By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl is a keen student of global humanist history and democratic politics. In this article, he looks at the likely origin of religion and some of its pros and cons, and at research which strongly suggests that non-religious countries do better than religious ones across a range of wellbeing factors. He concludes by echoing Marx's famous dictum that religion is an opiate – not a medicine.
“For great men, religion is a way of making friends; small people make religion a fighting tool”. Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (1931-2015). Kalam was a scientist and politician who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007. He was highly respected for his dedication to public service and he played a pivotal role in India’s civilian space programme and military missile development.
Before diving into the topic of religion, I would like readers to know where I stand on this question. I come from a devout Hindu family but today I am non-religious and a humanist, believing that reason and science are the means to understand all phenomena. In today’s social media age, I deplore the spread of fake news portraying religious stories as “true miracles”. I am sceptical of all religious beliefs and stories such as Noah’s Ark and moving mountains with a single finger. So now you know where I'm coming from, let's continue!
The likely origins of religion
Religion is believed to have emerged during the evolutionary development of Homo sapiens. According to a recommended TED Ed video, religious thought may have been stimulated by early observations of natural phenomena such as rainfall, thunderstorms, lunar cycles, and rock formations resembling faces. These observations may have led to the conceptualisation of gods and the gradual formation of diverse religious beliefs. Another perspective, suggested by scholars Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta (see this Wikipedia article on the Evolutionary psychology of religion), posits that religion evolved as a mechanism to foster cooperation and social cohesion within human communities. While the precise beginnings of religion remain speculative, the core idea of a belief in the supernatural took root early on. This belief system evolved to include the worship of various entities, including natural elements like rocks, the sun, and the moon, as well as trees, animals, and idols representing hybrid human-animal figures and extraordinary individuals with unique attributes and abilities. This gave rise to the practice of idol worship.
Over time, distinct religious beliefs emerged within various communities and civilisations, leading to a wide array of religious denominations. These range from monotheistic faiths, which worship a single deity, to those venerating an abstract divine presence. Some religions place ultimate authority in their sacred texts, while others believe in a trinity or a pantheon of multiple gods. Various religious groups may devote themselves to specific sects dedicated to a particular deity, or revere natural forces. Some religions also embrace belief in the existence of demonic entities.
"Some religious believers perceive God as a sort of Automated Teller Machine."
Pros and cons of religion
One of the strengths of religion lies in its ability to offer solace and support. As Buddha noted, life is full of suffering. Many people, facing various challenges, seek comfort and guidance in the teachings of their faith, drawn from scriptures, family traditions, or personal beliefs. They engage in prayer, seeking to communicate with a divine entity about their hopes and desires. This act of faith can be a powerful source of motivation and emotional support, instilling a belief in a guiding higher power that can positively influence one’s destiny. However, some religious believers perceive God as a sort of Automated Teller Machine (ATM), expecting immediate fulfilment of their wishes. This belief is often reinforced by confirmation bias. Faith can be a source of strength for some people, but speaking from a humanist point of view it's important to recognise and harness one’s own potential and make efforts towards achieving one’s goals.
As regards charity, numerous religious organisations play a pivotal role in social welfare, especially during times of disaster and crisis. These organisations often provide essentials like food and shelter during emergencies, and supporting those facing severe life disturbances. They may offer health camps, run educational institutions, and provide scholarships, often focusing on those most in need. Many religious charities are dedicated to humanitarian efforts, addressing a variety of global challenges and striving to make a meaningful difference in the world.
Religious organisations are often commended for their benevolence, but an aspect of concern is that some may seek to exploit vulnerable people. These groups may approach people facing hardships like disasters, illness, or extreme poverty, initially offering basic aid like food. However, this assistance sometimes becomes a gateway to introducing religious practices, with the underlying intent of converting these people to their faith. This process can subtly shift from providing aid to influencing lifestyle changes through religious indoctrination, raising ethical questions about the true motivation behind such charity.
Marx and Engels
The nineteenth century political theorist and revolutionary socialist Friedrich Engels posited, however, that religion often serves as a tool for maintaining social order, sometimes creating caste and class distinctions. He believed that it evolved alongside the development of private land ownership, with patriarchs using religion to assert control. As these patriarchs formed kingdoms, religion was increasingly used to justify expansion and warfare. The conquered became slaves, and women were treated as commodities by the elite. His contemporary Karl Marx famously described religion as the “opium of the people”, suggesting that it provides temporary relief from suffering, thereby preventing people from understanding the true causes of their distress. Over time, religion became a compulsory aspect of life, with rigid hierarchies placing gods, kings, and religious leaders at the top, and the hardworking populace, especially women, at the bottom. This structure often led to the promotion of gender and economic inequalities.
