Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Problem with Religion

It is time we acknowledged the skeleton in our closet. Fundamentalist Islam. While the world tries to push towards the 21st century and towards collective progress, we need to acknowledge the existence of an endemic problem if a specific community or part thereof indulge in repeated violence to spread "God's" word. There's only one solution - a revamp. An overhaul of the religious psyche. A complete investigation at what drives this insanity and to cure it. The religion needs to change. Islam needs to change. And for the world to progress, it needs to change fast. Let me illustrate with examples of religious violence in the past one and a half month. 

Since 16th December 2014, 597 people have been killed and over 153 have been injured in just the major attacks that have been covered by some major news agency. Even adjusting for a 20% exaggeration, that translates to 21 deaths a day which amounts to 7923 deaths a year solely because of religion! I must say though that the 20% adjustment for exaggeration is not fair. There must be scores of other attacks which I have not culled from the news and/or have not even been reported. If we extrapolate these numbers over decades of Islamic fundamentalism, we have an astronomical number. Innocent women, children and men killed for no reason. No reason at all. Other than religion.

There can be no doubt about the fact that Islam is not a religion of peace. There is also no doubt that the West has been responsible (at-least partly) for the rise of Islamic fundamentalists. Two of the biggest catalysts for this rise are - 
  • Cold War roots - The US, UK and other NATO governments pumped money into propping up Islamic rebel fighters calling themselves the Mujahideen to stave off Russian advances in the Afghanistan region. Though this move was successful in the short term, it gave rise to the Al Qaeda and subsequently Osama Bin Laden. 
  • Iraqi War - Bush is perhaps the most idiotic President that the US has ever seen. An overtly religious man with many fingers in many pies, the juiciest of which is oil; he had no business in Iraq. He waged war on Iraq for vested interests and the fact is pretty well known. There was no reason to invade Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction found and the methods that the US Army deployed to execute Saddam were deplorable and cowardly. This has ultimately given rise to ISIS. 

Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. And such has been the creed by which the world has operated. Machiavellian machinations by the western world have given rise to Islamic fundamentalists. But can we blame the west and be done with it? I think not. As Ed Hoffman (artfully portrayed by Russell Crowe) succintly quips in the movie "Body of Lies", "Nobody's innocent in this shit". The fact remains that it still does not absolve Islam of the repeated acts of terror that are committed across borders and communities. Right from Paki Taliban in Asia to Boko Haram in Nigeria, we've got a problem. This problem is compounded more so by the simple fact that the religion itself prohibits criticism. We don't have Christians in America killing people when Richard Dawkins makes fun of the faith and questions the very existence of Jesus. We don't have Hindus murdering the audience and random citizens who go to the movie PK despite the fact that the movie has made fun of religion. We don't have Jews rampaging Hitchens' office just because he laid into the Old Testament. The problem lies deeper than just a few rotten apples in each community. To take a comparable example from the more peaceful religion of Hinduism (and I'm doing this only because I value my life), Togadia's statements about a Hidu rashtra are made possible partly because we have allowed him to occupy a reasonably important position in a reasonably large organisation (VHP). If we loudly call him out as an idiot and send him off packing, a thousand other Togadias would get the message and keep their antics and remarks confined to their minds and the privacy of their own homes (if that). Similarly, it is the silent sanction of the moderate Islamists that have made these acts possible. 

The problem in my opinion is not just the fundamentalists. The real reason that fundamentalists are allowed to exist is that moderates and liberals like us allow them to exist and operate. By accepting religion, they accept the acts that are done in its name. Moderate Hindus make Togadia's statements possible, moderate christians have allowed Bush to ride right-wing religious coat-tails and cause havoc, moderate Muslims make murder possible by not stamping it out and by not admitting that religion is the problem. When a moderately religious person allows a faith-based belief system to exist, the next step is intolerance. And from there to violence is just a small step further. Because at the basis of most religions (more so for the Abrahamic religions) is the assumption that their god is the only true god. It is because moderates have stopped questioning their faith that extremists are allowed to exist. We might very well argue that the moderates are not harming anybody. They are not causing violence. They hate the fundamentalists just as much as the atheists do. The problem is not that they are actively indulging in violence. The problem is that by accepting the very concept of religion, they are sanctioning the fundamentalists. I read a rather well-thought out and well-articulated communique about moderate religion. You can read the entire article here. An extract (and I tend to agree with the gist) is as follows - 
The simple, indisputable fact is that any god belief requires faith, and if you follow my writings at all, you know that “faith,” properly defined, is “belief in a thing despite evidence to the contrary, or a total lack of evidence.” Once you get them to the point of admitting that they hold a belief despite it’s opposition to reason, you can see that the facade of moderation is just that – a facade. At their core, they are exactly the same as fundamentalists. They just pick a more socially acceptable irrationality. What they really mean when they say you should question everything is that you should question everything – except for the validity of faith as a means of acquiring knowledge.
Another way of saying this is that where religious faith is concerned, allowing a little irrationality is no different from allowing a lot. This point is so important that it needs to be made again. Accepting the belief that some things are true and irrational is what gives a perception of validity to every religious belief. Right wing fundamentalists are crazy. These are people who are out of touch with reality. The reason they are not either publicly ridiculed or maybe even forcibly medicated is that they are given a free pass — because it’s religion.  If people believed the Jolly Green Giant was making proclamations from the side of a can of vegetables, they would be examined by a psychologist.   However, when they believe an invisible man in the sky tells them to kill abortion doctors, they’re politely encouraged to be a little more moderate. 

And nowhere is this more relevant than today. With Islamic fundamentalists running havoc, the very tenets of faith need to be questioned to reform the religion using a bottom-up approach. Which brings us to the nub. 

We need to realise that morality has nothing to do with religion. We need to realise that the world has made progress despite religion, not because of it. We need to realise that the 21st century has more pressing demands. Starvation, disease, poverty, recession, unemployment and climate change to name a few. We need to realise that religion itself is the problem. It is an obsolete concept. It needs to be replaced. And we need to do it fast.