Saturday, January 16, 2010

Con job

It's too easy to pan all religions as wool being pulled over people's eyes for thousands of years. The idea that an old, old guy sitting atop a mountain or up in the heavens directs our fates is almost hilarious today, in the age of flourishing science and technology. All we need is that men be rational in their actions. That itself should be sufficient to serve the purpose of ensuring justice, equality and social order, the eventual aim of all religions. All very true, but yesterday's solar eclipse made me do a little rethink.

The moon made a pass past the sun's blazing face sometime in the late morning and continued its journey through to the afternoon. My office is located at the heart of the IT sector in Calcutta, packed with glass towers and thousands upon thousands of IT employees. If there was ever an industry that literally grew out of the dust over the past 20 years, this was it. We were essentially working jobs which had existed only for the past 2 decades thanks to the exponential growth in communication tech, compared to the thousands of years humans had spent on this planet doing a whole lot of other things in isolated pockets.

The attention that a perfectly explainable natural event like a solar eclipse drew even at our workplace is what needs mention. We all knew that it was only the moon blocking the sun's path as it crossed across its face, but all of us did take some time out to sneak a peek at nature's version of turning the auditorium lights down low. Some of course proceeded to devote the entire afternoon to this activity but that is a different disease popularly known as the IT syndrome. For the most part, inside the modern buildings and air-conditioned buildings, there may have been a vague feeling of uneasiness. The heavenly body that was the sustaining source for all life on earth was playing a very very brief game of hide and seek, and alarm bells were set ringing inside our animal selves. We all knew that the sun would come back and continue to toast us when summertime came, but seeing it back in its wincing glory was still reassuring.

Transpose this situation back by just a couple of centuries, and it's hard to miss the tremendous contribution of religion. The world must have been a bewildering place for a time when scientific basics were not being drilled into primary school kids. Every thunderstorm, every drought, every earthquake and every bitter winter were scary possibilities and beyond explanation. If not for religion, man would have had to spend most of his time cowering in fear inside caves which would mean that his demise was sealed as tiger prey given his infinitely inferior physical strength compared to the predators of the natural world. Worshipping nature or celestial beings who control it may seem like a foolish thing to do today when every quirk of nature can be explained with the help of physics, chemistry, maths and biology, but back then it was an essential survival tool. It gave a reason for human beings to stop behaving like animals confident in the belief that someone up there was taking care of them and making a note of all their actions. All these are just the practical benefits of having faith in a higher power, leaving aside the emotional support that belief in the "Every twist and turn of life is part of a divine plan for ultimate happiness" philosophy offers.

Some people say that religion and God are inventions by man himself, and I the eternal cynic am inclined to believe them. If so, religion should rank right up there, next to fire and the wheel, no lower, among the greatest achievements of humans as a species. On the other hand, there is that beautiful reply by a scientist/sci fi author when he was asked about his opinion on the existence of God. He quoted William Cowper, an English poet stating "Absence of proof is not proof of absence!"

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