Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Religion = opium for masses?

Up until recently one of my favorite quotes used to be "Religion is the opium for masses". I read this quote by Karl Marx in Ayn Rand's FountainHead a couple of years ago. Now I somehow feel that it’s not that simple. Here are some theories that I have read about human’s prevalent belief in God.

My favorite theory so far is by Desmond Morris. Monkeys live in groups and each group has an alpha male who protects them. We evolved from the foraging lifestyle so didn’t need to stay in groups. Hence the alpha male disappeared. But in our minds we retained the concept of an alpha male that ultimately translated into God.

Another theory I like is by Richard Dawkins. He defines "memes," analogous to genes, as a replicating unit of ideas/concepts; the primordial soup being our brains. He postulates that the meme of God was started by a few who wanted to control the minds of young people. The idea replicated in our minds and became highly successful because it gave us reassurance that someone is out there protecting us. And like some genes do well in conjunction with others, the God meme did well with the meme that suggests that you will suffer if you don't have faith.

Despite these ideas that the belief in God is a vestige from evolution or an idea propagated to control the masses, there seems to be a lot more to religion. Take for example, the havanas we do in India or the recitation of “Om.” It is said that the havanas purify the air and the vibration produced by reciting “Om” have a therapeutic effect. Coming from an Aryasamaji family the only prayer I know is the Gayatri mantra. I pray once a year on Diwali. This year I was going to celebrate at a friend's place in the evening and since none of my friends are religious, I decided to pray in the morning before leaving for work. I felt very calm and happy all day, I'm not sure if I can attribute it to prayer or the festive mood.

I'm not sure about Christianity, which seems a bit extreme to me, but Hinduism is a very philosophical religion. There is a so much to be learnt from the ancient scriptures. My first exposure was due to the TV showing of Ramayana and Mahabharta. I've heard the arguments that those TV shows deteriorated the condition of women in India. Anand Patwardhan's documentary "In the name of God" postulated that showing Sita burning promoted Satis. I did not agree with him when he said that the series shouldn't have been shown. In the discussion after the movie, I argued with him saying that just the other day in his lecture on censorship he had said that if an intellectual person sees a movie and doesn't get influenced to the point of causing unrest, it should not be censored. So the same should apply here. His response was that if that's all that's showing on TV it has a much greater influence and causes problems.

Science and Religion can coexist; they have different functions. As the physicist Brian Greene aptly put in his interview on NPR, science answers “how?” and religion answers “why?”.

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