If not anything else, religion seems to have managed very well in poisoning Christopher Hitchens’ mind, who is the the author of the book titled God Is Not Great, and subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. As he goes on and on with his seemingly endless ribaldry on how religion poisons everything, I wonder how many of the empirical evidences he has presented are fabricated, manipulated or depicted without a detailed research or deeper understanding of different religions (Hinduism in specific).
Now, I am not a big fan of religion myself (am an atheist, and an agnostic) but the attitude and the amount of honesty with which Christopher has tried to bash religion is quite cringe-worthy if not outright deplorable. He comes up with myriad examples about how we humans have acted inhumanly and often violently because the religion instructed or guided us to do so. The chapters in his book are filled with such examples: the burning of “witches” (previously “blessed” by Christianity), the disgusting and unhygienic way of circumcision of Jewish children of Hasidic tradition by rabbi (called mohel), the hypocrite mullah in Iran who conveniently marries with the prostitutes before having sex and then divorcing them after the business is done (again conveniently with the simplistic “Talaq, Talaq, Talaq”!) because extramarital intercourse is prohibited in Islam but polygamy is not, the nonsensical claims of the parents who believe in “Christian Science” and hence refuse urgent medical care for their offspring, and how newly-wed Hindu girls are burned alive or murdered because they didn’t bring enough dowry. Wait, come again? Anyone who is a Hindu or has some knowledge about Hinduism will attest to the fact that there’s nothing religious about expecting dowry from a female spouse and murdering her if she didn’t bring enough. This is a despicable tradition that probably stemmed out of, and along with sati pratha (burning of a widow on the pyre of her dead husband – another shameful tradition) became a symbol of, subjugation of women in Indian society which happens to be predominantly Hindu. Mr. Hitchens is either confusing correlation as causation, or just being plainly dishonest by presenting many such social or cultural phenomena as purely religious ones.
Digressing from the topic briefly, these deplorable traditions thrived in India for several centuries. Now, the blame should fall completely on Indian society but there are other factors that helped these traditions to survive over such prolonged time. Majority of India was under the Mughal rule for over three centuries (early 16th century to 1858), and then British ruled India for another couple of centuries (from 1757: Battle of Plassey to 1947). Both Mughal and British rulers were foreign to Indian masses. An obvious strategy for avoiding big troubles for them was to implement and practice a strict criminal law but leave the traditional and religious things on their own. By not interfering into the socio-cultural matters of the Indians (among other things) they managed to keep the masses somewhat, if not completely, calm. The Indians hence remained devoid of a secular, independent public courts that can impeach those ugly traditions of a society that was male dominant and heavily laden with caste based discrimination.
Back to Christopher’s poisonous book. So far I have completed four chapters filled with shoddy provocations and I think I’ve had enough. I was looking for intellectual arguments against religion and in favor of atheism/agnosticism, but all I found was a book filled with empirical evidences that are often botched conveniently to prove the point. I don’t think I am going to finish reading the entire book unless I ever have a desire to find out how low Mr. Hitchens can sink to prove his point, but what made me wonder after reading first few chapters, is this:
- I don’t know how true it is for some of the other ancient religions, but in Hinduism, it often becomes very difficult to separate out a religious practice from a traditional/social/cultural one. After centuries of intermingling between religious and cultural practices, there are many things that Hindus do today that can not be traced back to their origins and identified accurately as a religious or socio-cultural phenomenon. One reason of this could be that unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism doesn’t have a strict “rule book”. And that takes me to the second point.
- Not having a “rule book” is a boon, I think. Muslims have their Qur’an, Christians have their Bible and Jews have Torah (which literally means ‘instructions’ in Hebrew). Hindus do have the Geeta, the Vedas and the Puranas – but they are more like “guide books” rather than “instruction manuals”. (Also, note the plural noun.) This allows some flexibility and openness to change, at least in theory. How much this helped in practice, is a big question, but for example, Hindus did not have any trouble accepting the Darwinian theory of evolution. Compare this with the attitude of many Christians who, to this date, refuse to believe in evolution because that stands in contrast with the creationist theory that was written in Bible thousands of years ago. (Factoid: According to Gallop poll conducted in 2001, 45% Americans believe that God created humans in their present form.) When Ram Mohan Roy ran a strong and effective campaign against sati pratha in the 19th century and eventually convinced many Hindus that this tradition had to be abolished, the Hindu society didn’t have to go back to their religious book(s) for guidance. There was no need to amend a particular passage from the Geeta, the Vedas or the Puranas. Abolishing the sati pratha made sense and after some initial resistance the society accepted the change and moved on. [Claims were made by some that the Puranas approves sati pratha. But a justification that was purely based on scriptures had limited impact when people decided to abolish a ghastly tradition.] It’s difficult for me to imagine if a campaign to abolish polygamy, for instance, would face a similar reaction from the Muslims.
- I think that not having a Book also came with a cost – a lack of unity – as there was (relatively) a weaker cohesive thread that tied all Hindus together. Though one could argue that having a “manual” did not completely help The People of the Book much, as they stumbled upon different interpretations of the same text and ended up segregating ideologically.