“God has fled from Mecca and the Vatican…Why donate to religious places when they have closed their doors to us in our time of need?… At last my dream is realised, of spirituality without religion”. Provocative statements in the light of the Corona Virus (CV). Should we then conclude that “Religion is Dead?”
Masters of spiritual discernment teach us that we should never make a decision in a time of heightened emotions – be they positive or negative. Such decisions would inevitably be wrong. Hence one needs to objectively assess and address the challenge to religion posed by the CV pandemic; that has disturbed the equilibrium of the political world order, health systems, the economy and the very livelihood of the most marginalised sections of society.
This takes me back to Good Friday 54 years ago. It was on 8th April 1966. On that day Time magazine carried the shocking cover page “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters against a black background. It was the first time that the magazine had a cover without a picture. How would anyone truly depict God anyway? This cover page was described as one of the 12 magazine covers that shook the world. It elicited 3500 letters to the editor; that too in the days of typing on paper and posting it. In today’s world of instant electronic communication, the response may have broken the internet.
This explosive query was published at a time (pun intended) when 27% of Americans described themselves as deeply religious. (The number could be far less today). It was largely influenced by the political and intellectual radicalisation of the 1960s, and the philosophy Friedrich Nietzsche. I would further ascribe it to the faltering Vietnam War, the Beatles and hippie culture, the Sorbonne students apprising in Paris, and the Red Brigade in Italy. As a teenager, I was then experiencing my own critical awareness of life, and questioning fixed assumptions.
At the same time, the magazine also acknowledged the far-reaching changes the Catholic Church wrought by Vatican II and the impact of the evangelist Rev. Billy Graham. Ironically, its lead story for Christmas 3 years later was “Is God Coming Back To Life?” (24/12/1969). Had things turned full circle?
Now to the present day. CV has shaken the world to its religious foundations. Religion and popular religious practices are not just seen as ineffective, but actually a threat to the people. Churches, temples, mosques and places of pilgrimage have been shut, questioning their efficacy in effecting miraculous cures. I have already touched on this in my previous piece “Touch Me Not”. Cynics and believers have both jumped to hasty conclusions, just as the Tempter challenged Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple.
One is reminded of the pious old lady on the roof of her house midst rising flood waters. A rescue team came in an inflatable raft to save her. She shouted back, “God will save me”. Then a helicopter with a commando on a rope came down to her roof. Again she declined help. Later, when drowning, she shouted angrily at God, “Where were you, when I was calling out?” God replied, “I sent you rescuers in a boat and then a helicopter, but you did not follow the norms”. So true today, if we are blaming God for what is probably a manmade disaster, and then blaming religion for its inability to stem the spread.
Such over-simplistic arguments are because we fail to understand the essence of religion, or science for that matter. It should be elementary to understand that human intelligence, that finds expression in science, is also God’s gift to human kind. Is it not obvious that the rescue workers at the drowning woman’s home were indeed God’s messengers?
Can we not understand that medical science, the medical fraternity and even government agencies are also the work of God who has given us the freedom and intelligence to act? It is another matter altogether, if some of us do not use those talents properly, or test nature unnecessarily. I can’t jump in front of a train or into a well and then say, “In God I trust”. This is the sin of presumption that I had referred to in my previous article.
Even in the present pandemic we have seen how people, motivated by their religious beliefs have made heroic sacrifices to save others. There is the case of the elderly Catholic priest in Italy who voluntarily gave his personal respirator to save a needy stranger, though he himself died because of that act of self-giving. One is reminded of the Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe in the Second World War. In the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, he volunteered to go into the starvation cell to save a stranger, a Jew with a family, Franeiszek Gajowuiczek. He survived starvation so was put to death with a lethal injection.
Another such “religious” is Fr. Damien De Veuster of Belgium who served the incurable leprosy patients on Molokoi Island in Hawaii for 12 years until he himself finally succumbed to the disease. In Kerala we have a priest Rev. Davis Chiramel, who donated one of his kidneys to a stranger of another faith. He has since inspired several others to do likewise through his Kidney Foundation. So to write off all religion because of the present pandemic would be to arrive at a very harsh conclusion.
Religion maybe dying in the West, but it seems to be flourishing in the East. The Catholic Church is the most rigidly structured, yet is suffering an erosion of both numbers and credibility. Hinduism has no structure, no universal head, no credo, no moral code, yet it is flourishing. I once compared it to a submarine organism, Placozoa, several million years old, that is just a collection of cells without any organs. Take Islam. It too has no universal head. Nor does it have any ordained clergy. But it does have its five basic tenets: Shahadah (creed), Salah (ritual prayers), Zatak (charity), Sawn (fasting, including sexual abstinence in the month of Ramzan) and Hajj (religious pilgrimage). It is expanding faster than Christianity today.
Sikhism, besides its religious expressions and texts, is perhaps the most democratically structured religion. Its religious places are governed by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) that has its rules and regulations in the Gurudwara Act of 1925, enacted by the British with the concurrence of Sikh leaders. For two terms the SGPC had a woman president. The Act was amended in 1953 to reserve 20 out of 140 seats in the SGPC for Scheduled Caste Sikhs. Sikhism too is flourishing.
Perhaps Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, needs to learn some lessons from the organised structure (or lack of it) in other religions. Vatican II is now 55 years old. Had its teachings been implemented in both letter and spirit, the Church today would have been far more vibrant. Instead it has chosen to fall back on a plethora of pious devotions. They don’t cut ice in a developed world.
Why does the modern person find organised religion like the Catholic Church redundant or irrelevant? Let me point out some of the reasons: 1. Industrial Revolution, 2. Knowledge Explosion, 3. Gender Parity, 4. Sexual Revolution, 5. Human Rights. This list is obviously not exhaustive. I shall briefly expand on them.
Earlier, if there was a drought, devotees would flock to their favourite saint for help. After the Industrial Revolution they merely switch on their tubewell. If a person had fits, he would be taken to a priest to remove the “evil spirits”. Now he goes to a neurologist for treatment.
The knowledge explosion began with print technology and now has information technology. Instead of seeking answers from God, we turn to Google. The “sheep” are no longer willing to be led by the “shepherds”. They have found other sources of information, and the answers to the mysteries of life. The church’s earlier opposition to Darwin and Galileo only hurt its own credibility. Even today, there are many Christians who believe that the Cosmos was created in 6 days, much to the ridicule of the scientific fraternity.
Then came gender parity and the sexual revolution. The church was inadequate to the task. It was not enough to raise an accusing finger and say, “Thou Shalt Not…”. When it came to human rights and dignity the faithful were only reminded about their “duties”. As people became more and more successful and accomplished in secular affairs, the less was their dependency on organised religion. Unfortunately, even now, there are some religious preachers, not limited to Christianity, who are trying to exploit the CV pandemic to their advantage, calling it God’s curse or nature’s revenge. Such a “holier than thou” approach could well boomerang on its proponents.
The CV is infinitely small; it is a constant reminder that small is powerful. At this time then, let us bow before both nature and science and humbly follow what we are advised to do. Yes, we must simultaneously trust in God and pray for the well-being of all. For greater things are wrought by prayer than the world can dream of.
Religion is not dead, but some of its over-exaggerated tenets, or fundamentalist believers, are.
Please read the sequel captioned "WAS JESUS RELIGIOUS?" to the above article.
*The writer has been commenting on religious matters for the last 51 years.