If arithmetic were debated like religion

If arithmetic were debated like religion


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.”

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. 

Religion, Culture and Mr. Hitchens

If not anything else, religion seems to have managed very well in poisoning Christopher Hitchens’ mind, who is the the author of the book titled God Is Not Great, and subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. As he goes on and on with his seemingly endless ribaldry on how religion poisons everything, I wonder how many of the empirical evidences he has presented are fabricated, manipulated or depicted without a detailed research or deeper understanding of different religions (Hinduism in specific).

Now, I am not a big fan of religion myself (am an atheist, and an agnostic) but the attitude and the amount of honesty with which Christopher has tried to bash religion is quite cringe-worthy if not outright deplorable. He comes up with myriad examples about how we humans have acted inhumanly and often violently because the religion instructed or guided us to do so. The chapters in his book are filled with such examples: the burning of “witches” (previously “blessed” by Christianity), the disgusting and unhygienic way of circumcision of Jewish children of Hasidic tradition by rabbi (called mohel), the hypocrite mullah in Iran who conveniently marries with the prostitutes before having sex and then divorcing them after the business is done (again conveniently with the simplistic “Talaq, Talaq, Talaq”!) because extramarital intercourse is prohibited in Islam but polygamy is not, the nonsensical claims of the parents who believe in “Christian Science” and hence refuse urgent medical care for their offspring, and how newly-wed Hindu girls are burned alive or murdered because they didn’t bring enough dowry. Wait, come again? Anyone who is a Hindu or has some knowledge about Hinduism will attest to the fact that there’s nothing religious about expecting dowry from a female  spouse and murdering her if she didn’t bring enough. This is a despicable tradition that probably stemmed out of, and along with sati pratha (burning of a widow on the pyre of her dead husband – another shameful tradition) became a symbol of, subjugation of women in Indian society which happens to be predominantly Hindu. Mr. Hitchens is either confusing correlation as causation, or just being plainly dishonest by presenting many such social or cultural phenomena as purely religious ones.

Digressing from the topic briefly, these deplorable traditions thrived in India for several centuries. Now, the blame should fall completely on Indian society but there are other factors that helped these traditions to survive over such prolonged time. Majority of India was under the Mughal rule for over three centuries (early 16th century to 1858), and then British ruled India for another couple of centuries (from 1757: Battle of Plassey to 1947). Both Mughal and British rulers were foreign to Indian masses. An obvious strategy for avoiding big troubles for them was to implement and practice a strict criminal law but leave the traditional and religious things on their own. By not interfering into the socio-cultural  matters of the Indians (among other things) they managed to keep the masses somewhat, if not completely, calm. The Indians hence remained devoid of a secular, independent public courts that can impeach those ugly traditions of a society that was male dominant and heavily laden with caste based discrimination.

Back to Christopher’s poisonous book. So far I have completed four chapters filled with shoddy provocations and I think I’ve had enough. I was looking for intellectual arguments against religion and in favor of atheism/agnosticism, but all I found was a book filled with empirical evidences that are often botched conveniently to prove the point. I don’t think I am going to finish reading the entire book unless I ever have a desire to find out how low Mr. Hitchens can sink to prove his point, but what made me wonder after reading first few chapters, is this:

