Suspicion of Religion

12 Sep 2010

I usually avoid debates on religion with anyone except with people I know well for fear of it turning into a heated argument, which often happens when dealing with such a topic. I’m going to make an exception and make a post about it because I read something recently that has changed the way I approach religion.

Indeed, I have observed many of my peers from different countries and cultures increasingly identifying themselves as agnostic or atheist. In the Netherlands, where I spent the last two years, a large portion of the population (42.7%) specify that they are not affiliated with any religion. Even though the country where I am from, India, is regarded by many as a deeply religious (secular) state; I never cared much for religious teachings or rituals. I’ve met many students like me, who regarded science to be a guiding compass, with a few basic moral principles (such as: don’t hurt anyone) at the foundation. With the abundance of destructive events all over the world - inspired by religious fanaticism - it is not surprising that I grew increasingly suspicious of the concept in itself. I found the TED talk by Sam Harris, on how science can provide a moral compass, greatly moving and convincing.

For those who think like me, and lay more faith on science than religion; or identify themselves as agnostic I present to you the following passages written by C. Rajagopalachari, a well respected Indian statesman, commonly hailed as the ‘conscience-keeper’ of the Mahatma. Though it is rather long, I found it quite interesting:

A little knowledge of the laws of nature and the wonders of science, specially when that knowledge is acquired second-hand without the chastening influence of effort and investigation, acts as a wine on some natures. Their sense of proportion is unset. The unknown is not only unknown but ceases to exist for them. Holy books and scriptures seem to them ancient folly; nay worse, they are looked upon as instruments and deliberate devices for the practice of fraud. But those who have struggled to obtain a deeper knowledge of the physical sciences and who, therefore, know enough to retain their sense of proportion and judgement know that the vast unknown is ever so much more than what is known and that while human intelligence may bring under its domain more and more as time goes on, there is a residue that cannot be either ignored or brought under the sway of man’s intelligence. Men of science not only preserve their humility but on account of their very knowledge of some secrets of nature, contemplate with increased humility and reverence that which must ever remain outside the pale of human analysis.

The cause of all causes, the law of all laws cannot be seized by the highest effort of human reasoning or investigation. Human reason is so perfectly fashioned and rounded off that there is no room for any sense of limitation. But the fact remains that the part cannot comprehend the whole, however excellent it may be shaped. The symbol of the serpent with the tail in its mouth as if swallowing itself illustrates the limitation of the human mind in its efforts to grasp the All. Even a giant cannot stand on a platform and lift itself also. We cannot jump off the ultimate cause on which we stand and on which we depend for every motion of the mind, in order that we may get round it or measure it.

This limitation of human knowledge is a familiar boundary in scientific and philosophical investigations. Dive into any truth or investigate any phenomenon or examine any distinction deep enough, and at a certain point we reach the unknowable and further progress is stopped. We strike against God, so to say, in everything. The unknowable is all-pervading. The known and knowable make up but a thin surface-crust over the mystery-sphere of infinite dimensions. Religions and holy books, and the saying and doings of holy men deal with this infinite unknown, not as a science deals with matter, but in a different way which is also the only possible way.

It may be asked why anyone should worry about the unknown. Of what use is it? The answer is that to ignore the real is foolish. The unknown is no less real because it is unknown. We know this much about it, that it is there and has profound relation to all that exists, including ourselves. How then, can we ignore it? The gap in human perception, we know, is not a void but filled with the most important reality, although we cannot dive into it, analyze it or understand it. In the material world, does not the mathematician deal with quantities that are too great or too small for definition, and with expressions that are for the human understanding wholly unreal?

Infinity, zero and surds are not neglected in mathematics, but go greatly to make up a science which actually helps engineers and mechanics to build real and useful construction. The insoluble and the infinite are thus neither unreal nor useless even for practical life. What is said in the holy books of the world may often not be as precise or clear as we would want it to be. The explanations are not as satisfying as the proofs we find in the physical sciences. This is necessarily so because the matter is wholly different and the approach and methods of application also must differ. Things within the domain of human reasoning can be defined and proved. But for the understanding of things beyond, faith and meditation have to function. The scriptures and holy books may be looked upon as helps to assist reverent meditation, by which alone the human mind can get glimpses into the truth beyond. By cultivation of purity of mind and action, and by meditation and prayer, what sounded first but as an empty jingle of antithetic phrases gets substance and meaning. What was obscure gets a strange and new light by which we may see through dimly, and though, even that, we may not all be able to relate to others. Thus it was our fathers saw, and thus again we may also see.

A reverent spirit is necessary to understand any religion. To start with a suspicion that the founders and teachers of religion in any land were skilful deceivers, interested in some sort of scheme of self-advancement or the advantage of some particular class, and that the rest of the people were duped to regard these deceivers with unbounded reverence and affection, is foolish in the extreme. The mass of people of ancient days, from whom, indeed, we have inherited all the intellect we possess were as practical as we are, were as interested in knowing the truth about men and things as we are, and were, if it may be so put, as suspicious as we are. They had probably as much intellectual acumen as we have, and had indeed more time to examine men and things. To believe that they were duped and that among them there were not men intelligent and bold enough to prevent the mischief is to proceed on a wholly wrong assumption. The religions that have commanded the devotion of successive generations of normal human beings in any country have done so because by direct personal contact at first, and by experience handed down as tradition from one generation to another, the founders and teachers of the religions were known by their contemporaries to be good, sincere and deep-thinking men, worthy of being followed. It is not merely wrong to display the detective-police mentality when studying a religion; it incapacitates one even to understand it. Undoubtedly personal and class interests have perverted religion as they have perverted other institutions. But to confuse the latter with the earlier and to impute fraud to the source is an unscientific attitude of the mind in the investigation of truth. It is in a spirit of reverent affection that we should approach the study of an ancient scripture.

This is perhaps the most convincing argument I’ve personally heard in favor of not dismissing religion entirely.

I believe that the root cause for many kinds of suffering is because of man’s nature to try and convince another of the ‘right’ way to live. I do not wish to fall in that trap, and thus I will leave it to you to interpret the passages as you please. But, I did feel it was worthy of sharing because the argument not only answers several doubts I previously had about religion, but has offered to me a scientific basis for at least being inquisitive about something that has survived for so long.

I’d love to know what you think.