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Religion doesn’t exist in the singular in reality. In the real world it exists only in the plural – over 4,000 religions although some place the number as high as 10,000. With all these religions exerting their humanizing effect on the world population, one would expect the world to be a virtual paradise. However, this is far from being the case. Religion, which is universally supposed to be the strongest moralizing institution, the indispensable guidance for peaceful coexistence and good conduct, has inexorably left humans in different camps with little scope for reconciliation. Prof. Herman Bondi, mathematician and cosmologist, says, “Religion divides us, while it is our human characteristics that bind us to each other.” Those who don’t like to see religion as a divisive force would at least concede that religions tend to divide people.
Just think of the connotations of the two words: religion and religions. Religion connotes peace, tolerance, serenity and morality while religions have entirely opposite associations such as division, friction, conflict, violence, bloodshed and wars. Ironically, peaceful coexistence has never been the strong suit of religions. This is pathetic because if religion connotes all that is good and desirable in humans, religions should stand to justify the epithet, “the more the better”. However, we know that this is hardly the case. Unfortunately, if bloody conflicts in human history are any indication, religions readily fit the description, “the more the scarier”.
The plurality of religion has not left the world in peace. Humankind has from time immemorial suffered the consequences of having diverse religions. And it is doubtful whether people would treat fellow human beings without prejudice until the existing religions have merged into one overarching religion, which will have no unverifiable opinions on issues with regard to the origins of the universe, afterlife, if and who controls human affairs and mechanical rituals.
The new religion, whatever you may choose to call it, will not have absolute truths that urge its followers to be dogmatic, assertive and intolerant but be subject to discussion and refinement. It would thrive on calm questioning and inquiry and take in its stride the ethical issues arising from the ever-changing social and economic imperatives that we cannot avoid.
In prehistoric societies magic preceded religion as a way of dealing with the mysteries of nature. The renowned anthropologist, James Frazer, describes the transition from magic to religion as a shift of thinking of the primitive man who failed to manipulate nature according to his wishes. “[F]oot by foot he must have yielded, with a sigh, the ground which he had once viewed as his own. Now it would be the wind, now the rain, now the sunshine, now the thunder, that he confessed himself unable to wield at will.” (The Golden Bough). The primitive man who realized that his magic rituals couldn’t bend the forces of nature to serve him began to confer that power to invisible beings by whom be believed himself to be surrounded thus making the stage for the rudiments of religion to appear. Tens of thousands of ancient religions that came into being and held sway over the lives of people for centuries are now dead and gone, and it would stand to reason that the present day religions that reign supreme now are subject to the same law of transiency, however much we believe in their permanency. It’s no wonder that the modern man, who sees the multiplicity of current religions with its undesirable consequences, the deep-rooted clannishness being one of the most damaging of them, will certainly feel the need of a merging of them into a more tolerant and humane one.
If we can keep the morality baby and throw away the divisive bathwater of our inherited religions without leaving room for more bloodshed, we may perhaps talk about the possibility of ushering in a more united and better world where peace, mutual understanding and ethical concerns may have a better chance of guiding us without the need for people to defend “our” religion from being ousted by “their” religion.
What urges the followers of various religions to set up walls between them has rarely been differences as regards morality. Almost all civilized people, whatever religion they may belong to, generally agree on moral principles that promote happiness, peace, justice and love. If all that is there to be extracted from religion is morals, it is unproductive to form cliques based on who said what, when and where. The new dispensation will, as far as possible, shun the prickly elements of early religions such as non-negotiable truths, exclusivity, intolerance of questioning, dogma, belief in superior beings and hierarchy that have caused immense suffering to believers and non-believers. Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Faith is the foundation of most religions and remains to be the key factor of interreligious conflicts. However morality does not depend on one’s faith. Interestingly, humans have no serious friction over moralities prescribed by their respective religions. Most agree that violence is bad and avoid it except where conflicts involve faith. When we say some people are ready to kill for their religion, we know that what is at issue are not on questions of morality, which are important for human wellbeing and open to reasoning and commonsense. We have always destroyed one another on issues that are not important with regard to our earthly existence or collective happiness. We have never quarreled about to what extent we have to be kind, generous and virtuous but have done so on issues lying beyond verification. Such questions as how the world came into being, what is the nature of death and is there an afterlife have been the causes of hostility and violence in our history of the evolution of religions.
This is tragicomic because any person with average intelligence can only wonder and be fascinated by the enormous complexity of such questions. However, without feeling a healthy sense of curiosity, the average person is persuaded by their respective religions to believe that he has the final answer to each of those questions. And he defends to the hilt the right to hold such convictions and to fight for them without suspecting that it is no less laughable than laymen expressing supposedly undisputable opinions on questions which scientists, historians, neurologists, geologists, physicians and astronomers have more informed answers because they grapple with them much longer than the average man cares to do.