Arts

The Role of Religion in Our Society

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We are agricultural societies that have industrialized within one or two generations…If you look at Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore – there’s been one remarkable phenomenon – the rise of religion…there is a quest for some higher explanations about man’s purpose. About why we are here. This is associated with periods of great stress in society. ~ Lee Kuan Yew

We live in the Anthropocene –  an era of profound social disturbance caused by man-made and natural disasters.  Both Mother Nature and Father Time are punishing us.  Never in the annals of human history have we given ourselves deadlines to avert disaster.  Yet, we believe that we’ll find some way to get out of the  mess. This could well be our natural inclination toward religion – in our faith and belief.

Religion is fundamentally a matter of faith and belief which, although not mutually exclusive, represent two different aspects of one’s religious persuasion. While faith represents trust or dependence in one sense, it also represents “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”. Belief on the other hand is defined as  “an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists – a religious conviction – trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something”. In other words, faith and belief supplement each other, often confusing the literati until explained with clarity by someone (other than the writer) who might be more erudite in the scriptures of the various religions that exist in the world today.

What is even more interesting is the definition of the word “religion”.  Yuval Noah Harari in his much acclaimed and celebrated historical work “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” defines religion as “ a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order”.  Harari distinguishes his statement by saying that religion differs from a sport – say professional football – on the point that whereas human beings invented the structure, rules and conduct involving football, religion is not the product of human whims or agreements. He goes on to explain that “FIFA may any moment enlarge the size of the goal or suspend the offside rule”.

It is reported that approximately 85% of the world identifies with a religion. The most popular religion is Christianity, followed by an estimated 2.38 billion people worldwide. Islam, which is practiced by more than 1.91 billion people, is second. However, population researchers predict that Islam will have nearly caught up to Christianity by 2050.

So, what caused the popularity of religion in society?  Samuel Huntington, University Professor at Harvard University in his ground-breaking book “The Clash of Civilizations and  Remaking the World Order offers an explanation, “ The most obvious, most salient, and most powerful cause of the global resurgence is precisely what was supposed to cause the death of religion: the processes of social, economic, and cultural modernization that swept across the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Long-standing sources of identity and systems of authority are disrupted. People move from the countryside to the city, become separated from their roots, and take new jobs or no jobs. They interact with large numbers of strangers and are exposed to new sets of relationships.  They need new sources of identity, new forms of a stable community and new sets of moral precepts to provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Religion…meets these needs”.

In other words, religion gives us a sense of identity and direction in a world in which we are struggling to survive amidst the machinations of greed, ambition, self-interest, and downright evil.  The growing social dimension of religion may have emerged as a result of the transition of society from the agricultural revolution   (which was accompanied by a religious revolution) to the industrial revolution and onwards to the knowledge revolution, which could have prompted Jean Paul Sartre to say, “Hell is other people”.

Here’s my take.

Any religion or philosophy of life (such as Buddhism) must be based on the pursuit of a good life. Michael Sandel – also a Harvard professor – put it best when he said “the common good is about how we live together in community. It’s about the ethical ideals we strive for together, the benefits and burdens we share, and the sacrifices we make for one another. It’s about the lessons we learn from one another about how to live a good and decent life”.  Our lives must be shared with one another, and to successfully accomplish this goal, there must be a fusion or extension of the holy scriptures ( The Holy Bible; The Holy Quran; or The Bhagavat Geeta, to name a few) to the wisdom of our generations, while preserving our beliefs and faiths. As the father of existentialism – Soren Kierkegaard – a devout Christian of Danish origin said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”.  Kierkegaard brought a potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom – what he called “the leap of faith”.

Study.Com carries an interesting piece about the leap of faith: “the definition of a leap of faith is a person having trust in something despite the lack of logic, reason, and rationality. They leap, figuratively, to interact or explore this thing. The phrase is significant to understanding the stages of human existence, which comprise a transition from one stage to another through this leap.

When someone believes in God, this would require a leap of faith for Kierkegaard. It disregards any logic and reason because there is no proof that this exists. In moments of despair, confusion, or other feelings of uncertainty and doubt, faith in God is done out of volition. When a person has faith in God, there is nothing that can measure it. It is an intangible phenomenon. For example, there are no predictable stages in life, changes, or movements and actions that a person must go through to garner this conclusion that they have faith”.

There is no scientific evidence that God exists. But we humans believe and indeed know of the existence of things that are scientifically inexplicable.  Take consciousness for example. Each of us knows we have consciousness or awareness, but we cannot scientifically prove it, nor can we ascribe a reason for its existence.  It is this consciousness that enables us to gain knowledge and wisdom through communal endeavours.  We advance our global communities through our consciousness.  At the same time, we also destroy ourselves through our consciousness.

