The attraction of religion

Possibly as a result of the evangelist bent of the current administration in the US, there has recently been a rash of atheist manifestos debunking the existence of God and the necessity for religion. There’s Christopher Hitchens’ vitriolic ‘God is not Great’, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and a host of other treatises from atheists like Sam Harris and Victor Mills, fed up with the crimes committed by man which appear to have some sort of religious sanction or religious provocation.

To a questioning mind, the existence of God has to be, at the very least, a matter of doubt. As a Hindu, I have been lucky to be part of a religion that is, to put it mildly, rather loosey-goosey. There is room for every intellect, from the slavish, ritualistic devotion to a particular deity to the spiritually evolved Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The framework of Hinduism has perfectly suited my intrinsically skeptical mindset, so I was thrown into confusion when confronted with the need for belief in my 11 year old son.

Like Nachiketa in the Upanishads, my son has lately been obsessed with the after-life – specifically, what happens to us after we die. Being no Yama (except when it comes to homework and bedtime curfews!) I scrambled around for answers that would satisfy without scaring.

In the Upanishads, as in the Gita, the classic answer has been as follows –

The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable. Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation

Unfortunately, this is a philosophy out of the grasp of most adults, so it was no surprise that it did my son no good. After a few unsatisfactory discussions we moved on to Christianity, where the concepts of heaven and hell have structure and clarity. This was much more to the 11 year-old’s liking and I began to get a glimpse into why religion plays such an important role in people’s lives.

Christianity and Islam both have the advantage over Hinduism of having a set of scriptures that lay down the law in pretty simple lists of do’s and don’ts. My theory of religious evolution goes somewhat like this –

Out of the need for order in societal chaos is born a new religion. To the society at large, it probably takes the shape of a ‘cult’ till it gains enough adherents to become respectable. The three guiding principles of any new religion are –

Contrast – How your religion differs from the existing belief system
Convince – Why it is better, and
Convert – What will happen to you if you don’t join.

Eventually, as the religion ages, it begins to lose some of its dogma and become more inclusive. It also begins to allow conflicting schools of thought to co-exist in relative harmony. But as it loses its fundamentalism, it also loses its appeal to people who want the comfort of being told what to do.

Hinduism is in this mature stage, which explains the rise of gurus and godmen. When I talk to followers of gurus about their motivation, not surprisingly, it is the craving for direction that is the biggest driver. The appeal of the guru is that of a parent for a child – someone who takes on the burden of responsibility of thinking for you.

Newer religions like Islam still have the structure and discipline in place, which is why they are such an attraction to confused, angry child-men seeking a higher purpose in life. A New York Times article about the failed terrorist plot in Germany recently reports –

…radical Muslims began to exert a glamorous gravitational pull on some German youths, German authorities say. In 2003 a local convert calling himself “Hamza” Fischer was killed fighting against Russian troops in Chechnya.

“They like the clear rules,” Mr. Köpfer says of the young converts. “Many of them are attracted to Islam not as a religion but as an ideology.”

I fear the attraction these ideologies have for my pre-teen. I don’t underestimate his need for clear answers. Since I can’t tell him comforting lies, the best I can do is to point out that the inflexibility and exclusivity of existing religions condemn non-believers (that would be us, his parents) to a very descriptive hell, set a good example for moral and ethical behavior, and hope for the best.

8 thoughts on “The attraction of religion

  1. Shefaly

    I think the new books against religion are a response to failure of rationality in the masses. Your figures (US I mean) are more publicised but a recent survey shows 3/4 of UK population believes that creation was how the world came about. Poor Darwin! He must be rolling in his grave, or if you believe creationists, burning in Hell.

    When Christians convert to Islam, law of conservation of mass is at work in my view. They are also both Abrahamic in origin. The two religions are not very different. So I fail to understand conversions except for the novelty factor. A bit like a new romance which then settles into something more stable when one starts raising important questions related to meaning, stability, durability etc.

    Interesting points. I think children are more open-minded than adults give them credit for. My siblings attended a ‘Convent’ school with nuns etc but are more conventionally religious about Hinduism than I am. I grew up heathen! 🙂


  2. Shefaly

    Sorry the rest of the comment is here:

    I did not attend any school with a ‘religious’ bent. A Hindu friend I know attended Jewish school in Africa and is more traditionally Hindu too, married now to a Huguenot and aims to bring her children up in a brusque atheistic tradition. Yet another friend wanted to be a nun when she was 8 till she was 14 and discovered boys!

    Children will probably make up their own mind. As of now, as you say hoping for the best is your best bet.


  3. vidya Post author

    Interestingly, right after I wrote this post, I met the founder of a very effective charity called Home of Hope who said over and over that she found a ‘higher calling’ to serve. I respect her sentiments and am fully aware of the good that faith can do. The key is that nebulous thing called ‘spirituality’. Communicating spirituality to a child in the absence of religion is really hard to do though.
    Also, it is so tempting to classify religious ( not spiritual)adults as, you guessed it, children!


  4. Shefaly

    I have heard that ‘higher calling’ line of logic before. When questioned with the 7-whys method, you will find yourself – and they will find themselves – scratching beneath the surface. It boils down to a far greater degree of discomfort, than fellow humans may share, with the status quo and the unfairness inherent in it. Finding themselves unable to articulate or ‘quantify’ or otherwise meaningfully express this desire to ‘correct things’ so their own discomfort would reduce, many adults call it their higher calling or whatever. The psychology of philanthropy explains things in similar terms.

    Sound cynical I know.

    That said, encouraging kids to ask 7-Whys will make sure they never accept a flaky argument or fait accompli presented to them! (You can see why I am such a popular aunt. I answer those 7-Whys!)


  5. vidya Post author

    The 7-whys method is precisely what my kids use on me till I deploy my parental Brahmastra -‘because I say so!’

    Interesting how human beings can patent common sense!


  6. Shefaly

    It is an interesting tool because it forces the respondent to think. In causal studies this is a very effective tool and trumps most other methods.

    They are along the right path so they will sort religion for themselves too!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s