Breaking the Spell

There was a time when religion didn’t exist. Was it before the first of the homo sapiens ever walked on earth? Or was it before the invention of agriculture and domestication of animals? Do the developments of language and culture predate the invention of religion? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that most of the religions that we see today came into existence in not-so-distant past (biologically speaking) — when their fundamental truths were revealed by God to somebody, who then passed it on to other mortals.

Once religion (or a proto-religion) came into existence, it evolved. It became more organized and structured to keep up with the humans who were becoming culturally more advanced and psychologically more complicated. But where did this proto-religion come from?

Daniel Dennett argues in his daring, insightful and marvelous book Breaking the Spell, that initially there was folk religion. And it metamorphosed into organized religion in the same way as folk music turned into organized music. The pre-historic developments of religion was perhaps unintentional – like the development of language. “Extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking, we can surmise how folk religion emerged without conscious and deliberate design, just as language emerged, by interdependent process of biological and cultural evolution” writes Dennet.

But then where did the folk religion came from? The answer to this probably lies in the hyperactive agency detection device. We humans have a unique proclivity to assign agency to events. Our belief in gods is rooted in our “disposition to attribute agency — beliefs and desires and other mental states — to anything complicated that moves.” Quoting David Hume:

We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us. [From The Natural History of Religion]

Today when we speak of angry or benign intent of the rain clouds, or refer to a river’s desire to merge into the ocean, or curse at our computers as if they can hear (and respond to) our urges, we don’t do it entirely seriously — we don’t really believe that the rain clouds are literally angry with us and hence causing droughts. But there were times when we humans took these phenomena so literally and seriously. This practice of attributing intentions (or agency) to moving objects in the environment can in turn make us believe that there are “secret puppeteers behind the perplexing phenomena” in nature. It is easy to comprehend how this belief of unseen or spiritual agencies must have arisen in prehistoric times; and once that belief was born, man would have naturally extended it to the meaning and purpose of his own existence. Once you believe that things happen for a reason or purpose, a belief in a Creator and a Caretaker is not so far away. (We are the seekers of depth and profundity.)

There are other profound and important questions that Dennett passionately explores in his well-argued and balanced book. Through interdisciplinary arguments and reasoning Dennett delves into the theories about “how religion evolved from folk beliefs and how these early ‘wild’ strains of religion were then carefully and consciously domesticated.”

Given the importance, the spread, and the effects of religion in our times I can’t think of any more important subject than objectively studying, investigating and evaluating religion. There are people who believe that religion (or rather, their own religion) is the best hope for peace, and there are others who believe that religion is a major cause of conflict and violence in the world (that religion may increase co-operation within but not among groups). Dennett ends the last chapter of his book with a hopeful (wishful?) note:

So, In the end, my central policy recommendation is that gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame. […]

Let’s open our minds to calm and open discussions about religion – its holy traditions, claims (like religion is the foundation of morality), and beliefs (in God, soul, afterlife and such). Let’s change the climate of opinions that holds religion to be above discussion (especially scientific), above criticism, and above challenge. Let’s remove the “protective veneer of mystery” so that religion can be better understood.  Let’s get the “culture of credulity” to evaporate. Let’s break the spell.


While on the subject of the evolution and history of religion, let me share this cool image. The subtitle reads: “Monotheism is in turn doomed to subtract one more God and become atheism.”


In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

I’ve just started reading William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. I loved his last book The Last Mughal (my review), and if the Introduction chapter of Nine Lives is any indication, another great read is on the way! Excerpt below:

Much has now been written about the way that India is moving forward to return the subcontinent to its traditional place at the heart of global trade, but so far little has been said about the way these earthquakes have affected the diverse religious traditions of South Asia, or explored how the people who live out these rich traditions have coped with living in the eye of the storm. For while the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

All this raises many interesting questions: What does it actually mean to be a holy man or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past?

Also read the following article by Dalrymple that provides a glimpse into the format of this book (which is, oral histories and personal accounts): Serving the Goddess – The dangerous life of a sacred sex worker.

