Friday, May 22, 2009

The question of religions

Whenever one attempts to discuss the question of religion, a very common confusion arises between institutionalized religions and Religion as a whole, it obviously leads to many fallacies (the same is true for discussion about Marxism which is often confused with and reduced to Stalinism and Maoism). Many, especially in US (where the debate is more extremely polarized, but such a tendency has existed and still exists elsewhere), do often make this confusion, and this leads to a sterile debate which eventually strengthens the extremism of both parties.
A more productive stance can be found in a lecture given by Rabindranath Tagore in 1933 at Andhra University (published in Selected Essays as "Man"):
I have stated before that we must remove all impurities and disturbances of the environment and all individual idiosyncrasies if we want to see physical truth in all its purity. This applies even more to spiritual truths. It is when we attribute to spiritual truths the perversions arising out of our lower nature that our mistakes become most dangerous. We can understand how much more ruinous than mistakes in knowledge are our mistakes in being when we find that the very force we have brought under our control through science become our medium of the hatred and avarice of man and extend the sphere of his self-destruction from one end of the earth to the other. It is for this reason that perversion of the nature of some particular individual or group in the name of community or religion incites man's will to evil far more than scientific mistakes or conflicts of material interest. The communal god thus becomes the receptacle of hatred, vanity, snobbishness and stupidity. Insulted Godhead degrades man and keeps him in constant fear of his own fellows. The calamity strikes at the very root of power and fortune in our country.
There are instances of this in other countries as well. The traditional Christians express their contempt for the degradation and cruelty of the traditional gods and modes of worship of some Indian communities. On account of habit they cannot, however, see that their own conception of God is equally possessed by the evil genius of man. The community whose sacred books condemn to eternal hell a child that has died before its baptism, has attributed to God a degree of cruelty that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In fact, the conception of eternal hell, for any sin, however heinous, is the most potent invention of human cruelty. Herein lies the explanation of the anti-scientific and anti-religious persecution practised in mediaeval Europe in order to preserve intact the faith in scriptural religion. Even to-day that conception of hell pervades with horror the prisons of civilized man, where there is no principle of reformation, but only the ferocity of punishment.

In this passage, Tagore clearly distinguishes between a genuine spiritual Religion, and the existing institutionalized religions that are merely there as gaolers of some political order. Further in the lecture, Tagore makes this aspect even clearer:
All that we have said so far about the good and evil is not from the point of view of the preservation of society. The code based on the solid foundation of praise and blame, which society promulgates though commands and precepts for its own preservation, gives but a secondary importance to the eternal principle of Truth: The preservation of the traditional society is its primary object. We are therefore told that it is harmful to introduce into society the Religion of Truth in all its purity. It is often said that there is a great deal of stupidity in the common man. To keep him away from evil, he must therefore, if need be, be kept engaged with delusions, frightened or comforted with false fears or hopes, in short, treated as eternally a child or a brute...

It is indeed often said that "there is a great deal of stupidity in the common man". I want to stop at this sentence. We all heard this assertion, some of us may even have believed it at some point of time (I think I did, as a teenager), but there is much more behind it than its apparent casualness. Whenever one utters this judgment, he clearly places himself outside of the community of the common man, and by doing so, he's actually denying humanity to the others, by affirming himself and therefore his humanity, as essentially different from them: I judge others authoritatively, I am ontologically distinct from them, as representative of a higher power, and am thereby assured in the truth of my judgment. And so do most cults coming from institutionalized religions, by placing the Godhead as fundamentally above humanity, in a remote supernatural realm, forever separated from human reason.
However, most religions have teachings that contradict directly such a conception:
"The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within(or among) you." Luke 17:20-21

"He is the humanity in Men" The Gita

"I am that unique soul that possesses a hundred thousand bodies
But what to do? My mouth is sealed
I saw a crowd of men: All of them were myself
But among them, I didn't find the one that I am.

There exists in the worlds no other than the Lord of the world
Neither above nor below, neither manifest nor hidden
All shot arrows come from this powerful bow,
All existing fineness come from this eloquent orator."

Djalal-od-Din Rumi/Rubai'Yat

The Religion of Truth that is defended by Tagore and that he opposed to most of the institutionalized religions is not Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or any other such well-known faith, but it has a name, and is simply called Humanism.
That name is problematic though, especially in anglosaxon countries where it is currently abused by many groups, and is often considered as a rejection of all spiritual dimension to the point of being reduced to a materialistic positivism. Such is the "humanism" of atheistic criticisms of religion that can be seen in the works from Russell, Dawkins, Hitchens and many other thinkers, who, in this instance, have made a rather mediocre analysis. All these people clearly missed the point, by confusing the existing religions (and quite exclusively the more fanatic part of them) with the idea of the religious, their culture seems limited and while focusing their attacks on Christianity and sometimes on Islam, they've been lacking the subtlety of differentiating between the various currents of these faiths, and were either unwilling or unable to acknowledge a space for a Religion of Truth in the sense of Tagore (but comparable ideas can also be found in Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Hassan Hanafi or Nishida Kitaro). By their radicalism, many criticisms of religion coming from analytic philosophy are advocating an anti-faith, which is just another kind of faith. By attacking frontally an extremism, they simply define another extremism.
Clearly different is the Humanism of Tagore, which is closer to the Renaissance Humanism that was historically defined by Pico Della Mirandola, Erasmus and others. It is one that advocates a dynamic faith (borrowing the term from Paul Tillich), one that is open to doubt, to rational analysis, and not the definition of a static faith (in scientific methodology as the only valid episteme) that rejects another static faith (in a dogmatic set of beliefs). But it is, above all, the first school that opposed Scholasticism, the first attitude to deny the ontological distinction posited by the established religion, the first to eventually refuse the stupidity of the common man. It thereby is a Humanism that opens up a world of possibilities for human beings, that does not confine Men into a predefined nature, but rather endows him with a power to define himself and judge for himself. It does not either posit limits to this power of self-definition, and it also asserts the complementarity of dynamic faith and rational doubt.

Eventually, it is only within such a Humanistic conception of reality and man that democracy can exist, because indeed democracy is fundamentally the political translation of the essential non-definition of human beings, of their ever-changing nature; it also rejects all higher supernatural power from which human society could inherit a sacred and unalterable hierarchy.
Within a democracy, hierarchies can be altered, they are part of the public debate, nothing actually is excluded from the public debate a priori, as such, democracy is the only form of political organization that can deny itself, and far from being a weakness, this feature is the foundation of its legitimacy.
It is of paramount importance to recognize that at the heart of any political human organization, there must be a religious conception, which really comes down to acknowledge the connectedness of all entities, what the Buddhists call dependent origination. It is this empathy we feel to others and the world that justifies the community. And this empathy is spiritual, it must not be reduced to mere utility.
The danger of an overtly utilitarian conception of society is that the community is only tolerated as a lesser evil, it becomes the locus of individual conflicts, only regulated by explicit prohibitions from the laws. Individuals are denied any intimate connections with others, they are encouraged to make themselves up. As such, many become easy preys for the most fanatically communitarian groups that will provide them with an ersatz of communal spirituality, albeit an extremely poor one; others, more "lucky", who succeeded as self-made men, will come to believe in their own lies and die as Charles Foster Kane, in the loneliness and meaninglessness of their material wealth.

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