Are Religious Institutions Really the Moral High Ground?

By Tarun Cherukuri:

The article on the book ‘Nanma Niranjavare Swasthi’ by Sister Mary on First Post was heart-wrenching, disappointing and serious, all at the same time. The article follows the story of the South-Indian nun, Sister Mary, who gave decades of her life to the service of God and his people while bearing witness to the sexual politics on the pious grounds and among the ‘celibate’ priests and nuns, so much so that it could rival that of the court of Henry VIII. The fact that it evokes such diverse and mixed reactions is indicative of the sensitivity and complexity of the topic. Instead of giving a quick emotional response, I decided to delayer the three reactions. The views expressed are certainly personal but I do think they are reflective of the generation I belong to and it’s frustrations with the religion that our parents taught us to practice.

Firstly, the personal narrative of Sister Mary shook me up to the core. One, for the personal trials and tribulations she had to go through in spite of choosing the high noble path of service. And, also by the fact that her marginalization was compounded by her being female. I can only barely empathize how it must have been to go through all that she did and yet manage to have the courage to stand up to her ideals. For living the message of service in the most pristine way possible despite the obstacles life had offered to her, I personally hold her in high respect and draw inspiration from her commitment.

However, abstracting to what the story symbolizes at an institutional and society level, it leaves me with disappointment. The story is a reflection of how the church, as an institution, and more generally religious institutions, no longer stand on the pedestal of human excellence or the pursuit of it. In fact, this story reflects the slow but dangerous degradation of integrity of these institutions and our society as a whole. In the garb of high moral ground and a life of core values and service, these institutions in majority are turning out as platforms for debauchery and power exertion by men. Coming from a scientific and rational background, I would question the idea of celibacy and chaste life that most religions impose on their priests, nuns and monks. Especially, in the context of our modern social norms in which our films and all other forms of entertainment are becoming salacious by the day. It surely requires the highest degree of moral probity to not to yield to temptations of such messages. Either they have much stricter codes on how to uphold and practice the values they preach to their unsuspecting believers or these religious institutions need to question, innovate and think of adapting themselves to the changing societal norms. Values, as they say, are caught and not taught.

Lastly, the article raises serious questions about the role of religion and religious institutions in our society. To paraphrase Swami Vivekananda’s idea of religion, he said that if you can have the body of a Muslim, heart of a Christian and soul of a Hindu, you have reached the pinnacle of human life. What he meant was if you can practice austerity that Islam preaches, if you can serve others like Jesus did and if you can reflect within deeply like Gita says, you don’t need the crutches of religion to live in an uncertain world and pursue the highest truth. I hope that the story will make all of us question our own scientific temper and reasoning mind. What do we need religion for in life? Can we distill the teachings of all religions and practice them in an individual way? Can we question the lives of gurus, nuns and priests who use religion to manipulate unsuspecting people? More importantly, can we as a society or an aspiring modern society develop scientific temper and search for the fundamental truths through evidence, reason and debate?   


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