In a relatively old Malayalam movie, Kizhakkan Pathrose, the protagonist is a criminal. One day he goes to a Catholic priest who is involved in many charitable works and says, “I have committed a lot of crimes and caused much pain to many people. I want to atone for it all by making a donation for noble causes.” The priest accepts the cheque without saying a word.
“This is not atonement,” I blurted out while watching the movie a few minutes back on a TV channel.
“Why not?” asked Maggie, my wife, the only other person present in the room.
“Real atonement is only when the person gives up his criminal ways. The rest is commerce. This fellow is trying to buy atonement with money and the priest is his accomplice.”
Maggie was about to say something but suppressed it. I did not succeed in making her speak. I think she wanted to say that I was a silly idealist.
“Put God to work for you and maximise your potential in our divinely ordered capitalist system,” directed the High Priest of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale. This is what the protagonist in the movie did. This is what most religious believers do. They trade with God: I pay you money and you sell me forgiveness!
In the Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines the clergyman (priest, religious guru, etc) as “a man who understands the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.”
As long as people understand God as a seller of forgiveness and religion as that God’s temporal agent, religion will remain a futile entity, though a commercially successful one.
An atheist like George Santayana understood God and religion far, far better than any pious devotee when he said, “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image to be servants of their human interests.” True piety towards the universe is a highly refined level of consciousness which understands the meaning of kindness and courage, power and magnanimity, honesty and tenderness... People who have achieved that level of consciousness do not need God or His/Her earthly agents and their hollow rituals. The corollary to this maxim is that people who have not achieved that level of consciousness will not be rewarded by the rituals except for the psychological comfort and apparent permission to keep perpetrating the evils they have been doing.