This is one of the most pertinent questions today, all over the world, but particularly in India. As the BJP is constantly accused of espousing extremist Hindutva ideals, subversion of our secular credentials and promoting majoritarian rule, one cannot help but wonder: would the world not have been better, if there was no religion?
I feel religion is just a pretext on which wars are waged. On the whole, every human being is fighting for survival. Religion just makes it easier for people to single out people as “own” or “others” and then proceed. Since human beings are tribalistic creatures, right since they are born, they seek comfort in being attached to a community. We always seek familiarity in unfamiliar situations, and religion is perhaps the biggest bond.
In a Middle Eastern country, I would instantly feel more comfortable if I was to run into a Hindu, as a companion of the same faith in a region dominated by another would make me feel less likely to be targeted by the majority. This is an absurd example, as two people are equally powerless in the face of majoritarianism; nevertheless, because tribalism is the earliest cognitive function that came to be expressed amongst human beings, it is fairly normal for us to feel safer. It is a basic animal instinct.
But is this tribalism not harmful? When the “own v. others” debate starts becoming a primary consideration in everything- our social movements, our political choices, our attitudes towards other people- does it not have the tendency to give rise to a feeling of resentment towards others, thereby upping the chances of a religious strife? Should we bond within a particular group, only to misuse that relationship by pushing away other religious groups?
Religion on one hand acts as a binding force. It establishes a sense of community, and it usually guides people to live a life of morality and ethics. (I can only speak for Hinduism, essentially Sanatana Dharma, since that is the faith I come from.) When we follow a set of rules, when we are bound by certain tenets of our faith and when we have a group of people to answer to, we are less likely to take an evil path. We fear being ostracized and we fear not having a group of people to turn to in our times of need. Additionally, leading a life true to one’s faith gives one immense strength and hope. Not only that; it is comforting when your community members stand by you in your hard times.
Religion is different from savage animism, only because it is based on a very strong structure of morality. In addition, a society without ‘religion’ as we know it, would have some other form of it- laws, cults, secular cults, personality cults. The reason is that people like pinning hopes to a divine power, beyond themselves. People like to believe that something greater than they know is helping them. People like to believe that there is Moksha (salvation) of a being after they exit this world, and thus, they live their lives righteously.
Religion also often contributes to humanitarian causes. One may bring up examples such as LGBT+ rights, often overlooked and sometimes suppressed by religions of the world, but overall, religion often causes humans to act as humans.
Nevertheless, when this religion takes over one’s mind, when one gets so obsessed with their faith, they want to spread its message, convert people and make everyone think, eat, dress up, worship in the same manner as them, then it causes problems. History is replete with examples of violent religious clashes and therefore, they have created a deep sense of insecurity and suspicion pertaining to the future, which gets furthered by religious riots in modern times. This is why everyone is fighting for the survival of their faith, as that is how they can ensure the survival of their own off springs born into that faith.
Religions have often been used to justify immoral actions as well- war and genocide, slavery and exploitation, displacement, and persecution. While apologists of these actions from every faith will continue to claim these actions have nothing to do with religions, a lot of times they have had backing of prominent religious leaders who openly endorsed these acts. The few times they were not condoned by these leaders, their lack of condemnation was the approval fanatics needed to unleash terror upon the world.
I can only give the example of India, starting from Islamic invasions and then coming on to the Colonialism era. While people claim that all empires at one point or another, conquered kingdoms which could provide them with wealth, resources, strategic points in times of war, military prowess, it would be unfair to those who were victimised by completely denying the religious angle in these invasions. The atrocities meted out to people to convert them are unspeakable. Merely reading about them shook my core; that someone can undertake such immoral actions in the name of their God, was a harrowing realisation for me.
That being said, apportioning all the blame for humans’ depravity on religion is unfair and uncalled for. In the 21st Century, we are secular to the core and are therefore inclined to believe that religion is the root cause of all evil.
Stalin, Tito, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot among other people, were hardcore atheists, and believed in state-imposed atheism. Yet, the suffering, the mass murders were so common, the number of dead bodies ran into millions. Christians in Russia were killed by atheists controlling the Soviet Union, who were hell-bent on cleansing all traces of religion from their The USSR. Even today, the Communist ideology, which is built on atheism, continues to kill people like insects. Case in point: China.
Humans have waged wars in their pursuit for profits and petrol, tribal supremacy and territorial control. In fact, the majority of the wars in modern times had negligible to zero religious influences. That religion inevitably gets caught up in most conflicts because of the value we have accorded to in our lives is another matter. But to solely blame religion when as human beings, we are wise enough to know better and do better, reeks of shirking responsibility.
Humans are probably just wired to fight wars, since survival of the fittest is the norm.
Even at the end of this article, I still do not know if religion is good or bad; if it is peaceful or hateful; if it causes wars or holds us back from causing more. All I know is that this is a never-ending game. A bunch of people from every faith who claim to be the defenders of their community will take up violent means to establish supremacy and totalitarianism. On the other hand, humans who continue to wage war for material pleasures, will be unable to stop as lack of a moral and ethical bond with anybody will allow their greed to run amok, and perhaps religion stops this completely individualistic, self-oriented perusal of goals.
Best would be to imbibe teachings of one’s own faith, and live with peace, instead of constantly trying to dominate, proselytise or win cultural wars. If all faiths collectively decide to just coexist instead of constantly trying to prove supremacy, it may work out. But even as I am saying this, I know I sound like an idealistic teenager who hopes for the best, not understanding that the world exists beyond her dreams and nightmares.