Imprisoning God: Part I

Close to four centuries ago, Voltaire observed that if we believe in absurdities, we shall commit atrocities and that praying to God was to flatter oneself that with words one can alter nature. For Voltaire, religion was the invention of the first fraud who came across an idiot. Generations and centuries later many men the world over, most of them much less articulate, are still having to make the exact same case. Worse, the existing hegemony tends to make them use jargonized, even intellectually dishonest phrasing. It is a rather remarkable circumstance. Between us and Voltaire humanity understood evolution, the Germ Theory and had a once unimaginable improvement in the general quality of life and of life expectancy. Not only have we conquered nature, we have even started to understand and even engineer the basic constituents of life itself. But success has proven elusive regarding the collective conquering of the God meme and the related organizational frameworks of religions. Ever more importantly, the exploitations on the basis of these continue unabated. This should make us think of the deeper causes within our individual and social psyche and thereafter formulate a more sophisticated response with that increased insight.

A bromide which gets repeated in school textbooks is that we are living through a scientific, information age. The fact remains though that many of our key civilization super structures are anything but ‘rational’ or scientific. That colossus which deeply pervades our lives - the nation state, typically gets formed based on some vaguely definable ethnic, linguistic and cultural history. Banks, that critical modern institution for life today, go up smoke once that unreliable emotion of trust is broken regarding them. A new nation state will not get buy-in based on convincing arguments of the most rational economist, neither will a mathematician quant’s voice of sensible rationale register on the rushing on mass whose trust has been broken by some vague rumour. Sensible policy tells us that a multi billion dollar treasure found at a temple which was two-timing as the treasury of the kingdom should go to the current state treasury which is probabilistically the last thing which will happen in the world of today.

The wonder for the numinous and the fear of our own and loved one's mortality exists in each of us in lesser or greater amounts. We require love, solidarity and deep friendships with other humans as much as we require food and water to live. We crave for and make up history and myths to give us identity and roots. Death, suffering or the fear of them for us or for our dear ones make us easy victims for any hope, true or not. It is no coincidence that the half of our species which gives birth and performs more care-giving, typically forms the core of the following of any typical charlatan priest or God-man, while indeed the levers of power inside that too lie with men. There are many elements of these which constitute links which are very strong and might not be amenable for a complete cutting away of those chains. And indeed history does teach us regarding the power of myths and hopes over our rational interests.

The Gandhian ‘sarva dharma samabhav’ is the father-of-the-nation-guided modern Indian state’s attempt to deal with its mind-boggling complexity in terms of sub-nationalities, languages, religions, castes and practices. Spaces for the ‘other’ – caste, clergy, world view are allowed and acknowledged. Except of course when the sometimes barely hidden sneering hatred drools up to find expression in religious pogroms or caste killings. While the sheer pragmatism of it and the history of the subcontinent might imply the sanction of it as the best possible solution, it is no accident that in India, with its dominant vedic Hinduism and under the primitive influence of a dedicated hereditary priesthood Brahman caste, any transformative change just withers away. Every newly economically empowered caste inside Hinduism and indeed the elite of the Indian Semitic religions too soon queue up to for their own neo-brahmanhood. Many traditional liberals argue for the European separation of the church and the state as all that one can wish for. That too is under attack by elements of the post-modern left who claim that the church and state separation was just the accommodation of the hegemonic religion in the post-Westphalian European nation states.

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However, this critique does not imply an argument for the cult of rationality and a vulgar materialistic world-view which does not see the incredible hubris of the human who thinks everything around him is just for him to use, abuse and throw away. In fact, science and sense need not go together at all. Science and rationality gave man an arsenal of nuclear weapons which can destroy all life on earth many times over. It is the rule rather than an exception that the first uses of the products of technological progress of mankind are to service his most primitive impulses. The first main use of Airplanes was to drop bombs. Even now, our ethics has not developed enough to fully recognize the citizenship right of the living things who we share this planet with.

A mind which is ready to change its opinion when facts and understandings change, which is not ‘fully certain’ but has different shades of certainties regarding everything, is indeed a primary virtue. That indeed could be the defining characteristic of a scientific world view. But it remains that Agnosticism regarding everything being the prime world view in life can tend to make one a hollow fashionista, always waiting for the next fad, having no core convictions. The same is true of societies and for our shared morals. Postponing decisions on these morals only create sclerotic and societies which seem to be in active and vigorous, but scratch the surface and then one sees that the all these are superficial and soon slide back to some version of some primitive status-quo.What is needed is to understand the deep moral and psychological impulses being catered to, build alternatives and containments. And also not to over-reach beyond while not absconding on that critical task that we owe to the coming generations – that of building a better society that they will inherit, under jeopardy. That too at a time in the in the 21st century we are at an odd phrase when a resurgent retrogressive religion melds seamlessly into our high-technology societies. Far from the anti-technological fervor which one can trace in the Sabbath or in the Amish, we now have pastors with podcasts on godpods. Highly personalized on-line pujas are just a click away. (A leading Puja portal promises to offer the holy puja in a ‘completely personalized way’ and send you the ‘after-puja-upachar’ right to your doorstep all for a paypal transfer of US$ 151.) Babas and Gurus have power to take over deeply thought out constitutions and make a mockery out of it. Nativity arguments are also getting increasing adherence, with identity politics of different shades getting currency in many parts of the world, making a joke of our shared history of being from some incestuous African tribe of primates. Hollow agnosticism always allows a vacuous laissez faire which quite soon leads to the destruction of the commons by those who think that they are ready to kill and die for their 'beliefs.'

If you have ever lived in central Travancore, the one single Marx quote that you will have heard the most, will be the one in which he supposedly said that religion was the opiate of the masses. It is taken completely out of context from Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in which he talks insightfully of religion in itself and institutions around it as being structures which try to create heart in a heartless world. For Marx this was only treating a symptom like the treating of physical pain with opium. Worse of all, most of the time, the interests of the drug givers is to keep the status quo and prevent the patients from being liberated. This remains as true today - Gandhi and the liberation theologists notwithstanding. For Marx, the real solution was to attack the causes of the suffering which were political and economic. Now one can indeed find fault with Marx for underestimating the identity creating, cross-class appeal of myths but not for the lack of sophistication in recognizing the context and the importance. A regime which claimed the Marxian thought stream and tried to create many myths of its own was to become a worst kind of new religion without any of the embalming effects traditional religions but having many if not most elements of their oppression. Indeed the man who became the towering liberating voice against it, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a man whose morals came, unapologetically, from Orthodox Christianity. In that context, it is extremely necessary to analyze religion with all the glory of its history – that of being man’s first attempt at philosophy a world view, with the known truth of those times. As something which in itself is incredibly diverse and does not offer itself up for easy modelling and analysis. As something which creates very deep impulses in human beings.

The next part of this series will look more deeply into the reasons for the survival of these memes and on the possible reasons for the revival of religious neo-conservativism that we see around. And more importantly, what could be a pragmatic shared vision on that.