The Origin of Religion
By Damodara Prasada Dasa
The classic scientific study in the materialistic vein of religious life was Durkheim’s work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, a work which proved highly influential in confirming for decided atheists the view that there is no God, and that all phenomena, both material and social, have a material, chaotic origin. In this, and subsequent works, Durkheim opted for an intellectually parsimonious definition of religion, which while facilitating empirical investigation, implicitly undermined its ontological claims. He defined religion as:
nothing other than a body of collective beliefs and practices endowed with a certain authority.(1)
What was that “certain authority”? For Durkheim, authority is socially constructed. Unlike most hostile atheists of his era, Durkheim, assumed that there was a reality behind the religious experience, just not the reality recognised by the followers of that religion. Rather, for Durkheim, the reality of the religious experience lies in its social nature. For example, in Durkheim’s view, we offer food to the deity because he “depends” on the offering. This dependency is based on the view that the deity is not a social agent, but a symbol of a collective belief system. For Durkheim, the reality to which the religious life belonged is society.
The theory begins from this assumption of a material cause of social phenomena, and ends there, but why should we accept this assumption in the first place? And does it make sense?
The essential flaw in Durkheim’s reasoning is illustrated by CS Lewis in a slightly different context (2): if our religious beliefs, or rather, our certainty of the transcendent nature of our moral intuition, were merely the result of collective beliefs then how are we to explain the fact that, in some instances, acting contrary to those beliefs is the right thing to do?
The example is vividly provided in the Bhagavad-Gita: Arjuna’s initial impulse to desist from the battle was not based on cowardice, but on values which we would ordinarily hold as praiseworthy: compassion for present and future generations. In this situation, Arjuna was rejecting one set of social conventions: the duty of ksatriyas to fight in prescribed situations, even against family members; and accepting another: the duty to preserve family life and social traditions. In this situation, there are two contradictory sets of social conventions. How could Arjuna possibly know which one it was his real duty to embrace? Only by reference to an absolute authority which transcends all social conventions, as well as individual desires, could he come to know the right path, and to follow it with conviction. He surrenders to Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who encourages him to fight. And what is the ultimate reason that fighting was the right thing to do? Not social convention, but something transcendent to both individual desire and social norms. Sri Krishna tells Arjuna:
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah
Give up all varieties of religion and just surrender unto me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.
Krishna wanted Arjuna to fight, and that was the only reason why, in that situation, fighting was the right thing to do. Only by reference to the absolute authority of an absolute person can we know right from wrong.
Dharma, the sanksrit word translated in this verse as “religion”, is elsewhere denoted by Srila Prabhupada as “occupation”, or “that which sustains one’s existence”. (3) Srila Prabhupada explains that when entrapped by the material body, the soul adopts different varieties of concocted dharmas, but the original dharma, that which sustains the eternal soul is surrender to the whole, of which the soul is a fragmental part. That whole is called God, or Krishna. Religion is defined as the process by which the entrapped soul develops his love and devotion for God. Original religion transcends social conventions, because it speaks to the original nature of the eternal living being, and his eternal relationship with an eternal Supreme being.
Damodar Prasad das (BCaiS)
Durkheim, E. (1975). Individualism and the Intellectuals. In WSF Pickering (Ed.). Durkheim on Religion: A selection of readings with bibliographies. London: Routledge and K Paul.
Lewis, C.S. (2003). Mere Christianity. Yekaterinburg: Copper Kettle.
AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (2001). Dharma: The way of transcendence. Sydney: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.