How our secular beliefs are to be defined?

Leo Tolstoy

A survey of latest intellectual developments in various branches of sciences and knowledge. I have read many great philosophers and thinkers. Great writers like Tolstoy are also great thinkers. My way of reading and looking at life, looking at my life is that as we grow in years what we come to believe in our life?

The recent political events also point to the dangers of fundamentalism. Hindu high priets, Kanchi mutt and movements like RSS pose many problems, as I see. to the “progress of religion”.

Yes, religion plays such a powerful role in the lives of people and as the sciences and secularisation of society progress so too the religious questions take different dimensions.The subject is complex but one observation. As Bertrand Russell notes in his”History of the Western Philosophy”, when philosophical questions arose man lost his faith in religion. Or, rather to put it in a different manner, philosophical knowledge and later the sciences gave man new knowledges of the cosmos etc man’s belief or faith in religion changed. Almost to be point of losing any faith whatever in religion. More so in the organised religion.

In the West, the new Pope had reiterated his faith in Church’s final word on religious doctrines.

Such a stand on the part of organised religious bodies and their attendant religious rites and ceremonies only would drive more educated people away from believing in the religious beliefs. Unless an enlightened study and examination of religious beliefs and religious toleration is not encouraged, there would be more superstitions and also more religious fundamentalism and the consequent religious terrorism would bring back much barbarism and bloodshed in the modern world.

Now back to some serious thoughts. The rise of science and the rise of new knowledge like the evolutionary biology, the writings of men like Richard Dawkins had further helped the most educated and enlightened men to have a much more detached view of religion and what it can contribute.

How many of us, even among the most educated and the most thoughtful of people know? Just two centuries ago the origin of the universe, the original of life and the nature of consciousness belonged to Religion. Today? They belong to Science!

Yes, this is the critical change in man’s progress. Religion lost its central role in modern man’s life. And to quote Prof. Mohanty, a great Indian philosopher, more rooted to native Indian soil, more down to earth, more a Gandhian (his family members were great Gandhians, one was a Chief Minister of Orissa) than, I would say, the academic minded Radhakrishnan, says: Conventional religious belief impedes both thinking and action” Moreover, Mohanty is much more open-minded than Radhakrishnan. Says Mohanty” I do not deny God’s existence because I hold a materialistic world view that matter is all that there is. On the contrary, I totally reject materialism as a bad philosophy. Idealism, for me is a quite plausible philosophy. But these things have nothing to do with God’s existence “He says, I think more pointedly, the need for freedom of the mind. One must feel free to think. “Thinking is hard; to follow the path of thinking is harder still” You can’t find such candour in Radhakrishnan.

And at the same time without knowing modern man’s many questions today, many questions can’t be answered only by referring to the sciences. The Templates Foundation gives every year a Prize for the “Progress in Religion” and Radhakrishnan was also a recipient of the prize and this foundation does research in the interface between sickness and religions. A Templeton Foundation Prize winner writing in the recent issue of the Times Higher Education supplement says that there is a more interaction between scientists and the theologians (of all religions) to know more about, among other things. “How we can promote more toleration, the biological and social bases for forgiveness in areas of human conflict”.

The subject is much debated and yet there is no clarity. What is indisputable is the fact that historically, there is a growth of much secularism in our lives, Turkey prescribes scarf for school girls and women While France still bans them in schools! Except some such outward symbols of religious identity, there is practically no religious barriers in people of diverse religions living in one society. The rise of multiculturalism and the entry of ‘foreigners’ entering politics and business and making it big is becoming everyday news in UK and USA.

Secularism Voltaire
So it is the rise of secularism, an open non-concern for particular religious practices or doctrines characterise modern societies.

Reason and science, religion and god; astrologers advising politicians and even scientists! Our godmen cultivating politicians or vice versa! When reason and enlightenment spread in Europe, it was the emperors and empresses, the Fredrick the Great and Catherine the Great who cultivated Voltaire and other high society cultivating Rousseau and Rene Descartes. So, whether we have advanced or held back? By our accumulated superstitions and lack of scientific progress and popular education? Are Indians basically superstious? How much reason plays a role in our life? In our intellectual life? India is a paradoxical country. We have brilliant scientists, engineers, techno-savvy entrepreneurs. But they are also deeply religious and more superstitious!

