Some members have asked at my orkut community why I have said I am 'spiritual but not religious' yet also claimed that religion is one of my passions. To clear up that confusion (and also as my first contribution to the community I have joined - Universal Religion), here is a summary of my views on this subject:
1. One cannot discuss whether or not religion has failed man without first clarifying what we mean by religion.
2. Since ancient times religion in various forms has tried to give men support and strength to fight the battles of life, and to look forward to a better life, in the 'next' world if not the present world. By encouraging music and the other fine arts, as well as collective rituals and festivals, it has also tried to make us more cultured, more sociable, and our lives more colourful and interesting.
3. Every religion tries to make us better human beings by insisting that we practise various virtues like honesty, humility, charity and discipline in everyday life, and aim at non-material goals, such as justice and love.
4. That is the essence of religion, not particular sets of rituals and superstitions and mindless traditions, not even the question of the existence and the ‘true’ form of God! Recall that there have been great religions (like Jainism and Buddhism) which forbade or avoided any discussion of God, other philosophies (like sankhya in Hinduism) have explicitly denied the existence of God, while yet others made tolerance and reverence for all religions and great teachers an essential part of their practice, and many religious-reform movements have repeatedly tried to cleanse religious practice of all its accumulated silliness and dross.
5. Our opponents will argue that religion has taught us to be superstitious, tradition-bound, obsessed with rituals, and cruel and violent towards those who do not share our beliefs. They will also say that in this scientific age only stupid or ignorant people believe in religion. But the facts of history as well as current events prove otherwise. Many great scientists, like Newton, Pasteur and Einstein have believed deeply in God, our one-time Union Home Minister Murli Manohar Joshi was a professor of physics. Not only evil men but some of the noblest men ever born were deeply religious, like the artist Michelangelo, the poet Tagore, the statesman Lincoln. Even in this scientific age, many learned and clever people go to the Pope, Sai Baba or the Dalai Lama for spiritual help and wisdom. Much cruelty and violence has indeed been practised in the name of religion, but so has a great deal of good work been done for suffering humanity – from the founding of the Red Cross to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and the work of the Bharat Sevashram Sangh.
6. I believe therefore that it is both wrong and unfair to blame religion for all the evil in this world. Most men are born with a lot of evil inside them, such as greed, stupidity, jealousy, vanity, sloth and bloodlust, and all religions (like science) have tried for thousands of years to remove or at least subdue these evils, so that the world becomes a better place to live in. We often forget that it is because of religious influence of one kind or the other that many ancient cruel practices have been abandoned – such as torture of prisoners. True, to a very large extent religion has failed to civilise man (so has science – it has brought our species close to self-destruction through pollution and nuclear war!). But is this the fault of religion? Wouldn’t it be truer to say that man has failed religion – that the evils deeply rooted in him have proved too powerful for religion to overcome?
7. I also believe that religion does not make men bad. History tells us that though there have been people who have practised horrible tyranny and injustice in the name of religion, many others have done the same though they were not religious men – look at Timur the Lame, Chenghiz Khan, Hitler and Stalin! Bad men use religion as another convenient excuse to practise evil – don’t blame religion for it!
8. This will bear repetition: whether religion is of benefit or harm to us depends on what we understand by religion. Too many people who consider themselves religious are in fact so narrow-minded and hardhearted that they understand nothing about the essence of religion – to them it is nothing more than practising mindless rituals, believing in silly myths and quarrelling over whose rituals and myths are better! It is these people that make trouble and give religion a bad name. It has been said of one such man that ‘he had enough religion to hate, but not enough to love his fellow-man!’ It is such people that have failed religion, not religion that has failed mankind.
It is foolish to think that man can ever do without religion. The ancient sages defined religion as that which binds men to each other, to the earth, and to God; while Einstein said in the 20th century that religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind. But the sooner we get the real message of the ancient sages right the better; true religion lies in practising self-control and good virtues, and it is learnt only in the company of people who are truly great in heart and mind. There is nothing new in all this: but people keep on refusing to listen! Remembering the crusades and the recurrent communal riots in our country, I must say that if most people will use religion that way, it is better to crush and ban all religions from public life. Yet I am hopeful: that religion has failed in its mission so far does not mean that it will continue to do so forever. I believe that, as a result of currently ongoing reforms, all the religions of the world will eventually find common ground, as Swami Vivekananda hoped, and someday all human beings will become nicer people by practising a genuine and universal religion, with which science and good folks will have no quarrels.
Some people, I humbly suggest, would benefit hugely from reading a few good books on the subject. I could name many, but for the present I'll name just one - Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsche.