Religion / 25.01.2009

I spent a fair bit of money on the hardcover edition of Julian Barnes’ reflections on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, so I feel I am entitled to an extended quote. There is this section that begins with Barnes’ memory of a Frenchman (De Goësbriand) who has just celebrated twenty-five years as a priest and confides to Barnes “You don’t think I’d go through all this unless there was Heaven at the end of it, do you?” That sets Barnes off: At that time, I was half impressed by such practical thinking, half appalled at a life wasted in vain hope. But Père de Goësbriand’s calculation had a distinguished history, and I might have recognized it as a workday version of Pascal’s famous wager. The Pascalian bet sounds simple enough. If you believe, and God turns out to exist, you win. If you believe, and God turns...

Religion / 16.11.2008

The loss of religious faith (or deviation from the true path) is amongst the commonly cited reasons for the absence of economic or social progress in Pakistan. Is this another easy answer, a gross simplification of a complex reality, or does it capture some aspect of our predicament? There are two components of this claim: faith and progress. Taken separately, they are relatively unproblematic. Most people consider progress to be good and a laudable goal for both individuals and societies. Faith is a matter of individual choice exercised freely. It is the link between faith and progress that is controversial and in need of examination. I doubt if even diehard believers would suggest a one-to-one correspondence between the two because that would result in odd contradictions and unacceptable conclusions. Western countries are all more developed than Pakistan. Does that mean that their citizens are all more religiously...

Modernity, Religion / 11.11.2008

By Bettina Robotka The question of whether there is any positive role for Islam or for religion as such in a modern world is gaining urgency in the light of an ongoing "War against (Islamic) terror" and the spread of militant and conservative interpretations of Islam. The picture which this Islam tends to paint of an ideal Muslim society is that of a patriarchic, male-dominated community inhabited by intellectually unquestioning Muslims who live in closely knit kinship relationships including tribal, biradri and caste units, who accept existing society as given, and who are supposed to follow what the state defines as right or wrong through its laws. There is limited place for individuality, no place for questioning of the basics of social, political and economic life and the task of moral, political, economic and spiritual guidance seems to be left to a small group of Islamic...

Religion / 24.10.2008

Continued from Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion It is time now to take stock of the encounter of India with Muslims. The first aspect that needs to be clear in our minds is whether this was an encounter between Hinduism and Islam or between Hindus and Muslims. This will make a significant difference to our understanding of subsequent events. We will argue that this was not a clash of religions, that it was an encounter of Hindus and Muslims. Of course, this encounter had an influence on both Hinduism and Islam, but the influence was indirect. As always, this is the starting point for a conversation. We are open to alternative interpretations that are cogently argued. Raiders or Crusaders? Frequent and repeated interaction of Hindus in India with Muslims from Afghanistan began around 1000 AD with the raids of Mahmud of Ghazna followed by those of Mohammed...

Religion / 16.10.2008

Continued from Hinduism – 1: What is ‘Hinduism’? It’s time to remove the quotation marks around ‘Hinduism’. It just adds to the confusion when one argues in this day that Hinduism is not a religion in the sense religion is understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is better to explain that ‘religion’ has a wider scope. See how religion is defined in the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language: Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. If one starts with that definition it would be very hard to fit Hinduism into the mould. However, one can take a...

Religion / 12.10.2008

Is it a Religion? (The subtitle has been added following an intensive discussion that is recorded in the comments section. The point at issue was that the title of the post was misleading giving the impression that the subject pertained to the content of Hinduism whereas the intended perspective was quite different. The series was intended to explore the interactions of three religions (which is how we perceive history in retrospect, incorrectly as this series intends to argue) for which reason it was important to define at the outset the ways in which the three religions were alike and different. This anticipated the point raised in Part 2 of the series which referred to the first census in British India which institutionalized religious identities for non-religious purposes. In this census, the census-takers made the claim that in the etymological sense of the word, Hinduism is not, and...

Religion / 21.09.2008

In an earlier post (Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?) we wondered how some people could be convinced that it was acceptable to commit acts of appalling brutality in the name of religious devotion. We will pursue this thought further in this post. The example we had used to motivate the argument was the launching of the First Crusade in 1095 by Pope Urban II rousing Christians to avenge oppression by Muslims in far away Jerusalem. Pope Urban’s exhortation was based on false propaganda but it succeeded in its objective. A reader commented that the First Crusade was about grabbing land and wealth and the Crusaders were misled because they were illiterate and had no way to verify the truth. It must have been natural to take the word of the Pope for truth. This is a valid observation. The author of the book we used as a...

Modernity, Religion / 17.09.2008

First, let me quote a passage. Then you try and guess what it refers to. And then we will talk about it together. A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of the Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts. And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak then...

Education, Religion / 22.08.2008

Unacceptable levels of poverty continue to prevail in South Asia. In order to understand the nature of this poverty we have to first challenge the popularly held beliefs about its causes. Just as there are people who believe that illiteracy or overpopulation are the major causes of poverty, there are others who attribute it to corruption and argue that nothing can be done till corruption is eliminated. There is no doubt that corruption is a pervasive and aggravating phenomenon but even a cursory look at hard data and a comparative analysis should make one skeptical of the assertion that it is a major cause of underdevelopment in South Asia. China provides one contrary example. The issue of corruption is very high on the political agenda of the Chinese government and people holding very high offices have been executed for related crimes. But despite the corruption the economy has...

Education, Religion / 04.08.2008

By Anjum Altaf Is there a need to search for truth? Most people would say ‘Yes’ but with different perspectives in mind. There is one perspective that the truth about any proposition is already available, pre-packaged in words of wisdom, written down somewhere, or known to some sage. Our task is to find the source and we shall be informed. The other perspective is that we ourselves have to reason our way to the truth, finding a bit here and a bit there, separating the truth from the untruth when they come packaged together, and questioning it when it goes against our common sense. This is a personal choice of which the second one is intellectually more interesting. Take a simple proposition as an example: ‘Economic interest has a major influence on what we do; culture, nationality and religion are just impediments in the way.’ What is the truth...