Sunday, May 17, 2009

Religion and Science - a debate

(Update - Smitha replied)
I recently wrote a blog on Science Education in India. In that blog I mentioned that rationalist movements are not effective and that their mission is a failure.
In comments, one of my frequent commenters, Smitha, challenged this statement. He also pointed out (read his comments here) that rationalist movements have precedent and that faith needs to be challenged as an obstacle to progress.
I have no big problems with faith, although I do not believe in God. I am an atheist, but I do not consider religion a threat. Since I wanted to explain my point of view to Smitha and vice versa, this blog post is being written. The idea is that Smitha's comments to this blog will be promoted to the main post as an update so that we can carry a civil debate. Let us see how far it goes. We are both busy people and may not update frequently. But please check back this post from time to time if you are interested.

The Case against Religion
Let me start with this first - I do understand that a set of humans at this juncture have a healthy hatred of religion. Starting with practices such as Sati, child marriage, female circumcision, racism, casteism, the horrors of religious wars such as the crusades, burning witches at stakes, stoning for adultery and so on; to the current global tinderbox of non-state-terrorism to state-terrorism there are many evils of society that have been instigated, sustained and sanctioned by religion.
Even at this present time we have seen the horrors of 500 year old grudges held by Hindu fundamentalists; the End Times driven evangelical fervor of Christian fundamentalists that drives American violence against West Asia; the ethnic hatred perpetuated by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka; the Caliphate dreaming Al-Qaeda and Taliban's reign of Terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan and several other conflicts around the world based on religion. New cults spring up all the time - such as the LRA in Uganda; Wahaabism in Arabia or the several Kalki avatar based cults of South India.
It is tempting to see these obvious effects of religion and then come to a conclusion that the concept of religion (broadly defined as a belief in a Supreme God) needs to be eliminated from Human society. That, in the future, we will LEARN about religion at schools, just as we will learn about untouchability or casteism - as a thing of past.
The proponents of this non-religious future point to increasing trends of population in developed countries to be non-religious. This future, they insist, is attainable using the following methods:
1. Education that emphasizes rationalism
2. An effort to eliminate religion from the public sphere
3. A constant effort to scrutinise human actions through rationalism

So where do I stand on these?
(Throughout this essay I will use the male term God to denote a supreme being, purely for convenience. I understand it may as well be a Goddess, if she exists)

My Views of Religion
Before I begin, I want to point out three broad trends in my arguments:
1. I have a belief in the universal declaration of human rights, which guarantees practise of religion.
2. I do not like judging the actions of humans who cause no harm to others through their private lives.
3. When I talk about science and scientists I include the soft (inexact, humanity-based) sciences such as psychology and sociology. In fact, I think they have more bearing on this debate than the exact sciences.

Thus, even though I have a pretty good knowledge of and fascination for science, I do NOT think that science and religion are two opposing poles from which one needs to choose for living a happy life.

The Judgements of Rationalists
The biggest mistake that religious people make, when judging atheists is this: they think establishing a moral compass (to know right from wrong) is impossible for people who do not believe in a God.
It is absolutely possible to know right from wrong just by being self-aware. You do not have to believe in God to know right from wrong.

By the same token, rationalists believe that it is not possible to be interested in Science or be a professional without a disbelief in God. That is, you have to reject religion in your PRIVATE life to be a doctor in your public life.
I think this is a completely false item of faith among rationalists. They are making the same mistake that religious people do - of judging people's private lives to be a guide to their public efficiency.
Let me explain why this is false:
a. There have been innumerable scientists who have been religious in their private lives. That does not prove anything deductively, but it does call into question the rationalist basis.
b. The truth is, the human conscious mind can perfectly live with contradicting beliefs. We do it all the time in relationships. It is possible for a person who reads the Bible or Quran or Gita daily to ignore their literal meanings and treat it merely as a vehicle for some peace of mind. That same person can step into their office and be a doctor who knows the germ theory of disease. It happens all the time in daily lives - in India most people pray at roadside temples and then go to work and fulfill their social and professional roles quite successfully.
Now, I am NOT saying that religion is essential for society. But at the stage in which we are, people can manage the dissonance effectively.

