There are at least more ways to address human needs than there are such needs.
Religion is one but not the only way to do so. There are many religions. All are valid for those to whom they speak.
The same is true for non-religious approaches to meeting human needs. I shall concentrate on how my religious heritage meets some basic human needs. That does not mean what works so perfectly for me and mine will work as well for others. Neither does it mean that even if it works well, it will work best for others. In this life, each of us has to find that path which yields us the most abundant way to responsibly live our lives.
Each of us has the right to seek those pathways which speak most meaningfully to us. All of us have the responsibility to safeguard that same right for those around us. Not in spite of, but because they may disagree with us.
Freedom entails responsibility. Each of our rights begins with us. They end where the rights of others start. The question is not which approach is best, but for whom it is best. That is something every one of us must answer for ourselves. It is not something which we can answer for others who are old enough to correctly select for themselves. Parents still must raise children. Adults get to choose.
A brief look at the history of western civilization discloses that there are two non-compatible needs within each of us as individuals, and within our larger communities and societies. There are individual and collective needs.
Individual needs involve addressing what makes us unique, different from one another. Until we know ourselves, we will not know how and where we fit into the grand scheme of things. A lack of self-knowledge leads to failure to self-actualize. If we do not know our strengths, how can we lead from them? If we do not know our weaknesses, how can we shore them up? We can get lost in a society which is too focused on collective identity. We run the risk of losing our identity. We would be unable to pursue our need fulfillment. We would be prevented for achieving our individual potential.
If we focus excessively on ourselves, we will never connect properly with those around us. We will never be able to build large complex societies which diversify labor, and yield abundance. We will all be out for ourselves, and never get as much accomplished alone as we would together. We would also be very alienated, and lonely in our existence.
In the Biblical, Medieval, Socialist and Communist society’s collectivism reigned. Freedom was being free from doing things individually. The Tribes, Kingdoms, and State rules absolutely. We were free from worrying about ourselves. The larger entity took care of our needs. We were free to work for its benefit, in exchange for patronage.
In the Hellenistic, Renaissance, and modern Capitalist and Democratic societies, we are free to look out for ourselves, and free from oppressive government regulation.
In either case, we are still individuals with certain freedoms for self fulfillment and expression. We still have to follow societal rules, and support larger entities. It is a question of extent in which society we find ourselves. Will it be those that lean to collectivism or those who tilt toward individualism?
As we have seen historically, when societies get out of balance, there is a pendulum swing to compensate. If we get too involved in the collective, we lose too much of whom we are as individuals. If we focus too much on ourselves, that breaks down into solipsistic chaos.
My heritage gives us the opportunity for both. It is not the only one to do this. It is what best works for me and mine.
“Henei Mah tov u’mah nayim, shevit achim gam yachad”. “Behold, how good it is to sit together as brothers”. In the words to this great Hebrew song we see the obvious benefits emotionally of being a part of Klal Yisrael (the People o f Israel). I can and have traveled all over this planet. Where ever I go, whatever language, history, culture, government, or economy I find myself within, I can always go to the nearest Jewish Congregation.
Speaking Hebrew, whatever the local language, I can immediately connect with locals with whom I share many great ideals and values which stood the test of time, and always will. I can pray the same words my people have prayed for thousands and thousands of years in the company of others who do the same daily. Where ever I go, I am never alone. I will always find a safe haven, and place of immediate acceptance and connection with others.
None of this cramps my style individually. Over the course of my life I have had the privilege of fulfilling many meaningful roles. Examples of this are being a husband, father, grandfather, student, teacher professor, soldier, CEO, Board Director, Rabbi, Chaplain, author and guest speaker.
Using the Biblical Lady Hannah as my role model, I prayed for certain talents, that I may use them in the Service of G-d by being there for fellow members of the human family, whatever we do and do not have in common. I and mine opine that we are all children of the same G-d, all equally beloved and important. We should be there for each other.
My religion gives me laws, customs, and traditions to follow so that I may live out my time in this phase of existence in a manner responsible, fulfilling, meaningful, and joyous. It gives me holidays and festivals to celebrate the good times. It provides time with others to reflect on what I am, and am not yet. This allows for collective improvement. It offers common languages, history, culture, life guidelines, culinary formats (kosher) which bind me to others, and act as ice breakers to meet kindred spirits anywhere I go. I am always instantly connected to those like me in important ways.
It gives me a vast body of literature from which to learn alone and with others. To pray, study, think, write and add to that body of works. Without a moral compass, one can rapidly get lost in this life. There are too many corrupting influences around us. Give anyone an anchor, and that person will give you a universe. Plant a tree with no roots, and it will blow over in the fist mild breeze.
As Rabbi Hillel once wrote in Pirke Avoth (Sayings of the Fathers), Eem ain anili, mili? Emm lo besheevli, leyats mee? Veh eem loh akshav, ad matai?” “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?
If not now when? This is a very good question. My heritage gives answers needed to address fundamental needs. What is the best set of things to do with my life?
I’m not religious, but I do think that religion meets some of our human needs. Why else would it have stuck around so long? Even before Christianity, Islam and Judaism were around, other religions flourished because they met the needs of their societies. We can see the same when it comes to the religions of today.
Atheists are coming to this realization, also. For example, in the UK, the first atheist church has opened its doors. Even in the US, atheists are beginning to have an influence in the religious community:
In September, All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, launched a new service directed at atheists and humanists. The weekly “religious” gathering, like most other church services, meets on Sunday mornings. Called “The Point,” the weekly non-theist gathering was created by the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar when he realized that, despite rejecting God, many non-believers are caring individuals who have a need for community.
“These are people who are not inspired to live their lives a certain way by ideas of God or by Scripture but who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death,” he told Tulsa World.
Religion has stuck around so long because it offers things we need or want. The news story above outlines this nicely. Some atheists want to feel that sense of community that churches offer. They want to mingle with others of like-mind, sing, tell jokes, hear speeches and enjoy life in that fashion. Atheists will sometimes go to church to attain that sense of community, even though they don’t believe in the deity being discussed.
We are social animals and religion seems to meet that social aspect of our natures, better than most.
Religion is also very good at bringing people together – for good or ill. I’ve made the argument before that religion is divisive. I still think that it is, but it can also bring people together.
For example, when my 45 day old grandson passed away, religion helped a lot of people cope. It didn’t help me cope in the least, but for many of my friends and family members, it helped them tremendously.
We also see this when churches come together to raise funds for charity. I would think even the most hardened atheist has to admit that churches do a good job with this.
However, humanists and people of no faith are beginning to do the same. Do I think no other organization can do as well as – or surpass – the church in the charity realm?
I think non-faith groups can do just as good a job. But for right now, about 80% of the population identifies as being Christian and that is a statistic that can’t be ignored.
Finally, I think humans want ritual and religion offers that to them. Just look at the Catholic Church, for example. Many of the most successful religions also help assuage guilt over ‘misdeeds’. Most of us feel guilty sometimes and religion offers a way to free ourselves from that guilt.
I’m not saying that I think it’s the right way, but the fact remains that it does serve that need. I think the human species can find better ways, but for the moment, religion fills that need.