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.”