And here’s one of his recent articles about a remarkable festival in South India where Hindu pilgrims celebrate a Muslim warrior. [Hat Tip: Ultrabrown]

[Picture Courtesy: The New Yorker]

We Must Converge

Sam Harris delivers an impressive talk in which he argues that science does have answers to questions about morality.

Most people have skepticism about science’s role in leading us to moral values. That science can tell us what is, but not what ought to be – is a widely held belief. But Harris claims that values are a certain kind of empirical facts. They are facts about the well-beings of conscious creatures. And science can help us to discover these factual values.

Thought-provoking and audacious as they might be, I don’t completely agree with Harris’ arguments about the objectivity of morality. The sufferings and well-beings of conscious creatures might very well be empirical facts, and science can be a very useful, even vital, tool to understand these facts, but that still doesn’t tell us how we should act or feel after acquiring this knowledge.

However, I do agree that we must converge regarding the answers we give to the most important questions about human life. And in order to converge, we must agree first that there are answers. But as a moral relativist, I don’t believe there are ultimate objective moral values waiting to be discovered (like scientific facts). I can comprehend the universality of morality but not its absoluteness.


While talking about Sam Harris, here’s an earlier post of mine: Religious Moderates.

Also, read his debate with Rick Warren (the pastor who gave invocation to Obama’s presidential inauguration): The God Debate. A couple of excerpts below:

Sam, is there a God in the sense that most Americans think of him?

SAM HARRIS: There’s no evidence for such a God, and it’s instructive to notice that we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom now nobody worships.


The core problem for me is divisive dogmatism. There are many kinds of dogmatism. There’s nationalism, there’s tribalism, there’s racism, there’s chauvinism. And there’s religion. Religion is the only sphere of discourse where dogma is actually a good word, where it is considered ennobling to believe something strongly based on faith.

Religion: The Source of Morality

Jokes apart, do you see what the problem is here?

[From Ape, not monkey]

My Name Is Khan

A well-intended yet misguided movie that’s unnecessarily melodramatic, painfully long and filled with stereotypical caricatures that merely exist to incessantly attest and affirm the same point (again and again and again!) that “A Muslim can be a nice person too.”

But technical issues aside, the movie inadvertently makes the same “group-think” error that it so humbly tries to rebuke. The correct response to denounce the claims of Islam’s tendency to propagate violence is not “Hey look over here! See, Muslims are nice people too!”. You’re just trying to put them on the “right” side of the divide — while accepting that such (crude and singular) division exists.

When one tries to describe an individual in terms of a single dimension – be it her religion, culture of ethnicity – all other associations and affiliations that this individual has are conveniently ignored. And what you end up with is a grossly incomplete, flawed and narrow understanding of that individual.

The protagonist in My Name Is Khan is shown to be a devout Muslim who continually chants his prayers, who donates handsomely to the 9/11 victim fund because that’s what a true Muslim would or should do. He opposes the justifications for a violent jihad – not because he’s a good human being, but because he’s a good Muslim (who happens to disagree with a nascent terrorist organization’s leader’s interpretation of a Koranic/Biblical story).

This reminds me of the classic example of a presupposition/trick question: “Are you still beating your wife?” If the respondent answers yes or no he’s admitting that he had beaten his wife in the past. Similarly, “Are Muslims bad people?” question presupposes that the humanity can be preeminently classified into discrete and distinct groups and defined based on religion… that the world can be seen (and analyzed) not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations.    

While Islamist militants have good reason to deny all the identities of Muslims other than that of Islamic faith, it is not at all clear why those who want to resist that militancy also have to rely so much on the interpretation and exegesis of Islam, rather than drawing on the many other identities that Muslims also have. [From Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen]

What the makers of My Name Is Khan failed to understand is: the problem is not that of incorrect attribution, but that of monoculturalism (i.e. civilizational or religious partitioning that confines human beings into “little boxes”) and disregard of individual identities at the behest of a group identity.

Divine Justice?

