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.

  • mikespeir

    “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….”

    Is it really so much that they want to be seen? I think it’s more that they would like to kid themselves that their “in group” is the norm in the society round about them. They “believe” it to be true in the same sense that they believe other religious propositions: they mistake their desire that something be true for belief that it is true.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Dear Bill Maher by Taslima Nasreen (see the link for context)

    But I think, to get more truth, you should visit India and paint Hindu Goddesses naked like M F Hussain. You would most likely be killed by Hindu fanatics, or you would be imprisoned because of laws against blasphemy. Many cases would be filed against you by Hindus for hurting their religious feelings. It is a punishable crime to hurt people’s religious feelings in the Indian subcontinent and many other countries in the world. And if you speak against Christianity, catholic bishops will put your life in danger. You have to run away to save your life like Sanal Edamaruku…

  • MNb

    You might remember a question I asked you more than a year ago: can an atheist also be a communist? The idea behind this question is that communism has quite a few things in common with religion, especially the Abrahamitic ones. Sexual oppression is one (also typical for the Soviet-Union); the inability to question some dogma’s another.
    Some time ago I have tried to formulate a definition of religion, even if only provisional. After all it would be nice to phrase what exactly I reject as an atheist. Not believing in god is not enough; I reject buddhism, confucianism and Papua/Aboriginal spirituality as well.
    I failed. But if you are going to try I’ll be happy to give a helping hand and provide some thoughts.
    As a starter: it seems obvious that something supernatural is involved. But then the question is: what separates supernatural from metaphysical? Because it seems to me that not even atheists and materialists can do without at least a few metaphysical assumptions.
    So I have concluded that my goal is to do with as few metaphysical assumptions as possible, which seems nicely in line with Ockham’s Razor.
    Just a few thoughts I have developed lately (but I don’t claim any originality).

    • J. Quinton

      For me the best definition of the supernatural is something that is fundamentally mental in nature. From a reductionist standpoint, this means that supernatural beings “reduce” to a mental ontology; you can’t go any deeper or smaller than the mental (as opposed to the naturalistic/reductionist framework, where the brain reduces to atoms/quarks/etc.).

  • alfaretta

    Lots to chew on here — but I’m dying to know how the last sentence in the penultimate paragraph ends:

    “The implied point is that–surprisingly to some people–those rationales are often secular–as with pushing anti-sex work policies that”


  • josh

    To me the hallmark of religion is authoritarianism, that is, a claimed authority and importance that separates it from everyday magical thinking. This is perfectly obvious of course in Abrahamic religion, where God is a King of Kings, the uber-ruler to end all others and righteousness is directly identified with loyalty to the ruler. It’s also obvious for a lot of other historical and contemporay religion like Zeus, Odin, Ra, the Jade Emperor, Japanese Emperor worship, etc. Other religions don’t have the singular central authority figure, but maintain the authoritarianism in terms of ancestor worship or a supposed chain of masters descended from an original great sage. Even the more deconstructive strains of Buddhism, ‘if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha’ and so forth, don’t really encourage original thought. It’s always ‘do as the religion instructs and you will realize what the founders correctly and perfectly realized before you’.

    Religion, qua religion, always has to insist on its own importance, in fact its overwhelming superiority to any other consideration. If I say that evolution is a fact, I’m just conveying information about the world. It might be useful or important in a given context, but it doesn’t intrinsically outweigh every other fact about the world. But if I say ‘Jesus is Lord’ you can bet that I think that is somehow a ‘higher’ truth than any mere fact. The implication is always that the priests and monks and rabbis are doing the ‘real’ important work and everything else is a supporting role at best. (Whereas with mere magical thinking, I might erroneously think that my lucky charm is doing me good but it isn’t the center of my life or inherently any more good than a solid pair of shoes. ) Religion, as an authoritarian system, will always be wary of competitors to its power. I think this is why it so often includes restrictions on sexuality and displays of devotion and sacrifice.

    • josh

      Also, I might add, this is why religion is always so inimical to humor.

  • Jeremy J. Goard

    I wonder how we might distinguish one cultural phenomenon “acting as an outlet” for another, from two cultural phenomena merely being combined because they’re both so pervasive. If we think that religion has its source in evolved agency-detection mechanisms, then perhaps its relationship to art and to showing off is like the relationship between our tendency to like glistening things (also for evolutionary reasons) and the fact that we show off wealth with gemstones.

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