“Which is it, is man one of God’s blunders or is God one of man’s?” asked Nietzsche.
This sums up the debate between the believers and the non-believers – a debate that has gone on for millennia. Religion has always played an important role in man’s life since the dawn of time. The existence of religions has been found in all tribes cutting across continents, civilizations and cultures. Along with marriage and the state, it is the third pillar that supports society. Although it definitely plays a more or less dominant role in life, it has also been one of the most oppressive institutions of society. Persecution of heretics, war on the infidels, suppression of knowledge and free thought – these are a just a few of the crimes of religion. It is an issue that engulfs the entire of humanity – now that we are in the 21st century – should we still retain the relics of the ancients? Or should we continue to follow religious beliefs. This is not easy – as mankind struggles with the pressures and complications of modern life, more and more turn to the solace of religion. Today, Christian, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism is on its way up. We only know too well of the rise of the Christian Evangelists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the USA, the radicalization of the devout Hindus in India and the “terrorist” organizations like Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba etc.
Why is this happening? As science and technology make rapid progress and as more and more people benefit from proper education, how do “rational and logical” people make a leap of faith and accept religion? To understand this, we must first realize the power of emotions and beliefs. Man is not a strictly rational animal. If he were, he would probably closely resemble the character of Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Luckily for us, we are driven a lot by our emotions and ‘animalistic’ instincts. The Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto said that man acts on the basis of his emotions and rationalizes his actions later. Nietzsche says that man is driven by instincts, or “wills” as he calls them. In my opinion, they are fundamentally right. However, the Age of Enlightenment promoted a scientific philosophy giving supreme importance to purely objective reason. But, as the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, reason is rooted in history and culture. And being a part of culture (which is not rational in any way), religion need not be scientifically rational at all. Atheists thus fall into a trap of scientifically rationalizing religion, and then trying to prove that God doesn’t really exist. But they don’t realize that although they can’t prove God’s existence, they can’t disprove it either.
Religion is basically rooted in the psychology of the human being. Man’s constant uneasiness with his imperfect nature makes him strive towards a more perfect being – an idol of which he has in his mind. This idol may be called his God. The presence of this perfect being constantly reminds man of his aim of attaining perfection (or at least, coming as close as possible towards it). Thus, organized religion need not be the only way of worshipping. Any person can conjure up their own version of a perfect being, and name that person their God. Therefore, atheists too are in a way religious – they too believe that they can attain a perfect state. However, this form of decentralized religion lacks something which organized religion possesses – rituals and sacrifices. Since man is basically a social animal, he tends to belong to groups. He places such a high importance on this group identity that he even derives a certain amount of pride from sharing the group identity. This pride can be enhanced if the group practices certain rituals and demands certain sacrifices. Rituals such as a particular dress code or the performance of a certain activity makes the group unique, and the members of the group bond together more strongly because of it. Sacrifices which are demanded from the individuals also increase the person’s attachment towards the group and make him less likely to quit. This is not just the case with religion, but any other group identity – like a national identity, a gang identity, etc. These rituals may be oppressive, and the sacrifices too demanding, but despite this every group strives to incorporate more rituals and sacrifices into its activities. For example, a group of friends may have a Saturday night ritual of watching a movie in the theatre, and the members of that group may be asked to sacrifice any other activity which may encroach upon this ritual.
My point is that religions are psychologically rooted, and organized religions are here to stay. If you demolish one, another would take its place. Christianity originated as an alternative to the organized religions of the ancient Romans and the Jews, but in order to sustain, they had to become an organized religion themselves. One can never try to remove any religion – organized or not – because that goes against basic human psychology. The only thing we can possibly do (and we must) to reform our religions is to remove oppressive practices and increase tolerance and mutual respect of other religions.