What is it that distinguishes man from all other creatures on earth? Okay, yes, he is the only being who markets both chia pets and the Hooked On Phonics program. He is the only living organism who worries about the percentage of bran in his diet. And he alone lip-synchs to Neil Diamond tunes at karaoke bars.
But perhaps more importantly, only man asks questions: Where does the sun go after nightfall? What is the nature of good and evil? How did Snookie get to be a star?
For the individual searching for the answers to the great questions, for guidance about how to live, for the meaning of life itself -- the wisdom of Dr. Phil wasn't available until modern times. Hence, the need for religion.
What is religion? That is a question with which minds far greater than ours have been wrestling for centuries, and continue to debate today. Obviously, they have a great deal of time on their hands. Perhaps they should get a real job like the rest of us, and find out how exhausting it can be at the end of the day. Then we'd see how much time they'd spend nit-picking over definitions of religion. They make me sick. But I digress.
There are some people who believe that the word "religion" comes from a word in an ancient language meaning Tree. And religions, are, in many ways, like trees. They begin with a seed. Some do not develop at all. Some die young. And some grow into towering heights with many flourishing branches. Had "religion" come from a word meaning "corn dog," the comparison would have been far more difficult.
Throughout the historical development of all cultures, two things have been present: a religious system, and the practice of making snide remarks about people's clothing and body shape after they've left the room.
Some belief systems stress the individual nature of religion as a personal experience. Others emphasize its social dimension. Still others encourage screaming loudly for hours while sacrificing livestock to Ochmar, Infernal Ruler of the Sixth Netherworld. But why burden you with the noise problems I'm having with my stand-offish new neighbors?
Whatever the denomination, the various religions are viewed as different paths to the Divine. In some religions, the Divine is attained in this lifetime. In others, it is in the next. And still in others, it occurs after ingesting a substance coming in after nightfall on a boat from Lebanon.
One of religion's goals is to acquaint man with both the "animal" and the "divinity" within him. If the O.J. Simpson trial taught us nothing else, it is that even the most admired, celebrated men contain both the animal and the divine. Unfortunately for Simpson, both these parts of him were billed by his lawyers.
The great religions see man as a potential microcosm -- a being who contains in himself all the forces of creation and destruction that operate in the universe. Because, however, this is true of all men, most employment experts view it as unnecessary to feature on one's resume.
In a general sense, the ideas, symbols, and rituals of religious traditions are meant to serve as instruments to help us experience what is taken to be our exalted cosmic destiny. Which is not to say that those who are not religious cannot realize their exalted cosmic destiny. They just must reach it through other means, such as the 1-900 Wet & Nasty Hotline, or by finishing a pint of Haagen-Dazs Deep Chocolate Fudge in one sitting. Or, at least, so I've heard.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are among the largest, most well-known religious groups. But there have been hundreds of religions throughout history, most of which are no longer in existence. Yet in their time, they offered something of value to their followers, before disappearing and turning into crossword puzzle answers, much as Ross Perot and Dan Quayle.
For those fascinated by these "extinct" religions, the newly published, Complete Guide To Religions Throughout History is a goldmine of information. Though many feel its publisher compromised its integrity and believability by packaging it with How To Quit Your Job And Survive By Betting On Horses, those keeping an open mind will find much of value:
GEORGEISM Founded in 563 B.C. by George Shmockner. Beliefs: 1) All existence is permeated by people earning less money than you do who are determined to make your life a special hell. 2) The source of suffering is waiters who seat you right next to restrooms. 3) Do unto others and then run like the dickens. Major holiday: Anniversary of the day George banged his head on the bedpost and had a vision of his wife hiring a feminist lawyer and suing him for every penny he had. Two weeks later, this, in fact, occurred exactly as envisioned.
CONSUMERISM Founded in 1952 by Lanny Muckween. Beliefs: 1) The Divine is present in purchased items that you don't really need but feel would be kind of neat to own. 2) The Trinity: Popeil Pocket Fisherman, Ginsu Knife, Chia Pet. 3) The greater the look of disgust on your spouse's face when he or she first sees the purchased item, the holier it is. Major Holiday: St. Manny's Day -- patron saint of fly-by-night snake-oil salesmen.
Psychologists now generally recognize that the great mystics understood aspects of human nature that have eluded the vision of modern science. Still, neither the great mystics nor modern science have yet to come up with an adequate explanation for the existence of Don King -- though research continues.
Interestingly, thousands of groups have formed within recent years around teachers who have migrated from the East. While some of these teachers have genuine religious credentials, others have, unfortunately, been found to be frauds, charlatans, and, in one case, a member of the New Delhi Witness Protection Program.
The Hare Krishna sect is one of the better known examples of the "new religions" that have attracted many young Western people. Inspired by ancient teachings of the Orient, the Krishnas offer not only a spiritual center, but also the golden opportunity to get back at your parents by shaving your head, wearing bright orange robes, and harassing your Aunt Edna at the airport. And don't tell me God's not getting a chuckle or two out of that.
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