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Reinventing God for the present times

Last updated on: June 20, 2012 16:11 IST

What can be said with certainty is that the changes that are necessary to the present mode of living will not be possible without the aid of religion or something like it, says Sonali Ranade

Some three billion years ago, unicellular microbes learnt how to absorb a photon from the sun to feed them through photosynthesis. In the process they gave off oxygen, the gas that eventually went on to create the earth's atmosphere and make other life forms on land possible. Strange as it may sound, within the human genome, we still carry some of the genes that enabled photosynthesis in the ancient microbes. 

In fact, our genome carries most of the genetic chain through which we evolved to our present form spanning some 3.5 billion years of our evolutionary history. We use only a tiny fraction of the humongous genome in our day-to-day lives. The rest stays dormant. In contrast to the 3.5 billion years of our evolutionary history, recorded history barely spans the last 4500 years.

Yet, the genome that we carry is simply not enough to live in the modern world. If we somehow got hold of a community of ancients and put then in a modern city, they would quickly perish from hunger or violence. If they had any hope of survival it would owe to their general intelligence, that unique human capability that enables us to build abstract models of reality in our heads, work out causal relations and to apply the derived solutions to objective reality. What has made us so dependent on general intelligence to survive in the modern world?

As our numbers have grown, humans have had to re-organise themselves in ever more complex societies in order to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. We started this process as loosely-knit hunter-gatherer tribes who needed to co-operate in order to hunt big game. The hunter-gatherers evolved into nomads and the pastoral farmers. Farmers were followed by city-dwellers and we may be at the cusp of another transition right now. 

Each of these changes in modes of existence was basically prompted by the need to feed and shelter ever-growing number of people within a given set of natural resources. Thus, farming and domestication of animals stepped up human productivity. A much larger number of people could be supported by the same land mass and water as compared with hunter-gatherers with less risk. 

Organisations of farmers around cities enabled economic specialisation, resulting in another quantum leap in productivity by helping development of trade. Cities in turn lead to nation-States and so on. However, the underlying trend in all transitions is the same. 

The burgeoning numbers of people in relation to available resources forced innovation, and innovation in turn forced consequent changes in the mode of living of the species.  With each such transition, the culture and, within culture, the dominant religion also underwent change. Each culture, and religion, comes to us in a context of the then prevailing environment.

With each quantum jump in complexity, we have grown more and more dependent on our general intelligence to understand self-evolved technologies and concepts in order to live in a self-created world. More than our DNA, it is culture that equips us with the tools necessary to survive in our self-created world.

Human societies have used religion as the tool for effecting and managing the transition from one mode of living to another. Each transition represented an upheaval in the existing way of life. People found old skills useless, were forced to learn new skills, new ways of organising their lives. Mating and marriage changed, old leaders were discarded and new ones found, new institutions sprang up or were created to meet new needs. The changes required were deep, invasive, and extensive, and left nobody and nothing untouched. 

How this process was managed is the real story of our history.  There was no grand design behind the management of change. Instead, whether it is Hinduism, Christianity or Islam, change came in small incremental steps as people experimented with new ideas in their day-to-day lives and others copied. Each of the religious movement was a culmination of a series of changes already well in place though not dominant. 

Thus, don't get me wrong nor am I being irreverent or disrespectful here when I say that Christ did not bring anything new to the table by himself. Most of what he preached was there before he came on the scene. Instead, his genius lay in two things. First, he was able to weave all the different strands into one coherent whole that could easily be digested by the laity. 

The main cause of strife in his time was the need to enslave others. He saw such exploitative mode of living was unnecessary if the elites were to lead simpler lives with fewer resources. And he was able to sell this vision of equality, freedom and justice to the serfs by his defiance of authority. Fact is, Christ was the first true communist with his insistence on simple life within a given set of resources shared more or less equally among all. 

Modern Christianity is nothing like the original that Christ preached.

Note the quantum leap in productivity and wellbeing from Christianity came by way of freedom given to slaves and dismantling of the State apparatus that captured and kept people enslaved for the Roman nobility. This freed up tremendous resources, which were now left in the hands of the peasants. Rome may have crumbled but the peasantry prospered, as did the slaves. 

The lack of emphasis within Christianity on innovation, creativity, wealth creation etc, and its enforcement as a dogma by its priesthood subsequently, caused Europe to plunge into the dark ages for some 1000 years. Which only goes onto show that while religion is a great tool for managing change in a period of rapid transition, its limitations should never be lost sight of.

As a species we are going to need religion again, and in fairly large dose, to cope with the emerging reality of constraints on our growth in numbers. We are running short of fresh water, oxygen and fossil fuels. Climate change is for real. The scale of problems we face is staggering. One study shows in much of southern US, India and China, agricultural production will fall by as much as 50 per cent in the next 30 years, while our numbers grow from seven billion to nine billion. 

Lost food production will have to be replaced from areas like Canada, Russia and the Arctic region as global warming melts the ice there. These changes will trigger huge migrations on a scale hard to imagine. But as history shows we have experienced such mass migrations and upheavals in the past. And to manage the associated changes we will almost certainly reach out for that familiar toolbox of religion. 

Hard to say what shape the new religiosity will take shape. But what can be said with certainty is the changes that are necessary to the present mode of living will not be possible without the aid of religion or something like it. The new religiosity may not be startlingly new. As we see from the history of existing religions, what they brought to the table were not new ideas per se. Instead, they brought a new context to existing ideas, which were not dominant but needed further emphasis in practice. 

For the dominant classes, these were heretical in nature and practised in stealth by the wider, less-empowered members of society. What religion bestowed on such ideas were legitimacy and the certitude that comes with the knowledge that others believe in them too. To achieve legitimacy, religion had to capture political power as well. Whether that capture was violent or peaceful is besides the point. 

That then is central dilemma of our next 50 years. Emerging constraints demand change in our way of life. To effect and manage that change we have to reach for a very ancient but powerful tool in the shape of religiosity. It will not be the old religion per se because every successful religion must account for day-to-day reality of the contemporary times that is visible to populations. 

While all religions are dogma, the new one must preserve freedom for innovation, creativity and experimentation because all the solutions to problems we face are not known. To preserve such freedom for the people we had to separate religion from political authority. We arranged such that religion could still work through culture but could not enforced by coercive State power. Yet, it is difficult to see how we can cage the beast we have to unleash to effect change.

If a God doesn't appear on the horizon to lead us out of the present conundrum, then as usual we will have to invent one.

Sonali Ranade