Science & Philosophy

Let’s Aim For a Post-theistic Society

This article has become more relevant because of growing religious intolerance exemplified by the mindless killing of Dr. Dabholkar.

A cursory study of recorded human history shows that more wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else. In fact, periods with the most intense religiosity and dogma have been periods of the worst cruelty—the Spanish Inquisition for example. More recently, the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany led to World War II. The present phenomenon of Islamic terror is not a clash of civilizations (as some would call it) but a clash of religions, between Islam and Christianity. It has resulted in Islamic leaders hardening their stand to the point where Mullahs preach that childhood vaccination is a secret Western (read Christian) scheme to sterilize children so as to keep their population down. Thus, the debilitating illness polio (preventable with a simple oral vaccine) remains prevalent in just three countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria—and I will let you guess what their religion is! And the Taliban recently killed several health-care workers involved in the polio vaccination drive in Pakistan.

Before going further, let us first try to understand why humans invented the concept of God, and whether it has any relevance today. Religion is founded on FEAR, the fear of the unknown. But modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena, so that the purview of the unknown has shrunk considerably and fear of nature is largely irrelevant. We do not need a sun-God, a wind-God, or any of the multitude of such nature-Gods that the ancient Hindus (and also the Greeks among others) invented. In fact, a moment’s reflection shows that invoking God is not an explanation of anything but a primitive response of shrugging your shoulders and saying that something is beyond your comprehension—not relevant with today’s scientific knowledge.

But even the monotheistic religions that are dominant today (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which by the way have the same foundation in the Old Testament), which presumably evolved to do away with such nature-Gods, still postulated one God with supernatural powers. What supernatural powers? Let us first realize that there is no supernatural MIRACLE that has withstood the scrutiny of science. The Vatican may insist that a person should have performed documented miracles to be declared a saint, but Mother Teresa (beatified now) never claimed to have performed miracles when she was alive, and that she was only a human servant of God.

Indeed, we are born with a rational instinct, because a world view that is consistent with natural laws gives us a distinct evolutionary advantage for survival. Experiments show that children as young as one year of age, who have not yet learned to speak, will get perturbed and start crying when they see a magical event, i.e. one that is not consistent with their world view. For example, if a block does NOT fall when it is pushed beyond the edge of a table, because the experimenter has cleverly put a plate of invisible glass beyond the edge. It is only later (after about age four) that we learn to suspend this rationality so as to enjoy a magic show, where we know that the magician is playing tricks to entertain us. But the same “belief in miracles” can be drilled into innocent children by parents and teachers telling them to pray to a God with supernatural powers, one who can perform miracles. Children accept this against their natural instinct because they consider parents
and teachers to be all-knowing elders.

Let us also admit that religion does not teach moral values. We get our morality from an innate sense of humanity, and being able to see the pain of a fellow creature—something that other animals do not appear to be capable of. Take the example of the 9/11 terrorist hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center. They were convinced that they were doing the right thing and killing infidels, for which they would be rewarded by God in an afterlife heaven with 72 virgins for company and pleasure (whatever that means). George Bush later said that the terrorists had hijacked a good religion (Islam) to perform immoral acts. Which shows that he is defining morality based on something beyond Islam, while the same act was considered moral by the terrorists (and presumably by their teachers who indoctrinated them) within their religion.

This is what prompted the Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg to say, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Weinberg shared his Nobel with the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, who tried to bring science into the Gulf states. He found that the leaders there were not supportive because they felt science was corrosive to religious belief. Yes, science IS corrosive to religion. And that is why religious belief is anachronistic in today’s science-driven world.

Apologists for religion will argue that the pain and suffering that we see around us is really God’s test (sodhanai in Tamil) of the strength of faith of the loved ones. Yeah right! Tell that to the parents of an innocent child suffering from cancer. If you had such supernatural powers to do this to the child, and actually did it, I would consider you the most cruel and unjust person.

It would be nice if there really existed a God who handed out some kind of cosmic justice for ones actions. But NO, there is no justice. What we see in this world is that the good suffer and the wicked prosper. And 1the wicked continue to sin because they are told by religious leaders that their sins will get washed with a dip in the Ganges, or by giving some of their ill-gotten wealth to a temple hundi. When I was a child, the biggest smuggler was a person named Haji Mastan. I am sure that he thought his crimes were forgiven by God because he went on a Haj pilgrimage.

