Serial Bus

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Debate as the Test of Faith

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Recently, I happened to read the wikipedia entry about Adi Shankara. Although his story is well-known to those who grew up in India, I kind of re-discovered his larger-than-life personality. His iconoclastic thought, the legends of his childhood, his deep yet humble intellect, his travels across India, his enterprise in establishing lasting centers of learning came across as heroic. While reading about him, one learns of how he single-handedly reversed the declining course of Hinduism against the formidable school of thought that was Buddhism in the 8th-9th century AD. He did that largely by inviting people to engage in Shastrartha (Scholastic Debate) with him. Whoever lost the debate would accept the supremacy of the winner’s philosophy / religion and convert to it. Typical of Shankara’s times, whenever a big Buddhist scholar lost a debate, several of his followers would automatically convert to Advaita (non-dualism), Shankara’s brand of Hinduism. I imagine this method of winning over people is perhaps passe in today’s times – today, politeness (and political correctness) demands that you can not even broach religion with anyone.

Debate as the test of faith struck me as very fascinating. Perhaps it is the social mores of today that religion is seen as completely off-limits for reasoning and debate. In fact, if one speaks of faith and debate in the same breath, it is seen as contradiction in terms. Acceptance of the almighty is pronounced as an article of faith, not something you should arrive at through reasoning. I guess they imply ‘blind’ faith because they fear that application of reasoning may never bring one out of the forest into the clearing. And, they use such metaphors to imply that the forest is deep, chaotic and unforgiving, while the clearing represents light and clarity. In truth, the forest represents exploration of truth and the clearing is an escape into blinding light.

I wonder why religion is so much more opaque today. In my view, science has progressed so much that religion’s scope of intelligent application is very limited now. To maintain dominance and authority, the religious types will tell you how one can’t talk of theology and rationality together. They would rather have you believe them unquestioningly, rather than allow you to self-discover. The latter approach can be injurious to the prospects of religion.

Today, the Pope can not claim any access to cutting-edge knowledge, let alone preferential access. Recent comments by Benedict XVI regarding how use of condoms may not help contain AIDS sparked off fury – scientists as well as laypeople were shocked that a Pope would pass a verdict in matters of science. This was not always the case. Not until long back, religious leaders were considered fountains of both knowledge and spirituality. In the 17th century, Pope could have sent Galileo to the gallows because the latter defied papal wisdom on geocentric view of the universe. To avoid embarrassment, today the religious leaders do not profess to possess any hot line with God in the matters of molecular biology and quantum physics; instead, their diktats these days are limited to science-less spirituality – love of God as opposed to proof of God. A debate would bring out the question of proof of God hence the taboo on discussing religious beliefs, that continues to be reinforced by all major and minor religions of the world.

The reference to molecular biology as an example is perhaps not accidental as the scope of science has also specialized so much today that religious types would find it difficult to profess primacy when they don’t have the equipment or the intricate know-how of making discoveries. That said, religious institutions tend to be wealthy and if they wish, they are perfectly capable of establishing sophisticated centers of science. But, this will put them at odds with their central dogmas, none of which will withstand the scrutiny of science since science is addressing questions today that overlap with the religious philosophies at a very fundamental level. In mediaeval times, the emergence of Islam also led to a dizzying growth of science and mathematics in the Arab world. Islam’s basic tenets encouraged appreciation and knowledge of the world. Believers could afford to study alchemy and algebra (both words derived from Arabic) without calling into question their belief in a monotheistic God. But, today, science has pushed the envelope far beyond where it was in the fourteenth century. Understanding of the Biblical or Koranic version of cosmos is at complete loggerheads with the essential principles of a stem cell protocol or a strings theory. You can not subscribe to the two at the same time (although, there are some brilliantly uptight academics whose faith in God has not been shaken by everything they have known). Thus, it is wholly uncharacteristic of religion to commandeer exciting discoveries today without compromising their essential tenets.

One of my favorite authors, Richard Dawkins, published his book ‘The God Delusion’ a couple of years back and he faced biting criticism from the Bible-and-Koran-thumping people of the world, which was expected. What I found disappointing was how several so-called academics and learned commentators also disingenuously criticized his analysis – claiming that Dawkins’ work on biology was more credible. On the other hand, I thought Dawkins was doing exactly what one should do – debate all the finer points of theism and atheism, and then come to an informed opinion of what is kosher and what profane. With all humility that a true debater (and a scientist) would possess, he concedes at several points how invention of God may have been an evolutionary necessity but debunks the holier-than-thou proportions that are then ascribed to the concept.

It is true that his writing is imbued with a certain sense of delightful sarcasm, but then a truly objective view of religious books can inspire disbelief and chagrin – Dawkins has processed those emotions into humor to make the contradictions of religion palpable. Whereas, several literati do not possess the courage to call a spade a spade and continue to rely on political correctness. In that one remembers the times of Adi Shankara wistfully – if he were alive today, he would wonder why such a fuss over discussing religion!!


Written by serialbus

June 21, 2009 at 3:20 pm

One Response

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  1. Hello Mohit,
    You say that “A debate would bring out the question of proof of God hence the taboo on discussing religious beliefs, that continues to be reinforced by all major and minor religions of the world.”
    You rue that Adi Shankaracharya lives no more and that there is no one to debate on the question “Does God really exist?”
    Now because most ideas today are influenced by western thoughts and discussions, I would be considered out dated if I tell that in India the debate on the existence of God has been eternal. People in India continue to debate the existence of God in the same way as Quantum Physicist debate the cause of the Big Bang in the west.
    But debates over God are not unique to India and Adi Shankaracharya. I would invite you to go through the debate between William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith which took place as late as March 22, 1996 on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
    It would be a personal judgment as to who won the debate but one thing that comes out clear is that if you do not accept that God is the cause of the Big Bang you do have any other answer.
    Just because God is not a formula does not by any means signify that he does not exist.
    After all as science has all the answers let them come out with the mathematical formula that says “God does not exist”. Till then I would let common knowledge prevail.

    Manoj Mishra

    June 27, 2009 at 9:51 am

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