Richard E. Rubenstein, an American Jew, currently professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, Virginia, began his education in history and literature before settling on jurisprudence. He is a doctor of jurisprudence with focus on conflict resolution with publications on war, revolution and political violence. But he also wrote on religion and in 1999 published on the 4th century Christian Arian controversy, When Jesus Became God: The Struggle To Define Christianity in the Last Days of Rome (Harcourt Brace, 1999).
In predominantly Protestant America there is a saying, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Catholic men and women, especially those that grew up before Vatican II of the early 1960s, live intense spiritual lives, perhaps surpassed only by another religious group in the West—Jews. Even today when many American Jews are secular, they often have a religious intensity to any endeavor they undertake, resulting in some of the most profound discoveries of our times in the sciences and humanities. Freud and Einstein are just two of the more obvious examples.
Filipinos are infrequently mentioned in mainstream intellectual and literary discussions in North America but many Americans know about their intense religiosity and how this fed Cory Aquino’s “Rosary Revolution” that toppled the 21-year reign of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. I managed to leave the Philippines ten years earlier but leaving everything else behind me I this religious-like intensity didn’t abandon me.
When I finally stopped attending church in the 1980s I used this prodigious energy to explore other religions. I took my teenage interest in Greek mythology to one of my first really transformative insights: religion was mythology. People called mythology other people’s religious beliefs and practices from the past, utterly incapable of seeing that their own religious beliefs and practice are no different.
We wear our religious beliefs like spectacles that we’ve worn since we were children so that we cease to be aware we’re wearing them. The spectacles are no longer accessories we can take off; they’ve become part of who we are. This, I believe, is why religious conflict is so virulent and destructive. People don’t see their religion any more as something outside their essential nature. We might be able to exchange a diseased heart for a healthy one but we can’t exchange how we see things when we don’t see that it’s just our way of seeing, not who we are.
The religious impulse is one of man’s earliest discoverable attributes. On February 19, 2010, Newsweek reported on a revolutionary find in SE Turkey, not far from Harran where Hebrew patriarch, Abraham (then called Abram), is said to have lived 4,000 years ago before he migrated to Canaan. The temple complex on “potbelly hill” (Göbekli Tepe in Turkish) has been dated to 11,500 years old, before humans built villages, threw pottery, even before they domesticated animals or discovered agriculture!
The German archaeologist who dug the find, Klaus Schmidt, theorized that it was the urge to worship that brought humans together to form urban groupings needed for the massive task of building and maintaining places of worship. If correct, this stands accepted archaeological wisdom on its head. Civilization (from civitas, city) was believed to precede religion: more abundant food allowed people time to theorize about god, being and the origin of the world. Schmidt’s find says otherwise: people created civilization to support the religious instinct.
We might decide to earn a living selling shoes or defending the accused in courts of law but when the demands to survive in our money-based society recede our base instincts are revealed, life-giving and life-destroying as ever. We might even discover that everything else we’ve done in life we’ve done motivated by this primal urge, which is nothing less than our attempt to understand what gives us life, what makes us alive, what makes us capable of hurling questions at the unfathomable mystery.