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.