Religion is founded on FEAR, the fear of the unknown. But modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena.
A cursory study of recorded human history shows that more wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else. In fact, the periods with the most intense religiosity and dogma have been periods of the worst cruelty — the Spanish Inquisition, for example. The rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany led to World War II. The present phenomenon of Islamist terror is not a clash of civilisations (as some would call it) but a clash of religions, between Islam and Christianity. It has resulted in Islamic leaders hardening their stand to the point where mullahs preach that childhood vaccination is a secret western (read Christian) scheme to sterilise children so as to keep their population down. Thus, the debilitating polio (preventable with a simple oral vaccine) remains prevalent in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. And the Taliban recently killed several health care workers involved in a polio vaccination drive in Pakistan.
Before going further, let us first try to understand why humans invented the concept of God, and whether it has any relevance today. Religion is founded on FEAR, the fear of the unknown. But modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena so that the purview of the unknown has shrunk considerably and the fear of nature is largely irrelevant. We do not need a sun-god, a wind-god or any of the multitude of such nature-gods that the ancient Hindus (and also the Greeks, among others) invented. In fact, a moment’s reflection shows that invoking God is not an explanation of anything but a primitive response of shrugging your shoulders and saying that something is beyond your comprehension — not relevant to today’s scientific knowledge.
But even the monotheistic religions that are dominant today (Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which, by the way, have the same foundation in the Old Testament), which presumably evolved to do away with nature-gods, still postulated one God with supernatural powers. What supernatural powers? Let us first realise that there is no supernatural MIRACLE that has withstood the scrutiny of science.
Indeed, we are born with a rational instinct, because a world-view that is consistent with natural laws gives us a distinct evolutionary advantage for survival. Experiments show that children as young as one year, who have not yet learned to speak, will get perturbed and start crying when they see a magical event, i.e., one that is not consistent with their world-view. For example, if a block does NOT fall when it is pushed beyond the edge of a table, because the experimenter has cleverly put a plate of invisible glass there. It is only later (after age four) that we learn to suspend this rationality so as to enjoy a magic show in which, we know, that the magician is playing tricks to entertain us. But the same “belief in miracles” can be drilled into children by parents and teachers, telling them to pray to a God with supernatural powers, one who can perform miracles. Children accept this against their natural instinct because they consider parents and teachers all-knowing elders.
We get our morality, not from religion, but from an innate sense of humanity and from being able to see the pain of a fellow creature — something other animals do not appear to be capable of. Take the example of the 9/11 terrorist hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center. They were convinced that they were doing the right thing and killing infidels, for which they would be rewarded by God in an afterlife. George Bush later said the terrorists had hijacked a good religion (Islam) to perform immoral acts. Which shows that he is defining morality based on something beyond Islam, while the same act was considered moral by the terrorists (and, presumably, by their teachers who indoctrinated them) within their religion.
This is what prompted the Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg to say “religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Weinberg shared his Nobel with Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, who tried to bring science into the Gulf states. He found that the leaders there were not supportive because they felt science was corrosive of religious belief. Yes, science IS corrosive of religion. And that is why religious belief is anachronistic in today’s science-driven world.
Apologists for religion will argue that the pain and suffering we see around us is really God’s test of the strength of faith of the loved ones. Yeah, right! Tell that to the parents of an innocent child suffering from cancer. If you had such supernatural powers to do this to the child, and actually did it, I would consider you the cruellest person.
Einstein called belief in God a childish superstition. What he meant was that it is natural to give up this concept as we grow up and mature. But I think the bigger message is that, as a civilisation, we should outgrow this childish notion. Philosopher Colin McGinn divides non-believers into atheists — those who could not care less whether others share their views or not — and anti-theists — those who actively campaign against religion because of the harm it does. But he foresees a society that is POST-THEISTIC, i.e., one in which religion is not an issue.
A society where people will look back and laugh at the primitive concept of God that we had till the 21st century. The way we look at primitive cave art today. Childish paintings on the cave wall may have been an essential step in the evolution of our art before it reached the heights of a Picasso or Rembrandt, but nobody gets upset and issues a fatwa if somebody makes fun of the cave paintings.
To sum up what we can do, I quote from Bertrand Russel’s essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, written almost 100 years ago: “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world, its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men ... A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
(The writer is on the faculty of the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)