We, none of us, are born with a religion. The luckier among us are not even born into a religion. Some of us are given the very necessary but hardly given choice of believing what we want to believe. It is for a person to choose what he or she wants to believe, and being born into a religion is equivalent to being engaged to someone at birth and having to live with that person for life whether you like it or not. It’s fair enough that some of us choose to attribute all that is and all that happens to supernatural elements, and some others choose to be more earthy, skeptic non-believers. To those of the first category, the believers, I’ll say that your condition is a phobia. This phobia may be traced to two causes which bring out the title of this article, how religion and phobia are interdependent. I shall explain how fear makes you believe in a religion and how religion brings about fear again.
You believe in, by the accident of birth or choose to believe in, a religion solely because of the fear of death. After all, that is what every thing boils down to in the end. If I dig into this fact a wee bit more, I could say that what you are afraid of is the concept of “inexistence”. It is entirely human to be scared of something that you only half understand. In answer to why you are scared of “inexistence”, I shall say that it is simply because you do not understand this theory well enough. I sense that I am starting to get a little incoherent, so I shall explain what the word “inexistence” means. It is the state of not being there in this world (or even in another world for that matter) in any form whatsoever. It is to not exist as a human or an animal or a god or a spirit or a zombie or a soul floating in air or a ghoul or whatever else that you believe. Imagine, if you can and if you would, that there is no way of being changed from being from one sort of entity into another and that you have a single life to live, that after your death there is no way of popping back into existence again, be it through reincarnation, heaven and hell, afterlife or any other method that your religion proposes. It is truly hard to imagine such inexistence for the obvious reason that your imagination takes your existence for granted – you do not like to think of yourself as a memory just yet when death seems possible only with others and not with regard to you. You are scared of being a non-entity, of being zilch itself.
Happily, you are not the only person that this thought of inexistence has positively depressed. The world’s religious leaders and philosophers have all tried to put forward theories about existence beyond a single life, evidently depressed by this thought. To elaborate this, I shall explain how religions court existence. Let me pick the two most popular religions in the world: Islam and Christianity. In Islam, heaven is described primarily as a garden or jannath (Arabic for garden) and it is seen in physical terms as a place where every wish is immediately fulfilled when asked. Islamic texts describe life in heaven as entirely happy (38:35/18:31/ 52:17-27, in the Quran). On the contrary, in Christianity, heaven is neither an abstraction nor a place in the clouds but a living personal relationship with the holy trinity (Revelation 22 in the Bible). Similarly, Sikhism aims at a spiritual union with god attained through meditation and serving humanity.
There are also other religions that combine the concepts of rebirth (as a cycle of life and death) and heaven/hell. Theosophy, for example, says that souls that have been good go to heaven, called Summerland. The soul is recalled to earth to reincarnate after 1400 years. The final heaven is attained billions of years later after they finish Devachan (the cycle of incarnations). Then, there is Jainism, the purpose of which is to attain moksa or release from rebirth and go to the highest level of heaven. Hells are not eternal according to this faith. Hinduism also falls into this category. According to the Bhagavat Gita, souls wear and discard different bodies as if they change clothes and the end of this cycle is mukti (staying finally with god forever), if not hell.
In ancient Egypt, it was believed that heaven was a place, complete with a heavenly Nile river, called ‘the land of the two fields’ and one could board Ra’s magical boat and travel to this at the end of life, if one had done enough good deeds, had a light heart and was well mummified.
All these religions preach that there is a form of existence after death. Now, I come to Buddhism. This alone says that after a cycle of many incarnations, if one has done enough good, there is a possibility of attaining nirvana. Nirvana is the state of not existing in any form, in any world. Buddhism is the sole religion that leaves room for inexistance. But Lord Buddha has compared nirvana to “eternal bliss” as in being happy forever. Happiness is an animal feeling (speaking of all types of life on earth). The issue with the Buddha’s interpretation of inexistance is, how can one be happy without existing in the first place? There needs to be a system of nerves in the body of an animal for it to feel happiness or any other feeling. If the animal does not exist, the nervous system also does not exist. Lord Buddha does not explain how nerveless happiness comes to be. So the mention of nirvana fails to charm me because Buddhism also tries to make believe that inexistence is not nothingness but supreme happiness.
References to these popular religions demonstrate that religions in general seek to decrease people’s fear of death by making them believe that there is a possibility of an afterlife in heaven, another world etc. and that attaining total satisfaction in this afterlife is possible simply by being a good person. Evidently we do not like nothingness.
What I spoke about hitherto is how a phobia leads you to believe in a religion or simply why religions came to be. My next point will be how the belief in a religion in turn leads into phobia. The basic catch-phrase of every religion is “be good” (good in the sense morally right). But religious leaders knew that such a command or suggestion is not sufficient to make people obey. What can be done is to give them some motivation in the form of reasons as to why they should be good. Basically they must have figured out that the average person must be frightened into being good. “If you are good you shall go to heaven, else you shall eternally burn in hell”, “When you do good you get repaid well, if you do bad you get repaid badly”, “if you do good you’ll be reborn well (as a god or a human), if you do bad you’ll be reborn as a lower animal”, for example are some of the most popular supernatural motivations proposed by philosophers.
There’s a difference in being frightened into being good and being conscientiously good. By personal experience, I should say that not all religious people pass for good people by force of fear. All the same, my personal experience also hints that the majority of religious people I have met try their best to obey the rules of their religion (sometimes hypocritically) and thus be good; for example, “I cannot do this because the Bible says it is wrong” or “My religious leader says it is false so there’s no chance of it being proved true”. They do not have moral reasons for being good or bad. The religious text or the statement of the religious leader is taken as the axiom. The Quran, for example, starts with the statement that it is a book meant for believers, which means that one must start believing it before having read and understood what is said in it.
On the other hand, those who try to be morally right do not need a religion to frighten them into being good. All they need is conscience which we are all born with, unlike religion which we are all born without.
The fear of inexistence pushes you into embracing a religion and a religion frightens you into being a faithful hypocrite who is hypocritically good. This is the interdependence I want to establish.
Article by – Nathasha Samarasinghe