Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Morality

Religious scholars and even some philosophers lay claims that religion and morality are intricately intertwined; without morality religion would be baseless and without religion morality would be without foundation. The main purpose of religion is to impart moral values to mankind. When religion instils morality, humanity sees the true value of life, unbridled beauty of life and the majestic creation; without morality humans would lead a life in depravity.  

All these high-sounding, mouthful preaching of the religious scholars may appear to have deep inner meaning; but one must appreciate that religion has no unique claim on morality. In fact, most of the religions embody in practice just the reverse – sectarian, antagonistic and insular codes for the followers of a particular religion. These basic traits of a religion are against the very grains of morality. To appreciate the inner discord between religion and morality, let us look at the meaning and essence of morality.

Morality fundamentally embodies the ‘corporate rule’ – the rule embracing cooperation among the people of the community, the society, the country and beyond. The corporate rule that brings benefits to all in a cooperative way – for all, not for just the few – is a moral imperative. In the terminology of the game theory, it can be stated that morality inherently offers more than zero sum. If an attribute brings benefit to some people at the cost of others, then that attribute may be called zero sum issue and that has no moral underpinning. For example, when government taxes the rich to help the poor, that may be considered a good political decision, but not a moral issue. On the other hand, if an attribute brings benefit to everybody, equally or proportionately, without harming any particular section, that can be viewed as a moral decision. For example, giving free education to all within a country or free medical care at the point of need may be considered moral undertaking. Morality brings benefit to everybody and hence it is viewed as offering more than zero sum.

Morality maybe considered to have seven basic strands and these are: Family, Group, Reciprocity, Heroism, Deference, Fairness and Property. Human beings being social animals tend to live together in the family and the inherent desire of fair, equitable and cooperative distribution of benefits drawn collectively among the small bubble of Family members constitutes the first strand of morality. The morality of the Group is an extension of that of Family issue. What can be shared and sacrificed within the wider circle of the group, beyond the family, is the Group morality. The morality of Reciprocity is that if one person helps another person at the time of need, it is a moral imperative on the recipient to reciprocate the initial help at the right occasion. It helps both the initial giver and the recipient when it is needed most. Heroism is that strand of morality when one carries out a task to help others even at the risk to himself. The morality of Heroism is not to earn the plaudit of heroism, but an impartial attempt to help others. An example of it can be given as, recently when a Chinese man fell into a river in Shanghai and was struggling to save his life, a British diplomat (aged well over 60) instinctively jumped into the river and pulled the man to the shore and saved his life. This is the morality of Heroism – without any expectation for any reward or plaudit – pure desire to help others in need. Deference implies submission or yielding to judgement of recognised superiors or higher officials and thereby maintain harmonious relationship in the society. This is an important part of morality by maintaining corporate culture. Fairness comes as an essential element of morality as without it the whole corporate rule would breakdown to chaos. What is right, what is true, what is wrong etc should be established with Fairness as part of morality. And finally, Property offers the morality of maintaining one’s right to own and maintain property and possession. As a proverb says, An Englishman’s home is his castle. It is morally right that he should be allowed to live in his own home in a safe and dignified way and that is part of morality.

All of these strands, singly or collectively, offer the spirit and essence of morality. Morality is not only ethically justifiable but also beneficial from evolutionary point of view. Individual genes may exhibit selfish behaviour, but when it comes to the welfare of the whole survival machine (the whole body), morality encompassing corporate rule plays a dominant role. A moral society encourages a code of conduct where all the people may live comfortably, equitably and in dignified ways.

Now the big question is what role does religion play in maintaining morality or corporate rule? To answer this question, one has to trace back what role religion plays traditionally. The basic premise is that a religion inherently wants to establish its superiority and supremacy over other religions – as religions are competing against one another. This very basic competitive strand goes against the grain of morality of corporate rule. One religion does not accept or tolerate another religion’s theological stand and that is evident by their mutual antagonism and centuries of fighting. So, there cannot be a universal morality applicable to the whole society comprising various religions. The morality of cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, property etc may be applicable to people within a particular religion, but they may not be extended to people of other religions.  

So, in a theocratic state having people of many religious affiliations cannot get morally justifiable rule. Morality becomes subservient to theocracy or may even be abandoned in favour of theocratic dogma, as in many Islamic states and even in India at the moment. The claims by the religious scholars and leaders that religion is the custodian of morality and without religion morality would disappear are absurdly ludicrous and without any basis. Religion is detrimental to morality, as religion is sectarian whereas morality requires corporate rule. Therefore, one can say religion is amoral, not immoral.  

Almost all philosophers, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, writers, thinkers, scientists and so forth have expressed views that morality is not a good bedfellow to religion, in fact just the opposite. Their dislike to associate religion with morality had been expressed in many different ways and one particular area where their abhorrence was expressed firmly against religions when assessed against the perceived punishment and reward as depicted in religious books.

