Is Religion the biggest impediment to progress in the modern world ?

And do you think that unto such as you

A maggot minded, starved , fanatic crew

God gave a secret, and denied it to me?

Well, well — what matters it? Believe that too!

-THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYAM

(RICHARD LE GALLIENNE TRANSLATION)

The young man boards the bus as it leaves the station. He wears an overcoat. Beneath an overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. These are facts. These are what we know for certain about the man. Is there anything else we can infer about him on the basis of these facts? Was he popular is school? Was he rich or poor? Was he intelligent or not? Did he have a college education? His actions are simply mute on questions of this sort. Why is it , then, not so difficult  to guess this man’s religion?

One does not have to strive to look very hard to find examples of Religious violence and the misusing of Religious ideologies for political purposes. Even today, in 2017, politics is rife with religious rhetoric, sometimes feeding off the hatred that these ideologies evoke. Some critics have even said that India’s Secular tradition has slumped and that the state is tilting towards fascism with the rise of Hindu Nationalism. The Partition in 1947 which led to the formation of the Dominions of India and Pakistan resulted in a conflict that has not been resolved even after 70 years. One cannot downplay the significance and role of religion in the Partition. Ambedkar, in his speech, “One country, two nations’ made a distinction between the “Hindu Nation” and the “Mohammedan Nation.” Religious-based violence and militarism has been present as early as the 11th century during the The Crusades which  were a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Latin Church in the medieval period, especially the campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean aimed at recovering the Holy Land from Islamic rule. Max Weber was the first to predict that there would be a “clash of civilizations” between Islamic Fundamentalism and the West in late 20th century. This “clash” is evident with the formation of various extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hizbullah and the Islamic State. The Islamic State is more than a terrorist group. Their numerous Human Rights abuses like Religious and minority group persecution, Treatment of civilians, Child soldier, Sexual violence and slavery, Attacks on members of the press,  Beheadings and mass execution, Destruction of cultural and religious heritage clearly represent a 7th century ideology. Couple this with a 21st century apocalyptic weapon, and you have a recipe for the destruction of civilization.

Why is it so easy so politically instrumentalize Religion and why do conflicts between and because of Religion persist even in today’s day and age ? Almost all conflict today is because of or in some way related to Religion. Dogmatic belief in any ideology is dangerous. But unlike Religion other ideologies are subjected to criticism and can be discussed and debated on. Both Religious extremists and moderates demand that faith be respected and this has put Religion outside the ambit of rational debate. It has somehow immunized itself overtime to the kind of scrutiny and criticism that we apply to every other area of human discourse. Further, unlike doctrines of other ideologies that constantly improved upon and changed, Religious texts are static. It can be argued that the contents of these texts are purely metaphysical. However, belief in these doctrines have real world consequences.

A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person’s life. Your beliefs determine your vision of the world; they dictate your behaviour; they determine your emotional responses to other human beings. Consider how a you would behave if you came to believe one of the following propositions

  1. You have only two weeks to live.
  2. You’ve just won a lottery prize of a hundred crore rupees.
  3. Aliens have implanted a receiver in your skull and are manipulating your thoughts

These are mere words—until you believe them. Once believed, they become part of the very apparatus of your mind, determining your desires, fears, expectations, and subsequent behaviour. There seems, however, to be a problem with some of our most cherished beliefs about the world. They are leading us, inexorably, to kill one another. The link between belief and behaviour raises the stakes considerably.  Subscribing to the kind of beliefs that religion prescribes can be dangerous because it is a totalitarian solution to everything, or at least claims to be. Religion’s essential fanaticism, consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity is what makes it a problem in the contemporary world. Once you assume a creator and a plan (as monotheism does explicitly) it makes us objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and ordered to be well. And over us to supervise this is installed a celestial dictatorship, exigent for uncritical praise and swift to punish the sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. Salvation or redemption is promised at the price of the surrender of our critical faculties. Is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our scepticism? If someone were to seriously represent their belief that the Earth was as big as the Sun,  he/she would immediately be ridiculed and branded as a lunatic.  However, Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. You are just a Catholic if you believe in this proposition. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad? I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, religion does not provide even a shred of ordinary evidence for its supernatural claims. The danger of religious faith is that each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must.

I cannot of course propose that all conflict and violence stem from Religion. However,  as the Historian Steven Weinberg puts it “ In an ideal model of the world with or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The mildest criticism of religion is also the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or Gurus said or did. Religion was in the words of Christopher Hitchens “Our first attempt at the truth, and because it is our first, it is our worst.” The scriptures were probably beneficial to us at a time when men were ignorant about so many things. For example, micro-organism disease was explained by curses from witches or ill-wishing. We now know that diseases come from micro-organisms. Its ghastly reliance on the supernatural is what renders it immune to honest scrutiny. One encounters an ocean of liberal delusion while trying to criticize any of these faith-based ideologies. For example, any criticism of the doctrine of Islam is conflated with bigotry against Muslims as people. Islam is after all an idea and there is a big difference criticizing an idea and criticizing people. Sam Harris in his thesis of Collateral Damage imagines how our recent conflicts would look like using “perfect weapons” – which are defined as weapons that allow us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance without damaging anything or killing anyone else in the surroundings. How would George Bush have used perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed and killed? There is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the death of even one innocent person. How would Religious extremists use these weapons? Intent is the key point here. Not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.

I would like to conclude in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “…we have the same job we always had, to say as thinking people and as humans that there are no final solutions, there is no absolute truth, there is no supreme leader, there is no totalitarian solution, that says that if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss can be yours. We have to begin by repudiating all such claims. Grand Rabbis, Chief Ayatollahs, infallible Popes, the peddlers or surrogate and mutant quasi political religion and worship, the Dear Leader, the Great Leader, we have no need for any of this.”

The author, Aditya Kumar, is an ex-student of  Political Science at St. Xavier’s college, Kolkata.

 

 

 

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