By Tril Shah, New Age Islam
27 Dec, 2012
Religion is capable of taking humans to sublime heights, but it is equally capable of dragging them down to the lowest depths of depravity. Across the world and down the centuries, a bewildering host of horrors have been blessed in the name of religion—human sacrifice; hatred for, and ‘holy war’ against, ‘infidels’; conquest and genocide; caste inequality and untouchability; the enslavement of women and the poor…..It isn’t that this is all just history though, for in almost every religious community even today gross injustices are routinely sought to be justified in the name of religion and/or God/the gods.
Stirred by the appalling barbarities that are believed by many of their co-religionists to be blessed by their religions, a few brave souls have always been around to denounce and decry these as supposedly against the ‘true’ spirit of their religion. They find the horrific beliefs and practices that their co-religionists passionately defend in the name of God/the gods and religion to be a major embarrassment, leading others to look down on them as ‘primitive’, ‘fanatic’, and ‘cruel’. Such beliefs and practices are a terrible blot on their public image and an enormous burden on their conscience. They know that others will instinctively shun them as long as their co-religionists are seen as defending barbarism in the name of their faith. It is suffocating for them to have to conform to such beliefs and practices if they are to be regarded by their co-religionists as being loyal to their religion.
All this drives ‘religious reformists’ to spend their lives crusading against these horrors, trying to convince their stubborn co-religionists as well as those who revile their religion that the embarrassing practices and beliefs seen as sanctioned in their religion are actually an unwarranted deviation from what they contend is the ‘true’ version of their faith. The ‘authentic’ version of their religion, they insist, has no room whatsoever for such crudities. In this way, they hope to wean their co-religionists away from the beliefs and practices that they find disgusting, and, at the same time, convince critics that their religion isn’t the un-distilled barbarism that they think it is. Their struggle to infuse new meaning into their faith and to deny and denounce what they regard as unacceptable and immoral beliefs and practices sanctioned in its name also enables them to reconcile themselves to their religion and community, for they are often unwilling to abandon these altogether.
This, then, is much of what passes for ‘religious reform’ is all about. Not all ‘religious reformists’ may be religious, in the conventional sense of the term, in their personal lives. Some may even be agnostics or atheists, though they would rarely admit this in public for fear of opposition or simply because if they were to do so, their efforts of ‘reforming’ the religious beliefs and practices of their co-religionists would find absolutely no takers. Some ‘religious reformists’ might engage in ‘reformist’ religious discourse not because they really believe in it themselves but simply because they think that it is the only realistic way to wean their co-religionists, who are wedded to their religion, from the barbarities that they are so repelled by. Irrespective of their personal convictions, however, ‘religious reformists’ publicly project themselves as being passionately devoted to their religion and concerned about salvaging it from the horrors that are perpetrated in its name by their co-religionists.
No matter what religious tradition they may be associated with, ‘religious reformists’ have several features in common. Firstly, they are profoundly dissatisfied with certain obnoxious or otherwise unacceptable beliefs and practices shared by many of their co-religionists, which the latter regard as mandated by their scriptures, ‘holy’ men, founding figures of their religion and supposed divine beings. Secondly, they decry such beliefs and practices as having allegedly no warrant whatsoever in the ‘authentic’ or ‘original’ understanding of their faith. They denounce these as later accretions or inventions, and thus as alien to the ‘pristine’ form of their religion as taught by its founder(s). Thirdly, they assert the claim of knowing what the ‘authentic’ or ‘original’ understanding of the faith is. This they readily contrast with the interpretations of their faith of their opponents, which they brand as ‘deviant’, ‘false’ and ‘superstitious’. Their ‘authentic’ understanding of their faith, they argue, is identical with that of the founder(s) of their religion and/or the author(s) of the religion’s scriptures. Their understanding of their scriptures alone, they argue, corresponds exactly to that of the author(s) of these texts. It alone, they implicitly claim, represents the Will of God/the gods, in contrast to their co-religionists, whose interpretations they oppose. In this way, they seek to convince their co-religionists that they must accede to their particular interpretation of their shared faith.
As a student of religions who remains unaffiliated to any of them, I am amazed at the agonizing intellectual gymnastics that ‘religious reformists’ feel compelled to engage in in order to salvage the image of their religion and to critique the barbarities that are blessed in its name. While I share their anguish at the horrors that they spend their lives crusading against, I do not for a moment share their enthusiasm for their methodology of reform. Their basic strategy, I think, is intellectually hollow, and, at the same time, morally unacceptable.
Although they may not realise it, ‘religious reformists’ are guilty of the same spiritual arrogance and intellectual imperialism that they readily denounce in their ‘conservative’ and ‘orthodox’ co-religionists. Like the latter, they, too, claim that their particular understanding of their faith alone is true, and they condemn competing understandings as false and unacceptable. Religious reformists can be as annoyingly dictatorial, then, as their die-hard opponents.
Like their ‘conservative’ or ‘fanatic’ critics, ‘religious reformists’ also put forward the wholly untenable claim of knowing the mind of God/the gods and/or that of the founder of their faith. That is what their insistence that their understanding of their religion alone is ‘true’—in the sense of truly reflecting the Divine Will as expressed in their scriptures and/or of being identical to that of their religion’s founder(s)—really amounts to. If you seriously consider this point, you are bound to find it quite the height of intellectual arrogance and immodesty. In use religious terminology, one might even term it as a form of blasphemy, for it seeks to set (most probably unwittingly) the reformist at par with God/the gods and/or the founder(s) of his faith.
