The notion of freedom changes with time and space. At this moment, our species is standing at a crossroad of history, where individual liberty, freedom of expression, conscience, and belief have become a very important part of our existence. We are demanding equal rights regardless of sex, gender, class, race – you name it. We, the secular community, are demanding freedom for all, which is the greatest demand of our time.
To me, the most problematic aspects of religion are not all the discriminating rules ingrained in it. We hear these rules all the time: the Bible commands Christians to kill homosexuals. Islam allows men to marry 4 women at a time, you can kill the apostates. The Hindu religion says women are worse than cows.
But I accept, from a historical perspective, that these rules and notions might have been more acceptable in a specific time and space. I think what is more problematic is that religion, especially today’s world religions, demand that those rules defined in scriptures are never to be changed or challenged– they are fixed for eternity, they are expected to be applied to all societies, at all times as part of the divine order.
But if there is anything fixed in this world, it is that our universe, our planet, and every life form on earth is continuously changing. Our culture, language, society, consciousness, values – all change. So when religions claim that their imposed rules and moral demands will be or should be applicable regardless of time and place, they contradict the basic nature of our universe.
Why do we desire freedom of expression? Because we crave the right to question everything. Though this seems to be a relatively new demand, this desire to question everything actually comes from our innate ability to be curious. If we look closely – quite ironically – even religion itself stemmed from this basic human curiosity. And this curiosity has played a critical role in our success as a species and in dominating this planet. It seems that religion is also in contradiction with this basic human nature: our curiosity, our desire to question everything.
Another problem with religion is its claim to the ultimate truth. It’s not only untestable, it is extremely divisible – “my god is the only true God, you are a sinner if you do not believe in my god, I can kill you if you try to leave my God.” Before, polytheistic religions did not claim that their gods were the only gods – “my god could be stronger than yours but our gods are not necessarily the only gods.” It is fascinating to think about how monotheism is the first religious system that created this unresolvable divisiveness which has incited hatred, violence, and wars all through history.
We — the secular community — are on the right side of history because we demand these fundamental rights for humanity, according to the conscience of our time. We want equal rights, the freedom of free expression and the freedom to believe (or not to believe), because we believe that anything can be questioned, challenged, and tested.
I like the name of this conference, it’s not just freedom of expression, it also includes our conscience. With that in mind, I would also like to take us to the task. If we claim that our secular community is structured around rational and scientific thinking, we should continuously evaluate and reevaluate ourselves…With that I would like to address a few things that I think can be improved, changed, or better understood from our side. I think we often fail to see the broader picture of religion in our societies. Sometimes we are too simplistic or superficial in our criticism of religion. We forget that religion is a very complex phenomenon tightly ingrained with the evolution of our culture, society, politics, and economic systems.
I think we need to understand religion better. Today, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the complexity of religion – which has been immensely successful all through our history – cannot be understood only through the lens of religious doctrine.
Why do the vast majority of human beings subscribe to religion? What is about religion that makes it so versatile, that resonates so well in human minds? Why must we understand the cultural, social, psychological, evolutionary or even the spiritual basis of it?
If we look carefully, we will see that most of the today’s religions were designed with an incredible ability to adapt and evolve. And afterward, as political systems evolved in human society over thousands of years, so did religion. Our ability to create culture has been critical to the success of our species on this planet. And Religion IS a big part of our culture.
Religion has successfully sustained itself and evolved, regardless of all the irrationality ingrained in it. Didn’t we predict that as the world would become more educated and scientific, religion would die out? We have seen the success of this hypothesis in Europe, mainly in Northern Europe. Religion is becoming more and more irrelevant in these societies. But what happened in the US– the epitome of wealth, education, and scientific discoveries–in the 20th century? What happened to the rest of the world, in South America, in the Muslim world? Why did our hypothesis–that religion would be less relevant as a society would progress–fail?
Maybe the scripts of secularism–that we wrote during the time of enlightenment–need to be re-evaluated. Maybe, our hypothesis–derived from Western modernity and enlightenment–was not inclusive enough. Maybe religion has flourished in these regions–even as the world became more educated and scientific–because many of these parts of the world experienced a completely different history from Europe.
Think back to the fifteenth, sixteenth or seventeenth century, back when capitalism was flourishing in Europe. When Europe was talking about individual liberty and freedom of religion, India was being colonized by the British empire, and religious identity politics among Hindus and Muslims were being actively promoted. On the other side of the world, Europeans were massacring and converting Native Americans in the name of Christianity. Though Europe preached individual liberties, the international slave trade was at its height.
So, if we try to apply the same notions of “liberty”–derived from Western modernity and enlightenment–it might not work in other parts of the world. They had a very different history, very different growth and development, for the last few centuries.
Unfortunately, I do not have a silver bullet, I do not know what might work, but I am pretty sure that simply cutting and pasting what we’ve learned from western enlightenment will not work in many societies around the world. So, we must look deeper. We must take a different angle, and investigate LOCAL religious conflicts in relation to GLOBAL influences in order to understand and combat the modern rise of religious fundamentalism and radicalism.
Let me give you an example of why western hypotheses about religion are not always copy-pasteable. We often make comments against the Hijab. We correctly point out that the hijab is rooted in the patriarchal origins of Islam, like most other religions, in order to subjugate women. But now the question is, who is to be held accountable?