Einstein (my personal hero) called belief in God as childish superstition. What he meant was that it is natural to give up this concept as we grow up and mature. But I think the bigger message is that, as a civilization, we should outgrow this childish notion. Philosophers divide non-believers into atheists—those who could not care less whether others share their views or not—and anti-theists—those who actively campaign against religion because of the harm it does. But we should aim for a society that is POST-THEISTIC, i.e. one in which religion is not an issue. A society where the people will look back and laugh at the primitive concept of God that we had till the 21st century. The way we look at primitive cave art today. Childish paintings on the cave wall may have been an essential step in the evolution of our art before it reached the heights of a Picasso or a Rembrandt, but nobody gets upset and issues a fatwa if somebody makes fun of the cave paintings.

To sum up what we can do, I quote from Bertrand Russel’s essay on Why I Am Not A Christian written almost 100 years ago: “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men . . . . A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”

About the author

Vasant Natarajan

Professor in the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Academic qualification: B.Tech. (IIT, Madras); Ph.D. (MIT, Cambridge)


  • A cursory study of recorded human history shows that more wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else.

    This is an oft-repeated claim, but confirmation bias aside, is it actually true?

    • ** This is an oft-repeated claim, but confirmation bias aside, is it actually true?**

      There is another problem with this claim. How does one even confirm that a war was infact fought in the name of religion?

    • Well I think we can apply strong and weak criteria. The strong criterion would be that
      people have some theological motivation to fight (after the Pope’s speech that started the First Crusade, the crowd yelled, “God wills it!”)

      The weak criterion is that two groups who self identify based on religion fight each other over non theological matters (Hindus vs Muslims).

      If you apply the strong criterion though, very few wars are religious wars (though maybe Idaq could be when considering Bush’s statements about Gog and Magog).

      Even with the weak criterion though, I don’t believe that religious wars claim a plurality.

    • What is interesting is that although people like Richard Dawkins point to religion as the reason India was partitioned, Jinnah and many other members of the Muslim League were atheists. They looked at “Muslim” as a cultural label.

      Even the founders of Hindu communalism were largely atheists and viewed “Hindu” as a cultural label.

      I think we would be taking liberties, then, to say that the modern Hindu-Muslim conflict is a religious label.

      Amartya Sen has discussed this best in his analysis of violence– he claims that the root cause of most violence is belonging to a group. That group could be anything– Hindu, Indian, Bhumihar, Proletariat, or whatever. But so long as we see ourselves as members of one group more than another, the threat of violence is there.

      Sen’s remedy is that we should meditate on our many identities (Indian, physicist, etc. etc.)

      • Sachin,

        I believe Dawkins does acknowledge (God Delusion or one of the YouTube videos) that some religious conflicts are in fact driven by other socio political differences between groups. But he also mentions that with out religion we will have one less group identity to worry about.

        Though I agree with the over all message of your post I do not agree that modern Hindu Muslim conflict (eg. Gujrat) is a non-religious one. However I do believe India Pakistan wars can not be categorized as religious wars.

        • Captain Mandrake,

          Thanks for pointing Gujarat out. When I spoke about partition and Dawkins, I was referring to this YouTube video, in which he seems to make the claim that Partition happened because of religion:

          For the reasons I put above though, I don’t believe that that’s the case.

          In modern Hindutva, I think there IS a strong theological component. Hindutvadis want Muslims and Christians to “reconvert to the faith of their fathers.”

      • Ashwin,

        Even if you go back to the middle ages it will be difficult to say that religion was the sole (I don’t think there is such a thing as a sole cause for such a complex thing like war) cause of any war. It could be argued that even the crusades were mostly expansionist wars and not religious wars.

        • Captain Mandrake,

          I think the Crusades present a problem and that we need to be very strict in our definition of what we call a “religious war” to make any ground (ah, yes, definition! the bane of Nirmukta! but I don’t think it’s possible to make headway unless we know what we’re calling religious motivation.)

