Having established that God and religion are different entities and how religion uses God to propagate its version of right and wrong in the society, let’s move to the relationship between religion and religion’s followers.
Borrowing from the previous posts, religion considers it important to make people follow a particular moral code; and to do so it needs to make everyone believe that God exists and he rewards/punishes good/bad behaviour. Now let’s step into religion’s shoes for a while. How do you make people believe that God exists? To tell people that an invisible, unaccountable spirit will be their eternal well-wisher? You give God a story and a face to make Him more relatable. You set-up idols and institutionalize God (temples, churches etc.) to make Him more personal and palpable to people. You create processes and norms to ensure people do good things, even though they don’t understand why those things are good. Essentially -and this is the important part- doing good things in itself does not remain an end, but it becomes a means to please God, which now is the end everyone wants to work towards. And herein lies the problem.
Consider this simple example: Idols in Hinduism were meant to help people focus on God better; make Him more tangible therefore, perceivably more accessible; but ultimately to give God a face so that we start believing and following religious tenets more intently. What has happened instead, is that people associate worshiping idols to being religious in itself. They have focused on the notional and left out the material aspect. Is a person who worships idols of God three-hours everyday but never follows any of the moral principles and has never read any of the religious texts, more religious than a person who doesn’t believe in idol worship at all but reads and follows religious texts and teachings? This society will never call a person who doesn’t pray to the idols of God, a true Hindu; but will look over the fact that another person who does, doesn’t really follow what Hinduism stands for.
As soon as pleasing God becomes an end, and doing good things is just a means, people forget the means as long as the end is reached. In effect, doing good things, the moral-code that religion wanted to establish is not established because of the misplaced end.
Consider another aspect of it: religion requires people to help each other, be philanthropic and feed the poor and hungry. Following these moral principles make you closer to God. Now, being closer to God itself has become the end instead of an inherent goodness which makes you want to help others. In effect, even if people go on and say, hold a langar, they do it not so that it is going to help humanity, they do it because God would now think that you’re trying to help humanity and thereby give you a better life. ‘Punya milega’ is the driving force. Immanuel Kant -the great philosopher- defined morality as something done without an expectation of a consideration. This is what goes on to make us good human beings. Instead, the incentive structure that religion creates only goes on to make us do good things, notionally, but materially we aren’t doing good things; we are doing it for our selfishness. ‘Neki kar aur dariya main daal’ is just an adage thrown around which will never truly be followed because religion has created such a system which is bound to create such a result. In effect, becoming moral people, the goal of religion, is not established because of the misplaced intent.
Moreover, as pointed out by Ramesh Narayan in my last post, religion uses what may be called a ‘head-fake’ learning. Consider this example: back when the Ganga was unpolluted, it was rich in sulphur and natural germicides. This meant that taking a dip in the river would rid the people of common and preventable skin diseases and elongate life. Now, in those days of low literacy and undeveloped science, the common man wasn’t going to believe that. Therefore, the priests gave a religious undertone to it and bathing in the Ganges would now rid you of all sins. It had a huge impact and people followed it blindly.
While, that may have been good then, it isn’t the same scenario today. The River is completely polluted, and you’re more likely to end up with a skin disease rather than get vaccinated against one. Moreover, literacy and science have reached the heights no one could have imagined back then. Albeit, even today, you will see hundreds of ‘devotees’ (including the educated ones) taking a dip in the Ganga by its banks. And break this to a priest or a religion-fanatic and you’ll know better if these role-models and propagators of religious beliefs have any inkling of the real intentions of these practices (head-fake learning). Such practices continue down the ages while their material importance is long lost. (Check out the first five minutes of this video to understand why that happens: Brain Games)
This is just one of many such examples. In this sense, religion makes us a mindless puppet, socially conditioned to suppress our logic and fall-in-line to meaningless customs. This is the origin of all superstitions and random restraints thrown around. It was easier to explain to a kid that spilling milk is inauspicious than to tell him that milk is too valuable (economically) to be wasted. Many such superstitions aren’t as innocuous and often lead to even communal violence. Don’t eat beef? Man lynched in UP? Why should beef not be eaten when all other kinds of meat are acceptable? Because the cow is our holy mother? But why was the cow specifically chosen? Maybe because of the same reason you shouldn’t spill milk?
From hereon, for the first time in this series, I would drop the assumption that religion and its moral principles are undoubtedly good.
“A typical economist believes the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix given the free hand to design the proper incentive scheme”. Perhaps religion too is a fanatic of this quote from Freakonomics. Would we have been even aiming to be notionally good had it not been the incentives and disincentives that religion creates through God? Perhaps, religion deserves credit to this measure for sure. Left all on their own, people (in general) are anyway going to be motivated by self-interest. What can stop a man from committing a crime when he knows there are no eyes witnessing that crime, if not the firm belief that God is watching, and He will punish him? A supreme power to make sure you’re always humble. So this incentive structure is after all, important. So is the belief in a Heaven and Hell.
Or is it?
According to the belief, do people reach Heaven because they do good things, or because they do the things which they think are good? How can we be sure the principles of religion are righteous? To illustrate what I mean, consider this one extreme example: the way the Al-Qaida brain-washes and makes people kill and commit crimes is by telling them these things are good, that killing in the name of Allah will attain you Jannat (Heaven). See how a manipulated incentive can make people do anything? An example closer home would be Sati. People did it for religious reasons. You and I now know it’s completely wrong, but religion has the power to brain-wash us through the very same incentive structure it can do the world a whole lot of good. And add to that the blind following of what was once a head-fake learning and how displaced religion’s moral principles are in terms of intent and the ends, religion can really be dangerous.
In conclusion, spirituality is the end, religion is ONE OF THE means to that end. We need to think before we do. Even things that we always thought were true. Unlearn what you know. Just because a lot of people are saying something is true, doesn’t make it true. Just because it has been happening since a long time, doesn’t make it right. And all this, still assuming that God exists at the end of the day. If you look at God with one eye, the other eye blind to religion, we’ll truly understand what God is.
Keep in mind, all I have said is aggregative and from a general point of view. There certainly are going to be a large number of exceptions who truly are religious and righteous.
With this I complete this series on religion. I hope I made sense along the way. If you’re among those who read all the three parts, a big thank you to you. May you never need God to bless you to be able to do good things.
Other parts in this series: