Religion as a Quest for Truth

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” – William Blake

“It seems that nothing exists for modern men beyond what can be seen and touched; or at least, even if they admit theoretically that something more may exist, they immediately declare it not merely unknown but “unknowable”, which absolves them from having to think about it.” – René Guénon


Religion is far too personal of a thing to be reduced to a precise academic definition. And yet, this ineffability is exactly what separates religion from everything else in the world. Religion works to externalize the innermost personal feelings of the religious. In a way, it represents an attempt to codify all things that one does not understand, that one does not know, and that one can never find out. Thus, religious belief and practice is a quest for truth that somewhat paradoxically supposes that an objective, ultimate truth exists, but that such truth is beyond human understanding, and thus, is obscured by human limitations. In this sense religion deals not only with a search for truth, but also has an understanding that such truth will never be satisfactorily revealed in the mundane world. If the truth is revealed, according to religious tradition, it will manifest in either a revelationary act that brings about the end of human misunderstanding, or it will manifest in a personal revelation that takes the human beyond the mundane world. In any case, religion supposes that man in and of himself is not fit to understand all things, and this is where religion can help him. It reveals truth beyond the scope of the human intellect, it reveals what cannot be expressed in language, and it reveals those things within every man that he cannot externalize otherwise.

Therefore, while religion cannot be reduced to an academic definition, the most important facet of it can: the “goal” or the “concern” of religion. Therefore, the goal of religion is the illumination of objective metaphysical truths that cannot be explained through typical human facilities alone. In order to be completely accurate, it must be noted that in regards to this paper, these metaphysical truths are “perceived” to be objectively true by the religious practitioner, and that no value judgment is being made in regards to the actual validity of said beliefs. As for the definition of “human facilities”, it can be said that many religions place great emphasis on human reason, and in the case of Buddhism, especially the Chan/Zen school, that human reason alone is enough to achieve the ultimate truth. For this reason the rather vague term “typical” must be added to the definition. While any normal human can achieve enlightenment, he cannot do so through normal means. Some form of meditation, intense physical exertion, or other acts must accompany this quest for truth. All religions therefore require a degree of atypical behavior or attitude to reach their truth, and this is the core of religious belief and experience. Whether this atypicality is expressed in hierophanies and “the sacred” world of Mercea Eliade, or in the personal, mental world of Rudolf Otto and Martin Buber, or the liminality of Victor Turner, it still exists as things outside the norm of human experience.

A second counterargument must also be noted before further evidence supporting this definition is noted. In regards to concern for the truth, perhaps no system of belief has shaped the modern understanding of truth as far as post-enlightenment science and the scientific method. Science requires atypical human behavior, and if meditation falls under this category, so must hours in the lab or years spent collecting samples in a far off region of the globe. However, by its very nature, science cannot state in earnest the complete objective nature of a truth. A truth, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun can be tested theoretically, or with our new technology, can even be measured and observed. This “truth” is however never stated as an absolute that will never change. Instead, scientific truths are merely expressions of “the best of our knowledge”. Thus, as they are always shifting, changing, and being made more accurate, and as they can never be assumed to be completely accurate, science cannot be said to reveal “objective metaphysical truths”. Moreover, science only concerns itself with those things that are purely physical and falsifiable; science requires measurement and observation. Religion, on the other hand, concerns itself with those things that cannot be measured in the physical world. It deals with things before time and outside space, things that science lacks a framework to investigate, as these things are assumed physical necessities.

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Religion deals with truths revealed through atypical means. Mercea Eliade orates a similar definition, but is concerned primarily with the notion of “the sacred”. While the sacred is one type of atypicality, it is not the only one. In any case, Eliade must be understood to fully grasp our definition of religion. Eliade believes the most salient aspect of religion to be sacrilization, or the manifestation of the sacred in the physical world: hierophany. Eliade writes “man becomes aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane” (Eliade 275). The sacred is therefore that atypical agent that reveals truths beyond human understanding, that is, beyond the profane, physical world. According to Eliade, “the history of religions, from the most primitive to the most highly developed, is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of sacred realities” (276). Eliade thus believes that religion, in creating these “sacred realities”, creates a “sacralized cosmos” (279). This is salient as Eliade therefore marks the atypical aspect of some religions that seem to otherwise deal only with the physical world. For example, it could be argued that Eliade’s Arunta people are not religious as they live within a purely physical reality: there is no assumption that the sacred is separate or beyond human facilities. And yet this sacred physical world only exists due to unexplainable phenomena, that is, the hierophany. The hierophany is something beyond human control, and therefore, even if people within a sacred world can reach their religious truths in a purely physical manner, they can only do so due to an atypical, non-human (or at least not solely human) event.

