THE WIDESPREAD SCEPTICISM towards religion today is neither new nor surprising, but something of perennial recurrence. Nor should it be regarded as something negative, as there are understandable reasons for it. But it’s sad that, while the opportunities exist for most of us to investigate various systems of thought that our ancestors had little or no access to, and construct a workable philosophy of life therefrom, many of us take no advantage of such opportunities. We prefer to remain ignorant, living like frogs in a well, thinking that our narrow and restricted views of the world are all that there is to be seen.

Like great numbers of people today, many of the ancient Romans were skeptical about religion, but saw it as a political expedient. At the same time, they were quite superstitious, and were still bound to supernatural-based religion. Eclectic by temperament, and not much caring which gods people worshipped, they adopted and incorporated the gods of conquered peoples into their pantheon, and used them for controlling the populace; the gods thus became guardians of the state, or spirit-police, and relieved the pressure on the armed legions in controlling and administering the empire. Although the practice of religion was often just a matter of empty formalism—then as now—it was sometimes considered a crime to be irreligious, as that could have a destabilizing effect on society, and such a thing, to the orderly Romans, was to be avoided at all costs; it is rather like the Constitution of Indonesia, which states that every citizen must have a religion and believe in God, because a person who doesn’t believe in God is an atheist, and atheism, in Indonesia, is/was synonymous with Communism, not realizing that Communism, to its devotees, is/was also a religion.

Nowadays, though many of us still claim to be religious and believe in this or that, our religiosity, in many cases, doesn’t run very deep or have much of a foundation in fact, so has no transforming effect upon our baser instincts, nor does it displace superstition. Many of us regard religion as something of a joke, an anachronism, or as something to be ashamed of, so it is not rare to hear people openly say they have no religion, though whether they really understand what they are saying or not is another matter; many of us speak without thinking much first, or repeat what others say, like parrots, just as we copy others in fashion.

There is a great need to redefine religion in terms of the way we live today, for religion—like society—exists for the individual, not the other way around; it is, or should be, a thing we can make use of, not something that crushes us or forces us into ‘jelly-moulds’ of undifferentiated conformity.

While many people have abandoned religion completely, and are ‘at sea’ without rudder or direction in life, some are still religious at heart, in the sense of living by principles that are important to them. We must try to strip away the accretions and externalities, and help people find the essence of religion; the names and forms are not important, as long as we can understand and live by the essence. Even so, some people would ask: "But why should we bother with even the essence?" And I would say: Because we live together with others, and, to live harmoniously, we must understand certain things about living communally; if we do not, cannot, or will not accept the responsibilities of communal life, then we cannot reasonably expect the rights and privileges of such living, either, but should leave the community, and go to live elsewhere. The rights are accompanied by the responsibilities, and we cannot expect to enjoy one without accepting the other; this is something we must face honestly.

Not long ago, I heard someone ask another man a rather common question: "Are you religious?" He replied: "Well, I used to be; I used to be a Catholic." This reply was rather revealing; it implied that unless one goes under a particular brand-name like ‘Christian,’ ‘Buddhist,’ ‘Hindu,’ ‘Muslim,’ etc., one cannot be considered religious, nor consider oneself so. But this is absurd, and in stating so, I want to try to convey a much broader and truer meaning of what it means to be religious that might cause some people to say: "Well, in that case, I suppose I am religious after all!"

Not bothering to investigate or question, many of us have fallen under the tyranny of words, living only superficially, accepting things on others’ authority, thinking that, just because we know the words, we thereby know the things the words represent. Why are we so easily satisfied and anaesthetized? In spite of our education—actually, in my opinion, it is because of it—we have become dull and mediocre; maybe this is because, being state-operated, and available to almost everyone—easily available—with no need to strive or search for it, education has lost its intrinsic value, and rather than being seen as a way to overcome ignorance and en-lighten us, is looked upon merely as a means to enable us to earn a living later on, and little else; thus, it keeps us within the realm of ignorance, rather than liberating us therefrom. Moreover, education is largely in the hands of people who teach from their pockets instead of from their hearts, and who are therefore just as much victims as those they teach. And so we get only a partial education; because of the overwhelming emphasis on academic success, so much is neglected or regarded as unimportant, such as an overall sense of values, and we end up getting half-baked. The education-systems of the world are, for the most part, sad failures, if we look at their end results. But, if we cannot change them immediately—and we cannot, of course—we must beware, so that their negative influence on us and our children can be minimized. It means that we must think, and right now, many of us do not think, as we have not been taught how to think; we’ve only been taught what to think, and have been restricted by curricula. But must we remain forever in this state? Not unless we wish to; there are alternatives.

