Why Religion Matters and How Religion Should Matter
1. Professor Huston Smith has elegantly summarized the essence of the Science-Religion dialogue in the following terms: “My favorite analogy is to imagine the physical universe as a giant balloon. Within it we can shine our flashlights (the scientific method) on anything inside the balloon, but we can’t get the flashlights outside the balloon to determine where it is located in space, or for that matter whether there is space outside the balloon. Whether there is or is not such another world is the religious issue.”
2. In other words, debates between science and religion ultimately boil down to the acceptance or rejection of transcendental reality. Professor Smith takes issue with scientists who summarily reject such a reality. I am inclined to agree with the view that science can, by definition, say nothing about the existence or otherwise of a transcendental reality, beyond asserting/conjecturing that it is one more concoction of the human mind resulting from odd neural configurations. The problem with this view is that it may be said with some conviction about any other type of reality as well. Given that science, by its very methodology, is constrained to handle (but handle extraordinarily well) only “sensorially perceived reality”: i.e. matter-energy reality in the arena of space-time, directly or indirectly, it cannot really rule in principle out matters that cannot be detected.
3. Furthermore, irrespective of the ontological status of transcendental reality, there is also the historical fact that transcendence has been vouched for by mystics all over the world as also by some of the founders of the great religions of humankind. Nor can we treat as trivial the legacy of humanity which amply illustrates that “belief” in such a reality has resulted in the expression of some of the grandest (music, art, literature, poetry, joyfulness) as well as some of the most ignoble (hatred, fanaticism, superstitions, wars, persecutions) potentials of the human spirit. [Just as: Even if some of our scientific theories are wrong, one cannot ignore the good and bad inventions that have arisen from them.]
4. Then again, if one of the goals of science is to describe truthfully every aspect of the observed world, then science cannot afford to deny the fact that no matter how much rationalists, materialists, atheists, etc. may will it, it seems to be almost impossible to erase from the human psyche the imagination or vision of such a reality. Indeed, attempts to forcibly snub or silence faith, or divert or eradicate it with a heavy dose of empirical science, introduction to microscopes and telescopes and such, and drilling the hypothetico-deductive method of arriving at incontrovertible Truths: all these and other stalwart efforts to immunize the mind from proof-less beliefs have not been altogether effective. If anything, for vast numbers of people, the obliteration of faith has had rather deleterious effects such as depression, frequent visits to the analyst, a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness and the like.
5. Given all this, it seems a reasonable conclusion does that religion does matter for society and civilization and for the individual human too. The question then is, not whether religion matters, but how it matters, for the aspects of religion that come into play in society and in the behavior of individuals are what really matter. As a wise one once said, it is not belief, but what one does with the belief, that is ultimately important.
6. In brief and simplistic terms, I would say that in so far as religions foster love and kindness, caring and compassion, mutual respect and harmony, celebrating and sharing, reverence and humility, in so far as they prescribe and foster modes for bringing solace and consolation, hope and meaning, and psychological states in which the human being feels oneness with the Cosmic Whole, the religions of the world must be respected and nurtured.
7. At the same time, men and women of goodwill from all faiths must also strive to eradicate from their traditions and framework those elements of religions that marginalize and dehumanize some members of society, that perpetuate dark-age superstitions, that oppress women and those who are different, that slaughter animals in the name of an Almighty, that persecute and proclaim themselves as the sole inheritors of Truth, that denigrate and demolish the sacred symbols and beliefs of others, that disregard the findings of science, and foster or engage in such other hurtful thoughts and acts.
8. It seems to me therefore that the project for the new century should be to channel and tame the irrepressible religious spirit along positive directions for a celebration of life, for more fulfilling interactions, and for expressing our gratitude to Whoever or Whatever made human experience possible, rather than keep arguing in the rational framework that the probability of a transcendental reality is insignificant and therefore must be ruled out.