I was born and raised a Hindu. I attended my primary school in a Hindu institution, my high school in a Catholic school , my Engineering degree in a college founded by a Muslim visionary and My MBA from a Government run university . I am influenced by teachings of all these religions – and when I was in college, the student body was very left leaning, so I have read a fair amount of marxist type literature too.
On the plus side – this makes me totally tolerant of all religions – because, once you abstract it to a high level, they all say pretty much the same things. There are specifics like idol worship that are significantly different between religions, but that does not matter to me all that much. On the minus side – there are plenty of things that are not very clear for me about the concept of God, Prayer etc which frustrates me to some degree.
All these religions teach us the superiority of God over everything else, and I buy into that. But – at the same time, they also give totally human characteristics to God. This makes it hard for me – does God really need us to offer a prayer of praise?. I cannot imagine that God needs an ego boost from humans. If God were human – would we like a someone who won’t help unless we constantly sang praises? But we do it any way – at least on occasion. Why?
What about prayer of petition? Religion tells us that God’s will is all that matters, and that we must succumb to it. If that is the case, why would we then also make prayers of petition? If God has a plan for everything – what does it matter whether we petition for something or not?
I can see some rationale for prayers of love,charity and contrition. Our actions do not always account for all that happens to us. Hence – saying thanks and sorry to the power that accounts for the grand plan sounds logical to me. Somehow, apart from some ritualized aspects of contrition and penance – these types of prayers take a backseat. However, there is one question in my mind – if God already made plans for everything that happens around us, what is the point in saying sorry and thank you and please?
Also, what is the need for middlemen between man and God. In a human organization, I fully understand the need for hierarchies. However, since God is über powerful – is there really a need for priests, saints etc to convey messages between us and God?
Why do we need a defined place for worshiping – like a Temple, Mosque or Church? All religions tell us that God is omnipresent, and that God is within us. Then why would I need to go to a certain place to communicate with God?
If devotion to god is not an act, and a way of life – do we really need specific days to worship? We need father’s day and mother’s day and independence day and so on because people have busy lives and in the mad rush, we do not think daily of dad and mom and the nation. We feel guilty of that occasionally, and get rid of our guilt by using an arbitrary day to take care of it. Although dad, mom and the nation could probably use more interaction with us – they are usually not in a position to change our behavior. But God is much more powerful – so if God cared about constant attention from us, wouldn’t God have done something to influence it? Since that does not seem to be the case – my theory is that God does not really care if we think about God all the time.
I think Religions serve more societal and psychological needs than spiritual needs. Having a place and time to worship brings people together, and augments the legal framework of a society with a moral framework. People resist the temptation for crime partly because of fear of God punishing them in some form on top of the society punishing them. Having God to blame for our disappointments give us a big psychological relief. Believing that God will intervene and make things right for us help us keep trying. So yes – religion does have a very valid reason to exist.
The people who founded religions probably found that it was easiest to get a following by giving God some human attributes. This would help others relate to the concept without a lot of critical thinking, and help make teachings more accessible via stories. This also helps explain why middlemen came into being between God and commoners. By instituting prayers of praise and petition – humans can easily think of God as a very powerful human who is more powerful than a King, rather than as an abstract concept. And as they get to think over time, they can fine tune their belief and faith to whatever suits them. So I think it was a very smart idea to put such a framework in place.
Concept of life after death is also a very clever and smart idea in my opinion. Since no one knows exactly what happens after death – the thought that you could be praised/punished will keep us even more focused on sticking to the framework when we are alive. This serves as a catch-all for anything that happens which cannot be explained easily. For example – say you followed all the teachings of your religion, and still got in to trouble some how. This can then be explained that this is “a test” and “your reward will be in your next life”. The next life of course differs across religions – some saying you will be born again to suffer consequences of past life, and some say you go to hell/heaven after God tallies your score and so on. Risk averse nature of many people make them feel more secure that if they stick to the rules – they have a good chance of going to heaven, in case there is a heaven. In case there is no heaven, it still gives them a reason to feel more peaceful in life and stay out of trouble. So it works either way.