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RATIONAL THOUGHT AND RELIGION (By Asif Zaidi)

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The religion often distrusts rational thought because of its inability to build the essence of religious or mystical experience into a conceptual framework. However, not only can rational thought accommodate the intuitive knowledge of metaphysical reality manifested by faith but can also foster mediation between different faiths by creating a consensus around the common and essential as compared to what is parochial and local.

 

During recent discussions with a philanthropist of some merit and renown, we talked about the limitation of reason in acquiring knowledge. Being a devout believer, my friend argued that pure reason is not competent to deal with metaphysical problems. For example, he says, the ultimate cause that has brought the universe into being cannot be answered by resorting to mere rational thought. While I do not believe in subordinating reason to faith, I do think that in today’s world rational thought –driven by ‘empirical realism’- and religion –nourished by ‘transcendental idealism’- can exist amicably side by side within an individual or a society. Carrying on from there, let’s discuss below if religion can reside in the premises of rational thought and if practical reason is incapable of dealing with certain aspects of our existence.

Human thought not only functions as a cerebral correspondent to our external environment but is also an instrument of expressing connotations that are independent of our sense perception. Of these two, the knowledge produced by the first function has been worked out by man. The use of the second function consists in creative understanding of the truths and concepts beyond the perception of senses. The human intellect draws on both these functions. Not only it has faith in analytic knowledge in unity with the senses but also endeavours to unravel the relationship of the world of appearance with the reality. Thus, thought is a salve of life and is called upon by life to help it control its environment. This defines the functional utility of rational thought in relation to biological evolution. Evolution of our thought-life mirrors the progress of our powers of perception. Thought empowers our senses, heightens our reach, and leads to judgment and belief. The belief is a plan of action founded in man’s concept of what he believes is the reality. The determinability of our mind by abstraction is an important ingredient of human constitution. The intellect also evolves a language, based on shared experience, which serves as a pointer to meaning of experience; for example, pain as suffered, love as felt, beauty as seen, sound as heard, food as tasted, and fear as experienced.

The quality of human intellect, though overall higher than ever before in history, has also suffered a decline in some respects. The intellect is no longer regarded as a source of guidance and enlightenment for the man. In fact the intellect has ceased to drive the forces of life and has largely become, instead, a means to acquire material means. It has mainly become the special industry of its foremost owners to indulge in the rat race to worldly possessions. Not that the present day’s calculating approach is a useless outflow of human intellect but it does seem odd as though intellect were nothing but a means to accumulate the trappings of worldly success. At one time the intellect was considered to be fountain of wisdom and its possessor a wise man himself, a benefactor of humanity, and a friend and guide to those around him. He was not known so much for his worldly success as for his wisdom and the high quality of his soul. But the credentials of an intelligent mind today, generally, are of another variety altogether. It is not necessarily a bad thing but just that today’s intellect has no inhibitions in pursuing the desires which the intellectuals in the past did not have the courage to own up and fulfil whereas they often came to be possessed by it. This shift in the productivity of human intellect has engendered a period of bleak and barren output by man in fields like literature and philosophy. No wonder, for the past many decades, we are not producing writers, painters, poets, philosophers of significant stature in the history of human intellect.

The modern human intellect’s preoccupation with pragmatism and extensive empiricism has also eroded the sense of synthesis in life by extension of scientific methods to the field of religion, turning our age’s most developed societies into avowedly ungodly ones. Embodying science’s extremely resolute endeavour to think lucidly about the universe and knowledge in order to design the best action for their further discovery and better use, the modern human intellect displays a much greater and more general tough-mindedness to the matters of faith than ever before. The modern progress in the fields like health, genetics, transportation etc is the highest fruit of this incessant intellectual focus.

The religion is fuelled more by conceptual thought than rational thought. The unseen world of conceptual thought manifested as faith is a mode of believer’s manner of regarding the physical world he explores through his senses, establishing its relationship with what he regards as ‘unseen’. This leads to an interplay of precepts and concepts that is called faith. The man looks up to religion to seek the satisfaction of his emotional needs more than the intellectual ones, using imaginative symbolism in describing a state of consciousness that is not based on analysed or experienced knowledge. Religion has never succeeded in advancing the cause of human knowledge. Whereas scientific/rational knowledge can be passed on to any person who chooses to further it or benefit from it. This is how it is accurately maintained and developed from generation to generation. The religious literature does not contain accurate information and thus cannot be handled in the same manner. Religious experience is thus an experience of deep feelings and profundity based on the believer’s convictions and intuition.


The man has always been keen to explore methods allowing him to live his life to its full potential while also pursuing spiritual awakening. However, I think that the modern educated man of the 21st century should not relapse into the primitive modes of approaching this task. He must think, criticize, appraise, reconcile, and weigh his thoughts in a rational balance before the formation of belief dealing with the metaphysical. He must be guided by the forces of a well-articulated intellectual life and not by the non-rational forces of primitive belief. Rational thought must be employed by an intelligent mind to raise life to a higher level from which he can command a view of the cosmic order beyond his own existence, a part of which is revealed by his senses and another is explained by his conceptual knowledge. Rational thought should endeavour to attain a synthesis of mind and soul to construct life on the plane of understanding. Faith should have the same relationship with other areas of human learning as has life with the separate organs evolved by it in a physiological system. Faith should teach man how to illuminate the world of human experience with the light of the spirit and rational thought should invigorate and unify the whole system of man’s knowledge.

