Is religion necessary?
Scientists believe that the universe is a physical phenomenon – with a natural order that could be understood through observation and reasoning. A few scientists also assert that God had nothing to do with the creation of the order of the universe (The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking, University of Cambridge and Leonard Mlodinow, Cal Tech). In their view, knowledge of the physical world and matter is not revealed by a supernatural power but is obtained from objective analysis of empirical data. Hawking states that philosophy, and by default religion, has not kept pace with physics and other sciences and this deficiency renders philosophy and religion, irrelevant. This allegation is untenable because the focus of philosophy and religion are not the same. While the focus of the sciences is to understand the material world using the empirical methodology, the focus of philosophy and religion is to understand the metaphysical world through intuition and experience. Also, science is a knowledge-based approach that is basically neither good nor bad. Science does not reflect on ethical values important for preserving social order and morals and wisdom essential for human evolution. It is a religion that reflects on such attributes. Therefore, it is necessary to differentiate between the focus of science and religion and to refrain from judging one from the perspective of the other.
The world has been changing at an alarming pace with the advancement of science and technology. These advancements have provided enormous benefits to humanity. One of the most significant and noteworthy contributions of science is that it has brought the world communities closer to each other. This closeness, in turn, has provided an opportunity for the communities across the world to work together towards world harmony and peace. At the same time, the advancement of science and technology has placed greater authority in the hands of a few – including the ability to control nature. As Professor Adrian of the Royal Society of England, states “…to destroy the world by the push of a button.” Or as the renowned scientist, Oppenheimer, lamented after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, “I am like a destroyer of worlds.” These alarming expressions indicate that scientists, most times, have chosen to be clinical observers rather than moral advocates pointing to the right direction on the use of science and technology. Regardless, if humanity is to choose between a path of harmony and peace and a path towards destruction, it does need a moral compass; in the absence of science, only religion could provide such a moral compass.
Serving as a moral compass is not the only attribute that differentiates religion from science. The two also differ in other attributes. Science focuses on the material world. In contrast, religion, as a system of thought, focuses on the non-material or spiritual world. Religion emphasizes that it is not adequate to just explore the physical or biological processes but it is also necessary to inquire into the deep-rooted spirituality that lies dormant within us. The spiritual inquiry that religion proposes is a reflection of what people have been sensing throughout human history. Seers and saints refer to the belief in an inner spirit as the “… world beyond, voices from afar and light from within.” Although science has insisted that there is nothing beyond the objective physical world, yet, it has not discouraged humanity from the experience that there is something more than the ‘confining walls of finitude and mortality. ‘
Moreover, while the material world has changed significantly since the days of the early man, the belief in a supernatural and the belief that the supernatural is responsible for preserving world order and for determining one’s place within the world order has been steadfast. It is easy to explain away these beliefs as imagination or as irrational; but, it is baffling that humans continue to experience such feelings. Dr. William Sheldon, psychologist, writes that “continued observations in clinical practice lead almost inevitably to the conclusion that deeper and more fundamental than sexuality, deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even than the desire for possessions, there is still more generalized and universal craving in the human makeup, it is the craving for knowledge of the right direction – for orientation.” In the absence of the desire to find the right direction, life will not make sense. According to Houston Smith, the Philosopher, “minds require eco-niches as much as organisms do, and the mind’s eco-niche is its worldview, its sense of the whole of things.” Without such a world view, life will become meaningless, hostile, and fearful – phenomena we observe more and more in today’s world of materialism sans spiritualism.
The mind is behind every human experience and how we see the world. But, this mind is constantly torn between two streams of thought – a positive stream that encourages us to follow a course of righteousness, virtue, and ethics, while a negative stream that mires us in hatred, jealousy, greed and other vices. The purpose of religion is to help overcome or subdue the negative stream – the unregenerate nature – and, helps us focus on the enlightening positive stream. The premise is that when we understand our predicament and learn how to deal with it equitably, we will rise above our sorrow and suffering. By turning our focus inward, away from the constant obsession with power and possessions, we will find the meaning and the reality (Katha Upanishad). Reflecting on how we should lead our lives, what our responsibilities are to society and to the larger world, and what is knowable is important. Religions recommend such an inward reflection because the answers guide one to live a life of balance and composure and lead a life of fulfillment. A caveat though; religion only shows the path to inner inquiry and emancipation. Religion does not provide readymade answers. Instead, it requires that each individual strive towards an intuitive recognition of the pure nature that is intrinsic to the individual and to unite with it. To quote, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, “we were born with God-consciousness (or with a pure soul).” We lost this purity on the way and need to rediscover it and reawaken it.”
Religions call the rediscovery of one’s pure mind as spiritual evolution; it is attained only through intuition and inner experience. Rational analyses, conformity to communal beliefs, a study of scriptures and theological texts are useful, but, are not sufficient. Veda, the Hindu doctrine, declares that the spiritual transformation is not a simple outcome based on faith, revelation, or emotions but the attainment of higher knowledge through self-inquiry. Buddhism describes the spiritual transformation as, “There is an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, an uncompounded, therefore there is an escape from the born, the become, the made, the compounded.” Eastern religions, in particular, equate the inner evolution to an intuitive vision of God, where one achieves absolute freedom and escapes from blind adherence to ordinary experiences. Philo, the Greek philosopher, says humans are celestial plants. The Upanishad defines this inner divinity as tat tvam asi (Thou art that (God)). Christianity declares that “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Hence, God, from a spiritual perspective, is not an external entity but the divinity that resides within each that is waiting to be discovered. Recognizing the inner divinity and overcoming the barrier that separates the individual and the Absolute and becoming aware of the oneness is the objective of spiritual inquiry. We find reference to the oneness in Hinduism, Sufism, Christianity (mystical traditions) and even faiths that existed even before the development of the languages. This confirms that religious experience is the same all over the world.
Religions urge one to follow a path of spiritual inquiry because it is an opportunity for self-realization. Religions point out that when we recognize our inner purity, free ourselves from our ego-driven behaviors, and restrain our negative thoughts and actions, we will develop a love for all. When viewed from this perspective, there is no argument against religion. However, skeptics would point out that most human conflicts in the world are somewhat traceable to religious bigotry and hatred and that religions have separated people more than they had brought them together. And, we cannot deny that followers of religions have indeed exhibited intolerance causing enormous misery in the world. But, the blame lies more with the followers of religions than with religions or their messages. All great religions of the world preach tolerance and respect for other faiths. It will be a mistake if we discard religion because of the intolerance of its adherents or because of the ‘convenient’ interpretation of its message. The relevant question, therefore, is not whether religion is necessary but what kind of religion?
By Dr. Ram Sriram