For centuries, dissent against this order was brutally suppressed. Those challenging religious doctrines faced persecution, execution, or exile. Scientists and philosophers who opposed religious views were often met with severe punishment. As Bertrand Russell highlighted, religion often cultivates fear, such as the fear of the unknown, death, or defeat, rather than promoting courage.
Moreover, religious texts can suppress critical thinking, targeting vulnerable groups such as children and women. Questioning or rebellion, even within one’s own family, is often discouraged by religious doctrine. This encourages a culture of conformity and oppression, perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class. In an effort to validate their beliefs, some people present myths and religious stories as historical or scientific facts, urging others to accept these narratives as true. This can lead to confrontation and conflict, especially when logical inquiries or scepticism are met with hostility or aggression by fervent believers. Additionally, the rapid spread of information through social media platforms has led many, particularly the younger generation, to accept such claims without critical examination. This trend highlights the challenge of distinguishing between myth and fact in the digital age.
Social reformers, atheists, and humanists have played a major part in helping to bring about changes in religious doctrines and societal attitudes, leading to greater independence for women, empowerment of Black communities, advancements in science, and a more open environment for questioning established norms. Practices once deemed sinful are now normalised, a shift largely attributable to these reform efforts. However, many stereotypes and biases, particularly regarding women, Dalits, widows, dietary choices, and more, remain entrenched in religious teachings, shaping societal opinions.
Is secularism better for society?
Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. His research counters the notion that religiosity equates to morality. He finds that secular, atheist, and non-religious people often exhibit relatively low prejudice, racism, dogmatism, ethnocentrism, close-mindedness, and authoritarianism. They tend to have more liberal views on sexuality, practice safer sex, and consume less pornography. Zuckerman observed that the most peaceful states in the US are predominantly less religious, and a minuscule percentage of atheists are found in American prisons. (Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions, 2009). Zuckerman's research supports the claim that secular states, particularly in America and internationally, tend to perform better on a range of measures, including lower rates of violent crime, poverty, obesity, child abuse, and higher levels of educational attainment, income, and overall societal well-being. The correlation between secularism and societal well-being is also reflected in international rankings such as the Mother's Index and the Global Peace Index, where the most secular nations often rank as the best places to be a mother or are listed as the most peaceful nations. My conclusion is that people in less religious societies often base their morality on logic and personal ethics rather than religious texts or doctrines. They tend to lead more meaningful lives, unburdened by the potential negative influences of religious extremism. This observation is a call to religious leaders to remember the core teachings of love and compassion in their faiths, especially when confronted with outbreaks of war and genocide.
“On the dogmas of religion as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarrelling, fighting, burning, and torturing one another.” Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States.
Religious conflicts and extremism have been significant problems throughout history. The Encyclopedia of Wars (Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, published in 2005) notes that out of 1,763 historical conflicts, 121 were primarily motivated by religion. Matthew White, in his book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things (2012), attributes religion as the primary cause in eleven of the top 100 deadliest atrocities. Religious scriptures sometimes portray followers of other faiths negatively, which contributes to conflicts. While many religious figures advocate peace, some extremists promote violence.
Bruce Hoffman, a notable American expert in the field of counter-terrorism, has observed a significant shift in the nature of terrorism since the 1980s, with a marked increase in terrorism motivated by religious beliefs. Prior to the 1980s, terrorism was largely driven by secular motives, often connected to nationalism, anarchism, or revolutionary politics. However, the 1980s saw a resurgence of terrorism that was legitimised by religious authorities and based on religious precepts. Some years ago, CNBC reported an increase in religious attacks in the EU (The rise of religious terrorism in the EU by Nick Wells, 2015) while START (a US security centre for the study of terrorism) has highlighted religion’s role in attacks in the US (Proportion of terrorist attacks by religious and right-wing extremists on the rise in United States by Jessica Stark Rivinius, 2017). Surprisingly, there have even been instances of Buddhist extremism, as highlighted in this documentary: Sri Lanka’s Extremist Monks: When Buddhism Spreads Hate. In Sri Lanka, the dominance of Buddhist monks in governance and the rise of Buddhist radicalism were factors contributing to the country’s economic downturn.
As a secular, non-religious person, I maintain neutrality towards all religions and hold no prejudice based on religious beliefs. I am content provided that people choose to practise their faith in private or within their places of worship. However, I have concerns centred on fundamentalism, extremism, forced imposition of beliefs, clerical dominance, religious nationalism, terrorism rooted in religion, discrimination, and the manipulation of society towards cult-like practices. I encourage reflection on whether religion serves as a tranquilising “opium” or a healing “medicine”. Personally, I perceive it more as an opium, potentially leading individuals into a trance-like state.