Friday, November 30, 2007

Science of Faith

Just around when some people wanted Taslima Nasrin to leave India on ground of her actions (described as ‘behuda harkat’ i.e. indecent antics by one of the MPs) hurting the sentiments of people of India, I was engaged in a reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, where Dawkins bats passionately and logically for atheism. My decision to read that book was not inspired by the ‘controversy’ around Taslima but out of a friendly, yet animated, discussion with a friend who is deeply religious.

My friend believed (as per my comprehension) that all things in this world, including our lives, are governed by God and it’s our duty to submit to him/her and act in deference to his/her wishes/teachings/ commands, even if our own good sense/convenience/desires tempt us to act the other way. I was not pretty sure.

Well, I must admit that this was not something very unique or strange that I had come across in my life, but maybe coming from a very close friend, it suddenly caused me to think deeper. And a few days after this discussion with my friend, this whole Taslima thing erupted. Earlier similar controversy had arisen around some comments questioning existence of Lord Rama, and some time back Christians were hurt by ‘The Da Vinci Code’. In fact, almost all religious groups have had their share of such ‘controversies’ in India.

The common accusation by these groups has been – someone trying on purpose to hurt the sentiments through unwarranted use of reason against matters of faith.

Doesn’t this accusation seem very plausible and in line with the spirit of democracy, civilized world and (Indian) secularism? Why should you hurt the sentiments of others on purpose by unnecessarily probing the matters of faith with science and reason?

It might appear at this point of time that the problem is not with ‘science and reason’, but when probing the matters of faith is ‘on purpose’ and ‘unnecessary’?

Let’s take the case of it being ‘on purpose’. Will it be acceptable to the religious groups if someone inadvertently hurt their sentiments by probing their matters of faith through science and reason?

The history is full of examples of scientists and philosophers facing persecution and blasphemy charges, even though they were engaged in ‘inadvertent’ pursuance of their scholarly interests. Inadvertent pursuance, for they were not pursuing their interests to ‘on purpose’ contradict the holy books. But whenever their findings were not in line with the holy books, they were accused of hurting the sentiments by carrying out unnecessary and unwarranted activities.

So could we say that the problem is not with activities being ‘on purpose’ but with them being ‘unnecessary and unwarranted’?

Now that takes us to an even more interesting and intriguing question. Will it be acceptable to the religious groups if it was necessary to hurt their sentiments by probing their matters of faith through science and reason?

Doesn’t the question sound very abrupt? In fact, it throws up many other questions – Necessary for whom and why? And what exactly is the relationship between sentiments and matters of faith? Do matters of faith exist only in religion?

There are people who believe that any attempt to probe matters of faith with science and reason is always unnecessary and unwarranted. Why else do you think they are called matters of ‘faith’?

So what exactly is faith? Let’s try to understand it through one example. Somewhere I had read – Mother is reality, Father is faith. A cryptic statement that alludes to the grim reality that almost all of us nurture at least one ‘faith’ – that the person, who is the husband of our mother, is indeed our biological father. Hardly anyone ever reasoned with our parents, let alone asking for scientific proofs like DNA test reports, to probe this ‘matter of faith’.

[Well, at this point to time, I wonder, if this is the reason why God is imagined as male or as ‘father’ in most of the religions? Hmmm… food for thought, maybe some other blog entry some other day!]

A religious person may well ask – will it be acceptable to a rationalist if I asked him to prove scientifically and logically that the husband of his mother is indeed his biological father? Will it not hurt his sentiments? Will he not say that it is unnecessary and unwarranted to demand such a thing?

Let’s face it, although it’s very easy (faith putting this adjective ‘easy’ here?) to scientifically and logically answer the above question, would we really want such a question to be asked? Does it not hurt our sentiments? In my case, I would be incensed, and I guess most of us would be.

So should this be decent enough an analogy to refrain ourselves from probing matters of faith through science and reason? Because such an attempt hurts the sentiments and incenses people?

A rationalist would argue that a person’s faith in his or her father’s fatherhood is very different from religious beliefs. It’s a personal matter. Even if he or she is mistaken in her faith about his or her biological father, it doesn’t affect others in the society. So it’s none of your business to ask someone to prove who their biological father is. It is unnecessary and unwarranted.

Can religious people offer the same argument?

We’ve been listening from many that ‘religion is a personal matter’, but is it so? Rarely religion is confined to homes; it comes out open loud enough and shapes social values, public laws, political ideologies, economic systems, and even military warfares. In fact, the more aspects of social life a religion touches upon, the more fulfilled its adherents claim to be, well, most of the times.

So can we say that if a religion comes out loud enough in social life, it is no longer unnecessary and unwarranted to probe its matter of faith through science and reason?

Well, that’s what Richard Dawkins argues in “The God Delusion”. In fact, Dawkins sees religions offering the idea of a supernatural creator as a scientific hypothesis, which he calls “The God Hypothesis”. He rejects the view that Science and Religion operate in non-overlapping fields, referred as non-overlapping magisterial or NOMA. He avers that like any other hypothesis, the God hypothesis should also be tested, and he proceeds to test and falsify the god hypothesis. Okay, he almost falsifies the god hypothesis (Chapter 4 - Why there almost certainly is no God).

In many interviews Dawkins was asked if there was indeed any need for him to write such a book openly critical, rather acerbic, of religion. And he maintained that it was both necessary and warranted in present times.

But my friend says that those who presented the god hypothesis – the prophets, the saints, the incarnates, etc. – have already verified and proved it, that’s why so many people believe in God. I told the argument doesn’t cut ice. Human society is becoming more and more intelligent and things people earlier believed in have been known to be false. In fact, didn’t most of these religions came into being after overriding some pre-existing ones – falsifying the then-existing hypotheses? So why should they steer away from a new round of hypothesis testing now?

So my friend told thought for a while and told, “The idea of god is not a hypothesis, it’s an axiom. Believe in it and everything logically flows from there. Period.”

So while I google up, read Wikipedia entries on axiom, or maybe before I dust off some old mathematics books, I thought let me write something on my blog which has been almost dead for months.

P.S. - SUNDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2007

Well, just to put records straight, I did look up for definition and concept of axiom, and a working definition that I got from Wikipedia was – “An axiom is a sentence or proposition that is not proved or demonstrated and is considered as self-evident or as an initial necessary consensus for a theory building or acceptation. Therefore, it is taken for granted as true, and serves as a starting point for deducing other (theory dependent) truths.”

So an Axiom has to be either “self-evident truth” or an “initial necessary consensus”.

I still have my doubts if the concept of god and religion falls in either of these categories!!!


  1. Good read usual :)

  2. Good work , Rahul. But I don't think you need to be apologetic while questioned about your biological father. You know that you can prove that to yourself or anybody else. Sure, you don't want a proof, that is a different question altogether. But in case , under different circumstances, if you do want a proof , then you will not shy away from a DNa analysis. How can belief in god be equated to this? Don't let people emotionally black mail you. Continue your good work.

  3. lol.....the analogy was just thought true yet so difficult to digest.....