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The moral ambiguity of modern religion

Prof Rajeev Bhargava for The Hindu

Citizens can neither demand that the state keep completely out of religion nor that it arbitrarily intervene in each aspect of it

Modern religion is a complex phenomenon and reasonable persons can only have an ambivalent attitude towards it. Invoking both love and hate, it can neither be unconditionally respected nor indiscriminately disrespected. Citizens can neither demand that the state keep completely out of it nor that it arbitrarily intervene in each aspect of it. Why?

Religion A

Let me draw you into a thought experiment: an eight-step speculative history of the religious and philosophical lives of human beings. So assume that in the very distant past, we developed a capacity for transcendence, i.e. to step back and look beyond life as we find it, to holistically examine our existence and the world, to dispassionately see its limitations and aspire to overcome them. (Step 1) A gap now emerges between what we currently are and what, at our best, we could be. In striving to overcome this gap, we then search for a vision, both personal and collective, in terms of which we can chart a journey of self-cultivation or self-realisation.

One important condition of finding this vision or path is getting guidance, most likely from a wise and insightful teacher, one who has deep influence in shaping our character and practice, who helps us go higher and dig deeper. Let us then imagine that (in Step 2) people begin to follow his teachings. They become followers of a path towards self-realisation — a Marga. And in Step 3, over time, a fellow feeling develops, a loose sense of community amongst the followers — important because self-cultivation needs mutual learning, influence and reinforcement. Self-development is a guided, social activity. Teachers and other learners are crucial to it.

This lightly organised human endeavour, this gamut of practices, dispositions and character can be called religion in one important sense. Call it Religion A.

Now Religion A may be gods/goddesses-dependent (ancient societies such as India, Greece and Rome) or be God-dependent (monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or be independent of God — faith in the rightness of human action and human rationality — as in visions of an atheist/secular society in ancient Greece (Plato) and India (Buddha, Jaina, Mimamsa). From very ancient times, India was home to many Religions A, even though it had neither a word for religion nor a distinction between religion and philosophy.

Religion B

Imagine now that over time the community of Religion A develops an institutional structure, involving hierarchies of power and status (Step 4). Some of these hierarchies grow because a section within the community has taken upon itself the responsibility to systematise teachings, turn them into intellectual doctrines (Step 5). Given the new importance of doctrines, some within the bureaucratic structures become gatekeepers maintaining strict rules of entry and exit (Step 6). Perhaps some of these are proselytisers, view each other as rivals fighting for individual allegiances and slowly begin to define themselves in opposition to one another (Step 7). They even break each others’ heads over differences of doctrine or practice. And even the heads of some of their own who differ from doctrines as they define them (Step 8).

Religions A that have taken Steps 4-8 have now become religions in another sense. Call them Religions B. What was once a loose community has now a highly doctrine-oriented, bureaucratised, exclusivist structure. Alas, pursuit of Religion A has been for some time now dependent on one’s belonging to Religion B.

Now because religion has come to refer to both Religion A (teachings of individual or collective self-realisation) and Religion B (institutionalised, power-laden, status-ridden and doctrinalised), many reasonable persons are bound to develop a deep ambivalence to it. They may revere Religion A and find Religion B repugnant.

Modern religion

Modern religion tends to be comprehensive, referring to both Religions A and B, and therefore is neither unambiguously good not wholly bad. One can neither live without it nor relate to it without resistance and critique. The only sensible attitude towards it is critical respect.

This has broader political and state-related implications. Our politics cannot be conducted without drawing upon the resources of one or the other Religion A. Hence Gandhi’s statement with which even Nehru agreed: “I can say without the slightest hesitation that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

But equally, Religion B cannot meddle in politics without vitiating it. Furthermore, morally sensitive citizens can neither endorse a strict separation between state and modern religion nor allow the boundaries between them to become so porous that states destroy people’s freedom to choose and practise any Religion A. This is why they must insist that the state keep a principled distance from all religions, keep off Religion A and intervene when morally necessary in Religion B.

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