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.