I continue to be baffled by the persistence of religions, even when their effects on human beings and our world are nothing short of cataclysmic. In Muslim-majority nations, Islam has become the reason of choice to sow mayhem, inflict misery, and commit mass murders. The reader needs no reminder since news of violence by Muslims on Muslims and other hapless global bystanders is part of our daily menu. But what remains rather unnoticed—and, therefore, unexamined—are the quiet deaths and suffering that flow from religious doctrines and edicts. In such cases, religions appear not only as antiquated relics of a long-gone era, but also, in some instances, as outright crimes against humanity. Two cases from Pakistan and India could be cited to make the latter claim.
A recent heat wave in Pakistan left about 1,000 people or so dead, mostly homeless and vulnerable folks, but what compounded the tragedy was the reluctance of people to make water available during the month of Ramadan. The Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif put this well when he wrote in an opinion piece: “What killed [these people] was the forced piety enshrined in our law and Karachi’s contempt for the working poor.” Disastrous urban planning and austere religious rituals turned out to be a deadly mix for poor Pakistanis.
Next door in India, starving children in the state of Madhya Pradesh were denied the consumption of highly nutritional eggs because such a measure goes against Hindu beliefs that make cows sacred. Children in rural India fare worse than their sub-Saharan African peers, and more than half of those under the age of five are stunted. Eggs could save their lives, but the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh would not listen. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs most of India, is not only preventing the consumption of eggs, but it is also criminalising the slaughter of cows and the sale of beef. The nation’s cattle and beef industry is threatened, while non-Hindu minorities in the country are forced to cope with these religious edicts.
These are some of the other pathologies and violence unleashed by religions that have outlived their usefulness. Yet they continue to guide and strike. And much of our media continues to see them as vessels of ancient wisdom, unfairly hijacked by unscrupulous extremists who have nothing to do with their core beliefs.
Such an attitude, I am afraid, is becoming almost complicit in perpetuating these horrors. Observing religious rituals like fasting and worshipping cows may provide meaning and bring solace to many Muslims and Hindus, but the effect of such beliefs is causing harm and undermining our quest for a progressive human civilization. We need to liberate ourselves from the gods our ancestors created.