          Yes, the Crusades historically were popular because knights could escape the feudal structure and get their own land in the Levant. However, reading Pope Urban’s speech inciting Crusaders on for the First Crusade should leave no doubt that theological motivations were there. I think we should be able to call a war “religious” if it is substantially motivated by theological claims.

          Yet how many wars in history were as explicitly theological as the Crusades? Let’s go back to the Ancient World from the Middle Ages. The Peloponnesian Wars? Nope. The Persian Wars? Nope. The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage? Nope. How about Roman expansion into Gaul and other “barbarian” territories? Can’t see it.

          You could define religion very vaguely to somehow get a “religious” motive out of everything. For example, American expansion into the West due to manifest destiny. But strictly speaking, is a belief in exceptionalism theological? I would say no.

          • (ah, yes, definition! the bane of Nirmukta! but I don’t think it’s possible to make headway unless we know what we’re calling religious motivation.)

            Being one of the guys who quickly shoots down arguments on definitions, let met clarify that I only have a problem when someone says “The dictionary sayeth thus, ergo that can only mean this”. Having a definition at hand isn’t problematic at all. Hell, without mutually understood upon definitions we’d all be talking past each other 🙂

          • I am afraid you are biased by simplified picture created by history books. All rulers of the past were using religion as a weapon of war. It was a tool of selection and justification to eliminate people and change ownership of land or wealth. Constantin in Nicea converted popular movement to, state own, legal instrument to persecute his enemies. It was a Roman tradition used even by Republic, adopted by Vatican and Mosque later. Religion is not a reason for war, it is a most effective weapon against all people who do not want to obey or are not wanted in “promised” territory. Any ideology can be used as a tool of war, as shown by Stalin (educated in a seminar to be a priest) using all the principles of waging wars, including religion, fighting against Germans… One does not need God to use religion effectively. Regards.

          • I am afraid you are biased by simplified picture created by history books. All rulers of the past were using religion as a weapon of war.

            Really? All of them? I think the discussion above should be sufficient to demonstrate why this claim is not true.

          • **However, reading Pope Urban’s speech inciting Crusaders on for the First Crusade should leave no doubt that theological motivations were there. I think we should be able to call a war “religious” if it is substantially motivated by theological claims.**

            In the book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things there is a section on religious killings. The author concedes that there is never a war that is 100% religious (or 100% anything). But also makes the point that religions to various degree has played a role. The author has the following to say about the crusades and those who underplay the role of religion in it.

            **Could you even write one paragraph into it without mentioning the pope, the Holy Land, or Jerusalem? You can argue that the Crusades were about something other than religion, but try writing two pages without bringing it up.**

            Using this line of argument I think we can say that the partition of India was a religious war (if we can call it a war).

            The book also has a list of 30 deadly religious killings. Though I could not agree with most (he includes English Civil War and other 16th and 17th century Catholic vs Protestant wars in Europe as religious killings), here are some that I can agree with.

            The partition of India
            Bosnia (1992-95)
            Russia anti-Jewish Pogroms (1919)
            Aztec human sacrifices

            The book also further categorizes these 30 into four categories.

            Indigenous human sacrifices (4)
            Monotheistic religions fighting each other (17)
            Heathens fighting monotheistic religions (8)
            Heathens stirring up trouble all by themselves (1)

            The author finally blames the rigid worldview of monotheistic religions as one of the main reasons for these killings.

          • ^ This is a late reply to an old comment, but with the case of sati, the motivation may not have been purely religious.

            Wendy Doniger has noted that sati was most prevalent in areas in which women were allowed to own property. So while there may have been a mask of religion, the core motivation for the murder seems to have been greed for wealth.

        • To be very honest, it seems to me that a desire for territorial expansion– not religion– claims a plurality of wars fought in history.

          • Inspite of the pope’s decrees the crusades itself would not have been possible with out other factors like control of territory and trade routes. It is very difficult to pin down religion as the cause for any wars. However when it comes to persecution of religious minorities (eg. Jewish pogroms in Russia, anti-muslim riots or anti-Hindu riots in India) we can certainly point fingers at religion.

