Chapter 3

The common elements in religion

Let us now look on this from a different point of view. Let us suppose that there was such a thing as a fall (which, as I said, there is pretty good philosophical evidence for); and let us suppose that God, eternally knowing of the fall and the lack of control that it produces in all of Adam's race, chose, in his love, to redeem us.

First of all, I would think that it would contradict our freedom (which we still have, but cannot exercise as well as could be expected without the fall) that this redemption should occur whether we want it or not. That is, the only thing that would seem consistent with both the freedom and the fallenness of human beings would be that redemption is offered them, in such a way that every human being would somehow know that it was possible and could be his if he really wanted it, but that it was merely offered and not forced upon him, and could be rejected.

On the hypothesis, then, that redemption is a fact, we can predict that it is offered in such a way that it can be rejected; and that it is offered to everyone, in such a way that everyone would know that such a thing is a real possibility. To offer it only to a select few would seem to me to contradict the grounds for its being offered in the first place. That is, presumably the offer was made because, not being in complete control of ourselves, we can ruin our lives indeliberately, and even ruin our eternity only semi-deliberately. But this is true of every fallen human being, not just of a few; and so the reason why it would be given at all would predict that it be given to all.

Hence, everyone would have some sign that redemption is possible. And is it mere happenstance that the earth's axis is tilted with respect to the plane of its orbit, so that the sun shines now more directly on the northern half and now more directly on the southern? As I look out in the morning now in October, I see the sun rise later and later each day and set earlier and earlier; and I see at noon long shadows across the lawn as the sun sinks lower in the southern sky; and the lawn is peppered with yellow leaves from the trees which are becoming more and more naked and apparently dying. But I know that when all is dead and cold, and when the sun seems about to disappear altogether below the horizon (as in some places it actually does), the whole process will reverse itself, the sun will begin its climb from the winter solstice, the air will warm and freshen, the snowdrops and crocuses will bloom out of the still frozen ground, sometimes even though the snow, and the daffodils and tulips and the blessed green on the trees are not far behind. And the tulips will be more numerous than last year, and the trees larger and stronger for their temporary death. Redemption.

And is it an accident that the earth rotates as it revolves around the sun, so that darkness follows light, and I become tired and give up my conscious life every day, only to find the next morning that my physical self has been redeemed by its apparent non-existence, and the ravages of yesterday have not destroyed but added to my being of today--not to mention that my mental self has completely vanished an then been resurrected?

Now there is no particular reason why the earth's axis of rotation should be tilted and we should have seasons. In fact, precisely because of the enormous gravitational attraction of the sun, you would expect the axis to be at right angles to the plane of the orbit, since the rotation of the earth makes the equator bulge, and therefore gives the equator that much more mass to be attracted by the sun. Nor is there any reason why the earth should rotate on its axis. In fact, what you would expect would be that, like Mercury and our own moon, there would be one rotation for one revolution, so that the same side of the earth would always be facing the sun; and so on one side, as on Mercury, there would be perpetual day and on the other perpetual night, making the "day" and the "year" both meaningless terms in practice.

And if life were to evolve under these conditions, then you would predict that we wouldn't have seasons, nor would there be regular periods of sleep and waking. Dormant stages are as much an adaptation to the adverse conditions of winter (or the dry seasons in the tropics) and night (or day, in the case of nocturnal animals) as they are to something about life that makes it want to shut down periodically. Granted, each organ needs rest, but this need not be achieved by sleep, any more than the rest the heart gets is achieved by shutting down for eight hours; it rests between beats.

If we are to understand reality accurately, we must rid ourselves of the tendency to put God in time, reacting to unexpected events. The fall is known by God eternally, and so is its redemption; and if redemption is offered to human beings, who learn from the evidence of their senses, and if redemption is one of the most necessary pieces of information for them, then it makes sense that the world they live in should be created so that the structure of what they see, of the very universe which began to exist millions of years before they did, would shout at them that redemption is a fact, and there is no reason why they should deny it in their own lives.

Even the pruning of plants--their injury-- is what is needed to make them healthy; and the exercise and pain I inflict on my muscles is what is necessary for them to become strong and vigorous. Damage is not necessarily destructive; much of the damage we do to ourselves and our world is precisely redemptive.

Thus, when a human being finds in himself a loathing for the damage he has done to himself and to those around him, he has plenty of hints that there is hope that this damage can be, if not undone, redeemed. And so it is not surprising that most of the religions in the world stress the turning of the seasons as the sign that the deity is going to do the same with us, and that all is not lost.

Stonehenge was built with such superhuman toil so many centuries ago obviously as something religious; and what it is, as most paleontologists think, is an astronomical observatory, where the day of the solstice can be accurately known. Many many temples throughout the world are built in this way, so that the sun shines on a definite spot at the point of its farthest decline, at which the believers know that it will begin to climb up in the sky again and all will once again be well.

