A Blueprint for a Saner Planet

by Sesha Samarajiwa, Asian Tribune, Oct 2, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Right now, the people of the planet practice about 4,300 religions. (http://www.adherents.com) Each group believe themselves to be privileged over and above others because they possess ‘the ultimate truth’ which, in turn, makes them the salt of the earth.

Considering themselves superior, most of them tend to look down on, or, worse, loathe non-believers. Others are compelled by a divine mission to save souls mired in dark superstitions, doomed unless they are saved by folks who know better. Many are prepared to die for their faiths. Many are prepared to kill. Millions have done so in the name of long-dead, still extant or newly-invented religions.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the way forward to a saner planet is to seek a cure for religion. I know this is an Utopian idea at this stage, but I offer it as food for thought. If I were a Christian, I could say that Ya-weh of the Jews spoke to me from a Burning Bush. After all, another kind of bush, George Bush, says he has a direct line to his god. If I were a Muslim, I could say that Angel Jabreel (Gabriel for Christians) dictated this. If I belonged to a New Age cult, I could say that an Ascended Master or a wise alien gave me the message. But since I am none of these things, I can only say that this radical solution arose by simply observing the world around me and contemplating it.

The Future of an Illusion

One of the best takes on religion is Sigmund Freud’s essay, The Future of an Illusion. The father of Western psychology described himself as a Godless Jew (“Ich bin ein Gottfrei Jude”, literally, “I am a God-free Jew.”) The main thrust of the essay, in which Freud focused his prodigious mind on the question of religion, is a psychoanalysis of mankind’s religious impulse. His conclusion: religion is a malady of the mind, a mental aberration that is difficult to cure.

Despite my respect for Freud, I cannot fully agree with his thesis. Even if mankind’s religious impulse is a mental disease, as Freud saw it, it is a disease that is stamped in the human genome. Some leading researchers studying the human genome are convinced that there is ‘a religious gene’ deeply embedded in our DNA. If that’s the case, it will take some radical therapy to completely rid us of the impulse. We can’t cure ourselves of genetic impulses that have been embedded through thousands of years of evolution, much the same as we can’t shed our ‘fight or flight’ response. But with some effort, they can be sublimated, transformed, reconfigured or rechanneled. Nevertheless, I do agree with Freud about the negative effects of religion on the self and on society and the world at large. That is an aberration that people can, indeed must, remedy.

Creating our gods in our own image

Religion is a vast and complex subject. Pscyhoanthropologists, sociologists and such who study religions have a more sober take on the mystifications that prop manmade religions: fears, including the fear of death – the ultimate unknown – hope, human longings, wishful thinking, self delusion, deifications, relatively new permutations of myths of dying and resurrecting savior gods (which predate Christianity by several millennia and have their origins in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, as, for example, the legends of Osiris and Innana tell us), our relationships with our particular environment, socio-cultural-political imperatives (gaining, retaining and deploying power, war and conquest, social pressure, temporal rewards), and so on. Clearly, we create our gods in our own image (or we adopt those fashioned by another culture, for one reason or another). That is why, for example, the stern gods of the Middle East, Yah-Weh – in fact, Isreal's ancient god of war (believe it or not, they
had a roster of gods at the start) and Islam's Al Lah (the male deity who upstaged the female deities, Al Lat, Al Usa and Al Mina who once held sway in Maccah) mimic typical Middle Eastern tribal patriarchs, without whose goodwill no one could hope to survive that harsh place – all-powerful patriarchs whose wrath, jealousy and the absolute loyalty they demanded of their subjects were something fierce. That is why the gods of a fecund place tend to project fecund characteristics. That is why the god of people who live by hunting whales is a supernatural whale.

The sad truth is that right from the start, religions, barring perhaps Buddhism and Jainism (of which more later), have been responsible for division, hatred and mayhem among humankind. In other words, they have been more destructive than constructive; countless millions have been slaughtered in the name of religion. Many religions are soaked with an ocean of blood and misery, not only the religions such as those practiced by the Mayas and Incas, Africans and Indians (Kali), Polynesians and various Euro pagans whose rituals demanded unending human sacrifice, but more so Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The blood spilled by the latter two would, arguably, surpass all other religions by far.