It is only when religion gets oppressive and authoritarian and provokes a LITERAL interpretation of scriptures that you have a problem. That is best managed by compromises - by a good education and self-awareness, I believe, it is possible to minimise such effects.
So, I believe, frankly, that rationalists have NO right to judge other human beings who cause no harm to society.

A Life of Illusion
One debater quoted Carl Sagan to me on this. Sagan said a life of reason should be preferred over one of illusion (I don't remember the exact quote).
Now, I think Sagan was wrong. He was obviously speaking from a exact scientific perspective. Psychologically speaking all of us have basic illusions through which we observe the external world. One simple illusion is, of course, the illusion of immortality.

The Yaksha asks Yudhishtira what is the greatest wonder in this world. Yudhishtira replied, "The greatest wonder is that every human sees others dying before him, all around him. And yet carries on living as if he is immortal".

We all have it. Going by the exact sciences, our very purpose is only to pass on our DNA. Yet humans strive to reach immortality by works of imagination and creativity. Everyone tries to find meaning in their lives. That is the whole role of philosophy.
Thus, an illusion-filled private life is fine - as long as you don't act like Chandramukhi.

The Rationalist Ideal
This is why I believe superstition and myths and rituals have their place in human life. The rationalist ideal is that of a life in which every action is examined for rationality. I am an atheist but I don't carry around this belief in rationality in all actions. There are many, many sources of irrationality other than religious belief.
For example, take a marriage ritual. Remember the premier rationalist movement of DK in Tamil Nadu pushed for a non-ritualistic marriage. In the end such marriages became rituals themselves, with some even tying the Thali. The point is, many of these rituals are engaged in as a duty or as fun. They are a communal activity and have deep psychological implications for a social member. American presidential inaugurations have rituals, for God's sake.
I am not arguing (as religious people do) that rituals need a rational meaning - such as a meaning for the tying of Thali. If there is a conscious meaning it is not a ritual. Human beings seem to form conventions and some kind of social acts in sequence as rituals from time immemorial. A goal to eliminate these (which cause no harm to anyone) is a goal born out of passing judgement on other people's lives.
This is why I have no problem participating in a ritual. In fact, even religious people do not participate in rituals out of a deep conviction for "meaning" or blessings or whatever. They do it automatically.
Let me put it this way - irrational rituals have as much meaning as life itself has meaning.

Religion and State
The word secularism in India has been corrupted thanks to the BJP's pushing of their brand word "pseudo-secularism". I believe religion has no role in public policy. But it gets more subtle than that.
France recently banned headscarves in schools. They also banned crucifixes and any religious symbol, but it immediately caused a problem. It is obvious to me, as an Indian, where the problem would be. For example, for a foreigner, the Sikh turban is a religious symbol. To me it seems a matter of cultural identity. This is more so in a foreign country, a colonial country like France, with deep-seated racism. It is no wonder to me that people see the ban as an assault on their identity.
The issues of identity goes very deep into our psyche. In movies we see characters spouting lines such as "I am Indian first, then a Tamil, then a Hindu" and so on. It is not as simple as that. The world has not gone through an ideal development phase that enables seeing ourselves just as humans. In fact, I suspect it is impossible for us to NOT recognize racial, regional, linguistic, religious and cultural identities - such is the diversity in this planet. Instead of attempting to fight identity, it would help if we managed such issues by recognizing the rights of minorities separately.
This is why I pointed out that sociology is at odds with the rational movements. While the rational movements attack frontally any role of what THEY SEE as religion, religion itself is not, simply, religion. The practice of untouchability, for example, has "religious" sanction. But it is likely that the sanction was AFTER the practice was widespread - I doubt if Manu Smriti INVENTED caste. Similarly what we call Islamic terrorism, is seen as a knee-jerk response to the forces of globalization, by sociologists.
I am NOT saying that religion is all good - mind you. I think it enables authoritarianism - deference to a master authority no matter what. It enables a literal interpretation of its scriptures.
But there are several aspects of religion and it is possible to regulate some while understanding and appreciating others.