Spiritual leaders perform a Mayan ritual

This idea of a sacred event resonates in other religions as well, and further supports our definition of religion. Indeed, some sects of Protestant Christianity would argue that anything beyond faith is not needed for salvation, and that such faith need not be blind or “atypical”, it can be completely reasonable. And yet, these people would still be under our definition as they believe in a previous sacred event that allows for such faith to exist at all, and in addition, that only through this event truth is revealed. In this case, the event is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, even if a religion features no aspect of practice that is atypical or beyond human understanding, as long as it supposes any prior story of sacred creation or sacred revelation, it still fits our definition. Even within the most rational and physically minded religions, we still find some aspect of atypicality that traditionally begets truth. Whether this be the sacred cosmogony present in the Arunta people, or the Resurrection of Jesus in Christian tradition, there is still a sacred event that makes truth knowable; it is not knowable through purely human means.

Many religions, however, do not deal with notions of the sacred. As mentioned earlier, some sects of Zen/Chan Buddhism do not suppose the objective existence of any supernatural beings or sacred events. In the same vein, panetheists and Spinozists may believe in a God, but this God is a manifestation of the physical world, He is neither sacred nor outside human understanding. This is where Eliade becomes limited, and where our definition again falters. However, panetheism assumes by default both the existence of objective truths and an aspect of atypicality. For the former, if God exists, then His reality is an objective metaphysical truth beyond what can be measured. For even if He is composed of substance and makes up reality Himself, He is still beyond measurement (in a falsifiable sense). For the latter, if God makes up all reality, then he makes up humanity as well. In this case, atypicality is assumed as humans possess godhood. While these arguments may seem to be an issue of semantics, there is a third facet of these non-sacred religions that supports our definition, and this is the relationship between the individual and God, as noted by both Rudolf Otto and Martin Buber.

Rudolf Otto presents the view that any conception of God comes through some ineffable feeling, and thus, any interaction with or conception of God requires a degree of atypical thinking. Otto purports that “for so far as these ‘rational’ attributes from exhausting the idea of a deity, that they in fact imply a non-rational or supra-rational Subjectivity which they are predicates” (Otto 208). Essentially, Otto is saying that any “rational” attribute given to a deity is only a “synthetic essential attribute”. It is created to understand a deity by humans, but true understanding of a deity requires “comprehension of a quite different kind” (Ibid). That is to say, an irrational, atypical mystic experience which Otto names the mysterium tremendum, or the “mystery that repels”. The mysterium tremendum is likened to a “personal feeling of nothingness” (215). Thus, if Otto is to be believed, any belief in a deity requires some degree of atypical behavior, or at least, a conception of the existence of an atypicality: the awe felt in the conception of a powerful deity. Otto further believes that mystic experiences reveal religious truths to those that experience them, further supporting our definition. Therefore even in the most liberal church, or even in the rationally supposed “personal God” of a Deist is a degree of atypical thinking present, this being a conception of the “connexion” of the rational and irrational (or more accurately, supra-rational) aspects of God. For if God is indeed infinite and absolute, He cannot possess purely rational elements. In His infinitude, He cannot be mathematically understood by nature, and thus, can never be fully rational; His existence may be proved rationally (such as with the Kalam cosmological hypothesis), but conception of Him requires irrational and atypical thinking. That is, the understanding of an infinite being (God) by a finite being (Humanity) is impossible without breaking free from purely rational thinking and the bounds of universal mathematical and physical laws.

Even with the theories of Otto and Eliade, another conundrum appears. If irrational thinking and ineffable experiences are so widespread, these events cannot be said to be“atypical”. This is where the writings of Martin Buber are important, as he succinctly describes how mystic experiences by default are outside the personal domain and require a relationship. In this way, they cannot be said to be “typical” (having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing), as they require a set of persons. Therefore, as mystic experiences are inherently non-personal in nature, and thus, are not simply constructions of a “typical” or typifying variety. Buber notes, “in every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou; in each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou” (Buber 6). Thus, not only are mystic I-Thou experiences atypical as they involve multiple agents, they are atypical as they by nature involve an infinite actor, the eternal Thou. In interacting beyond the personal world, one enters a world of virtual infinitude. In this virtually infinite world (that is, all that exists beyond the personal mental world of a single human), one grasps or “feels” the truly infinite, the eternal Thou.