The limitations of scientific knowledge are often cited by the religionists as the limits to human reason and intellect. To be fair it has never been claimed by the defenders of scientific knowledge that human intellect knows all that is beyond experience. Within the framework of our experience, rational thought furnishes accurate and certain knowledge without any adulteration of the deliverance of our intellectual powers. From a practical standpoint, the trite contention that there are things our intellect cannot know must be founded in an assumption that we know enough of those things to know that they cannot be known. Rational thought can be employed to remove such historic baloney or dogma from faith. By disputing the impulsive religious constructions with the results of empirical sciences, rational thought can also remove doctrines that have now been established by science as absurd or false. Sorting through in this manner, rational thought will then be left with a residuum of beliefs that are, as a minimum, possible if not verifiable. Thus distinguishing between what is naive over-belief and imagery in the expression of a faith and what can be literally taken by its followers.

In the earlier ages when the man’s faculty of rational thought was not much developed, the depiction of universe and environment was furnished by the prophets, seers and preachers and their accounts are preserved in religious literature. The devotional literature is full of descriptions of nature and the world to which the man is related. While it is no more accurate according to the modern knowledge, it is at least an evidence of their vision in inviting a man to relate to and build a relationship with his entire surroundings in order to determine his place in the scheme of things. Hence religion was useful in ensuring the development of man up to a point after which he could take up the responsibility of his development in his own hands. Age of revelation has given way to age of awareness and growth. The need for institutionalized religion has ebbed. Endowed with the power of rational thought, the modern man must observe, read, search, and reflect in order to be his own guide. However, the cognitive tendency in man still yearns to go out for pleasant, attractive, satisfying, and sugar-coated beliefs and assumptions as reality or the revelations of God’s own truth.

The paradox between religion’s implausibility and its emotional satisfaction continues to intrigue human minds. While some folks like to pick holes in religious doctrines and others, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens go all-out to slay God, most people need comforting rituals and devotional celebrations sanctioned to steer them through life. For them, faith provides an answer to the deeply human need for guidance and meaning as they use their creeds to make sense of the human condition. Even though faith may not be profoundly entrenched in the tempo of everyday for most believers, rites and scriptures still lend a very reassuring sense of legitimacy to life. Scientific accounts have by no means exhausted the mystery of our existence and our world. Religions can play a transformative role for the individuals and societies by showing us how to approach living with ourselves and within the world. These ways are inculcated through pilgrimage and prayer and then integrated with arts, politics and business through embedding faith in the rhythms of everyday. The atheists who term faiths as delusional based on lack of proofs miss the point as faiths are not scientific plans, but ways of life consisting in voyages into mystery, means of emotional fulfilment, and responses to human needs. Faiths focus on the subjective and emotional perspective of what it is like to be a human in the world and in that their purpose, appeal, and mystery cannot be dismissed as delusional. Faiths add guidance and meaning to the fundamental aspects of our human experience in living with self, which even if illusory remains our lived reality. Faiths try to articulate the ethical codes we live by and endeavour to help us reach a reasonably accurate understanding of the moral landscape of individual lives.

The lived experience of religious practice can play a constructive role as believers can draw on the wisdom garnered by their faith over centuries to best deal with life’s challenges. It can be argued that in today’s more developed societies we probably do not need religion to create better communities, but at individual level the religion remains valuable to guide our ethical conduct as even in the liberal societies the individuals are often in need of reassurance, direction, and compassion. Religion can fill in that void as it is never shy of shepherding us through life even in an impersonal and detached modern society. The rituals ordained by faith -such as prayer, meditation, cleansing, and communal activities- help individuals and communities to relate their actions to their cosmic environment, thus imparting form and character to life that the man needs. The intellectual troubles of belief and the areas of disagreement between science and religion notwithstanding, the religion still makes a very important contribution to our ethical debates. This is borne out by the reality that the religions continue to thrive even though many of their claims about our physical and biological world have been demystified by science.  I think it is more important for a religion to be internally coherent than rational. Realizing that we all have complex emotional needs that cannot be simply dispelled by science, a rational mind finds its way to navigate between the hard facts of science and the lived reality of being. Hence, I feel religion is likely to remain a very powerful institution and even a secular society should be unafraid to acknowledge its need and to learn from the wisdom embodied in religious traditions, especially in preparing us to meet life’s challenges and to become better human beings. Thus the religion is still capable of playing a useful role in the modern world even though it may be fast losing its historic sovereign seat of power and authority where its devout votaries and manipulators both would like to see it.

CONCLUSION: The significance of a belief is either in terms of our experience, whether sensory or affective, or in apprehension of inapplicability of those forms of our experience. Some beliefs are simple and are plainly a matter of conviction. There are other beliefs, however, which lie within the realm of human experience and can be questioned and checked. The questions to these beliefs arise out of experience -resulting in ever increasing human knowledge- and prompt cognition to check the validity of the belief in question. Hence the science has severely curtailed our liberty to shape our ‘Truth’ as it often comes up with contradicting evidence to beliefs. It has always done it and will continue to pull us up and our children. I think a rational believer has faith in both reflective and analytic knowledge as he keeps pace with human discoveries and tries to formulate the relationship that the absolute reality has with the world of appearance. His approach is positive and rather than bowing to the language of vague imaginative symbolism echoing an unanalyzed state of consciousness, he seeks the satisfaction of rational faculties as well as his emotional nature. Rational thought thus makes his intellect co-extensive with life rather than making intellect a mere tool to serve his practical interests in life. Rational thought nudges him to attain a higher state of insight by acknowledging the fallibility of conceptual knowledge without being blind to the spiritual needs of our being. “To know is to transform” is as much true as is the modern scientific and technological belief “to know is to conquer”. This is the call of the rational thought and the faith in unison as I hear it.


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