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Updated: September 22, 2013 00:09 IST

Let’s aim for a post-theistic society

Professor Vasant Natarajan
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Religion is founded on FEAR, the fear of the unknown. But modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena.

A cursory study of recorded human history shows that more wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else. In fact, the periods with the most intense religiosity and dogma have been periods of the worst cruelty — the Spanish Inquisition, for example. The rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Germany led to World War II. The present phenomenon of Islamist terror is not a clash of civilisations (as some would call it) but a clash of religions, between Islam and Christianity. It has resulted in Islamic leaders hardening their stand to the point where mullahs preach that childhood vaccination is a secret western (read Christian) scheme to sterilise children so as to keep their population down. Thus, the debilitating polio (preventable with a simple oral vaccine) remains prevalent in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. And the Taliban recently killed several health care workers involved in a polio vaccination drive in Pakistan.

Before going further, let us first try to understand why humans invented the concept of God, and whether it has any relevance today. Religion is founded on FEAR, the fear of the unknown. But modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena so that the purview of the unknown has shrunk considerably and the fear of nature is largely irrelevant. We do not need a sun-god, a wind-god or any of the multitude of such nature-gods that the ancient Hindus (and also the Greeks, among others) invented. In fact, a moment’s reflection shows that invoking God is not an explanation of anything but a primitive response of shrugging your shoulders and saying that something is beyond your comprehension — not relevant to today’s scientific knowledge.

But even the monotheistic religions that are dominant today (Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which, by the way, have the same foundation in the Old Testament), which presumably evolved to do away with nature-gods, still postulated one God with supernatural powers. What supernatural powers? Let us first realise that there is no supernatural MIRACLE that has withstood the scrutiny of science.

Indeed, we are born with a rational instinct, because a world-view that is consistent with natural laws gives us a distinct evolutionary advantage for survival. Experiments show that children as young as one year, who have not yet learned to speak, will get perturbed and start crying when they see a magical event, i.e., one that is not consistent with their world-view. For example, if a block does NOT fall when it is pushed beyond the edge of a table, because the experimenter has cleverly put a plate of invisible glass there. It is only later (after age four) that we learn to suspend this rationality so as to enjoy a magic show in which, we know, that the magician is playing tricks to entertain us. But the same “belief in miracles” can be drilled into children by parents and teachers, telling them to pray to a God with supernatural powers, one who can perform miracles. Children accept this against their natural instinct because they consider parents and teachers all-knowing elders.

We get our morality, not from religion, but from an innate sense of humanity and from being able to see the pain of a fellow creature — something other animals do not appear to be capable of. Take the example of the 9/11 terrorist hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center. They were convinced that they were doing the right thing and killing infidels, for which they would be rewarded by God in an afterlife. George Bush later said the terrorists had hijacked a good religion (Islam) to perform immoral acts. Which shows that he is defining morality based on something beyond Islam, while the same act was considered moral by the terrorists (and, presumably, by their teachers who indoctrinated them) within their religion.

This is what prompted the Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg to say “religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Weinberg shared his Nobel with Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, who tried to bring science into the Gulf states. He found that the leaders there were not supportive because they felt science was corrosive of religious belief. Yes, science IS corrosive of religion. And that is why religious belief is anachronistic in today’s science-driven world.

Apologists for religion will argue that the pain and suffering we see around us is really God’s test of the strength of faith of the loved ones. Yeah, right! Tell that to the parents of an innocent child suffering from cancer. If you had such supernatural powers to do this to the child, and actually did it, I would consider you the cruellest person.

Einstein called belief in God a childish superstition. What he meant was that it is natural to give up this concept as we grow up and mature. But I think the bigger message is that, as a civilisation, we should outgrow this childish notion. Philosopher Colin McGinn divides non-believers into atheists — those who could not care less whether others share their views or not — and anti-theists — those who actively campaign against religion because of the harm it does. But he foresees a society that is POST-THEISTIC, i.e., one in which religion is not an issue.

A society where people will look back and laugh at the primitive concept of God that we had till the 21st century. The way we look at primitive cave art today. Childish paintings on the cave wall may have been an essential step in the evolution of our art before it reached the heights of a Picasso or Rembrandt, but nobody gets upset and issues a fatwa if somebody makes fun of the cave paintings.

