In her book, The Case for God, which I have previously blogged at length (July 16-19, 2009), Karen Armstrong proposes to tell us "What Religion Really Means." And she does, at length, at least by her lights. In her penultimate paragraph she writes:
From almost the very beginning, men and women…evolved mythologies, rituals and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfill their humanity…The point of religion was to live intensely and richly in the here and now. Religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance…Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain. They yearned for the courage to overcome their terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-hearted and justly and to inhabit every single part of their humanity.Well, maybe. In Armstrong's big book we hear little or nothing about religious wars, inquisitions, pogroms, jihads. One can be forgiven, I think, for asking Armstrong, "Do you read the newspapers?" Almost everywhere in the world today racked by violence, religion is implicated. In the States, religious fundamentalism is often associated with mean-spiritedness and intolerance. This is not to say that many religious people do not strive to live as Armstrong describes, only that she picks and chooses a rosy picture that has a tenuous connection to reality.
It is apparently a human characteristic to want stories, rituals and ethical disciplines that give a sense of meaning and purpose to life. And this may very well be what gave rise to the various institutional religions. Institutional religions are likely so universally embraced because they offer "off-the-shelf" stories, rituals and ethical disciplines that are readily passed down from generation to generation and bear the authority of tradition. They obviate the need to invent stories, rituals and ethical disciplines of one's own.
Perhaps the most significant result of the Scientific Revolution and subsequent Enlightenment was the freedom they gave us to pursue our own life enhancements. Henceforth, in those places where Enlightenment principles held sway, heresy was no longer a crime.