Religion is usually taken as set of immutable dogmas and hence people rigidly adhere to them. It seems religion itself has come to mean in the minds of people something rigid and inflexible. Also, if one adds popular superstitions to it, it becomes unacceptable to the rational and critical minds. That is why when the scientific researches led to breath taking discoveries in nineteenth and twentieth centuries the rationalists revolted against religion and they declared themselves to be atheists or non-believers. Eminent thinker and philosopher like Bertrand Russell even wrote a book like Why I am not a Christian. Russell mentions number of superstitions popularised by the Church authorities and ridicules those superstitions and cites them as reason why he does not believe in Christianity.
What is more problematic is that the established authorities of religion not only adopt inflexible attitudes but also treat later additions, practices, social customs and traditions as integral part of religion and treat them as sacred and immutable. For our discussion what is most important is to first understand what religion is. Of course there are different words for it in different languages. The Latin root of the English word religion has the meaning of binding together. In Indic religions the most commonly used word is dharma which indicate a set of duties. In Arabic the word used is Din which carries the meaning of law, governance, order etc. In Urdu it is mazhab which means path. Thus it will be seen that there are different words in different languages. But these words do not help us much in understanding the actual meaning and function of the phenomenon called religion in English.
Religion represents both ideas and functions. A religion can be divided into four different categories: 1) ritual system; 2)- thought system; 3) value system and 4) institutional system. Whereas value system is almost common to all religions (with more or less emphasis on this or that value in different religions) ritual, thought and institutional systems vary from religion to religion and each religion becomes unique because of them. Religions are different and unique because of them. The ritual system is way of relating individual to the creator of this universe. Its variation should not be emphasised too much. Nor should they be a point of friction or conflict between different religious traditions. The Qur'an explicitly states it in different ways and different places. Thus it says, "And everyone has a direction to which he turns (himself),so vie one with another in good deeds." (2:148)
The Qur'an also says even more explicitly, "For everyone of you We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single community (ummah wahidah), but that He might try you in what He gave you (religious pluralism). So vie one with another in virtuous deeds." (5:48) One can find similar statements in different religious scriptures. In fact different ritual systems if taken as a unique way of relating oneself with the Creator religious differences can be taken in a more creative rather than conflicting way. But the orthodox rigidly adhere to their own system and, in extreme cases, denounce other ritual systems and even insist that those following system other than their own will be consigned to hell. The liberals and the Reformists, on the other had, differ from this rigid approach. And they respect different religious rituals as unique, which enrich human culture and lead to different ways of worshipping the creator.
As for thought system of any religion carries the stamp of the age in which it was produced. Different religions are product of different periods and different locales and hence develop different thought systems. They also develop philosophies of their own. There is no doubt these different thought systems may carry elements of universality in themselves. One must thus make distinction between what is universal and what is specific in these thought systems. Thus both Christianity and Islam came under influence of medieval thought systems and theologians began to treat this thought system as integral to religious teachings. It should also be borne in mind that there is difference between basic religious vision based on revelation, deep meditation, reflection and intuition and theology of a religious tradition which is based on thought processes of lesser minds of theologians. A prophetic vision cannot be equated with theological thought of a later follower of that vision. What is central to religious vision is far superior to the theological thought. Often the conflict arises - and this is important to note - not because of this central or basic vision of the founder of religion but because of theological thoughts of lesser minds.
In order to build a harmonious order the Reformists make this distinction between the central vision of a religion, which pertains to its core teachings and the theological thought of a religious tradition. Both should not be treated integral to each other. A religion is not confined to one particular age or period. It passes through different era and new thoughts develop which create crisis for religious thought systems. We can refer to these significant changes as a paradigm shift and whenever there is such a paradigm shift a crisis is created in religious thought system. The orthodox people refuse to reconcile their inflexible dogmas (product of theological mind rather than that of the prophet or the seer) to these paradigm shifts. This refusal to reconcile to the paradigm shift creates crisis of conscience for their followers. However, the Reformists very well understand this difference between the central vision and theological dogmas and do not face any such crisis of conscience.
For the orthodox every new invention of science results in such crisis of conscience. We find in Sir Syed's writings of later nineteenth century that invention of pocket watch in his time led to such crisis. Many 'Ulama issued a fatwa against use of pocket watch. It was thought to be a human interference in the Allah's scheme of things. This may appear ridiculous to us today but such was the thinking of the 'Ulama of that time. Any instrument developed for better management of human life or improvement in its quality is thought to be interference in God's ways. The Catholic Church had denounced Galileo's view that earth goes round the sun rather than sun going around it. It is now that the Church has apologised for its denunciation of the great scientist. Similarly when the first satellite landed on moon in fifties of twentieth century it too was denounced by some theologians as interference in Allah's work.
