I’ve been brought up in a moderately strict Catholic household, where we say our prayers twice a day, attend mass every Sunday, and observe all major occasions in the Christian calendar – basically jump through almost every hoop in front of me.
Thanks to my brother, I developed a taste for science fiction early in life, and truth be told, it led to a lot of questions in my head. But questions are not entertained in my family. It’s best to shut up and go with the flow. I had created a perfect world around, where I put science and religion as two separate trains on two separate tracks, hurtling towards the same future, but with parallel yet different realities. I was contend with this scenario. A scholarly friend endlessly mocked me for my beliefs, traditions and the church-going compulsion, but I managed to weather that, till I stumbled upon Christopher Hitchens’ widely popular book – God is Not Great.
A renowned journalist, religious and literary critic, author and the ‘devil’s advocate’, the late Hitchens in this book presents an exhaustive case against religion, especially organised religion and questions the existence of god. He underscores that religion poisons everything, pitting man against each other, often his own neighbour, and his own blood. For him, in the present times, religion is nothing more than a mere repetition of the past. People were easier to flummox back in the hey days, as science and reason were condemned. He majorly focusses on the three major monotheisms – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And rightly so, as their origins are quite interconnected.
“We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.”
For him, the easiest and mildest criticism of religion would be that being man-made, even those who staunchly follow or profess it cannot agree on one account of the story. This took me back to my catechism days, when a middle-aged nun drummed into our heads about how the bible was written by various people over the years, through ‘inspiration’ from the Holy Spirit, which is why some accounts may differ from others. I didn’t question at all, but maybe I should have.
Of course, his main case is that religion kills. He relates a hypothetical question he was asked by a radio host – if he were alone in an unfamiliar city at night, and a group of strangers who come from a prayer meeting, are approaching him, would he feel safe or the opposite? I have an issue with the question, not with the answer. The question seems to address the rampant prejudice and dislike against certain sections of society. But then again, I have not been in such a situation. Hitchens replies with a simple analogy; he takes the alphabet B to prove his point. He illustrates with the example of the political and social situations in the cities of Belfast, Beirut, Bombay (now Mumbai), Belgrade and Bethlehem. Each of these cities have faced sectarian unrest, warfare, rioting and breakdown of civic machinery due to communal and religious tension at some point in time.
“Organised religion is ‘violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” and sectarian, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
Reading this book during the Lenten period has been the most difficult, and I suppose necessary too. There are too many points and facts I would have liked to quote and explain and draw my parallels, but that is a colossal task, and frankly I have little patience. My understanding of god is changing, and it’s more of a personal journey. I hate pointing fingers and confrontations, and prefer a ‘live, and let live’ principle. If you ever get a chance to read the book, it would be great to have a heart-to-heart discussion, even if it’s digital.