  • I don’t know how true it is for some of the other ancient religions, but in Hinduism, it often becomes very difficult to separate out a religious practice from a traditional/social/cultural one. After centuries of intermingling between religious and cultural practices, there are many things that Hindus do today that can not be traced back to their origins and identified accurately as a religious or socio-cultural phenomenon. One reason of this could be that unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism doesn’t have a strict “rule book”. And that takes me to the second point.
  • Not having a “rule book” is a boon, I think. Muslims have their Qur’an, Christians have their Bible and Jews have Torah (which literally means ‘instructions’ in Hebrew). Hindus do have the Geeta, the Vedas and the Puranas – but they are more like “guide books” rather than “instruction manuals”. (Also, note the plural noun.) This allows some flexibility and openness to change, at least in theory. How much this helped in practice, is a big question, but for example, Hindus did not have any trouble accepting the Darwinian theory of evolution. Compare this with the attitude of many Christians who, to this date, refuse to believe in evolution because that stands in contrast with the creationist theory that was written in Bible thousands of years ago. (Factoid: According to Gallop poll conducted in 2001, 45% Americans believe that God created humans in their present form.) When Ram Mohan Roy ran a strong and effective campaign against sati pratha in the 19th century and eventually convinced many Hindus that this tradition had to be abolished, the Hindu society didn’t have to go back to their religious book(s) for guidance. There was no need to amend a particular passage from the Geeta, the Vedas or the Puranas. Abolishing the sati pratha made sense and after some initial resistance the society accepted the change and moved on. [Claims were made by some that the Puranas approves sati pratha. But a justification that was purely based on scriptures had limited impact when people decided to abolish a ghastly tradition.] It’s difficult for me to imagine if a campaign to abolish polygamy, for instance, would face a similar reaction from the Muslims.
  • I think that not having a Book also came with a cost – a lack of unity – as there was (relatively) a weaker cohesive thread that tied all Hindus together. Though one could argue that having a “manual” did not completely help The People of the Book much, as they stumbled upon different interpretations of the same text and ended up segregating ideologically.

Atheism and Agnosticism

There is a common misconception about the definition of atheism. Many perceive an atheist as someone who believes that God does not exist (i.e. there’s no God.) — which is not necessarily true.

Let’s consider the term theist first. A theist is someone who believes in God. If you think of this particular belief (there’s a God) as a metaphysical entity=A, then A exists in the mind of a theist. While in an atheist’s mind that belief simply does not exist. This does not necessarily mean that an atheist believes that there’s no God.

There are two possible opposites of belief  (1) disbelief, and (2) absence of belief. The first one is active denial. While the second one is a mere passive position. Normally when one hears the term atheist, they think about the 1st position (i.e. disbelief in God). Position (1) is called active atheism, while (2) is referred as non-theism. Generally, (1) and (2) are lumped together and the combined category is tagged as atheism. But it’s important not to forget that an atheist (defined this way) can belong to either (1) active atheism, or (2) non-theism. Active theist affirms the non-existence of God, while a non-theist rejects theism. 

Another misconception is that agnosticism and atheism/theism are mutually exclusive.

While theism (or atheism) is about belief, agnosticism, on the other hand, is about knowledge. A person who knows for sure that God exists is a gnostic. And a person who doesn’t claim to know whether God exists or not is an agnostic.

Contrary to common understanding, a person can be both: a theist and an agnostic. A believer without claiming to know for sure if God exists or not is both. Similarly you can be an atheist as well as an agnostic. In fact, being an agnostic  can be a reason why someone is also an atheist (i.e. he lacks the belief, because he’s not sure.) 

On religious subjects, the only world religion that’s firmly agnostic – Buddhism – is of Indian origin. A particular school of thought in Buddhism, called Theravada, a predominant religion in Shri Lanka, is actually non-theist. In Hinduism too, the Carvaka philosophy of skepticism and materialism (also known as Lokayata), which originated in the 6th century, is classified as a nastika (i.e. atheist) system. Jainism also rejects the beliefs in a personal creator God.

Amartya Sen has explored the heterodoxy of Indian religious beliefs in his fascinating book The Argumentative Indian. I take the following passage from his book: The so-called ‘song of creation’ (or the ‘creation hymn’, as it is sometimes called) in the authoritative Vedas ends with the following radical doubts: 

Who really knows?

Who will here proclaim it?

Whence was it produced?

Whence is this creation?

The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.

Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen –

perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –

the one who looks down to it, in the highest heaven,

only he knows –

or perhaps he does not know.

[From Rigveda. English translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, in Rigveda: An Anthology.]

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