Let me tell you what is happening in Bangladesh, my home country, with an almost 90% Muslim population. Wearing a hijab was not so common in Bangladesh, especially in the cities, when I was growing up there in the 70s and 80s. And as you can predict, yes, it has become very common now. One has to ask the question, why did it happen? The easy answer would be that Bangladesh has become more religiously orthodox. But does that completely answer the question? I think there is more to the story.
I have talked to quite a few female workers in Bangladesh about this. In Bangladesh, 4 million women work in the garments industry. This influx of female factory workers is a relatively new phenomenon, and it is a consequence of globalization. Now, they live by themselves in cities, wearing hijabs, in order to increase their mobility and gain a certain level of freedom to work in this very patriarchal society. If they do not wear the hijab, the men in their neighborhoods deem them as ‘bad’ women, women who should be harassed. So strangely enough, the hijab is empowering these women in a very objectionable way. I am not saying that all the women from different economic and social backgrounds are wearing hijabs for this reason, but this is a stark reality and serious issue for many working class women.
Now, when we speak against the hijab and blame religion (though it is right to do so) don’t we alienate these women? Why would they listen to us? The Hijab has become an instrumental tool for their survival. Shouldn’t we instead blame the patriarchal society and the state which has failed to provide women with this minimum levels of security? Shouldn’t we demand that the state provides this basic right to women? In this sense, the hijab–a symbol of Islam–can not be viewed simply through the lens of religion.
All this being said, I think religion cannot and should not be viewed only in an isolated framework. Religion cannot really survive in this extent without its institutionalization or political sponsorship. Remember, religion has existed in human society in many different forms, for all of our recorded history and way before that. Where does religion get this self-sustaining power?
From what we know so far, religion began as we started questioning the unknown natural world around us – Who makes the rain fall? Where does the sun go at night? Where do we come from? Where do we go after we die? Who causes the wrath of earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones? Human societies quickly discovered a broader utility of this natural and supernatural belief system and established a symbiotic relationship between tribal rulers and religious preachers. Politics try to control people’s lives – what can be a better instrument to establish social control than religion?
And as agricultural societies developed, we saw the idea of god-king developing – a king mediating between the people on earth and the Gods in heaven. These kings had absolute power over life and death, ensuring their role as the shepherd of their people. According to sociologist Robert Bellah, the hierarchical structure of political power was mirrored in the hierarchy of the Gods, which supported both theology and the cultic-political status of the king.
The institutionalization of religion continued as we saw monotheism flourish in the last 3 or 4 thousand years. And this institutionalization of religion is actually one of the main reasons that religion has survived so long. Christianity flourished after it was institutionalized by the Romans; Islam was a political religion from the get go, and we are seeing now how Hindutva has gained strength in modern India under state sponsorship.
More recently, it was really interesting to see Donald Trump select Saudi Arabia – the most fundamentalist Islamic society in the world – as his first state visit, and receive the highest honor of the country with an ugly gold necklace from the Saudi king. Trump–receiving this honor–is an American president who has criticized Muslims and banned residents of 6 Muslim majority nations from entering the US. But this did not get in the way of a Saudi-Trump love affair. And then at the end of the trip what did we find? Oh yes, Trump has signed the single largest arms deal in history with the Saudis for 110 billion dollars. We will most probably see these weapons used in countries like Yemen, where Shia and Sunni conflict between the Saudis and Iran has been the cause of thousands of deaths.
We all know the story of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and America, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan bankrolling the Taliban to combat Russia. Would ISIS be this powerful if the US had not invaded Iraq? Or if Russia, America, Saudi Arabia, and Iran had not fought for a piece of Syria? We have seen time and time again that secular western governments do not mind tinkering with religion abroad whenever religion seems to be beneficial to their political cause.
Let’s consider Bangladesh for a moment, my home country, where my husband, Avijit Roy and I were attacked by machete wielding militants in 2015, which killed Avijit and left me gravely injured. The democratically elected, “secular” government of this Muslim majority nation stayed completely quiet for months while militants killed atheist bloggers, publishers, secular intellectuals, and LGBTQ activists. When the government finally condemned these killings they also arrested atheist bloggers, writers, and publishers under the Information, Communication, and Technology Act, infamously known as the ICT act—an very old British, Semi-Blasphemy law – punishing people with up to 14 years in jail – for criticizing religion. The Bangladeshi government has given into many other demands from the Islamic fundamentalist groups. They recently even amended the Bangladeshi school curriculum by removing texts written by non-Muslim scholars. The restrictions on the basic freedom of expression have gone to a new height in recent years.
I think that a country like Bangladesh would not have been able to turn towards religious fundamentalism so quickly, in just the last few decades, if local, state, and federal governments had not systematically rehabilitated and sponsored Islamic political parties; if millions of dollars had not poured into Bangladesh from oil rich Gulf countries–like Saudi Arabia and Qatar–to establish madrasas and religious establishments instead of establishing inclusive secular education system instead or if all those Afghan mujahideen did not return home to establish Islamic Ummah.
I can go on and on. But I will stop here and ask, in today’s world, is it enough to just criticize religious doctrines, or should we also look at the political, social and cultural enablers and sponsors who use religion every step of the way to achieve their own goals? With the right conscience, should we try to look at it from a more holistic point of view?
I think we need to do both. It cannot be either-or, it has to inclusive. We should criticize the Quran for enabling ISIS to establish a khilafat with the values from the dark ages; for committing the crimes like selling and raping the Yazidi women in open slave markets. At the same time, we must also call out the players–like the patriarchal societies and imperialist powers and local autocratic governments–who directly and indirectly aided in creating ISIS. Otherwise, the story remains incomplete