Today, we need a more sober approach to problems and a more self-critical approach if we are to impress the sceptical audience. Javed Akhtar vs Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Today the debates are varied and often cast in much tabloid forms! That is the contestants now have to be public figures, if the debate is to catch the popular attention. Thus recently there was this debate in delhi between the film lyricist Javed Akhtar and the spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shanakr. Akhtar questioned the activities of these new age gurus who run multi-million business empires. Here I don’t want to touch upon these popular debates but concentrate on the rather more fundamental intellectual issues that call for more critical study of the role of reason, reasoning, a rational and scientific attitude and mindset to bring about a better world. Unfortunately in our country there is this tendency to stick to tradition that we continue to believe the older generation even after so much change had come about in our knowledge of things. It is in this spirit only I want to share with readers my latest thoughts on the place of reason and also religion. How much reliance we can place on religion as it is understood and practiced. Also how much we have to reject the many things that are said in the name of religion. For instance, the American President George Bush talks so much in the name of religion. He was voted back to power for a second term specifically, as seen by observers by a religious Right. Yet, the world had become more unstable after the Iraqi war that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight.

Rise of irrationality
In fact there is a new high in the rise of irrationality, irrational politics, irrational religious fundamentalism that we seem to have lost all faith in a reason, reasonable alternatives to war and terrorism. So, what have we to say today? About the relevance of religion to our own life or to the peace of the world that is torn among so many nations that are explicitly now ruled by religious, fanatical groups and professing fanatical religious ideologies. There is also a new rise in secularism. Radhakrishnan traces the rise of secularism in his day as the chief cause for the fall in religious beliefs! Today, the rise of secularism is seen as the hope for much of the problems faced by the world!
Richard Dwakins

Religion vs Science
Now, to some specific issues. The new science or sciences of biology, molecular biology, molecular biophysics etc. have led to writing by scientists like Richard Dawkins (the famous author of the famous books, His books: The Selfish Gene (1976), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Climbing the Mount Improbable (1996) and a latest title. He had advanced the thesis that all our knowledge of things, religion, God and what have you, reduce to only, scientifically speaking, in scientific terms to His “words’ had now entered the Oxford Dictionary, words like ‘biomorph’, ‘phenotype’, ‘replicator’.

He holds an unusually titled chair at Oxford, the Professor of the Public Understanding of Science! We in India don’t have such an innovative, daring chairs in our universities. His famous, rather controversial views have also entered into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

At Oxford there are also a group of scientists and writers who have criticised Dawkins’ thesis. One book review I read recently is about Dwakins’ thesis (Dwakins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life by Alister McGrath, Blackwell). The author, with degrees in biology and theology, started as a militant atheist (he is now a professor at Oxford of historical theology) of the Richard Dawkins kind and now a Christian believer!

What is religion?
In this book, the author now gives a critique of the whole corpus of Dawkins writings and what he says about religion is this: we have to see the history of ideas. The cultural context of particular ideas. The idea of God, the existence of God was a response to the design of the universe in the context of the Newtonian physics. Before this Christian had seen the glory of God in creation but then there are now into intellectual arguments to show that God was” The Blind Watchmaker”, the very title of Dawkins another book on evolution. Then, there is the argument advanced by the critic of Dawkins) to show the Darwinian theory of evolution is based in induction and the arguments for a particular world-view, to draw morals and ethics, is based on the deductive line of reasoning.

The point here to note is that inductive reasoning is based on observation and experiments while the deductive reasoning is based on truth as such by definition. This is an old argument and dissent prove or disprove the respective schools of thought: the belief in scientific assertions or the belief in religious claims. The search for logical consistencies is what define the modern day claims of what constitutes truth and beliefs. Dawkins and other scientists prove many things in science and when it comes to culture and religion too that though he is seen more as and atheist he is also clear that as human beings we have a capacity to discern right from wrong and must “rebel” against any idea that would follow nature in letting only the fittest survive. The point is that atheism is as serious a belief as religion as a religious view of universe is no more true than an evolutionary view of universe or how man came about.

Darwin himself found his religious faith eroded, not by the theory of evolution but by what he saw the suffering in his simplistic view of a clash between science and religion is a false view and it is time we have to take a realistic, that is scientific view of the physical world as well as the human evolution and we can be having our own beliefs either as atheists, or agnostics or religious persons. In India the problem become more complicated given our own religious traditions where we don’t have any religious account of the origins of life. We believe in some divine creation, as much as the Christian faiths. But can we now afford to teach philosophy and the humanities as if Darwin had never lived? Our education curriculum and our education belief system is still ignorant of the many excitements of new knowledge that had helped modern man to see the unsuspect beauty in our universe, in our lives today.

