• Posted: Apr 07, 2012 10:09:03
• Comments Welcome
• Vote CoolPhotoblogs
• Purchase a Print
One of the most peculiar aspects of human behavior is the practice of religion. Why do we have religion? What does it actually do for us, personally and collectively?
The recently released book Escape from Camp 14, by journalist Blaine Harden, tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk. Shin was born in, raised in, and eventually escaped from a North Korean prison camp, one of very few who ever have. Upon entering the outside world, he was found to have no concept of God or of love. The notion of family was nearly meaningless for him. And, he had no understanding of why one would ever laugh or even cry. What he did know and understand was overwhelming hunger, imponderable isolation, and fear. For him, the only reason one did anything at all was to avoid further pain.
What is interesting about Shin's story is that nowhere in his 23 years of living in a prison camp did he ever conceive of or feel the need for religion or God. He also did not invent magic or the supernatural to help explain or give meaning to his existence. Instead, he understood other people to be hostile and largely unpredictable. Even his own parents, with whom he competed for food and who often beat him for competing too strongly, were his adversaries. In the same sense that neglected children found in a Romanian orphanage after the fall of Ceausescu were disturbingly underdeveloped intellectually and socially, so Shin's stunted social and moral development seems to hint at what humans must have been like before the invention of what we now call religion.
One wonders: at what point and to what purpose primitive humans invented God, magical thinking, and religion? Surely, at some point, humans did begin to cooperate with one another, rather than viciously compete with each other as was Shin's experience. Undoubtedly, language and custom developed as useful tools, facilitating cooperation. And once humans had common language, they had means to develop stories as useful explanation for things. Notions of God, or gods, with magical supernatural powers almost universally populate the enduring folktales early humans have left behind. But there is also the complementary notion within those stories that human cooperation can offer protection from the vindictive capriciousness of God or gods. Religion codifies for us all those stories and ritualizes the mores they teach us about protective human cooperation.
But enter the notion of truth. What is truth? And how can we know it when we see it?
Authority is not truth. Nor is it tradition. Truth is not force and truth is not overwhelming intimidation. Truth is not opinion, nor is it belief. Truth is evidence based, reliable, repeatably verifiable, and useful. Sometimes it is even understandable. It is also discoverable and in some cases deducible. The problem with most religions is that the understandings and explanations they offer are not open to and informed by recently discovered truth. The comforting shielding protection religions once offered to everyone are now no longer convincing to many of us. Religion has become an outdated hobbling of the ever-seeking human spirit, now being offered for sale at ever cheaper prices, and in some cases being forced upon us. One can imagine that if religions offered useful assistance in understanding, accommodating, and using what is both newly disturbing and wonderful from the frontiers of discovery, they might once again enhance the healthy development of individual human spirits and the inclusive compassion of our societies.
Seven years after his escape, Shin is beginning to understand and appreciate what most of us understand without thinking: that we need each other and that there is good reason to respect, accommodate, and take care of each other. It is not clear that Shin as yet sees any reason for a notion of God or religion.
Tuesday, February 14th, 2012
8.9 mm 42 mm