Thoughts on religion after a year in Asia: separating “religion” from “Abrahamic monotheism”

I have now spent a year of my life in Asia. I have seen the world’s largest solid-gold Buddha statue (so shinny, I failed to take a glare-free picture of it!):

…as well as the largest religious monument in the world (Angkor Wat):


Seeing these and other religious monuments got me think: what exactly is “religion”? When I think about religion, I tend to think primarily about Christianity and secondarily about Judaism and Islam. That’s a natural consequence of having the background I do, growing up in the US.

In some ways, I tend to think “Abrahamic monotheism” is a more natural category than “religion.” It has some defining features that don’t seem to be found so much outside that particular tradition, and it’s easy to see why. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is a powerful meme, especially when backed up by promises of heaven and threats of hell, but it’s not at all clear that that power is the result of the specific idea being programmed into human nature, so that we’d expect to see it cross-culturally.

On the other hand, “religion” in a broader sense than “Abrahamic monotheism” really is a category that makes sense thinking about in itself. Being in Asia drove that home. It drove home the ways in which “Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion” is problematic. I don’t think the Greeks or Romans ever erected massive monuments to Socrates or Zeno of Elea. On the other hand, there’s an obvious similarity between the cathedrals of Europe and the massive temples and Buddha statues of Asia.

What is the source of that similarity? Well, one thing that occurs to you when seeing a giant golden Buddha statue or a place like Angkor Wat is how obscenely wealthy the king that commissioned what you’re seeing must have been. I mean, the king who built Angkor Wat apparently put a real strain on his empire’s resources building the thing, but most people aren’t rich enough to build Angkor Wat even by straining their resources.

And that, according to many game theorists, evolutionary psychologists, and economists is exactly the point. Humans have an innate need to show off, and it’s precisely because not everyone can show off in certain ways that showing off is effective. That’s the common driving force behind giant Buddha statues, Angkor Wat, and Christian cathedrals.

Notice here how we have a facet of human nature driving a general feature of religion that is totally independent of the official doctrines of the religions involved. Christianity has many faults, but I don’t think encouraging rulers to show off by spending huge amounts of money on massive religious monuments is one of them. My impressions of Buddhism are similar–and note that the Golden Buddha is not an outlier, Wikipedia’s list of statues by height is dominated by Buddha statues.

There are other rather conspicuous examples like this. For example, in Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus says:

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This passage has not stopped Christians from claiming to be oppressed when not allowed to lead prayers in places where the maximum number of people will see them–public school assemblies and football games, as well as government meetings. Apparently, the desire to be seen praying is stronger than any religious doctrine.

But back to big statues and cathedrals: their show-off function could be filled by leaders erecting massive monuments to themselves so why religious monuments? Probably because shows of piety look better than projects many will see as egotistical. Aristotle wrote:

A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.

So apparently this tendency to respect conspicuous shows of piety is universal. But why should it be universal? Why should people respond so favorably to such an easily faked signal of goodness? After all, it doesn’t cost a ruler anything to tell his artisans “the Buddha” rather than “me” when telling them what to make a giant statue of. Maybe it’s a matter of signaling that the ruler knows what other people want and is willing to respect that?

(Aside that doesn’t really fit anywhere else in this post: you know the Buddha statue in this post? I had totally been assuming it was made by some king hundreds of years ago. Turns out it was built from 1990-1993.)

Another common feature of religion that seems to transcend cultural boundaries is sexual Puritanism. As I noted in this post, in South Korea conservative attitudes towards sex are sometimes said to be a product of Confucianism. But to my surprise, when visiting godless commie Vietnam, I found out that there’s Puritanism to be found there too: pornography is illegal there. Wikipedia tells me that the same is true of godless commie China and godless commie North Korea.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. As Russell Blackford has written, “It does seem that in every generation new rationalisations are invented to try to restrict sexual expression and openness. And in every generation, we have to fight this.” The implied point is that–surprisingly to some people–those rationales are often secular–as with pushing anti-sex work policies that

I’m not actually sure where I’m going with this, except that my experiences in Asia have got me thinking. And, I suppose, that religion can act as an outlet for a lot of human impulses, good and bad, that are not inherent religious. Though knowing that doesn’t answer the question of why religion specifically ends up being the outlet, a question that in many cases puzzles me somewhat.

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