Thursday, March 8, 2018

"The founder of my religion" and the wisdom of crowds

(The question of what sources of religious insight are valid, comes up whenever you meet people of various religions who take the truth claims of their own tradition seriously. Is the authority of the founder or prophet sufficient as reason for accepting his truth claims? What follows is the text of my speech at the Ahmadiya interreligious colloquium of May 2009 in the Basilica of Koekelberg, a borough of Brussels. The Ahmadiyas are the sect founded ca. 1900 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, mentioned near the end.)

When an official of the Indian Embassy in Brussels told me he was looking for someone who could speak on Hinduism at the present colloquium on the theme of "The Founder of My Religion", I told him that among the numerous Westerners who do Hindu things (and this includes myself), he would not find anyone willing to self-identify as a Hindu. The word "Hindu" has a connection with the geographical unit India, and is in that sense irrelevant to anyone who does not have this connection. But more importantly, it is, just like "Christian", a label on a box. The type of people involved in the Western discovery of Hindu wisdom tend to reject labels of religious membership. Indeed, it is usually this very refusal to be boxed into a single religion that predisposed them towards attraction to Hinduism. They believe that, in contrast with Christian Christ-centric monolatry, there are numerous teachers who embody the Way, the Truth and the Life; which is what Hindus have understood all along.

I am a member of the largest faith community in Belgium, viz. the ex-Catholics. That is not a community with a sense of unity and structures of its own, like the Catholic Church. As the former EU commissioner Karel Van Miert, ex-Catholic and a leading unbeliever in Belgium, once said (quoting from memory): “No, freethinkers don’t need structures of their own. It’s not because diabetics get together in their own self-help group, that non-diabetics should likewise get together.” So, I have not been mandated to represent the millions who fall in the category of ex-Catholics, I am only representative in the sense that I am a typical case. I am an apostate, I no longer espouse the beliefs I was brought up with.

An earlier generation of ex-Catholics, when they were still a small minority of the Belgian population, often became anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-religious with a vengeance. Today’s far more numerous ex-Catholics no longer have serious accounts to settle with the Church of their childhood. They, i.e. we, are simply skeptical of its defining beliefs. No hereditary sin of Adam and Eve, no virgin birth of Jesus, no resurrection.

Not that we reject everything about Jesus. He’s still popular for some of his sayings, especially when he was being anti-authoritarian like ourselves, when he went against the stifling weight of tradition and prejudice. But Son of God, no, most baptized Belgians don’t believe this anymore. That defining belief of Christianity is doubted now even by many of those who still go to church on Sundays. I understand that Muslims likewise venerate Jesus but reject his divine status. This at least proves that it is possible to be religious and yet not believe in Jesus as the divine Saviour. Which is the position where numerous ex-Christians have now landed themselves, viz. belief in "Something" but not in Jesus as the resurrected Saviour.

One component that recurs in many though not all religions, is God. People who have had bad experiences with a tough and authoritarian religion, tend towards a wholesale rejection of religion, including and especially God. They find something heroic in atheism, like standing on top of a mountain with no one above you. Or as John Lennon used to sing: “Above us only sky.” To assert human freedom, they would find it a crucial point to reject God. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Si Dieu existe, l’homme est un néant. Si l’homme existe, Dieu n’existe pas.” ("If God exists, man is a nothing. If man exists, God does not exist.") Among ex-Muslims, this is still common, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her discovery of atheism as a liberation. By contrast, now that Catholicism has lost its teeth, most ex-Catholics don’t bother to rebrand themselves as atheists or God-deniers anymore.

The anti-authoritarian generation dislikes the idea of a monarch in the sky, but then He can be redefined as something hazier, genderless, faceless, a mere “something”. We are the Something-ists. If you ask us whether we believe in God, we say: “It depends on how you define God.” Tongue-in-cheek, God is still okay, though the old expression “the fear of God” can now only be used in an ironical sense. Conversely, long-standing atheists have lately explored the idea of an “atheist religiosity”. Their rejection of the Pope and of Biblical authority need no longer imply a wholesale rejection of religion. Or “spirituality” as some insist on calling it, with studied vagueness.