The oldest religions are not those of ancestor worship as Freud, who believed that religion sprang from the need for punishment in violation of parents' commands, thought. The guilt is, to be sure, fear of punishment; but more than this, it longs for redemption; and so it is not at all surprising that the very oldest religions would be astronomical and tied to the seasons rather than legislative and looking to punishment. Religion stems from hope and is joyous, not from guilt, which leads to despair.

And, of course, since reproduction is the sign of redemption, and since it involves the seeking of another to produce the miracle of new birth, it is also not surprising to find that religion, responding to the hint of redemption here, would generally have sexual overtones.

I am not simply saying here that it is the need of redemption for the mess we have made of our lives coupled with the hints that all nature is redemptive (and we should be no different) that motivates human beings to engage in religious worship. That is true, I think. But my point is somewhat different from that. My point is that, supposing God offers redemption to us, he could be expected to make everyone capable of knowing that it is reasonable to expect it from him, if we but ask. As St. Paul put it in Romans, "The evidence for God's existence is there before their eyes; God himself has made it obvious. His invisible presence from the creation of the world can be seen from what he has made by anyone who puts his mind to it."(1)

Is such paganism acceptable to God? Of course it is. Why would he have put those hints there, if he didn't expect them to be taken?

But there is another thing that you would predict that God would have to let people know: that redemption is not inevitable, as it is with the seasons, but that it can be rejected and that the consequences of either not asking for it or rejecting it are eternal.

There is on the one hand fully as much a need in the human being to wake up from death as there is that the past be redeemed. True, we need to escape to a world in which there is no possibility of being harmed or doing harm; but we need just as much not to die, except as we "die" every day, returning the next morning all the better for it. But on the other hand, as the Corinthians said scoffingly to Paul, it is all too obvious that "corpses do not come back to life." What falls asleep comes back to wakefulness, but what dies does not return. Even in death, of course, there is the redemption of reproduction, so that the form of life goes on; but this is small consolation to the one who is about to die. He wants his life to go on; he wants his body to reawaken.

Certain it is that from the most ancient signs of religion, there are signs (from burying food, for instance, with the dead) that the people believed that those who died did continue somehow as individuals (and as bodily) after death, in spite of the evidence to the contrary. Undoubtedly this hope would be bolstered by the fact that there have always been cases of people who to all appearances die and yet revive--and I am sure that some of them have told the wonderful experiences they had that are now cataloged as "near-death experiences."

Nevertheless, there is a note of finality to death. Whatever is beginning, it is not, even if somehow cyclic, like sleeping and waking. Those who, like Plato, held the transmigration of souls, also held that something happened in the underworld that made the soul forget its past and emerge as if it were a completely new being.

But beyond this, there is the injustice of what happens in this world, where the evil prosper and the good suffer, that must be explained, and can only, as I showed in the preceding two chapters and in Chapter 3 of Section 4 of the third part 3.4.3, be explained by an afterlife and God.

Death, then, and the necessity that wrongs be somehow righted and that the stubborn wrongdoer not escape punishment, are the counter-tendencies that would temper the hope of redemption with the necessity to conform to one's nature, under pain of losing the redemption.

And this, of course, is why all religions involve taboos and punishments in an afterlife, but which offer the hope of redemption in the form of forgiveness of sins. Religion is by no means all sweetness and light, looking forward to a better time in which every tear will be wiped away. Every religion says that this better time is not available to those who flout the law and do not repent and beg forgiveness.

And that people would come naturally to this realization is again just what you would predict if in fact we live forever and our eternal lives depend on our choices which cannot be erased by our own efforts, but if in addition God has offered us the chance, not only to redeem the damage we have done, but actually to have the choice removed as an operative act, saving us from its eternal frustration. If redemption is offered at all, at least this would have to be known by everyone; and therefore, it would have to be an element of for practical purposes every religion.

So we can explain on the one side the common elements in religion such as the punishing but loving deity and the notion of an afterlife in which some sort of punishment or reward occurs, as well as the myths of the Golden Age and of the rebirth as a hope that the deep longings within us to make sense out of an otherwise senseless life will be fulfilled. This is what you find in most treatises on comparative religion.

But there is the other side, which is what I have been stressing here. If God has punished mankind for its original sin with death and partial loss of control of one's mind, and if the afterlife is a country "from whose bourn no traveler returns," then he would be being gratuitously cruel if he did not make it easy for us by means of the very absurdity of life to infer that there is an afterlife and that it provides the sanction which gives force to acting consistently with our nature. And if he offers us redemption, then he would, it would seem, have to make life absurd for us without it, so that we would be able to realize that it is possible and to ask for it.



1. Interestingly, Paul is saying this in the process of castigating the sophisticated who, having this evidence, reject it as "unscientific." "And this means that they get nowhere with all their scientific investigations, and their empty minds are filled with darkness. They claim to be wise, but make fools of themselves."