We are living, said Pope Francis, not so much in an era of change as in a change of era. The COVID-19 pandemic is a watershed moment in history. The present disarray, destruction and suffering are the birthing pangs of a new era. We hear the footfalls of the departing gods fading behind us, even if we don’t see the footprints of the incoming gods in front of us.
The brunt of this transition falls on religions because they thrive on the past. All religions claim to be inheritors of exclusive spiritual legacies, which they treat as closed systems. They hold zealously to the letter and litter of it, even though the world around them has changed beyond recognition. As a result, religions remain enclaves of regression in an ever-changing world.
This results from the supremacy that religions attach to “faith”. Faith is pitted against reason. Surely, this cannot be faith in God; for God is Supreme Reason. It is faith in the religious establishment and its agendas. This specious faith is used to suppress in human beings the divine attributes of love, truth, justice and compassion. This goes against the grain of scriptures. For that reason, the light of scriptures is kept hidden from believers. Historically, it was the priestly class that exalted faith above the attributes of God. This had the effect of the dethroning of God.
Misusing faith, religious establishments and the priestly class distorted religious culture and made the life of religious communities centred not on God, but places of worship. To hide the irrationality this entailed, they distorted the idea of God. Consequently, the omnipresent God became a local deity who stays tamely confined within the narrow radius of priestly interests and sleights of hand. God was turned into an alibi for fragmenting humankind, and an excuse for spreading communal poison. God of love became God of hate. God of truth became God of untruth. God of light became God of darkness.
It looks as though the COVID pandemic has come to emancipate us from this subhuman religiosity. The virus has freed us from our addiction to priestly potions in temples, churches, and mosques. The fact that the rupture in people’s addiction to places of worship is enabling many to recognise the superfluity of priest-manipulated, temple-centred religiosity, is troubling the priestly class as a whole. It is now fairly clear that religiosity of this kind was not for the sake of the people, but people were being used for the profit of religious establishments.
Unlike love, which is universal, faith is inherently parochial. Faith is exclusive to religious groups. Zeal for one’s faith breeds hate and hostility to the faiths of others. It is this naiveté that custodians of religions breed and exploit to deadly effect.
The priestly class can be trusted to import their agenda into the post-COVID era. It is in the interest of humanity that they be not allowed to do this. A new age needs a new spiritual vision. That vision has to be informed by the godly attributes of love, truth, justice and compassion. The priestly class has no use for these values. They are incompatible with priestly interests. The new world cannot live on their regressive menu from the past. It is spirituality, not religion, that humankind in the new world needs.
The virus has undermined every aspect of priest-driven religiosity. Temples, mosques and churches are closed. Most people do not miss them! The tinkling of coins is no longer heard in sanctuaries, and that does not seem to upset gods. The communal nexus between religion and politics stands paralysed. Post-COVID, religion must be God-centred and priest-free, unburdened with places of worship. Worship, free from rituals, dogmas, deception and priestly hypocrisy, must nourish life. Worship must be to spiritual life what breathing is to physical life. Just as there are no middlemen in our breathing — except the deadly middleman of pollution — in the spiritual breathing of worship too, there must be no middlemen.
The emphasis must shift from salvation to social justice, from piety to peace, from rituals to human development, from divisive faith to universal love. Humanity must be free at last to recognise the God of justice who has no favourites or special agents.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 30, 2020 under the title “Emancipated By Virus”. Agnivesh is a Vedic scholar and social activist and Thampu was principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi
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