We learn that Buddhism and some lesser-known Asian tradition also fall into this category of “religion without God”. That’s why the Buddha is so popular in modern culture: he reputedly doesn’t want you to submit to some omnipotent authority in heaven. At the same time, the millions of modern Westerners who do Buddhist things, like practising “mindfulness”, don’t become card-carrying Buddhists. They don’t want to put all their eggs into a single basket.

It is like in science. Everybody accepts that many pioneers have contributed to the present state of our scientific knowledge. Nobody swears by only one of them, nor denies the importance of all the others. Everybody knows that Aristotle’s work was, by all accounts, path-breaking, yet his knowledge was tentative and often clumsy. Both these facts, glorifying as well as belittling Aristotle, are equally true, and uncontroversial. Of course his work was a tremendous contribution to science, and of course it was very incomplete, in need of improvement by others who came after him. Nobody faults him for the immaturity of his theories, because everybody knows a single man couldn’t have created the whole edifice of science. Nobody says that Aristotle was the science god's only-begotten son, nor that he was the seal of the scientists, never to be equalled.

A poet has said that after Isaac Newton, “all was light”, so decisive was his breakthrough in physics. Yet to those who would dismiss the preceding generations of thinkers and researchers as merely caught in darkness, Newton admonished that he could only see as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants, meaning his predecessors in thought and research. No scientist would ever say that he received the whole of scientific knowledge in a flash, devoid of any prehistory nor in need of any additions or improvements.

In the experience of most moderns, the same is true in religion. Earlier, a very monarchical view of religion prevailed: one founder, a single leader with a single book, and the rest are either devout and obedient followers, or outsiders to and enemies of the religion. Today, we are evolving towards a more democratic view of religion. It is open-ended on all sides.

It is open-ended in a geographical sense: valid religious teachings have originated in many parts of the world. In the colonial age, Christian travellers were puzzled to find noble people in China, in Arabia, in Africa and other heathen countries: “How can they be so good and not be Christian?” And they had qualms of conscience: “How sad that this Chinese new friend of mine, this thoroughly good man, will have to go to hell because he wasn’t baptized!” Today, ex-Christians and quite a few Christians are confident that even God hasn’t put all his eggs in a single basket: non-Christians had been provided with their own Zarathustra, their own Yajñavalkya, Confucius, Bodhidharma, or Shankara. Post-Christian people quote from Jesus, Laozi, Kabir or Jalaluddin Rumi with equal respect.

It is open-ended towards the past. Every teacher was a pupil once. Everyone has a navel as visible proof that he was born from a mother and is indebted to earlier generations. The Buddha, who is often venerated by Buddhists as totally unique and original, acknowledged that he had merely walked the path that all the earlier Buddhas before him had walked. After him, his tradition spawned equally important masters like Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Huineng or Dogen. Mahavira Jina, the supposed founder of Jainism, saw himself as the 24th of a lineage of "ford-makers" (tirthankara-s) stretching back into prehistory. The leading lights of Daoism and Confucianism in the 6th-3rd century BC traced their own vision back to ancient sages like Fu Xi, Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), Yu the Great or king Wen. They had no notion of "Jahiliya", the Age of Ignorance preceding the arrival of the Prophet.

Evolutionary psychology shows that the germs of religion go back very far. We now know that a sense of morality, of altruism and fellow-feeling, which religious teachers usually claim as a special merit of religion, is present already in the higher animal species. Apes already have an (admittedly very embryonic) sense of religion. Some of you may have seen the documentary in which a gorilla flares up in anger against a burst of lightning and throwing a bone into the sky: he is filmed in the act of inventing a personal god behind the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. Right there, he just thought up a thunder god, like Jupiter or Indra or Thor. Later mankind has discarded this belief in personal agents behind the natural phenomena, but it was a step on the way forward and upward. While it is still controversial here and there to say we are the descendents of apes, I dare say that we are, moreover, the pupils of apes. But we did them the honour of not remaining their pupils forever.

Modern religiosity is open-ended towards the future. More teachers are bound to come, equal in rank with the ancient teachers. Nobody is the last prophet. We’ve heard that after Mohammed, some Muslims had a Baha’ullah or a Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Without going into the merits of these specific individuals, we can generally say that most people influenced by modernity agree that renewals are called for once in a while, and that even in religion, progress can be made. In the post-Christian religious scene in particular, nobody is credited with a monopoly on the road to truth or salvation.