          • I’d be delighted to hear back from Dr. Natarajan- he obviously disagrees with us, I’d like to hear his point of view.

  • What about Lankans massacred Tamils.
    No way related to religion.
    Many ethnic groups (including tribals) kill each other regardless of religion. This article’s reference and base may not be correct. We, the worst animals, kill each other for any reason (color/dialect/gender/any other thing).

    But, religion is a factor (maybe major).

    • In his End of Faith, Sam Harris points to the Sri Lankan civil war as an example of religious violence, of “Hindus vs. Buddhists.”

      I disagree with Sam Harris on a great many issues– for example, his support of profiling or his rather grand claims that science can determine ethics (he seems to dance around how strong this claim is in various interviews given about the book in question, The Moral Landscape. ).

      This is another issue in which I cannot see eye to eye with him. That the LTTE-Sinhalese conflict is “Hindus vs. Buddhists” is questionable. I could just as easily say that the war is between Tamil-speakers and Sinhalese-speakers and that language differences cause violence, and consequently, express gratitude that English is becoming the lingua franca of the world. It’s an argument with little backing, and one can’t help but notice how convenient it is to helping Harris prove his point.

      • This conflict is one between the state and a particular section of the Tamil speaking community that had certain grievances against the state. So it can be argued that religion was not the issue.

        But having said that when you look at the belligerents it was predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists on one side and Tamil Hindus on the other side. So a case can be made that it was a religious conflict.

        Now imagine a scenario where a significant portion of Jaffna Tamils who were Buddhists and/or if a significant portion of Sinhalese were Hindus. Would there have been a similar Sinhalese vs Tamil conflict under this scenario?

        • Captain Mandrake,

          I’m afraid I didn’t understand the question. Are you asking if– whether in the scenario you proposed– violence would have ensued?

          • Yes, would conflict have ensued? Or would the magnitude of the conflict have been similar to the one that we witnessed?

          • There’s unfortunately no real way to answer that. Really, any “what if” scenario like that would be hard to answer.

            I think violence would have ensued no matter what. After all, the cause was grievances against the state.

            It may not have been quite the same though. If the Jaffnas were to be Buddhist, then their dynamic with mainland India would be quite different. They would have less culturally in common with the Indian Tamils. This may have caused the Tamil Nadu government not to put as much pressure on the Indian government to support the LTTE in some regard– I’m not sure who was in charge of Tamil Nadu at this time and whether they valued Hindu-derived culture or the Tamil language more.

  • I’m a little hesitant to put in my two cents’ worth in this impassioned discussion, but here goes. Vasant’s straight-from-the-shoulder, no-punches-pulled sally in a wider
    forum seems to have provoked considerable reaction from different quarters. Perhaps predictably so, given the topic. The comments in the Nirmukta forum are (again, predictably) more incisive and educative. I do get the impression, however, that attention has got diverted somewhat to the secondary question of the exact percentage of war/conflict through the ages that can be attributed to religion. Again, as already pointed out implicitly or explicitly, this is not a precisely quantifiable figure.

    I think there can be no argument that the *root* cause of violent conflict is the sense of belonging to a *group* of some kind or the other, as identified by Amartya Sen and referred to by Sachin in his comment. To me, there can be no better graphic illustration of this basic fact than the prologue of ‘2001-A Space Odyssey’, in which the rival groups of early primates interact violently with each other. In a real sense, war started then, over water-hole rights! I’m no evolutionary biologist, but it seems to me that “Different is dangerous” is perhaps hard-wired into us for evolutionary survival, and therefore very hard, if not impossible, to get rid of even after millennia of social organisation. Perhaps even the altruism and cooperation that is also exhibited in plenty by the human race is again a short-term tactic geared toward the ultimate goal of survival and propagation of the species?

    However that may be, I think it is safe to say that the unhappy consequences of this
    sense of ‘belonging to a group’ are fed by propaganda and stoked by *dogma*. The more dogmatic the suggestion is, the more virulent its consequences are. And here is where religion scores a direct hit: it is, almost by its very definition, extremely dogmatic. So while we may argue about whether 10%, or 50%, or 90% of all conflicts have been caused by religion, I think the effects have been deleterious enough, thank you!

