By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
October 4, 2012
One of the many things that I’m grateful to my parents for is that they didn’t thrust religion down the throats of their children. Perhaps this was because they were hardly religious themselves. The only time when religion interfered with our lives was on Holi and Diwali, but even these were almost completely shorn of religious significance, being for us occasions for fun and frolic. Once a year, on Guru Nanak’s birthday, we were taken for a hurried visit to the gurdwara, but that did nothing to add to my knowledge of the Sikh faith. For some years, we children would recite short prayers before meals, but soon we lost that habit. And so we grew up with religion playing almost no role in our lives—save perhaps when we used to implore God to help us do well in our exams.
When I look back at my childhood, I sometimes wish my parents had given us some sort of religious grounding. I often feel that way when I think of some folks whom I know who, because of their faith in religion inculcated when they were young, seem to be able to deal more confidently with personal crises. Some of the most compassionate and loving people I know are deeply rooted in their respective religious traditions, which must surely play a major role in making them the wonderful folks they are. I compare them with many people I know who’ve grown up deprived of the moral compass provided by religion or secular substitutes for it, and think they are definitely better human beings possibly because of the role that religion played in their lives from an early age onwards. Yet, and despite this, I still remain indebted to my parents for not indoctrinating me into any particular religion. Their indifference to religion gave me the freedom to think about religion for myself.
As I grew up, I studied about various religions on my own, without being prompted to do so by my parents. I was, from childhood onwards, fascinated by different religions and cultures. There were definitely complex psychological reasons for this, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say that from the age of twelve onwards I began to study and experiment with various religious traditions. In the course of this long journey I went through various phases, trying to identify with this or that religion. I even did a Ph.D. on a religious movement, and, thereafter, wrote extensively on issues to do with religion. But now, despite this long involvement I’ve had with religion over so many years, I’ve arrived at a point—and I hope this is going to last till I do—where I feel no need whatsoever to identify with any one particular organized religion or religious community. I am quite convinced that many of the conflicting claims that religionists of various hues make on behalf of their respective religions are simply hypotheses or speculations that cannot be empirically substantiated. That being the case, I just cannot get myself to believe that only one among them, if any, represents the Ultimate Truth.
But that is precisely what most religionists vehemently insist: that their religion alone is true; that it alone represents the Ultimate Truth. This belief underlies the seemingly-endless conflicts between different sets of religionists, who, for all the diverse beliefs that set them apart, share one belief in common—that their particular religion is the best or the purest or even the only embodiment of the Ultimate Truth. Naturally, this belief conduces to hostility to other religions and belief systems or, at best, allows only a grudging and condescending tolerance of them. Religious supremacism thus seems to be an almost inevitable consequence of deeply-held exclusivist religious belief.
The more I think about the supremacism that many religionists champion because of their belief in the superiority of their respective religions, the more downright absurd I think such belief to be. In fact, I find the very notion of religious belief itself to be deeply problematic. It is, so I think, the fundamental cause of inter-religious conflicts that continue to rage in many parts of the world even today.
Belief, as far as I am concerned, is the very opposite of knowledge based on personal experience, and so, in this sense, is akin to ignorance. A man with eyes that function knows that the sun exists because he can see it himself. He doesn’t need to believe that the sun exists because he knows, from his experience, that it indeed does. On the other hand, a blind man believes that there is something which people with eyes that see call the sun. He believes that such a thing exists, even though he cannot see it himself, because that’s what he has been told by others or has read in various books. His belief in the sun’s existence is based on the fact that he doesn’t really know the sun himself. He believes that the sun exists because he has never seen the sun himself but has only heard others talk about it. His belief represents his lack of personal experiential knowledge.