As Deepak Chopra says: “Consciousness is that thing in you that is reading and understanding these words right now. It is the awareness that has made you sentient to every thought, sensation, and feeling your entire life. It is the continuity of your life that has stayed the same while all of the details of your life change. Consciousness is your essential nature, your true self that is the silent basis of all your thoughts and actions”

Consciousness, when blended with the communal nature that religion infuses in us will ultimately help us in conquering natural and man-made disasters while humanism (belief in oneself and no other) alone will not take us through the serious business of existing on this planet.  One may well argue that if we are impelled to act in consonance with our consciousness, we may hear God speak. 

International Literacy Day – 8 September 2022

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Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. ~ Frederick Douglass

The Sri Lanka Guardian was founded as an online web portal in August 2007 “by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. This portal is currently a platform for over a hundred regular writers from around the world”.  In other words, it accommodates writers to express their ideas and views and comment on what’s going on in the world, to be shared with the literati who, it is hoped,  benefit from the intellectual exertions of the writers. In that context, it is ineluctable that the most important date of the year for both the Sri Lanka Guardian and its readership is 8 September.

International Literacy Day falls on 8 September each year and seemingly passes with the unobtrusive dignity of the message it usually carries – that books enlarge a child’s world and enrich an adult’s vision, knowledge, and wisdom.  As the saying goes, reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

Founded in 1966 and designated as International Literacy Day by the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  the day is meant “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. International Literacy Day brings ownership of the challenges of illiteracy back home to local communities where literacy begins, one person at a time”.

UNESCO, which has adopted the theme “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces” for this year’s celebrations, says it will be an opportunity to rethink the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable, and inclusive education for all, while going on to say: “In the aftermath of the pandemic, nearly 24 million learners might never return to formal education, out of which, 11 million are projected to be girls and young women. To ensure no one is left behind, we need to enrich and transform the existing learning spaces through an integrated approach and enable literacy learning in the perspective of lifelong learning”.

One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations is “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.  Of these words, arguably the most important words are “promote lifelong learning”. Now, most of the world receives basic education in school and those of us who are more receptive and persevering receive university education. But only some of us pursue “lifelong learning”.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman once said he writes his books and columns to learn about things as, in the process of writing he educates himself.  In other words, he acquires knowledge while dispensing wisdom to the world. 

Simplistically put, “literacy” means “the ability to read and write”.  However, this definitive should not be inhibitive to just reading and writing but expansive to be stretched to all the various stages and processes of our education.  Literacy should encompass the five stages of our justification for existence, particularly as literati.  They are, reading; understanding; analyzing; creating and innovating.  Creating and innovating from a literacy sense is achieved through writing, whether it involves writing books, articles, poems, short stories, novels, columns, screenplays, or theatrical plays. The ability to write is innate in all of us but we can bring it to fruition if only we try. The basic tool for writing is reading, which helps us in applying the range of our knowledge to the depths of our curiosity. It makes us realize that we can rejoice in the richness of common academic heritage and believe that imitation is suicide and creativity is the essence of wisdom. At a time when profound and powerful forces are shaking and remaking the world, and information technology brings knowledge to our doorstep, we are in a world which knows no limits to show us that, in a fast-changing world, our challenges are fearsome, but so are our strengths. The fruits of our own literacy give us the certainty of our judgments and the boldness of our convictions to serve the world and help others who might need our guidance.

As the much acclaimed and Man Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy once said: “the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds”.

Another distinct benefit of lifelong learning is that it helps us manage ourselves and shows us the path to leadership in our own professions. Leaders who are moral and ethical would know the Greek proverb “Know thyself” and watch out for their mistakes and improve on areas where they are weak in if they continue to pursue learning. They will be able to fix their weakest parts whether they are in regulation, standardization or harmonization. Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, in their book The Mind of the Leader, cite four critical factors sought by today’s workforce: meaning; human connectedness; true happiness; and a desire to contribute positively to the world. Today’s leader has to be connected to herself and to those around her and have a sense of purpose. The teleological significance of life and its meaning and purpose comes from learning. A leader should lead the people towards that sense of purpose. Peter Drucker famously said: “[Y]ou cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first”.

Literacy, if used wisely makes us antifragile, non-traditional, lateral thinkers who take existing usage and change the way things are. The mind of the true literati is not of a one-time solution provider.  It is constantly active and therefore introduces a dimension that goes beyond adaptability.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb,  the author who introduced the concept of anti-fragility says: “ Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

The literati also think laterally. Wikipedia sums up lateral thinking as “a manner of solving problems using an indirect and creative approach via reasoning that is not immediately obvious. It involves ideas that may not be obtainable using only traditional step-by-step logic”. Lateral thinking goes against the usual “vertical logic”.  Edward de Bono, widely acclaimed as the father and guru of lateral thinking, explains clearly with what he calls “the intelligence trap”: “a highly intelligent person can construct a rational and well-argued case for virtually any point of view. The more coherent this support for a particular point of view the less the thinker sees any need actually to explore the situation.  Such a person may then become trapped into a particular view simply because he can support it”.

Literacy makes us escape from this trap.