It is interesting to note that the Greek inventions or the thoughts of Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and others too became an integral part of Christian and Islamic teachings and these thoughts acquired the status of theological dogmas which no one can challenge. In some religious institutions even today these dogmas are taught not as part of evolution of human beliefs but as sacred and immutable beliefs. All theological dogmas carry strong stamp of their time but the orthodox refuse to treat them so. For them they are sacred and beyond any realm of \criticism. Similarly, as pointed out earlier, the popular myths and superstitions of the time also became integral part of religious teachings and they are so even today. Today we live in the age of revolutionary inventions in various fields. The scientists have now achieved greater breakthroughs in the field of biology and they have succeeded in preparing the map of human genomes. They are able to read genetic codes and even develop animal and human clones. Undoubtedly such inventions and developments throw up ethical and moral questions which need to be resolved. However, it does not mean that these discoveries should be denounced and thrown away.
Similarly belief in miracles have become integral part of religion teachings. Certain things could not be explained away at a time due to limited nature of knowledge and hence they were treated as supernatural phenomenon or as miracles. But they can be better explained today in keeping with the laws of nature. It is systematic study of these laws that lead to better understanding of behaviour of nature. Such endeavours to better understand nature should not be construed as interference in the work of God. The miracles, it should be noted, are result of superstitious beliefs and lack of knowledge rather than special favour by God for any human individual. It is unfortunate that even today many so-called religious figures claim to possess miraculous powers and prove it by producing certain objects out of nothing. It is, needless to say, based on illusion and tricks rather than on any reality. Unfortunately many otherwise highly educated people also believe in these so-called miracles.
The miracles are product of gullible minds that find some comfort in easy solutions. The belief in miracle results from intense insecurity of mind on one hand, and total lack of efforts to solve ones difficult problems, on the other. However, faith in prayer is a different matter altogether. In a difficult and very complex situation even a rational mind might get perplexed and despair of any solution. In such circumstances sincere prayer can energise an individual spiritually and may even enliven his/her critical faculties to eventually find solution. It can create stronger will in an individual to face difficult and complex situations.
It is necessary here to throw some light on faith. Some less profound rationalists often misunderstand nature and power of faith. Faith is denounced by them as 'irrational and superstitious'. This is not proper approach. It is rather a dogmatic approach. It is important to remember that rationalists can be as much dogmatic as religious believers. A dogma is essentially a refusal to take note of change and critical examination of all available evidence about an issue. Any psychologist will bear this out that faith is absolutely necessary for a purposeful and meaningful human action. A faithless action is as denouncible as a thoughtless action. A thoughtful action is in fact synonymous with faithful action.
Rationalists generally denounce faith as blind. Faith by itself is not and cannot, be blind. It is the believer or faithful who is blind or otherwise. Faith is nothing but a deeper belief in something and such a belief can be developed only after full intellectual satisfaction and one cannot develop such satisfaction without critically examining the issue. The Buddah is reported to have said that do not believe in what I say unless you properly examine it. Similarly the Qur'an says why don't you reflect and think on what We say and then believe. And one cannot have faith in something unless one is fully satisfied after critical inquiries. Also one acts only out of deeper faith. One does not act simply impetuously except occasionally. An action is based on faith because it is based on careful action. And a religious act is always based on faith because it is based on careful examination.
This is not to deny that some people do follow certain beliefs mechanically and blindly and hence they can be said to have 'blind faith'. There can be various reasons for that. Many people are not capable of critical inquiry either because of lack of knowledge or mental deficiency or illiteracy and poverty or due to all of that. Some people, though not lacking in intellectual capacity, are mentally lethargic and some people accept certain beliefs just because they have inherited them. Also, in times of acute crisis, one tends to accept some beliefs hoping it will solve their problems. These are human tendencies and we cannot expect everyone to avoid it.
It is also true that for most people religious beliefs are inherited beliefs and taken for granted. Such believer does not care to critically examine his/her inherited beliefs. Such beliefs are more cultural and traditional and are not based on deeper faith. One tends to rationalise such beliefs when situation demands. Such rationalisation should not be equated with critical inquiry.
It is also important to note that a true faith can be extra-rational but not irrational. Faith can and does deal with extra-sensory phenomenon also whereas natural sciences deal with only sensory and observable phenomenon. Many rationalists denounce faith in God or angels or day of resurrection as irrational. But it is not true. Faith in such extra-sensory phenomenon can be construed as extra-rational but not irrational, as pointed out above. These are not observable phenomenon and their meanings too vary from believer to believer. The meaning of these beliefs will also depend on the intellectual and mental level of the believer. Religious beliefs in God, day of resurrection, angels could vary from superstitious to intellectual. Also they tend to be symbolic and symbols can be variously interpreted by people of different social background.
Thus in Islamic tradition too there have been great debates on nature of belief in God, angel, day of resurrection and similar other beliefs. While the Asha'ira believe in physical existence of God in heaven sitting on a throne, the Mu'tazila (a rationalist sect of Islam), Shi'as and others from philosophical schools reject such physical concept of God. Their concept of God without attributes and without physical shape comes much closer to the classical Indian concept of nirgun and nirankar God. Also, in the Sufi traditions in Islam God is not transcendent existing out there but is immanent and dwelling in the innermost depth of human beings while the 'Ulama and jurists have always maintained that God is out there and is transcendent. These debates go on.
