Religion and Human Nature

Religion and Human Nature

Religion and Human Nature

Religion and Human Nature


Continuing Keith Ward's series on comparative religion, this book deals with religious views of human nature and destiny. The beliefs of six major traditions are presented: the view of Advaita Vedanta that there is one Supreme Self, unfolding into the illusion of individual existence; the Vaishnava belief that there is an infinite number of souls, whose destiny is to be released from material embodiment; the Buddhist view that there is no eternal Self; the Abrahamic belief that persons are essentially embodied souls; and the materialistic position that persons are complex material organisms. Indian ideas of rebirth, karma, and liberation from samsara are critically analysed and compared with semitic belief in the intermediate state of Sheol, Purgatory or Paradise, the Final Judgement and the resurrection of the body. The impact of scientific theories of cosmic and biological evolution on religious beliefs is assessed, and a form of 'soft emergent materialism' is defended, with regard to the soul. In this context, a Christian doctrine of original sin and atonement is presented, stressing the idea of soterial, as opposed to forensic, justice. Finally, a Christian view of personal immortality and the 'end of all things' is developed in conversation with Jewish and Muslim beliefs about judgement and resurrection.


There exists a wide range of views about human nature, about what human beings essentially are, and what their proper relationship is to other beings and to the wider universe in which they exist. The religious traditions of the world, which develop a number of communal interpretations of the insights of their originating prophets or teachers, enshrine distinctive views of human nature and destiny.

What seems to be characteristic of most religious views of human nature is that they relate human life in some way to a supramaterial realm of spirit or mind, whether spirit is conceived as one or many, as substantial or as in continual flux. The major differences between religious traditions in these respects are about whether all human selves are essentially pure spirits, whether they are embodied and substantial selves, or whether they are composed of simpler, mostly spiritual (i.e. non-material) elements, which are either appearances of one non-dual reality or without any underlying substantial basis.

At one extreme, there is the view that human beings are essentially spiritual, indeed that they only appear to be individual souls and bodies. In fact, bodies are not essential to them, and even their individuality is an illusion or appearance. The non-dualistic school of Vedanta--Advaita--teaches that the Supreme Self, Sat-Cit- Ananda, unfolds into the illusion of separated and conflicting individuality. Spiritual practice consists in overcoming the illusion of separateness, and achieving a sense of non-duality, the pure unity of universal consciousness, which frees one from worldly desires into the liberated awareness of a wider 'ocean of blissful being'. The spiritual goal is to obtain release from earthly embodiment and from the illusion of distinct embodied individuality. These views are mostly found in some Indian religious traditions, though they are found in Plato and in strands of slightly heterodox Western religious thought which have Neoplatonic roots.

In a rather different interpretation of the spiritual practice of non-attachment, the Indian school of Sankhya-Yoga holds that . . .

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