To sum up what we can do, I quote from Bertrand Russel’s essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, written almost 100 years ago: “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world, its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men ... A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”

(The writer is on the faculty of the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Email: profvasant@gmail.com)

More In: Open Page | Opinion

Well Said Professor Vasant Natarajan.... Expecting a new world in immature humans are wasting of time....

from:  Gowtham Raj
Posted on: Sep 25, 2013 at 00:42 IST

@Raamganesh - Parapsychology scientists have investigated and found
some reliable witness accounts evidence for paranormal phenomena. But most mainstream scientists do not accept such parapsychology work and demand extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary paranormal claims.
The late Dr. Karlis Osis said it very well in the context of one such person with extraordinary paranormal powers, "Nothing would have clinched the matter so well as, say, a week or two spent in the best parapsychological laboratories in the world, and that we offered." Unfortunately for science, the concerned person declined the offer.
I think scientists like Natarajan need to take a balanced view of the matter and not go overboard by trying to convince people at large that paranormal phenomena (miracles) reported in the holy scripture of various religions are fake. Science does not know for sure, one way or the other, and scientists like Natarajan must adhere to the truth by stating that clearly.

from:  Ravi S. Iyer
Posted on: Sep 24, 2013 at 16:21 IST

Thank you Professor for such an excellent explanation, but somehow I
feel that you have missed on the functional/constructive aspect of
religion. Religion not only divides but also unite societies to a
greater extent. Any say on that?

from:  Smita Tiwari
Posted on: Sep 24, 2013 at 11:43 IST

Einstein has said he is deeply religious "knowledge of the existence of
something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest
reason and the most radiant beauty - it is this knowledge and this
emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense,
and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."Einstein
Animals do feel pain of fellow creatures -one can see how crows
assemble when a crow falls dead in the street.
No doubt, wars had been fought in the name of religion .At the same
time, the author ignores as to how much religion has contributed to
evolution of civilized society,and kept up the social peace and there
by avoided death and destruction.
That way, formation of nations with geographic boundaries , different
from the life style of wandering nomads, had been the major cause for
many wars. We can not conclude that formation of nations is bad and
cause for all evils.

from:  KRISHNAN V
Posted on: Sep 24, 2013 at 09:48 IST

Appreciated your piece for its content, intellectual honesty and brevity.
Religions, all of them and sometimes ideologies that grow to be as all-
encompassing as religions, are essentially fraudulent and those who
knowingly practice them are frauds, but it has to be pointed out that
the vast majority of practitioners truly 'believe' due to the FEAR
factor you mention, many temporarily suspending reason
Yes,the world runs on FEAR and not LOVE., for if god ( or 'dog' as I
call it, somewhat disrespecting my stately pooch)was full of LOVE there
wouldn't be a space for conflict,despair and religious fear in mankind.

from:  Dr. Gerard Francis
Posted on: Sep 24, 2013 at 02:00 IST

Interesting claim by the author about Science - it has all the answers. He is playing God or making Science God. His claim God does not exist requires absolute knowledge of reality. If he says he does not make that claim, then God could be one of the things he does not know. In any case, trying to understand what is beyond the mundane with mundane tools will certainly lead to bewilderment as demonstrated amply by the author. Thanks for The Hindu in exposing this.

from:  Raghuram
Posted on: Sep 24, 2013 at 00:18 IST

@Ravi Iyer - Science hasn't shown that miracles are impossible
because, as philosophers point out regularly, you cannot prove a
negative. But they can do better than simply saying "We don't
know if miracles can happen" as you suggest. They can say that
given the paucity of evidence for miracles, it is wildly
improbable.
Scientists have always been and still are interested in testing
the miracles that have been reported. If any of these were to be
found true, they would rejoice at the chance to upgrade their
knowledge. But, when the miracle-claims are tested, they have
always come up short on evidence and therefore have to be
jettisoned for more simpler, more probable, naturalistic
explanations.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: Sep 23, 2013 at 17:06 IST

Excellent Article which will enourage scientific temperament among the readers. Profuse thanks to Prof. Vasant Natarajan. Also to the Hindu newspaper. Even Swami Vivekananda told that there is nothing supernatural. Everything is natural. Till we know the reasons, it is supeernatural. I was reading a comment from someone in another context where he says that Secualrism, in India , means equal encouragement to all religions. Yes, He is absolutely right. Even governemnt holidays on religious affairs should be stopped and any governemnt employees should be allowed to take 30 days holiday in a years and he can choose when to take holiday. State should not encourage even religious holidays.


from:  Amit Sarkar
Posted on: Sep 23, 2013 at 16:17 IST

Very happy to see articles like this on The Hindu.
@Chandru - Where has the author claimed that science has all the
answers?
@Nikhil - The burden of proof is on the theists, people who claim
that there is some kind of supernatural intelligence out there.
Atheists simply point out that the theistic claims have not met the
burden of proof.

from:  Raamganesh
Posted on: Sep 23, 2013 at 15:01 IST

@Nikhil: Very well said.
Natarjan writes, "What supernatural powers? Let us first realise that
there is no supernatural MIRACLE that has withstood the scrutiny of
science." But that does not mean that science has shown that
supernatural MIRACLES were, are and will be impossible! Science has to
either prove well known MIRACLES to be false or simply say that it is
not known whether these cases are genuine miracles or not. The
strident words which Natarajan uses tries to convey an impression that
supernatural MIRACLES like those reported in Christian and Hindu
scripture are impossible [I do not know Islamic scripture well enough
to mention it in this context].