The idiotic claims from televangelist Pat Robertson — that the earthquake in Haiti may be a blessing in disguise and is a result of the pact the Haitians made long time ago with Satan to help them against French imperialists (video link) — reminds me of a similar speech made by Gandhi in 1934 to the victims of earthquake in rural Bihar.

On 15th January 1934, a colossal earthquake hit Bihar […] The death toll was estimated at twenty thousand. Gandhi visited Bihar in March and spoke to the bereaved, destitute and homeless people. The earthquake, he told them, “is a chastisement of your sins.” And the particular sin that he had in mind was the enforcement of untouchability.

Even Gandhi’s closest supporters were horrified. The victims of the earthquake had included poor as well as rich […] But Gandhi was explicitly blaming the victims, appropriating a terrible disaster to promote his own religious ideas. Nehru, who had been helping the relief efforts in Bihar, read Gandhi’s remarks “with a great shock”. But the most effective refutation came from Rabindranath Tagore, long one of the Mahatma’s greatest advocates. Tagore argued caustically that this supposedly “divine” justice, if such it was, constituted the least just form of punishment imaginable. [From Indian Summer, Tunzelmann]

Behind these types of – possibly noble yet misleading and plain wrong – claims lie the fundamental tenets of religion(s) that demand and propagate the need for a greater (divine) purpose of life and events. Once you give in to the belief that our existence in this world (and the existence of this universe) has a purpose; and explanation that is anything other than natural and rational, you’re in for a whole lot of nonsensical, unscientific, and dogmatic convictions (like God punishes you for your sins etc.) Here’s a passage from an article on Slate by Hitchen:

Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.

However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations?

Indeed, where would they be?

Repurcussions of Uncertainty

In a brief interview with the Economist magazine, Farzana Shaikh, the author of Making Sense of Pakistan, talks about the root causes of current problems in Pakistan. According to her, while the proximate cause of the current mess is the process of State Islamization, emphasized by Zia ul Haq in the 80’s, the ultimate cause lies in the early 1900’s, when there was a widespread feeling among Muslims to somehow purge the South Asian Islam of its local influences — an emphasis to bring out its pristine qualities that were judged to have been corrupt. This mentality left deep marks on the idea and state of Pakistan, as it has been, rather unsuccessfully, trying to project the “legalistic” interpretation of Islam since its birth in 1947.

The founding father of Pakistan, Jinnah, was uncertain about how the state should embody Islam. At times he believed that Pakistan should be secular and open to all religions, while on other he reverted back to the idea of  the “land of the Islam”. In Farzana Shaikh’s own words:

Unlike Nehru, who realized very early on, that religion was a retrograde force, Jinnah was always extremely reluctant to accept that, and even said that Islam is not a religion it is a nation.

The confusion over Islam’s role in the newly formed state, and especially about which version of Islam should be followed, accelerated further after Jinnah’s death in 1948 – as Pakistan struggled with the void of strong leadership (See my earlier post: The Importance of Second-tier Leadership.)

Farzana has an optimistic outlook for the future of Pakistan. Pointing out some positive signs like free and powerful media, active human rights groups and organizations, she goes on further and talks about how getting some inspirations from the east can help Pakistan ( paraphrased):

We have an increasing sense that [Pakistan] is not exclusive to the region [of South Asia], it is a part of the region. And to that extent, it must look to find commonalities with its neighbors – including its greatest foe, India. I would go so far as to say, that perhaps, you might find that kind of hope in the expressions of Indian Islam, which made its peace with local non-Islamic cultures. And I think that a return to these sources – away from those “Arabized” versions of Islam – may be one of the ways we can break through this terrible situation that we find ourselves in today. [Emphases are mine.]

[Hat Tip: 3 Quarks Daily]

The Incompatibility Between Science and Religion

(This is a follow-up to my earlier post — A Good Question: Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?)

Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution Is True, has sparked off a Big Debate about whether science and religion are incompatible. 

Sean Carroll, who writes a wonderful blog on the Discover magazine, joins this discussions and, while taking the side of the “incompatiblists”, lays out some really good points.