What I mean is that we shouldn’t just commit ourselves or our children into the hands of others to be ‘educated,’ but should realize that our education depends largely upon how we go about learning. Instead of just accepting whatever information is pumped into us, like petrol into a car, we should be aware of what’s going on, so that we remain in control of ourselves, and do not succumb to the pressure to conform to the standards of others. It doesn’t mean that we should drop out and abandon our academic education, but that we should read between the lines, and be at least one step ahead of the education-system.

We have more knowledge now than people have ever had before, but must realize that there is danger in having so much knowledge, for the more knowledge we accumulate, the more ‘out on a limb’ we get. Why is there danger? Anyone who needs to ask this question is in greater danger than those who don’t. Knowledge, as Francis Bacon said long ago, is Power, and we must know how to use it properly, otherwise it can cause a great deal of damage. For many years now, we’ve had the unprecedented knowledge and power, through the splitting of the atom, to destroy the planet, and it is indeed a wonder that we haven't yet done so; we have come near to it several times. Previously, our capacity to create havoc was limited.

Now, most people do not like being told what to do, and many of us resent it; this is quite normal. Some people even take a perverse delight in breaking laws just to feel good, and not because they really disagree with the laws.

Lawlessness increases because people refuse to replace the restraint of external authority with self-restraint, but just do whatever they feel like doing; they consider this freedom, when in reality, it is abuse of freedom, and in the end will only hurt themselves; the really sad thing about it, though, is that before it hurts themselves, their lack of restraint causes a lot of trouble and grief to others. When we live together with others, we cannot—or rather, should not—do just whatever we like, but must recognize the limits and the need for restraint; and to restrain oneself out of consideration for others does not mean weakness, as some people appear to think, but strength.

Tell people what to do and what not to do, and something inside them wants to resist, just to prove that "I don’t need or want anyone to tell me what to do!" This attitude is really something to be understood, so that we may try a different approach in getting people to live responsibly.

Not long ago, while staying with my sister in England, someone came to visit her, bringing along her little boy. This child, not getting his own way over something or other, threw a tantrum and started to cry. His mother and others told him to stop crying, but it had no effect, so I said to him: "Cry louder! Cry some more! Don’t stop!" whereupon he stopped crying. Perhaps this is the meaning of the old Jewish-Christian myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: God had placed them in this beautiful garden and provided them with all kinds of fruit-bearing trees, so that all they needed to do was pick and eat. But there was one tree that he forbade them to eat the fruit of, and that was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Being forbidden to eat that fruit, however, that was the very fruit they wanted to eat most, in spite of the fact that they had so many other kinds of fruit; so, finally, they incurred God’s wrath by eating the forbidden fruit. But was God so ignorant of the psychology of the humans he had created that he could not foresee this? Maybe he should have eaten some of that fruit himself, instead of getting mad with Adam and Eve and expelling them from the Garden into the wilderness; it really wasn’t very understanding or skillful of him, unless that is what he intended to happen. Tell people to do a thing, and they don’t want to do it; tell them not to do it, and they want to do it. Must we, therefore, tell them to do something when we don’t want them to do it, and not to do a thing when we want them to do it? Sometimes, we have to confuse and trick people into thinking clearly for themselves and doing the right thing. Morality, or responsible living, must come from within us, rather than without, must be something that we choose to do rather than being forced or cajoled to do it; it must be first-hand and direct rather than second hand; it must be ours rather than someone else’s. If we are intelligent and responsible, we will not need anyone to tell us what to do or what not to do, but will do it ourselves simply because we know it should or should not be done; we will not need someone standing behind us with a gun, threatening punishment if we disobey or promising rewards for doing what we are told.

If we are given knowledge—and as said before, it is given to all-and-sundry, haphazardly—there is a great risk that it will be misused; the old cliché: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing", is not only true, but is much more true of much knowledge! Do our educators ever warn us of the dangers and liabilities of knowledge? Are we always shown how to use it properly? Or are the educators—as I suspect most of them to be—ignorant of the dangers themselves, merely passing on their dangerous information to others? How shall the blind lead the blind, without both falling into the ditch? By doling out knowledge to all-comers as we do, we are producing walking time-bombs (even if it’s only in a small proportion of cases). We must be prepared to receive knowledge—must be educated to be educated—and not just have it thrust upon us; there must be some kind of initiation, some screening, some probation, otherwise, what should be a boon may easily become a curse.

