When I was in high school in Germany, I had a recurring phantasy. I imagined that some fine day the anchor in the news broadcast announces that science has found proof that God exists. This was at a time when doubts started creeping in whether it was true what I had believed so strongly in childhood, and such an announcement, I felt, would settle the issue once for all.
This was in the 1960s, when science made great strides for example in space exploration. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space, allegedly said after returning to earth that he had not seen any God out there. His statement did not carry too much weight, as he was Russian, and we Germans generally did not trust any Russian during the height of the cold war…
Still, for those of us who knew a little about history and were interested in science, ‘religion’ – which meant Christianity in Germany – came under scrutiny and did not come out of it unscathed. My elder sister was one of the first in our small town who rejected officially her membership in the Church, undoubtedly influenced by her husband who did so as well. My mother was very concerned – not so much that my sister would now burn in hell for all eternity, but what ‘the people will think’. I got the message not to follow suit.
It was a big dilemma. I intuitively believed in God, a supreme, all-mighty Being, that is the cause of our existence and somehow ‘knows’ what we think, feel and do, but I could not reconcile what religion told me about this God. I could not believe that he is so unfair, even cruel, that he would let me burn forever in hell only because I had skipped Sunday mass.
The fear of hell had been real for me as a child. I had skipped Sunday mass once when I was 9 years old and was terrified that I could die before I had confessed my ‘sin’ to the priest. I was sure that in that case, I would go straight into hellfire. (Skipping Sunday mass was a cardinal sin for Catholics at that time with hell as punishment).
Now, being older, this fear had left me. Eternal hell after a life of a few years simply did not make sense. This claim seemed rather a tool to frighten people into falling in line with the doctrine. Furthermore, why would the creator of all human beings punish the majority of them with hell because they believed in another religion? Why did this God not let everyone be born in a Christian family if he wants everyone to believe in the Bible? Or be born into a Muslim family if he wanted all to follow the Quran?
It did not make sense and I was not interested anymore in religion, even more so when I read in the library of my uncle, who was a priest, about the violent history of the Church and its suppression of scientific knowledge. Can anyone imagine the pain of a scientist who knew for sure that the earth goes around the sun but had to keep quiet because it was politically incorrect to have such a (correct) view? How painful must it have been for Galileo for example to realize that the Church was the sole arbiter of what is true, even if it is clearly not true?
Fortunately, courageous men like Voltaire and others struggled hard and succeeded to restrict the power of religion. Secularism was introduced, blasphemy laws repealed, and now science flourished in Europe. However, there was no connection to religion. Religion did not foster science. Science flourished in spite of religion, not because of it. Or did it?
Here, maybe we should finally define ‘religion’.
Strangely, there is no clear-cut definition. The common denominator is usually that religion is about the belief in and worship of the Divine, God or whatever name one wants to give it. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism are the major religions. Minor ones are Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, etc. Yet why are all these different traditions put into one basket and called ‘religion’? Is this justified?
‘Religion’ comes from Latin and means ‘to bind’. It was first used for the Catholic Church. Later, when the Turks were at the gates of Vienna, Islam was also called ‘religion’.
Why was a new term introduced? Was the term Christianity not clear? It surely was as it referred to the followers of Christ. What else needed to be conveyed? To what had the follower of Christ to be bound?
Since Christianity and Islam both have fixed doctrines contained in certain books and both claim that only their doctrine is true and whoever does not believe this will burn in hell, it can be safely assumed that the term religion indicated that the followers were bound to the exclusivist doctrine of Christianity or Islam respectively – over many centuries even at the threat of death if they tried to loosen the bond. They had to ‘religiously’ stick to the tenets given by the clergy, like going to mass on Sunday or praying five times a day at specified times.
In exchange for this loyalty to the doctrine, the believers were left in peace from blasphemy laws and promised heaven after death. Further they were assured that they are on the ‘right’ path when there are ‘wrong’ paths as well. In short, God loves them, but not the others.
Where does Hinduism fit in in this scenario? Actually, it doesn’t fit in. It does not bind its followers to a fixed doctrine. It not only allows a free enquiry but encourages it. No blind belief in unverifiable dogmas is demanded. Yet in the 19th century, the term religion was now used for the ancient traditions from India, China and Japan, as well. And intriguingly, all those traditions got an ‘ism’ added: Hindu-ism, Buddh-ism, Tao-ism, Jain-ism…
(To be continued…)
(The writer is a German psychologist and author who writes in German and English. Her book ‘Thank you India’ has recently been published. Views expressed are personal.)
Friday, 11 January 2019 | Maria Wirth | in Devbhoomi Spiritual—