It is not the first time that someone has decided to write about why and how and when atheism took over faith, and so I don’t claim to present a fresh perspective. But it is quite interesting how I began my journey to the idea of atheism. It was not a moral crisis, or an intellectual premonition, not even a desire to find ‘the truth’. The question was simple – “Have I ever questioned my own belief the way I question others’?” And the answer was, “No, never!” So, I began questioning and decided that I will not hold anything as taboo, not even of the most sacred.
But in this whole drill, there has always been a problem – the problem of perspective. How will you change the perspective that you have been brought up with? How will you erase the blackboard etched with the indelible ink of your own being? And so, I have always imagined an ideal situation, a situation where I can look back at things without any ‘perspective bias’. But no matter how hard you try and how detached you try to make yourself from what you have been, it is always there like a ghost lurking in the background, corrupting your view. I have imagined of a situation where I can ‘factory reset’ myself to erase my history and re-create a new history from scratch, and then juxtapose the two of them to expose my own biases. But theories don’t always work, do they? And after struggling with this idea for some time, I decided to live with it. The ‘perspective ghost’ I have named it.
Not that I don’t find religion and faith useful in many ways. It has been a driving force behind social cohesion and a crucible of ideas within a framework of divine supervision of some sort. But the problem with faith is its non-objectivity or a ceiling, if you like, that it imposes on human imagination and curiosity. The idea of certain things being sacrilegious and beyond the purview of scepticism is something that casts a long shadow of doubt on the very fundamentals of faith and religion.
So, does it mean that religion is fundamentally flawed? I would say, no, as long as you make sure that ideas prescribed by religion (read religious texts and narratives) and faith are always considered provisional, that they are not absolute in their scope and interpretation. Surprisingly, early scholars of well-established faiths are found to be not so rigid in their interpretations and enquiries, nonetheless maintaining a framework of their own, rooted in the idea of some divine being. That doesn’t seem a big problem though; it is something that people do in scientific enquiries too. It is called an axiom. You have no proof or evidence for an axiom. It just seems reasonable to you that certain things are true.
But axioms do have their limitations and while it can lead you to a certain line of reasoning, it may completely blind you to another equally valid and useful line of reasoning. So, let’s call religion ‘a divine axiom’. But here is the catch. Your axiom might be wrong, and if not wrong, it certainly is limited by your perception. So, how to test if your axiom is wrong? The idea is to derive logical conclusions that can be tested and verified. If an axiom makes predictions that can then be tested and verified to be correct, you believe that the axiom is useful and carry on the reasoning based on the axiom. If your axiom gives contradictory results, then either your reasoning is wrong, or you need to rethink about the axiom. Although this sort of approach is difficult to apply to religion, it does lend perspective.
So, assuming that this idea of ‘a divine being’ is some sort of axiom, is it universally acceptable? It seems not. But somewhat similar ideas are the basis of most of the mainstream religions, influenced by the socio-economic and cultural perspectives. These ideas are heavily influenced by our perception of the reality, not reality as it is, but the reality our brain creates.
What about perception? If you are surprised to find that most of the time we are irrational, think again. Our brain may not have evolved to perform complex statistical calculations, or to dig out the ultimate truth, or to understand how nature works. It might just be a moonlight job that the brain does while making sure that we are not devoured by a beast while searching for food in the wilderness, or not run over by a speeding truck while driving on a busy road. The brain seems to have evolved to keep us alive while being resourceful in filling our stomachs with food and finding the best partner to spread our progeny as efficiently as possible. That seems quite reasonable, because survival is what matters first, everything else comes later. So, while we may feel we occupy an exalted position as rational beings, evolutionary logic points in the opposite direction.Most of our behaviour is driven not by rational calculations and objective analysis of the situation, but by intuitions. Our perception also is largely influenced by this irrational and subjective worldview, unless, by a deliberate effort, the rational mind is hired to do the dirty job of an objective analysis of a problem. Is it surprising that this objective and rational analysis is a labour intensive job? Again from an evolutionary perspective, spending resources on finding the truth is not as fruitful as developing an intuitive perception of the world, because it is this intuitive perception that will keep you safe, find for you ‘good’ partners and keep you alive. This rational mind is, therefore, rightfully claimed to be the tip of the iceberg. The irrational rest of it is the proverbial ninety percent of the portion lying below the surface.
Let’s digress a little more from the question of faith versus objectivity and see how the brain deals with the enormous load of data that it has to process in order to make sense of the world around. This enormous amount of data has also to be processed at an astonishing speed. So, does the brain go through the painful process of meticulous statistical analysis of the data that it receives to reach any conclusion? Or does it make highly approximate and pattern based predictions about the reality and act accordingly?
Imagine a situation where you see a photograph on your Facebook timeline shared by someone who you have never actually talked to. The photograph makes some claim about reality. Depending on your own inclination, your mind immediately creates a story to reinforce your current belief about it without going through a reality check, without going through a statistical analysis of the odds that the information being presented might be actually true. So, what your intuitive mind is concerned about is not the reality or the truth, but what you have already learned through your past experiences and the biases that you have accumulated over time. This is a useful survival strategy. You don’t have to go through the same experiences all over again every time you have to avoid a dangerous situation or to exploit a momentary opportunity.
What does all this have to do with religion, faith and atheism? Faith seems to be a good tool for conditioning the mind. It is easier and more intuitive to invoke divinity when you can’t statistically make sense of the observations, which usually is the case with almost all human experiences. It takes a huge effort to train the mind to shift gears and let the minuscule rational part take over the controls when reality has to be deciphered from the data, which is a labour intensive job because the resources available to the rational mind are far too less.
Does that mean the divine doesn’t exist in reality? I will take a more nuanced stance on this. The divine exists in the sense that I am writing about it; it exists as an idea, a creation of the irrational, fussy and intuitive mind as a survival strategy for the hours of distress and an explanation for the un-calculable reality. But when the rational mind takes the charge, the ‘divine axiom’ falls apart, not because it is not useful, but because it is not useful in the context of understanding reality as it is rather than the reality our brain creates. So, enjoy your god till reality calls.
Featured image credit: Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.