There is great deal of debate about religion and role of religion. Religion has been with us for almost as long as human history in one form or the other. At one stage of human evolution it was nothing more than certain magical beliefs and related rituals or worship of trees, rivers and mountains, stones and earth. Or, it assumed the form of worshipping ones ancestors. It ultimately evolved into belief in one God and related doctrines.
Scientifically speaking there are two major aspects of religion: sense of insecurity and faith, faith in something, which is considered sacred, something inviolable. Rationalists, who deny existence of God, maintain that it is sense of insecurity, which invents faith in God. Human person incapable of facing harsh realities of life seeks refuge in God. For them, it is escapism from reality. For rationalists, reason alone is enough. Faith is not enough and faith tends to be superstitious. Faith, according to them can never be rational. Faith and reason are contradictory to each other.
This was of course view developed during the period of enlightenment when all embracing authority of Church was challenged. Church had established tight grip over its followers and did not allow freedom of thought. It alone claimed to represent truth and no individual or other sect or religion could claim to represent it. The Church in those days also claimed political authority. It was a period of authoritarianism. Political authority was either represented by Church, religious head or a monarch. And one who wielded political power decided what was true and what was false. Human reason could not play any role.
When some who belonged to emerging class of traders and intellectuals revolted against absolute power of the Church or the monarch for reasons not to be discussed here, human reason was placed at the centre stage denying all other traditional authorities. As faith was earlier at the centre stage, it was downgraded and looked down upon. Faith was exploited by authorities and had become synonymous with superstition and superstitious beliefs. As faith was the main tool of authoritarian rulers, reason became the main tool of new influential classes. During feudal period faith was stretched to its extreme, now reason was sought to be made absolute. Faith was made to deny any role to reason, now reason made to deny any role to the faith.
Both extremes lack proper understanding of reality, which is highly complex. It does not help to absolutise either faith or reason. Both can and do play healthy role in human life only if we can evolve fine balance between the two. Neither faith is entirely superstitious nor reason is absolute solution for everything human. Both can play seminal role in human life. It should be understood that neither religion could do without reason nor science without faith.
Does religion deny any role to human reason and absolutise faith? Is religion unnecessary in human life as rationalists and atheists claim. Can there be religion without God? These are important questions need to be answered if we have to understand role of religion in human liberation.
Human history is witness to the fact that both religion and religious communities have played important role in human societies. If we closely examine religion, it's beginning and core teachings, it would not be difficult to establish that human reason had been an important component of its being. Religion should not be reduced to mere bundle of dogmas and rituals and superstitious beliefs. That it is so is not because of religion and religious teachings but on account of various other factors including human need at one level and human interest, at the other.
Religion came into being in response to certain social situation and both intuition, revelation and human reason played role in determining this response. Needless to say socio-cultural forces also play important role in determining the nature of the response. And the thrust of this response has to be liberative. Thus religion and human liberation are two aspects of the same reality. One cannot be separated from the other.
Also, religion is often held responsible for hatred against followers of other religions. This too is very superficial approach to religion and religious teachings. It should be understood that there are both significant similarities and differences among religions. There are similarities as religion is a moral and spiritual response to human needs. Moral and human needs are universal and not particular. But there are significant differences too and these differences arise from socio-cultural historical situation. Religion develops its specificity from the social, historical and cultural conditions it is borne into. The rituals and institutions it develops are also influenced by these conditions. However, these differences should not be treated as antagonistic since at the level of morality and ethics all religions are complimentary to each other.
These differences add to richness of life and it is divine will. We must respect these differences and accept our religious and cultural other and therein lies the liberative aspect of religion. It is morality, which is liberative and most cardinal aspect of morality is justice and peace. It is justice, which established moral and stable foundation for peace and it is both inner peace and external stability which ensures human progress.
Also, for spiritual development we need sound morality, which comes through intuition or revelation and for material development we need human reason and faith in morality, in values. Thus for any meaningful progress both faith and human reason play seminal role. One would remain incomplete without the other. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are among the major religions of the world and all three religions emphasise role of reason along -with oral and spiritual values. Buddhism apparently does not emphasise belief in God but lays great emphasis on truth, reason and compassion and liberation from suffering. These are important attributes of God in all religions. God is Truth, Justice and Compassion.
In fact belief in God is nothing but belief in these cardinal values and real worship of God lay in practising these values. One who worships God through some set rituals but negates these values through his/her conduct, cannot be real worshipper of God. A true worshipper of God not only practices these values but promotes them actively which results in liberation of the poor and the oppressed.
A religion is thus a rich resource for liberation of humankind. But what we see usually is contrary to this. Religion does not motivate human beings for their liberation. Rather it makes them, more often than not, bonded to superstition and inaction. It is for this reason that many rationalists and revolutionaries reject it as reactionary and 'opium' of people. From what we witness in reality this largely seems to be true about the way religion is practiced. But one has to understand reality with all its complexities. In other words, reality about religion is also multi-layered.
