The Blindness of Religious Faith

 Sh...No Questions. This is a Matter of Religious Faith !

                                                                                            Posted on 1-February-2008

     India's 'shadow prime minister' went a few years ago to Pakistan and praised Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leading founder of the Pakistani state, for his vision of a Pakistan in which adherents of all religions would live as equal citizens. Why he chose to do so became a riddle which newspapermen and political commentators tried in vain to solve but perhaps the simplest explanation is that by praising Jinnah's secular ideals he was trying to tell audiences at home and abroad that he also valued secularism in politics. He and his party routinely castigate their main political opponents, the Indian National Congress, for practising what they call pseudo-secularism, which, in the meaning in which words are normally used, should suggest that the gentleman and his political party believe in and are prepared to practise 'real' secularism. But when recently there broke out a controversy over a document filed by the Archaeological Survey of India in the Supreme Court of India in which it was stated that both the 'bridge' supposedly built by Ramachandra's monkey army linking India and Srilanka (vide Monkeys' Bridge) and the character of Ramachandra were mythical and without any basis in historical truth, the gentleman and his party colleagues said that the existence of the 'bridge' and of the figure of Ramachandra were not matters of history but of religious faith. In other words, again in the meaning that words usually have, they were saying that some people's simple say-so about the reality of Ramachandra and the 'bridge' should preclude all questions about them, leave aside any insistence that such statements should be subjected to the same standards of empirical evidence to which all scientific and historical propositions are subjected.

     India's Congress Party, the main political party in power in the federal government, which claims to be the guardian of secular values in Indian politics, allowed the document filed at the Supreme Court of India by the Archaeological Survey of India to be withdrawn. India's culture minister, a member of the Congress Party, blamed the officials who had drawn up that document for their callousness or worse. India's law minister said that Ramachandra's existence was a matter of faith and of people's religious sentiments. The Indian government has for the last four months been procrastinating over filing a new document about the monkeys' bridge to replace the one it had withdrawn and recently some ministers from the Congress Party have been quoted as saying that Ramchandra and the 'bridge' are matters of faith. Obviously what they suggest is that no questions should be asked about their sanctity or about their inviolability. This is obviously a position on which the real and the pseudo-secular--or, to use the terminology of the Congress Party, the secular and the communalists--agree. Faith they say is not to be questioned.

     A slightly different kind of tragi-comedy has been taking place involving the Communist government of the Indian state of West Bengal--believers in scientific socialism, materialism, atheism and secularism--and the exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen who had been living in Kolkata for the past several years. Ever since some people speaking on behalf of Islam broke up a meeting in Hyderabad at which she was present (vide In Defence of Taslima Nasreen), different people have been issuing threats against her saying she had insulted Islam. A former Indian intelligence official detailed in a recent article how after a mulla spoke in a mosque in Kolkata threatening death for Ms. Nasreen, and a subsequent protest march organised in the name of Islam, different officials of West Bengal government and a businessman friendly to the Marxist government cajoled and coaxed her into leaving West Bengal until she ended up in Delhi as a ward of the  Indian government, living incommunicado at an unknown address, not allowed to speak in public, not even allowed to accept a French literary award. India's External Affairs Minister, unctuously, if not also fatuously, citing India's civilisational heritage, announced that she would be allowed to stay in India as long as she paid due regard to people's sentiments. This last was clearly short hand for saying that she must not say anything that Muslims did not like. For the Marxist government of West Bengal or for the secular Government of India it was not admissible for anyone, Hindu or Muslim, to say anything about Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, which was not acceptable to any or some Muslims as this was a matter of faith. In the eyes of neither the West Bengal government nor the Government of India was the mulla, who publicly delivered a death threat in a place of worship, culpable. That in doing so he was violating the secular law of India did not matter. After all he was speaking in the name of his religion!