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible. 

True, there’s a difference between difference and incompatibility. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other. After making this very important distinction, Sean goes ahead and elaborates his rationale:

The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions. It’s worth noting that this incompatibility is perfectly evident to any fair-minded person who cares to look. Different religions make very different claims, but they typically end up saying things like “God made the universe in six days” or “Jesus died and was resurrected” or “Moses parted the red sea” or “dead souls are reincarnated in accordance with their karmic burden.” And science says: none of that is true. So there you go, incompatibility.

Can’t argue with that!

It is also imperative to understand the logic of the “compatibilists” – those who argue that science and religion are compatible. As Sean explains, the purported compatibility is simply a claim about the meanings of the words “religion” and “science”. Their strategy is to twist the meaning of one or both of these words to make them seem compatible. Most likely, they will argue that by saying “religion” they actually mean “ethics”, or “moral philosophy”, or “the way of life”. First of all, this is correct, but only up to some extent. Religion does overlap with ethics, moral philosophy etc. But the fact is, religion is that, and much more. For instance, religion has always made claims about the way our world works – the way it was created, and miracles and what not. And science has proved that these claims are outright incorrect. Secondly, if you mean “ethics” by the word “religion” then simply say “ethics”. No one would argue against those who claim that ethics and science are compatible!

Another important clarification is that the incompatibility doesn’t necessarily mean that a religious person can not be a scientist, or vice versa. People hold contradictory beliefs all the time, and “we should be interested in what is correct and incorrect, and the arguments on either side, not the particular beliefs of certain individuals.” In conclusion, Sean writes:

I have huge respect for many thoughtful religious people, several of whom I count among the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. I just think they’re incorrect, in precisely the same sense in which I think certain of my thoughtful and intelligent physicist friends are wrong about the arrow of time or the interpretation of quantum mechanics. That doesn’t mean we can’t agree about those issues on which we’re in agreement, or that we can’t go out for drinks after arguing passionately with each other in the context of a civil discussion. But these issues matter; they affect people’s lives, from women who are forced to wear head coverings to gay couples who can’t get married to people in Minnesota who can’t buy cars on Sundays. Religion can never be a purely personal matter; how you think about the fundamental nature of reality necessarily impacts how you behave, and those behaviors are going to affect other people. That’s why it’s important to get it right.

Read the whole article here, it’s well worth your time.

Science and religion are not compatible. But, before explaining what that means, we should first say what it doesn’t mean.
It doesn’t mean, first, that there is any necessary or logical or a priori incompatibility between science and religion. We shouldn’t declare them to be incompatible purely on the basis of what they are, which some people are tempted to do. Certainly, science works on the basis of reason and evidence, while religion often appeals to faith (although reason and evidence are by no means absent). But that just means they are different, not that they are incompatible. 

Working with Available Light

In the introductory chapter of the book, The Hindus: An Alternate History, Doniger cites the Sufi parable of Mulla Nasrudin — the one in which after having lost his key inside his home during a night, Nasrudin was searching for it outside under a lamp post, because there was more light there than in his house — to remind us that there’s a shortage of “available light” when it comes to the history of the Hindus. She warns the reader that (as it might well be true for any other history book) this is a history, not the history of the Hindus.

As a preamble to the upcoming chapters, Doniger lays out some ground rules and provides a laundry list of concepts that are necessary to grasp if one wants to understand Hinduism. This list is probably more useful for an “outsider” (a non-Hindu, or a non-Indian), but I learned few interesting facts and perspectives as well.

Tolerance: By citing some examples – like how Hindus have no problem worshiping Kabir (the great Indian poet who publicly denounced both Hinduism and Islam) and Satya Pir (or Satya Narayana, a Sufi pir) – Doniger briefly talks about the ingrained tolerance (both inter-religious and intra-religious) of the Hindu philosophy.

