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Do We Need Religion?-Part V
Continued From The Fourth Part
The Role of Organized Religions
How do we reconcile this view of religion (as addressing the fundamental needs of human beings) with the popular view that religion is a collection of dogmas, beliefs, observances, customs and rituals that in fact serve to distinguish a community from others? Indeed, most organized religions do take this form.
Observances as taught by organized religions have an importance and we should not underestimate their role. It is very easy to take the view that these are actually hindrances, that they are limiting and that 'real' religion is beyond such prescriptions and injunctions. However, such a view is fallacious. It ignores the fact that we are growing and evolving in all dimensions.
As a physical baby grows and learns, the constraints imposed on it are varied. In the beginning, there are many instances of 'don't': things that the baby should not do. If we think that the baby should be free and we do not impose any limitations on it, it would not survive for very long. The fact that all of us are alive today is because of people who took care of us when we were vulnerable. They told us what we should do and what we should not do. Through that training and by observing those injunctions, we slowly grew. Now, we do not need to be told or follow those injunctions in the same way. Some we observe without being told. And others we do not. This is because we have crossed a safety threshold whereby we can be entrusted with the responsibility of regulating ourselves.
Thus, organized religions are seen as stages through which we may pass in our spiritual evolution. This of course contradicts the assertion of most organized religions that they represent the final truth...
Similarly when a seed is planted, care has to be taken that the seed is not destroyed by animals. Some fencing or other obstacle is installed. When the seed becomes a small plant, different kind of fencing and support is installed because the threats are different. But when the plant becomes a tree, it is strong enough to protect itself against those dangers. Therefore the hedging can be removed and we may expect that the plant will take care of itself, as it were.
Similarly, religious injunctions protect us while we are spiritual babies. It is too easy to think that we know what is good for us, but in fact there may be dangers that we are not aware of. These injunctions will increase the chances of our well-being until we come to a state of maturity in which we do not need them anymore.
Note that as with the plant and the human baby, if the protective measures are not removed at a certain point, they are in fact harmful. What was beneficial and protective at one stage becomes harmful and limiting at another stage. This is why Swami Vivekananda said, 'It is good to be born in a church, but not to die there.' This means that it is good to begin in a religious tradition, observing all the rites and rituals. But one must understand the role of these in the process of growth and must eventually transcend them. It is similar to a school. A student enters a school and studies for some years. When the programme of studies is complete, the student graduates and leaves. What do you think it means if a student stays in the same programme forever? Clearly, something is wrong. The normal process is to learn and move on.
Thus the rites, rituals, observances and even the dogma of organized religions help us to grow. There is an unfortunate tendency to belittle these observances, either because of intellectual arrogance or perhaps because of laziness. Both of these are pitfalls and should be guarded against.
Thus, organized religions are seen as stages through which we may pass in our spiritual evolution. This of course contradicts the assertion of most organized religions that they represent the final truth. Given what we have discussed thus far, how are we to understand this assertion of each organized religion that it is not an institution to pass through, but a one-stop shop that has the final truth?
To be continued
About the author
The author is a Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Toronto. He gives regular lessons to young students' group attached to the Vedanta Society of Toronto.