Tag Archives: morality

Faith and reason

In an article entitled ‘Faith, not just creed’ (reprinted from New York Times News Service by The Hindu, January 29, 2014) columnist David Brooks brought up several issues that might be of interest to anyone who would like to think and argue, both positively and negatively, about the form and the content of the religious spiritualism that is proposed and propagated by the faithful for the benefit of those who find it difficult to become one.

Brooks broadly makes three points in his article.

(a) The first, a relatively straightforward observation that the way the practice of faith appears in the public space is far from satisfactory. He talks of a “dull, oppressive and insipid” form of “religiosity in which faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.” There seems to be a suggestion here that the organised religion and the practices (including some of the rituals) derived from it may have distorted the very spirit of religion. A position which many, irrespective of whether they are believers or not, would by and large agree with.
(b) It is an empirical fact that many common believers find themselves a little circumscribed by the usual trappings of the religion due to an uncritical respect for the tradition, the need to feel secure in the numerical preponderance of a communal assertion of an identity or simply because of the inertia of habit. According to Brooks, despite this their faith could be a more dynamic experience that is “marked by combinations of fervour and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand”. Again, this seems to be heuristically true. Though religion for many ordinary people, like it is in India, a way of life, something imbibed from the cultural milieu as naturally as one takes in air from the environment, it is possible that the subterranean strata of belief in their mind space come to be frequently challenged by percolation of the residues of doubt created by their own reason working on the empirical observations and experiences in course of the daily life.
(c) The third element in Brook’s presentation tries to highlight extraordinary and transcendental ways in which some savants (like the saint Augustine) with specially cultivated and spiritually motivated mind might have perceived and articulated their relationship with and experience of God, which relate to this world but at the same time “mysteriously surpasses the world”. For Augustine, in his love of God there is “a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace …”, not what is conventionally denoted by these words but “a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part“. Clearly, this is an ideal state of mind, a utopia, that many people, religiously inclined or not, may aspire, but very few attain, if at all, in the present state of the world where mankind is assailed by more gloom and doubts about the conduct of their own fellow brethren than that could be dispelled by just fervent faith.

Among the three points above, the one about the orthodoxy and the dogmatism (often bordering on fundamentalism) in the religious preaching and practice is, I find, a realistic observation. However, like in most areas of culture, this is a typical instance of an ongoing fight between a few good virtuous truly enlightened men and much more preponderant forces of evil whose main aim is not merely subverting the true idea of any religion as originally revealed but executing a more sinister project of perpetuation of their domination and hegemony over a silent majority, and persuading them to sink their gnawing doubts in the fetishes of creed paraded as faith.

Arresting as the articulation of Augustine’s love of God is, I am not sure that it is at all an arguable proposition, something amenable to reason. As far as one understands, people who would like to put forward the remarkable experience of Augustine and such saintly people in support of their argument that religion, apart from its importance (some will even claim about its primacy) in our life, is also unique, capable of spawning beautiful and many splendoured sense of God, do not anticipate an alternative point of view or premise. You either accept this, surrender to it, get submerged in it or you don’t get it. One has even come across suggestions that to arrive at this privileged view and making it one’s own, one has to surrender one’s ego about one’s being knowledgeable and reasonable, in other words, one’s alternative, distinguishing point of view. Either ego, or God !

I would venture to say that if reason can be thought of as the basic bonding among disparate empirical facts of the material world facing mankind that goes to make the complex and evolving architecture of the human mindscape, faith works by destroying most of these bonds, dissolving the existing structure, replacing it by an entirely different paradigm.

A more interesting point for me is about the inescapable, undiluted and unrefined attachment of ordinary men and women in many countries (as one commonly finds in India) for religious culture, including the rituals and many other crude practices, despite being uncannily aware that one does not automatically become a good human being just because of one’s allegiance to some form of religion. Can they be sure if religious morality can always help one conduct oneself in an ethically correct way and make choices that stand the scrutiny of reason? The fact that the answer to this question is not easy to find does not mean we stop asking this or that it is a trivial one.

(This is a follow up on my earlier post ‘About faith’ published in this blog as a reaction to the article by Brooks referred above)

Indeterminate life and a way to live it

Life is inherently subversive. Human beings, whether at individual plane or collectively at the family or some organizational level or in other social and political spheres, try to impose some kind of order. We are generally conditioned to become aware of the many facets of our own life and those of others, including non-human species as well as inanimate matter, in terms of certain orderly relationships, even apparent dependencies. The sum total of the generalizations about these relationships that are either handed down over generations or arrived at by ourselves in course of the unfolding episodes of our existence, constitute what can be broadly termed as our individual or collective worldview.

But since individual species are living beings and not static factors/objects/nodes within this maze of relationships, they are subject to constant fluctuations and dynamic changes in natural course. And to that extent so are the network of relationships that are supposed to hold the concept of life together. The stability of such a network is, therefore, not guaranteed. The myriad ‘life processes’ comprising the dynamic development of parts of the network of relationships have specific logic leading to their own dénouements, as a part of the natural phenomena, without any ‘emotional’ considerations about the consequences vis-à-vis the overall or the entire system. Though the conceptual basis of ‘life’ lies in our subjective awareness of this gamut of relationships and the assessment/projection about how that might evolve, the actual ‘destiny’ or the fall out in the real life would depend on the objective dynamics of the interconnected and parallel life processes centered on or around individual living beings. This dynamics is not merely stochastic in nature, but probably even be indeterminate and not always fully understood in terms of the present scientific knowledge.

