A Brief Contrast between Eastern and Western Religions
by Edwin L. Young, PhD
November 7, 2005
Buddhism and Taoism have always fascinated me. The following is a brief comparison of Eastern and Western religions. One way in which they are very different from the Christian and other Western religions’ historical traditions is that emphasize focusing on worshipping and personally communicating with a transcendent god, typically referred to as prayer. They tend to relate to the world in a secondhand way through the medium of on words and the Word represented by their holy scriptures. They also focus on the need to be saved by a superhuman and divine being, often through a single instant of conversion. A need for death and resurrection or rebirth of the soul is prominent.
Western religions typically hold a belief in a reified, singular soul as an entity that is immortal. Perhaps because of the emphasis on the soul, they also tend to have an ideology that organizes their societies in ways that focus on the individual, the singular person, in contrast to the external world and external structures. The individual is the locus of causation of evil acts rather than the nature of their society. The community of otherworldly believers separates itself from outsiders who are deemed infidels, unbelievers, and sinners. Most of Western religions maintain a belief in a divinely ordained end to the world (the rapture in Christianity) that is replaced with a redeemed new world populated solely by the elect. Throughout the centuries, this end has been prophesized as being imminent.
I suppose, because we Westerners have such a different concept of religion, Buddhism would not fit our definition. Neither would Taoism, Confucianism, or Native Indian Nature worship fit our definition. On the other hand, the religions of ancient Rome; Greece; and Egypt are similar in many ways to Christianity. Similarly, Judaism; Islam; Mormonism; Totem worshippers; and others all have god(s) that are transcendent. Often their gods are represented by such things as a special human, animals or physical objects.
Western religions tend to receive their dictums, scriptures, and such directly from either otherworldly spirits or gods or from some other invisible and supernatural, external 'holy' sources. However, these supernatural messages are typically received in a mysterious and plenary manner by a person regarded as somehow more ‘holy’ than others of their group are. In other words, these messages from above are not simply a result of mere human inspiration. Belief in Holy Scriptures, doctrines, dogma, prescriptive and prohibitive laws, and conversion and salvation rituals are more prominent in the West than the East. In this respect, all Western religions are similar. Contrariwise, it is interesting to note that 'teachings for a way of life' by wise men is of primary importance in the non-Western religions. The followers of these wise men gradually incorporate and mature into the essence of these teachings.
One of the most important characteristics of Western religions, which differentiate them from Eastern religions, is that of the dualism of good versus evil. In an oddly contradictory or inconsistent way, the non-judgmental principal, so central to the teachings of Jesus, is actually undermined or made impossible by the fundamental underlying dualistic worldview. Western religions are doomed to a continuous losing struggle toward the goal of being non-judgmental. They cannot see that the good-evil dualism is actually an inescapable cause of and mandate to take a judgmental stance toward everything in their universe, especially each other.
The only resolution to having an evil world created by a good and all-powerful god is for the world to be destroyed and recreated. There has been an enduring ancient belief that is in fashion around the world today. This is a belief among Christians and others that an Armageddon will come to pass some day. This view is currently promulgated by the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. See: (http://www.highbeam.com/library/docfree.asp?DOCID=1G1:57800240&num=1&ctrlInfo=Round18%3AProd%3ASR%3AResult&ao=&FreePremium=BOTH ).
They posit the establishment of a good or perfect ‘new heaven and new earth’. They await the "Kingdom of God" which, at some future but impending date, will be established and supersede this present evil and diseased world. This new world is conceived of as being perfect, with no evil, pain, disease, or death. In other words, the bottom line is that Western religions reject ‘this’ world. This is one of the primary reasons why fundamentalists are not concerned with preserving the environment, as it is all supposed to pass away and be replaced with the unblemished ‘Kingdom of God on Earth’.
Since most Churchgoers do not question their religion and do not think about its nature in global and philosophical terms, they cannot see the disastrous consequences of so many aspects of their seemingly beautiful and comforting, personal salvation oriented, religion. With the focus on personal salvation and peace of mind, they do not see beyond, or extend their care beyond, themselves, family, and local church. They do not venture into exploring, studying, and considering what the other churches, religions, or alternative worldviews are like. Their minds’ ‘arena’ is very small. Essentially, Western religions and their sects, denominations, and individual churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. are like inverted enclaves of negative narcissism. This is an odd state of affairs since such a preponderance of their teachings is about love and care for others, even enemies and sinners.
Something like a deep and thorough combined cultural anthropological-psychoanalytic-natural systems type of analysis needs to be done on the subject of these internal contradictions in Western religions, but who would have the guts to do it. Maybe someone like Salmon Rushdie or Alan Watts?