The phrase “Is religion” in the title above reminds me of a debate held within the famous auspices of the Oxford Union. In that debate, Professor Tariq Ramadan whilst rebutting the case of his opponents, who argued that religion is the cause of evil in the world, remarked that any discourse that starts with the phrase ‘religion is’ with an intended reductionism is by default an over-simplistic discourse. This is because it attempts to essentialise religion and thus erode all the complexities within religious traditions. Reducing religions down to mere historical events and literalist interpretations of rich mythologies is the core issue here. It is pertinent to mention here that Wilfred Cantwell Smith and other historians and philosophers of religion like Huston Smith have stirred up a far more important debate of the ‘meaning’ of religion. Most of the times the critics take for granted a certain popularised notion of religion and end up deconstructing their own assumed definitions.
There are two key issues here that I would like to address. One is the allegation that religion is the source of violence and hatred within the human societies and the other is that religion comprises of nonsensical dogmas, fruitless and illogical mythologies that promote superstition and non-scientific temper.
The main line of argumentation in the former allegation is that religion has largely promoted violence and evil in society and therefore it is prudent for us to get rid of this institution. The problem with this mindset is its lack of understanding of the human nature itself. It is actually the human nature which is the source of both good and evil and not religion per se, or for that matter any other human institution. We cannot completely get rid of violence from any human institution because violence is potentially ingrained in man. It is this potential that manifests through different means. Educating and transforming human beings therefore attains central importance here rather than bashing religious traditions.
Karen Armstrong among other authors deconstructs this shallow allegation against religion. We have seen Secularism, Nationalism and other isms get dirty in fields of blood. The point is that wherever there is human involvement, there is inevitable presence of violence and corruption. Are not our political, educational, marital and other social institutions marred with violence and corruption? Should we get rid of all of these? We should let institutions learn and evolve. We should reform rather than destroy. Forceful liquidation of religion or marriage or for that matter any other human institution is no panacea. Radical removal is not going to magically transform society overnight. Instead of focusing too much on human institutions which are abstract entities, having no meaning without the subset of human participation and intervention, it is far more prudent to focus on the human being itself, the source of both good and bad.
Let’s come to the rebuttal of the second allegation that ‘religions are compilations of ludicrous anecdotes and nonsensical mythologies’. This misconception directly emanates from the ignorance with regard to religious symbolism. Myths are not to be taken literarily; rather, they possess allegorical and symbolic value. Religious symbols convey metaphysical meanings to a larger lay audience. Metaphysical notions are at best translated through stories/myths, given the limitations in language. Moreover, the various differences among different traditions are not contradictions within the core content but rather they represent different adaptations of the content to different mentalities.
Religions are not merely nonsensical collections of exoteric actions but they sprout from supra-rational esoteric reality which transcends our language and reason. The encounter of Prophets and Sages with higher realms generated world-transforming personalities, traditions and civilisations which have introduced the very scent of the sacred into our lives. Man is not merely a bio-product as our current popular thought conceives, but is also an intellect, thus needing a metaphysic. Similarly, man is also a will and thus needs a path/ shariah/ religion.
Religion in its essence is not irrational but rather it is supra-rational. Our rationality does not encompass all realms of reality. There is a mystery to the universe which religion refers to. Mystery is beyond the talk of rationality and irrationality. As an illustration of the limited nature of brute rationality one can posit abstract non-empirical notions like numbers, laws of logic, etc, which enable rationality but are not products of empirical reason. As religion primarily teaches a mode of being in the face of suffering, it doesn’t posit any abstract propositions that one could rationally prove or disprove. It is more of a psycho-existential state, a way of being which one could see for oneself. All rituals that rationalists have problems with are nothing but a method of internalising that realisation and mode of being.
The writer is a student of religion, philosophy, and metaphysics. [email protected]