Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Faithful Students

I generally love atheists but I don't think they should go about making a big statement about their beliefs. The "There's Probably No God" ads on London buses are cute but I don't think they are necessary.

However I do admire how the statement is worded: the word "probably" shows that these people do admit a certain amount of doubt in their belief. If one day science proves that God does exist, I trust that they will reluctantly discard their own atheist dogma. Or will they?

These days, we are witnessing a sort of "revenge" from the atheists, with authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as their celebrity evangelists. Bill Maher's movie Religulous, is a wonderfully humorous jibe at religion. I love it, but let's not take it too far. Atheists and agnostics should be accorded the same respect as God-fearing people in society. But let's not over-react lest we make the same mistakes that many religion made throughout the ages--imposing your views on others.

I'm certanly not an atheist but I don't mind being labelled an agnostics. The definition of agnosticism is actually pretty wide (there are agnostic theists too--people who believe that God/gods do exist but accepts the fact that their existence can't be proven, or unknowable).

One thing's for sure: I'm awfully interested in spirituality and religions. I've spent a greater part of my reading life in the study of these subjects. If labels are necessary at all, I'd rather call myself a student of religions.

Some atheists, like their fanatical counterparts, are prone to dogmatism too. Once we treat these things too seriously, we are prone to becoming "sensitive" and would find ourselves easily "offended" or "confused" by remarks or views that are not in line with our beliefs.

For some reason, we humans find a certain comfort in certainty; we need ideological foundations to give meaning to our behaviour and actions. We feel good when we have a cause to fight for. We feel secure when we belong to a particular group or tribe. That is human nature, a behavioural quirk that is hardwired in our genes. Religious dogmas and fanatical ideological beliefs (such as communism and atheism) fulfils this need.

If we understand this well, we'll know how to handle these natural instincts responsibly. Every idea or belief is worthy of our examination, in the spirit of science and free enquiry. So let's all call ourselves students. A faithful student constantly seeks knowledge and recognizes that he or she still has much to learn. And if God does exist, I'm sure He's a good teacher. And if God doesn't exist, well, let's try and learn from Nature instead.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A World of Axioms

It's Chinese New Year's day and I've been taking it easy for the past couple of days, catching up on my sleep, reading and helping out with household chores. I've also been doing a bit of reflection on religion--especially the question of dogmas and rituals.

I know a lot of people who get turned off by religion because of its strict rituals and dogmas, which sometimes border on superstition. I've expounded my views on the subject of religion many times in the past. I'm personally not a religious person but I consider myself spiritual.

Let me explain. I live my life guided by a set of--for lack of a better word--axioms. In mathematics and science, axioms are basic propositions that require no further proof. These propositions are considered "common sense" and are used as basic assumptions so that their consequences--theorems and colloraries--can be studied. The 3 Newtonian Laws of Motion, for example, are axioms. By using these axioms, scientists were able to derived principles and laws of mechanics which have allowed us to build aeroplanes and bridges.

The Newtonian axioms might not be completely correct (as Einstein has proven with his Relativity theories) but they are "good enough" for our practical purposes (objects of relatively small mass and travelling at speeds much slower than the speed of light). Axioms are not dogmas.

In science, we can always conduct experiments to prove or disprove a theory. This is the scientific method. Anyone can challenge existing theories and propose new ones. Science is self-correcting, because axioms and theories are not dogmas that cannot be challenged.

Religion runs into trouble because it relies on dogma. Some of these are based on obscure texts, translated, copied and edited over the ages by people with biases and vested interests. We have to rely on certain authorities (who are also human), to interpret them.

Let me put forth my first axiom: Spirituality is a basic human impulse. I cannot prove this. But it's based on my observation of people, my study of history and religion. We human beings did not invent religion because we feared things we did not understand. We have religion because it is natural for us to do so. Like music and art, every culture finds its own way to express their artistic impulses. Religion is simply an expression of the spirituality that's innate in the human soul.

If we ask why is this so, it's like asking why do we enjoy music. Why do we find pleasure in strange combinations of different sounds and rhythms? Why do we dance?

Why do we pray to different gods? Well, it's human nature to want to worship and submit to an authority. But worship is only a small portion of what constitutes this basic spiritual impulse. We are all spiritual because we aspire to something that is higher; something that transcends the limits of our human bodies; something that connects us to the universe, to its origin and destiny.

Why do we have this impulse? I can't explain it. It's like asking why do we fall in love? It's human nature.

In response to this impulse, we invent metaphors, we adopt symbolisms and we use myths and art to convey our mystical yearning. The arguments over whether there's a creator God, or whether there's heaven or hell or life after death to me are pointless. We can only argue our case with the limited vocabulary of human language. Words are merely suggestions to ideas and objects. They are imperfect. It is foolish to say my dogma is correct and yours are wrong.

People who insist on the infallability of their dogma do not understand the fallability of the human mind.

If you tell me your God is the greatest and others are false, I'll understand why you are compelled to say so. I can understand how it feels so right inside. The exalted feeling of being connected to something higher is a feeling that is difficult to explain. We catch a glimpse of this when we fall in love.

If my friend tells me that his girlfriend is the most beautiful girl in the world, I'll understand why. I won't disagree with him because I know my friend is in love and love is a beautiful expression of being human. It's something that we should celebrate together. Love can never be fully expressed in words. Flowers, courtship and engagement rings are symbols and rituals that accompany true love. But true love is something that you feel inside, not these external symbols, though undeniably they do make the whole experience more fun.

Why can't we treat religion that way? Why do we have to insist that I'm right and you are wrong? Why can't religion be a celebration of what's universal in all human beings--spirituality.

Our world today faces problems because we treat religion as something exact, like law or science: When you die you go to heaven or hell. If you do this, you'll receive this as punishment. If you perform this ritual, you'll be rewarded with this. You can hear the religious zealots screaming:

But religion is serious business! It's blasphemy to equate it other human expressions such as love, art or music! Not only does religion determine our fate in this life it also determines life after death!

Hang on for a second. What makes you so sure? Stop and examine why do you feel so right inside. Is it because you know something that I don't?

You live in a world of dogmas. I live in a world of axioms. Choose your world. I think there's less anger and hatred in mine.