One such aspect is the ability of religion to trigger an exaltation in the human spirit. I am not saying that only religion can do it. But there are a lot of creative people who are also religious - particularly in Indian music and art. This trend is also there in Arabic, Persian, and almost every regional art. How can we pass judgement on religious people, while at the same time wondering at the poetry of Andaal or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? The mystical and spiritual strands of religion have enriched many lives and helped them find their own meaning.

In conclusion, I think rationalists have swung to the opposite pendulum from religion. Their faults of judgement are similar to those of religious people. Both of them seek an utopia instead of trying to make sense of where we are at this stage. Both of them are extremist in their views and selectively apply knowledge.

Smitha, your turn.

Update: Smitha's reply
Smitha says in comments:
I tried to post the rebuttal here. But it wont allow more than 4096 chars at a time. So I'm posting it in my blog instead.

P.S: I've a tendency to digress. You also have to excuse the general structure of the argument, I was pressed for time. Also, the text contains many unacknowledged quotes and verbatim arguments from many of my daily reading materials.


Subbu said...

"American presidential inaugurations have rituals, for God's sake." :)

I was laughing at the pun here. I think its intentional.

S m i t h a said...

I tried to post the rebuttal here. But it wont allow more than 4096 chars at a time. So I'm posting it in my blog instead.

P.S: I've a tendency to digress. You also have to excuse the general structure of the argument, I was pressed for time. Also, the text contains many unacknowledged quotes and verbatim arguments from many of my daily reading materials.

Kaarthik said...

This one is one among the many endless debates that come our way. My two cents on it:

I believe that until Science gives a perfect explanation for everything in this universe, the belief in God and religion would exist. I also believe that the human brain is incapable of understanding everything that happens around – Making it a perfect deadlock situation.

So that leaves us with rationalism. I consider myself as an average guy trying to be rational in my daily life;

What I mean is this:
1. I definitely practice a religion of my choice (I was born a Hindu and I choose to remain one), BUT I am also willing and open to discuss any pitfalls in it (Hinduism) and refrain from following such practices. I feel that Hinduism is lenient and open and gives me the freedom to exercise some reasoning in my actions which I think is not present in some of the other major religions.

2. I may probably deprive myself of some luxury, but certainly would NEVER hurt anyone in the name of religion.

3. Caste system – A simple dissection of a small group of people that transformed into a beast. I do not believe it is applicable in the current scenario. But sadly it is deeply rooted in our society and is also beyond religion.

Having said all that, there is still this inner part of me which gets infuriated when T.R. Balu announces that the “Ramar Bridge” will be destroyed. This part of me wants the bridge to have been actually built by Rama. It makes me closely follow the under water excavations in Mathura, hoping to find some proof of existence of Krishna.

The rational explanation I give to myself is this – “Things mentioned in the Mahabaratha and Ramayana happened – but probably got exaggerated a bit”

I can’t help it; maybe I am just trying to find some pride in my ancestral history. I want my forefathers to be smarter than the current day westerner. But these feelings are simple harmless whims. I admit that it is this same part of me (and likes of me), that the politicians cleverly tap and use it to their advantage.

Before I stray any further away from the actual question, the answer is a stalemate - Science and Religion will have to coexist – one can’t win over the other. But it is the attitude of the people that should change and more people willing to compromise on their religious books and inscriptions need to come forward for a better society to flourish.

Btw, I recently watched (and enjoyed) a movie called Religulous. I think you might enjoy it too, if you have not already seen it.