That this approach to reform is intellectually dishonest can be easily demonstrated. It is well known that some scriptures as well as the records of the lives of the founders of certain religions are believed by many of their followers to sanction a range of beliefs and practices that sensible people would find untenable or abhorrent. These could be seemingly harmless beliefs that appear to clearly contradict science and experience, such as the claim that the earth sits on the horns of a bull. But they could be much more deadly beliefs and practices, too—untouchability and caste supremacism, for instance, or inveterate hatred of infidels or the bizarre belief that only those who hold particular beliefs or pray in a certain way or believe in a certain messiah or human figure will go to heaven and that the rest of humanity will suffer forever in hell. These are the meanings that many believers derive from their scriptures and/or from the records of the lives of the founders of their religions. Such, too, is the widespread opinion of clerics or priests, religious professionals who claim expertise in matters of interpreting what are regarded as holy texts. They insist that these practices and beliefs have the backing of none other than the founder(s) of their religion and/or of God/the gods as well, for this is, they argue, what the holy texts say.
It is natural that sensitive, sensible souls would be simply appalled, and at the same time, deeply embarrassed, at such intolerable barbarism being sought to be justified in the name of their religion, its founder(s) and/or God/the gods. One way out for them is to simply dump their religion altogether, and then either convert to another religion or else decide that there is no need to believe in any religion at all. Another way is that of the ‘religious reformist’. Using various devices, the ‘religious reformist’ seeks to argue that the interpretations that many of his co-religionists defend of the scriptures or texts about their religion’s founder(s) are fundamentally flawed. The unacceptable practices and beliefs that they see as being justified in these texts reflect, he contends, erroneous textual interpretations. In their place, he articulates a new interpretation of the same texts, geared to arriving at precisely the opposite conclusions. He insists that the range of beliefs and practices that his co-religionist opponents defend do not have any warrant in the texts they quote from if ‘properly’ understood. He insists that his interpretation of these texts alone is the ‘proper’ one, and that interpretations that do not accord with his are ‘flawed’ or ‘deviant’. In this way, he seeks to counter the widespread abuses of human rights in the name of his own religion.
While this strategy of reform may seem politically useful, at least in the short run, it is simply intellectually dishonest, besides being illogical and unreasonable. The founder of one’s religion or the author of a particular scripture may have died ten or five or one thousand years ago, and so it is logically impossible to know what he truly meant when he said, wrote or did something. But this doesn’t seem to stop religious reformists—as well as their critics—from insisting that they truly know his intention as expressed in a scripture or narrative record. They have, of course, never met this long-deceased figure and they have no living connection with him, and yet they claim to know exactly what he meant. It doesn’t need much intelligence at all to know that this claim is simply absurd.
The reason why reformists and their critics can easily get away with this bizarre claim of knowing the mind of the founder of their faith or the author of their scriptures is simply because the founder or author of their scripture is dead and gone and is no longer accessible to human beings. And so one can endlessly go on claiming to know his mind without him ever coming back to confirm or refute one’s claims. He isn’t going to climb out of his grave or emerge from his funeral pyre to clarify such contentious matters. Nor is God going to roar out from the heavens to judge between squabbling sets of co-religionists, each of which claims exclusive knowledge of His Will as expressed in the scriptures. By claiming to know the ‘true’ interpretation of his religion, the reformist thus only adds to the already deafening cacophony of voices, each claiming exclusive possession of the sole ‘authentic’ understanding of their faith while adducing what it regards as conclusive evidence from the scriptures and the life of the religion’s founder to back its wholly untenable claims.
There is simply no objective way in which ‘religious reformists’—or anyone else, for that matter—can logically prove that their interpretation of their faith is truly the ‘authentic’ one, in the sense of corresponding fully with the Divine Will, with that of their religion’s founder or with the intent of the author of their scriptures. The very effort to do so is wholly immoral, too, for in doing this the ‘reformists’—perhaps inadvertently—set themselves as arbiters of their faith and go so far as to claim exclusive access to, and knowledge of, what is believed to be the Divine Will.
If ‘religious reformism’ of this sort is thus deeply problematic, how, then, should all the many horrors and terrors routinely defended in the name of religion be challenged? As I have explained above, to seek to combat them on the grounds that they are allegedly not justified in the ‘true’ version of the faith is both intellectually and morally unacceptable. The only sensible way to deal with the issue is, as far as I am concerned, to avoid all appeals to, and claims of, religious truth altogether. If you instinctively feel that the subjugation of women, or caste oppression, or hatred of ‘infidels’ and any other such arrant nonsense is simply abhorrent and unacceptable, there is no need at all to seek religious approval or justification, through suitably interpreting texts, in order to denounce it. The custom or belief needs to be condemned simply because deep down inside you know it is disgusting. You don’t need to have religious arguments or backing to oppose it. What a religion may or may not ‘truly’ have to say about that particular custom or belief should be absolutely immaterial to your opposition to it. There is no need at all to enter into the ultimately futile and inconclusive debate of whether or not a particular religion ‘truly’ does or doesn’t sanction a particular belief or practice because there is just no way us any of us mortals can answer this question.
Put simply, there is absolutely no need for people appalled by a horrific belief or practice widely believed to be sanctioned in the name of their religion to engage in religious counter-argumentation in order to challenge it and to justify their opposition to it, both to themselves as well as to the wider public. The mere fact of it being horrific should be enough for you to denounce it—you don’t need to have any religious backing to legitimize your opposition to it. And so, in that way you can save your energy and time for better things than having to constantly seek religious approval for something that needs no approval at all other than your own conscience.