, Socrates since knowledge and virtue are united and inseparable. Some aspects of the thought of Confucius and Socrates are strikingly similar, as is the proximity of the time of their lives. Confucius died in Lu in China in 479 BCE and Socrates was born in Athens in 470 BCE. At about the same time but in diametrically opposite places, the human intellect produces the same view of man and life.
One consequence that follows from this is that philosophy is inseparable from political thought. This is the philosophical and cultural context in which Confucius operates. The main task of his teaching is to make his disciples “complete men” useful to the state and society. To achieve this, he transferred to them the cultural heritage of the secular tradition, which he interpreted according to his moral concepts.
In addition to the new interpretations given to the classics, Confucius had his own ideas about man, society and Heaven. He believed that in order to have a well-ordered society, it was necessary to carry out the operation he called “the straightening of names,” which is to make things correspond to the names by which they are spoken. Things, then, should correspond to their ideal essence. The essence of a ruler, for example, corresponds to what the ruler should ideally be, which in Chinese is called “the way of the ruler.” If a ruler acts according to “the way of the ruler,” then he is a ruler in fact as well as in name, since there is agreement between the name and the effected reality. If, however, he acts differently, he is not a ruler even if he is officially regarded as such. Every name concerning social relations implies certain responsibilities and duties. Ruler, minister, father, and son are all names of social relations, and the individual who possesses such names must fulfill the responsibilities and duties of his name. Here, too, the reference to Aristotle’s “theory of correspondence” is clear. Confucius could not have known the thought of Aristotle, who was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira, Greece. Just as Aristotle could not have known the thought of Confucius.
Regarding the virtues of man, Confucius extols the values of “righteousness” and “human sensibility.” Righteousness is a categorical imperative: for every man, there are duties, which he must perform for himself because they correspond to what morally must be done. If man performs his duty for non-moral reasons, then he does not act according to righteousness but acts according to “profit.” In Confucianism, righteousness and profit are diametrically opposed terms.
The idea of righteousness, which is rather formal, and closely related to that of “human sensitivity,” which is much more concrete, the meaning of which is “loving others.” Only he who truly loves others can fulfill his duties in society. Love for others translates into “do not do to others what you do not wish to be done to you.” With this golden rule, Confucianism enters the tradition of universal moral principles.
From righteousness, Confucius derives the idea of “doing for nothing”: the righteous man does what must be done simply because it is the right thing to do and for no other reason unrelated to his moral impulse. Confucius’ own life bears witness to this teaching. Living in a time of great political and social unrest, he did his best to reform the world. He went everywhere and, like Socrates, conversed with everyone. He knew he could not succeed, but he never lost heart. By recognizing the inevitability of the world as it is (Buddha also thought the same way), one’s outward success or failure becomes irrelevant. We will be free from anxiety regarding success and free from fear regarding failure and thus be happy.
Confucius’ spiritual development is the gradual and continuous transition to higher levels of knowledge. At 15, he turned lovingly to study. At 30, he could take his place. At 40, he had no more doubts. At fifty and sixty, he knew the decree of Heaven that contained meta-moral values and was obedient to it. In this, Confucius resembles Socrates, who believed that he was chosen by divine will to awaken the Greeks. Confucius thought so, too. At the age of seventy, he let his own spirit follow every wish because he no longer needed conscious guidance. He had reached the last stage in the development of the sage.
After the obvious similarities between Confucius’ thought and that of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, I would also like to point out the similarities with Buddha’s thought. The philosophical assumptions are similar but with a fundamental difference: Buddha investigates the mind of man, Confucius the human society. Confucius, Buddha and Socrates are the giants of practical philosophy that studies man, his nature and purpose.
I thought it appropriate to present Confucius’ vision of society and man more fully because I believe that in the future of humanity, in a single globalized society, it will be the one that will prevail.
For Western culture, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are religions. From my presentation of them, however, there is nothing that can justify it unless we argue that they are religions without gods. What sense would that make? All definitions of “religion” agree on the existence of a god who creates the world and man. Man establishes a relationship with God that will last until death. The religions examined here (animism, polytheism, monotheism, dualism) establish, in different ways, the relationship between man and God. How could Islam be without Allah? The conclusion is that a conception of the world, life and man is religion if, and only if, there is a deity that justifies its existence. To speak of religion without God is an absurdity. Such a way of understanding religion also finds confirmation in the evolutionary history of man, as I have shown in the previous pages. Religion was born when archaic Homo sapiens conceived of a world, different from the one in which he dwells, populated by spirits. Since that time, all forms of religion have presupposed the existence of divinity.
In Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism there is no trace of divinity. There is only man facing the problems of life. In Buddhism it is suffering, in Hinduism and Confucianism it is a society ordered by ethical values. It is man, and man alone, who seeks, with his own abilities, the solution to these problems. Never does he invoke a deity for help and comfort. If gods exist, then they can only share what men decide. If man suffers, no god can help him. If man finds a way out of suffering, no god can stand in his way. God, therefore, is of no use to man. He may not even exist. This is the message of Buddha and Confucius to mankind. Hinduism has no founder.
If Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism are not religions, then what are they? They are expressions of a practical philosophy concerning man, his nature and purpose. While philosophical anthropology concerns man, nature and God and is all-encompassing, practical philosophy is a clipping within the general philosophical anthropology that deals specifically with man. Of man, one searches for the way to overcome suffering. Of man, one seeks the way to live in an ordered society governed by values. Anything outside this cutout is irrelevant.
During natural evolution, the human intellect has provided the necessary tools to proceed proudly into the future. Man, however, instead of expressing his immense capabilities that make him the absolute ruler of planet Earth, makes the “Great Refusal,” resorting once again to the deity and subordinating himself to his will. Only the enlightened minds of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Orpheus break away from the chorus and sing a lonely, unheard music. Mankind has for millennia obscured the light emanating from them by covering it with deities. Thus, at the end of history, man, endowed with an intellect that could make him the absolute ruler of the world, accepts his fate as a servant of the divine will. For us, who do not believe in fairy tales, this means total subjugation not to an invented and nonexistent god but to a group of men who in the name of God carry out every abuse of power and injustice. I have hope that soon this state of affairs will plummet into the abyss of oblivion and that from its ashes the phoenix Arabian will be reborn, leading to the triumph of the practical philosophy of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Orpheus, the new singers of humanity.