The worldview (whether a very individualistic or a shared one) creates an illusion of ‘order’, expectation, impression of ‘causality’, at best heuristically confirmed in an apparently large number of instances. Nobody keeps track of or quotes the cases indicating refutation or those generating ambiguous results. Steeped as we are with this inductively acquired sense causality, which could be a chimera, we feel shattered when this expectation breaks down inexorably in finite number of life processes and if we happen to be the close observers/participants of any such process.

If we accept the above deficiency of the concept of life we generally entertain and share, it might be more understandable as to why all of a sudden one’s life is believed to undergo an upheaval, say, when one comes to know of a major health issue concerning a close family member or about an accident suffered by a friend, or our town suffers an unprecedented earthquake or a flash flood bringing in its wake death and devastation. However, this realization does not make the feeling of pain or helplessness, a sense of being subjected to some kind of subversion (even ‘betrayal’) by some shadowy unknowable forces any less acute. That probably shows the grip on us of what we grow up to believe as the ‘life’, which most of us would be hard put to define. But the truth is that there cannot be any such ‘design’ on you or me anywhere in the universe. We just do not count. Nor as much does any matter, living or non-living.

An added complication is the way our perception is often clouded by degrees of moral value judgment about this or that incident many of us tend to associate with it and often try to ‘rationalize’, worse even justify, the same. For them, the very best among them, who probably have an inkling about what a game of chances the life really is, an enlightenment that may disturb the sense of causality and order in the minds of ordinary human beings is potentially inhuman and should best be monitored, controlled, disputed and avoided. This strand in the history of human thought invariably has led to the rather common and tested self-serving idea of dividing the human kind into two neat groups: the wise, sad enlightened few holding up the sky of hope over the rest of the ignorant simple hearted multitudes who would otherwise have perished with grief and loneliness knowing themselves to be derelict in a universe without a cosmic purpose. And there is no reason to believe that regimentation of mankind for even an apparently noble purpose did achieve its stated goal, peace.

In an alternative approach, one may try, inasmuch as it is practicable, and accept with equanimity the peace and the precipice as two among the constellation of transitory states of life. Of course, this is easier said than done. Call it the inertia in our mind space. Not just from light to dark, white to black but equally for the reverse process. But I would like to suggest that we might be able to achieve the balance some day by trying to make ‘informed’, ‘engaged’ and ‘moral’ choices during every act of our living that is essentially an act on the nature – mostly in concert with it but sometimes in dissonance or with ill-conceived antagonism.

How about facing the facts? Our existence as just a tiny strand in the complex tapestry that the universe is executing, or a small note on a page of score that is going to be turned over seemingly endlessly. Hopeless and incomplete, as it may seem, human beings over the centuries and across civilisations, in an act of magnificent unselfconscious co-operation, have diligently and objectively accreted a huge treasure trove of facts about this tapestry or the score. We will do ourselves a favour by being as objective in acquiring facts of our existence in the universe. One has to be informed as best as one can, with sound knowledge, scientific or otherwise. I am not even discounting mysticism as a way to gain knowledge as long as that is not part of a programme of regimentation or a profit-making proposition. But certainly not dogmas, entrenched pre-conceived biases coloring ‘facts’, spurious dregs floating around in the new age information space. Also in this age of a proclaimed information revolution one should be aware of and resist a very real information apartheid that is often practiced if not even preached. Everybody, without exception, should have information that is verifiable, unrestricted and possible to negotiate with a critical spirit. And try and convert information into knowledge.

It is necessary to engage with all aspects of nature. Not in isolation as a competitor or an adversary with narrow immediate material advantages in view but in wonderment as one with or as an integral, if somewhat exceptional, constituent of it. This speciality relates to human being’s natural ability to perceive and think, be conscious about itself, the surroundings and the intricate relationships holding the entire existence of the material world together. This gift is an unusual opportunity for the humans, perhaps the only species on earth who have it. Nature does not tell us anything, nor does it hide anything. It is up to us to engage with it to get some clues about how it works and what it has in store for us.

I use the term ‘moral’ choices in a specific context and for a restricted purpose. This moral or ethical view of our relationship with nature enjoins us to remember our true position, neither insignificant nor one bloated by some misplaced ego, vis-à-vis the material world existing outside of ourselves in all its splendor and complexity and despite our fleeting perception and attempted simplification of the same. It suggests the futility and danger of human attempts to dominate, harness and exploit nature for narrowly conceived material benefits without realizing or acknowledging the cost human beings all across the globe are already suffering even today, and making the future generations shockingly much more vulnerable to increasingly unpredictable response of nature to some of the current actions impelled by greed and brazen self-interest. The ‘self’ includes individuals, communities and nations.

In the end, if more and more people are able to make such choices in a consistent manner, some of the ‘subversion’ of life that we tend to suffer with a frequency that has shown an upswing, be it at the individual or at the community and the national levels might become gradually more predictable, even manageable, and hence may no longer qualify for the epithet.