Some people are of the opinion that religion is the cause of most social evils. While it is a tempting thought, it is not entirely true. Patriarchy, misogyny, slavery, inequality etc have existed since prehistoric times, long before the advent of any of the world’s modern religions.
As an example, consider the oldest known legal code in the world- the code of Ur-Nammu from ancient Mesopotamia. Thought to have been compiled around 2100 BC, the code describes slavery and blatant misogyny. Consider the following points-
1. If the wife of a man followed after another man and he slept with her, they shall slay that woman, but that male shall be set free
2.. If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt. (22)
This is two thousand years before Manu. Thousands of years before the birth of modern religions. The fact that slavery is assumed to be the natural order of life as per this code suggests its origins to be even older.
The most fascinating aspect of this code is how life, even four thousand years ago was as complicated as it is today and not nearly as comfortable. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Though religion is not the cause of social evils, it fosters them by giving them a divine sanction thereby making them unquestionable. Any abhorrent practice can escape censure if it is done in the name of religion and therein lies the danger.
One argument that is often advanced in the favor of religion is that the question of whether or not God exists notwithstanding; the idea of an all-powerful God keeping tabs on your good and bad deeds in order to give judgment in the after-life keeps people away from evil. There are many flaws with this argument-
(a) is the morality that stems from fear actually morality at all? If the sole reason you are not murdering someone is because it is a crime under the Indian Penal Code; then would you consider yourself a moral person?
(b) what exactly is the morality prescribed by religion? If one were to follow the moral codes prescribed by religion one might as well find themselves in jail. Religion being a product of its times, the moral codes of all religions reek of misogyny, barbarism, hypocrisy and are totally incompatible with modern notions of human rights and gender justice.
Some people argue, without religion how will people know right from wrong. That men and women should have equal rights was not prescribed by any religion, that all humans are equal was not prescribed by any religion. No religion gave the moral background for freedom of speech and belief. These notions were developed over a long period of time by thinking people through reasoning. They were propagated by people who weren’t afraid to make sacrifices and do the right thing. Religion has always been the strongest resistance to these ideas. Religion is not a facilitator of morality, it is in fact morality’s biggest nemesis. Without religion, good people would continue to do good things and bad people would continue to do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.
It can be truly astounding as to how people who are otherwise completely rational in their daily life become so completely irrational and illogical when it comes to religion. When one asks, why religion? the only answer I can think of is this- Self awareness has rendered our collective consciousness hollow. Humans are disillusioned by the futile and mundane nature of life, hence they are seeking something extraordinary, some magic in their lives. Something that can lift them from all the drudgery and misery of the real world. Just look at the enormous popularity of fantasy based books and movies. People know these stories cannot possibly be true but still they can’t get enough of them. With religion however, the taboo on critical thinking means that people don’t see the absurdity of it all.
Unfortunately religious people have a tendency to consider criticism of their religious practices or doctrine as a personal affront. They assume the critic has some ulterior motive or enmity with them. How ironic, given that most people came to follow their religious tradition purely by the accident of birth!