Dismantle Totems

Religions have caused enough strife and bloodshed. They threaten to annihilate humankind. So I suggest that the World Ecumenical Council convene their last meeting to agree to dissolve all their irrelevant 'faiths'. The tired, old creeds have gone senile and some of them quite insane.

Many religions which held sway for a very long time, such as those practiced in South America, Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle East, eventually became defunct. Yet, during their reign, people had absolute faith in them, built complex rituals around them, and erected incredible temples to honor them. To see their adherents as ignorant ancients would be a mistake; they were as intelligent as any modern, many of them more clever than many moderns. Primitives could not have designed and built the great pyramids of Egypt or Peru or Mexico. They could not have designed and built cities like Babylon or Rome. Yet their gods turned redundant. So, it is not impossible to envision a day when the current crop of religions has passed into history.

It’s obvious that folks who give allegiance to their particular system of belief have been brainwashed from childhood into believing whatever mystifications their particular creeds expound, bearing in mind, of course, that various sects and denominations within these religions have their own particular take on things, which generally negate – often ferociously – contra positions. The vast majority of adherents did not choose their religions; they were born into it. Yet, some adherents are prepared to kill, die or maim themselves with cutting whips for their particular version of 'truth'. Millions of Shiites, for instance, driven into a masochistic frenzy by their particular religious ideology, do just that – every year. The more passionate among them whip themselves to tatters with sharp, hooked knives that rip their flesh and cut bone. I have a Shia friend in Pakistan. When he was 14 years old, he got carried away in the mass madness and joined the religious frenzy, slashing his
back and chest to ribbons. It was also a coming-of-age ritual: the brutalized boy was now a man. That's the first and last time my gentle Shia friend indulged in this particular form of religious ritual, but I’ve seen his back which still bears the ugly scars. He is now older, wiser, and saner –and a secret agnostic. It’s better that way. In Pakistan, his apostasy could invite bad trouble, even murder. It's time for humanity to start afresh adopting enlightened humanism as the guiding creed.

The Dark Shadows of Organized Religion

As revealed at the start, there are over 4,000 religions being practiced on the planet. Here are grotesque snapshots of the main ones. Christianity swears by a god-man or a man who was elevated to God, thanks largely to the efforts of Saul who became Paul, whose mind made a young Jewish gentleman into God. (India has plenty of god-men and god-women even now; it’s nothing new there.) With due respect to Bible thumpers, my reading of the Bible (the old part especially) reveals the blood-soaked saga of the Jews, a saga which often glorifies ethnic chauvinism, incest, illicit lust, land-grabbing, misogyny, loud cursing, pestilence, vengeance, arbitrary injustice (I still can't fathom why Cane's vegetarian gift was scorned by God the Father in favor of his brother Abel's offering of dead flesh: maybe God the Father preferred red meat to grain stalks), jealousy, intolerance, racism, murder and mayhem, blood sacrifice, interspersed, of course, with some glorious aspects of humanity. In
other words, if you take with a dose of salt some of the fantastic gloss therein, of which there are many (Jonah hanging in there in the belly of a whale, and so on, which many fundamentalist Christians take literally), it says it like it is about the human condition, in all its glory, banality and depravity. The Bible is a jolly good read on existentialism.

Islam swears by a Mecca businessman who started a religion just 1,400 years ago, which is supposed to be the crowning glory over and above the two older monotheisms – the final chop, the last word.

Judaism, the granddaddy of Christianity and Islam, cares not a hoot for Christianity's god-man. For Muslims, as for Jews, Christianity is the ultimate blasphemy. Judaism prefers to split hairs within its own system when they are not busy splitting Palestinian skulls. (The Palestinians, of course, are the descendants of the ancient Canaanites whose lands the tribes of Israel stole, thanks to the rapacious aggression of Jewish folk heroes like Yeshua, who crumbled the wall of the Canaanite city of Jericho by blowing trumpets at it, according to Jewish religio-histories, the Old Testament of the Christians.)

Sikkhism is a relatively new religion is essentially a compromise between Islam and Hinduism, developed by Hindus on the frontlines; they were the first to face the brunt of the Muslim onslaught. It was invented by Guru Nanak on 14 August 1507. A brilliant solution for its time, it has much going for it. It enabled its adherents to synthesize the old religion with the new – Hinduism and Islam. I would classify it as an attempt at a win-win solution, although it did not always turn out that way. It did not stop Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from going for each other’s throats.

(The fairly liberal Mughal Emperor Akbar did a similar experiment with a short-lived syncretic religion, Din-i-Ilahi (Faith of the Divine), incorporating both 'pantheistic' versions of Islamic Sufism and bhakti or devotional cults of Hinduism, as well as some elements of Christianity, like crosses, Zoroastrian fire worship, and Jainism. The experiment was a flop. His Muslim fanatic son, Jahangir, made sure of it.)

As I write, millions of Hindus, still bitter about the injustices perpetrated on them by Muslim tyranny, led by Hindu fundamentalist groups like Shiv Sena (Army of Shiva), are biting at the bit to square things with the Muslims in India and in the hostile Muslim countries – Pakistan and Bangladesh – on its Western and Eastern borders. The mutual frenzy that resulted in the massacre of millions, when India was broken up by the British, is still a raw wound in their memories. The border between India and Pakistan – both members of the nuclear club – and in Kashmir has turned the region into a tinder box.

Religious hatred has further balkanized the Balkans, while the bloody Crusades against heathens and Jihads against the Infidel continue; this time, the arch rivals can hurt each other with nuclear or chemical weapons, instead of brutalizing each other with swords, spears and battle axes, like they used to do in the old days.

More evil than good

I am aware of some good done by some religions. But the evil outcomes tilt the scales; the good pails into insignificance when compared with the evil that religions, especially Christianity and Islam, have unleashed — inquisitions, witch hunts, crusades, imperialism, domination and, above all, the shackling of the human mind and, with it, the true spirit. These are crimes punishable by the court of human conscience. For philosopher J Krishnamurty, the worst crime one human can perpetrate on another is to shackle the mind. Religions shackle minds in iron chains of irrationality.

The European Enlightenment compelled Christianity to engage in some soul searching and reform. Although it still holds onto various primitive dogmas and binds minds, Christianity has become more liberal and tolerant, if we overlook things like Papal injunctions against birth control, homosexuality and abortion, as well as silly, but rapacious evangelism. But Christianity does not impose fatwas, kill apostates or stone women to death for various improprieties. Christians, at least the reasonable among them, question and critique their religion. They no longer engage in the Inquisitions and witch hunts they practiced in the Dark Ages. They are, by and large, tolerant of other faiths, if we turn a blind eye to contemporary religious wars in places like Ireland and the Balkans, and aggressive evangelism reeking of neocolonialism. As a result, Christians and Christianity can now be considered much improved, even progressive.

A grave problem with Islam is that it does not permit anyone to question its edicts, however absurd they may be, as Christianity now does. So Islam is stuck in a rut. Voices of reason cannot engage with it, much less reform it. Through intense repetition and indoctrination, and other mind control techniques like long periods of enforced fasting, millions are brainwashed into buying into its totalitarian credo in-toto, not selectively, but in full, for the Koran is the infallible, absolute word of their god. So, generation upon generation lives and dies within this absolutist creed, not having raised a single question about its doctrine, norms and practices, the way of life it prescribes. Thus, Islam's dominance over individual Muslims is of Stalinesque proportions: raise a question, whisper a protest, draw a corny cartoon – and you are in dire straits.

Generally speaking, the good people are mute and helpless against aggressive radicals in any group. In the Ummah, they are completely mute, because their religion forbids members of Dar-al-Islam from resisting or condemning by word or deed the Koran-inspired ideology or the action fuelled by religious fervor of their co-religionists, engaged in Jihad against Dar-al-Harb – the Arena of Conflict, the world of the infidels; all Muslims are enjoined to strive to do their best to make all 6 billion of us into an all-encompassing Ummah.

The aggressive among any group are the real movers and shakers, the killers and blasters and warmongers. They are the ones with power to inflict maximum carnage. That has been proved since mankind began inventing, fighting and dying for their religions. The good are generally powerless in the face of the violently aggressive. That may be why the good die young.

