By Souradeep Mukhopadhyaya
What is Religion?
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
-Dalai Lama XIV
Religion is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”[i]
The sociologist Durkheim, in his seminal book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, defined religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.”[ii]
Essentially, religion is the relation between the individual and the supernatural which is based on the belief that there exist some supernatural entities which created and govern the world. The origin of religion is lost in the obscure past of human evolution and is believed to have developed gradually with the evolution of humans from their primate ancestors. It is a unique feature of man-kind though some primates are known to show pre-moral sentiments of appreciation of the aesthetic, self-consciousness, sympathy and empathy for other members of the kind, etc. which are considered to be pre-emptive steps of spirituality which breeds religion.
The theory of Evolutionary Psychology of Religion postulates that religion is an outgrowth of brain architecture and as the neocortex of the human brain expanded, and reached a peak value around five hundred thousand years ago, the human mind’s cognitive senses became more sensitive to spirituality.[iii] This growth of cognitive senses clubbed with the newly developed capability of speech and group-living helped humans to communicate their ideas to each other and make causal conversations depicting their thoughts on natural events and imagination. It also allowed people to unify as a community as individuals imitated each other to form a certain set of beliefs and follow a certain set of rituals.
Organized religion, however, is believed to have arisen in the Neolithic Age where the advent of agriculture led to the transformation of hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies living at one place, following a sedentary lifestyle. The transition from foraging bands to states and empires led to the need of more specialized forms of religion which reflected the new social and political environment. It may have emerged as a means of providing social and economic stability through the following ways:
Justifying the central authority, which in turn, possessed the right to collect taxes in return for providing social and security services.
Bands and tribes consist of small number of related individuals. However, states and nations are composed of many thousands of unrelated individuals. Jared Diamond, in his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ states that organized religion served to provide a bond between unrelated individuals who would otherwise be more prone to enmity.[iv]
Religions that revolved around moralizing gods may have facilitated the rise of large, cooperative groups of unrelated individuals.v
According to Jared, tribes already had supernatural beliefs but the chieftains, or rulers, set forward their own ideologies which always buttressed their own authority and acted like a God’s man or at least, a person with direct contact with God. Thus, religion was formalized and institutionalized to ensure obedience and concretize authority.
PRESENT DAY SCENARIO
Religion has evolved and changed throughout the centuries and across the world. It would be impossible to know exactly how many religions have ever existed, or for that matter, the number of religions that exist in the present. Several religions have been born out of other religions and have grown to claim their own identity. Besides, several sects function even within a particular religion; like Islam consists of both Shia Muslims as well as Sunni Muslims, the Christians are divided into Catholics and Protestants, etc. At present, Christianity has the highest number of adherents placed at 33.39% of the world population, Islam has 22.74% of the population, Hindus consist of 13.8%, Buddhists amount to 6.77% while the Sikhs and the Jews amount for far lesser than even 0.5% of the population. Further, 9.66% of the population is non-religious and about 2% of the population are declared atheists.[vi]
A striking phenomenon of the above-mentioned statistics published by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States is that almost 10% of the population is non-religious while another 2% are atheists, i.e. they believe that there exists no ‘God’ in the meaning attributed to the term by most religions. The study of science and the encouragement given to logic, rationale, and empirical studies may have weakened the tight grip of religion and its institution, like the Church, which even a century ago held considerable power and significance in the world’s political scenario. However, even now religion most often forms the basis of conflict, discrimination, and segregation as is evident in the Syrian Civil war which is essentially an ongoing war between the Shia dominated Government forces and allied groups with the Sunni dominated rebel groups.
The current conflict in Yemen is also an example where different sects of the same religion are fighting for dominance and control. This reminds the world that how little has changed from the times of the Christian ‘Holy’ Wars and the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th Centuries. Several violent conflicts have taken place across the world through time and continue till date as people are still divided on the basis of religion and hatred is spewed between different sects and religions. India is no stranger to religious conflicts which began way back in the medieval ages with the Islamic Expansion and consequent conflict with Hindu rulers or communities. Further, the Partition of India in 1947 which led to the formation of Pakistan and later, Bangladesh was a bloody strife between the communities with tales of horror and bloodshed during the time still recounted with a shudder.
