In the early days of our development as a species, when we began using our expanding intelligence to work out how we could better manage our lives, we came up with the idea that it made sense to distinguish between behaviour which was good, i.e which promoted the wellbeing of the group, and behaviour which was bad, i.e. which in some way compromised the integrity of the group. Cooperative, generous, kind behaviour would fall in the first category and competitive, selfishness and cruel behaviour in the latter. We imagined the perfect model of good behaviour and that became our ideal. And so we began using self-discipline and group discipline to try to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.
The problem with having an ideal of good behaviour as our guide is that an ideal, by it’s very nature, cannot be fully met. We can always imagine how we could behave better. The word “sin” means “to miss the mark”. Some of us use the term to refer to those instances when we miss the mark of ideal behaviour. Initially we were very forgiving of our “sins”, but the problem with having this unreachable ideal in front of us is that it will gradually tend to erode our self-acceptance. We will begin to feel guilty. When we suffer in any way it tends to direct our attention back onto ourselves. It makes us selfish. So the more we experienced feelings of guilt the less emotional room we had to open up to feel generously towards others. Thus, in the absence of something which could make us feel – on a deep level – that our “sins” were forgiven, the demand that we be good would tend to undermine our capacity to meet it. It could turn into a negative feedback loop. If the demand for good behaviour became too oppressive we would fall into depression, or we might feel compelled to defy it – we might become malevolent and attack the very idea of goodness itself.
Let’s imagine ourselves living in a village beneath a volcano. One day the volcano erupts and the lava flows down destroying half of our village. Now, if we were not feeling guilty – not insecure about our own worth – we would say to ourselves : “Hmmm. It appears that this mountain is dangerous. It can spit out a river of fire which can destroy our village, so we had better move our village further away from it.”
But, because of our psychological condition, that is not what we think. We think : “The volcano is angry at us. If we don’t want to be destroyed, we must make a sacrifice to it.”
So it was this erosion of self-acceptance as a result of our mind’s arrival at the idea that we should pursue ideal behaviour which caused us to deviate from a naturalistic approach to living in the world, what we might later call the scientific approach of observing natural phenomena and trying to identify the patterns in such behaviour which might improve our ability to manage our life in the world.
This is not to put down religion. Religion has been crucial to our survival as a species. It has been our way of exploring and managing our psychological condition. While it could manifest as superstitious brutality, for example the Aztec habit of cutting out men’s hearts to try to pacify the god of the sun, it has also produced – in the principles of Buddhism, Taoism and the Christian gospels, etc. – invaluable advice on how we can live harmoniously and optimistically together in spite of the tendency toward despair and malevolence with which our struggle to achieve ideal behaviour has saddled us.
Perhaps in understanding this wider context we can more easily restore our self-acceptance and, as a result, come to fully express our capacity for generous, loving behaviour. The religious approach to life and the scientific approach can be reconciled. And the lives of all of us can improve to the extent that we may discover the true meaning of the word “paradise”.