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As I mentioned at the end of the part 2, before going to the third set of questions listed in Part 1 we still have to deal with three issues (at the end of part two I listed them as two issues, but it seems it is better if the first itself is divided into two, making a total of three, I have also changed their order of listing):

  1. Contribution of religion to the development of humanity,
  2. The impact of religions on believers’ lives, and,
  3. Impact on sociopolitical life of a society in general.

I will deal with these issues very briefly, only to indicate some basic characteristics.

Contribution of religion to the development of humanity

It seems to me that religion provided one of the most powerful early coherent pictures of the universe to humanity, therefore put in on the path of making sense of the world. It also provided moral code to live by, therefore, bringing humanity out of pure instinctive behaviour, making humans to some extent masters of their own behaviour and responsible for it. This gave social purposes, ways of organising society, and possibility of cohesive social life.

Religious theories had to keep pace with growing human self-awareness and intellect; therefore, they had to develop more and more abstract concepts and more and more sophisticated ways of organising thought. But we should remember that there always was a counter force of human intellect to religion and this development in human thought was a result of constant interaction with this counter force. But all said and done, religious thought contributed to development of philosophy and science; even if mainly by providing a counterpoint and stimulating debates.

It is undeniable that religion contributed tremendously to the development of arts, architecture, literature, music, dance forms and so on. That made human life artistically richer and culturally sophisticated.

So religion made significant contribution to development of culture and civilisation. I have made these remarks only to indicate that there is no need to deny contribution of religion to development of human race.

Religion’s impact on the believers’ lives

It is clear even to a casual observer of social behaviour of people that religion has a tremendous appeal to a large number of us. People find source of moral behaviour in religion. All religions do emphasise some or other moral code. There seem to be some common points regarding values like truth, compassion, helping others, and so on in these various religious moral codes. This gives the believers an ethical anchor to regulate their lives and aspire for higher achievements in this field. This is very important in human life; it gives it purpose and something to look forward to. A basic human need once self-awareness is awakened.

Religion also provides personal solace in times of distress. Faith in some higher power or set of principles that will unerringly lead to good at the end gives people a sense of security and even the endurance of unwelcome situation becomes meaningful. Particularly in the face of unreadable loss—death of some one dear, for example—leaving everything on some benevolent power and desire to earn merit in the eyes of this power provides with a psychological means to deal with it.

Religious rituals can provide with a rhythm and regularity, and therefore, discipline, in one’s life. This might be very reassuring in the face of fleeting, ever changing, and strenuous life of a modern human. Religion also gives a sense of identity—who I am—and a strong sense of belongingness—a fellow feeling with other believers.

But religion provides all these goods for a tremendous price. It often takes the most important attribute of humanness away. It tries to put believers—and mostly succeeds—in a permanent tutelage; denies them the chance of ever coming of age, becoming self assured independent beings. It tries to close their minds, makes them fit objects to be manipulated, and permanently blocks their further growth of consciousness, knowledge and even morality. It tries to hijacks their consciousness, to take all genuine artifacts from it away and replaces them with spurious goods. It demands the most degrading servitude. I know, what I have just said is rather strong, and with a bit of polemics in it. Therefore, I must explain.

The most important event in human evolution, to my mind, is the awakening of self-awareness. Self-awareness as used here is consciousness of “I” as an entity different from all else I happen to be aware of. Different does not mean disconnected, nor does it mean totally different having no similarities at all. All it means is having some attribute, however small, that is nowhere else but in me. Self-awareness once awakened immediately wants to understand what is going around me, what is this world, how it functions, what should I do, what is my purpose, and a host of other questions of this nature. It is freedom from instinct and mindless natural laws; it is declaration of independence, of autonomy, of freedom to choose. Freedom of choice may give a thrill of power, power not necessarily on others, but of consciously bringing about situations that I want, that satisfy me. But it immediately brings in tremendous responsibility. If I am making my choices then I face dilemmas as to what should I want, and as to how do I get what I want. If I make a wrong choice in either, then that is my responsibility and I have no one to blame for it. I have limited knowledge, limited powers of action and see forces around me that are much beyond my comprehension and powers to control. That makes me vulnerable, that makes me alone. I may get very scared of this vulnerability and loneliness. But I do have cognitive capabilities that may develop into sophisticated reason and I may improve upon my skills and capabilities to deal with the world. If I take this path of dealing with my uncertainties, vulnerabilities, fears and loneliness then I retain that spark of humanity—freedom of choice[1]—that emerged with self-awareness. But the responsibility and fears may weigh me down and this freedom of choice may become a burden to me, a burden too great to bear. In such a case I may barter it for some security from my vulnerabilities and seek solace in some dogma propounded by someone else. In this case I have found a cell to hide from my humanity and throwing this burden away. Religion provides such dogmas and hiding places easily enough. That is why I say that it takes away the most precious gift of humanity in exchange of illusory solace. (We must remember that there are plenty more merchants ready to buy this gift of humanity, some political theories may act as such merchant, but we are dealing with religion alone here.)

