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Is Religion still Relevant in the Modern World? By Asif Zaidi

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Many of my friends have criticized my defence of the possible utility (or validity) of religion in the modern world. The most frequent criticism is that I fail to see the contradiction which assigning a value to religion entails with a scientific and philosophical approach to life and its issues.

Most of them maintain that religion has no further role to play in elevating the moral tenor of Man’s conduct. It is said that a rational mind does not need servile dependence on the comforts which religion offers and the sense of security it nurtures in the mind of its followers. However, I argue, that a philosophical outlook is mostly indistinguishable from an ideological expression of the individuality of a given mind or person. Atheism, thus, is also an ideology and its believers’ thinking and philosophical outlook too are rooted in their ideology. Otherwise, they would not feel compelled to ‘prove’ why they are right.

While the religion has traditionally been condemned in the name of Scientific Spirit, it has fallen into unprecedented disrepute these days due to spiralling violence and terrorism in its name. Indeed religion is in bad odour and religious history a gruesome testimony to brutal torments and infamies. However, this is largely because it has been exploited by those who have had an interest in its continuance in a crude form and they deliberately misinterpret it in the interest of advancing their goals - a phenomenon that is in currency in the contemporary Muslim world. Marx was right when he observed that religion has been used as an opiate by the clergy and its cohorts down the ages to degrade the masses into the service of obscurantist reactionary and unjustifiable designs.

I feel that priesthood is in direct conflict with the supreme function of religion to liberate mankind. It perverts the spirit of religion to secure a parochial orthodoxy to the tune of mere ritualized and formalistic beliefs. Those who constitute themselves as the custodians of religion either tamper with or mutilate the interpretation of the original spoken word or writings in which religious teachings came to be embodied. Hence, the religion is used to throw dust into the eyes of the naively religious who gather around it to seek light.

In my observation religion does have a utility as ‘a last solace of earthly miserly’ as said by Macaulay. For example, someone who has been deeply wronged and has been driven into the depths of despair and who is unable to muster any earthly help may yet feel comforted by the thought that if not here, elsewhere at least, he will see justice. Do not a majority of us, in the times of abysmal misery, discover the therapeutic power of religious consolation? For me this embodies the practical or helpful value of Religion, when being religious suits the human situation. Professor R. B. Perry writes in his book Realms of Value: “it is a good thing in some sense, to have some religious belief whether the belief is or is not true, and whether the interests in whose behalf it speaks are high or low. The believer is spared the pangs of indecision. The un-believer is troubled with doubt and desires to escape that particular trouble. The believer escapes not only from the trouble of doubt, but from its Hamlet-like paralysis. His belief imparts to his life a certain consistency and momentum.”

To me, this rings quite true for human life at the average intellectual level. Which means that the denunciation of religion is relevant only to the extent religious beliefs and practices are being abused for power or dominance. Anthropological studies show that religion emanates from Man’s reaction to his environment, which makes religion a co-relate of Man’s finitude. The savage mind reacted to its environment which it hardly understood and thus unfurled the thinking faculty that has gone on to lead the man to its present glory. Religion came to primitive man’s rescue for resolving the discord that he encountered between his knowledge and his environment. In each culture it provided a satisfactory answer as to the cause of the world and man’s relation to this cause. Shelly puts it eloquently: “what is the cause of life? That is, how was it produced or what agencies distinct from life have acted or act upon life. All recorded generations of mankind have mainly busied themselves in inventing answers to this question and the result has been – Religion.”


Now that science has provided answers to most of the questions about man’s immediate environment, it is argued that the institution of religion is obsolete and man possesses enough knowledge to conduct himself solely in accordance with experimentally established truth. I feel, though, it is not right to whittle down religion’s efficacy and relevance to an ordinary man’s life situations. As I wrote before in ‘Rational Thought and Religion’, rationality and religiosity are not irreconcilable features of human brain. The problem arises when the evolution of a religion is throttled. It is by his powers of thinking that the man has ensured continued refinement in those primitive religious notions which our ancestors used in their attempt to define their relationship to the universe. The primitive view of cosmos was bound to be that whole universe was ruled by some will or wills determining the constantly changing conditions. Favourable changes were construed as rewards from the Deity and miseries as its wrath. Rites were thus devised in order to appease the Deity. However this explanation was abandoned as man honed a more detached spirit of inquiry. The more human knowledge progressed the more man thrived in his ability to experiment and to produce results. As man discovered immediate antecedents to explain changes, the ‘Will of God’ was no longer needed to define them. However, a submission to the laws of nature remains essential as it is not in our power to alter them. Nonetheless, we no longer need to think of the laws of nature as a command of some superior being to be obeyed unquestioningly. Instead constant laws of nature are nothing but measured formulations in terms of which processes of nature can be deciphered and its powers harnessed. Our present ideal of rationality is a logical evolution of man’s primitive reaction to his environment influenced by the demands of practical life requiring to press nature in the service of man’s needs.

But all these laws of nature neither interpret man’s experience of his deepest awareness nor inspire comprehension of values regarded highly by men and for which they are willing to sacrifice. Science does not shape man’s outlook in the moral sphere. Hence, science concerns itself with only a part of man’s reality. It is here that religion can play an important role. It enables man to evolve for himself and to secure consistency in his conduct. Even an atheist, if he is logically consistent, partakes of the attitude which takes him beyond the evidence that is available. He cannot disregard the factors like the mechanism of Perception, the nature of Reality, and the Time that writes changes in relation to that Reality.

In this sense, Religion is a universal institution. Even communism was branded by its critics as a religion as it exalted proletarian revolution above all ends and held that its success was guaranteed by the laws of nature and history – beliefs not much different from any major religion. Similarly Buddhism recognizes no god in the Abrahamic sense, but teaches that Nirvana is the supreme good and that the composition of things, the law of Karma, and illusoriness of existence permit Nirvana to be achieved. Buddhism is, therefore, a religion in conjuring a hierarchy of value adjunct to a cosmology.

Hence, Religion equips man with the essentials of spiritual nature and furnishes him a philosophy of things which he yet doesn’t understand himself, but Religion does not stop man from exploring and investigating to understand. Very simply, it gives a wide majority of humans a sense of security in this world. It may be argued in opposition to what I say that when science uncovers all that there is to be known, we will have a full and complete measure of security and the function of religion will be fulfilled by science. But no knowledge of the laws of Nature, however thorough, will give the assurance that great web of laws governing the universe works to a higher end and that goodness dominates and pervades the existence. The Law of Evolution is replete with scientific evidence of life’s growth but it does not explain how the crude sexual passions of apes led to high order of being, capable of producing the likes of Newton, Einstein, Goethe etc. Knowledge of the Laws of Nature will give us security as long as we obey them but it does not show how despotism evolves into liberty, slavery into freedom, ignorance into enlightenment, might into right, lust into love, and selfishness into morality. This gap can be filled by religion because it says that the nature of things is grounded in goodness and sets forth values for which humanity as a whole has to battle. Religion consoles us in our worst hour, satisfies the heart by opening up a horizon of hope, and gives soul and reason to the ideals of Duty and Right which otherwise have no deep root in the constitution of man’s being. Religion gives an ordinary man a balance on which to evaluate his moral worth and makes him feel at home in this universe. Everything put to man’s service entails the hazard of misuse, and religion (like science) has been no different. While a modern state must have no recourse to religion in delivering equality and justice to all its subjects, religion –as we see above- can play a constructive role in an individual’s life. To me that moral self-improvement is the essence of the religious attitude.

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