A reconciliation of rationality with religion - of mind with heart - needs to take place. For this, an agreeable middle ground needs to be found

On 20th August last year, while on a morning walk in Pune, a rationalist was shot dead near a temple. Writer-activist Narendra Dabholkar was less than two years short of completing seven decades of life, someone who had devoted a major portion of his productive life to the cause of social justice and eradication of superstitions. His end came in the hands of a few intolerant antitheses who were opposed to what he stood for, precisely because they could not understand the philosophy that underpins rationality. Early last week, police arrested two in his murder.

His obituary said that he was not against God but against superstition. That raised a question: Can rationality and tolerance toward God coexist? Or is the militant form of atheism espoused by the likes of Richard Dawkins the apotheosis of rationality?

Less than a year prior to Dabholkar’s death, on September 28, 2012, a movie with rationality at its core titled Oh My God! was released. It was about a rationalist businessman who loses his source of income to an earthquake, one termed by his insurance company as an ‘act of God’. He is left with no option but to file a case, against God, treating him as a legal entity. The movie unfolds as a rite of passage, as much for the lead protagonist as for the ‘god-fearing’ people he is surrounded by.

The lead protagonist, Kanji Lalji Mehta (played superbly by Paresh Rawal) is a rationalist and by the end of the film, it is clear that he is not anti-God. The film speaks about the difficulties experienced by people at both ends of the spiritual spectrum and at both ends, there are hawks eager to exploit the common man’s difficulties and dilemmas.

Oh my God! is not radical. It is not The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s anti-superstitition film that would surely have left believers disgusted and repelled that such a school of thought, explicitly condemning and denigrating one’s very belief in God, existed. Oh my God! doesn’t show that - from a non-believer’s point of view - there is no light at the end of the tunnel for believers. Nor does it show the protagonist finding himself isolated - except at the beginning - because of his rational ideas, unlike say Dr. Ashoke Gupta of Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru.

It treads a middle ground. It could be called a toned down version of Anbe Sivam where rationality propels humans to find God in themselves, with flaws, which extols the virtue of becoming as much as that of being.

I wonder if Dabholkar had watched the film. I hope he had and felt somewhat vindicated that his school of thoughts was finding representation in Hindi popular culture.

Religious atheism

Here, as a tip of the hat for both Dabholkar and Kanti Lalji Mehta, I am tempted to mention a few books. The first one, Religion without God, was by an American philosopher and constitutional scholar, Ronald Dworkin. An excerpt from it is given in this essay. Having written about justice and equality throughout his academic life, he perhaps sought to add a moral tinge through his final book.

The book speaks of a benign form of atheism called ‘religious atheism’ and imagines the possibilities when people at the two ends of the spectrum explore the commonalty in their position. The line of Einstein he quotes provides a primer to this philosophy:

“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

Einstein’s conception of truth and beauty come further alive in this stimulating discussion with poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Truth, according to him, lives independent of human consciousness. As a devotee of Truth, he considers himself more religious than even Tagore, who argues that human consciousness transcends all reality.

Granted that someone can be religious without believing in a Divine Entity, what does ‘being religious’ mean to start with? What is the difference between a religious attitude toward the world and a non-religious attitude? That, Dworkin argues, is hard to answer because ‘religion’ is an interpretive concept. That is, people who use the concept do not agree about precisely what it means: when they use it they are taking a stand about what it should mean. Their positions are borne less by a consensus in fact than a consensus in interpretation.

Dworkin goes on to say that religious theism and religious atheism have both two components: A science component and a value component. The disagreement between the two categories is in relation to the science component - atheists like Dawkins subscribe to naturalism which means that only that which can be studied by natural sciences is to be treated as real, whereas theists trace their being to the existence of an omnipotent Supreme Being.

The science component has been studied and analysed, with books like Dawkins’ The God Delusion becoming bestsellers. However, the value component unites the two categories is much more important and relatively less-studied.

The value component in both categories admits to the fact that the fundamental right to life includes a responsibility to live it to the best of one’s abilities. And it also marvels at the intrinsic beauty of nature, not because we as human beings find it delectable but because it, by itself, is one that inspires wonder, irrespective of whether we believe it or not.

Toward the end of the piece, Dworkin, though ambivalent on many other counts, is clear on a few relating to religious atheism.

Even those he puts under the category of religious atheists he says have responsibilities not just toward others but also toward their own life. They have a duty to live life as well as possible whatever be the circumstances. That apart, they owe a sense of awe toward nature, they believe that nature is not just a “matter of particles thrown together in a very long history” but has its own inalienable wonder and beauty, independent of whether or not there is a consensus on its beauty or on the utility of that beauty.

He acknowledges that religious atheists would not have belief in a God. However, he says it doesn’t matter what divides religious atheists and religious theists. It is more important to reflect on what unites them.

Quoting other men - of both science and arts - like Percy Bysshe Shelley and William James, he finally grounds his belief as well as ambivalence on Hume’s principle

He interprets the principle to say that one cannot support a value judgment just by establishing some scientific fact. Something else is needed, a background value judgment that shows why the fact is relevant and has a particular consequence.

To cite an example, just the science behind seeing someone in excruciating pain is not a reason in itself to offer help. There needs to be an inherent belief system that makes us reach out to him. These belief systems are the ones that form a common ground between the two categories of religious theists and religious atheists.

Philosopher having faith

To move on to another example, this review offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a philosopher who believes in the presence of a God. Alvin Plantinga’s book Where the conflict really lies: science, religion and naturalism is reviewed by another ace philosopher Thomas Nagel, who belongs to the other end of the belief spectrum.

The review does talk about a certain Sensus divinitatis that makes believers have faith - in Dworkin’s argot ‘the science of religion. However, Nagel believes that the key takeaway from the book is its presentation “from the inside of the point of view of a philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist”, a refreshing addition to the philosophy of religion. The ‘materialist naturalism’ Nagel talks about at the end is compatible with Dworkin’s ‘religious atheism’, where miracles coexist with the laws of physics.

The review, published in late 2012, received some strong responses. One Professor from University of Maryland asked for independent evidence (similar to what is obtained from double-blind experiments) to which Nagel again summed up the book as response. Here, the views of Ronald Dworkin and Nagel converge.

Dworkin explains in Religion without God that when it comes to our ability to understand elementary truths of mathematics, we feel that we do not need any ‘independent certification’ since we feel “we have innate capacity for logic and mathematical truth”. Similarly, Nagel says that the “perception” that gives us knowledge of the outside world cannot be tested and proved without doubt using double-blind experiments. This leads to a cul de sac for both believers and nonbelievers.

Dworkin’s philosophy of ‘religious atheism’ which talks of the possibility of a conduit being offered to connect these cul de sacs, forms a reconciliatory system. Such a system can surely be part of every country’s Constitution, irrespective of whether it is grounded in any religion like Pakistan or grounded in a lack of it like China.

To quote from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a film that could be called the mother of modern sci-fi fantasies, “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

Assuming that Dworkin’s religious theism are those ‘hands’ - value system grounded in faith in an all-pervading God - and rationality is the ‘brain’, religious atheism can act as the ‘heart’, the binding force that unites religion and rationality rather than drawing a wedge between the two.

And it is for providing space for such a value system that the version of rationality chosen by the likes of Dabholkar and his proteges needs to be kept alive.