Philosophy and religion

By Aziz Ali Dad

Before delving deep into the debate of religion, it is important to know what makes religion the religion. According to Rudolf Otto religion is about the ‘the Holy’ or ‘numinous’, whereas Emile Durkheim call it ‘the sacred’, whereas, Paul Tillich terms it the object of ‘unconditional concern’.

Although these definitions define certain aspect of religion, they do not provide all encompassing or holistic definition because of the diversity of contexts from which religions emerge.

Therefore, it is better to approach religion through deconstructive method, which is in the words of Max Charlesworth “an attempt to reveal the historical and cultural and other ways in which a discourse, or disciplined or sphere of human thought, is built up.”

Talal Asad raises question that before discussing religion we should define what makes religion the religion. Here he is pointing towards contamination of definition of religion because of the culture of disbelief in modernity.

Seen from the perspective of disbelief, the belief becomes a vacuous spirituality. 

The search for origin of religion takes us to ancient sites and caves which provide evidence of proto religions and its followers. These are rock drawing in the caves of Lascaux in southern France, Africa and other parts of the world. The caves are estimated to be 17000 years old.

Among different figures of animals in the drawings, there were men in a state of trance with upraised arms. Karen Armstrong thinks they are probably shamans who can be called the first homo religiosus – religious animal.

Since then religion has taken different shapes in response to different challenges of changed times. The different kinds of religions that emerged on the face of earth, ranges from pre-axialic worldly religions to soteriological religions – the religions of salvation or liberation.

Etymologically the word religion is derived from Latin religare means ‘to bind’. Traditionally religion deeply binds the society. Contrary to religion, the vocation of philosophy is smashing of idols or in simple words it is breaking the mental shackles that bind our thinking. Since both have diametrically opposite goals, both of them are bound to clash.

History of philosophy reveals that it is fight against dominant thinking, which had been historically religious. However, history took a drastic turn after the enlightenment when philosophers of both secular and atheistic persuasions challenged religion and forced it into private sphere or eliminated from human society under the disenchanted order.

The most significant pronouncement came in the shape of ‘death of God’ by Friedrich Nietzsche. He envisaged a different world than his contemporaries after the demise of religion as he feared emergence of more sanguinary religions in a secular garb.

Since the Enlightenment, the proponent of reason and opponents of religion were confident that dominance of reason will end exploitations, wars and parochial ways of looking at things. These hopes were soon dashed when the World War I started and consumed millions of lives. After a pause of two decades the world again plunged into another World War resulting in killing of 60 million people within a short period (1939-1945).

Never in history has the humanity witnessed carnage at large scale and sophistication of killing as it witnessed in the last century. This fact compelled philosophers to contemplate about the reasons for genocide at the universal scale in an age where religion was totally sidelined. Karen Armstrong rightly says that “the twentieth century presented with one nihilistic icon after another, and many of the extravagant hopes of modernity and the Enlightenment were shown to be false.”

These tragic events of both world wars led to soul searching among philosophers who uncovered the process that transformed modern institutions into churches and the most liberating ideas into justificatory discourse for murder and mayhem.

The reason for the world wars and mass killing even in the most godless century lies in the fact that nation state has been turned into an idol to worship and placing ideology above human beings.

John Hick treats modern secular schools of thoughts as religions of post axial age, for they are salvation oriented with firm faith in their ideology.

Owing to their belief in liberating ideology, the believers in the end of history do not balk at imposing their ideas, institutions and lifestyle on the people who have different cultural background and ideas about society.

This apathetic zeal of transformation and uni-dimensional thinking is akin to religious worldview that sees the world in terms of good and evil and reflects typical attitude of holier than thou. Currently, the world is in anarchy because the dominating institutions, ideas and lifestyle are considered indispensable to the well-being of people.

Any deviation from these will lead to death and destruction. This attitude is not different from religious fanatics who see other believers as evil and any deviation from religiously prescribed way a prologue to the end of world.

Currently, the world is occupied with war on terror in which some vested interest employ religion as a bogeyman to keep attention of masses away from real mechanics behind the new wars all over the world with no visible enemy.

There is a tendency to attribute resurgence of religious fundamentalism as the return of religion. The kind of violence by religious fundamentalist we are witnessing today will ultimately disappear. At the same time archaic or traditional way of religion will also disappear. Religion will remain alive in this century but in new forms of spirituality, which expresses itself in art and aesthetics.

George Steiner asserts ‘the encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and metaphysical experience, the most “ingressive”, transformative summons available to human experiencing.” And novel is considered the most representative medium expressing sense and sensibilities of modern age.

What is to stay here is capitalism, which has become global religion because of its outreach, influence and lifestyle. Today bank balance is our virtue which can guarantee safe future. Stock exchanges in the big cities around the world are cathedrals. In the time of distress there are savior angels of banks and lending institutions.

In addition, this world view has strong military force behind it. When a conviction coalesces with military might, then it is difficult to confront such force. Situation in our time has become difficult because the dominance of mass media, schooling and hegemony of cultural apparatus has created idols that cannot be challenged.

When all things in the world turn into nail, then it is duty of philosophers to philosophize with hammer to hammer in their iconoclastic ideas and smash modern idols.

Prophets appeared on the horizon of history when the world was simple. Today our world has become too complex. For this complexity we need holistic thinking at prophetic (in a non-religious sense) thinking. It was probably Karl Jasper who lamented the fact that our age has lost the capacity to produce prophets.

The last prophets of the modern age were Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Unfortunately, their votaries have turned the former into idol and the latter into saint. That was what Nietzsche feared the most. He said, “I have a terrible fear I shall one day be pronounced holy”. Today philosophy has to fulfill its duty by smashing modern idols and religions which control our life by donning them in modern garbs, but religiously following their ideological agenda by riding the roughshod over “Others’ who do not toe the line of their religion.

Aziz Ali Dad is a social philosopher with an interest in the history of ideas. He holds a degree of MSc in Philosophy of Social Sciences from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a columnist for The Friday Times and The High Asia Herald. Aziz has written extensively on philosophy, culture, politics, and literature. He has published research papers at national and international levels. He has been a Crossroads Asia Fellow at Modern Oriental Institute, Berlin in Germany, and a fellow of Asia Leadership Fellow Program in Japan. Email:

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