God our Lord and saviour: these words mean more today than ever before. One and half years on, the world continues to reel from the effects of COVID-19. The only reprieve for most has been to look up to the heavens and pray. But pray as one might, it seems the human race had been abandoned by the gods. It is as if a catastrophic punishment has been meted out to human beings. The mortality rates are soaring and just when a hint of normalcy seemed a possibility, there was a crippling second wave of the virus.
The medical science and virology communities are hard pressed to find solutions. But in what is possibly a first, several countries worldwide have made vaccine breakthroughs in record time. Most governments are now ramping up vaccination drives for their citizens. On the same right, the long-term efficacy of these vaccines is vague. There are already reports of vaccinated individuals contracting and even succumbing to COVID-19. In this race against time, economies have been hard hit, unemployment rates have registered record highs, and both national and individual reserves are running low.
Amid this quagmire, it is interesting to note that religions–although diverse–are all united by a common thread. The virus did not make exceptions; it affected and killed humans of all faiths. In this context, there was, let’s say, no discrimination.
To place into perspective, consider the example of three nations that start with the letter ‘I’. Italy, India and Iran practice Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, respectively. Of course, there are other religions practised in these countries but for simplicity in comparison, consider the majority faiths.
Although these three countries are vastly different from one another, their populations are known to be deeply religious. But all three countries suffered among the most severe outbreaks with thousands of lives lost. So why did God abandon us? Are our prayers just mere words and are hymns only to be heard by our ears alone?
The gods of yore
In the 2nd century BCE, Northern European settlers–such as the Vikings–prayed to the Norse god Odin. It was professed that after death, Odin would reserve a place for them in Valhalla — the Norse equivalent of heaven. More importantly, if one was killed in battle, the final journey would be accompanied by valkyries.
In case of the Romans, their main deities were Jupiter, Jun and Minerva. The Pantheon–built in 25 BCE–was a temple dedicated to all Roman gods. Pan meant ‘all’ and theos meant ‘gods’. The Greeks, meanwhile, prayed to Zeus; he was the Olympian king of the gods. He was widely worshipped in ancient Greece and there were numerous shrines and sanctuaries dedicated to him.
With time, the “before current era” gods in Europe were lost in the annals of history. They lost relevance perhaps with the advent of newer religions in the world. At the time, the people had maybe found “better gods” who listened to them.
For most of recorded history, Hinduism was always the dominant religion of the Indian subcontinent. Hindus hold thousands of deities in reverence. There are currently an estimated 1.6 billion followers of Hinduism worldwide, making it the world’s third largest.
Islam has the second largest following with about 1.9 billion followers. Christianity is numero uno in terms of followers with approximately 2.3 billion devotees. These are the dominant religions of the present world. A large share of their followers are pious individuals who observe their religious festivals with equal zeal. Besides, there are rituals aplenty, large dollops of superstitious beliefs, and associations with the supernatural. But beliefs are strong and dogmas cannot be questioned. Generations have prayed and who are we to question, right?
There are new waves in the offing
The realm beyond human understanding is often expressed in the form of quotes alluding to the heaven residing superpower. “God works in mysterious ways” is a common one. “When God speaks, mountains move,” says mortals. If one is losing patience, faith is restored by recounting that “God is always listening, and so keep praying.” And so on and so forth.
But the quintessential question that come to mind here is, “Is the Lord up above listening to our prayers and looking after us?” This sphere is shrouded in mystery. There can never be an affirmative answer and mostly, there is only rhetoric used as an attempt.
Meanwhile, there is an interesting trend beginning to unfold. While the three major religions boast billions in followers, there is a fourth one making swift inroads. Its followers are sometimes called ‘nones’ — derived from the phrase ‘not religiously affiliated’. Nones comprise atheists and agnostics, and “none-ism” currently enjoys the second highest following in North America and Europe. China has the maximum nones, numbering an estimated 400-500 million.
Atheists typically bank on science to further their view that there is no God. Their hypotheses are often very convincing when you read or listen to them. For the most part, however, they are disregarded by the majority of the religiously affiliated.
Are morals innate to humans?
One outspoken, albeit eloquent, atheist is Richard Dawkins. He is an evolutionary biologist and author of the book called The God Delusion. Dawkins suggests that when many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion. He cites scientific theories and propagates that our genes have a natural selection. This, he says, trumps the so-called prophecies of God. Dawkins goes on to argue that atheists should be proud and not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of an independent and healthy mind.
On similar lines, the late Christopher Hitchens–a noted speaker–says all religions cannot be right. In his view, either one religion is right or they are all fake. I truly agree with him. More importantly, Hitchens touched upon a basic element: that you do not need to follow any religion to be morally good. Moral goodness comes naturally to human beings. An individual is either morally poor or is a morally good human. Hitchens also argued for free expression and scientific discovery.
Amid the recent pandemic, I think at one point or another, we have taken God to court in our minds. I request you, dear reader, to not jump to a quick conclusion. Rather, I implore you to enact the role of both judge and jury. I suggest you take your time and let the voices in your mind also play the role of prosecutor and defendant. This case can drag on for months, perhaps years, and when you are convinced “beyond reasonable doubt,” only then pass your verdict on God. You needn’t shun Him but on the same right, is He really there listening to us and answering our prayers?