I have been thinking a lot about religion lately, given what has been unfolding in India and the world over. But I needed a push to pen down my thoughts, now provided by the gruesome attack on Salman Rushdie.
I have known people who are agnostic, atheist, or downright contemptuous about religion owing to their experiences and studies. I, however, believe in God and in organized religions, too. I have seen the good religions can do and the hope they can offer. They have often motivated health, provided purpose, built communities, and inspired philanthropy. Religions have influenced art, culture, and civilizations for millennia.
So, how can something so meaningful, comforting, and productive be so divisive and abusive?
Reza Aslan, a scholar of Theology, once said, “No religion is inherently violent or peaceful; people are violent or peaceful.” And people are but a reflection of their society, its good and its bad.
Religion was born in an age when people needed to make sense of all the miseries in their life and find a solution for them. The time was simple, people were uncorrupted, and the source of these miseries was primarily nature – climate, wildlife, diseases, etc. The simpler problems received cures, perfected over the years, but there were others that would take longer to resolve. And for these, faith and fate became the answer.
Time changed, civilizations evolved, people gained control over most aspects of their life, and religion, too, altered its shape. Given human innovations and achievements, one would imagine that religion would have become less essential for survival. But with progress came corruption, inequality, and insecurity. Hence, ironically, the more modern people became, religion seeped deeper into human life and society.
Religion, as good as its preacher
My belief in religion comes from my need to find something bigger than interest-driven humans. For the sake of my sanity, I like to think that not everything is in our control, that there is a plan, and matters will eventually sort themselves out. There are moments when I find comfort in feeling vulnerable, in meditating in front of an entity, energy. However, this entity does not have to come with a syllabus or exercises.
My relationship with God has been more spiritual than one of an addiction. I was born privileged enough to be able to chart my destiny and didn’t have to rely on God to seize the world’s possibilities. And I expect the same approach to religion from people born with certain unfair advantages. But that hasn’t been happening in India lately as a modern and unequal society rushes back to religion for sport and kink.
Educated, informed, and accomplished people are increasingly employing religion to uphold their pride and worth. People from majoritarian sects – religion and caste – are promoting divisive beliefs to breathe life into their prejudices or serve self-interests. People, who gained from the separation of the state and religion, are now invested in marrying both while distancing personal good from the collective.
While preaching the glory of sectarian pride among the masses, distracting the populace from the failings of the state, the privileged and informed have moved their interests far away from the chaos. The hypocrisy has perhaps been the worst aspect of this disruption. And the populace, weary of carrying the growing weight of economic and societal failings, has found its purpose and strength in the chaos.
Today, inequality and insecurity are at an all-time high, and people are being distracted by their religious and caste identities. People with fewer chances of accessing good jobs and growing weight of daily expenses are rioting at the call of political and religious leaders to vent their frustrations. These leaders have hidden their incompetence and corruption behind an imaginary emergency born of the ‘others.’
Is this corruption the fault of religion or that of its practitioners? Most inventions can either nurture or kill; the choice that people make does all the difference. Interestingly, the most noted religious fanatics have often been atheists who used religion as a vehicle to reach their goals. They never studied religious texts in the context they were scripted, instead interpreted them to best fit their divisive narrative and provoke people.
As inequality grows in the near-term, religion will be increasingly used as a weapon. In such a crisis, instead of demonizing religions, people must be encouraged to study religions so they can challenge the attempts to abuse them. The knowledge will also help people avoid the urge to compare the ills in different religions and stir hate, for every religion has incited divide and is now doing so more frequently than ever.