Faith versus rationalism: please don’t insult faith by calling it irrational
Are faith and rationalism mutually exclusive entities? The line of thought that insists on this makes it adamant that the two do not mix. If one is faithful, one must be irrational. Conversely, if one is rational, one cannot be faithful. Does it really work like that in the real world?
Are we debasing the faithful by calling them irrational? Maybe we are. Because faith is also a rational choice we make. We are not herd animals bound strictly by the code of blind loyalty. Being a thinking creature, each person may have a different perspective of faith than the other. Absolute uniformity in their behavior is practically impossible. In that case, who decides exactly what faith is?
Many questions hang heavy in the air as the rationalist versus traditionalist debate rages across the country. The debate goes back centuries, across all religions, through many flashpoints and violent clashes, so don’t expect conclusive answers now. Expect more rigidity on both sides of the divide, however, and more new converts to rank two and the possibility of more serious conflict in the future. Expect the country’s intellectual culture and thought space to undergo profound changes.
The framing of the whole conflict between rationalists and traditionalists is a bit problematic. The semantics seem out of place. The word rational is loaded with positive connotations. It is linked to logical thinking, the ability to reason and to be sensitive, all of which make man a superior species to animals. It is the cornerstone of civilizations and cultures. It has been the engine of material and intellectual progress of humanity throughout history. All over the world, irrational, illogical and insensitive people are treated as different from normal people. Surely something is wrong with the use of the word here.
Besides, who said that faith is the antithesis of rationality? The term “traditionalist” also needs to be clarified. Anyone with faith in traditions – especially religious traditions – does not have to be a bigot, who aggressively seeks to impose their beliefs and exercise control over others. Even a fundamentalist can help being an extremist. Like all religions, Hinduism has its fanatics, conservatives and liberals. None of the categories needs to be explained. The difference lies in the degree of conformity to established beliefs and practices, and in the flexibility one exercises while observing them.
To deviate from the latter is a rational choice, based mainly on the circumstances. Rituals for agricultural seasons in rural areas may not be easy to follow in a metropolis; working couples may not have time for elaborate ceremonies; someone may restrict themselves during Diwali celebrations for the sake of the environment; and the younger generation, busy with their own struggles, may simply ignore the many intricacies of religion. There are bound to be compromises and pragmatic adjustments. Deviation does not necessarily equate to being anti-religious. A traditionalist can also be a liberal, striking a fine balance between religion and the demands of life.
Believers versus non-believers or faith versus anti-religious or bigots versus liberals or rationalist versus irrationalist perhaps puts the scenario in a more accurate perspective. We actually present a bad image of Hinduism and Hindus to the world by portraying them as anti-rational. The Hindu ecosystem has always buzzed with incisive intellect, the quest for knowledge and the search for truth. The ancients, with their tremendous achievements in different fields of science and philosophy, actually defined what rationalism and being a rationalist stood for far more than their Western counterparts. If anyone claims that India has always been a faith-centered entity, one is actually dismissing its great past.
The current debate reduces the whole ecosystem to a singular facet: religion; and reduces it further to practices and rituals that go with religion. The true Hindu should take that as an insult, but let’s leave that aside for now.
Returning now to the central question, why is rationalism such a hated word among a section of religious thinkers? The choice of the term “one section” is deliberate, because as mentioned earlier, not all Hindus are intolerant gender extremists in their religious beliefs. At no time is there the slightest hint that a liberal Hindu would abandon Hinduism and embrace another religion. So why?
The answer to the question could be fear, questions and their consequences. Rationalism is about asking questions. The answers follow logical thinking backed by reason – an uplifting feature of Hinduism that manifests itself from the time of the Upanishads and through the saints who have appeared at different phases of our long history. The culture of questions stimulates the spirit of investigation and the scientific temperament.
This trend, for some, is a threat to the status quo. They believe it has the potential to not only upset entrenched beliefs and practices, but also to alienate many people from religion. The second, as evidenced by the life around him, is rooted more in the imagination than in reality – a liberal Hindu finds it difficult to abandon his identity marker despite his questions. The first is the source of the entire conflict scenario presented to us. Questions about faith-related rituals hurt vested interests – the self-proclaimed protectors of religion – more than the cause of religion itself. The former risk losing their social status and the benefits they think they deserve if more people become rational.
Fanatics of all faiths want to control religion and restrict it to their restricted worldview. Worldview tends to extend to social, political and economic spheres. It can only succeed when reason is mastered and free-thinkers are put in place. The Abrahamic religions have had their intense battles within the community with varying inconclusive results. Liberals in Islam have lost in some countries, while in others they have won. The domination of the Taliban in Afghanistan is an example of the first. Countries like Turkey can be counted in the other category. In India, the current phase of struggle dates back to roughly the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the father of the Indian Renaissance, two centuries ago. The ruling elite in the post-independence phase sided with the liberals. The roles have turned now.
The consequences of marginalizing the culture of inquiry, questioning and free thinking can be dangerous. Since the faith asserts itself through a system of control, the fanatics see its success in the wider and wider extension of their influence. Its influence, as can be seen in the case of the Taliban, can easily transcend all secular aspects of human life, including education, science, lifestyles, social behavior, etc. It would also be the end of the idea of dissidence, and of the idea itself, and consequently of the democratic spirit.
Faith is good, but it need not be devoid of rationality. He must leave room for questions. Hinduism should not follow the regressive tendencies of other religions. Its greatness lies in sound arguments, and yes, rationality.