⚠ I must play Devil's advocate for the sake of argument.
For centuries, religion has held sway over human minds in a grip that has strangulated the march of progress whenever rationality and logic threatened to overturn blind faith and belief. I believe that much of this malaise is a direct result of the organising of religion. Faith in itself is an intensely personal matter from which one is supposed to derive spiritual sustenance. Faith should not be confused with religion, as if the former cannot exist without the latter. I may not call myself a Hindu or a Christian, but I can still believe in God or any power that I have "faith" in. If I do not believe in any religion, why should I be dubbed ‘faithless’?
Organised religion is, more often than not, a chief cause in the proliferation of conflict, from the streets of Jerusalem to the mohallas of Uttar Pradesh that erupt in horrific rioting at the slightest hints of communal disturbance. This is a fact that cannot be denied by even the staunchest supporters of religion. True, religion often serves as a rallying and unifying force in times of calamity. But then, isn’t this tantamount to putting that particular cause or movement in an ideological straight-jacket whose drawstrings are tightly bound by the manipulative opinions of a select elite, all in the name of God? A person none of us has ever seen, known, or met, assuming they exist at all. How then, can we blindly accept what our purohit, priest or maulvi tells us about the identity of this mysterious force?
The mediaeval poet-sage Kabir had much to say on this. He propounded the theory that religion is composed of two things—the abstract aspect and the physical aspect. The abstract deals with one’s thoughts, code of conduct for life, and so on, while the physical consists of rituals, ceremonies, and the like. This is a very important division, for if this is not acknowledged, the entire argument against organised religion is turned on its head. A code of conduct must be distinguished from a code for ceremony; an intention must be separated from its interpretation and subsequent manifestations. A case in point is the concept of monks or parish priests. They are meant to be confidantes, counsellors, and supportive structures for society, who ask for nothing in return for sacrificing their lives in the service of the community. I agree that this is true in a fair number of cases, but these monks and priests are as susceptible to the very human banes of greed, lust, and sundry ‘faithless’ desires as any other human being. Often, the very thoughts that they seek to uproot from their psyche are the ones that come to haunt them in the form of sexual harassment lawsuits or allegations of corruption.
Kabir cuts the distinction between the physical and abstract aspects of religion with two succinct and hard-hitting couplets. One deals with the concept of the call that Muslim priests deliver from the rooftops of mosques. Kabir says, "You collect stones and build a mosque; then the Maulana climbs onto the roof and screams his protestations of love for God. Why do you shout so loud, is god deaf? " The other couplet deals with the concept of idolatry. For this practice, Kabir has another acidly pragmatic remark to make: "If worshipping stones gave me god, shouldn’t I worship mountains? Even the lowly grain grinding stones are better than your idols, for it is out of their hard grinding that the world gets its food". I do not necessarily agree with this extreme outlook, but I must play Devil's advocate for the sake of argument.
Kabir and other reformists attacked the superstitions and practices that prevailed in their times. So did Gautam Buddha and Guru Nanak, victims themselves of the mindless deification and blind faith they set out to end. Some rituals and ceremonies are probably pretty useful in their own right, but aren’t they subject to reform, improvement, and rationalisation as well? Shouldn’t we know the meaning behind the chants we recite along with a priest at a yagna? Shouldn’t we have started questioning the burning of widows on their husbands' pyres centuries ago? Shouldn’t we question the logic of jihad? Shouldn’t we ask for the audited financial results of unimaginably rich temple trusts and other religious bodies like the SGPC?
Perhaps the tone of this article can be interpreted as saying that religion is a bad thing. But, in fact, I'm here to tell you that it certainly isn’t, so long as it adheres to its purpose of bettering human lives. The day religion becomes hierarchically organised, exclusivist and discriminatory is the day the faith dies and shallow ceremony takes over. Then religion becomes dangerous for it starts to sanction the murder of innocents or the exclusion of entire groups of people from society. Forget the nukes; pick up a holy book (its religious affiliation being irrelevant), and begin preaching murder, hate and destruction in the name of god. Soon you’ll be more powerful than the Prime Minister and President combined, with enough resources at your disposal to be able to destroy nations. You may even come to possess a limitless licence to ruin lives—a rogue 007—endorsed by the public as your very own fundamentalist fan club spurs you on...