This approach has always prevailed in Hindu civilization. It has no founder, yet it has many founders of tributaries to its mainstream. The Vedas were composed by a whole constellation of seers, whose names are practically unknown to non-Hindus and even to numerous Hindus. Have you heard of Bhrgu, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni or Dirghatamas?

Realistiscally, you cannot expect guidance in every field from a single human being, no matter how saintly or wise. The Buddha was an outstanding organizer of a monastic order that made its mark on all of Asia, and more importantly, he developed or at any rate practised and taught a highly effective meditation technique, Vipassana or "Mindfulness". And yet, on family values he was a disaster. He had no way of honourably integrating the indispensible functions of marriage and child-rearing into his vision. Shall we renounce the Buddha then? The whole and indivisible Buddha, perhaps. But not the Buddha who matters, the meditation teacher. For family values, we can simply look elsewhere.

It is always a funny sight, religious people trying to find guidance in their scriptures for typically modern questions. The exercise may be interesting and may sharpen our wits: trying to churn or shake a modern message out of an ancient scripture. And interesting it remains even if we don't (as I don't) accept the believers' assumption that their scripture contains the words of the omniscient and prescient God, who must have foreseen the modern problems centuries or millennia ago when his words were recorded. But it is only an exercise.

Hinduism looks up to the accumulated wisdom of numerous sages. The possible excesses of one among them are outweighed and neutralized by the input of all the others. None of them was totally the first, or the absolute authority. Even before the dawn of mankind, Hindu tradition envisions divine incarnations in the shape of the Fish, the Tortoise, the Boar, the Hobbit... There are ancient sages, but no founder-sage, and no chosen people, no only-begotten son or final prophet.

In Hinduism, authority rests with a vast array of scriptures: the Veda-s and the Bhagavad-Gita most famously, but also in the Agama-s or doctrinal scriptures of all the various sects, such as the Nanak Panth (= Sikhism)'s Guru Granth. But more importantly, it rests with every enlightened master, everyone who visibly embodies the sacred. It rests with your parents and personal teachers, and ultimately also with yourself. Your own common sense and intuition are the most important guide in your life's choices, informed by the plethora of Hindu sources of light, and not excluding even the non-Hindu sources. Living Hinduism is an application to the religious sphere of "the wisdom of crowds", the principle the combined insights of many provide a more accurate guide than the insights of an individual, be he prophet or messiah. I note with satisfaction that the Ahmadiya movement has incorporated a bit of this Hindu attitude by acknowledging Krishna and the Buddha as legitimate religious teachers.

May all beings in the Universe be happy.


Shankar Sharan said...

One of your most beautiful articles/speech! Thank you, sir.

Nachiketa said...

I always had this difficulty in accepting this business of God and all that goes with it,the religion,rituals et all and wholesale rejection of all that left a deep sense of void and loneliness in me But Jiddu Krishna murti to some extent provided me clue and a sense of direction and relief in that it enabled me to know the difference between loneliness and aloneness. But admittedly,this is your best piece of article containing wide interpretation of religion sans gods.

Unknown said...

very thoughtful and informative. I too prefer the Wisdon of the Crowds. I find the prophetic religions a bit too confining. Thanks, Dr. Elst.

Unknown said...

An excellent analysis. The threat of punitive eternal hellfire was completely negated by the hindu doctrine constrct. Karma concept was introduced and mukti or moksha target was set. Brilliant. Who wants this never ending birth death birth cycle, so one will be motivated to end the cycle by accruing good karma. Abrahamic faiths had developed a petty and selfish god, and thats a turn off.

Unknown said...

Very thoughtful... I have also noticed inclusion of attributes to their God’s based on the way they live, their surroundings (especially folk deities)...

Karthikrajan said...

very valid observations.

Religion has to be by the people , of the people and for the people , just like democracy is.
This is where pagan religions like hindhuism triumphs whereas prophetic ones flop miserably.

Gururaj B N said...

Very perceptive paper. We show intellectual laziness, when we baldly state that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion. But, Dr.Elst has laid it down threadbear, why and how it is a way of life, and not a religion in the western sense.