The British philosopher and polymath, Bertrand Russell, Nobel Laureate in literature in 1950, expressed his revulsion against religion when he said, “Religion is based mainly upon fear, fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”

Albert Einstein, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1921, said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

Christopher Hitchens, a British intellectual, said, “Human decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it.” 

Thus, religion and morality do not go hand in hand in the modern society. The Secularism within the Constitution may provide the rightful place for morality overriding communalism and sectarianism of various religions.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Solzhenitsyn – an ardent Communist to a devout Christian

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (11 Dec 1918 – 3 Aug 2008) was a Russian novelist, short story writer, philosopher, historian and a political ideologist. Born a year after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 and in the immediate aftermath of WWI, his life and works were shaped by the harsh realities of life during his formative period and the consequences of war. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

His parents had all the trappings and background of Imperial Russia. His father, Isaakiy Solzhenitsyn, was an officer in the elite Cossack Brigade (which was fiercely Tsarist) of the Imperial Russian Army and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy landowner in the Kuban region in the northern foothill of the Caucasus. Thus, his family fitted the typical bourgeois family, as defined by the revolutionary Bolshevik party, against which Bolshevik revolution was carried out in 1917. His father died soon after his mother conceived him and so he was brought up by his widowed mother in extreme hardship deprived of her wealth by the communist regime of Soviet Russia. Although he was to become a great literary giant, he studied Physics and Mathematics at Rostov State University.

As he grew up as an ardent communist, the drums of next war (WWII) were beating louder and louder and, inevitably, he had to join the Russian Army against Nazi invasion to save his motherland. As a brilliant officer of Cossack heritage, he showed his military excellence and was twice decorated. But the war left a very painful imprint on him. He witnessed war crimes by the Soviet Army against German civilians – the non-combatants and the elderly were robbed of meagre possessions, women were gang raped and killed, houses were burnt and the whole village pillaged. On atrocities, he wrote in agony, “You know very well that we have come to take revenge against the Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union”.

While serving in the Red Army in WWII, he was arrested for derogatory remarks on the conduct of the war by Josef Stalin in a private letter to a friend in 1945, just a couple of months before the end of the war, and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in labour camps. He was in a prison in Moscow when on 9th May 1945 Germany had surrendered. While the whole city erupted in jubilation, the person who fought for the country and risked his life was in the prison!

His sentence started in 1945. He chronicled his life in labour camps as forming three phases. In the last phase, from 1950 to 1953, he was in a ‘Special Camp’ for political prisoners in Kazakhstan, where was forced to work as a miner, bricklayer and a foundry foreman. His experience during this time formed the basis of his novel ‘One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ (1962). This was the only book that was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union after the reforms that were carried out by Nikita Khrushchev and, even then, only after Khrushchev’s personal patronage. That reform also freed him from exile in 1956 and allowed to go back to Moscow. His books ‘Cancer Ward’ (1968), ‘August 1914’ (1971), ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ (1973) and many more were all published abroad.  

In all of his books, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ received most attention in the West, as it was in this book, he exposed the moral depravity of communist ideology. The Gulag, in Russian, is the acronym of Main Directorate of Camps (labour). It was written over a period of ten years taking materials from reports, interviews, diaries as well as legal documents and his own experiences. The three volumes of this book published in 1973 in the West led to his expulsion from the Soviet Union.     

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. The authorities in Soviet Union were very much angered by his supposedly anti-communist moral and ethical propaganda in the form of literary contributions. In 1974 Soviet Authorities withdrew his Soviet citizenship. He was then flown to the then West Germany and after protracted negotiations, he was allowed to move his family to America in 1976. He lived in America from 1976 until 1994 when he returned to Russia after the fall of Soviet Union. During this period, he wrote the dramatized account of Russian Revolution of 1917 in “The Red Wheel”.

Although in the West he is portrayed as the voice against communism, a lone writer standing up to the might of an ‘Evil Empire’ etc, in reality, he was simply expressing his moral values – be it against communism or capitalism. He wrote a number of articles, while in America, showing the vacuousness of American capitalism and its moral degradation. He strongly criticised America for invading Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He wrote, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State”. This narrative is now relevant to many countries, East or West.  

He also wrote, “Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle”. It may have been written against the backdrop of Josef Stalin’s atrocities and violent measures in WWII, but it also applies very well to modern day politicians – democratically elected in Western affluent countries – like George W Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Trump and many more.

In 1994 he returned to Russia with his family and lived in Western part of Moscow. Although he lived over 17 years in America, he never accepted American culture and way of life. As he became old, he moved away from socialism and became a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. He died on 3 August 2008 of heart attack.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist