The rape case of a nun in Kerala recently made headlines where Bishop Franco Mullakal, who headed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar, was accused of repeatedly raping a nun between 2014 and 2016. He was charged with forcible confinement, rape, unnatural acts of sex and criminal intimidation. In 2004, another well-known religious leader, Swami Jayendra Saraswathi, then Pontiff of Kanchi Mutt, was accused of the murder of Sankararaman, manager of another temple in the same town of Kanchipuram. There are many other cases where religious figures have been and are tainted with such accusations.
In both cases, the defendants were acquitted by the respective courts. Although the courts have absolved the defendants of the charges, it is nevertheless disconcerting that the dark cloud of criminality hangs over the guardians of religious institutions. The very idea that these gatekeepers are even associated with such a taint of blasphemy should be baffling to apologists for religious practice and institutionalized religion. The very association spoils the sanctity usually associated with religion. It also disrupts and distorts the commonly held view that the realm of religion extends beyond morality, meaning and value.
Although this is a commonly held view, ethics and deliberations about the meaning and purpose of life constitute independent domains of discourse and questions in these domains need not be discussed. have their source in religion. Douglas Cowan, a scholar of religious studies, calls “the mistaken but remarkably widespread belief that goodness, morality and decency are essential characteristics of religion, that they help us define what religion is as ‘the good fallacy, moral and decent”. Moreover, he notes that there is “little valuable historical or sociological evidence” to attribute goodness and morality to religion.
One can be moral, think morally and theorize about justice and the meaning of life, regardless of one’s religious attitude. It is more than possible for an atheist to be moral and examples abound of unethical religious people.
Therefore, these two points – on the domain of religion and the aforementioned taint of blasphemy associated with the guardians of religious institutions – raise the larger axiological question of the impact of religion as a practice as well as as a as an institution. Revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar raised such questions about religion and appealed to reason to argue for the uselessness of religion.
Bhagat Singh wrote a pamphletWhy am I an atheistin prison in 1930. The notion of divinity is very central in most religions. Such an idea is pervasive in the public consciousness and also well entrenched. In fact, in different forms, the meaning and nature of divinity, the existence of God and his relationship to man constitute an important part of religious discourse by default. These, says Bhagat Singh, are popular sentiments. Criticisms of such popular sentiment, he notes, never receive a rational response.
It must be said that he was very polite to people with such feelings as he only considers them unable to engage in critical thinking due to their “mental weakness” but not violently harmful. Coming to the time of Dabholkar, these people are no longer harmless. In fact, it was his criticism in the form of a rational view of the uselessness of religion that led to his assassination by extremist elements.
The very thought of rejecting the idea of the divinity and existence of God, also as something unreasonable to hold, would be seen by believers or so-called theists as a kind of vanity and pride and arouses their anger. This is exactly what happened to Dabholkar when that anger took violent form in vengeful extremists who shot him down.
Bhagat Singh strongly defends an atheist position. Atheism, according to him, is not believing in an “Almighty and Supreme Being who created, guided and controlled the universe”. Such an idea “had no solid foundations”.
At the beginning of his pamphlet, he states that some of his friends interpreted his atheism as the result of his madness and the “result of vanity”. Believers, influenced by peddlers of god and religion, often criticize atheists for their vanity. He goes on to dispel this idea of the existence of a link between atheism and vanity and concludes:
“Society must fight against this belief in God as it has fought against idol worship and other narrow conceptions of religion. In this way, the man will try to stand. Realistic, he will have to put his faith aside and face all adversaries with courage and valour. This is exactly my state of mind. My friends, it is not my vanity; it’s my way of thinking that made me an atheist. I don’t think that by strengthening my belief in God and offering daily prayers to Him, (which I consider the most degraded act on the part of man) I can bring any improvement to my situation. , nor will I be able to deteriorate it further.”
The “way of thinking”, based on experience, reasoning, perception and inference, seems to have shrunk when it comes to belief in God and religion. The origin of the idea of god, as Bhagat Singh asserts, is that “man created God in his imagination when he realized his weaknesses, limitations and faults”. An exactly similar idea is taken up by the famous scientist Albert Einstein in what is now known as the “letter from God” which he wrote to the German philosopher Eric Gutkind: “God is for me nothing more than expression and product of human weaknesses”. This letter from the scientist was sold in 2018 for $2.9 million to Christie’s Auction.
