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“Religion” is a word derived from the Latin verb “ligo” which means to bind or to harness. A person’s religion is that set of beliefs, code of conduct or even rules of etiquette by which he regards himself as “bound”. This can be a voluntarily accepted thing, accepted because it provides various advantages. These can vary from extra cash in the pocket to the conviction that the world would be a better place if “everyone were like me”. More often the advantage is that of belonging to a defined tribe, society, class or racial unit with the sense of entity and security which such belonging provides.

One can be bound by a religion simply because it promises “pie in the sky when I die”. Most religions promise life after death in some form, varying from the Islamic promise of beautiful gardens, flowing rivers and robes and a plenitude of coital opportunities, to the apparent “christian” essential, that grannie’s bones be “laid to rest”. For some illogical reason they must not be stirred into activity again until by archaeologists in 2000 years’ time. Meanwhile the elect stand around in white robes engaged in assorted musical activities.

One can also be bound by a religion because of threats of dire consequences if one is not. The Islamic apostate can be tortured and killed legitimately. According to Holy Writ, the Christian who fails to recognise the sanctity of a neighbour is projected into a lake of fire and the Jewish woman can be stoned for adultery. In apparently secular, civilised societies, there still remain dire penalties for crossing a divide between clan and clan. Freemasonry and other “Orders” set up divisions - even golf clubs do it. For the lower orders, there is always the football club to provide an identity, often defended with violence.

A religion can be imposed by authority or by society with the threat to the dissenter of being “cast out”, or, if you live in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan etc. shot. The need to belong is still an essential human need in spite of the coming of civilisation in its strict sense.

The acceptance of some form of religion and this need to belong is demonstrated by a public assent to commonly held beliefs and by conforming to various usages and disciplines. “I am not a religious person” said in this country, usually means that “I don’t go to Church”. A person who has no religion at all, is, however, very rarely found, if at all.

It is obviously necessary that the social need to share a common code of behaviour must lead to the setting up and agreeing to such a code and for parameters to be set, so how is this to be done ? “By a democratic process” is likely to be the answer of a western politician. In spite of the attempts over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years to establish democracy as a viable system, there is no instance of its ever working and producing any result by the total agreement of all. The setting-up of a discipline requires the imposition of such by an authority. That authority must command such fear, or respect and confidence, that its imposition of parameters is acceptable to the group to which they will apply, even if they are not wholly understood or completely agreed.

Social and political history show that to expect totalitarian authority to reside in any one human being or group indefinitely is to ask the impossible, if for no other reason that people die. “Ozimandias” is of significance in all ages. At one time a human being may appear totally competent and deserving of respect, confidence and affection. Sooner or later that same person is being criticised, vilified and condemned. The reason for this lies largely in the fact that in all of us lies the belief that in the end, we are as competent as anyone else, leadership is never infallible and we are “entitled to our own opinions”. We do not accept limiting parameters indefinitely from those with whom we share human fallibility and mortality.

Acceptance therefore of a social and moral imperative depends for its source and especially for its maintenance on there being a super-human, ultimate and timeless authority to whom the characteristic “religious” terms can be applied. This super-humanity may be called “God”, or its equivalent in other creeds and languages. Omnipotence, omniscience, immortality, infinity - both temporally and spatially - are attributes of the God, to which is added ineffability, to account for the impossibility of humanity having complete knowledge of “Him”.

W.J.G. 28.9.2003

© The Estate of William John Green, 2004