Well after the partition too, irrespective of the secular nature of the republic portrayed through its Constitution, violence against religious communities, like the Babri Masjid demolition, and several religious riots have occurred throughout the country like the infamous Bhagalpur riots of 1989, Godhra riots of 2002, etc. Across the world too, instances of violence against religious communities, often resorting to acts of terrorism, are common
Thus, religion has evidently led to misery, conflict, persecution, segregation, disunity, and wars throughout the history of human existence. Yet, the religious institutions hold sway over the people and a huge majority of the population still adheres to one religion or the other. It would thus, be important to know that what exactly are the functions of religion which make it such an integral part of human society that it gets widespread approval despite its significant drawbacks and inherently divisive nature.
FUNCTIONS OF RELIGION
The debate on the existence of a ‘God’, or ‘the Creator’, has been a subject of debate for ages without any conclusive result. However, the existence or non-existence of God has little to do with religion cause, either way, religion definitely exists. Religion is not only the faith on the existence of a God but also all the paraphernalia that follows those beliefs. It is an entire value system, a way of life. A few of its important functions and their relevance in the present day scenario is mentioned below-
“God has no religion.” -Mahatma Gandhi
While religion’s roots may be traced back to humanly attempts to ensure obedience to a central authority, it is beyond doubt that religion works as a strong unifying force within a community. People who share common beliefs and follow similar rituals are also likely to feel an innate oneness which unifies the population. It also propagates conformity which makes people similar to each other till some extent, thus, reducing conflicts between individuals. However, though religion seeks to bring unity within the community following the same religion, existence of several and varied religions often leads to disunity and enmity between communities following different religions as each side is convinced that their conviction on God and spirituality is correct while other’s views are fundamentally flawed and deceiving.
This coupled with a perception that one needs to establish dominance on the other to survive, leads people to conflict between religious groups and persecution of the weaker group of the region by the stronger one. Durkheim had believed Religion to be the root of science as it was a manifestation of an attempt to understand the surroundings but had predicted that in modern times, religion would fade away due to its incapacity to explain modern life and give way to the superior scientific rationality. This, as logical and expected as it sounds, did not happen.
One of the reasons for this was because they are so effective at constructing group identities and at setting up conflict between the in- and out-groups. For all religions, there is an “us” and a “them”. The fundamental teaching of all major religions, however, is always based on tolerance, and none of them actually advocate the persecution of followers of other religions. For instance, through the Quran Allah exhorts his followers to abide by justice; be benevolent; show compassion to others as though they were our kith and kin; refrain from, and admonish others to refrain from, such vices as can be harmful and are known as blatant evil; not transgress against good, beneficent, peace-loving governments and to exhort others likewise.
If these six do’s and do not’s were put into practice, every country and every nation would see nothing but peace. [vii] Similar is the stance of the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and most other religious documents of importance.
Similar views about unity and peace have been presented throughout versions of the Bible including Peters, John, Matthew, etc.
PEACE and NON-VIOLENCE
“Religion brings to man an inner strength, spiritual light, and ineffable peace.”
The purpose of religion is most noble and does not only purport to create a society of tolerance but also attempts to maintain peace in the minds of the followers. It tries to ensure that people reconcile themselves to their existence and reality; giving them hopes of a better future, often through pictures of the after-life or heaven. The communists, especially Engels and Marx dismissed this function of religion as unimportant and labeled religion itself as the “opium of the poor”, but in doing so; they undermine this most important function of religion.
It gives a goal to directionless lives making them believe that their lives actually mean something and that human existence is neither solitary nor pointless. This peace allows people to lead their life following what they think is moral and would lead to them being blessed and loved by God. This hope of eternal salvation keeps people going and is one of the most important functions of religion without which, life with all its hardships, could become unbearable. It strengthens the people and allows them to make moral, often selfless, decisions.
Most religious texts are strictly against violence and persecution. The 10 commandments of the Christians states- ‘Thou shalt not kill.”
Jainism and Buddhism have non-violence as one of their principle tenets. However, these, formerly noble principles have been distorted through the interpretations by the ‘god-men’ over the centuries. An instance of this was seen in Christianity for a good part of the 11th-13th Century where the concept of ‘just’ or justified wars was in place. Those who fought in the name of God were recognized as the Milites Christi,[viii] warriors or knights of Christ.
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns that took place during the 11th through 13th centuries against the Muslim Conquests. Originally, the goal was to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims and support the besieged Christian Byzantine Empire against the Muslim expansion into Asia Minor and Europe proper. In 1095, in a gross display of interpretative powers and, manipulation of Holy texts, Pope Urban II, at the Council of Clermont, raised the level of war from bellum iustum (“just war”), to bellum sacrum (“holy war”).[ix] Thus, killing of people became not only justified but was seen as a moral duty; a service to God!