Similarly the Mu'tazilah and philosophical schools in Islam reject the idea of physical existence of angels. They maintain that they represent the highly developed inner spiritual power in certain human beings. They also believe that there was no external agency bringing messages to the Prophet (PBUH) from above called Gibrail (angel Gabriel). They argued it was the highly developed inner spiritual power developed within that enabled the Prophet to receive from God His Messages and put them into human language. It is this power which has been named as Jibrail. One may or may not agree with all these debates. What is important to note is that there was no single privileged understanding of the symbolic scriptural language. These beliefs thus should not be dubbed as irrational.
The fourth category referred to above is the value system of religions. While everything else is unique or different in different religions value system tends to be common with varying emphasis, of course, in different religions. Thus one finds greater emphasis on no-violence in Hinduism and Jainism and on compassion in Buddhism. In Judaism there is greater emphasis on liberation from oppression while Christianity lays more emphasis on love. Islam, on the other hand, lays emphasis on justice and equality of all human beings. These world religions thus emphasise one or the other fundamental values and these values are complementary to each other rather than conflicting.
These values are the essence of any religion but the followers, motivated more by their interests, customs and traditions marginalise these values and develop confrontation between religions. Thus the clash is not between true essence of religions but between various human interests who follow these religions and their different social customs and traditions. As pointed out above, a religion, in popular conception is the conglomerate of rituals, social customs and traditions. Religion, if it is taken in its essence and value-orientated sense would contribute immensely to humanity and its spiritual and moral development. But unfortunately the vested interests that seek to control religious establishments negate the very spirit of these values.
For moral and spiritual development of humanity religion is necessary and religion can fulfil this function only if it does not become rigid and sectarian. Religious orthodoxy can become the greatest constraint for further spiritual and moral development. The orthodox followers, on the other hand, feel that any dilution of orthodoxy would lead to dissolution of moral code. This is, to say the least, is a mistaken view of religion. With changing social reality morality also acquires new dimensions. New changes usher in new needs and morality has to take these needs into account.
In medieval ages there were severe constraints on women and women were seen essentially as means to propagate human species and bring up children. It was considered perfectly moral if she was subjugated to her husband and it was thought to be immoral if she dared displease him. However, today the whole concept of women's existence and meaning has undergone great deal of change. The theologians read different meaning of the Qur'anic verses related to women in medieval ages but the orthodox 'Ulama want to stick to those interpretations. The reformist theologians like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt or other contemporary liberal scholars and theologians insist on different interpretations of these very verses giving women equal status and treating her with equal dignity. Women can no more be treated as subordinate to men. Any such 'moral' conception would not accord with new emerging morality. It would not be possible for women to achieve proper moral and spiritual growth without having equal dignity and status with men. But the orthodox elements that take rigid view of religion would reject this as 'corruption' of morality rather than development of new morality.
Those who take orthodox view think that women must be confined at home to look after her husband and children and this would ensure stability of family and this is possible only if she accepts subordinate role. Her stepping out of house would destroy this stability. The Reformists argue, on the other hand, that women are also moral and spiritual entities and their morality and spirituality cannot develop unless she participates in social, economic and political fields on par with men. That a woman has not been created by Allah only to cater to man's sexual needs but to be an equal moral and spiritual agent is a new moral concept (though the Qur'an had accepted women as fully responsible moral and spiritual agent but this view was obscured by medieval morality). The medieval Islamic theologians unfortunately ignored the Qur'anic perspective on women and developed theology in keeping with the medieval ethos. Perhaps it could not have been otherwise in that society. But what is needed is capturing the original spirit of the Qur'an and developing a new theology. Orthodox positions developed in medieval society will perpetuate the old attitudes towards women treating them as subservient to men and having no dignity of their own.
Thus it should be noted that orthodoxy itself is a social and not religious product. And it is fear of change on one hand, and vested interests on the other that perpetuate orthodoxy. Also, ordinary persons have neither time nor aptitude and competence to question orthodoxy and also they fear the consequence of questioning it. It is only a few courageous souls who rebel and open way for change. It was not easy for persons like Raja Rammohan Roy and Sir Syed to question established dogmas of their time. But they had courage of conviction and fought their way through paying the necessary price. Courage of conviction is a sine qua non for ushering in change.
The real problem is that people tend to treat certain dogmas as sacred forgetting that there is human element in formation of these dogmas and human mind is always influenced by prevailing social ethos. These dogmas should not be treated as sacred, much less as unquestionable. It should also be remembered that intellectual inquiry strengthens rather than weakens the faith. Only those who have superstitious or weak faith will fear intellectual inquiry. And those who follow religious authority blindly have insecure mind and weak faith. One with strong faith will not depend on someone else. A religious person has well-developed inner self and is confident of herself/himself. Blind faith, if it can be so described, is a contradiction in term. Blind faith is no faith at all.