People with genuine supernatural powers may not have been examined in
a controlled scientific laboratory environment. But large number of
reliable witness accounts of these very, very rare paranormal
phenomena are certainly available across religions, countries and
centuries of time.

from:  Ravi S. Iyer
Posted on: Sep 23, 2013 at 14:35 IST

Modern Science has not been able answer all the natural phenomena. For instance, we only know that 'F=ma' or (may be more complicated than that), but do we really know 'why' it is not equal to say 'F=ma^2'(of course it does not match with experiments). In other words, nature is what it is, and we do not know why it is so. So what science does is obtain increasingly accurate descriptions of the natural phenomena with repeatability. However, it is very far away from addressing the 'why' question, such as why does nature even exist!
The Great Indian philosophies/thoughts are not based on the fear of the unknown, but on the acknowledgement of the unknowable. It is incorrect for the people of science to mislead others by claiming that 'we know it all'. It only helps to inculcate 'belief' in science!

from:  chandru
Posted on: Sep 23, 2013 at 10:55 IST

Religion, without exception, is like opium making people addict.
Similarly, there is an addiction to isolated facts emerging out of
science and technology--and with no concern for the consequences of
'abuse' of science and technology. It is true of most fields including
medicine wherein misinformation, disseminated by wealth and media in
equal measure, promotes practices detrimental to individuals and
mankind with passage of time. Damage being caused to the environment,
to unity of the universe appear to be irreversible.
Hence we are facing hurdles and threats to genuine advancement not
from the traditional conception of God alone but from modern religions
of polity / political fanaticism and industrial-military complex.
The ultimate loss of spirituality that must bind us to the universe
will shatter the concept of oneness.

from:  kaliappan
Posted on: Sep 23, 2013 at 10:27 IST

Excellent piece of rational thinking. Humans with their well developed faculties of Brain are able to good things, be good to the others, donot harm others. Take care of their needs within the natural laws of survival of the fittest. Among the Primates a dominant leader is required to lead and protect it's group. The human brain is so well developed it could not accept a superior leader from among the group. Hence God is created by humans. In all religions the priests have invented the Paradise and Hell as a carrot and stick policy to toe their line of vested interest in God.
It's time for the post theist society to take over and spread the theory of natural cause and effect and popularise it and get rid of the common folk from the grip of irrational religious belief's.

from:  mona
Posted on: Sep 22, 2013 at 15:57 IST

Oh, Prof Natarajan,

Aap ke munh mein ghee-shakar... as we say in Hindustani, when we fervently hope that your words would come true.

But, it is not merely the hope that will bring us a post-theistic society (or, I would go one more step and say, post-dogmatic society; since secular dogma can be equally or more damaging - fascism, for example).

We, who believe that dogma (specifically theism / religion in your writing above) must be discarded in favour of Evidentialism (I prefer this term to Rationalism, and other equivalent terms), must be willing to take risks and help our fellow human beings walk the path away from the infantile social setup that we have today - where ignorance is celebrated and knowledge berated!

Wishing ourselves luck,

from:  owais
Posted on: Sep 22, 2013 at 14:24 IST

Science vs Religion... how original!

1) "Let us first realise that there is no supernatural MIRACLE that
has withstood the scrutiny of science."... No one short of the Dr.
Francis Collins, lead scientist of the Human Genome Project has come
out and said that there is a God and all his years of being a
scientist has taken him from being an atheist to a person of faith.

2) The author is making an implied assertion that God does not exist. If the author believes that there isn't sufficient proof for the
assertion that "God exists", then the lack of proof doesn't make the
converse ("God does not exist") true.

All scientific inquiry begins with an assertion that needs to proved.
If he claims to be a man of science he should be laying out the proof
for God's non-existence and not deriding religion.

This article lacks any solid scientific proof that God does not exist
and rests solely on an emotional response to the "evil" in the world.

The real debate is science AND religion.

from:  Nikhil
Posted on: Sep 22, 2013 at 14:16 IST

Well written. I certainly agree about the vision about the post-theistic society. However, there are some points worth noting.
1. A lot of ancient Indian literature has a wealth of knowledge in fields of art, medicine, lifestyle. Modern medicine - without any doubts is curing diseases - but comes up with similar answers on preventing diseases. Simple facts like eating fresh food, high in fibre, and so on.
2. It is a sad fact that more people in the West recognize this fact than people here. Although, going by the phrase - Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam - the whole world is one family - nationality of who pursues knowledge should not matter.
3. Science has begun to realize that reckless modernity does not give a life of harmony with nature - only of luxury.
4. We still go to our roots when we are disillusioned in life - with Yoga or the Gita, and so on.
5. Hinduism was a way of life, not an organized religion. But yes, fear has been the cornerstone of religion and Hinduism has been immune to it.

from:  Kalpak Nikumbh
Posted on: Sep 22, 2013 at 14:03 IST
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