Monday, August 24, 2015
The Problem with Religion
I look forward to read Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood, which is waiting for me at one of the stops of my inevitable work tours. Ms Armstrong's point, as I picked up from the reviews, that religion can not be held directly responsible for violence, intrigued me, because that is precisely what I believe. I, therefore, look forward to engage with her argument and understand the other point-of-view. I am indeed not dismissive before I managed to read the book, but hoping that she has something to offer more than the assertion, oft-repeated, that no religious doctrine is actually founded on violence.
It must be noted, at this point, that while this is a common defense (that no religion encourages violence), it is, by no means, the common understanding. A large number of people in the world believe Islam directly encourages violence, given the acts of Islamic terrorists in the recent years. Indeed, a previous generation, having experienced worldwide bloodshed incited by imperial powers, would have thought the same about Christianity. And, if any Hindu, or Budhdhist, or Parsi, feel elated that they might not have such a blood-stained record, they should be reminded of their past, when they held the power, wherever they held the power, was guilty of similar violence. This is the record which, to my understanding, Ms Armstrong seeks to examine - and hopefully offer absolution to all religionists.
Personally, of course, I am unconcerned whether one religion or another preach violence. It would be expected that they would not, as any religion is meant to be a code to build a community, and this becomes untenable if founded on violence (this is where religions and cults may be different). However, violence is not just subjective, where someone murders, rapes or plunders others (though there is plenty of that going on in the name of religion), but also objective, where we use instruments of power and influence to undermine ways of life and values of other people. Even the perfectly peaceful men of faith, using the instruments of their faith, often commit such objective violence, and this lies at the heart of my problem with religion.
In an earlier post, arguing that education must guide, and be guided by, a secular morality (see here), I pointed out two particular issues with religious morality (and that we often equate morality with religion, disregarding any other alternative). First was the us-and-them thinking inherent in any religion, the inevitable claim of a defined way of life that that represents a superior way of life than others. Even the religion founded on tolerance and kindness must inevitably have a doctrine of enlightenment to justify its very existence, and this is the ground of objective, and in many cases, subjective, violence. The second problem was that all religions appeal to a higher authority, God or a prophet - that is why religions exist - and somewhat diffuse the sense of responsibility of our own actions, by either transferring it to the Higher Authority (remember Lord Krishna telling Arjun that he is merely carrying out divine will) or by offering absolution.
Whether or not any religion may preach violence, by defining otherness and by diffusing the responsibility of individual action (either by transferring or deferring it), I shall argue, it creates the conditions for violence. And, if we are looking at the actions of even the most peaceful of the believers (Quakers or Jains), these two conditions exist - and it promotes violence of one kind of another, rejection of values of others or social exclusion of people not following the chosen path. Religion, of any kind, allows ideas to become ideology, and that underlies most violence that human society has seen.
I often wondered, when allowed to sit in dinner tables at devout Christian households, why people thank God for their daily bread. Regardless of the awkwardness of being a non-Christian and a non-believer amid people saying prayers, I often have the mixed feeling about the beauty of praying, how gentle and civilised it is to be thankful for the little gifts of life, and yet how monstrous it is to forget all those toiling men and women who have cultivated, preserved, carried, nurtured, and indeed cooked what eventually became our daily bread! These moments somewhat crystallise my problems with religion - the ethical nature of being thankful to others for our sustenance being directly undermined by a wilful disregard of others, including our own mother and sisters, who are more directly responsible for our well-being.
That religious violence is not just about marauding armies or terrorist bombs, but about the subversion of our real life interdependence through faith in the metaphysical, needs to be factored in when we think about what role religion should play in public life. Indeed, I am not an atheist as institutional atheism goes, because there is nothing ethical about violent non-belief. Indeed, current atheism commits the same crimes that men of faith regularly do - engage in us-and-them thinking, justify means by the ends, commit objective violence in the form of social exclusion and disregarding other views of life and allow ideas to become ideologies - and therefore, fails to provide an ethical alternative. An ethical life is not an atheistic life - and the word Humanism has indeed been hijacked to mean exactly that - but one where one lives in the present, engages with the whole species with their differences and incongruities, take responsibility of their own actions.
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the...
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are ...
My previous post, o n whether Hinduism is the only thing to unite India , to which my answer was negative, was based on the idea that Indi...
The title of this post is in quotes because someone told me this. This was some days ago, over lunch in London, something that I stayed wi...
We knew this anecdotally: That Engineering graduates can not find a job in India. Now, we have some numbers: AICTE says that 60% of the 80...
It is common to hear - Globalization is not working for everyone! The Right says it, and believes that closed societies with open economie...
When facts change.. I enthused when Labour Party chose Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. It promised an escape from politics as usual, a b...
Today's election results in five Indian states may or may not be noticed by the world media, but they are, in a way, no less significa...
India is in the middle of a great transformation, driven by the aspirations of its young people. This transformation is apparent to an...
Stayzilla, an Indian start-up which offered homestays, like AirBnB, is in the news, for wrong reasons. That Stayzilla decided to down shut...
How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.