In 1978, the Catholic theologian Hans Kung raised a few pertinent questions in his book, Does God Exist? “Has religion any future? Can we not have morality even without religion? Is not science sufficient? Has not religion developed out of magic? Will it not perish in the process of evolution? Is not God from the outset a projection of man (Feuerbach), opium of the people (Marx), resentment of those who have fallen short (Nietzsche), illusion of those who have remained infantile (Freud)? …”
The decades that followed proved that the theologian’s anxieties were ill-founded. Religious fundamentalism of all sorts flourished in the 1990s all over the world. The communist USSR collapsed politically as well as ideologically, and people began to flock toward religions perhaps in order to fill the vacuum left by the Marxist ideology that had vanished.
Samuel P Huntington says in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order, “In 1994, 30 percent of Russians below the age of twenty-five said they had switched from atheism to a belief in God. The number of active churches in the Moscow area grew from 50 in 1988 to 250 in 1993.”
Huntington goes on, “Simultaneously with the revival of Orthodoxy in the Slavic republics, an Islamic revival swept through Central Asia. In 1989, 160 functioning mosques and one medressah (Islamic seminary) existed in Central Asia; by early 1993 there about 10,000 mosques and ten medressahs.
Fundamentalist versions of Christianity mushroomed in the United States of America. Televangelists became common sights on the country’s TV channels. Religious organizations joined hands with the political New Right. They made such demands as the abolition of legal abortion. They campaigned for a hard line on moral and social decency. Evangelists such as Maurice Cerullo interpreted the Bible literally and believed that miracles were an essential hallmark of true faith.
In the United Kingdom too such fundamentalism as ushered in by Colin Urquhart found ample followers. For Urquhart every non-Christian is an enemy of God. He even asserted that all oriental religions were inspired by the devil.
Muslim fundamentalism went on a rampage during the period. The picture of the WTC melting down won’t fade from our collective memory for years to come. The terrorist attacks go on endlessly.
Jewish fundamentalists have their own agenda, both political and religious, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They believe they can pave a way for the advent of the Messiah only by driving out the Arabs from their land.
There was a resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism in India during the last two decades. The various exploits of the Sangh Parivar are still fresh in the memory of Indians.
Hans Kung’s fears were indeed ill-founded. Religion has proved itself to be very much alive and even more kicking!
Why does religion wield such an influence on people?
Huntington (in the book mentioned above) argues that religion fulfils certain basic needs of people. For example, it fills a vacuum – e.g. the way it took over when the fleeing Marxist ideology left a vacuum in the people’s psyche. Religion also serves as a source of identity. Increasing urbanization and globalisation force people to “become separated from their roots.... They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships. They need new sources of identity, new forms of stable community, and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Religion, both mainstream and fundamentalist, meets these needs,” says Huntington.
Reason and science are incapable of fulfilling certain psychological needs. “People do not live by reason alone,” in the words of Huntington.
Religion, like art, is a means of transcending the self. Most people experience the need for transcendence, to go beyond themselves. Artists achieve that with the help of their art. For many ordinary people, religion comes to their rescue in the process of self-transcendence.
That’s why religion is coeval with the human race. “Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human,” says Karen Armstrong [A History of God], “they created religions at the same time as they created works of art. This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces; these early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world.”
Genuine religious experiences can help people to transcend themselves meaningfully, irrespective of whether the god(s) are any more real than the meaning conveyed by a work of art. The meaning is subjective, more often than not. At any rate, religion has a therapeutic value for the believer, even as art has for the artist.
But such religion is not fundamentalist. Such religion is a personal experience, an experience that transforms the believer at some psychological – or spiritual, if you prefer – level. Such religion reorganises the believer’s life experiences meaningfully.
Psychologists like Viktor Frankl, I D Yalom and van Deurzen have shown that there is something essentially paradoxical about man’s search for meaning. The more rationally we seek it, the more likely we are to miss it, they say. Like pleasure, meaning has to be pursued obliquely. Finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement, which is a commitment to creating, loving, working, and building one’s life constantly. Religion has the potential to help in that process.
The irony today is probably that people have converted religion into a quick-heal capsule. People seem to think that religion can solve their problems merely by the performance of certain rituals. I have been observing how the number of students who pay their obeisance before the shrine of goddess Saraswati on my school campus is increasing rapidly year after year. Apart from the general increase in the number, I have also noticed that the number shoots up meteorically at the time of exams. The irony is that the interest in studying has deteriorated in an inverse proportion. I have not made a detailed study on the correlation between the two variables. I can, however, say this much with certainty: the students are looking for an easy way out when they choose to approach the goddess.
That’s not religion. Not any more than fundamentalism is religion.
Perhaps, the vast majority of people are failing to understand what religion is. That’s the tragedy of religions today. And the worse tragedy is that today’s religious believers keep tormenting others with their demented beliefs and practices.
A personal note
I don’t believe in religion or god(s). Yesterday during a phone conversation with a friend I was told that a common friend of ours recently described me in their conversation as an atheist whose atheism is very Catholic. I laughed heartily at the description. I admire the sagacity behind the remark. If I’m given a choice between a book of science and one of religion while being dumped on an uninhabited island for a bearable period of solitude, I’d choose the religious book. Science doesn’t appeal to me; its truths are finite. There’s no mystery in it, no magic. I love mystery, I love magic. That’s why religion never ceases to fascinate me. But, unfortunately, my approach to religion is too rational to absorb its mystery and magic!