On 14th July 1960 a small group of people gathered at the base of the tallest Alpine massif, close to where engineers were carving the Mont Blanc tunnel that connects France with Italy. This group had gathered to witness the “End of the World” which would take place at precisely 1.45 PM. As the time approached there was a great deal of crying and wailing and someone even blew the last trumpet. A one-time Milanese pediatrician, Elio Bianca, the prophet of this cult, afterwards calmly pronounced: “We made a mistake.”
The New York Times carried the news under the headline: “World Fails to End.” This group was not the first, nor will it be the last, to predict the dissolution of the earth. From the time man discovered religion, prophets of all kind have populated this earth, mostly making similar predictions. Religious works have come down through the oral route until the discovery of writing, and were widely circulated following the invention of the printing press.
Brilliant minds have engaged themselves in the study of these texts and have used them for making historical pronouncements like the dating of Creation by the redoubtable James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland. A student of Trinity College, Dublin, Ussher was a versatile scholar. Studying astronomy, history, and various sources of biblical chronology, Ussher determined the exact date on which his God created the Earth. His work named Annalis Veteris Testamenti, which calculated the timetable of creation, was published in 1650. It was incorporated in the authorized version of The Bible in 1701, and since then the faithful have been seeing creation through the same religious lens.
Ussher precisely dated Creation to the evening preceding Sunday, 23rd October 4004 B.C. He also went on to assert that Adam and Eve were banished from Paradise on Monday the 10th of November in the same year. The poor couple barely managed to stay for just a couple of weeks in the Garden of Eden. He also informs us that Noah’s ark alighted on Mount Ararat on 5th May 1491 B.C.
It is not my purpose here to single out Judeo/Christianity for continuing to have such obscurantist views of Creation. In fact, the Judeo/Christian world has produced some of the most brilliant original thinkers and experimenters in all fields of science. Yet, in spite of an explosion in scientific investigation especially in the field of geophysics that tells us that our planet could be over 13 billion years old, and that the present configuration of the continents is only the latest of the many worlds that have formed on this earth, there is a large number of people out there who still hold on to similar beliefs as professed by the Rev. James Ussher. The same is the case with almost all the religions that have ruled people’s lives in the past and that continue to rule even now.
Religion has been used by the powerful to keep the masses subjugated and by invoking the wrath of God, filling the minds of the uneducated and the illiterate with fear. Others have been put to the sword, ostensibly for having different views, but actually out of greed for their lands and possessions. The European annihilation of the indigenous natives of the Americas was justified in the name of Christianity, but the motive behind this destruction was nothing but greed for land and gold. The Crusades were also wars fought for plunder, but disguised as holy wars to reclaim a piece of Christian real estate that had fallen into the hands of the believers of a new religion that had sprung up in the sands of Arabia.
Islam too has fought its holy wars and hundreds of millions of lives have been sacrificed in its pursuit for glory and hegemony. Even before the advent of Christianity and Islam, there have been holy wars in the name of one God or another. Each one of these ambitious warlords or kings had a God in whose name his armies would march to subdue and conquer nations to satisfy their lust for worldly things.
From time to time, when atrocities in the name of a religion have reached a crescendo, there have been calls from within for a movement to reform it. Almost all religions have gone through this phase. But every reformist movement has ended in splitting a religion into numerous denominations, producing volumes of scriptural texts that lay down the rituals that an adherent needs to follow. The result is not reform but a further fragmentation of people that only gives rise to more confrontation and more violence.
We saw it in the Christian world in the bloody wars between the Catholics and the Protestants. Although there is no room for violence in Buddhism and Jainism, yet both these religions have split into sects that prescribe separate rituals and paths towards salvation. Hinduism too has founded a number of philosophical systems and each one has its own followers.
Islam, a religion that is followed by nearly one-fifth of the world’s population has also split into numerous sects, each one at war with another. The cycle of bloody violence that this fragmentation has started does not appear to have run its course yet. Afghanistan, where according to M. J. Akbar, the Cold War (which he calls the Third World War) ended, has become the land where the seeds of the Fourth World War have been sown. This is a war that is being waged by the holy warriors of Islam against the rest of the world. This war has been going on for a quarter of a century now, and there do not appear to be no signs of it abating any time soon.
The unspeakable horror of the massacre of young school children in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban was quickly followed by the broad-daylight storming of the Charlie Hebdo office resulting in the cold-blooded murder of journalists, policemen, and civilian hostages. The Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria and the gruesome beheadings of hostages by ISIS warlords in the Levant have brought about worldwide revulsion and repugnance. Voices from within the Islamic world have started calling for reform. Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer living in exile in India, writes in her blog (Times of India, 13th January, 2015): “Will gunmen get me too? Ending terror requires that Islam is reformed, modernized.”
Another Muslim writer, living under a death threat since 1989, tweeted his solidarity with the French magazine. In a condemnation of the attack Salman Rushdie wrote: “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.” Mohd. Asim, Senior News Editor, NDTV 24×7, says quite the same thing in his blog: “Yes, Islam Needs to Reform.”
Similar sentiments are being expressed by a number of commentators who see the need for reform within Islam and other religions. The question we must ask ourselves is: “Can religions be reformed?” The problem is that all religions proclaim that they are the word of God and theirs is the only way to salvation and redemption. So how does one begin to reform what God Himself is supposed to have said? The conflicts generated by various interpretations given by humans to scripture have only fractured society in mutually exclusive segments, while retaining the core principles or beliefs of a religion. So how and where does one start with reforms?
Each interpretation has been an attempt at reform, but we are nowhere near finding a solution to the problem. Various attempts at making a universal religion that would be embraced by all have met with no success. Even Akbar had proclaimed his universal faith “Din-e-Ilahi” without it finding any lasting base. The only possible religion that could be called truly universal is Atheism, but even atheists have been known to be as violent and bloody as the followers of some ordained belief. Atheists too can be as fanatical in their disbelief as the believers.
The only reform that will be truly meaningful is a complete renunciation of all religions. But that requires the entire humanity to become saints. Since we know that to be an impossible dream, I suppose the world will go on till the human race doesn’t wipe itself out in an orgy of violence that will extinguish all signs of life from earth.
Science tells us that the earth is not cooling as fast as some other planets in the universe because of the presence of radioactive elements. The presence of tectonic plates will continue to create new continental configurations which will break up to form new mountains and oceans, and in some future age, millions or even billions of years from new, a new race of humans may evolve.
A future geologist may find fossilized evidence of our existence, but we will have left no trace of our gods, our religions, and our bloody conflicts. Fortunately, for the new humans we will leave no legacy, and hopefully they will not make the same mistakes as us in discovering God and religion.
By: Vijaya Dar