On the whole, I believe that religions are too important a facet of human life to be isolated from criticism. When we bear in mind that there are millions of people around the world who are prepared to die for their religions and perhaps many more are equally determined to kill for them. I am afraid that whenever a person imagines that he only needs to believe the truth of a proposition, such as all unbelievers will go to hell, without evidence, he becomes capable of anything. It was St. Augustine who argued that if torture was appropriate for those who broke the laws of men, it was even more fitting for those who broke the laws of God. History has shown that Christianity was so filled with the zeal of mission that it did not have the patience to wait on God to fill hell with unbelievers. And it was Hitler who said it best: “I, for my part, acknowledge another precept which says that man must deal the final blow to those whose downfall is destined by God” Address to the Reichstag, April 6, 1942.
The probability that many of us will heap ridicule and disdain of the followers of Heaven’s Gate who believed that a spaceship was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet to take them to heaven. How is this belief different from the one that says a person was killed on a cross, he rose up from the dead and then flew off to heaven, and that he will come back to earth, no one knows exactly when, to take away the faithful to eternal happiness? Is there any doubt that if a single person held this belief he would be committed to a lunatic asylum, but the same belief held by 2 billion people gives it special sanctity and places it beyond reason?
Just a few days ago, many people went after Shivdat Durjan for his apparent support of Donald Trump. One of the writers justly demanded that Shivdat explain himself, demanded reason, proof, and evidence. In every human endeavour there is a demand for evidence. No one can move a finger in academia without it. Day-to-day living demands it. We freely criticise one another for our political ideas, scientists and scholars criticise one another in history, economics, sports, physics, and law and it is because of this value of reason that humanity has made enormous strides out of the dark ages when it was believed that the plague was God’s curse on humanity.
One would have thought that the discovery of the polio vaccine, of penicillin, and a host of other medical and scientific breakthroughs would have put an end to the debate we are having today. But no. A mother somewhere is still prepared to deny her child a life-giving blood transfusion and sacrifice its life because of her religious beliefs. Why should religious beliefs be granted immunity when everything else can be criticised? Are Shivdat Durjan’s political beliefs less personal than the other person’s religious beliefs? Why is it the very same people who came down with such ferocity on Shivdat, are now telling us that religious belief are out of bound? Why is it we view unjustified and unjustifiable religious beliefs, that one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction, with such awe and reverence, when we all know that to be ruled by ideas without evidence is a clear sign of insanity? If I tell one of the true believers on this forum that his wife is cheating on him the least that will be demanded of me is evidence. How is it that the same true believer is ready to accept without any evidence religious beliefs such as have been poured out here?
There is a curious history of Christianity that is hardly talked about. What do Galileo, Descartes, Montaigne, Locke, Swift, Flaubert, Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Paine, Kant, Darwin, Satre to name a few of the finest minds of Europe have in common? Their books have been placed in the Vatican’s dreaded Index of forbidden literature. Yet not a single leader of the Third Reich, including Hitler himself and avowed Christian, was ever excommunicated. The irony becomes even more stark to learn that it was only in 1992, more than 350 years after he was condemned for heresy, that Galileo was absolved of the charge. Yet there are some who consider it taboo to criticise religious beliefs, or even to suggest that some religions are less compassionate, less tolerant. It seems that what is worst in humanity has been elevated beyond the reach of reason and criticism, while what is best, reason and intellectual honesty, must be hidden away for fear of giving offence.
I see as a response the recommendation that we read a particular book which will give all the answers, the same book that unfortunately anoints the heads of those who have not seen yet they believe. To believe in defiance of facts becomes a sacred duty. It is the same book that embraces the narrowest spectrum of political, moral, scientific, and spiritual understanding, the book whose inerrancy has been proclaimed for centuries, the book that has inspired the most monstrous crimes against humanity. Many scholars, including liberated Christian ones, have told us that the anti-Semitism that built the crematoria brick by brick in Dachau and other centres of human extinction came to us by way of this same book. Knowingly or not, Nazis were agents of religion. and from the perspective of Christian theology, Jews are even worse than the run-of-the-mill heretics. They are the heretics that repudiated the divinity of Christ. Anti-Semitism is intrinsic to the book.
If religion can cause crusades and jihads, the Holocaust, Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, and countless other monstrosities, then it can no longer be sheltered from the spring of genuine enquiry and genuine criticism. To presume knowledge, where one has only pious hopes, is a species of evil, and regardless of the fact that a great doctor of the faith and famous reformer, Martin Luther, has famously declared that, “Reason is the Devil’s harlot,” we must hold firm to the conviction that the more arduous work of inquiry, proof, and demonstration is infinitely more rewarding and has confronted us with findings far more “miraculous” and “transcendent” than any set of religious beliefs.
Having said all of this, I will not make criticism of other people’s religions my business. In the marketplace of commodities and goods, every sensible consumer whose support is solicited to make a purchase has the responsibility to examine what is being offered. If, as Gandhi says, missionaries come to us as vendors of goods, do we not have to obligation to examine those goods, which may, after all, be rotten to their core? This then is the approach I take. People are free to believe whatever foolishness and vulgarity they choose to believe. That freedom however ends with me when true believers come knocking on my door.
By Swami Aksharananda