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Buber thus allows our definition to cover personal religions and other traditions that follow a similar model. That is, those with a vague conception of a powerful force that cannot be known directly, but through the aid of mystic experiences or even simply within the experience of the natural world, spiritual truths can be discerned. Buber’s model also supports the existence of religions where a principle deity is not particularly important, as Buber’s model deals with interpersonal relationship as “sacred”, and while these interactions between humans may ultimately point to the existence of a higher power, he does not state that these I-Thou moments between humans necessitate a belief in an all powerful God. Thus, if mystic experience can be found in both the natural world and the human world, then “atypical” religious experience can exist within traditions that do not suppose the existence of sacred physical matter or sacred deities (that is, traditions that do not point to sacred ground on earth or a world beyond).

When Otto and Buber are taken together, the importance of the mental and spiritual dimensions of religious practice becomes apparent. Atypical behavior need not manifest in literal action, it can occur within the confines of the mental world. Thus, objective truths can be awakened (or at least, the practitioner feels they are awakened) in the human mind through the machinations of their own psyche. In this way religion may seep into the lives of those that are areligious or “spiritual” through the experience of these mystic mental states. This is why the organizational or social side of religion that many scholars stress is not salient in our definition. It is also why our definition does not require “faith” or any supposition of “belief”. Instead, the quest for objective truths and an end to existential dread that is at the core of all religion and spiritual practice does not require these things, and therefore, religion itself does not require these things.

Many other definitions of religion focus on the social aspects of religion, but this dimension of religion is of a lesser importance and is not a necessity. These definitions purport that religions are made up of relationships, such as Robert Orsi’s definition found in Between Heaven and Earth, as well as Thomas Tweed’s definition found in Crossing and Dwelling. While these two definitions vary greatly, both require a degree of sociality present in a tradition for it to qualify as a religion. For Orsi, this manifests in literal relationships between laypeople, clergy, and saints. For Tweed, this sociality exists as the “fluvial” nature of religion; that is, that religion is a constantly shifting thing dependent on the human community and the greater surrounding culture or worldview (Tweed 59). Finally, Emile Durkheim writes that religion is an “eminently collective thing” that requires the existence of a “Church” (Durkheim 106). While there is no doubt that practicing religion is often a social endeavor, religious hermits, outcasts, and recluses make it all too apparent that it need not be. More important, however, is the fact that the social nature of religion, the exoteric community, is inherently of an inferior order. By nature, community based practice and the externalization of religious beliefs and experience necessitate some loss of information and “truth”.

While this is a bold statement, it is logically sound. Consider the following quotation from British author Aldous Huxley, taken from his book The Doors of Perception:

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.” (Huxley 4)

Huxley succinctly explains that feelings, experiences, and nuances are lost in the exchange of human information. Therefore, the social aspect of religion is of an inferior order when compared to the personal aspect of religion and the religious experiences of the individual. A person can perfectly explain and compartmentalize a religious experience in their own mind, but it is impossible to fully convey such things to another person. This is why the social aspect of religion is not stressed or even noted in our definition. While it is true that religious social groups exist, even within these groups may religious beliefs and practices differ. A nun, for example, lives a much different life than a Catholic layperson. And moreover, a Hispanic Catholic layperson may have a totally different understanding of their faith than a European Catholic layperson who attend the same church.

The phrase “island universes” is relevant in understanding our definition as it stresses the vastness of the mental world. The mental space available to a given individual, that is, what he can imagine, remember, and invent, is much more important in the personality or essence of a person than any physical attributes. This extends to religion, the more “physical” aspect of religion, that is, how one behaves, how one labels oneself, and how one expresses their religious belief is much less important than an individual’s true personal understanding of their religion. One may be guilted through peer pressure to engage in a ritual one finds deplorable, and yet an anthropologist observing the ritual would never know the ritualist was so unengaged. Furthermore, as the mental world is the closest reality to infinitude a human can achieve, it is the most useful in communicating with and experiencing the Divine, or other religious truths. A Buddhist adage comes to mind: “all that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world”. Religions work to facilitate this construction of the world, and this is primarily what is meant by “illuminating objective metaphysical truths”. These things become “objective metaphysical truths” in the eyes of practitioners as they are absorbed into the mental universe of the practitioner. From this mental world, the practitioner constructs a framework of understanding and interacting with the natural, supernatural, and supra-natural world.

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There is one more religious theorist of note that supports our definition of religion, Victor Turner. Turner writes extensively on the nature of liminality and ritual within his book The Ritual Process. Turner writes extensively on many subjects, but his main theory is that there exists a human social obsession with the “liminal”, that is, those humans stuck on a threshold, or in the process of changing from one state to another. This manifests in religious rituals, but also in society in general. Turner then concludes that such liminal communities, or communitas are in fact the most “genuine” source of religious originality and spirituality. Turner writes that “the attributes of liminal personae are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space” (Turner 95). Turner therefore supports our definition as he correctly identifies the atypical elements required for the formation of religious frameworks. This element is the liminality present in many religious traditions and practices. Liminality is inherently atypical as it supposes the characteristics of “neither here nor there”, and thus, sets something apart from regular life. Furthermore, Turner notes that liminality and the atypical character of this attribute leads to the formation of “genuine” spirituality. Thus, Turner recognizes that religion is a manifestation of atypical elements externalized in a worldview.

Religion requires the atypical as it itself is an anomaly of human experience. Within the natural world, there is little room for superfluous (from a fitness perspective) rituals and often dangerous practices. However, even the most inhospitable realms inhabited by humans are home to religious traditions and religious people. Amongst the most destitute of the world, one will find the most pious, amongst the weakest, one will find the most spiritually strong, and amongst the most disenfranchised and downtrodden will one find the most self-assured. Religion deals with those things inside every man he cannot externalize otherwise. It deals with the absurd nature of the world and the absolute meaninglessness of life that confronts man at all turns. While this paper is more concerned with the “What?” of religion rather than the “Why?”, our definition takes an interest in the goal of religion, and this aspect of our definition must be made more clear. Religion therefore provides man, a dismal creature flung into an existential abyss at birth, with the necessary tools to build an understanding of the atypical, strange, and ineffable feelings that haunt him at every turn. Religion must be irrational and atypical as these are the things it seeks to explain. It must reside outside logic, rationality, and science as it is not concerned with matters that can be explained in such a manner.

A counterargument to this too must be addressed. If religion deals only with ineffable things, one must account for theories of religion that define the goal of religion to be the explanation of the natural world. Myths concerning rainwater do not deal with anything outside the natural world, and rain is not an abnormal occurrence. However, atypicality is relative. The idea that the sun is a celestial body composed of burning gases is just as inexplicable to pre-modern man as the idea that the sun is a chariot of the gods. Religion therefore need not consider things literally unexplainable, merely things that are unable to be explained in a given context, time period, or space. When one lacks a framework to understand something, whether this be a scientific framework, a philosophical framework, a legal framework, or otherwise, he turns to his inner self for guidance. Within this inner self is the capability of personal objectivity, and if a man so chooses, he can self-identify or latch onto a religious feeling that will eventually culminate in a system of religious belief. That is, a system that reveals and codifies perceived truths through the use of atypical human actions, processes, or beliefs: religion.

In addition, religion is not purely biological construct thrust onto man due to inborn characteristics. While the field of evolutionary psychology has deliberated and debated on the possibility of religion as a component of human fitness, this is unimportant in our definition. While it may be true that religion “evolved” in a biological sense, it exists outside the physical world as it resides in the immeasurable human mental reality. That is to say that regardless of whether religion is a naturally occurring phenomenon or one revealed by supernatural forces, it is not something that develops spontaneously. It requires, as noted, an atypical event, supposition, act, etc. in order to be actualized in the personal reality of a practitioner or believer.

Mankind throughout history has sought and found many truths. Yet, this is a Sisyphean endeavor that will never end. The universe is infinite, or at least, near infinite. In facing this infinite void man must make a choice, he can either live in confusion and hysteria when considering this truly vast expanse of stimuli, or he must adopt some irrational beliefs for the sake of sanity. Religion facilitates the creation of a worldview that need not account for contradictions, fallacies, and unknowns. Religion is a a system that within itself can never be wrong. It is created within man by his own feelings and thoughts, and within this personal mental realm is the only place a man can be truly honest and accurate. Objective knowledge is only possible when one strips away empiricism, and while this is not objective knowledge in the literal sense, it is the only manner in which any knowledge can be even percieved as objective and truthful.

Religion is the one creation of man that will never be fully understood; it cannot be. This is simply a fundamental aspect of the phenomenon. It cannot be understood as it is not designed to be understood outside an individual’s reality. Religion must be studied with this inescapable truth in mind. Everything written on religion is essentially a mirror of the author’s own religious framework, and only through recognizing this fact is one able to face the limitless possibilities within the study of religion: religion is as infinite as the mental worlds of our creation.

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