I may believe that there is a place called Delhi because I’ve heard about it since childhood and have read about it in books. People I think are reasonably trustworthy have told me about Delhi, and so I believe what they say. But I cannot be absolutely sure that Delhi does really exist until I actually travel to Delhi and see it for myself. And once I do so, I will longer believe that Delhi exists because I will now know for sure that it indeed does. My going to Delhi and seeing it with my own eyes dissolves my earlier belief that there is a place called Delhi.
If I haven’t ever heard a bird sing, I can, if I read about it in books or am told about it by someone else, believe that birds can indeed sing. But the moment I hear a bird sing, and, therefore, know it from my own experience, I no longer believe that this is something that birds can do. I now know, as opposed to believe, that birds can sing. In other words, once you gain knowledge, based on personal experience, of something, you no longer believe in it because you now know it to be true. Your belief in it disappears because now, in the presence of experiential knowledge, this belief no longer exists. It remains only as long as you lack personal experiential knowledge. Belief is dispelled by such knowledge.
So, too, with religious belief. It exists in the absence of personal experiential knowledge of what you believe to be true. You believe in a god you have never encountered or seen or heard. He is someone or some force whom you really haven’t experienced and, therefore, known, personally. You believe in claims about a man whom others consider holy, but he may have lived five thousand years ago, and so, of course, he is someone you have never personally met. You believe in a book that others claim descended from heaven, even though you weren’t there when the book supposedly dropped from the skies. You believe in a person who is said to have been an accomplished saint and to have performed amazing miracles, although you weren’t present at the scene when these miracles were said to have happened. You believe in all of these things for various reasons—because of the force of tradition, family pressure, fear, or the psychological need to believe in something superhuman, for instance. But, whatever the reason, your belief in such things is rooted in your lack of knowledge based on personal experience. If you had personally seen the god you believe in, if you had witnessed, with your own eyes, the ‘holy’ man whom you revere performing the miracles that are attributed to him, if you had yourself seen the ‘holy’ book you believe in descending from the heavens you wouldn’t need to believe in any of them to be true. Rather, you would know them to be true, as opposed to having to believe them to be so. The fact is that you believe them to be true only because you don’t really know them to be true. This is really what all religious beliefs are about.
Because you believe something to be true, as opposed to knowing it to be true from your own personal experience, there’s a little part of you somewhere deep inside which whispers to you once in a while, telling you that it could very well be that your beliefs are baseless. Maybe what you believe in is not true after all, that irritating thought suggests to you. Some of the things you believe in, the thought tells you, are simply not rational or could even be morally unacceptable.
Doubt inevitably accompanies belief. You would have no doubt if you really knew something to be true from your own experience. But since belief in something does not give you the same security and surety as knowing, through personal experience, that what you believe in is really true, doubt is never far away from you. You may have tried to suppress it by shunting it away into your subconscious mind, but it is sure to emerge some time or the other and prompt you to question your religious beliefs.
Once doubt begins to raise its head, it throws you into a terrific panic. You feel you simply cannot afford to let yourself doubt the beliefs you so desperately cling to, for they have become an integral part of your self-identity and the way others define you. You fear that if you allow yourself to undermine your cherished religious beliefs by giving space to doubt you would be committing a terrible sin. You might even be punished with hell-fire for it, you imagine. God might unleash his wrath on you, you dread. And so, you use every means to suppress this nagging doubt about the veracity of your beliefs that occasionally haunts you. Your whole life is spent trying to justify your beliefs, primarily to yourself but to others as well, in order to quell the doubt that you simply cannot wipe out of your mind no matter how hard you try.
But you don’t necessarily have to go through all this suffering. You can be spared this agony if you didn’t have to believe in anything in the first place in order to be religious. If you knew your religious views to be correct through knowledge based on personal experience, rather than mere belief, you wouldn’t have to suffer the pangs of doubt that almost inevitably accompany religious belief (but which many believers are reluctant to admit, even to themselves).