We, without these new knowledge and the cultural opportunities, seem to be living a very dull and primitive lives. What a pity! What a great cultural loss! How much deprivation we are putting up with? By our ignorant education system? As Dawkins says, at the very beginning of his book, Selfish Gene, the evolutionary theory touches every aspect of social lives, our loving and hating, fighting and co-operating, giving and stealing, ordered and generosity.

Our own understanding of our selfishness and our capacity for altruism…. “Among animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down. Yet then man is an exception to the rule (evolutionary nature of man)” I am afraid I have digressed from my main theme! That is what it is: can reason succeed in our times? In our society? Readers who want to pursue the scientific reasons for believing or non-believing in God has to read the Dawkins’ books that are available in the book stores and in particular the book referred to above has a series of easy to understand “endnotes” in the 1989 edition. Such is the power of new knowledge about our own evolutionary nature and where would be heading! I would also urge the more serious-minded readers to look into any of the latest encyclopaedias.

The one book
The one book I have referred to in recent years is :The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich in 1995. It so happened that also I read this author’s (he was professor of philosophy at University College, London) autobiography. This volume has some 6 pages of closely argued arguments for and against a belief in God! I think this information is more than sufficient to form an intelligent judgements of the various beliefs in the various religious systems. The most amusing part of my reading these pages (or glancing through these pages) is the discoverythat Dr.Radhakrishnan’s much laboured argument for a belief in God, though he was speaking from the Hindu religion’s point of view is almost identical to what is espounded in the three major Western religions, namely, Christian, Jewish and Islamic ones! At the current state of research in what is called the man’s next frontier in knowing his own self is a mix of many areas: brain research, genetic make-up and man’s capacity to manipulate so that every human being, in theory at least, to have the same genetic capabilities. Incidentally, one Indian researcher, V.S. Ramachandran at the university of San Diego, California, is the director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition. He says we, humans are just DNA vessels, self-replicating molecules. What it means for our mind, consciousness? Questions that don’t seem to have adequate answers from the new knowledge.

Dawkins also considers these questions and also comes to allowing the selfish genes also making room for altruism as well. Without going into further this field, we can say the moral questions of right and wrong would still be with us.

This raises the ethical question of whether every human being can be made equal to the other. Why not? Our modern medical advances can do this, make us live longer etc.
Even our minds and thoughts, not just our bodies, were descended from the apes, says Seven
Pinker, professor of psychology, Harvard University.

Then, our notions of free will would be untrue and this would destabilize our traditional beliefs. Even questions are raised that God can live in part of our brain! Says Nancy Rothwell, neuroscientist at Manchester University: “the previous (scientific) revolutions haven’t necessarily made our place in the cosmos less significant. Not any more. We might even find that there is a biological basis for religion. God lived in part of our brain and religion also has a biological function? Yes, such questions are no more crazy or no insult to religion or God. They are perfectly now relevant to the debate opened up by the new revolutions in the sciences and our thoughts about man and his future capabilities. To change the argument we have to be ready to look at the world we live in an entirely open-minded manner. We have to ask questions, we have to carry the opinion of others also. We have to shape the world in the collective interest of the human race. Here it is reason, not prejudices or unexplained prejudices of so many vested interests, religious groups, political alignments that do matter. Thus, the UN passes a resolution to ban all forms of human cloning. So too collection action on climate change. So too other issues of grave concern, war in Iraq, banning of nuclear weapons, control of nuclear arms race etc. In all these sensitive issues, it is the developed nations, civilized peoples and the civilized public opinion that matter. It is here we see the need for reason, reasoned approach to human life and for our own safe future. Even in religious spheres we see there is a rise in fundamentalism, also a rise in secularist societies. India, Hinduism is seen by even outsiders who have studied the subject see much successful than other dogmatic religions like Catholicism.

