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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta

Religion is not opium, it's cyanide

December 14, 2005

'Religion is nothing but institutionalised mysticism. The catch is, mysticism does not lend itself to institutionalisation. The moment we attempt to organise mysticism, we destroy its essence. Religion, then, is mysticism in which the mystical has been killed. Or, at least diminished... not only is religion divisive and oppressive, it is also a denial of all that is divine in people; it is a suffocation of the soul.'
--One of my all time favorite authors, Tom Robbins, in Skinny legs and All

What set me thinking about religion was a recent article in the Indian Express which spoke about how Hindus cannot adopt Muslim children and vice-versa.

The article also quotes various Muslim leaders who are unanimous in their assertion that adoption itself is 'not natural.'

Now at the risk of being labeled a Commie atheist, I would like to ask one simple question: How on earth does one figure out the religion of infants dumped on the road, and sent to various orphanages?

Religion is a touchy subject to write on, simply because faith is something so very personal.

But let's face it, while it undoubtedly grants succor to many, more people have probably been killed in the name of religion than by disease, pestilence and natural disasters put together.

The list is truly endless. Off the cuff, the Crusades, the killing of Jews by the Nazis, the trouble in Northern Ireland, the conflict in West Asia, the civil war in Sudan, the carnage in Yugoslavia, the tensions in the Philippines and Indonesia, the divisions in Fiji, the Shia-Sunni divide in Pakistan, the 'us and them' philosophy being so violently promoted by the likes of Osama bin Laden and his followers, the India-Pakistan wars, all have a religious angle to it. I am sure you will able to add substantially to that list.

And though it was not technically a religious war, just before the US invasion of Iraq, both President George W Bush and Saddam Hussein insisted that God was on their side.

Yet if you were to ask a leader from any religious denomination today, they will insist that their religion is the epitome of peace, non-violence, goodwill and tolerance. Pressed further, they will point to the huge amount of charitable and social work being done by people subscribing to the faith.

Many will also argue that society as we know it would collapse without the essential 'morality' promoted and guided by religion.

They are also likely to point to the fact that the main killers of the 20th century were those who professed non-religious ideologies: Josef Stalin's repressive state killed some 14 million Russians, at a conservative estimate, while Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward and the subsequent Cultural Revolution is said to have caused some 40 million Chinese deaths. The Jews estimate that Hitler -- who many describe as an atheist -- though I have my doubts -- systematically killed over 6 million of their people. I put Hitler's Holocaust in the first list of 'religious' atrocities because it was aimed primarily against a particular religion.

Mark I. Vuletic, a doctoral candidate in philosophy and a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps who returned recently from a second tour of Iraq, wrote an interesting feature on the subject way back in 1999.

'Suppose Hitler was an atheist. Suppose Stalin tortured and killed more people than all of the theists put together. What implications follow for atheism as a whole? None -- few atheists are even remotely like Hitler or Stalin,' says Vuletic.

Now 'suppose Hitler was a theist. Suppose the Crusades resulted in more suffering and death of innocents than the actions of all atheists combined. What follows for theism as a whole? Nothing -- the majority of theists are nothing like Hitler and despise the Crusade mentality.

'There is incessant debate about it: have theists or atheists historically caused more suffering and death? When you add up the numbers, opposing Stalin with Torquemada, the Chinese Revolution with the Crusades, have atheists or theists killed more, tortured more? And was Hitler a theist or an atheist, anyway? Here's a better question: who cares?' he asks.

Well, palaeontologist Gregory S Paul does.

In an article titled Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side' The Times, London, quoted a study to argue that 'religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide.'

'According to the study,' conducted by Paul for the Journal of Religion and Society, an American academic journal, 'belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems,' the Times said. 'The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.'

'In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so,' concluded the study, which compared 'the social performance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution.'

According to Paul, 'The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.'

But then, should we accept a palaeontologist's thesis on something as complicated as religion?

Let us instead look at a War Audit commissioned for the BBC programme What the World Thinks of God last year. Here is the audit's educated assertion: 'It is mainly when organised religious institutions become involved with state institutions or when a political opposition is trying to take power that people begin advocating religious justifications for war.'

In other words, it is not religious per se that is to blame, but our interpretation of it.

But the phrase 'organised religious institutions' takes me right back to Tom Robbins, who, after noting that mysticism does not take kindly to organisation, goes on to argue that 'religion is a paramount contributor to human misery. It is not merely the opium of the masses, it is the cyanide.'

Ramananda Sengupta


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Number of User Comments: 75




Sub: religion is humanity

I want to tell the people of india and country like aghanishtan,and many undeveloped and developing country that why they are back from the country ...


Posted by viral. k .ganatra





Sub: Religion-A power game; God-A non-entity.

Religion is nothing but a power game. We should do away with religion. We should also accept the fact there is no super power as ...


Posted by Sharad korde, Thane





Sub: relegion is cynide

Your article is good. But the basic problem lies at the very beginning. Right from Faraos of Egypt to modern days and Bush where the ...


Posted by partha moulik





Sub: Religion a necessity

I strongly disagree Let's start with the basics: Counting the number of deaths caused by theists and atheists is a foolish way to decide if ...


Posted by Razy





Sub: Religion is Cyanide

I agree with Author. Religion is useless unless it raises it's followers to a higher plane of resoning and thoughts.....clear ideas and elegant imagination, and ...


Posted by Dawood Ahsan




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