MORALITY and SOCIAL CONTROL
“Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.” -Napoleon Bonaparte
Religion is undoubtedly one of the most effective means of social control pervading throughout all activities of our being. Religion, right from our birth, controls our action and thought processes. Through its rituals and teachings, it instils within us a system of beliefs and customs which blocks our mind to other ideas and the threat of social action through rebukes, criticism, and boycott ensures conformity to this, rather rigid, belief system.
Our sense of morality is picked up from our parents and surrounding society, who in turn, are influenced by religion to decide what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, though, in reality, the concept of ‘right’ is an ever-changing, relative concept. There can be no doubt that a strong relationship exists between religion and morality. In the words of Mathew Arnold, “Religion is morality touched with emotion.”
MacIver believed that religion and morality are simultaneous as well as complementary. He thus, stated- “We cannot say that either the religious or the moral code came first just as we cannot say that custom preceded morality or law. Moral codes have prepared the way for the perpetuation of religious beliefs. Religious codes have strongly reinforced with their supernatural sanctions the prevailing morals of the group.”
Note on morality and religion
It would be extremely tough, as well as impractical, to have laws encompassing everything. For instance, most of us opine that we should behave decently and treat other people ‘well’. Now, if a law were to be set down defining what ‘well’ meant, it would be difficult to make it exhaustive and further, it would be impossible to enforce and adjudge. It is, in fact, undesirable to use the force of law to make members of the society conform to a certain way of life, especially in a free or liberal society. This is where religion and social control comes in. Religion does not normally punish people who do not abide by its teachings, but it instills a fear of the supernatural in the minds of the people, Most often, the control exercised by religion is informal, and one who defies it is not directly punished or harmed, but it imposed a moral force and this blend of morality and indirect coercion through social institutions ensures conformity of the people.
Further, the law is not always efficient. There are several crimes which may be committed and the criminal may get away unscathed by law enforcement. Thus, in crimes, there is a possibility of getting away and this gives rise to a hope. However, most acts are not committed irrespective of the law in place because of the fear of the supernatural, omnipresent force which knows everything, sees everything and punishes the wrongdoer. Thus, it is this fear and moral guilt which prevents anarchy, several crimes, and ill-deeds.
It is beyond doubt that religion acts as a strong means of social control and brings in social conformity and order. This, no doubt, plays an important social function and helps to keep the society together. However, often this control becomes dogmatic, unreasonable; and people are robbed of their capacity to make decisions and life their lives as per their wishes. Conformity comes at the price of individuality, which is suppressed by religion. It is empirically evident that religion has almost always resisted change and has persecuted everything that has threatened its authority.
Thus, the Church persecuted early scientists- So, when Galileo argued that the Sun stood still and all planets, including the earth, revolved around it, the Pope ordered an inquisition’s injunction against the further spread of the idea in 1616. When he continued to support his claims, he was put under house arrest and also prosecuted for heresy. Similar, and worse, was the fate of many other people who questioned the Church. In other religions too, persecution of innocent people to ensure conformity has been extremely prevalent.
Often, the control exercised by religion has been outright unjust and oppressive. Islam does not allow homosexuality and advocates stern punishment against all homosexuals as they believe it is against God’s wishes. Hinduism and Christianity too hold a similar stance against this natural phenomenon. Throughout the world, thus, homosexuals are tortured, boycotted and sometimes even killed. Religion draws its power from the constant, ‘immutable’ truths and refuses to believe in the relative nature of it all. Thus, any change is a threat to religion and it urges religious institutions to act against them. The fanatical supporters of a religion always consider themselves to be in a moral high ground as they do everything in the name of God. This makes them guilt-less of their deeds and posed a huge risk to freedom and liberty of the people.
It is evident that though the moral purpose of religion was indeed to play a very necessary and useful role in the society, it has been empirically seen that it has often failed in its purpose and has most often undergone a change in character through manipulation of the texts and outrageous interpretations of its tenets by people who wield religious power and authority and are proclaimed to be ‘men of God’. Irrespective of these perversions, however, religion continues to play an inseparable part in human life for it brings unity and social order, inward and outward peace and harmony, and most importantly, a hope and sense of purpose! In present times of extreme stress and cut-throat competition where more and more are ready to forego all values and morals to achieve their idea of ‘success’, religion tries to instill high morals and gives solace to the hurt. Corrupt interpretation of religion and blind faith of its followers have done much harm to mankind, but even so, religion sends a message of love and morality to several of its believers.
Formatter on 16th February 2019.