Can Religions Really Reform?

On 14th July 1960, a small group of people gathered at the base of the tallest Alpine massif, close to where engineers were carving the Mont Blanc tunnel that connects France with Italy. This group had gathered to witness the “End of the World” which would take place at precisely 1.45 PM. As the time approached there was a great deal of crying and wailing and someone even blew the last trumpet.

A one-time Milanese paediatrician, Elio Bianca, the prophet of this cult, afterwards calmly pronounced: “We made a mistake.” The New York Times carried the news under the headline: “World Fails to End.” This group was not the first, nor will it be the last, to predict the dissolution of the earth.

From the time man discovered religion, prophets of all kind have populated this earth, mostly making similar predictions. Religious works have come down through the oral route until the discovery of writing and were widely circulated following the invention of the printing press. Brilliant minds have engaged themselves in the study of these texts and have used them for making historical pronouncements like the dating of Creation by the redoubtable James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland. A student of Trinity College, Dublin, Ussher was a versatile scholar. Studying astronomy, history, and various sources of biblical chronology, Ussher determined the exact date on which his God created the Earth. His work named Annalis Veteris Testamenti, which calculated the timetable of creation was published in 1650. It was incorporated in the authorized version of The Bible in 1701, and since then the faithful have been seeing creation through the same religious lens.

Ussher precisely dated Creation to the evening preceding Sunday, 23rd October 4004 B.C. He also went on to assert that Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise on Monday the 10th of November in the same year. The poor couple barely managed to stay for just a couple of weeks in the Garden of Eden. He also informs us that Noah’s ark alighted on Mount Ararat on 5th May 1491 B.C.

It is not my purpose here to single out Judeo/Christianity for continuing to have such obscurantist views on Creation. In fact, the Judeo/Christian world has produced some of the most brilliant original thinkers and experimenters in all fields of science. Yet, in spite of an explosion in scientific investigation especially in the field of geophysics that tells us that our planet could be over 4 billion years old, and that the present configuration of the continents is only the latest of the many worlds that have formed on this earth, there is a large number of people out there who still hold on to similar beliefs as professed by the Rev. James Ussher.

Religion has been used by the powerful to keep the masses subjugated by invoking the ‘Wrath of God’, filling the minds of the uneducated and the illiterate with fear. Others have been put to the sword, ostensibly for having different views, but actually out of greed for their lands and possessions.

The European annihilation of the indigenous natives of the Americas was justified in the name of Christianity, but the motive behind this destruction was nothing but greed for land and gold. The Crusades were also wars fought for plunder, but disguised as holy wars to reclaim a piece of Christian real estate that had fallen into the hands of the believers of a new religion that had sprung up in the sands of Arabia. Islam too has fought its holy wars and hundreds of millions of lives have been sacrificed in its pursuit of glory and hegemony. Even before the advent of Christianity and Islam, there have been holy wars in the name of one God or another. Each one of these ambitious warlords or kings had a God in whose name his armies would march to subdue and conquer nations to satisfy their lust for worldly things.

From time to time, when atrocities in the name of a religion have reached a crescendo, there have been calls from within for a movement to reform it. Almost all religions have gone through this phase. But every reformist movement has ended in splitting a religion into numerous denominations, producing volumes of scriptural texts that lay down the rituals that an adherent needs to follow. The result was not reform, but a further fragmentation of people that only gave rise to more confrontation and more violence. We saw it in the Christian world in the bloody wars between the Catholics and the Protestants. Although there is no room for violence in Buddhism and Jainism, yet both these religions have split into sects that prescribe separate rituals and paths towards salvation. Hinduism too has founded a number of philosophical systems and each one has its own defenders.

Islam, a religion that is followed by nearly one-fifth of the world’s population has also split into numerous sects, each one at war with another. The cycle of bloody violence that this fragmentation has started does not appear to have run its course yet.

Afghanistan, where according to M. J. Akbar, the Cold War (which he calls the Third World War) ended, has become the land where the seeds of the Fourth World War have been sown. This is a war that is now being waged by the warriors of Islam against the rest of the world. This war has been going on for a quarter of a century now, and there appear to be no signs of it abating any time soon.

The unspeakable horror of the massacre of young school children in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban was quickly followed by the broad-daylight storming of the Charlie Hebdo office resulting in the cold-blooded murder of journalists, policemen, and civilian hostages. The Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria and the gruesome beheadings of hostages by ISIS warlords in the Levant have brought about worldwide revulsion and repugnance.

