The violence within
Organized religion aims to create a single identity
Religion is supposed to offer two things to ordinary mortals. The first is a prescription for living well in the here and now, with the general guidelines supposedly given by a supreme power beyond our ken. The second thing most religions offer is the comfort of a better future, or a new life, under the care of the supreme being. There are, of course, variations on this theme. The major Western religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam offer an interpretation of the world as it is and emphasize the importance of prayer and social rules that improve the quality of the present life. Eastern religions, on the other hand, like Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism only offer rules for a better individual way of living, which, if everyone followed them, could make the world a better place. No version of the good life includes violence and coercion as permissible features. If nobody wishes to be at the receiving end of violence and coercion then it cannot be acceptable as a rule. Yet we do see frequent and pervasive violence and coercion in the name of religion. That of course leads to the well-known argument that a god or the supreme being is either not all-powerful or not all-good. The purpose here is not to get into the philosophical debate about the existence of god. Rather, the purpose is to examine the roots of violence that religion breeds across the board.
All major religions of the world have been used to justify violence and terror for almost all of known human history. In the olden days there was no separation of religious organizations and the State. The monarch and the priest were representative of the same authority - the divine being. In spite of the official separation of the church and the State in modern times, religious violence continues with senseless cruelty. The reasons for this are many, and not very difficult to figure out. Religions have had their origins in the teachings of a prophet or messiah or king - somebody with extraordinary powers and wisdom. Hence religion has its roots in power: a power that one or a few privileged had. To effectively use the power an organization would be needed with rules, regulations and hierarchy. Knowledge or wisdom about the supreme being would be disseminated by the powerful few. Like the messages of modern politicians, there would be promises made about freedom, a superior quality of life, security and obligations to others. Power helped build organizational structures and provided individuals with a shared identity. Organized power with rules and books and myths and narratives and rituals can be a force to reckon with. It is based on a shared belief which has its legitimacy from a supernatural source that cannot be questioned. It is beyond reason. This is similar to political parties of recent times which are cadre-based and ideologically rigid.
How does this understanding of religion promote or tolerate violence? If the identity of a religion is the passport to a good life then it is important to bring as many as possible under the same umbrella. It increases the power of the organized religion. Also, other people not belonging to the religion are suspect because their belief systems are different. Tolerance of other religions in modern times has had to be legislated by the secular State, to prevent inter-religious violence, and also to ensure that laws passed by the State are independent of particular religious beliefs and practices. The secular State accepts religions as social organizations but religiosity as individual and private.
Being a social organization, no religion is independent of social conditions, and can afford to be impervious to social change. Culture, politics, the economy: all have an impact on religious beliefs and practices. The more the changes, the more challenged the major traits of religions appear to be. Therefore, the more threatened the organizational structures become. The biggest fallout of continuous social and economic changes is the sense of uncertainty they bring. Life has always been uncertain for the individual, and organized religion tries to give it a perception of stability and continuity. Even in recent times of technological revolutions and high rates of material growth, uncertainty is germane to the individual's human condition. This uncertainty has magnified significantly for the majority of the world's population. We are supposed to be living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - VUCA - world. In spite of the advance of scientific knowledge there are so many things affecting our daily lives that we cannot control.
In this context of rising economic and social uncertainty, India has been undergoing a strange metamorphosis. What is known as Hinduism is actually a loose set of philosophies with a variety of texts and scriptures and a large pantheon of deities. The texts and scriptures are different; they even allow for atheism as a way of life. This uniquely Eastern way of living and thinking is being contested by certain groups of people who wish to make Hinduism more structured, homogeneous and organized. The basic economic uncertainty, growing unemployment, the consumerist aspirations of a middle class, the extreme corruption and misuse of power have all contributed to a growing sense of powerlessness among the majority of Indians. Religiosity has increased enormously: not so much in terms of the depth of individual beliefs, but in terms of the flaunting of opulent rituals in the public sphere.
This is a fertile ground to strengthen organized religions. The importance of religion being the overarching identity equated to culture and nationality and the sharing of a uniform set of beliefs have become features of Hinduism and Islam alike. The typical features of the coercion of organized religion are being witnessed. There is a homogenizing trend to create one identity. The exclusion is clear: the others are those who do not belong to that religion. Violence is an instrument of coercion. The past is glorified and sometimes absurd claims are made about the achievements of those times.
The strange metamorphosis is certain to have political consequences. However, what is hardly discussed is that what was commonly understood as Hinduism is being transformed into a Western religion: regimented, with a low tolerance for diversity, assertively evangelical, organized, with sanctioned violence to take on non-believers and ultimately senseless cruelty. It is becoming very similar to radical Islam. Diversity must be erased. The others who are to be obliterated are the powerless: minorities, lower castes, women, and of course the very poor. India, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, is the fourth-worst nation in terms of religious violence after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq.
Social change and economic development, one might have supposed, would be instrumental in bringing about more religious tolerance and an undermining of organized religion. Religion was like a toy that society was expected to grow out of. However, organized religion is on the rise, as are intolerance and violence, in an age otherwise characterized by astonishing technological progress and change. We are supposed to be transiting to an age of robots and automatons. Will we now have Hindu and Muslim and Christian robots? Will they be programmed to pray as well as to kill? Or is it that we are actually becoming robots programmed by algorithms written down by some supreme being beyond our understanding?
The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta