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Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
I have been engaging a friend of mine in a conversation on the topic of religion. We were wondering if you could answer a question for us: What establishes the veracity of a religion?
Before I can address your question, it would help to know what religion is. Shall we take anything that anybody calls a religion to be an instance of it? I don’t know if we would make much progress that way: There seem to be no limits on what people have labeled “religion.”
Has it some essence, then? As I look about the world today, I see a great divide between East and West regarding the nature of religion. Roughly three billion souls (two billion Christians and one billion Muslims) consider God to be the touchstone of religion, while an equal number consider many gods (for example, Hinduism) or even no god (for example, Buddhism) to be compatible with it. I will tell you, my friend, this haggling over doctrine and definition leaves me cold. I am content to let Euthyphro and all his modern ilk believe what they like, both about God or gods and about stories in their holy books. Religious speculations about the supernatural hold no more interest for me than do scientific speculations about the natural world.
But there is one aspect of religion which interests me greatly: ethics. Now, when I say it is an aspect of religion, I do not mean to suggest that ethics must be a religious phenomenon. But it is a fact of human history that ideas about how to live have always been closely associated with the prevailing religion. And for me, that would be the way to “establish the veracity of a religion.”
But you are not likely to find a religion which would fail this test, for I believe that a close study of any religion that has maintained a large number of adherents over many centuries must advocate the core of ethics. This core has been variously expressed as love, compassion, peace, harmony, cheerfulness and amity, tolerance, submission, seeing all as manifestations of the One, etc. (Yes, even the One is many in this land of shadows!)
The question of veracity arises only when one claims to be representing a religion – in the interpretation of it, or in the living of it. “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” as one exemplar put it. Is a person a good Christian, or a good Muslim, or a good Hindu, or a good Buddhist … or a true lover of Zeus? That is the question, I would say. And since, as I maintain, it all amounts to the same thing in ethical terms, the question is really this: Is someone a good person? If so, then he or she has religion enough for me. Whatever truth or understanding or type of consciousness or way of being does the trick – can I rule out even that it might involve some special physiological state? – this is the pith of ‘religious veracity’.
Now, you know that my own mission has been a religious one, inspired by an enigmatic pronouncement of the oracle at Delfi, as reported by Chaerephon. She labeled me the wisest of men, which prompted me to seek out others who were wise; for I felt myself totally unfit for this designation, and so, taking the oracle’s words as a challenge or even a command, I wanted to learn the secret of it. As you also know, I was often disappointed in my search, finding that many were not wise but only were thought to be or thought themselves to be so. It may be hard for you to believe, given Plato’s accurate, but incomplete depictions of me, how deeply I grieved over this discovery; for at bottom I have always wanted everything and everybody to be good.
This time around, then, I decided to take advantage of modern modes of transportation to visit the source; so on my recent trip back to Greece, I made my very first pilgrimage to Delfi, by bus from Athina. Of course the holy place was much the worse for wear, but … finally to lay my eyes on the Temple of Apollo! Despite the interior’s having been leveled to a bare outline on the ground, the mammoth front columns that once supported the inscribed lintel, set against the backdrop of a magnificent valley dense with olive groves extending all the way to the Gulf of Corinth, sufficed to elicit my deepest reverence for the home of wisdom.
“Know thyself!” I saw myself, more clearly than ever before, as the worthless fool I had always suspected myself to be. Even my devotion to philosophy is worthless, for philosophy is a hopeless pursuit. What I seek cannot be found, but is only a gift of the gods. For even though the great truths come tantalizingly closer with every philosophic insight, I fail to embody them now as much as ever. (I picture a child pressing his face into the candy store window, or I think of an asymptote.) Even as I learn more and more the truth of love, I feel ever greater contempt for those around me who fail to embody it. Hence, I become such a one myself. The sum total of human wisdom and philosophy seems to be a sense of one’s own worthlessness.
Religion, however, lifts this burden entirely, by enabling one to know one’s true identity as transcending the ego and embracing all. And this is known not just theoretically – how, I do not pretend to understand. Meanwhile I bide my time with an ersatz substitute, philosophy. Perhaps, then, I was properly prosecuted after all as an impostor of the pious.
Yours as ever,
Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.