Afghanistan continues to receive its daily dose of violence through suicide bombers who think nothing of extinguishing their own lives while bringing death and destruction to hundreds of innocents around them. The ISIS takeover of Syria and the Levant resulted in a massive emigration of civilians from these countries to the West, but along with the refugees the West received a large number of fundamentalists who wanted to convert their host nations to their own culture and religion. Acts of extreme violence are almost a daily occurrence in European countries that have espoused “multiculturalism” as a new credo. Canada is the latest destination for this violence, but its political leadership continues to be like ostriches in the sand. Multiculturalism is nothing but a new form of Ghettoization. It is but natural that all immigrants to a new country seek fellow nationals and try to live side by side with them. There is a certain amount of security in a shared culture, language, race and possibly religion. Ghettoes are born from these environments when the local populations find their presence offensive or provocative and they move away leaving the space for more immigrants to occupy. This is the truth of multiculturalism. There is practically no assimilation, but instead, increased isolation.

When Indians emigrated, not as indentured labour, but for higher education and employment, first to England and then to America and other parts of the Western world, they too lived in similarly ghettoized parts of London, New York, Toronto, and similar cities. But, over a period of time, as they moved up the educational and economic ladders, they spread out over the continents and the countries they had immigrated to. Today most Indians are largely assimilated and integrated into the cultures of the host nations. Is it due to the fact that their Indic culture and civilization is “like the thousand-branched Banyan tree of the Rig Veda, assimilating thousands of diversities into one trunk”?

Recently Saudi Arabia, the official custodian of Islam, publicly executed with the sword, a young woman, Esraa Al-Ghamgham, for speaking against the government. A video depicting this gruesome act has gone viral on social media, and elsewhere. What was her crime besides speaking against the Government? It appears that she was also a Shia by faith, something that is anathema in Sunni Saudi! It is believed that her husband and father have also been taken into custody. Only time will tell what their fate will be! Esraa is not the first victim of a strident Islam that brooks no dissent and uses “extreme prejudice” to eliminate those who are trying to reform its harsh contours. Nor is she likely to be the last.

Sunni Pakistan has become a graveyard for the non-Sunnis and followers of other beliefs. The blasphemy law is so drafted that an accused has practically no chance of mounting a defence, and is condemned from the moment an accusation is levelled. Even an internationally respected scientist of the stature of Dr Abdus Salam, who shared a Noble Prize for Physics in 1979, did not escape the wrath of these obscurantists, for not being a Sunni. Born into a family of Ahmadiyya Muslims, the headstone on his grave was defaced, erasing the word “Muslim” from it. Ahmadiyyas have been declared as non-Muslims by the Pakistan Government, as per an amendment of the Constitution of that country.

Protests against these gruesome and inhuman acts continue to remain muted at best. Most of the outrage is found on social media, which does not have the same reach as Television and press. When the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened in Paris, Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer living in exile in India, wrote in her blog (Times of India, 13th January 2015): “Will gunmen get me too? Ending terror requires that Islam is reformed, modernized.” 

Another Muslim writer, living under a death threat since 1989, tweeted his solidarity with the French magazine. In a condemnation of the attack, Salman Rushdie wrote: “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.” “Yes, Islam needs to reform,” is the phrase we read, but it is not gathering the momentum it requires to become an international catchphrase. Political correctness, left-liberalism, and communist ideology have aligned with Islamic extremism in the search for votes in democracies. Entrenched cabals, who use religion as a weapon to control the lives and minds of their people, rule the majority of Muslim nations.

The problem is that both Christianity and Islam proclaim that they are the word of God and theirs is the only way to salvation and redemption. Listening to Imran Khan taking the oath as the latest Prime Minister of Pakistan has come as a shocking revelation to many like me. It is available on YouTube and those who haven’t heard it should do so to understand how Islam overrides everything else in that country.

So how does one begin to reform what God Himself is supposed to have said? The conflicts generated by various interpretations given by humans to scripture have an only fractured society in mutually exclusive segments while retaining the core principles or beliefs of a religion. So how and where does one start with reforms? Each interpretation has been an attempt at reform, but we are nowhere near finding a solution to the problem. Various attempts at making a universal religion that would be embraced by all have met with no success. Emperor Akbar had proclaimed his universal faith “Din-e-Ilahi” without it finding any lasting traction. Even godless beliefs like Marxism and Atheism have given rise to despots whose regimes have been as violent and bloody as the followers of some ordained beliefs. Atheists and communists too can be as fanatical in their disbelief as the believers.

The only reform that will be truly meaningful is a complete renunciation of all kinds of religions. But that requires the entire humanity to become saints. Since we know that to be an impossible dream, I suppose the world will go on till the human race doesn’t wipe itself out in an orgy of violence that will extinguish all signs of life from the earth.

Science tells us that the earth is not cooling as fast as some other planets in the universe because of the presence of radioactive elements. The presence of tectonic plates will continue to create new continental configurations which will break up to form new mountains and oceans, and in some future age, millions or even billions of years from new, a new race of humans may evolve. A future geologist may find fossilized evidence of our existence, but we will have left no trace of our gods, our religions, and our bloody conflicts. Fortunately, for the new humans we will leave no legacy, and hopefully, they will not make the same mistakes as us in discovering God and religion.

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