India’s solidity of Secularism
The historian Donald E.Smith who wrote the book, India as a Secular State in 1963 was in India recently and he says 57 years of our freedom and democracy demonstrates the solidity of secularism and democracy. As no other country has done! This is something.
So, what we have is at best a neutral attitude towards other religions in India and can never talk of adopting a religious jargon in outlining public policy. As US President Bush! All this doesn’t mean India is a truly secular country or a modern society. India is a deeply religious or I would say a superstious society. There are any type of superstitions. From astrology to organised religious bigotry. Even the most educated consult the astrologers, there are powerful forces in support of this Indian superstition. So too in many areas. So, what is needed is to banish astrology and such anti-scientific mindsets, like caste adherence even by highly regarded scientists and also the practice of so many rituals to propitiate gods for peace and what have you. These religious sects and godmen and god women are now running billion dollar MNC-like spiritual empires. India has somehow acquired the reputation of a spiritual country, so says the Tibetan leaders, the Dalai Lamas and also the many other foreign leaders. Yes, this helps us in a way. India hasn’t invaded any other country, India hadn’t resorted to wars as others have done in recent history. Yet, India is a deeply poor country, illiteracy is high and people are not given the full potentialities of the freedom and democracy. So much superstition prevails.
My point is that our educated classes haven’t progressed beyond getting degrees, jobs and surviving as a nation. We haven’t evolved into a truly learning society, our education hadn’t reformed itself to open up our minds, give recognition to true knowledge.
Our culture is still orthodox to the point of rigidity, our established religious mutts or organised groups or movements are, in my opinion, have-not contributed to a health exchange of views between sciences and humanities and our own learning traditions.

So, the rest of my life it will be my endeavour to help to bring about a new and a higher order of education and advancement of knowledge based on the latest developments in critical areas of knowledge. I am not sure whether we can bring men like Richard Dawkins to speak to Indian audience but we should effect such an exchange.

Here, more than the universities our religious mutts can take the first steps. Let us certainly believe in our ancient religions and our own traditions.

We shouldn’t hesitate to help to bring new knowledge, from whatever quarters to bear on our own modern, secular life styles. We have to make our activities so exciting and meaningful to our Generation Next!
Currently, the submergence of reason and the mindset of the people to blindly believe their leaders, political as well as spiritual leaders. We need men like Prof. Mohanty to make our own philosophy to establish new credentials in the light of world developments. Reason is not the same thing as said to be reasoning by an astrologer!

Our education accepts truths based on sound reasoning, based on scientific facts and scientific reasoning and arguments. This realisation is possible only when we study the rise of Western knowledge, Western sciences and Western thought processes. We know well the European Enlightenment is a triumph of reason. We could see the benefits of the Enlightenment.

Material Wealth Increases
Material wealth was created, material wealth is now created in a big way and distributed globally. Sciences had led to control of diseases, our society had learnt to live through democratic forms of government, there is more individual liberty and human dignity had risen.

We can also see how we in India, deprived of this opportunity, are handicapped.
So, in brief, we have to learn to take hard decisions to live by scientific beliefs, sound reasoning and a new life style.

Only when sciences are grown and taught in all schools extensively, the knowledge of the physical world would spread.

Our understanding of the human affairs would be more enlightened. So much for enlightenment in our current understanding of the world and human affairs!

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan when he gave the first lectures at Kolkatta University
Many of the great philosophers like, say Bertrand Russell and here in India Dr.S.Radhakrishnan have written much and created vast readership. I have read them in great, extensive ways. Russell is yes, quite brilliant, he wrote so clearly that won him vast readership, even today he is selling well. Karl Poppar says, in his autobiography, that Russell could write pages and pages of such clear English without almost changing a word! Such was his writing skills. So too I would say of our own Radhakrishnan. He could write very chaste and readable English with apt quotations from unexpected quarters, novelists and such then currently favourite writers and thus impress the readers. Equally, he was a great orator. So, he won his day,so to say! Indians easily fall for even empty rhetoric! But then I often ask:how much of Radhakrishnan will last? Now, after so much of my life lived in the way I had lived, that is, without office or the publicity that comes with it,what I think of Radhakrishnan’s thoughts? I have to say, rather candidly, Practically nothing he thought as his original thinking!

Prof. J.N. Mohanty
An eminent Indian philosopher, Prof.J.N.Mohanty says “he is bored to death”to read Radhakrishnan! Prof.Mohanty should know! His beautiful little autobiography of just 130 pages (Between two worlds:East and West,OUP, is a precious little gem! It is endlessly illuminating and insightful. It would pay a rich dividend for intellect and I would strongly recommend for any connosieur of intellectual tastes. Mohanty had occupied the same high positions in teaching philosophy as Radhakrishnan,in Kolkatta and Oxford, besides doing original research in Germany under such eminent original thinkers like Edmund Husserl, perhaps the greatest German philosopher who revived the modern German philosophy.
Why such harsh criticism? Simply because Radhakrishnan wrote and spoke much on religion.His concept or conceptualisation of philosophy was not made clear. All the time he assumed that we all know what is Indian philosophy is. So too he assumed we would all accept the conceptualisation of religion as he understood and expounded. Never in any one place in his vast corpus of writing he says what he personally believed in, in God or Religion, as he understood.I had just now had gone through his first, detailed exposition of Religion (in his Kamala lectures in Kolkatta and later published as”Religion and Society”. The need for religion has 50 pages of which nearly 20 pages are given to dialectical materialism of Marx. The next chapter, the inspiration of religion and the new world order takes another 50 pages of which much is taken for granted when he talks of religion and his view of history is more bookish, if we can say so. Any way, since the time he wrote or spoke in 1942,the world itself had changed beyond recognition and also the revolutions in our knowledge are unprecedented. One of my convictions I had developed as I grew in years is that I would like to know how an author or a philosopher or a person lived actually his life and only then I would judge an opinion about the worth of his own writings or what he conveys as his own beliefs and convictions.

