By Roshan Shah
08 July, 2014
The centre where I work is a wonderful place to be in, primarily because it’s got an amazing mix of people from different ethnic, class and religious backgrounds. Every morning, just before we begin work, we—colleagues from different faiths and some who have no particular one—spend 15 minutes together in prayer and silence. Each day, one of us takes his or her turn to read and reflect on a passage from a text of his or her choice—it could be the Vedas, the Quran, the Bible, the Gita, the Dhammapada or a book by Osho or even the Communist Manifesto or a fairytale by Enid Blyton. Sometimes, someone might share a life-changing experience, an interesting thought or a provocative existential question.
It’s a wonderful practice, this reflecting and worshipping together. I’ve rarely seen people of different religious persuasions doing that elsewhere. Sometimes, however, I don’t like taking my turn: I feel so fake, blabbering away about spiritual things and morality. I hate being preachy about things I don’t fully practice myself. But this morning, Abraham Uncle insisted I say something. And so I did. I spoke about a matter that seems endemic to human history: conflicts in the name of religion and other such grand truth-claims.
I began my reflection by pointing out that the vast majority—perhaps 99%—of people who believe in one religion or the other do so simply because they happen to have been born into it, and not because they have really thought the matter out in a search for truth. From a very young age, they have been carefully socialized by their parents and significant others into believing that the particular religion that their family is associated with is the best or the truest one, or even the only way to earn God’s pleasure and gain entry into heaven. Often, they are brainwashed at a very tender age into believing that other faiths are not only inferior to the one their family follows but are even utterly worthless and a sure way to incur God’s wrath and land up in hell, where they will supposedly rot for all time to come.
For most religionists, therefore, what they spend their entire precious lives ardently believing in and defending (to the extent of, in some cases, being ready to even kill and die for it) is simply the set of beliefs that they have been indoctrinated into believing since infancy. Thus, most Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Bahais and Hindus are so simply because they happen to have been born into families that claim to be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Bahai or Hindu, and not for any other reason.
Their inherited religious beliefs so indelibly mould their minds that very often, as adults, even if they do care to study other religions and belief systems, the religion which they happened to have been born into still appears to them as supposedly the best, the most reasonable, the most humane, and even the most ‘scientific’. Their socialization into their inherited religion is so effective that few ever seriously doubt its truth-claims. Sometimes, the fear of hell has been so deeply drilled into them from the very beginning that they can’t dare even contemplate the possibility that other religions might be equally, if not more, true or sensible or compassionate than theirs. The very thought, they fear, might bring down on them the wrath of the vengeful god of their imagination, who would hurl them into hell-fire for daring to doubt and waver.
Further stressing this point about how for most people, their religiosity is simply something that they’ve inherited from their parents (like the colour of their skin and eyes or the DNA of their genes), I pointed to the fact that within each religious tradition there are various sects which uphold conflicting interpretations of the same faith. Each of these sects claims that its own particular interpretation of the religion is true, and that other, rival, sects, are false and deviant. Inter-sectarian rivalries are sometimes more vicious, hate-driven and bloody than inter-religious conflicts. Which of the rival sectarian interpretations of a particular religion almost all religionists believe to be true is also determined on the basis of their birth. So, if you happen to have been born in a Pentecostal Christian family, it is likely that you will grow up into believing that Pentecostalism is the true version of Christianity and that Catholic Christianity, for instance, is corrupt and deviant. If your parents were Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, there is every chance that you will be a Wahhabi Sunni Muslim, too, and that you will inherit your parent’s conviction that the Shia version of Islam is utterly heretical. And so on.
In short, I stressed, for almost all believers in this or that religion, their religious truth-claims are simply notions that they’ve been indoctrinated into believing because of having been born into a family that perhaps for generations has shared the same beliefs. The many nasty wars between votaries of different religions as well as proponents of rival sects within the same religious tradition that have stained almost the whole course of human history with rivers of blood, I went on, have been largely a result of the clash of rival truth-claims that people have simply inherited by accident of birth.
But we don’t have to remain helpless prisoners of inherited religiosity, of the truth-claims that we have been reared on since infancy, I explained. Instead, we can consciously choose to explore the truth ourselves. That’s what the spiritual search demands—to dare to face the possibility that in our search for Truth, God may lead us to places far from the comfort zones of our inherited theological truth-claims.
It all depends on how we want to spend this precious life that God has blessed us with. We could remain shackled, if we like, in the deceptive supposed safety of the prison of inherited religiosity. But, on the other hand, we could, if we choose to, soar high above in the unbounded spiritual freedom that the search for Truth can lead us into.