What is religion? Why do we believe in something as such? Does God really exist? How is it possible that, in one planet only, we put our faith in so many different Divinities? These are all extremely fascinating questions mankind has been asking itself for ever. I have no intention to pretend to be an expert in every single religion of this world, nor a sociologist or a spiritual guide – of course; my only aim here is to define the role of religion in history and express my opinion about it, as this is a period of great questioning for me.
First, an explanation of what I mean with the word ‘God’ is due, for the sake of communication and the quality of dialogue. I am not referring to any religion in particular, instead of God I could have easily used Allah, Jehovah, Shiva, Vishnu or Zeus – or I could have also decided to call God as ‘That’ like in the ancient Sanskrit writings, used to point out the universal and indescribable entity above our heads. But ‘That’ seems to me too impersonal, in my mind it resembles more an object than a being and since this article is more about ‘the human perspective’ I have decided, out of mere commodity, to call It God. It’s the same reason when we pray… we do not refer to the Universe or to the Absolute or to the Supreme Force, but we prefer to give to our interlocutor a name – to make us feel closer to It.
I personally think that every name, every description is at the same time adequate and inadequate to describe the indescribable. But since every one of us feels the need to give to this ethereal entity a proper name more inherent to Its function and God is the term that transmits me more heat, I’m going to go with that.
Now, let us think how religion has always accompanied human kind in its journey through History, in every part of the world. Religion is the only thing in common between a peasant in India of the thirteen century and a Pope in Italy in the 1800es, or between a monk of today in Africa and the Japanese emperor in the early twentieth century – of course, the religion per se is different but the concept is the same, same function and same aim. Following the thinking of the sociologist William Thomas ‘If men believe something to be real, then this something becomes real in its consequences.’ Thus, we can define religion as the set of believes, values, symbols and practices that link humans to external forces thought to be sacred.
It was born at first as a tool to explain all the weirdest stuff happening around our old ancestors, later it acquired also the function to define a scope in men’s lives while nowadays its role is much broader and vague – being an abstract concept or objective of ‘good’ to which we should tend. Some believed, and still do, that we should devote our lives to sacrifice and chastity in order to be rewarded in the afterlife; some others believe that we should play an active role in our own life doing good actions for those who surround us; some pray to God in order to find their true place in life while some others only pray out of extreme necessity, as the last hope.
We cannot ignore the fact, however, that religion has been ongoing since the last two centuries a process of ‘decline’: more and more people, especially in the western world, refuse to believe in God anymore while many are the ones totally unsatisfied with the current concept of religion itself. It is something I am noticing more from day to day, especially within a Christian environment, with people disenchanted with the image of the Church especially, seen as corrupted and as a useless intermediary – reclaiming instead those old principles at the root of the Christian religion such as love, peace, and tolerance. I have also seen many people coming from a strict religious background – from the Middle East, from India or from ancient China – losing all their religious intentions once in a country in which they can do anything without any prohibition.
But especially, and this is going to sound particularly obvious, the world, in general, has stopped to look at religion as the answer to all these fundamental questions of our existence that mankind has always asked. The German sociologist and philosopher Weber referred to this phenomenon as ‘secularization’: the differentiation and autonomisation in all areas of social life from religious content and the consequent intellectualization of the world through rational thinking. With greater space left to science and human reason, however, Weber talked also about a growing conflict of values: in a society with no God and no prophets, dominated by the rational act which reduces the man to mere executor of prefixed a-religious goals, opposite and incompatible values clash with each other – no longer bound to follow a single guide, God.
Personally, even though I recognize this pluralism of values as real, I have never been attached to religion. Culturally, but not theologically, I am Christian catholic – and even if I believe in Jesus, I am not able to digest the principle under which Jesus is the only way to get to God. Strictly speaking, therefore, I cannot be considered as Christian as such, but I must also say my concept of religion is quite abstract, dealing only with those ground principles of good – no church involved. For years my thoughts have been aligned to those of the philosopher Feuerbach, seeing religion as the outcome of a process of self-alienation: men tend to project outside of them all their best qualities and virtues, creating an image of a perfect human being to achieve and thus becoming dependant from it.
Nonetheless, I have recently been surprised to know that various religions all over the world have already provided a solution to this issue, perfectly embodying my vision of religion itself: that is, God lies within yourself. We all have good and bad qualities as humans – religion should be the tool to empower and bringing into light the best side of us. While praying, while believing we should not forget that we had been given the free will of choice and that it is up to us to decide whether to wait for a divine appearance or to actively be the actors of our own lives, constantly working in order to improve and achieve those good principles of love, fraternity, and respect. As a popular Italian saying says, help yourself and the Heavens will help you.