Thus, I would dismiss much of Radhakrishnan’s views on religion, society, women, marriage. As I was reading through Radhakrishnan’s “Region and Society” I could see that he was engaged to prove himself. So this book shows a confident Radhakrishnan at his dogmatic best! Yes, he takes many assumptions as not wanting any defence. One such was his assertion of religion in our life. Today, there would be howl of protests if one were to seek like that! I was truly amazed by the mastery of the subject he was talking about. As I can see he was at his very creative best in his career at this time. Religion was the topic!

The topic was not so easy at any time and in fact very tough and to come to terms with definitions and expositions at every stage of the argument is itself a herculean task. That he turned the lectures into a cogent argument and make for a case for “the need for religion” as he saw fit was a monumental achievement. The first chapter is all about the integration of the transcendence and the empirical, the universal and the individual.. etc. the trademark of Radhakrishnan’s unique capabilities as a thinker and interpreter of diverse issues into a convincing philosophical belief process. Everything he says be it religion or the way he understands the world then, in the background of Hitler who was yet to be defeated seemed sounding right for the listeners.. The Communists firmly in power in Russia and more specifically for Indians the British war machine was in full control and India it is truly brave on the part of an academic philosopher to advance a thesis on religion and argue for a spiritual revival! It was indeed a brave effort and as I see it a brave achievement as well.

The result was a wholesome book that even now makes for a refreshing reading. Though every one of his definitions is now out of date! Our times present a totally changed world and the very thoughts of the international citizens have undergone radical changes. Changes beyond the imagination of an earlier generation. Current developments in our knowledge, in the sciences as well in humanities, have been in advanced levels. With our awareness of genetics, the DNA and related fields and also our awareness of the world’s peoples increased understanding of the many social and political issues, as well as the modern man’s many deeper concerns from the rise of religious fundamentalism everywhere, international terrorism of various categories, we can’t talk of religion in a way that Dr.Radhakrishnan spoke in an earlier generation. Bluntly put, we have to reject the very thesis of Radhakrishnan. He was talking at a time when there were revolutionary changes in international philosophy and given his penchant for rhetoric as well as for Sanskrit knowledge and his appropriate quotations to knit his arguments in chaste English, he won the day.

Jean – Paul Sartre
A great French writer philosopher
1964 on October 22, Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but he declined it. In his novels, essays, and palys, Sartre advanced the philosophy of existentialism, arguing that each individual must create meaning for his or her own life, because life itself had no innate meaning. Sartre studied at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure between 1924 and 1929. He met Simone de Beauvoir, who became his lifelong companion, during this time. Sartre became a philosophy professor and taught at Le Havre, Laon, and Paris. In 1938, his first novel, Nausea, was published. In 1939, he was drafted into World War II, taken prisoner, and held for about a year, he later fought with the French Resistance. In 1943, he published Being and Nothingness, where he argued that man is condemned to freedom and has a social responsibility. Sartre and Beauvoir engaged in social movements, supporting Communism and the radical student uprisings in Paris in 1968.
Existentialism is of course has a long tradition.

Nehru consulted astrologer?
A recent magazine write-up threw out some fascinating glimpses on Indians’ penchant for astrology, numerology, palmistry and what have you. Two bits of news surprised me. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who spoke so much on science and technology, it is said was consulting the Bangalore-based astrologer B.V.Raman through some intermediaries, notably Gulzarilal Nanda! Also today’s media man, N.Ram of the Hindu, the editor of Frontline had the magazine’s name cleared by an astrologer! Yes, this is India! We are a still immature nation and society. India is far from the European Enlightenment age beliefs and outlook.

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