The seemingly-ceaseless squabbles between rival sets of religionists are almost entirely over rival sets of beliefs—such as those relating to deities, ‘holy’ humans, ‘holy’ scriptures, ‘holy’ places and ‘holy’ rituals—that are not amenable to personal experience by believers but which must be accepted simply out of blind faith. Believers feel compelled to believe in all sorts of claims that cannot be substantiated through their own experience about persons who died hundreds of years ago, about deities they’ve never seen, about stories of miraculous events they’ve not witnessed themselves, and about the supposed holiness of certain physical locations, forms of ritual worship and ‘sacred’ languages. If you do a content analysis of inter-religious polemics you’ll discover that much of what rival sets of religionists never cease to quarrel with each other over has to do with beliefs about such matters that they haven’t experienced themselves: about the number and nature of divine beings; about the attributes of angels, ghouls and goblins; about what happens to us after death; about how the cosmos came about; about whether or not heaven and hell exist, and, if they do, who the denizens of these two realms will be; about the existence or otherwise of the soul; about who the greatest incarnations or messengers of god were; about which ‘holy’ book is the most reliable; about miracles that various ‘holy’ men, long since deceased, supposedly performed; about what sorts of rituals are most efficacious in flattering invisible deities; about which places are particularly hallowed and dear to divine beings; about which communities are specially honoured in the eyes of the gods. And so on.
Such beliefs that demand a total suspension of one’s rational faculties and are not rooted in knowledge that emanates from personal experience form the bedrock of religious faith for most people. These beliefs are considered so important that countless wars have been waged over them, leading to loss of life on a staggering scale. For many religionists, these beliefs are crucial to winning the favour of god and to finding one’s way to heaven after death. If you don’t share their beliefs, they insist, god is bound to make you suffer in hell till eternity or to cause you to be reborn in a lower realm, no matter how good you may have otherwise been while on earth.
As long as religiosity continues to be based on belief, rather than on knowledge based on personal experience, conflicts between rival sets of believers seems inevitable. Because these beliefs cannot be empirically substantiated, different sets of believers can continue to claim, as they have for centuries, that their beliefs are the best or the only valid ones. And, on that basis, they can continue to squabble with each other over them. There being no human agency to decide between these conflicting belief systems, it is impossible, outside the realm of blind faith, to privilege one of them over the rest.
But there is no reason why religiosity must continue to remain centred on such belief, and why the tyranny of rival sets of beliefs should continue to play such havoc. I don’t see why one has to be a ‘believer’ in this sense at all to be religious. Religiousness can be re-defined and conceived of on the basis of knowledge that can be had from human experience rather than remaining predicating on belief. If this happens, you can be spared the torture of forcing yourself to believe in claims about ‘sacred’ things, people, entities, forces, places, rituals and so on that you don’t have knowledge of through your personal experience. In fact, if religion is divorced from belief you won’t need to believe in anything that you don’t personally know to be religious. Might this not be what wise men and women in various religious traditions have always insisted: that the purpose of life is to know or to realize oneself, and that this is the way to truly know the divine?
This does not mean that entities or forces outside human experience or perception may not exist or that their existence has to be denied. Nor does it mean that nothing that is believed by believers about the supersensory realm is true. All it means is that belief in such matters is simply unnecessary for one to lead an authentically religious life. In such matters, honesty demands that we humbly confess our ignorance, acknowledging that there are things that must always remain unknown. These are what are called divine mysteries. Since they can never be fathomed by us mortals, it is best not to speculate about them or to cling to any beliefs about them. It is the endless speculation about such ultimately unfathomable mysteries that underlies the ceaseless conflict between different sets of believers.
Religiousness defined in this way would simply be a proper way of leading a virtuous life—thinking, speaking and acting rightly or skillfully—which you realise to be good for you through your personal practical experience (perhaps through using a certain procedure, such as meditation, that every person can access). And since you won’t have to believe in anything in order to be religious in this sense, the question of rival belief systems and clashes between their respective proponents will simply cease to exist.
If only things were so simple, of course!