“Men accept or reject philosophies… according to their needs, and their temperaments, not according to ‘objective truth’…,” says Will Durant (while discussing William James’s pragmatism) in The Story of Philosophy. Religion is one such need, a temperament, as I have learnt from a long observation of people who apparently place much trust in religion.
The other day I asked a question to a lady which was a bit inconvenient for her personal comfort. A question that struck at the roots of her apparently religious temperament, a temperament which made her preach big ideals. My question laid an axe at the root of those ideals. My question implied that she seldom put into practice what she preached vehemently. The lady ended the conversation asking me whether I was drunk. She later told others that I ask foolish questions when I’m drunk.
I had a friend who never believed in gods or religion, apparently. I used to go for evening walks with him for years. One evening he stopped at a temple, which we hitherto used to ignore totally, and joined his palms in prayer. He offered a donation to the priest who came out wearing skimpy and shabby clothes and gave us prasad. A few days later my friend became a big-time player in the villainous political game in the institution where we both worked. Our friendship ended. My friend had become too ‘religious’ for me to understand. He continues to be as religious as he is villainous, as far as I know.
Is religion a mask?
Freud, the father of psychology, listed quite a few “ego-defence mechanisms” one of which is ‘compensation’. In simple words, compensation is masking perceived weaknesses or developing certain positive traits to make up for limitations. My friend found a good mask in religion for his villainy. If you scratch many of the apparently religious people you may find villainy of various degrees bleeding out.
Religion is a good ego-defence mechanism. That’s one practical value of religion, as far as I have learnt so far from my observations. Unlike other ego-defence mechanisms, religion is socially accepted and valued. The worst of persons can become heroes riding the chariot of religion. The best of persons can be given the worst of labels by using religion effectively. These are some of the practical values of religion.
There are other practical values too and many persons make use of them effectively and thus be good human beings. But that’s a different story. The story of Mother Teresa, for example.