Sunday, 28 March 2010

Is religion really a matter of private practice?

Okay today's my day for writing on religion. And I really didn't want to include this in the previous post. So here we go.

There's an age old argument with respect to religious practices and the public space. It's an argument that's constantly brought up by those who do not condone or appreciate public displays of religion (i.e., processions, public pujas, dancing on the roads, so on and so forth). I have to be honest here and count myself amongst those who have regularly used the argument in criticizing the nuisance that a public display of religion causes (PDR let's call it). It goes thus: Religion is a personal thing. Why, oh why can't people practice it within the confines of their homes? Why do they have to bring into the public domain like this, disrupting our lives and causing a nuisance?

I was thinking about this while I was writing the previous post and I realized, there is NOTHING private or personal about religion. There never was. Since the beginning of human civilization, religion has always been social, practiced by groups and used as a tool for exercising power and ordering the group/society.

Most ancient religions (and the ancient roots of modern ones) started as an attempt to come to terms with forces of nature that, at the time, were beyond rational comprehension. As science, evolved to explain those, religion took on the role of higher and higher levels of abstraction, representing causality that we were at a loss of words to explain. From forces of nature to creation, religion has tried to explain all that the science of the day does not have an answer for. It is not coincidence that the first scientists were men and women of religion (across societies).

As religion became more abstract and more and more a matter of belief as opposed to the quest for knowledge, it evolved yet another purpose alongside - that of a tool to create social order and discipline. And so emerged rituals.

Religions, from the time that each of them acquired a critical mass of followers, have always been a tool for co-opting dissent, a way to give legitimacy to power, rule and inequality; a pressure valve to ensure that an essentially unequal society does not collapse into anarchy due to discontent. After all, God's will is a more palatable explanation that survival of the fittest.
So no, religion cannot be practiced in privacy (Spirituality yes. Religion no.)

Whenever I think about religion, I always run around wondering why they engender so much conflict? Especially if one takes a sanctimonious view of religion, the conflict seems to be contradictory and paradoxical to the basic premise of there being a higher good. But see religion, as a tool of power and there are two answers to that question of conflict that I can see (there are probably many more than two).

First, religions have become like higher level individuals, fighting for space and other resources with no meta-religion to order them.

Second, religion is a convenient way of not taking political responsibility for developmental and economic inequality. The rise of Hindutva is a good example. Blame the unemployment of Hindu youth on reservations given to minority communities (never mind the statistical fact that in a country composed of 84% Hindus, the majority of unemployed are likely to be Hindus as well) as opposed to having an informed conversation on the faulty model of economic development that led to burgeoning public sector debt and the absence of a robust, profit oriented private sector to create wealth. (Personal disclaimer: I am not a supporter of the reservation policy of the Indian Government. But the argument against reservations is a different one and I don't want to confuse issues here. For the purpose of how religion is used to abdicate political and democratic responsibility, this example is an eminently suitable one.)

The highly political nature of religion is something, we in our daily lives, never come to realise. We confuse, all to easily, our personal value systems with a society's religious beliefs. The fact that we consider religion to be personal is what endows it with the immense political power that it exercises in the world today. So maybe one answer is to see religion like any other political ideology?


Ketan said...


There's nothing to disagree to. I'd myself reached similar conclusions with regard to religions having started as attempt to relegate the explanation of unexplained to yet another inexplicable (God). I myself had been confusing theism with religion. I guess, you've referred to the former as spirituality in your post. But religion is of course much more - ethics, charity, aesthetics, politics, arts, literature, etiquette, customs, philosophy & division of people (castes & sects).
As civilizations are advancing, people are realizing that all the above individual aspects can be separated from theism (and hence, even from religion). Prime example would be law & judiciary. Law is nothing but codified directives based on concepts of ethics. Of course, law specializes only in discouraging & punishing unethical deeds & neglects the encouragement of charitable deeds. Likewise, secularism is seen as a virtue, meaning religion must be kept separate from governance. Less & less art & music are now connected to God. :)

One aspect that makes religions such powerful force is the communalism they induce. By communalism I mean substituting one's individual sense of worth with sense of worth of a community one belongs to. In that, religious communalism is similar to regionalism, carteism, & in fact, even nationalism.

I have discussed these ideas in the following blog post:

I don't know how I ended up following your blog. Must've read some impressive comment by you. :) A very impressive blog post! Keep writing!

Unknown said...

Hey ketan,
Thanks. Will definitely read your blogpost. There's so much on Religion and how it is mixed up with everything else. One could just go on and on. Definitely agree with you on how religion tends to substitute for individual self worth. Like I said it's a great way of blaming anybody but yourself for just about anything including personal failure.

Parasuram....Let Truth Be Your Guide said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parasuram....Let Truth Be Your Guide said...