The capacity of the religion to provide solace partly comes from the dogma and partly from the feeling of belongingness. The dogma can not be rationally questioned, examined and modified. It is immutable ultimate truth. But it can not be proved. And human reason, that irreverent terrible child of self-awareness, demands grounds for acceptance of these dogmas. So it has to be discredited, dulled and bribed by the promises of fantastically pleasurable after life; or subdued by the fears of a terrible after life, or plainly threatened in this life by the force of believers’ community. Thus the only means what can make me capable of making my own choices, capable of coming of age, growing out of tutelage and becoming my own master; is subdued or destroyed. That condemns me to be in permanent tutelage either of the dogma or of the community or of both. That blocks all possibility of me becoming a self assured human being, confident of my own ideas and actions.

If I were to deal with the vulnerabilities of life on my own, with the aid of my own capabilities of observation, capabilities of freely and intelligently learning in the society, capabilities of reason; I would have created concepts, principles, formed attitudes, dispositions, likings and dislikings. These mental-artifacts would have populated and shaped my consciousness. They would have been genuine artifacts created by my own consciousness. But in accepting the dogma and dictum of my religious community unquestioningly, unexamined, I am denied the possibility of creating these genuine artifacts to shape my own consciousness. In their place, by accepting the tutelage of religion, my consciousness if filed and shaped by the ideas, concepts, attitudes, dispositions—artifacts—that agree with the dogma and are dictated by the community. Thus, my consciousness is hijacked. It is no more my own; it is taken away from me. I have sold my soul, to use a religious metaphor. Well, the devil is not the only one after my soul; there are other merchants as well.

The religious dogma, once accepted, becomes the central part of my world view. As we noted above, it is immutable and ultimate truth. If I question it I am in danger of losing faith. Since it can not be justified on rational grounds, it has to survive on the fear or lures of afterlife; and on fear of loosing belongingness to a community of believers. All my other belief to form my world view and understanding have to fall in line with this dogma and its implications. Therefore, further development of my understanding of the world has to be subordinated to religious precepts and community sanctions. That seals my fate in terms of growth of my understanding, be that ethical, epistemic or aesthetic.

Since all this depends on my abandoning my own reason and acceptance of the dogma on the authority of the scriptures and their authorised interpreters, I am mentally prepared to obey them to wherever they lead me. I am a fit tool to be used for some one else’s purposes. If my controllers be caring for humanity and morally upright people, I may be used for service of the society and humanity. If they be interested in money and luxury, I am prepared to work for them and provide means for their luxurious lives. If they be power hungry bigots I am ready to be used as cannon fodder in the violence they will create. I barter one kind of vulnerabilities for another kind. But now my reason is dulled and I do not see these vulnerabilities for what they are. I see them as achievements and earning of religious merit. So I get illusory security and solace.

This is a deliberately painted extreme picture of religious mind-set. Every believer does not end up there. There is a huge middle ground. That middle ground does have many avenues that are unobjectionable and sane enough. But the religious mind-set does have the potential, propensity and danger of reaching at the above described level, and often enough reaches there. The firmer and absoluter the belief grows, so does the danger of above painted scenario coming more and more true.

Impact on sociopolitical life of a society in general

Some important contributions of religion to sociopolitical life we have already discussed in the first section above. We need not repeat that here.

In addition to those positive contributions religion also seem to have a very marked propensity to treat any deviant behaviour with suspicion and harshness. The history of religions is full of various kinds of persecutions meted out to people questioning the dogma or going against the custom. Non-believers in most religions are looked upon with suspicion. Often, but not in all religions, they are targets of harassment, disdain, and conversion. Mixing of the believers with nonbelievers is often looked upon as undesirable. These attitudes contribute to fragmentation of society.

The religious dogma drives its staying power from psychological insecurity, strength of unreasoned faith and social feeling of belongingness; therefore, any challenge to it draws violent emotional and vociferous social response; any debate is denied and ultimate truth of the dogma is asserted unconditionally.

Religious faith is rationally insecure and often hypocritical. That forces it to oppose growth of knowledge and understanding that may challenge the dogma. Almost all religions perpetuate inequality, particularly against women. All religions curb freedom of expression severely. And create political rift in the society. They are against democratic norms. I do not need to argue these clams, they are self evidently true. But if need be arguments to support them can be worked out easily enough.

Now we are ready to explore the place of religion in schools. And that will be the Part 4 of this series.

To be continued….


19th July 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Azim Premji University, Bangalore and Digantar, Jaipur


[1] Freedom of choice is a hotly contested idea. Many believe this is only an illusion; there is no freedom of choice for humans. This is not the place to deal with the issue. Here I am taking it as a fundamental assumption. My immediate reasons for that are: 1. If we humans have no freedom of choice at all, every thing in it is totally determined by social, cultural, political and economic conditions; then there is no point is this debate at all. The debate itself is completely determined by the very same conditions. It’s a meaningless rigmarole of natural forces. Let’s put an end to is—if we do have that choice!—and go have a good drink. 2. Even if we have no freedom of choice we live our lives under the illusion that we do. This is not the kind of illusion that we can throw away and still keep on living as usual. This is a binding illusion of human condition. So for all practical purposes it is as good as if were real.