In this mode of thought, Bhagat Singh asks two questions about the belief in “one almighty, omnipresent and omnipotent God” who, according to theists, created the universe. The questions are a) why, in the first place, did God create the universe and a follow-up question b) If it is said, as theists say based on scripture, that he is required by law to create then he additionally almighty.
Moreover, the omnipotent god does not have power, argues Singh, because he does not prevent a man from committing sin. He could not save mankind from many great calamities. Why doesn’t God “infuse humanistic feelings into the minds of the British people so that they can voluntarily leave India?”
These questions from Singh mirror the response of a more philosophically polite atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to a question posed to him at a dinner meeting as follows: Suppose your position on the very idea of existence of God turns out to be false and that God exists; suppose that after your death you are face to face with God; how would you answer? Russell replied, “Well, I would say you [god] didn’t provide much evidence. Following his argument where Bhagat Singh questions the power of God, it would be even more appropriate to say that not only is there no evidence for the existence of God, but there is also evidence to the contrary.
In a similar, but more articulate way of thinking, Dabholkar wrote a two-volume book The case of reason originally published in Marathi as Timiratuni Tejakade. In the first and second essays (entitled “The Concept of God” and “Religion”) of the second volume of the book, Dabholkar presents the outlines of the form of religion. In it he states that it is imperative for a rationalist to be critical of religion and that a key element of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) at the base has this critical responsibility. MANS is an organization founded by Dabholkar to eradicate blind faith and superstition.
Why is such criticism justified? He notes that each religion reinforces the glory of its own faith and that such “efforts take the form of hatred and contempt for other religions”. He argues that there has been a rampant commercialization of religion and the involvement of anti-social elements in the organization of religious festivals. These engender parochial religious sentiments that trample all values (moral and cultural) projected by what he calls a “public version of religion” (the recent Dharma Sansads in Haridwar and Raipur where hate speeches were uttered calling for Muslim genocide are an illustration of this point). To counter these harmful effects of religion, the Samiti “engages in constructive criticism of religious sentiments”.
Dabholkar, in line with Bhagat Singh, raises questions in his essay on the concept of god as creator of the universe: “If god created the universe, does the process of creation continue or is he arrested? What is the next step after the creation of the universe? He says, “No one has answers to these questions.” Dabholkar also argues that the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent god is full of contradictions.
In formulating these questions, Bhagat Singh and Dabhokar present a rational view of the worthlessness of religion and its associated idea of divinity. They also discuss the hidden agenda of religion where the privileged class invents false theories within a religious framework and causes a system of exploitation.
It is the common man’s tendency to subscribe to faith that religious institutions shamelessly exploit. Matters of faith become too sensitive to be touched by reason and rationality. Through the “faith” that such irrational beliefs are held by the naive for the benefit of sneaky opportunists to advance their business and other interests.
Upton Sinclair in his Profits of Religion Essay on Economic Interpretation (1917) distinguishes between the two meanings of religion; i) honest meaning and ii) institutionalized meaning. It is this latter sense that prevails today and it is the thesis of Sinclair’s book that religion “in this sense is a source of income for parasites, and the natural ally of every form of oppression and ‘exploitation’.
We need people like Bhagat Singh and Narendra Dabholkar to rehash these issues in the public sphere to drive home the irrationality and irrelevance of religion and, in particular, the institutionalized and communal form of religion.
However, Dabholkar had to pay a price as some bigoted elements could not accept his anti-superstition stance. He was shot dead in 2013 by young people belonging to a section of a religious denomination. These elements were against his fight against superstition. His murder at the hands of religious extremists should prompt one to wonder whether, on a deeper level, the nature of such opposition to anti-superstition actually betrays the idea that religious tradition itself is, in a strong sense, nothing but superstition and, therefore, worthless. Also, the taint of blasphemy on the guardians of religious institutions is another point to ponder on the impact of religion on value.
SK Arun Murthi taught Philosophy in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab.