Where does religion come from, is it something that is innate to us as human beings, part of our DNA, part of our genetic makeup?
One of the best expositions I have come across on the nature of religion and its origin is by the Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón in his novel The Angel’s Game.
… generally speaking, beliefs arise from an event or character that may or may not be authentic, and rapidly evolve into social movements that are conditioned and shaped by the political, economic and societal circumstances of the group that accepts them.
A large part of the mythology that develops around each of these doctrines, from its liturgy to its rules and taboos, comes from the bureaucracy generated as they develop and not from the supposed supernatural act that originated them. Most of the simple, well-intentioned anecdotes are a mixture of common sense and folklore, and all the belligerent force they eventually develop comes from a subsequent interpretation of these principles, or even their distortion, at the hands of the bureaucrats. The administrative and hierarchic aspects seem to be crucial in the evolution of belief systems. The truth is first revealed to all men, but very quickly individuals appear claiming sole authority and duty to interpret, administer and, if need be, alter this truth in the name of the common good. To this end they establish a powerful and potentially repressive organisation. This phenomenon, which biology show us is common to any social group, soon transforms the doctrine into a means of achieving control and political power. Divisions, wars, and break-ups become inevitable. Sooner or later, the word becomes flesh and the flesh bleeds.
Christianity has strayed so far from that of its founder, named in his name, but now the followers of the church than of its founder, particularly in its dogmas and who is to be excluded rather than who may be included, that its founder would have difficulty recognising what has evolved from what at the time was a small, obscure Jewish sect.
It is the prevailing social condition and the need to maintain control that determines God is male, not some hidden truth as we cannot know the unknowable.
To quote again Carlos Ruiz Zafón from his his novel The Angel’s Game.
The main pillar of every organised religion, with few exceptions, is the subjugation, repression, even the annulment of women in the group. Women must accept the role of an ethereal, passive and maternal presence, never of authority or independence, or she will have to take the consequences. She might have a place of honour in the symbolism, but not in the hierarchy. Religion and war are male pursuits. And anyhow, woman sometimes ends up becoming the accomplice of her own subjugation.
The Virgin Mary may be revered in the Catholic Church, but she has no authority. Islam goes further than most in repression of women.
The Anglican Church in England has only in the last ten years allowed women priests. It still does not permit women bishops.
In several of his novels, Paulo Coelho discusses the feminine side of God – Brida, By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept and The Witch of Portobello.
On his blog, Paulo Coelho has recently initiated a discussion on the feminine face of God.
The Cathars treated women as equals, did not require priests to interceded on their behalf with God. They were exterminated by the Catholic Church. The word becomes flesh and the flesh bleeds.
Hildergard von Bingen touched upon the feminine side.
Jesus treated men and women as his equals. Mary Magdalene was one of his disciples. When the men deserted, the women remained at his side.
Religions rooted in the natural world, have a feminine side, often a Mother God. A Mother God who looks after all the natural world, not a chosen people.
Worshipers may have been cowed into good behaviour by hell and damnation preachers who promised everlasting damnation in hell, but they were not inspired. It is stories that inspire us. Above all else, religious texts are great heroic stories.
One of the greatest story tellers was Jesus. Not the great heroic tales of the Old Testament, simple tales that people could relate to. That more than anything explains his growing band of followers. That and his eclectic tales, tales that do not make sense when looked at with cold logic, more like Zen Buddhism, the sound of one hand clapping. This is not so obvious in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, but try the Gospel of Thomas.
A Thousand and One Nights kept a sultan captivated.
One of the greatest books of religious prose is the Bhagavad Gita.
A more modern tale is The Alchemist, a modern fable telling us of the quest of Santiago and how he learns to read symbols, learns how to communicate with the Soul of the World. It is the simple nature of this narrative that has made it the most popular novel by Paulo Coelho, whereas in contrast The Witch of Portobello was not as popular, and yet it contains much of the same elements of mysticism.
Follow the discussion of The Alchemist on the blog maintained by Paulo Coelho and note how many people say it inspired them, how many people it changed their lives.
It is part of our genetic makeup that we need narrative. We live through metaphor, that is how we explain and understand the word around us.
In short we all love a good story and religion caters to that need. Furthermore, it is sinners who are converted, not saints.