When can we attribute repression to religion and conclude that religion is the root go all evil? Is it when can we equate the political injustices in society to the religious utterances of the political elites? Another way of phrasing the question is this: are there times when we can legitimately distinguish political injustice and moral maxims? The answer is hardly an easy one.
To simply claim that political repression is antithetical to religion is to deny history. Undoubtedly there have been times and places were misery and murder were enacted for religious reasons. The burning of witches is a good example; since, it seems implausible that the Church persecuted innocent women for any economic motive. Even the Muslim world had its fair share of religious inspired massacres and mayhem. Only apologists who are clearly bigots will whitewash Islamic history to make it seem like a innocent utopia.
But let us not forget hypocrisy. Many times the ruling elites espouse religious themes while they themselves actively betray it. The best example in our modern times is the criminalisation of extra-marital affairs in Middle Eastern countries. Everyone knows that the ruling elites in these countries, though married, regularly visit strip clubs in LA and brothels in Amsterdam. These same elites solemnly look on as young men and women who fooled around on a hot evening get whipped, either publicly or in a room full of observers. This type of oppression does not arise from religion, but from the perversion of religion. Hypocrisy can never be equated with Faith; thus, the punishment of these young men and women is against Faith itself.
We have to avoid the reductionism inherent in the two extreme answers. The first answer affirms that no political repression ever stems from religion. The second answer affirms that all political repression stems from religion. When religious apologists say that religion is a fine thing and never harmed anyone, they are espousing the first answer. When militant atheists say religion is the worse disease in society, they are espousing the second answer. The truth, as usual, lies in between the extremes. Some political injustices stem from religion. Others don’t. How, then, can we be sure of the relation between repression and religion? We must make a case-by-case investigation, something people rarely do in our “Like & RT” culture. I will give two case-studies, as it were, that show the differing relations.
In rural parts of Pakistan, young girls are not given an education apart from cooking and cleaning. Actively withholding education from girls is an oppression, and one that arises from the religious beliefs of the rural folk. We cannot attribute an economic cause to this repression; since, every country now has left the agrarian model. Even traditional sheep herders bow to the dictates of the market. The elders in these rural villages have at hand a few moral maxims, where a good wife is seen as a stay-at-home wife; so, these elders retard the educative potential of their daughters. It is hard to imagine that atheist families, for instance, would treat their daughters the same way, given that atheism is almost synonymous with modernity. In this case, only a blind apologist will defend religion and try to paint these villagers as irreligious.
In the major cities of Pakistan, rising fanaticism among the youth can be seen. This fanaticism feeds terrorist cells whose sole job is to kill innocent people in nightclubs. Drinking alcohol is enough to make you an infidel in the eyes of these fanatics. Yet it would be wrong to attribute this fanaticism to religion per se. The economic motive is strong in this case. Most of the fanatics live in the city in squalor and poverty. They left their rural villages in the hope of achieving economic prosperity which the cities promised. Now in the cities, they feel the weight of economic oppression. They toil day and night yet they are aware that they can never free themselves from the lower classes that the economic system has assigned to them. They see how big corporations and banks swindle the needy and desperate. Most of the workers in such corporations exude the air of sophisticated modernism. The poor youth see all this and, not surprisingly, feel angry. They cannot express their anger in terminology other than religious ones because the economic system does not allow them to study sophistical theories of economic critique. The only terminology open to them, then, is the religious one they inherited from their elders. Here is the crucial insight: their anger does not stem from religious terminology; it is only expressed by it. The anger stems from economic oppression. Unlike the rural villagers, the big corporations and banks do not have a few religious maxims which they base their actions on. The Profit motive reigns over the Prophet’s motive.
Most of the polemics between militant atheists and religious apologists revolve around their totalising views. One only sees religion in repression, while the the other never sees religion in any repression. Both are guilty of denying too much. Before any reduction of repression is possible, it is important that we notice the source of the repression. If we don’t do that, we will be trying to get rid of a symptom without knowing the disease. What does it mean to get rid of the source of repression? Take economic repression. It is naive to think that we can eradicate economic repression by eradicating the economy as a whole. To do that would be to bring even more anarchy. To eradicate religious repression does not mean we need to eradicate the religious per se. For instance, an aggressive atheist propaganda in the rural villages of Pakistan will only increase female oppression; since, the elders will portray the issue as either “Islam or Atheism”. The framing of the issue in this way may please atheists, but it does not alleviate the problem of female education in those villages. What is needed is reformed religious ideas to be actively promoted in these villages; so, the villagers will not have to make a choice between “Belief or Blasphemy”.
The above example applies not just to Islam but to other religions as well. It is naive to think that Right-Wing fanaticism in America can be countered by preaching Islam in Texas and the Mojave Desert. Preaching Islam there might fulfil the fancy of Muslim apologists, but it does not solve the problem of Right-Wing xenophobia. What is needed is Christian advocates who are not Right-Wing to speak the message of the Gospel, as they understand it, to the fanatics. The same can be applied to militant atheists. It is ridiculous to think that preaching either Islam or Christianity will help militant atheists relinquish their civilisational duty of bombing “primitive” religious countries. To counter militarism among atheists, a non-militaristic form of enlightened atheism must be advocated, like the one Bertrand Russell championed.
As is evident from the discussion above, I speak of religion and politics in terms of social usefulness and not in terms of eternal truths. The question about whether or not a religious idea can reduce repression is separate from the question of whether or not the religious idea is true. When dealing with the oppression of females in rural villages, such questions of eternal truths are hardly relevant. I can discuss them because I am safe in London, but a girl in Pakistan who wants to learn physics is hardly going to want to hear my discourse in philosophy. Rather she is looking for a means of educating herself without facing the backlash of the religious bigots who hold onto their agrarian mindset.
If we start caring more about people than about proving ourselves correct, we will be more flexible and tolerant in prescribing solutions to repression. This flexibility should not make us apologists for religion when clearly religion, of all codes and castes, has caused much pain and suffering. This, also, should not make us simpletons by attributing all evils to religion and forgetting the economic basis for many ills in society.