Archaeology professor Stephen Mithen, in his The Prehistory of the Mind, quotes social anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s The Naturalness of Religious Ideas where Boyer finds common ground in most religions. These include the assumption that a “non-physical component of person can survive after death and remain as a being with beliefs and desires. Second, it is very frequently assumed that certain people within a society are likely to receive direct inspiration or messages from supernatural agencies, such as gods and spirits. And third, it is also very widely assumed that performing certain rituals in an exact way can bring about change in the natural world.”
In India, Hindutva-powered fervour with as few connections to Hinduism as possible finds extra authority for majoritarian chest-thumping from an electoral victory. Pic/AFP
As a non-believer, this paragraph just about summarises religion for me. And according to Mithen, the signs were available in the Upper Palaeolithic. So for between the last 50,000 years to 10,000 years, we’ve been playing the religion game and now, every few years, we find that religion is an excellent stick to really beat others up with. It is another matter that we are also beating ourselves.
If Boyer is right and these elements are common, then all that changes between religions are the names and the specifics. But do we care? Of course not. The first thing we do is create divisions and then behave as if these divisions were also provided by non-physical beings and supernatural agencies.
And no matter how scientifically or technologically advanced we become, we do not see any illogic in our belief systems. Evidence or lack of it has no role in our belief systems. It is enough to thunder Einstein’s famous phrase “God does not play dice with the Universe” to make our point even if we cannot make head or tail of his theory of relativity.
As we look around us today, we find religion being used as the lever for conflict, to create it, to justify it, to profit by it and to make others suffer by it. Islam remains a trigger point in the Middle East and in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Israel’s Zionism with its support from Judaism has posed as the aggressor in Palestine, using Christian guilt for old sins to cover new ones. In our little pond, Hindutva-powered fervour — with as few connections to Hinduism as possible — finds extra authority for majoritarian chest-thumping from an electoral victory.
However early humans decided to allow for non-physical beings becoming real — although Boyer has an explanation — it is when religion becomes politics that we suffer the most. In your mind you are free to believe what you want, including humans being descended from aliens. But when you impose your religious views on others, whether by the appalling story of forcible conversion to Islam and subsequent gangrape of a young teacher near Meerut as has recently been alleged, or by recommending reading material for children full of questionable matter supposedly endorsed by religion, you have created unhappiness, oppression and social instability.
The more dogmatic you are, the more emphatically you expound on your beliefs, the more unhappiness you cause. It does not matter whether your beliefs have to do with the essence of blue flowers or the glory of the two-humped camel if the final result is hatred between the flower-lovers and the camel people. It is hard to say it better than Jonathan Swift’s biting satire in Gulliver’s Travels where nations were at war over which end a boiled egg should be best broken.
In India right now, we have one other problem. Apart from all our warring religions and communities, we have one which is by far the worst and the most hated. This is the community of secular liberals, a tribe to which I belong. We do not usually believe in non-physical beings who send some of us direct messages, we do not often practice rituals to change the natural order of things and most of all, we have a distinct sympathy for the underdog.
This tribe has as yet not been properly studied by the Mithens and Boyers of the world. It is not clear whether the ancient texts mentioned what to do either. Luckily, the Internet was invented as a non-physical component and secular liberals can now be abused and insulted daily. Who will be laughing at the end though after Lilliput and Blefusco have killed each other over how to crack an egg?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona