Watching a news broadcast recently , detailing religious tensions in certain parts of the world and the deadly consequences for ordinary citizens of the unnecessary conflicts that arise out of these tensions got me thinking about religion and its relevance for the world and the cause of human progress in the twenty first century. Former British Prime minister, Tony Blair in an interview he gave recently said that he “thinks that the issue of the twenty first century is basically not a fight over political ideology but over cultural, religious ideology.” Should religion be that important to us and if so why?
Most, if not all religions promote or purport to promote the universal values of: peace, love, solidarity, the sacredness of human life and tolerance. However a look at history and the current reality around the globe shows that instead of promoting these values, religion has often been divisive, polarising and deadly. Witness the brutal, violent nature of the conflict in Nigeria which has seen the country being divided into north and south, Christian versus Muslim, or the tensions in India between a Hindu majority and minorities such as Muslims and Christians and the tensions in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants which caused the unnecessary deaths of many innocent civilians and has been thankfully resolved with a peace agreement that ushered in a unity government.
Wherever you look, religion seems to produce not unity, peace and greater solidarity but division, violence and illogical conflicts. With the rise in religious fundamentalism and its growing influence in places as diverse as Iran, America, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East area, Sudan etc one needs to question whether religion itself is not a stumbling block to the quest for human progress. Can humanity progress without religion playing a role? Would a post-religion world be better, united and more peaceful than a world with a multiplicity of religions that cause division and violent conflict? The French intellectual Albert Camus seemed to believe that religion was a fundamental building block for human progress as opposed to a stumbling block hence his statement that, “only a philosophy of eternity, in the world today, would justify non-violence.”
The American poet Edgar Allan Poe seemed to disagree with this view however and for him, “all religion is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.” In other words religion is by nature a figment of the imagination and completely deceptive and destructive. A look at the unnecessary conflicts and deaths that have arisen from religious differences would seem to bear this out. Do we need religion in order to progress? Should religious differences even matter, if we do allow for the necessity of religion or should it just be a case of taking the pragmatic view expressed in the old Italian proverb, “when the chess game is over, the pawns, rooks, kings and queens all go back into the same box”?
These are questions that need to be answered if we are going to see a better world in our century. As August Comte said, “Ideas govern the world or throw it into chaos” and too often we have seen religion and religious ideas throwing the world into chaos instead of making the world a better place by producing better human beings.
Why do human beings need religion anyway? Is it just a crutch that people carry in order to avoid personal responsibility? Was the French intellectual Regis Debray accurate in saying that, “religion is no longer the opium of the people but the vitamin pill of the feeble?” Is it a tool used by the weak that holds humanity back and counters our quest for progress? Now these are all questions that I began to ask myself as I reflected on the many religious conflicts that you find all over the world. Should religion be such a key issue in the twenty first century as stated by Tony Blair or should we aspire to create a post-religion world which will hopefully be more peaceful and united or is Albert Camus correct in saying that peace and non-violence are impossible to attain without some kind of religious belief?