Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
John Lennon, "Imagine"
In Marx's well-known analysis,
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.Marx believed that politics could erase the conditions that brought suffering, but that has not been the case. The suffering of humanity, however, is real. It is the central point of the Buddha's teaching. Religious explanations for this fact vary enormously and solutions to the problem of suffering, the "opium" offered by the numberless sects, range from "love your neighbor" to the "Last Judgment" and Holy War (jihad).
Is it possible for a materialist, who believes that the body and brain are all we have to survive in this world (and not for long), to affirm the importance of the question of suffering without accepting most of the answers that the different religions have proposed? This is my project.
(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
These days cognitive scientists are turning to religion to understand the popularity and spread of metaphysical ideas. They have discovered a tool-kit of mental faculties that evolved to make life easier for humans 10,000 years ago. They have verified in experiments that young children are born with perceptions and instincts enabling them to detect unseen agents and predict what they're thinking. These new theories explain the possibility of religion (I'll use the word for human activities with particular characteristics) without predicting what particular forms it will take. God, of course, is the unseen agent writ large, and we (or the theologians) know what he's thinking.
Religious activities have historically been organized and controlled by authorities, a priestly caste. Replete with all the harmful characteristics of institutional structures, these religions have declared their followers a "chosen people," defined the dogma they must affirm, and punished heretics for blasphemy and other deviations in belief. Their prophets have demanded obedience and promised rewards or punishment in a life after death, whether in a heaven or a hell. Scribes who claim to take dictation from a deity have written books to be worshipped that contain stories glorifying suffering, hatred of the body, subjection of women, and practices of purification that include genital mutilation. Missionaries carrying their holy texts have accompanied armies for the forced conversion of subject peoples. The whole sorry history of what we call religion gives the lie to any notion of human progress.
Don Cupitt has proposed a religion of ordinary life in a series of books that just might coexist with a secular or even an atheistic philosophy. For Cupitt, God is a symbolic vehicle for common cultural values, and religion gives us a shared vocabulary. There is no heaven or hell in Cupitt's theology. For him life is limited, transient, contingent and temporal, and also bittersweet (is this the Buddhist dukkha?). His most radical claim is there is no stable real world and no enduring self. All experience is mediated by language. Cupitt's theology is life-centered. Religion is expressive and we become ourselves only by expressing ourselves.
This sounds a lot to me like John Lennon's vision.