     In saying what I have said above I have shown that I am too simple-minded and too dreamy- eyed to understand politics. Thus would practitioners of realpolitik, usually narcissistically self-satisfied about their own cleverness, dismiss me. The three protagonists in the narratives above, the Indian National Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the two communist parties and their leftist allies are too absorbed in calculations about how to gain or preserve their popular support base and how to gain or stay in power, to see that the poor Indian masses are not so easily fooled. That they daily commit one of Gandhi's social sins, politics without principles--Gandhi's seven social sins are listed at his memorial at Rajghat in Delhi where India's political leadership makes a ritualistic visit every year on the 2nd of October--is of no consequence. That in pursuit of short term gains India's current political leadership is causing long term damage to Indian society should be a matter of concern to India's citizens. One of the various harms being done is encouragement to religious fundamentalism and obscurantism of different sorts. The puny men who sit atop the different political formations would perhaps not understand that leadership is about standing up for ideas and principles; it is about opposing evil and above all it is about being ready to give up all in defence of one's ideals. But that is not easy. It is easier to take shelter behind inanities about religion.

     Beyond specific political situations of the kind described above, it is necessary to question the general proposition that what is a matter of religious belief cannot be questioned and the related proposition that questioning someone's religious belief causes an unacceptable hurt to his or her sentiments. Let us first be clear about three no go areas in matters of religious belief in a modern society. The first of these is the absolute freedom of an individual or a group to profess and practise what religion they wish. The second is that no individual's or group's religious belief or practice should be allowed to curtail the civic liberties or rights of other individuals or groups or to cause violence and destruction of life and property or to stand in the way of general welfare. The third has to do with sentiments. People turn to a deity and to religious rituals in times of physical or mental distress, to seek solace or because they find peace and happiness in devotion to a deity. It should not be open to anyone to mock the feelings that drive people to a religion or to scorn a deity that people worship.

     There are two good reasons why religious beliefs cannot be held to be above question. One has to do with the freedom of belief and expression. Freedom of religious belief implies the freedom not to believe and just as a person with a religious belief has the freedom to say publicly what he believes in, a non-believer has equal freedom to say what he does not believe in and why. This freedom cannot be curtailed by someone saying that this profession of non-belief hurts his religious sentiments. For example I do not see why a devout Hindu, Christian or Muslim should take offense and prevent me from saying that I do not believe in the following because they are counterfactual and counterintuitive: that there was a real person called Ramachandra who ruled in Ayodhya and who crossed over to Lanka on a 1300 kilometre bridge built by monkeys or that there was a real person called Krishna who in one life-time spent his youth gallivanting around and flirting with milkmaids around Mathura, ruled over his kingdom at Dwarka acquiring wives in lands as far apart as modern Gujarat and modern Manipur and preached the Bhagvad Gita to Arjuna at Kurukshetra; that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin or that he was son of God; that Mohammad received the words of the Koran directly from God or that he went overnight on a winged horse to Jerusalem.

     Secondly, it goes against human nature not to question assertions which cannot be supported by evidence. The entire history of our species is the history of a quest for knowledge about the world around us on the basis of actual observation. As our ability to observe has increased, so has our understanding of the world widened and deepened. Each advance in knowledge has meant discarding old ideas and beliefs or modifying them. And each advance in knowledge has brought an improvement, despite all the setbacks and tragedies, in mankind's conditions of living. Religious beliefs and rituals have not been immune to the processes of change. To take but a few examples. Human sacrifice widely practiced in many parts of the world at one time not so long ago has all but disappeared; animal sacrifice, exorcism, belief in possession by evil spirits and in witchcraft are becoming rarer with time. All this has been possible because of people's instinctive habit of questioning established beliefs and traditions. Societies that have learnt to value reason have also learnt to value human life, liberties, advancement of knowledge, rationality, artistic creation, mutual help. It is values such as these that should form the basis of a modern society as being conducive to general welfare and happiness. What negates these values must needs be discarded. Unfortunately, in recent years religious belief has far too often generated strife and bloodshed so much so that many have begun to argue that religious belief carries more negative consequences than positive. Insistence by some--some with axes to grind--that religious faith is above question cannot stop questions being asked and persuasive answers, often unpalatable to religious establishments, being found. 

     To argue in this day and age that any system of thought and belief, any form of social organisation, any set of rituals is above question and logical analysis is to value unreason above reason. Let me while concluding, briefly give in to the temptation of using the language of religion. Reason is God's greatest gift to mankind. Not to use it is to sin against God and man.                    

 Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time    


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