Not many of us are aware of how we ride upon the backs of other people throughout our entire lives, and so, maybe there is an excuse—though it’s a very poor excuse, and nothing to be proud of—for our ingratitude: Ignorance. The present is like the snow-cap on a mountain-peak: it rests on the past, on all that was before it. Behind and beneath us lie all the great thinkers, sages, scientists, statesmen, artists, musicians, philosophers, inventors, discoverers, explorers, and heroes (we will disregard the overwhelming numbers of foolish people, rogues, tyrants, villains that were there too, though we cannot dismiss them entirely; they also had their parts to play). Countless millions of our ancestors lived, struggled, suffered, sacrificed and died in order to contribute their ideas, labors, inventions and discoveries to posterity, so that people who they never dreamed about, like you and I, could inherit and benefit from them. But many of us take this incalculable wealth for granted, thinking that all we need to do is stretch out a hand and pick it, like ripe fruit on a tree; seldom do we think about what is involved in the things we use; we are so thoughtless and ungrateful. This is a tragedy, and will surely cause us harm, for it is not our knowledge, born of our own struggles and experiences, but is second-, third-, or multi-hand. We must beware, and not treat it lightly, as it is a double-edged sword.

It is true that we have vast knowledge; it has been thrust upon us. But we are deficient in Wisdom, and this is why it is so easy to misuse and abuse our knowledge, or not to use it to its full extent. Indeed, without wisdom to guide it, we would be better off without most of our knowledge, as it can be so destructive. It has been said that "Knowledge maketh man". Yes, but what kind of man? It gives us greater capacity than those without knowledge, but how we use this increased capacity depends largely upon character. Take this, as an example: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have already been several cases of people caught trying to sell weapons’-grade plutonium on the black-market, to anyone who has money enough to pay and who wants it—and they were asking only nominal sums! So far, we have heard only of those who were caught, not of those who were not. And we shall probably see more of this kind of thing as we go on; this is only the beginning. It is feared that nuclear-scientists and bio-technologists, thrown out of work by ‘peace,’ may sell their expertise—their knowledge—to anyone who will pay—and there are plenty of other madmen in the world besides Saddam Hussein! The Cold War is behind us, but the very thought of this new threat is terrifying, for the super-powers at least had a good reason for maintaining a par with each other, and restraining themselves, from fear of mutual destruction. We are still a long way from feeling secure. For personal gain, some people are prepared to jeopardize the whole world—not realizing that they are included. Knowledge they might have; wisdom they do not.

How, then, might we acquire the wisdom to enable us to control and use our knowledge non-dangerously? By understanding ourselves in relation to other people and things, by opening our hearts and minds, by seeing things in perspective. If we no longer thought in an isolated, narrow and distorted way about ourselves, we would not rapaciously exploit things as we now tend to do, taking just whatever we can get in our unquenchable fear and greed, but, out of gratitude and responsibility, we would be more concerned about what we can put back, what we can contribute to our world. In other words: Love the place you’re in, regardless of the fact that you might have been born elsewhere; we had no choice about where we were born, but we can decide how we are going to live. It is our world—the only one we have. It’s a pity to waste it in the hope that the ‘hereafter’ will be better; nobody knows about the hereafter; maybe it exists only in our imagination.

Now, although wisdom cannot be transmitted, in the sense that we cannot force anyone to understand if they are not ready to or don’t want to, it is possible to make it available, to nurture it, to provide a much more complete education than is presently provided, to impart to our children a sense of the interconnectedness of things, and the sanctity of life, to demonstrate the cause-and-effect nature of our relationships with other people and things, so that they might develop a more humane, realistic and complete vision of how to live in the world.

If we can—as we do—teach children to be selfish, ambitious, greedy, competitive, acquisitive, arrogant and thoughtless towards others—if not by our words, then by the example of our behavior—it should also be possible to instill in them some of the finer human qualities, even though it might not be so easy. This used to be considered the function of religion, but why should it be excluded from secular education when it is so important? It should be an integral part of an all-round education. And such an education, by leading us to understand that each of us is a vital member of the world, and has a role to play in it, will also help us discover what it means to be religious. It is not a matter of belief or acceptance of a particular creed, but of seeing how things are, and such seeing might bring about a much-needed transformation. The role of the educator, therefore, is one of tremendous importance, in that it facilitates self-realization.

Do not be content with dictionary definitions, nor with the definitions of other people, but strive to come to a direct understanding of things by yourself; it is essential to do so.

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