    The *real* problem, then, is: What is the way out? In other words, how is the human race going to become *sociologically* as advanced as it claims to be on the *technological* side? I’m sure this question has occurred to most thinking persons, in different forms. The answers, too, differ widely. A very large majority would undoubtedly speak of “moral education to inculcate ethical values”, and a substantial portion of that majority would almost immediately suggest (dogmatic) religion as the best way to “inculcate” precisely those values. (Never mind the irony here…) A considerably smaller, but certainly very thoughtful, minority would suggest a “post-theistic society” as the desideratum! What’s my personal take on this? Not that it matters, but for what it’s worth, here it is: as I said, I think the urge to violence and conflict is hard-wired into us. So I don’t think it can be eliminated totally by anything we ourselves can do. An external agency is required. Here’s where one gets mystical, having been fed on a regular diet of sci-fi. Either the human race gets saved by the intelligent machines it will create and which will take over the running of human affairs (Asimov), or the race will find its apotheosis when vastly more advanced (and hopefully equally compassionate) aliens get here and take over (Clarke). Take your pick!


    • Sir, you’re absolutely right that the real reason for violent conflict is the ‘in-group’ mentality.

      I respectfully differ on aiming to eliminate (your words) the urge to violence and conflict. The fact that we know nothing about any other life-group apart from that on Earth, would make this a possibly dangerous error. To take your sci-fi example further, we need to have tools and people willing to fight and die (possibly in large numbers) in case Mars Attacks!, so that we don’t end up like the sorry fools in War of The Worlds, who are saved by bacteria. We may not be so lucky.

      The solution should rather be to expand the ‘in-group’ to include all humans (as a starting point) as a biological species. It can be later extended/modified when we have actual hard AI, but that is yet away into the future.

      I eagerly await your response.

      • ** The fact that we know nothing about any other life-group apart from that on Earth, would make this a possibly dangerous error.**

        Wity out resorting to the scifi example please explain why this is a bad idea?

        • What if an extraterrestrial Imperialist civilisation sees our planet possessing some valuable resource (or even Lebensraum) and proceeds to invade? As has been repeatedly demonstrated by history, merely being expansionist bigots does not usually hamper weapon-making or fighting skills.

          A somewhat relevant historical example may be Licchavi vs Ajatshatru’s Magadha, or Kalinga vs Imperial Ashoka. Also a good example is the sacking of Baghdad (then a major centre of learning and culture) by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan. Learning is of no use against barbarians if it can’t make weapons or prevent people from using them.

          The intelligent machines or vastly more advanced aliens who would want to take over the world, to use Bala sir’s words, may not be as compassionate as he hopes. We must keep this in mind.

          • I don’t think we even need to go as far as a hypothetical extra-terrestrial scenario.

            (I myself am extremely skeptical that intelligent life exists elsewhere. Between Penrose’s calculation of the probability that life arose on this planet and the sparseness of earth-like planets, it would be very unlikely.)

            But I do feel that we should take up arms if it is absolutely necessary. I think the point being made is that violence that springs solely because of the in-group vs. out-group mentality should be eliminated.

          • Ashwin,

            ** But I do feel that we should take up arms if it is absolutely necessary.**

            Agree. But being armed and being willing to die in large numbers seems to be entirely different things.

          • > …being armed and being willing to die in large numbers seems to be
            > entirely different things.

            Yes. Arms are of no use in the hands of a coward. Without a will to fight to
            the end, there is no victory against a barbaric enemy. Everyone should be
            prepared to defend his/her family and loved ones. At any cost necessary. This
            may sound militaristic, but freedom, once obtained, is not easy to maintain.

  • This was obviously written by a biased anti-theist. He wishes to portray religion as something universally wrong by equating religion with fundamentalism. He completely ignores the numerous saints and leaders who were religiously inspired as well as the numerous religious charities silently working to improve the world. But religion is a human invention and it has no inherent worth but depends on our interpretation of it. Instead of a post-theistic society it would be better if the writer thought of a post-conflict society. Then both religion as well non-religious people will triumph since all religions have universally envisioned an altruistic society.

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