At one level religion has become a rich source of exploitation. The priesthood, in their own selfish interests, join hands with the powers that be and consolidate the status quo and perpetuate exploitation of the poor and use the concepts of predetermined fate and reward in the other world for their suffering. These concepts help the perpetrators of exploitation and make the exploited content with their fate making it appear as 'immutable'. These concepts should not be treated as integral to religion. They are extraneous to true religious spirit. These concepts were evolved, through tortuous interpretation of scriptures to suit the interests of oppressors and exploiters.
At yet another level religion and religious beliefs work as a soothing balm for the suffering human beings. It gives them solace and the suffering souls draw some satisfaction from such beliefs. It is in this sense that Marx described religion as the sigh of the oppressed and opium of the people. When people see no way out of their sufferings and exploitation they find refuge in these religious beliefs. Though Marx was clearly making a psychological point about religion, unfortunately the Marxists made it a dogma and rejected religion itself as 'an opium' of the people. Instead of appreciating this psychological state of exploited religion itself was rejected as opium of people.
Religion, as pointed out above, can also be liberative for the oppressed if it is practiced to transform the present exploitative structures into a just and humane social order. Gautam's dissatisfaction with the order of things in his time and the suffering humanity he witnessed created in him a strong urge to go our in search for truth and find the ways and means of removing the dukkha, the suffering. His eightfold path was key to remove dukkha and transform this world into a humane and compassionate world. Thus removal of dukkha (suffering) and compassion became the central doctrine of Buddhism. This is the central thrust of this great religion.
Christianity's central concern too was justice for the oppressed during the life-time of Christ and until the Roman empire embraced it. Engles has very well brought it out in his "Early History of Christianity. Christ's companions were all poor and the oppressed. Christ's sympathies were with the oppressed and exploited slaves and poor peasants. Bible maintains that the meek shall inherit this earth. The Latin American priests developed liberation theology as they witnessed how the poor and the oppressed Latin Americans were suffering. These priests were working among them and realised that religion should come to their rescue and liberate them from their plight. Thus developed liberation theology in Christianity in Latin America in early sixties. It brought new awareness among the exploited peasants and workers for whom Christianity was a matter of deep and sincere faith.
Islam also has great potential, like Christianity, for developing liberation theology. Islam too, like Christianity, was a response to a great malaise in Meccan society. Mecca was on an international trade route and inter-tribal corporations were coming into existence to profit from international trade and finance. This resulted in accumulation of wealth on one hand, and total neglect of tribal morality, on the other.
The very logic of a commercial society is to accumulate and that of tribal society is to take care of all members of the tribe or clan. Either all suffer or no one suffer. In commercial society, on the other hand, few become rich through accumulation and others become tools for exploitation and consequent suffering. In Mecca, the birth place of Islam, all tribals norms were being violated by the rich and powerful traders. They were blinded by their lust for riches. The poor (miskeen), the orphans and widows (yatama) were neglected and made to suffer.
It is this malaise, which seriously disturbed the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). Also, the tribals possessed no higher truth in the form of any scripture from high on. People of Mecca were superstitious on one hand, and the rich and powerful believed in no higher truth and were arrogant and believed that their wealth will provide them with safety and security and they will continue to experience pleasures of life. They ridiculed any belief in higher truth, in God, or in life hereafter. They felt they are answerable to none. Like hedonists, they believed material and this worldly life has permanence.
This arrogance also made them insensitive to suffering of the poor and the needy. Also, Arabia was experiencing great deal of inter-tribal bloodshed and mutual strife. There was no social philosophy or higher truth to unite them and weld them together. Inter-tribal wars and the primitive concept of qisas (retaliation) had become their cul de sac and they saw no way out of it. Each tribe had its idol and great deal of superstitions was spun around them. They were also thought to be sons and daughters of Allah. These were the part of social malaise in the Arab society of the 6th century Arabia.
Also slaves were grossly mistreated and humiliated. Women had virtually no rights though their situation differed from place to place and even tribe to tribe. But as a whole their situation was far from satisfactory. The girl child used to be buried alive as it was considered a matter of shame and social burden to have a daughter. The Arabs then took great pride in having sons. Women not only did not have rights but were also looked down upon. There was no fixed sexual morality and in many tribes extra or premarital relations were widely prevalent. One woman could also have multiple men in her bed. Also, women could be easily divorced.
It was this social malaise and amoral way of life that Islam responded to. The Islamic response was certainly liberative for weaker sections of Arab society in general and Meccan society, in particular. Islam responded, it is important to note, both on moral and spiritual level as well as on social and material level.
Islam responded to Arab social malaise by emphasising on higher spiritual truth in the form of strong belief in tawheed (unity of God). The doctrine of tawheed is very fundamental to Islam. And this doctrine itself proved to be great social boon and liberative for the Arab society. It broke the barriers of tribal society and created as sense of unity. Thus the doctrine of tawheed became liberative for the Arab society. Initially it divided Arabs into believer (Muslim) and non-believer (kafir) but this proved to be a temporary phase and soon all Arabs embraced this great liberative religion and united as one man.
