By Tril Shah, New Age Islam
2 Jan, 2013
Embarrassed by the hatred and strife that has historically been legitimized by many religions, religionists typically answer that the fault lies not in religion as such, but, rather, in what they call a ‘faulty interpretation’ of it or in the political ‘misuse’ of religion for ‘irreligious’ ends. In this way, they seek to absolve religion for the conflicts it has generated down the centuries across much of the world.
This glib response fails to convince, however. As far as I can gather, drawing boundaries between ‘true believers’ and others is one of the principal functions, as well as consequences, of religion. Once these boundaries are drawn and harden, it is almost inevitable that they encourage believers to imagine that their religion alone is right or is the best and that those who do not subscribe to their beliefs and practices are muddle-headed, wrong, deviant or even evil. In turn, this conviction engenders a strong sense of supremacism among the followers of a particular religion, who tend to look down on others who do not share their religious beliefs and practices. This leads to a variety of attitudes towards others: indifference, condescension, pity, disdain, and very commonly, hatred, all of which are rooted in the fundamental belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own religion and the inferiority of others. These attitudes combine to powerfully shape individual believers’ behavior vis-à-vis people who don’t share their religious beliefs. They could be driven into reaching out to these others with irrepressible missionary zeal in order to coax them to abandon their ‘erroneous’ religious beliefs and practices and to enter the fold of the ‘true belief’. But it could also lead, as it has all too often, to conflict with others—heated polemics, for instance, and even to physical warfare.
The tendency of religion to lead to these unsavoury consequences is perhaps inherent in the very nature of religion as such, as conventionally understood. The popular understanding of Religion is that it is a set of beliefs and rituals centred on empirically unverifiable ‘supernatural’ beings, forces, laws and phenomena, as well as a set of rules and norms for individual and social conduct. Defined in this way, religion has two sides to it. Firstly, elements that can be empirically neither validated nor disproven (for instance, belief in the existence or otherwise of God/gods, heaven and hell, the Day of Judgment, as in the Semitic religions, or the theory of rebirth, in the Indic religions). And, secondly, elements whose worth can be judged by one’s conscience and whose truth can be tested through experience. This is the realm of values, such as kindness, love, compassion, justice and so on.
Theoretically, it is possible for followers of different religions, and even agnostics and rank atheists, to arrive at a consensus on this latter dimension of values. They may all agree, for instance, on the importance of compassion, sincerity and selflessness. No matter what their religious beliefs, they may heartily concur with each other on the need to help the poor. These values, then, can serve as a powerful means to bring together people of differing religious persuasions. They unite, rather than divide, people of otherwise different religious and ideological persuasions.
But religion, as conventionally understood, is not only about values. Whether the putative founders of various religions intended it or not, religions have historically come to also be centred on key unverifiable beliefs related to the ‘supernatural’. In fact, for many—possibly the vast majority—of religionists, values and morals are secondary to such beliefs. That is why, for instance, if someone fails to live up to the lofty moral standards of their religion many religionists won’t get even remotely as upset as they would if the same person were to even mildly criticize their core theological beliefs, patently absurd though they may be. Clinging to, and passionately defending, these beliefs and engaging in rituals connected to them seem more important an aspect of lived religion for many religionists than the leading of an ethical life.
What distinguishes the different religions are more their empirically unverifiable beliefs, which they regard as non-negotiable, than anything else. It is primarily these beliefs that set the different religions apart from, and against, each other. Religionists, as we have seen, typically take these beliefs to be the core of their religions, and so it is that these beliefs automatically lead them to stress and reinforce their differences with people of other faiths. In other words, these beliefs serve as powerful walls between groups of people who come to be defined as members of separate, even antagonistic, communities primarily by virtue of holding different, often conflicting, beliefs about the ‘supernatural’ that can neither be proven nor debunked. The very fact of adhering to such beliefs leads to the creation of boundaries that define ‘true’ believers from the rest of humankind. Often, religionists invest incredible amounts of energy into sustaining and further reinforcing such boundaries, and this tendency can easily—as it has throughout much of history—slide into physical conflict with people who hold other or contradictory beliefs about the ‘supernatural’.
If what, in effect, defines the different ‘religious communities’ and also sets them against each other are their differing beliefs that are beyond the purview of reason and ordinary experience, it appears that as long as religion continues to be imagined as premised principally on such beliefs theologically-fuelled antagonisms will continue to plague humanity (except, of course, in the unlikely event of the whole of humankind agreeing to convert to a single belief system). True, such antagonisms, as previously pointed out, need not always take violent forms, but that is besides the point. The fact remains that belief-centric religiosity appears by definition prone to building barriers between what come to be regarded as ‘true believers’ and others, rather than breaking them down. In this way, such religiosity easily conduces to conflict.
Increasingly, however, many people are veering round to the opinion that there is absolutely no need to hold onto any empirically unverifiable beliefs in order to be truly religious. For them, religiousness is essentially about leading a life that exemplifies certain values that they hold to be important, inspiration from which they may draw from various sources, even those not conventionally seen as ‘religious’. They may not deny the existence of the supernatural realm—they are definitely not atheists—but neither do they affirm it. Unlike conventional religionists, they are honest to admit that, like everyone else, they have not the faintest clue about the veracity or otherwise of beliefs about this realm that different sets of religionists hold. The reality of such beliefs, they would say, must always remain unknown because they are unverifiable. They are great mysteries whose answers not even the most ardent believers can really ever know, even though they claim to know them because that is how they have been conditioned. It is the life you lead, they would stress, rather than the empirically non-verifiable beliefs you hold, that really matters. And, if asked, they would probably tell you that religionists who spend their entire lives agonizing about and defending beliefs that they desperately cling to and denouncing those that they think are false are simply wasting their time.
Religion, for such people, is essentially ethical living, which they identify as genuine religiosity. They do not deny, but nor do they affirm, the various conflicting unverifiable beliefs that other religious folks regard as central to their understanding of the world. They are convinced that such matters are completely inconsequential in order to lead a truly religious life. As can be easily appreciated, this way of conceiving of, and living, religion completely does away with the vexing question of conflicting unverifiable beliefs that underlie the antagonisms that characterize relations between various sets of conventional religionists. It appears, then, that in the dissociation of religion from such beliefs and in rethinking religiousness simply as ethical living lies at least a partial answer to the horrendous conflicts that belief-based religiosity has historically engendered.