Sociology and Anthropology

Towards Understanding the Relation between Religions and Cultures in Southeast Asia

In the face of modernity and its erosion of traditional values, we need to preserve something of the wisdom of traditional culture. The traditional cultures have taken thousands of years to evolve and  are necessary to preserve. They are the carriers of the accumulated wisdom of the people since Antiquity. They give man a sense of belonging, acceptance, and assurance. They enshrine the values, which define meaning, guide, motivate, and lead people to fulfillment. We find cultural traditions still alive in the rural communities of Southeast Asia. It is to these communities that we need to turn to guide us on our road to the future.

The Significance of Religion

Marx wrote in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Religion is … the imaginary realization of human being, because human being possesses no true reality; Thus the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose aroma is religion … Religion is the opium of the people. The real happiness of people requires the abolition of religion, which is their illusory happiness.”1 Feuerbach argued in his The Essence of Christianity that “the secret of theology is anthropology.” Whatever man says about God is an expression in mystified terms of his knowledge about himself. “God is the imaginative projection of man’s species-essence, the totality of his powers and attributes raised to the level of infinity … man’s knowledge of God is an attempt to perceive himself in the mirror of exteriority; man exteriorizes his own essence before he recognizes it in himself, and the opposition between God and man is a ‘mystified’ version of the opposition between the species-being and the individual … Man asserts in God what he denies in himself.”2

Is religion really the opium of the people? The answer is both yes and no. There is a distinction between religion in principle and religion in practice. Religion in practice can be exploitative. In fact, exploitation by religion has been prevalent all over the world. One can think of the exploitative religious practices, for examples, in ancient India and Europe. The materialists known as Lokayatikas or Charvakas in ancient India held that only this world or loka is real. “The materialist theory had a good deal to do with the repudiation of the old religion of custom and magic.”3

The common man was weighed down by the burden of rituals in India in the sixth century BC. Orthodox Hinduism was excessively ritualistic. Many could not afford the cost of the rituals. Without the rituals, it was almost impossible to establish contact with the deity. Religion was in the hands of the priests. Priesthood had become almost priest-craft: “The masses of men were addicted to the ceremonies and observances prescribed by those who lived on food provided by the faithful … The priest who pretended to be the channel of divine power dominated the religion of the country … he pretended to be in the confidence of the gods and addressed the needy: ‘Son, make a sacrifice to God and a payment to me, and thy sins will be forgiven thee.’The system of salvation by silver could not answer to the deeper needs of the human heart.”4

Gautama Buddha was aware of this: “The cruel rites with which worship was accompanied shocked the conscience of Buddha.”5 He searched for a way to free people from the clutches of ritualism. His departure from orthodox Hinduism was a protest against all that was not humane. He was silent on God but emphatic on the practice of morality. His stand could be said to be that it is not necessary to be vociferous about God but obligatory to be good and do good. As the Christian Scripture says: “Not everybody who says to me ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.”6 Is it not the will of the Father in Heaven that people must be good and do good?

Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud vehemently opposed religion. For Marx, religion is part of the superstructure resting on the base of economics. In feudalistic Europe, the serfs would listen to the sermons by priests who exhorted them to obey their feudal masters. Their suffering on earth was negligible compared to the eternal happiness they would have in heaven after death. They were told: “You will get a pie in the sky after your die.” But the serfs were in need of the pier “here and now.” No wonder he considered religion as the opium of the people. Nietzsche was disgusted with the Christianity of his times and declared in his The Gay Science: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (aphorism 125). For Freud, religious beliefs are considered infantile illusions.

Yet just because religion has been abused by certain so-called religious people and others, it cannot merely be condemned as the opium of the people. Religion has been a panacea for the ills of the soul. In a country like India, from time immemorial there has been a longing to become one with the Divine. Earthly life has been understood as prelude to eternity. This longing expressed itself in simplicity, austerity, learning, meditation, and contemplation. This longing was manifest in philosophy, literature, music, painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, and so on, the antiquity of which is unparalleled in human history. Although secular themes too found their expression in human creation, the predominant theme was, of course, religious.


With the advent of Christianity, the barbaric tribes of Europe found themselves civilized and tamed. The barbarians were the Celts, Germans, Slavs, and others – “the non-Italic and non-Greek peoples of Europe who inherited the Greco-Roman civilization and formed most of the present-day European nations. Like the Italic peoples, they were speakers of Indo-European dialects.”7 Many were called to a life of holiness. Towering intellectuals like St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure were holy men. The founding of monastic orders by St. Benedict, St. Dominic, and St. Francis of Assisi, the Gothic cathedrals and the cathedral schools that eventually evolved into such great universities as Oxford, Cambridge, Padua, and Salamanca; the works of artists like Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci; and literary creations and immortal musical compositions – these were all inspired by religion. In the Islamic and Buddhist worlds, we also find amazing creations that evolved from deep religiosity.

Religion has been the bedrock of hope for millions of people down through the centuries. It has been the source of purpose and fulfillment in their lives. Religion has given them a reason to live and a meaning to their death. It has enabled them to live, to give, to forgive, to serve, to suffer for worthy causes, and to work for peace and unity. Without religion, the world would be engulfed in spiritual darkness. For millions of people, human life would be unthinkable without religion because they are guided by the precepts of their religions. The fact that people take their religions seriously indicates that man is not only a rational, social, and political animal, but also a religious animal. Scores of people have laid down their lives and are ready to do so even today in defense of the values upheld by their religions. Religion has a tremendous hold on man. Man, as a mortal being, realizes that death puts an end to his earthly existence. All his toil and moil will come to a halt one day. As Heidegger puts it, man is a being-towards-death. His life is fleeting, temporary, and finite. St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrates in him Summa Theologica that man has only one end: God.8 His happiness consists only in God, not in wealth, honors, fame, glory, power, bodily good, pleasure, some good of the soul, and created good. Is it not, then, wise to seek the ultimate reality, which is his final end and source of all happiness? Interestingly, Asia is the cradle of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so on. It is worth investigating into the relation between religions and cultures, especially in Southeast Asia.

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