The Origins Of Religion in Universal Consciousness

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Beginning around the turn of the last century a number of German Protestant theologians became interested in the question of the essence and origin of religion. Underlying this interest was the assumption that all religions, including their own Christianity, were of common origin and similar essence. Historically speaking, of course, the religions appeared at different times and in different places, but philosophically speaking, they appeared for similar reasons. Obviously religions are quite differentiated from one another and speak different faith-languages. Nontheless, it can be argued that they grow from a common root that can be identified in terms of a universal human concern or existential condition. Some prominent leaders of this field of inquiry include Adolf Harnack [the presence of the eternal within time], Friederich Schliermacher [the feeling of absolute dependence], and Rudolph Otto [the idea of the holy]. In each case religion was said to emerge from a single identifiable concern, universally common to the human heart. The following article is presented in the spirit of that same inquiry.


In addressing the subject of the origins of religion one is always in danger of offending the devout who believe that true religion originates only through divinely given revelation, or the skeptics who maintain that religion is a human cultural product and thus heavily contrived if not outright fictional. My hope is that what I present here represents a "third way." I will state in advance that my while my theory is fully humanistic and phenomenological, it by no means repudiates the possibility or reality of revelation. I do claim, however, that religion as an attitude arises in the human heart prior to revelation, and insofar as revelations do exist they are, with few exceptions, sought and/or recognized by those hearts and minds that are religiously prepared for them, a priori.

Most reflective persons will agree that established religions at a particular stage of development have a structure that is clearly an inextricable mix of history, myth and ritual. Religions have wasted a lot of history as well as human lives in the process of bickering over which is true and correct, and in the struggle for dominance. In particular, this struggle to establish one's own blend of history, myth and ritual as "truth" begs the question: Is there anything of substance underneath it all? And if so, is that thing of substance common to the various religions? This, of course, is the question posed by the theologians listed above, and in the sections that follow we present yet another possible answer for consideration.


To begin our inquiry, let's break the world down into its very simplest building blocks. Scientists tell us the world consists of only two things--matter and energy. The laws of thermodynamics tell us matter and energy are interchangeable and can neither be created nor destroyed. But arguably there is a Third Thing, and this This Third Thing is consciousness. So at the very outset we are forced to ask ourselves, "Is consciousness, like everything else, constructed out of matter and energy, or it is something qualitatively different?" This is perhaps the most important of all human questions, and the answer is the key to everything we believe about ourselves.

In the materialistic scientific model, matter and energy are the two exclusive building blocks of everything, and consciousness itself is somehow constructed out of these building blocks as sort of a secondary, or derivative product. Consciousness, in this deterministic view, must (and eventually will) be explained in terms of its lowest building blocks, meaning not just the laws of biochemistry, but in terms of the even more foundational laws of physics . But why should we ever expect such an explanation? Science has never really "explained" matter or energy, much less consciousness, other than to enumerate their properties and apply them to technology. If science were ever to "explain" consciousness, it would be a case of "consciousness explaining itself," a paradox so startling as to render its own argument void. Science is best understood when we realize that it's determinism is purely methodological, and rightly so, but it does not follow that everything in the universe is thus constrained.


Recall that the first rule of formulating a good scientific hypothesis is to start with the most elegantly simple explanation, not the more complex. In this case the simple explanation is that there are not two but three building blocks, matter, energy, and consciousness, and all three are interchangeable, co-equal, eternal, neither created nor destroyed. From the standpoint of simple observation we routinely see that when matter/energy becomes assembled in more complex ways, it becomes increasingly conscious. Is not consciousness therefore the third partner of matter/energy, the underlying impulse that drives matter to self-assemble into complex forms in the first place? This makes consciousness not a product, but a progenitor of physics. If so, then it logically follows that there is a larger Consciousness (capital C) underlying what we know and experience as our individual consciousness. Indeed it could be said that we are only conscious as individuals because we participate in this larger (universal) Consciousness. This touches on the core idea of so many forms of mysticism, which is that the universe itself is enchanted and alive, not mindless and dead. To hold this viewpoint is the first step on the path to religiousness. Beyond that first step, of course, religion branches out in many directions. Some will heavily personify Consciousness in the form of one or more transcendent deities. Others will understand Consciousness to be thoroughly embedded within nature. At this point we have no concern with those or other branches of developed religion. Our inquiry is concerned only with the possibility of a common starting point to religious thought and feeling.


In terms of that starting point I propose that the definitive difference between the religious person and the non-religious person is that the non-religious person believes in the Two Things (matter, energy) and the religious person believes in the Three Things (matter, energy, consciousness). Religion builds on the intuitive certainty that consciousness is not a mere mechanical product of matter/energy. Consciousness therefore must transcend, be equal to, or be embedded within matter and energy. Even primitive people lacking the modern concept of matter/energy could certainty have noted that consciousness as experienced phenomenologically is qualitatively different from the routine mechanics otherwise observed in nature. With us they no doubt shared the feeling of not being responsible for one's own consciousness, and from there it is a simple step to externalize, project, and name the result "God." It is true in a sense that man always produces God, but that must be qualified by pointing out that this production is not only inevitable, but in fact impossible if God--or Universal Consciousness--did not actually exist. Thus in their awe for the living quality of the universe, as initially experienced within themselves, men proceeded to create an extensive anthology of legends and myths in response. Without even knowing the number or names of the Three Things they believed in, they fleshed them out in story. Christian myth comes breathtakingly close with its Holy Trinity of Father (energy), Son (matter), and Holy Spirit (consciousness). Myth has many names for God, but clearly they all refer to the unknown power that urges matter toward ever more complex forms, animates nature with consciousness, and even makes the ascent toward love possible.

See Also


1. Ken Wilber on Spiritual Growth