Religion without God
We often assume that religions and gods go hand in hand. This seems obvious to Westerners, who are familiar mainly with monotheistic and polytheist creeds. Yet the religious history of the world does not boil down to the history of gods. During the first millennium BC, religions of an altogether new kind began to spread through Afro-Asia. The newcomers, such as Jainism and Buddhism in India, Daoism and Confucianism in China, and Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism in the Mediterranean basin, were characterized by their disregard of gods.
These creeds maintained that the superhuman order governing the world is the product of natural laws rather than of divine wills and whims. Some of these natural-law religions continued to espouse the existence of gods, but their gods were subject to the laws of nature no less than humans, animals, and plants were. Gods had their niche in the ecosystem, just as elephants and porcupines had theirs, but could no more change the laws of nature than elephants can. A prime example is Buddhism, the most important of the ancient natural law religions, which remains one of the major faiths.
The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, some time around 500 BC. The young prince was deeply affected by the suffering he saw all around him. He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration, and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want ten. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age, and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?Read MoreClose