Hi we don't know each other my name is R.Parasuram, I am a friend of Hari.S.Nair I found a link to your blog in his Gtalk status message.This is the first time I have commented on the blog of a person I dont know so If this is a breach of etiquette please feel free to delete this. I feel strongly about this stuff so I thought I would write something down.

Anyway I agree with most of what your blogs say on religion but there are some pretty big points u've missed out on.
You for instance have indicated that the primary reason for religion is man's attempt to define or get a handle on the world around him and atleast in part explain the various phenomenon he saw around him. Well while in principle it is true but that only forms a small part of the answer, The main reason for religion is man's quest to understand himself and life itself. Answer the most fundamental question of them all "The WHY"....why are we here.... who are we so on and so forth... As Gautam Buddha said life is suffering whether it is stubbing your toe on the end of table... the constant struggle to keep one self fed, clothed and sheltered... the disease the ravage ones body.... The struggle to find love and acceptance... the lose of loved ones.... the vagaries of old age... the list goes on and on... It is to make sense of these cosmic jokes that man invented GOD and will continue to need GOD, It is all about the hope of a better tomorrow in a better place... call it heaven call it Valhalla... call it Swarg call it whatever you want... It is Man's struggle to get to that better place that we call religion... The rules , the diktats, the pujas, the processions are all so that the weary suffering man can convince himself that he has the favour of GOD.... and no amount of Science will ever change Man's appetite for Religion because every human wants to believe that there is a better tomorrow... every human wants to believe that he is not alone....
The higher abstract concepts are nothing new... any ancient Hindu text written 1000s of years beofre, be it the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Vedas they all deal with these higher concepts. The rituals have not changed, the penetration of logical thought into religious matters is still too nascent to be considered a movement... we are all witness to the kind of things individuals are able to get away with simply by calling themselves swamis or priests... all one has to do is switch on the TV.... People are too thirsty for meaning so thirsty that even if they realise that the lake they were crawling towards is a mirage they will still close their eyes drink the sand and tell themselves it water...
Don't get me wrong I am no fan of human religions personally I think humans lack the brain power to theorise even in their wildest dreams about the nature of the Force that created the Multi-verse ( I'm fan of String theory) but the the truth is the truth and there is no running from it. So here it is :)

PS: just for a perspective earth is to the Multi-verse as an nano particle is to earth :).... Ohhh and Thanks for reading

Unknown said...

@Parasuram, Hi and thanks for reading and putting down your point of view. I agree in part with what you say about the quest for meaning. However, the quest for the meaning and purpose of life, according to me, is an individual one and there can be many approaches to it. To confuse that with organised religion, which since ancient times has been more a political force than a quest for knowledge and truth. Buddha for one, I think would shudder at the fact that his quest for truth has been co-opted into the same power structure of religion that he was trying to defy. The basis of all modern religion is worship and worship by definition entails a power structure. A quest for truth and meaning however, does not have worship as a pre-requisite. Which is what I mean when I say spirituality is an individual and personal pursuit.

The other difference between religion and spirituality, in my opinion, is that the former is based on "belief" while the latter is a search. A search always begins with admitting that one does not know. Not with admitting that one believes.

These are the two reasons why I believe that religion and the quest for meaning (or spirituality) should not be confused with each other. Yes, religion claims to be a search for the truth. But it cannot be so as long as it is based on the ideas of worship and belief.

Parasuram....Let Truth Be Your Guide said...

First are foremost as far as the letter of the law is concerned you are right spirituality and modern religion are two separate things...

but I think you have misinterpreted what I was saying... While organized religion and spirituality may be not be same but they are born of the same need... The need to believe in something greater than ourselves... the need to believe in a better tomorrow... While powerful and intelligent people may have co-opted that religion for their vested interests , the root of matter remains the same....

Another very important thing that I think you have I think missed out on is well to put it simply that not all people are as intelligent as you or I may be :).... Not everyone can go on that quest.... Not everyone has the willpower, the time, the energy or even the inclination to go on that quest... People need to believe, The purpose of all quests is to find its goals, in this case meaning , think about a mother whose Kid is dying... She doesn't care about the differences between spirituality and religion she wants to know that her son will be OK... she wants to know that she can fold her hands and pray, Pray to a higher power....She wants to believe that she can melt his heart and make him intervene or her behalf... She doesn't care who is doing the talking as long as they are telling her "it is possible"... She will believe and believe with all her heart.

Look I am not saying it is right, God knows it is not (pun intended).... But If we, who have the ability to understand and differentiate do not understand why religion has the incredible power that it does... We will never be strong enough to effect real change... Only by understanding its real power base can we ever hope to separate the real evil that lurks in the shadows from the crux, which as I have said is something that no man can live without.