December 15, 2006

Dead Man's Society

Gods don't die, but men do!

Let's get these immortal gods out of the way first. Izanagi, Ra, and Thor were never alive, so they cannot die. The god delusion, not the book but the phenomenon, is caused by a figment of imagination. Creative at times, but banal mostly. We can debate what is creative and what is banal until the cows come home, but why bother?

Allah cannot create, protect, or destroy, any more than Yhwh, Vishnu, or for that matter, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Sorry, Pastafarians, I must include Its Noodly Holiness, lest I should be accused of bigotry! Nor can any "literally senseless" god cause revelation, enlightenment, or ten commandments to be etched on a couple of stone tablets. These gods that were created in the man's image are as omnipotent and omnipresent as orbiting teacup, unicorn, or little green elf.

Once the gods have been dismissed into oblivion, what do we have left of religion? Scriptures that are words of men — and perhaps a woman or two — spoken and written. Of course, I have not read them all. In fact, what I have read completely is limited to a few translations of Hindu scriptures. But, come on, how many pulp fiction books do you need to read, before you can predict what the next one is about from its cover?

Most religious books are stories of everyday life, with some ideas thrown in to explain the puzzles that needed to be solved. Rarely, the stories are profound or the ideas brilliant. A few more are novel and interesting, but what is novel is not interesting and what is interesting is not novel, as they say in my trade. The rest, of course, make as much sense as the soap operas. Here are a couple of verses from the Rig Veda — the first, I think, is thoughtful, and the second, mere tripe:

Book 10 Hymn 129 Verse

6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

Book 10 Hymn 86 Verse

8 Dame [Indrani, wife of Indra] with the lovely hands and arms, with broad hair-plaits and ample hips, Why, O thou Hero's wife, art thou angry with our Vrsakapi [a pet monkey]? Supreme is Indra over all.

9 This noxious creature looks on me as one bereft of hero's love, Yet Heroes for my sons have I, the Maruts' Friend and Indra's Queen. Supreme is Indra over all.
On balance, if we were unaware of the stories and ideas in the religious books, we would not have missed more than what we would have from missing all the 15068 (as of 2006) episodes of "Guiding Light". And, subjected to the strict criteria of peer review for scholarly publications, few, if any, of these collections would see the light of the day.
Apart from the stories and ideas of dubious worth, scriptures of major religions also lay down standards of conduct. These edicts were essentially codified mechanisms for the resolution of social conflicts that might have arisen or were likely to arise, in the space and time when they were spoken or written. Like modern laws, they were social contracts that reflected the prevailing political economy and levels of knowledge, designed to prevent conflicts from escalating in depth and scope. Not all of these were particularly clever, just, or equitable. Many will be considered abhorrent today:

If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. [Bible, Leviticus 20:13]

They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper. [Koran, The Women 4.89]

With whatever limb a man of a low caste does hurt to (a man of the three) highest (castes), even that limb shall be cut off; that is the teaching of Manu. He who raises his hand or a stick, shall have his hand cut off; he who in anger kicks with his foot, shall have his foot cut off. [Laws of Manu, Ch.8 279-280]
Such standards of conduct must be enduring, in the interest of the stability of now antiquated societal organizations. Hence the society's collateral investment in assets and skills to ensure adherence to the standards. Examples are the elaborate and expensive buildings to house the gods — the underwriters of the covenants, and the training and skills imparted to the masons and sculptors. The dynamics here must have been quite similar to the evolution of default standards such as the QWERTY key board or the Microsoft Windows.

Books of religions are compendiums of words spoken or written by dead men. Christ, Manu, and Muhammad are dead men. They might have walked this earth hundreds or thousands of years ago, but now they are dead. Their flesh, bones, and hair are irreversibly reduced to the atoms of carbon and the molecules of methane that move through space. Just as those of the billions of sequoias, dinosaurs, and earthworms that died before and after these men. Whatever might be the claims to the contrary, their words and edicts have no more sanctity than President Bush's claim that he has been "called to seek higher office", or that the United States was "called to bring God's gift of liberty to every human being in the world."

Today, a society that continues to insist on being organized around such edicts would be labeled as primitive or uncivilized, and rightly so. Only the boneheaded would think that such standards of conduct have eternal validity, and therefore, should be defended at any cost. In the interest of civilization and progress, they must yield to new ideas for conflict resolution based on reasoning that reflects the state of the art in the sciences of human nature.

Richard Dawkins has argued that religion is the root of many of society's evils. Much of these arise from the individual's misplaced faith in the irrational ideas and commands of ordinary men, long dead and gone. What is it in this that is so hard for intelligent men and women to understand? Why do they insist on sacrificing the living in the altar of the dead?

The title is a rephrasing of the title of the movie, Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir
  1. In The God Delusion, Dawkins says something to the effect: in any society there are good people who do good things and bad people who do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

    Wonderful. I think Sam Harris is right on the ball when he says civilization cannot progress (or even survive) unless it gets rid of religion in its current form.

    But from where we are today, I see regression or the end of civilization sooner than I see the end of religion.

  2. Nitin:
    Don't lose hope. Have faith! Redemption is guaranteed in the kingdom of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  3. Hi,

    Could you please re-think about the colors of the quoted text? It is barely visible.

    Otherwise, a good blog and am happy to discover it.

  4. Changed the quote color. Is it better now? Will work on the entire color scheme asap.

  5. 'For bad people to do good, that also takes religion'
    -Freeman Dyson

    I don't quite agree with this, but I want to have a look at his latest 'The Scientist As Rebel' in which he apparently says this.


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