By Douglas Anele
Historically speaking, there has been a symbiotic relationship between religion and spirituality, although the former is parasitic on the latter. Now, religion tends to emphasise externalities such as places of worship, rituals, observances, and scriptures usually ascribed to divine revelation (with the notable exception of traditional African religions).
On the other hand, spirituality puts premium on inward psychical experiences or mental journey by the individual, and it is much more focused on self-understanding and self-discovery rather than on outer worship of some supernatural being or God. Again, religion as an institution is usually well organised or structured, and contains a code of morality, laws and core doctrines that give each one its unique identity.
Spirituality is essentially formless and the restrictions found in religion are either non-existent or minimal. Moreover, it often entails a solo journey of the individual seeking enlightenment, inner tranquillity, self-awareness and mindfulness. At this junction, it must be pointed out that one can attain a high level of spiritual evolution or what Chief Obafemi Awolowo labelled “high mental magnitude” without professing any of the conventional religions, whereas one cannot be a good religious person without manifesting a reasonable degree of spirituality. In essence, spirituality is a superior mode of being human than religiosity, since spirituality focuses on the understanding and humane application of natural laws whereas religion loses its raison d’etre completely if it is bereft of any spiritual content.
Right from ancient times to the present, religion has been subjected to critical fire by philosophers and others who, for good reasons, believe that on balance religion has had, and continues to have, serious detrimental effects on individuals and communities. Thus this essay examines some of the arguments against religion and suggests means of creating a world without religion or, at least, indicates how to drastically reduce the preponderance of dogmatic faith in the consciousness of people around the globe.
One of the severest but less known critics of religion is Josef Popper-Lynkeus (1838-1921). According to Popper-Lynkeus, purely ceremonial or civil religions, including those practised by ancient Greeks and Romans, or most Chinese, Japanese and black Africans, are relatively harmless. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they do not have an inflexible metaphysical foundation, a formalised theological system and, above all, they do not possess an extremely powerful priestly caste.
He argues that the evil influence of religion starts manifesting when it is formulated systematically and when it becomes “an affair of the heart.” Religious zeal at first “is just nonsense, then it becomes obstinacy and spite, and in the end it is wildness and insanity beyond all limits.” The harmfulness of religion is directly proportional to the degree of religious devotion or fervour.
Popper-Lynkeusapprovingly quotes Pierre Bayle(described in the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as “the most important and most influential sceptic of the seventeenth century”) who asserts that “the person who is convinced that he is promoting the kingdom of God by the extermination of heretics will step on all moral laws.”The dominant world religions increase bad feelings in the world, encourage malicious tendencies which are then obscured and justified with highfalutin language, place the love of dangerous superstitious dogmas and observances above the love of human beings, exacerbate situations of strife and conflict by promoting the intervention of the clergy even in the quotidian and most intimate details of everyday life, weaken and oftentimes destroy respect for truth and justice and, finally, deploy wherever they can the power of the state for their purposes, especially in matters of education (and, I must add, armed conflict which muslims euphemistically call jihad).
The British mathematician, logician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his workWhy I am not a Christian points outhow religion poisons human life by raising intellectual and moral objections it. On the intellectual side, he affirms that there is no reason to suppose any religion to be true. He criticises the attitude common among believers that one ought to believe certain propositions contained in so-called holy scriptures independently of the question whether there is corroborating evidence for the claims, since it produces hostility to evidence and causes them to close their minds to facts that do not suit their religious prejudices.
The notion that there are statements that one has a duty to believe irrespective of whether or not there is sufficient corroboration for believing them cripples the intellect and opens the door wide for the entrenchment of pernicious superstitious mentality. In religion, especially the Abrahamic variety, the most fundamental question involved is about the existence of God. Russell claims, and I agree, that there is no scintilla of evidence that a being with all the qualities religious apologists ascribe to God actually exists, and that God, Jehovah and Allah share the same ontological status as the Gods of other religions – they are pious fictions.
Hence there is no need to postulate a deity because the best scientific evidence shows that the universe has evolved for billions of years in accordance with natural laws and, given the second law of thermodynamics, would probably get to a stage where nothing of the slightest interest will be possible anywhere. Concerning morality Russell accuses Christianity of highly injurious individualism that places the notion of holiness, righteousness, and individual salvation above social ethics which should naturally serve as a counterweight to corrosive egoism and intolerance.
Russell directs his harshest (somewhat hyperbolic) criticism of religion towards Christianity, although to a large extent what he says is applicable to Islam also: “You find as you look around the world that every bit of progress in human feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organised in its churches, has been and is still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”
In the end Russell submits that religion is based primarily and mainly on fear, partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that one has a kind of elder brother who will stand by him in times of troubles and disputes. Therefore “fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand.”
In his devastating critique entitled The God Delusion, Oxford zoologist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins,stakes his opposition to religion from two main perspectives, namely, that religion is a source of conflict and also serves as justification for belief without evidence. He scathingly condemns religion for its obscurantist and absolutist tendency, and argues that aside from instigating wars and internecine conflicts religious fundamentalism is the foundation of horrific inhuman anti-blasphemy laws especially in Islamic countries, irrational anti-abortion attitudes, and hideous maltreatment of lesbians, homosexuals and others whose sexual orientation does not conform to what is approved in the “holy scriptures,” thereby poisoning the most intimate relations that could exist between two human beings.
Religion, Dawkins says, cripples the intellect by allowing believers to proudly hold on strongly to bizarre irrationalbeliefs such as that Jesus turned water into wine, that an embryo starts as a blob, that one can be protected by charms, amulets and magic spells and incantations, that Jesus not only walked on water, brought dead Lazarus back to life but also resurrected after three days in the tomb, that semen originates from the spine, that the sun sets in a marsh, that Jesus was conceived by a virgin, that Muhammad took a night trip to heaven on a winged horse called buraq, and so on.
To be continued…