I am against organized religion. Have been for ages, even before I knew what it was exactly I was against. The whole idea of certain specific rites to be performed and certain ideas to be held sacrosanct over and above us mere mortals even if it was proved time and time again that those views were false made me very uncomfortable. Having been brought up as a Hindu, I was always taught to respect all religions as they were all a way to god or nirvana or whatever. But then I’d read about some of the things believers in various organized religions had done in the name of their faith, and I’d struggle to comprehend it. How was it that beliefs that were supposed to bring you close to mental peace and god could turn man into violent barbarous animals? The Inquisition, the treatment of the Native tribes in the American continents, the persecution of the Jews, the Crusades with the innumerable atrocities committed by both sides, the terrorism in Punjab and now Islamic terror all over the world apparently; the list went on and on and I was always finding something more vile and evil done by someone or some group in the name of his/their faith. It’s not as if Hinduism was free of blame, but most of its ills had a more societal than religious sanction, and that is why at least some of its evils were eradicated to a greater or lesser extent.
My purpose in examining this question back then and now was not to vilify any religion or group, that would serve no purpose. What I wanted to work out was why people were committing these heinous acts, such that they otherwise would find abhorrent to the highest degree. I looked at religion as the culprit. I saw how it could whip up sentiment to such a degree that normally mild-mannered persons turned into bloodthirsty savages. More than self, family, nation, class, more than anything else, religion could ask for the highest sacrifice in the name of danger to its existence. I remember it being remarked about how Indians took all sorts of abuse from the British East India Company but balked when their religious principles were being compromised. So what is it about religion?
Religion has a number of things going in its favour. Firstly, it panders to our deepest fear, the fear of death. The final unknown. The one great mystery. We all at some point or the other think of death and wonder what, if anything, lies beyond that last, ragged breath. And voila! Religion provides us with an answer. Heaven, paradise, jannat, swarg, call it what you will. It is the ultimate panacea, a place where all your desires will be met and all you want will come true. It is the culmination of all your dreams and desires. Eternal bliss is what religion offers after the pain of death. But, there is a catch! Depending on which religion you belong to, you have to obey certain rules, guidelines, laws, and commandments to qualify for that heaven. All you need to do is to follow these blindly and everlasting happiness will be yours. Nothing atheism could offer could even get near this! And of course, to avoid shifts to other religion, disbelief in your particular god is the greatest sin. The one unforgivable cardinal sin, which will damn you to the unimaginable tortures of hell forever. Quite a strong hold, I must say! On the one hand you have death with all its associated fears and on the other paradisiacal redemption. Quite an easy choice.
Then there is the hope religion offers even while you’re alive, of an omnipotent god who watches over you and keeps you safe from all harm. Not a very well thought out plan if you think about it, but religion has amended this principle over the ages to keep in time with the changing mores of the age. Whenever you feel bereft and all alone and helpless, religion is there to offer you a shoulder. It comes with a price but at that moment, you grab at whatever you find. Quite a few born-again religious converts talk about this magical succour they got from religion when they were at their lowest ebb. Of course, if they thought about it, anything that remotely offered a prop to them at that time would have been grasped at with both hands. But through all your perils and pitfalls, your unconscious errors and conscious sins, there’s a great hope in the idea that someone’s got your back, and someone as powerful as god at that!
The more I thought of it, the clearer it became. Every religion started out as a means of making man happier in his surroundings, at peace with himself and his circumstances and actions. Then later, it started making man feel guilty for all the same things. Every pleasure became a sin, a crime man had to atone for, and since he was continuously doing the same things, he had to atone again and again. So keeping man guilty and promising him freedom from recompense for the actions that made him guilty became another reason for religion’s hold on us.
Then there is the permanency religion offers man. In a world where everything changes, now at an ever increasing pace, we often find ourselves adrift, rootless, floating from one rock to another, trying to find something solid enough to lay roots in. There has to be something fixed and stable for man to stand on and look at the world from. This is another void religion fills quite efficiently. It provides its own version of the ‘eternal truth’ and asks us to take those words as the ‘word of god’, immutable and unchanging. Desolate and rootless, we hang on to this word, another last straw that religion gives a drowning man. But, the problem arises when the world changes and the rules laid down by the god of a particular religion don’t make sense anymore. That would seem a dilemma, but religion rolls over it like a juggernaut. To admit a mistake or to make a change in any religious doctrine would mean an automatic acceptance of the mutability and hence impermanence of god’s laws. So religion refuses to see the light and holds out against any and all scientific and most if not all social challenge. And there lies the root of religious fundamentalism. It has to define itself within hard rigid lines and thereby demarcate the insiders and outsiders clearly. The stronger the delineation, the greater is the divide, and the more the antagonism. So, the Abrahamic religions, with their strong sense of self and non-self make for more fundamentalist positions. Religion gives man a sense of exclusiveness and a feeling of being better than a fellow human being, and that contempt only leads to animosity and hostility. With a religion teaching that, can war, destruction and terror be far behind?