Some Thoughts on God and Religion

I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say, this structure allowed for dramatically rhetorical and rhythmic oration that gradually built up to a rising crescendo of moral righteousness.

The last time I checked I had found that the law of the land restricted the use of mosque loud-speakers to the amplification of the azaan and the Friday sermon. I wondered if the imam knew he was violating the law since this had been a subject of public discussion a while back. Perhaps he did but believed that this was one of the things God did want him to do and in our country, I am told, the commandments of God trump the law of the land. As was the case during my previous stay in the locality, the residents though tired of the repetitive message, were unwilling to raise the issue for fear of finding themselves at the wrong end of holy wrath.

I tried to make the best of the situation and turned my attention to exploring the relationship between God and religion which is something in our country we take for granted. It seemed reasonable to me to believe that the notion of god must have preceded the invention of religion. History does seem to suggest that from the very beginning of human existence man must have been wondrous of natural phenomena beyond his control and critically important for his survival – thunder, lightning, rain, earthquakes, fire and so on. Anthropological accounts provide evidence of how these phenomena were attributed to gods. Hence we have the very well-known pantheon of pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans – these imagined entities were the causes of various natural phenomena and some of them had to be appeased to be beneficent to human beings.

The invention of religion as we know it today seems to be a much later phenomenon dating perhaps to the emergence of large settled communities at the beginning of the age of agriculture. The stability of large communities was crucially dependent on adherence to a shared and mutually acceptable set of rules and values that yielded order and minimized disorder – hence the almost universal prohibitions against deceit, theft, murder and so on. These codes evolved to assume the form of religious injunctions.

What is of interest is that the concept of God and the institution of religion did not come together automatically – in some places they did and in some they did not with hugely significant implications. In fact, even the step of many gods being replaced by one god and fallible gods with limited powers being replaced by one omniscient creator of life was not a universal occurrence. The attribution of a divine plan to the omniscient god, transmitted to chosen sets of people charged with the mission to follow and realize it and to be judged based on their performance, was even less universal.

If we look across the world today, we can discover all sorts of combinations of godhood and codes of behavior. Aboriginal people like Native Americans retain almost all the characteristics of the pagan Greek and Roman constellations of gods. Hinduism, which should more accurately be considered a code than a religion, retains multiple gods with a great degree of freedom to deem any one of them as the patron god of a family. Buddhism is a religion without a god. The Chinese worship their ancestors and some acknowledge a benign heavenly emperor in the sky without any divine plan of sorts. In fact, Confucianism is simply a way, a guide to good living compiled by a human being without any divine sanction to enforce its acceptance or implementation.

It is only the three monotheistic religions arising in the Middle East that have gone all the way combining codes of behavior with the sanction of a single omniscient God with a divine plan communicated to followers through a holy text. And it is through these texts that one gets to the stage of knowing what God wants us to do and not to do – for example, the content of the sermon of the imam which triggered these observations.

In thinking through this evolution, it seems to me that religion has not done too well as far as its don’ts are concerned. Despite the rapid increase in the number of houses of worship per square mile of land, the incidence of code violations – untruth, dishonesty, exploitation – continues to mount and many excessively religious societies are in an extreme state of social disorder. The do’s of these religions, on the other hand, are a different matter – amenable to multiple interpretations and easily hijacked to support all sorts of political objectives. In this case, there are no countervailing forces to limit the potential damage to humanity.

Given the above and as a result of historical experience, it is not surprising to see in some places a movement in reverse – the separation of Godhood from religion. One comes across more and more people who consider themselves religious without necessarily believing in an omniscient God with either a divine plan or the power to judge, reward, or punish humans for their acts on earth. There are others who continue to believe in God but profess no particular religious identity. The declining global attendance in churches is one manifestation of these trends which does not imply that the people who cease to attend church have become irreligious. Rather, religion has once again been reduced to a social bond and a communal code of ethical behavior that people subscribe to without the need for divine sanction to ensure its acceptance.

I am eagerly looking forward to the completion of my stay in this locality although I am grateful to the imam for initiating this exploration. I am not sure he would approve of his sermon being used for such a purpose but perhaps he also does not fully know what God wants or intends in making his followers do what they do on earth.

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