By: Sakura Koner
Edited by: Cynthia Stringer
How far would man go to appease their supposed peaceful God? Is it really God to whom mankind wishes to prove its worth, or is it our misinterpretations of religion that sway mankind towards terrible deeds in the name of God? As the world moves ahead through a blitz of modern development and technology, one wonders what influence religion still has on humankind, and how is the psychological grip so difficult to abandon? How is the intangible belief so great that it has the capability to rule nations and control geopolitical events?
It makes us wonder about the relationship between religion and society. How complex is it, how deep-rooted? In his Henry Myers Lecture for The Royal Anthropological Institute in 1945, Professor A.R. Radcliffe-Brown suggested that “the social function of religion is independent of its truth or falsity.” He argued that “the development of modern civilization would have been impossible” without religion, even those religions “which we think to be erroneous or even absurd and repulsive.” Indeed, after careful consideration, it is clear that facets of religion bring us together as a society, uniting people of similar beliefs to form communities and solidarity. However, although religious tenets give us moral codes to live by, the world today is rife with religious disorder, marked by discrimination and hatred. Some have even abandoned the most valuable tenet that almost every religion known to man holds true: do not harm another person in an effort to serve one’s own biases and prejudices.
We have all heard the age-old debate around mixing religion with politics. Yet, for centuries, the religious aspect of society has played an enormous role in defining the politics of a country. Indeed, the church and state have rarely been kept separate. The text of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom gives great insight into America’s First Amendment right. It reads: “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced … in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Despite these words etched into the Constitution, the USA is facing a falsified Christian nationalism that weakens the pillars upon which the country was born. A growing belief amongst many Americans is that the USA was built as a Christian nation and must follow the dogmatic teachings of the warrior Christ to sustain peace in the state. This distorted perspective views the nation as a white man’s land and serves as a flawed justification for racism and intolerance against people of colour and non-Christian faiths. This is called religious nationalism, which can be defined as “a response of religious elites to a loss of social and political influence, and the failure of secular nationalism to bridge the gap between public values and the political community”.
A particularly ghastly expression of religious nationalism in the USA occurred when people gathered outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election. Some rigid and conservative White nationalists claimed that Donald Trump was the one true leader of the Christian country, and they vowed to take up arms and win back the lost election. This rise in faith-based nationalism is particularly interesting given the fact that, for the first time in history, church membership for U.S. adults has recently plummeted below 50%. These conflicting realities make one wonder: is militant religious nationalism inadvertently distancing people from their religious beliefs rather than strengthening them?
The USA is not the only country experiencing religious nationalism. Since India’s conception, Brahmins have always been in the higher echelons of the caste system in a religious society holding unwavering power, but always separate from the ruler’s governance. Modern India was born with a principle of secularism and religious equality when it gained independence from British rule. Despite the Constitutional value of secularism, India’s current ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) envisions building a new Hindutva India based only in Hindu religious beliefs. Although the majority of India’s population is Hindu, it is important to note that the country is home to a myriad of religious beliefs, with Muslims and Sikhs being prominent among them. Nevertheless, the current trajectory of the country is towards an extremely harmful religious nationalism, fuelled and carried out by the BJP government led by Narendra Modi. The Hindu nationalist sentiments in India serve only the elite, and they have led to loss of innocent lives, a sad reality that was especially apparent during the pandemic when the nationalist spirit not only hurt people observing varied religious beliefs but also the marginalised and poor. Furthermore, nationalism in India has led to the remodelling of policies, including horrendous changes in the education policies, which will weaken India’s research potential for decades to come.
Historically, religious disputes and communal unrest have been rampant in India, some of which may be directly attributed to the political actions of the governing party. The most evocative of these actions is Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s efforts in Punjab in the late 1970s and early 1980s to quell the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a political party predominantly composed of moderate Sikhs. When they were unable to mitigate the actions of Sikh religious extremists, Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to attack the Sikh’s holiest monument, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. The tragic denouement of her harsh secular ignorance was her horrific assasination in 1984. This serves as only one example of unnecessary violence born from the intermingling of politics and religion. Today– as the religious temperament in India continues to hurt progress–it is only reinforcing the ideology that religion and politics, however closely related, can only impair human welfare.
In Iran, 2022 will be known as the year of revolution. The death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police sparked a rebellion led by women and reintroduced the ringing slogan, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, originally popularised by women in the Kurdish National Liberation Movement in Turkey. Theocratic regiment in Iran has for years mercilessly controlled the population through archaic religious beliefs and subjugated women to oppressive laws and rules. The recent revolution came like a broken dam as people from across the world joined in chanting the slogan and demonstrating other actions of protest. However, the government reacted with deadly force and violence resulting in the deaths of more than 500 people including children, with hundreds injured and more than 20,000 people detained.
The ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, stunned the world in 2017. Under the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), which was led by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar military commenced action and violence against the Rohingya Muslims in a claim to reinstate stability and religious accordance in the western region of the country. The Rohingya have faced decades of institutionalised marginalisation and been refused citizenship or rights, essentially being marked stateless. The military atrocities meted out against the Rohingya has forced a monumental exodus into Bangladesh where almost 730,000 people are suffering as displaced people.
In the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995, over 8000 unarmed Muslims were killed by Serbian military forces. It was clear that the targeted massacre, as well as the crimes committed against the Muslims, was an attempt to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of the Muslim population. After more than three years of bitter fighting between Bosniak Muslims, Serbians and Croats that led to 102,000 deaths, NATO-backed western countries were induced to intervene and impose a final cease-fire.
Religious propaganda does not, nor should it have ever had, a place in politics. Yet, for centuries, religion has been weaponized to rule over the populace. I have seen how the pillars of law have crippled before religious motives as governments have weaponized their religions to drive out those of different faiths, enabling them to become a supremely horrifying entity. In the advanced age of the 21st century, I would hope that religion would not sustain this much control. However, even as parts of the world attempt to uplift themselves into unconventional, progressive ways of life, conservative thinkers grapple with a changing ideology by continuing to push towards more traditionalist, religious schools of thought. As a young person, I am astonished at the levels to which men in power stoop to control the masses. As I observe the world descend into religious turmoil, I cannot help but wonder when religion transformed into a machinery to cripple societies. When did religion gain the power to make or break governments? When did we choose to define ourselves by an intangible religion?
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Image taken from: https://openclipart.org/detail/271383/gold-world-religions-peace-dove