In a recent conversation, an elderly gentleman bemoaned the lack of religion in the modern world, especially among the youth. He also spoke of the lack of interest of youngsters in understanding and treasuring the principles of Śrīvaiṣṇavism.
Counting myself a youngster and writing on this blog, I feel it apt to address this concern. The voice of youngsters is ignored when seniors think they understand everything. This post can be seen as an open-letter to religious communities in general and the Śrīvaiṣṇava community in particular.
The key reasons for the perceived decline of religion are the below:
(1) Disillusionment due to immorality
Every other scope of human activity can tolerate the existence of good and bad. For example, science can be put to good or bad use depending on the individual employing its principles. However, this escape route does not and should not exist for religion. Religion makes tall claims of redeeming people and it cannot escape with the excuse that errors committed by practitioners of religion are their own defects and not the defects of religion. If religion fails to redeem a person who comes in contact with it, it has spectacularly failed. Many youngsters are turned off by either the lack of application of moral principles or their outdated nature in the premise of religion. When religion invents spurious reasons to defend the immoral behavior of its elite, it brings no sane person closer to it.
In ancient times, when religious groups stuck together and derived a sense of community and strength from their group, it might have made sense to defend the group carefully, even to survive. Common ways of defending the group are (i) very low tolerance for in-group hostility, (ii) suppression of inquiry to prevent any confusion regarding core values within the community, (iii) some form of punishment for blasphemy, heresy or apostasy ranging from indifference or social exclusion to physical abuse or death, (iv) preventing outside views from polluting the community and adopting an aggressive stance with respect to systems other than one’s own to diminish their sway among followers, and (v) claims of being the only way to liberation or a better life sustained together with the belief that one’s own masters are the highest form of divinity while the masters of other faiths are either complete idiots or manifestations of the devil.
While the methods vary from religion to religion, there are some inevitable consequences:
(ii) blind dogmatism
(iii) selective application of moral principles
All of these are capable of leading to violence at some level and are dangerous.
In the modern information age, where information is freely accessible and we live in a diverse world, it is clear that the old objectives of religion regarding community are no longer relevant. Nay, they are even harmful. It is time religions woke up to the challenges of the modern world and reinvented their methods. For this to happen, they would have to give up on some manifestations of their principles. Most of the time, it is apparent that the applications of religion are grossly in violation of their own principles. It is time to introspect whether the particular manifestations of principles at some place and during some period of time are universally and eternally applicable. It is worth pondering if those methods, applied today, do not militate against core religious principles. In some cases, we need to be honest and disown actions that are blatantly immoral, which cannot be permitted under any circumstance, no matter how high a saint prescribed them.
(3) Lack of innovation
Religions compete with one another and sects even more so on who is the true follower of dogma, scripture or tradition. This is nothing short of comedy. There is no other way to disrespect the core principles of religion than to destroy the creative spirit and discourage innovation. Even those who stake the claim to orthodoxy are innovating all the time trying to force-fit their outdated views and habits to a modern world. If anything, they are the foremost of innovators though they may not see it.
Lack of innovation inhibits creative solutions to the challenges of the modern world. By forcing solutions of a world past on the world today, religious leaders alienate people from their own religion. There is no use complaining about the lack of faith if the creative principle of life is suppressed.
(4) Reversal of priorities
The very complaint that faith is on the decline is a sign of misplaced priorities. Some religious elites engage in guilt-mongering to keep their flock. It is not the purpose of humans to serve religion. It is the purpose of religion to serve humans, to transform & redeem them and to enable them lead better lives, here and now. It is indeed very simple: If people are happy, why are you concerned? But if there is suffering, what is your solution?
It is ironical that leaders of religion spend more time attracting resources to protect their religion than understanding the problems of the day and offering solutions. They fail to realize that religion lives for and in people. If they are able to make the world a better place and enable people to live with or overcome their problems, there is no need to defend or protect their space. The religion will live by itself. It appears that the leaders/elites of religion are concerned about their own political power which might be compromised if the doors are thrown open.
(5) Attitudes towards women
Even when religious systems become more open to all walks of people, they seem intent on disowning or ill-treating half the population. It appears that broad-mindedness extends only up to all kinds of men. Women are well-educated, intelligent and successful in the modern world. It is joke that they are deprived of equal religious rights. While there may be justified arguments for separating roles of men and women due to real differences between them, there is no reason to treat women as secondary citizens and then use twisted reasoning to argue that this is not the case.
My View of Religion
There is a fundamental urge in every human being to understand truth and live with dignity. Our mundane life creates scope for neither of these. Thankfully, science provides one (significant) part of the answer to understand the world around us. Religion is the other part that speaks directly to the soul. Religion is not the matter of descriptions about reality but a portal to connect with reality, all of reality, the ultimate reality. It must be noted that modern science has done an admirable job in opening our perspectives with respect to reality. The fact that all our sense data are different forms of signals, that our minds produce their own approximations of the world, the fact that all life evolved and continues to evolve from a common origin, that all life is continuous and there is no hard dividing line between species, that our universe is incredibly more wonderful than we think and can think … these are all capable of waking us up and question our narrowness of mind, our false certainties, and our ignorant arrogance. They instill in us a sense of belonging to the world, and a sense of sanctity and unity of all life. It would be tragic if religion served a purpose less than that of science in broadening our vision. Religion should go even further and enable us to relate to reality in ways, deeper still. Religion is not the way of escaping the world; it is the way of connecting with it. It is not the museum of dogmatic relics, it is life itself – dynamic, evolving, understanding and relating.
Religious institutions and followers alike must understand and recognize the fundamental drive for a spiritual life that exists in all of us. They must realize the ennobling effect of spirituality and the scope of redemption in connecting first to ourselves, in looking deep within, in finding oneself in the universe and finding the universe in oneself.
Ultimate reality, the suchness of things, God, Brahman, the Universal Self or Spirit, the Great Law, the Absolute, the Transcendent, the Ground of all being, the Being, the Presence, the Numinous, the Divine – is certainly above and beyond the trivial walls of institutional structure and language invented and managed by us. Yet, it is also directly available to us and is everywhere. It is available to everyone, not just the so-called chosen ones. It is the glimpse of this greatness available to every soul that inspires religion. The pillars of religion are understanding, humility, love and compassion. Religion is for those who have a relentless commitment to truth, and an appetite for discovery. Religion takes great courage, not because it demands faith, but because it is the enterprise of puny and humble humans to spiritually consume all of reality, to consume God.
In this sense, all religions, ranging from the most ‘primitive’ ones that engage in self-mortification to appease a deity to the most sophisticated ones are voices coming out of the same basic enterprise; they communicate the intent of grasping the infinite. Even atheists are our allies in the process of religion; they may be our truest allies. Sincere atheists are without faith not because they hate God but because they find our God and our systems too petty to trust in. They expose how our understanding of God denigrates God, how our systems or institutions denigrate humanity. They show where religion fails. They do not and cannot deny God, for who can or will deny what is beautiful, what is true, what is life-transforming and full of love?
There is no use complaining. Please wake up.