Pluralism: “Multiple narratives coexist peacefully, sometimes in one open mind and sometimes in a group of people whose minds may be, individually, relatively closed. A pivotal example of such individual pluralism can be found in the law text of Manu, which argues, within a single chapter, passionately against, and then firmly for, the eating of meat.”

Myth and Symbolism: It’s good to see the author recognizing the importance of myth and symbolism in understanding the history of Hinduism. These are not the sources of “hard” history (as compared to scriptures that has more solid records historical events and ethics etc., for instance) but they are precious to apprehend the history of ideas rather than principles, sentiments rather than events, motivations rather than movements.

Diversity, and the polycentric nature of Hinduism: Because of the vast spectrum of beliefs and practices, it’s hard to define Hinduism in the way other (especially, the Abrahamic) religions are defined. The fact that there’s no Hindu cannon surely makes it more difficult to spell out what all Hindus believe or do. In the words of Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (president of India from 1962 to 1967) Hinduism can be defined as a belief that: “a truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express.”

Women & dalits: These two groups are referred to as marginalized Hindus in this book. According to the author, most Brahminic scriptures and texts tend to avoid delving too much into the lives and conditions in which women and dalits lived, so one has to really read between the lines to squeeze out some insights about how the society treated (or rather, mistreated) them. I am not quite sure if I agree with the author’s remark about the “ironic” presence of women in Mahabharata though (“perhaps beyond earshot, but definitely heard”).

I already found myself at odds over some of her interpretations or remarks, but given the vastness and all-inclusiveness of Hinduism, disagreements are inevitable. Her despise for the Hindu fundamentalists becomes quite apparent from the first few pages of the book, and I am noticing that she has already started getting into some controversial areas – akin to the one that led to that egg-hurling incident back in 2003. (“He missed his aim. In every way.” remarks Doniger.) But overall, I am enjoying reading this “outsider’s view” of Hinduism and Hindus so far, for Doniger is quite witty, observant and knowledgeable about the Hindu scriptures, the history and the people.

A Good Question

“Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith?” asks Jerry Coyne in his essay Seeing and Believing. Simply put, the question is, is it psychologically contradictory to claim to believe in God and evolution (or science in general) at the same time?

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic?

I think Jerry Coyne, whose book Why Evolution is True I intend to read some day, has posed a very good question here. The answer is certainly not straightforward. According to Albert Einstein science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. He observed strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies between religion and science. But as Coyne has noted, the existence of religious scientists is wearing thin. A survey involving thirty-four countries revealed an inverse correlation between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution.

There’s a very interesting debate about this question here. I liked the following comment by the philosopher Daniel Danette:

Each reason for belief in God is defensible up to a point, but we need to weigh the indirect side effects of going along with tradition. First, there’s the systematic hypocrisy that poisons discourse, and even more important, our vulnerability to those who abuse the “reverence” with which we are supposed to respond to their indulgences. We can continue to respect the good intentions of those who persist in professing belief in God, but we’ll be doing them a favor if we stop pretending that we respect the arguments they use to sustain these fantasies.

Sam Harris’ sarcastic response is worth reading. But the best response comes from Steven Pinker. At the risk of quoting too much, below is an excerpt:

Knowledge is a continuous fabric, in which ideas are connected to other ideas. Reason-free zones, in which people can assert arbitrary beliefs safe from ordinary standards of evaluation, can only corrupt this fabric, just as a contradiction can corrupt a system of logic, allowing falsehoods to proliferate through it.

Science can not be walled off from other forms of belief. That includes meaning and morality – reason connects them all. […] Just as coherent biological reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that God can step in at any moment and push the molecules around, coherent moral reasoning cannot proceed under the assumption that the universe unfolds according a divine merciful plan, that humans have a free will that is independent of their neurobiology, or that people can behave morally only if they fear divine retribution in an afterlife.

Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re using reason to make your case. And no, this isn’t having “faith” in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don’t “believe” in reason; we use reason.

I think Pinker is absolutely right that the rigorous standards of logic and evidence should be applied to the claims of religion and its attempts to reconcile with science. There’s no reason why the validity of religion should not be tested against the standards of reason.

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