The Qur'an also emphasised the concept of higher morality and doctrine of akhirah generally translated as hereafter or the life after death. But hereafter conveys better sense. It implies that whatever one does now has to face its consequences later. One cannot escape responsibility for ones deeds, good or bad. The pre-Islamic Arabs ridiculed such a concept and though their wealth and power will save them. The Qur'an made them acutely aware of the consequences. Thus we find that all Meccan surahs (chapters) foretell the coming doom and all those who do not believe in higher truth (Allah) and day of judgement, will be eternally doomed. Only those who believed and behaved morally ('amal Salih) will be liberated.
'Amal salih of course included spending ones wealth on the poor, the needy, orphans and widows and liberated slaves. The Meccan verses also strongly denounce accumulation wealth. The chapter 104, for example strongly denounces accumulation of wealth and arrogance associated with it. It also predicts that the wealth will turn into hell fire and reduce society to hutama i.e. into a social disaster. To avert this disaster one must spend his wealth for the weaker sections of society. This is asserted in another Meccan chapter 107. Those who throw away orphans and do not induce others to take care of the poor and deny people small acts of kindness are those who belie religion. Thus it is part of religion to provide for the weaker sections of society.
In chapter 90 Qur'an says about believers: "But he attempts not the uphill road; And what will make thee comprehend what the uphill road ('aqabah) is? It is to free a slave, or to feed in a day of hunger an orphan nearly related, or the poor man lying in the dust." (11-15). And those who believe "exhort one another to patience, and exhort one another to mercy. These are the people of the right hand." (16-18)
Thus Qur'an shows great concern for the weaker sections of society and exhorts believers to take care of them not only by spending on them but also by creating socially just structures. There is great deal of emphasis on equality and justice in the Qur'an. Qur'an emphasises both economic justice and absolute equality of all human beings, white, black, Arab, non-Arab and speakers of different languages and those of different nationalities. No discrimination of any kind is permitted. And in 17:70 the Qur'an talks of equal hour for all children of Adam.
These were highly liberative concepts for humanity in the 6th and early 7th century A.D. It was unthinkable in those days to accord equal dignity and honour to all irrespective of caste, colour, tribe, creed and sex. The Qur'an also accorded equal rights to both men and women (see 2:228 and 33:35). Women were truly empowered as they were given right to property as well as inheritance. Seeking knowledge was made obligatory for women too even though they had no access to knowledge in those days in any society.
It is true that in the Muslim society women never enjoyed those rights except for couple of decades in the early Islamic era. But one should not hold Qur'an responsible for that. The conservative patriarchal society could not digest those ideals of gender equality and women's liberation and women were relegated to old secondary position. Muslim society also could ot abolish slavery which was ideal of Qur'an and even allowed masters sexual rights over slave girls known as milk-e-yamin in the Qur'an. Now time has come to understand the real significance of Qur'anic pronouncements about gender justice. However for the conservative 'ulama (Muslim theologians) traditions are more important than the Qur'anic injunctions.
The Qur'anic concept of Zakat (poll tax) was meant for realising social and economic justice. Zakat, as every one knows, is obligatory for all Muslim men and women and is to be spent for weaker sections of society. The Qur'an says, "(zakat) charity is only for the poor and the needy and those employed to administer it, and those whose hearts are made to incline (to truth), and (to free) the captives, and those in debt, and in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer - an ordinance from Allah. And Allah is knowing, wise," Zakat is absolutely obligatory on all earning Muslims, men or women (above certain lt) and is to be spent on weaker sections of society including on indebted and liberation of slaves. Thus a Muslim state will collect zakat and use it for distributive justice. It is not mere charity to be doled out. Though the Qur'an does not abolish private property but neither makes it absolute right nor allows accumulation of wealth unconditionally. According to the Qur'an distributive justice is more fundamental than right to property.
A Muslim is required to strive actively for justice for weaker sections of entire society, without consideration of caste and creed. All Muslims (men and women) must enforce what is good and just (amr b'I ma'ruf) and resist what is evil and unjust (nahy 'an'il munkar). Thus a Muslim has to be an active agent for realisation of a just society. Religion can never be an opium for him/her. To liberate humanity from oppression and exploitation is a Muslim's religious calling. Any Muslim who neglects this duty will be answerable to Allah. Allah has also intended to oblige weaker sections (mustad'ifun) and make them the leaders of this earth and inheritors of this earth. (28:5)
Thus it will be seen that religious scriptures have much in them that is liberative and not sedative as believed by many. Religions, it is true, have been used as sedative by vested interests by making use of religious text selectively and by laying emphasis only on rituals than values. A truly religious person must actively subvert unjust structures in society and devote himself/herself to establishment of just, peaceful and conflict-free society. It is realising paradise on earth.