By Yoginder Sikand for New Age Islam
For many years, I harboured a deep-rooted envy for people who unquestioningly believed in whatever religion they happened to be born into. Their seemingly unshakable belief gave them, or so I thought, remarkable confidence, which I sorely lacked and desperately craved for. How I wished I could have the same uncritical faith! How I agonized about why my parents had never insisted that I follow any religious tradition, including their own! Surely, with the sort of commitment that the ‘born believers’ I knew displayed, weathering the storms that I had to confront in my life—and there were many—would have been infinitely less painful. How much suffering I would have been spared—or so I used to think.
Although I tried to experiment with various religions over the years—not very seriously, I must admit—I could never arrive at the same state of belief (or what critics would call ‘blind faith’) as that of ardent ‘born believers’. Lack of sincerity and commitment was certainly one factor. That it was solace or an end to my inner suffering, rather than truth, that I was searching for was another. But, equally, the fact that I simply could not bring myself to believe in and assent to the absurd, unacceptable and immoral claims, beliefs and tenets of some of the religions that I sought to engage with ruled out the sort of faith that I so desperately craved for.
Today, after years of studying different religions and religious communities, I no longer feel the way I used to about people with seemingly unshakable belief in the religions they were born and socialized by their parents into. Indeed, I am now profoundly thankful to have been spared the ideological brainwashing that billions of ‘born believers’ throughout history have been—and continue to be—subjected to.
True religion, as I understand it, ought to provide ultimate truths concerning existence, life, death and beyond and the divine realms. Surely, accessing or realising these truths should be a matter of ultimate importance for those who claim to be religious. Nothing else, I presume, would be of greater importance to a sincere seeker. But, as I have painfully discovered, this is something that the vast majority of ‘born believers’ are simply not interested in or concerned about at all. For them, unflinching loyalty to the diktats of the religion they happened to be born into—even if what their religions teach on a range of issues may be patently absurd, unscientific or morally reprehensible —is of fundamental importance. Loyal adherence to the faith that they have inherited from their parents, rather than the desire to realize the truth as it is, underlies their religious life.
Since it is unquestioning adherence to the faith of one’s parents, rather than an honest search for truth, that drives the ‘born believer’, one can be sure that had he or she been born into a different religion instead he or she would have believed in it with equal passion. Consider the case of a born Christian, who insists that Christ is the only way to salvation and regards Mohammad as an imposter. Had the same person been born a Muslim instead, it is almost certain that he would insist that Islam was the only true religion and that Mohammad was the greatest prophet. He would also fervently believe that Christians would perish in hell for what he would consider as their disbelief. Likewise, a born Muslim might very likely believe that Hinduism is polytheistic nonsense. However, had she been born into an orthodox Brahmin household instead, she might well have regarded Islam as wholly false and considered Hinduism as the epitome of truth. Similarly, a born Muslim might regard the Sikh form of worship completely unacceptable in the eyes of God and the Sikh custom of leaving one’s hair unshorn absurd, but it is very possible that had he been born into a Sikh family instead he would have considered the Muslims’ five compulsory daily prayers as a tiresome burden and a meaningless ritual and the Islamic practice of male circumcision as barbaric.
As these hypothetical examples illustrate, most blind believers are not guided by the quest for truth at all. Indeed, they are inimically opposed to that very quest. Most such believers follow their particular inherited religion and claim it to be the best simply because they were born into it and feel compelled to defend its teachings (no matter how absurd they may be) at any cost. They have been socialized into believing that the religion of their parents is the only valid repository of ultimate or divine truth, or, at least, the most superior one. At the same time, they are also trained to believe that all other religions are perversely wrong, wicked and immoral or, at the very least, definitely inferior to their own. That is why the blind believer can never generously admit the merits and truths of other religions. If he reluctantly does so, you can be sure that he still feels compelled to insist (to himself, if not to others) that his own religion remains the best. Blind belief of this sort is at the very basis of bloody conflicts in the name of religion the world over.
Blind believers are psychologically compelled to regard that every word of their scriptures, prophets, avatars and gurus as absolute divine truths. This belief is not based on any objective examination of their religions or of the lives of the key figures of their religious traditions, but simply on unquestioning belief. For even a shadow of doubt or skepticism to emerge in the minds of such believers about their religious texts or the personalities of their founding figures is regarded as the most heinous crime possible—which, they are forced into believing, will provoke the wrath of the divine. Instigating and instilling fear of divine punishment for daring to doubt or question is how most religions manage to maintain their stranglehold on the minds of blind believers.
