The other day a friend was rebuking liberals for their shallow criticism of religion. His complaint was this: by obsessing with the religious conceptions of evidence, marriage, sex, inheritance and the like they were guilty of inadvertently helping the religious cause instead. That was because their focus on such matters meant that the fundamental inadequacies of religion remained unexposed. So, if critics were intelligent enough to invalidate religion itself by exposing its irrational foundations, there would no longer be any need of tedious debates on minor issues, which are merely applications of those foundations. When I asked what some of the fundamental inadequacies of religion were, he provided the following list: Belief in the unseen, destiny/fate, free-will and reward/punishment.
While this is not an exhaustive list of ‘fundamental flaws’ of religion as commonly enumerated by the those of a philosophical bent, it is a representative sample of the objections usually raised. It is not appreciated nearly enough (and is therefore worth emphasising) that the list (and any other variant thereof) consists of items which everybody (including the most hardened atheist) believes in and lives by. Therefore, there is nothing inadequate about any of it so long as everyday life is concerned. When it comes to religion however, the very same ideas suddenly become problematic – to the extent of being unacceptable. The very same concept can therefore be both valid and invalid, useful and beneath one’s serious consideration at the very same time. It is as if a man has two heads, one for the contemplation of worldly affairs and the other for religious matters. There could be any number of philosophies which are great so long as one spends all one’s time in one armchair. But most of them cannot be lived. Inconsistency is the price one must pay for subscribing to such philosophies.
Let us take up the ‘inadequacies’ one by one. Belief in the unseen: far from being irrational, the capacity to accept facts without insisting on first ‘seeing’ them is what sets human beings apart from beasts, insects, and philosophers. Each one of us believes in things that he does not/cannot see but in support of which there are valid reasons. Beliefs are based on arguments and are reached by employing the intellect, making them reasonable. No living soul saw Genghis Khan, but we do not therefore insist that he did not exist. Scientific facts are established by long series of inferences, many of which we do not actually ‘see’. In religion too, believing in the unseen does not mean suspending rationality and believing things blindly. The power to abstract is a uniquely human capability. The ability to believe in the unseen then, instead of being something to be ashamed of, is the distinguishing feature of man.
When it comes to fate, even philosophers acknowledge the fact that some people are born rich while others are born poor; some are stunningly good looking while others look like potatoes; some have an extraordinary musical talent, while others are tone-deaf. Some of the social inequalities are indeed artificial and are therefore amenable to correction; and of course, every effort must be made to make society as just as possible. But it is also true that equality in opportunity will still result in inequality in outcome because people are differently endowed with mental and physical abilities. It is therefore a good idea to do the best one can with whatever talents and abilities one has at one’s disposal (instead of whining about how others are more fortunate than one). Everybody accepts this as a wise approach to life. Destiny in religion is no more and no less than this. That one should accept things that are out of one’s control and should strive to do the best within those limitations. But coming from religion, the same idea is too outrageous for some. The selective sensitivity is distinctly reminiscent of desi films where the girl’s folks sleep like corpses while she sings a high-pitched duet with her boyfriend but who spring into action with the intention of reading the riot act the moment the lovers indulge in some discreet whispering.
When it comes to religion however, the very same ideas suddenly become problematic – to the extent of being unacceptable. The very same concept can therefore be both valid and invalid, useful and beneath one’s serious consideration at the very same time. It is as if a man has two heads, one for the contemplation of worldly affairs and the other for religious matters.