From time immemorial the faithful have believed their religion to have originated through the divine inspiration of a universal supreme being. To them, indeed to most of mankind, religiosity is a key to spirituality and a medium through which to seek access to the divine spirit.
Despite numerous positive functions that religion serves, it is hard to escape noticing that it also has divided people and engendered conflicts of enormous proportions throughout history. Wars have been fought and crusades launched in its name. It has been blamed for distorting the judgment of the faithful and has often been the source of conflict with those of other faiths. It was because of this that the 19th century German scholar Karl Marx passionately decried religiosity as false consciousness. More recently, Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
, 2007), for example, condemned religion for its supposed irrationality and intolerance as well as for promotion of hatred and violence.
Even though religious truth may have been derived through divine inspiration as believed, this truth is received by people who are less than divine, and some of whom are given to what may be termed as “religious narcissism.” The orthodox may also take religious edicts blindly notwithstanding logic, common sense or human rights considerations. Some of these issues can be encapsulated as: the relationship between science and religion; fundamentalism; and the nature of myths and legends.
The relationship between science and religion has often been in a state of tension. Life in the earlier human societies, as Herbert Spencer argued, was simple, coherent and undifferentiated. Science was in a primitive stage of development—much of the vagaries of natural and human condition being explained through religious doctrines. But as science began to develop, it started challenging premises once advanced by religion. Formal religion used its full weight to deter the advancement of science practically at every step of the way. Religion’s insistence that all questions in regard to faith must be abandoned would negate much of what we know in the realms of archeology, anthropology and geology.
The role of religious fundamentalists also needs to be taken into account. These are the people who claim that they are doing God’s bidding. They are absolutely convinced about the correctness of their thinking. They more often than not pursue their cause through a militant imposition of what they claim as the ultimate version of the “truth”—that is, their truth.
Probably all religions have associated with them an array of myths and legends shaped in ancient times about the supernatural world and the sacred truths, e.g., an account of how the world came into being, of gods and goddesses, and heroes and villains, as well as an explanation of the salient features of rituals and institutions.
It is, perhaps, hard for the faithful to accept that even though considered hallowed, myths and legends are largely fictional. Some of the great myths and legends relate to, for example: virgin birth, talking snake, parting of the sea, revelations from God, horse flying to heaven, multi-headed gods and demons with magical attributes, monkey-god carrying an entire mountain on his shoulders as well as crossing a strait between two countries in one leap, walking on water, and myriads of other supernatural feats. To the believers, myths of their own religion are true; others’ just fanciful.
Sociological perspective places religion in its social context. Originally theorised by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, religion is conceived as a social product. It serves as a source of solidarity in that it brings people together in common social bonding. Religion provides security and solace, especially in times of grief. Its rites serve to embed and transmit values, maintain prohibition and taboo, and reaffirm communal solidarity. Religion plays a vital social function as an integrative force.
At the beginning of history when great religions dawned upon the earth with inspiring messages, most of the faithful lived with their own kind in their own enclaves, and followed similar customs, habits and belief systems. Separated by distance and time, interaction between the adherents of different faiths was fewer and far in-between.
But we live in a different kind of world now. It is a globalised world characterised by increasing interaction between people despite a variety of allegiance along lines of ethnicity, religion and national origin. The world has become a home to a new generation of homosapiens who are curious about others. We live in an interdependent world that calls for cooperation, accommodation and interaction on the basis of “live and let live.” As John Donne, the British poet once wrote “no man is an island.” This is truer today than ever before.
Given the multi-religious context wherein people from all over carry on social, economic and political transactions today, a propitious beginning for the institution of religion will be to be emancipated from narrow and sectarian confines, if any. This emancipation will not be easy; the faithful have to become less rigid and more tolerant, thus heralding an environment of caring and sharing. The need of the hour is to have a new paradigm—a new perspective of religion in a globalised world where people from diverse religious and cultural background can freely interact with others without being molested or discriminated.
Let us return to the question of confrontation between scientific and religious truth-claims. Taking a leaf from the work of Austrian philosopher Herbert Feigl, both science and religion as concepts are misunderstood and have problems. The problem with religion is its exclusive concern with faith and belief based on theology and metaphysics. In regard to science, the problem is its exclusive concern with the “practical” with little regard to human values. Fiegl advanced a new truth concept viz., “scientific humanism” that would be squarely based on science and have an abiding interest in human values such as life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, human dignity, freedom of expression, religious freedom and respect for differences. Religious truths, even though based on a system of beliefs, should nevertheless be, first, answerable to reason and, second, have human values incorporated into it.
Even a cursory review of recent history informs us that nations which champion democracy and secularism tend to separate their state policies from religious doctrines. Decision-making in these countries is more or less free from constraints of ideology, dogma, creed or precepts laid down eons ago by high priests of economic or religious order. More likely to be advanced and prosperous, these countries tend to have an educated citizenry and a satisfying quality of life.
Many in the Third World countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, however, find themselves stagnated into a state of under-development and poverty. Many of these countries are staunchly religious which also defines their world-view. Instead of investing energy and resources into nation-building activities, they tend to pursue a sectarian agenda that is not only wasteful and undemocratic but deters development and promotes conflicts. Unless this world-view is changed, these countries are destined to live a life of poverty and destitution, and a poor quality of life.
In his fascinating book “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism”, Brad Hirschfield makes a strong case for not going for watertight answers to all the complex issues involving life. The possible problematic part of faith, he points out, is that it “simplifies things that need to remain complex, instead of giving us strength to live with complexity, when it gives answers where none exists…,” when it offers certainty where there needs to be doubt, and when it tells us that we have arrived when we should still be searching.
Religion evokes the best and the worst in human nature. We have to recognise both and learn to live with both. It is a folly, as per Hirschfield, to see only the good or only the bad because in the former case one becomes an apologist and makes no effort to take the responsibility for the incredible suffering that religion is capable of unleashing. “When faith is working right, it can be profound, inspiring, and a great force for positive change in the world, and it can help us lead more giving, productive and fulfilling lives.”
Two great religious leaders in recent years addressed the issue of faith and religion. Pope Benedict XVI exhorted that with faith must come reason. That meant that faith had to make sense, had to be just and fair, and kind and compassionate. The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader, made an impassioned plea to preserve all religious traditions. We must be able to live and love and worship our god in our own fashion. There is no other way.