Keynotes of Religion
Simmel does not find religion able to fulfill the spiritual need of his time. The major problem is that his contemporaries look at religion as a set of claims. Religion has become a large, bureaucratic system that does not give room for the sincerity, subjectivity, and the expressive need that seems to accompany the new type of modern individuality. Simmel represents a romantic trend and emphasizes symbols, meaning, the unique, and subjective sincerity. He suggests a radical reconstruction of the spiritual life. One must fully grasp the meaning of the idea that religion is not a set of beliefs but an ‘an attitude of the soul’ or a perspective, a way of looking at the world. Simmel shares the scepticism towards dogma, which was prevalent at his time, where the idea is that faith itself is more important than the object of faith. For him, reality is divided between the subjective and the objective, and a third realm is created by the interaction of human beings that may serve as a bridge between the two. In this way, religion is a reality capable of bridging the rift between the subjective and the objective. One may say that Simmel suggests an objectless religion, although he would hardly characterize it as a secular religion, which Victoria Lee Erickson does. The reason is that secular religion clings to a specific content, which Simmel rejects.3
Freedom and Strength: The Litmus Test
Though there is nothing that has brought to man more blessings than religion, yet at the same time, there is nothing that has brought more horror than religion. Nothing has made more for peace and love than religion; nothing has engendered fiercer hatred than religion. Nothing has made the brotherhood of man more tangible than religion; nothing has bred more bitter enmity between man and man than religion. Nothing has built more charitable institutions, more hospitals for men, and even for animals, than religion; nothing has deluged the world with more blood than religion.6
Why Do Non-believers Differ?
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.7
Russell’s position has since become the classical stand of non-believers, both agnostics and atheists. While Russell was an agnostic, thinkers such as the noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins are pronounced atheists. It is interesting to note that almost all of the non-believers have not considered Vedanta, eloquently preached by Vivekananda, as a thought system. Either they were unaware of it, as in most cases, or had conveniently ignored it, as in the case of Indian non-believers. We understand this if we look at the reasons for non-belief given by Bertrand Russell or others. Recently, Richard Dawkins unfolded his arguments against religion:
have immediately understood that Vedanta has a better concept of the ‘illusion’ he talks of. Also, there is no designer in Vedanta, and the cyclical evolution and involution are very scientifically explained, more cogently than the Darwinian model. Vedanta is the best ‘crane’ here. How could Dawkins miss that? But he is not alone. Almost all non-believers ignore Vedanta. It is as though they have developed a ‘blind spot’ to Vedanta. While the task of understanding Eastern religious traditions may be stupendous, that definitely cannot be an excuse for overlooking them. Explaining the apathy of media persons towards religion, a scholar writes: ‘Ignoring religion has also undercut the coverage of some Iraqi politicians. In the aftermath of the Iraq War, journalists and diplomats often reinforced each other’s preconceived notions and consistently misread the political scene.’8 ‘Religious complexity compounds the effects of reportorial secularism: American religion is extremely diverse, making sweeping generalizations problematic. The great variety of faith traditions, the internal divisions within each, and other nuances of religions itself make good reporting difficult. Thus, reporters are often at a loss even to identify a target’ (88).
Another example of this unexplained studied ignorance is the analysis of a philosopher who tells about, ‘something central to my atheism: it is neither a conscious rejection of belief in God, nor a rejection of the possibility or desirability of a form of transcendence or rapture that takes me outside of myself or beyond myself. It is merely the absence of God on my imaginative landscape as a possible source of such things. God, for me, as perhaps for [Thomas] Hobbes, is invisible in a very particular sense. God plays no role in my imaginative, reflective, or even emotional understanding of an engagement with the world around me.’12 Considering that the author here talks of God in the limited sense of a God with form, or a theistic God, it is astonishingly ignorant for a responsible philosopher to jump to such sweeping conclusions without having studied Vedanta. Vedanta as preached by Vivekananda directs a person to study oneself and make choices in life. However, rationalists who have not taken time to study Vivekananda, claim that all religions are dogmatic: ‘So, in the end, my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful.’13 A little study of Vivekananda would have shown this philosopher that not all religious thought is ‘shameful’.
What passes as ‘the left’ in India today includes well-known personalities and social groups that I call ‘reactionary modernists’. These groups are mostly associated with neo-Gandhian communitarians, who share the postmodernist and postcolonial suspicion of reason and the Enlightenment, but not the postmodernist critique of existentialism. Thus, while they accept the postmodernist idea of cultural embeddedness of all ways of knowing (which reduces
In modern times, if a man quotes a Moses or a Buddha or a Christ, he is laughed at; but let him give the name of a Huxley, a Tyndall, or a Darwin, and it is swallowed without salt. ‘Huxley has said it’, that is enough for many. We are free from superstitions indeed! That was a religious superstition, and this a scientific superstition; only, in and through that superstition came life-giving ideas of spirituality; in and through this modern superstition come lust and greed. That superstition was worship of God, and this superstition is worship of filthy lucre, of fame or power. That is the difference.15
Religion: Public and Private
In sum, the goal of a human being, according to Swami Vivekananda, is to arrive at a doubt-free understanding of its personality, and religion is this metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly, of the weak into the strong, of the confused into the enlightened. This is the core of religion; all other readings are mere veneers of this kernel. All unrest caused in the name of religion will be quieted if we focus on the kernel and let each individual have the freedom to adorn this kernel with a patina of one’s own liking.