No Offence But...
By Sharon Arnolda
Ceylon Today Features
“To criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous, but to criticise their religion, that is a right. That is freedom. The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.”
- Rowan Atkinson
Many of us are born into a religion, which essentially means we are born into believing and developing with what the Oxford Dictionary defines as, ‘a belief in a controlling superhuman power or an entity, especially a personal God or Gods.’ Being born into a culture or a certain religion we are brought up accordingly, worshipping and learning about a religion that was often picked for us by generations of people who chose to stick with what their ancestors once believed in. Like all things passed down generations, religion has evolved over time to exclude rituals that violate rights upheld in the modern world.
While not all humankind believes in one supernatural power, the basic theory of a religion is that, ‘good needs to be done and wrongs will be punished accordingly, with some religions having exceptions and redemption for sins while others don’t.’ Regardless of what we believe in, we all believe that there is a definite right and wrong and that we should live by it.
Origins of religion
Social Psychologist Azim Shariff whose research focuses on religion, cultural attitudes, and economics explains the evolution of the concept of religion through the expansion of communities in general; he explains that initial communities and settlements were intimate groups of about 50, making it easier to identify crimes and their wrongdoers. However, with expansion it was strenuous to identify and punish crime which led to the idea of an ‘all seeing and all knowing’ superhuman power; a supernatural punisher.
“An effective stick to deter people from immoral behaviour,” Shariff says.
Therefore, according to similar researchers who study religion from an evolutionary standpoint, religion is seen as a cultural innovation, similar to fire, tools or agriculture, emerging in different societies at different periods of time as a mechanism to help us survive as a species.
The concept of religion is closely connected with who we are as people. We grow up believing what we are taught by our religions. Children are taken to religious places of worship from a very young age and taught about life and how it should be lived with reference to books written by and for a society that no longer exists, creating children who grow up believing in ideas and concepts that do not fit into to an ever evolving world. While learning religion at a young age is known to help a child lead a better life, constantly seeing the society around them as ‘sinners’ creates the wrong impression about society in the child’s mind. Thus creating a certain mentality that they are somehow better than those who drink, smoke, have tattoos or other million things that make a rational human being a sinner.
Having said that the underlying principle of society and ironically religion has always remained the same; do unto others as you would have them do to you.
Religion and politics
There is one statement made across the globe by scholars and the uneducated; rich and poor alike and that is that, “Religion has been the reason for all the major wars in the history of mankind.” While it stands to be corrected the saying highlights a bigger issue stirred by religion in society. Religion has become a scapegoat enabling people to commit crimes and atrocities and justify it on their beliefs.
The freedom of religion is considered a Fundamental Human Right almost world over, which means that each person’s freedom to choose and practise a religion of their choice is not something anyone can mess with, personally or State-wise. Unfortunately, this has meant that religion has always had a controlling stake in governance.
The best example of this is seen when clergy gets involved in policy decisions and law making such as the death penalty or the legalisation of abortions or any other social issue that could be handled effectively if everyone was to agree with the logic behind a solution as opposed to the religious aspect of it, ironically making another groups of people unwilling participants in something that is against their belief system, causing issues worldwide.
In a nutshell: Religion is so important it is often regarded over logic even when it adds to social pressure to do so.
Not practical in versatile communities
Religion draws its roots from controlling smaller communities who agreed on a set of rules to abide by. All these people lived in the same geographical area leading similar lifestyles with a belief in a similar system whereas today, a community is made up of people from all parts of the world, which means these people believe in different things just as strongly as you believe in what you have been taught.
In a community where everyone has an equal right to believe in what they believe in and live a lifestyle according to how they see fit, the sense of being a superior being because of the belief in a decided super human power causes clashes, clashes that are solely based on lifestyle decisions due to what a person is born into and raised believing.
In Sri Lanka...
To be Sri Lankan is to be no stranger to clergy being involved in politics. While it is customary to get the advice of clergy as respected members of society, it has almost become a part of political propaganda. Entire campaigns are based on the blatant religious disharmony in the country but we seem to be going with the flow on this one, fighting as groups of people who believe in one superhuman power than for the collective good of all groups of people, enabling politicians to take advantage of us as a community.
To be Sri Lankan is to be no stranger to being treated differently if you look a certain way because you chose to live in a different way to those in your neighbourhoods. We have dedicated muslim palliya, pansala or palliya areas in the country where even though everyone lives together in a community they are divided by their belief system; a belief system which ironically teaches them to be peaceful.
To be Sri Lankan is to watch clergy who are supposed to have ‘given up all worldly pleasures’ roll up in a European car while you sweat through your shirt at a bus halt. Religion has undoubtedly benefited the many institutions it has created over the years, institutions with large amounts of monetary and influential power. People connected to religions often do not practise the basic teachings of it, but in the name of religion are continued to be given a level of respect they have not earned, which gives a dangerous amount of power to people who are often incapable of handling such responsibility in line with the teachings of the religion they are meant to uphold.
The illusion of superiority
Religion is personal. Anyone is given the freedom to believe in anything. But what happens when others are recruited to the cause? We see and hear of breakaways; sects of people who create a branch of their original religion.
Breakaways often end up being institutions patronised by believers who wish to follow the principles of the said place of worship. This results in large amounts of money being handled in the name of a ‘superhuman Power’, making those who spread the word of the decided superhuman power successful.
Religion and law
Everyone walking around believing that they are somehow superior to other humans creates a tense atmosphere in dealing with social issues: if we take the issue of Divorce, it is only considered an issue because divorce is seen as a taboo in most religions and is now unfortunately incorporated in our culture making generations of women stick in bad marriages to be a ‘good wife’ who ‘abides’ by her husband and is ‘obedient’ and ‘subservient’, according to the guidelines of literature written centuries ago. The law in the country forces women to go through with childbirth or seek illegal abortions if they don’t fall within the criteria approved for abortion, because the mother or parents of a child not being emotionally, financially or otherwise ready having the option of terminating her pregnancy affects the lifestyle of a section of people who believe in a decided super power.
Religion has become one of the most used tools in manipulating social situations. We see institutions creating networks for themselves and therefore, having the ability to give jobs or promotions using it as leverage to get more followers, and those who keep the show going with reloads or anything it takes to keep everyone interested in the ‘new thing in town’.
Religion is a set of rules we were made to believe in, regardless of whether there is one true religion or all religions are true; until any of it is accurately backed by science there is no knowing which superhuman power runs the world. But what is backed up by facts is that as humans we allow ourselves to degrade each other based on a belief system that may or may not be accurate or in an entity that may not exist. Each of us has a right to believe in what we choose and each human being has the right to practise a lifestyle according to their belief system provided that it doesn’t cause harm to others. However that doesn’t make the other person any less credible than you or your belief system. We are just equal human beings in blissful rebuttal.