“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”―Seneca Lucius Seneca
Essentially religion has been defined as belief in and submission to one superhuman deity or many gods. Great philosophers and thinkers have produced a wealth of literature on the subject of religion as an independent idea, religion on the basis of innumerable revealed and adopted set of tenets propounded by various prophets since the existence of humans on this planet. Considering that some of our inquiries into subjects especially those that are beyond our physical discernments, do not result in satisfactory outcomes, the line that separates our acquired beliefs and rational study is prone to blur in a way that can cause a critical imbalance in our outlook. For making things easier to understand we could define religion as “a set of ideas on which one’s belief is unshakeable”. In short, whether people are monotheists, polytheists or atheists, they all seem to be following their respective code of tenets, by whatever name. Therefore, even so-called non-believers cannot say that they do not have a religion, which in their case is the philosophy of denying the existence of a super force. Yet, when we talk about religion, we are usually referring to divine commandments by either one or multiple gods.
A number of arguments have been penned in favour of and against religion in general and organised religions in particular. For students who are aspiring to learn about which bundle of principles are best to follow, there definitely is immense confusion. With heaps of theories circulating, with convincing debates for and against them, one can easily find oneself trapped in an intricate web from which, the only way out appears to just forgo everything. The variety of thoughts can baffle the mind of sane persons as what to believe and what not to believe, what is true and what is concocted, why certain things appear rational while certain others seem irrational yet comprise an integral part of beliefs. To investigate in an unbiased fashion is perhaps the most challenging feat for persons born and brought up in a specific religious environment and as it happens, a new-born can end up in a family adhering to any known school of thought.
Under these circumstances, a lot of peculiar questions can come up in the minds of maturing individuals that may concern whether or not their parents’ religion is the right one or is it sensible to believe in a single deity, many deities or no deity at all. These can be quite disturbing for a person as they may cause immense anxiety, uncertainty, uneasiness and even insanity. With a variety of ideologies in existence, choices can be difficult and painful as well. Looking at the ferocity with which followers of well-known religions display in defence of their faith and in defiance of others’ beliefs, one cannot but think that if peace and prosperity is to be achieved in this world, can it be done in the presence of multiple religions that are adversely poised against each other? Despite all this uproar religion is an undeniable reality, sacred to many.
Human beings suffer from extreme inert helplessness in the face of all-powerful strength of nature as well as their own physical and emotional weaknesses. Professor George Galloway, in his book “The Philosophy of Religion” explains religion in these words: “Man’s faith in a power beyond himself whereby he seeks to satisfy emotional needs and gain stability of life, and which he expresses in acts of worship and service.”
According to V.F. Calverton: “Magic and religion evolved as (a) means whereby (man) believed he was able to acquire power (over his environment) and make the universe bend to his wishes”.
Howsoever thinkers might forward their opinions about why humans follow certain religions, the fact is that any unanswered question can leave people highly perplexed. Their desire to learn about what is not visible to the eyes or which cannot be perceived by the senses is so great that anyone or any ideology or religion that attempts to provide answers has a soothing effect on their hearts and minds forcing them to adopt these principles. More or less, all religions preach similar rules of ethics no matter how divergent their practices might be.
The most common factor in all divine and man-made religions, is the element of enthusiasm with which persons hold onto these ideals. They generally belong to the lower classes of society constituting major portion of the world’s population. In view of prevailing social injustices and hardships faced by them in life, religion is a vital means to allay these sufferings. Then there are some knowledgeable human beings who make a conscious attempt to understand and direct their lives according to their set beliefs. They adopt a particular religion on the basis of their own research and study. Of course, in this process some do get repelled by whatever they learn, denying the existence of God and disclaiming allegiance to a particular school of thought.
With this background and with the strong emotional ties linked with a religious thought, the most abominable thing anyone can do is play the ‘religion card’ for own vested interest. Galvanising sentiments so as to meet one’s nefarious objectives, amount to offending both God and Apostles. Faith is a personal issue, a spiritual relationship between the Creator and the created and using it for serving one’s political or commercial interests merely shows the extent to which humans can degrade themselves to attain worldly advantages. When, because of inabilities and incompetence one reaches the edge of doom, religion is used as a modus operandi to rejuvenate oneself and to win back waning popularity or to perpetuate one’s powerful status.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).