Exceptions to the Rule – Buddhism and Jainism

I may be accused of bias for sparing Buddhism from my critic against religion. In truth, in the context of religious intolerance, insanity and violence, I find it hard to find reasons to criticize the virtues and exquisite nobility of Buddhism, to which I’m partial. In fact, Buddhism is not a religion as such; at least its founder did not intend it to be one. Buddhism is essentially a philosophy of life, a sophisticated one. It does not subscribe to the concept of an omnipotent deity, an intrinsic feature of all other religions, barring Jainism. However, over the years, people have built a religion of it.

Siddharta Gautama's philosophy can also be seen as an interruption of the injustices of Brahminism which, even then, was rife with rather grotesque aberrations, particularly in its practice of the inhuman caste system, something totally anathema to the Noble Way of the Buddha.

Even more than Buddhism, Jainism's virtually impossible ahimsa was a tough calling even at the time of Mahavira, its founder and a contemporary of the Buddha; only the extremely masochistic could really practice this philosophy of extreme non-violence.

This is not to say that Buddhism today is the perfect lotus; it is not.

Buddhists, too, have often demonstrated militant virulence, triggered mainly by fear of cultural annihilation, even physical decimation. When people of nonviolent faiths are under threat of annihilation or absorption into an alien polity, they would have no choice but to defend themselves. That would inevitably lead to violent conflict. If they did not defend their way of life, they would have no life or way of life to defend. The followers of an intolerant, aggressive religion would make sure of that. But unlike some aggressive religions whose doctrines encourage and condone violence, Buddhism neither encourages nor condones violence or the killing of any living thing for any purpose. On the contrary, its Doctrine makes such actions completely taboo. A Buddhist has no way whatsoever of justifying violence by recourse to doctrine, as some religions do; he won’t find it.

Now, my Christian friends would say that their lord and savior also made equal injunctions against violence and encouraged loving kindness, Buddhist Mettha, Karuna. He did, although the young Jewish preacher was prone to the occasional outburst of small violence himself, especially when incensed by Jews doing business in the temple. Be that as it may, there is a crucial difference between Christianity and Buddhism; Christians had no problem propagating their faith through violence; indeed, they spilled much blood in the process. Buddhism, in stark contrast, did not shed a drop blood as it spread rapidly over a vast Asian landmass; instead of deploying force, Buddhism appealed to reason, and countless millions from Sri Lanka to Japan embraced the Way. When I was sharing these thoughts with friends, someone said: “Religions don't really do anything, people do. Ideologies don't do anything. People do.”

I responded: “You mean like the Taliban ideology (Islam), Nazi ideology (Aryan supremacy), Manifest Destiny ideology (American Christian thrust and tyranny), British imperialism (Civilizing Mission), communist ideology (Marxist-Leninist), Shiva Sena ideology (Hindu)? Of course, it's people who do, but ideology provides the fuel, religious ideology the rocket fuel.

Get Enlightened or Get Lost

The Buddha said: "Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword." I add: But those who live by the sword will kill a lot by the sword before they perish by the sword.

Given mankind’s strong religious impulse, it would be well nigh impossible to eradicate it. People need religion, even if it was, for the high priest of psychoanalysis, a mental aberration. But the aggressive, proselytizing, intolerant impulses that characterize some religions bear the potential to make our species self destruct, especially given today's weaponry.

From the beginning, according to their particular environment and temperament, humans have used their imagination to create their stupefying variety of gods and religions. If humans created their totems, they should be able to dismantle them, especially those which have turned monstrous. It’s been going on for too long; if we go on the same trajectory, it bodes ill for mankind. Enough already!

Three sane choices

We have three choices. Spirituality is highly personal and, as mentioned earlier, it is an impulse that seems to be embedded in the human genome itself. So the impulse will be always active in most of us. But people should be free to make their own connection with the numinous, in their own way, without subscribing to received dogma or being uncritical slaves of any organized religion. Individuals should be free to engage in their personal quest for the supernatural and find comfort therein.

Those who need some form of established system can be guided by one of the greatest minds of our time, Albert Einstein: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”Those who have no dependence on religion or who are not of a spiritual bent can simply embrace enlightened humanism. It's time to put gods with clay feet – organized religion – to rest. Whichever of the three sane paths I propose we adopt, it’s time for mankind to move on, safe, sane and consensual and, above all, rational and humane.

Sesha Samarajiwa has studied cults and comparative religion, and their social, cultural and political ramifications.

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