Many widely-revered religious scriptures abound with absurd and unscientific claims, but blind believers do not dare question them. Some such texts depict a violent, hate-driven and vengeful God, who drives his followers to declare war on those who do not accept what they claim is the sole true religion. Others are replete with stories of deities who engage in adulterous affairs or are habitual drunkards and rapists. The narratives of the founders and key-figures of several religious traditions indicate that some of them suffered terrible moral flaws and were hardly the models of virtue that their followers imagine them to have been. Some are recorded as having engaged in looting, adultery and rape, others in incest, murder and widespread slaughter—crimes that would surely have landed them into jail or into mental asylums had they been around today.
In the face of all of this, blind believers are often compelled to engage in painful struggles to retain their faith in their religious traditions. This explains the frantic efforts they are forced to make to defend, cover-up, explain away or excuse the absurd claims and immoralities which some of their religious texts themselves record and even uphold as normative. Had their religiosity been based on the quest for truth, rather than unquestioning loyalty to the religion they have been born into and blindly accept, they would have been spared this painful torment of struggling to defend the indefensible.
True seekers are the polar opposite of blind believers. A true seeker refuses to be bound by or unquestioningly accept the religion that his forefathers have cherished, for he recognizes that this can be a major fetter in his search for truth. Indeed, he is open to the possibility that most or even every religious tradition, including the one he was born into, maybe flawed, while at the same time he recognizes that truth may well be found outside the boundaries of conventional religion.
Unlike the born or blind believer, the true seeker refuses to seek truth only in what are conventionally regarded as ‘holy’ scriptures or to be bound and confined by them. For such a seeker, the whole of the cosmos, including, and most importantly, his own self, is the arena for discovering and experiencing truth. What drives the true seeker on is the quest for the truth about the fundamental questions about the divine and about life and death, and in this search he refuses to blindly accept anything in any religion—including the one he happened to be born into—that does not conform to his experience, personal realization, the confirmed findings of science and the demands of basic morality.
True seekers are few—and have always been so. The harsh reality is that the vast majority of people who consider themselves religious are blind believers, almost all believers in whatever religion they happened to be born into and reared by their families to believe in. Why this has been so is not difficult to understand. Parents would like nothing more than their children to believe as they do, and so insist that they blindly accept their religious beliefs and practices. This continues over the generations in such a way as to completely rob children of their right to believe as they want or to seek truth for themselves. By the time they have grown up, most people have been firmly brainwashed into an uncritical, robotic acceptance of the religious beliefs of their ancestors. Even if some of them harbor doubts about these beliefs, few would dare to voice them for fear of being scorned by their families and peers, ostracized from their communities, or, in some cases, even killed for their dissenting views.
Believing what one’s family insists is true is thus the infinitely easier option for most folks. It spares them the agony of searching for truth, which is a quest that inevitably entails painful struggle, including against the absurdities and prejudices that one has been reared on since childhood in the name of religion. How much more convenient it seems is it to simply acquiesce in the prejudices of one’s family and unquestioningly accept the religious beliefs that they have clung to for generations—even if this means being shackled by absurd and unacceptable beliefs and rituals! For people too petrified of the hurdles that must be crossed in the search for truth or too lazy to even think of setting out on that path, blindly accepting the religion one is born into seems a tantalizing option, and one that is too tempting to be resisted.
But succumbing to this temptation comes at a very heavy cost—at the cost of truth itself. Remaining shackled by ignorance, prejudice and burdensome beliefs and rituals is the heavy price one inevitably has to pay for choosing to be a blind believer, passively accepting what one has been socialised into believing since infancy and simply too frightened to contemplate of thinking beyond it or critically analysing it. Clinging to a belief system simply because one is born into it clearly indicates, as nothing else can, that such religiosity is in no way impelled by a quest for discovering the truth—or, to use the language of God-centric religions, of knowing or realizing God. Inevitably, then, such belief, I suspect, can never lead one to the truth—or, if you prefer the term, God.
Having realized the futility of blind belief, no longer do I now envy ‘born believers’ for their seemingly unshakable faith. I now realize that it is not truth that they seek or know, but, rather, simply the prejudices they have inherited from their families in the name of religion which they spend their entire lives worshipping and defending. How much better, then, the freedom of the path of the seeker—despite the heavy odds on the way—than the shackles of blind faith, which I once so desperately craved to be imprisoned by!
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore