Most religions are built around a strong God and doctrine, but can there be a religion without a well-defined divinity? What is its purpose and what are its qualities?
For many of us, religion is a way to address an immediate need. This may be towards a desired outcome such as success in occupational, familial, financial or similar, or to avoid undesirable outcomes such as ill-health or failure of some sort. This is the religion of need and it consists of rituals and prayers.
Another large group of people looks to religion for an identity, to provide a focus or structure in life. For them, religion provides a well-defined place in social group, differentiating them from others. It gives them activities to do – productive within their group – which in-turn offers them a reason to exist within the confines of the religion. This religion is characterized by doctrines, rules and sects. In some cases, there is a well-defined hierarchy and often logic for its own superiority. We term this the religion of identity.
The above two descriptions define religion for most people. Indeed, when we talk of religion, we usually talk only of these forms.
But beyond these two versions, there are at least two others where religion becomes personal and somewhat ill-defined. The first of these addresses individual development – physical, mental or spiritual. This religion offers frameworks within which one can focus on improving specific aspects of oneself. It contains by exercises in self-discipline, challenges to overcome or goals to achieve. We can call this the religion of self.
The final form of religion is one that helps us understand the world around us. Here, the individual attempts to make sense of cumulative or specific aspects of nature, including of living beings. This may be termed as the religion of knowledge or enlightenment. This is perhaps the most ill-defined of all and contains a variety of approaches. For those that want to go beyond existing knowledge in their areas of interest, the path is nebulous at best. Being individual dependent, it is pluralistic as each path requires a different method of inquiry. As the number of practitioners in each form grows, they form loosely organized structures to preserve their learning and facilitate new entrants to their paths. But, at least among the more learned, there is an acknowledgment that they all represent different paths to the same goal.
The religion of enlightenment includes various sciences too; while we may not see science as part of any religion, practitioners of sciences follow the same path as those pursuing religions of self and enlightenment. Indeed, the earliest sciences were conceived by people of religion who saw it as part of spiritual development.
We all may not recognize the last two as legitimate religions, but for some ancient philosophies – especially Oriental and those that look into inquiry – these represent true religion. Philosophies such as Yoga, Nyaya, Samkhya and Vaiseshika in early Hinduism, Ajivaka, Buddhism and Jainism, Mu’tazila in Islam, the philosophies of Socrates and Aristotle, and Gnosticism in early Christianity are all representations of this form. So much so, some Upanishads in Hinduism’s Vedas dismiss ritualistic religions and learned sciences as inferior and proclaims knowledge that is realized by oneself as superior.
The God of each religion is also different and defined by goals of that religion. In the religion of need, God represents the perceived ideal of that particular need with the ability to give when prayed to; for those seeking wealth, God is the wealthiest and most philanthropic entity, for those trying to cure a physical ailment, God represents the wisest and ablest physician with the power to cause or cure ailments, and so forth.
The God in the religion of identity is more anthropological – the strongest, most powerful, compassionate and in some cases vengeful, entity that ensures success and superiority of his or her own group over others. These groups also frequently get into religious conflicts over opposing philosophies, to emphasize their superiority or in some cases, claim ownership of resources arising from their doctrine. These conflicts do not just occur between religions of identity, but also with other types of religion which are seen as a threat to their doctrines. The persecution of Gnostics by the early Church, that of Mu’tazila by Orthodox Caliphs all point to opposition of introspective religions from more popular sects, particularly those that were establishing an identity for themselves.
The God of the religion of self is quite nebulous and followers of this type of religion usually look to teachers or mentors rather than Gods. Nevertheless, they acknowledge a Superior Power that has made their endeavor possible and provided a structure to it. The God in the religion of enlightenment is also abstract and in many instances, agnosticism or atheism is common in early phases. Rationalism is a necessary quality for practitioners of this religion and a God that alters the course of nature or events to suit the wishes of particular individuals or sects is illogical. As the practitioner evolves, God becomes a more omnipresent and abstract entity, but without any anthropological characteristics and the practitioner becomes spiritual rather than religious.
All major religions provide space for practitioners of all four types. They have introspective origins, but over time have developed qualities necessary to appeal to a broader audience. These take the form of religions of need and identity. This is partially an acknowledgement that at various stages in our lives, we require different forms of religions to help us evolve. No one form of religion can address all stages of human evolution. It is not a coincidence that the various types of religion mirror different stages of development.
Nevertheless, it is observed that as society grows larger, religions of the first two forms become more dominant. Individual introspective paths are more difficult to pursue as space for their followers is reduced, and they are often viewed with suspicion. In the end though, without the last two forms, human growth becomes stunted – mired in insecurity and conflicts.