Today is Christmas, an apt time to write a little about religion. I’m not a Christian, I cannot even call myself religious, but more on it in a bit.
The Four Existential Truths
I have long wondered about the purpose of religion, but a couple of years ago, I found an answer in a book by Irvin Yalom.1 He’s certainly not writing about religion; he’s not a priest or a preacher, but a psychotherapist.
Irvin talks about four “existential truths”:
- Inevitability of death: of yourself, people you know. Someone went so far as to say that all of human civilization is a defense mechanism against death.2
- Freedom to make our lives as we will: Freedom is often seen as a positive, but it comes with a negative. Nehru put it aptly when he said “Freedom and power bring responsibility.” 3 As humans we seem to simultaneously crave freedom but detest responsibility.
- Ultimate aloneness: Any companionship is temporary and nobody can really fully understand you or share your life’s journey to any degree of satisfaction.4
- Absence of any obvious purpose or meaning to life: Just because we seek meaning, it doesn’t mean that there is a purpose or meaning to life. A Zen koan goes: “Chop wood, carry water.” 5
Religion as a Salve for Existential Truths
I listed these existential truths because they give a framework in which we can situate religion. Religion is something that has allowed us to reduce the full force of these truths:
Immortality: A central concept in any religion is God, and God is immortal by definition. It’s not merely for convenience that religions distinguish between a mortal body and an immortal soul. It is a way to soothe oneself about one’s aging body. In Hinduism and Buddhism, you do not die; you merely pass from one body to another. After-life is an important concept in religion to deal with our mortality.
Restrictions: Religions often restrict freedom. You have to abide by certain rules and rituals. The concept of sin encompasses a lot. In almost all religions, you cannot philander, rob, lie, or cheat. In the Jain religion of India, non-violence is so important that they have always worn masks so as not to breathe in germs and thereby kill them. Such restrictions, far from hurting, narrow down the choices you have to make. Behavioral sciences have only recently come to appreciate this.6
Community: Religions create community. The Sunday mass in the Church and singing together, festivals in which everyone gathers to celebrate the seasons or ancestors, temples and pilgrimages that congregate everyone from every walk of life: it’s hard to do any religious activity all alone by yourself. Even recluse monks tend to live together in a monastery.
Purpose: Many a religious scripture exists to provide meaning and purpose. A Christian is exhorted to be kind, pray to God, give to the needy, and do good deeds. The Gita asks to put forth effort but detach oneself from the outcomes. If you define a heaven and a hell to go to after death, then the purpose and meaning of life is doing whatever is necessary to achieve the goal of attaining heaven and avoiding hell.
Religion in a Rational World
Starting with the dawn of Enlightenment in Europe, traditional religions have taken a back-seat in the Western culture. In the present century, it’s unfashionable and unintelligent to call oneself religious, at least in the mainstream Western culture.7
Does this mean we live in a religious vacuum, mentally strong enough to confront our existential truths head-on? We have had ample time to adjust, after all: Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead” 8 fully 140 years ago. Or have we found a substitute that we don’t yet call as religion, but for all practical purposes, it serves as a religion as defined above?
How about workaholism, something I’ve personally seen in America’s Silicon Valley? Are the calls for impact, legacy and a “dent in the universe” not eerily religious with respect to the above framework? It seems we humans cannot take on the reality of our existence at its face value, and we invent a new religion if there is none, even if it is imperfect and even if it hurts more than it helps.
What To Do?
What are we to do? I don’t think the answer is to go back to traditional religions that work by decree. They won’t work in today’s enlightened, globalized world. The bald truth is that I have no answer to this question. I listed out Yalom’s existential truths, but everyone is already aware of them to a lesser or greater extent; there is nothing new. The challenge is this: being aware of existential truths does not reduce the pain of living with them.
Constantly feeling sad at the wretchedness of our existence is the price we pay for self-awareness. We are aware that nothing besides death can take away our existential sorrows permanently, and that any relief can only be temporary. In a way, it makes me marvel at “lower” organisms in what Schopenhauer called their “will to live”. 9
What I can say for certain, however, is to implore you, the reader, to consider religion and the religious person in a new light. Instead of being rude and condescending, it may be more educational to see what religion is giving to the person, and to ask yourself whether you may have a religion of your own that acts as a salve to your existential pain.
1 Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, 1989.
2 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, Winner of Pulitzer Prize, 1974.
3 Jawaharlal Nehru, A Tryst with Destiny. Speech delivered upon India’s independence, 1947.
4 For a beautiful exposition of this and many other such melancholic ideas: see John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, 2021.
5 Zen koan: Chop wood, carry water.
6 Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice, 2004.
7 In India, my experience in the 1990s and 2000s was that religion was very much a part of everyday life and culture.
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, God is dead, 1882.
9 Arthur Schopenhauer, Will to live, 1819.