The Concept of Faith: From the Perspective of a Practicing Sikh
However, what Lavoisier changed was the methodology applied in the use of chemicals. Rather than make use of chemicals through knowledge gained by rote, Lavoisier used empirical methodology to study the behaviour of chemicals, thereby enabling us to have prior inkling of what to expect when chemical A was put in the company of chemical B. A direct impact of this change was realisation of limits of what the chemicals can do. For instance, alchemy had for centuries been pursuing the mirage of philosopher’s stone. Whether the alchemists came from Greek, Arabian, Medieval Christian, Hindu or Chinese traditions, this pursuit was common to all these different alchemical traditions. The pursuit of philosopher’s stone combined spiritual elements with material ones as what they were observing was God in action and they invoked God (or devil, according to their inclination) through secret words, chants, prayers, holy water to enable them to change base metals to precious ones at will. This “at will” part of the equation seems to have come from the religion’s promise that it can provide the tools necessary to invoke God in one’s favour whenever necessary.
When Lavoisier replaced faith with logic, our knowledge of elements increased by leaps and bounds. It was as if some sort of barrier had been broken that enabled us to analyze our observations logically without faith skewing the results. As logic took primacy, we not only started to realize the limitations under which elements work, but also the vastness of the undiscovered world of elemental knowledge and the benefits this ever growing knowledge bank could bring to humanity. From then on pursuits like philosopher’s stone lost all shine.
Something similar is happening in the realm of religion, where faith though still holding sway is increasingly seeking the help of science to authenticate the scriptural statements. However, it is still the norm that more unquestioning one’s belief, more pious is one perceived to be. Religion, in fact, demands faith from its followers and promises “the heaven” to those who believe unquestioningly. For those who question a religion’s take on some issue using scientific observation, religion seeks to follow a contrary view. If a contrary view is not possible, it seeks to cite those scientific observations which authenticate some scriptural revelation. The aim usually is to show to the faithful that what the scriptures revealed “hundreds of years ago”, science is discovering only now. By implication, the faithful should not lose their faith if science says something that is contrary to the scriptures, for science is lagging “hundreds of years behind” the scriptures when it comes to knowledge of God’s creation. For the faithful this can be a very effective argument – after all scriptures are direct revelations from God and who can know more about His creation than God Himself!
With advances in our collective knowledge and the methods of collating this knowledge, it is my view that organized religion is fighting a losing battle with other two contenders as the sole repository of knowledge of how God’s creation works and towards what end. The reason for this may be quite obvious – while claiming to have answers to all our questions, religion demands that we ask no questions. On the contrary, the two other contenders, philosophy and science, encourage people to question everything. Questioning is seen as the starting point of reasoning, leading to ever greater insights and opening up of new vistas. Questioning a scriptural statement, on the other hand, is seen as an indication of heretical behaviour. Thus, even though science and philosophy do not seek to consciously undermine religion, these two contending seekers of greater understanding of how and why of God’s creation, are seen by religion as doing exactly that. It must be accepted though that virtually all of the modern-day strides made by us in greater understanding of this world and beyond have been made possible primarily by the development of a scientific outlook. This, however, is not to say that religion has no longer anything to offer humanity. On the contrary, religion is still relevant in resolving problems created by unfettered application of science.
The importance of religion (or religious outlook) was illustrated recently during a seminar organised by the Auckland Inter-faith Council in collaboration with Auckland City Council. There were presentations from Zen Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Mormon traditions on how birth of a child is perceived. Most of the presenters sought to cite scientific evidence authenticating their scriptural statements or religious practices revolving around the phenomenon of birth of a child. The general observation was that all religions see the new born baby as a gift from God. It made one wonder that there is no scientific evidence which proves or disproves that a child is a gift from God. Science can explain every stage of development beginning from the moment a sperm combines with an ovum to the moment when the baby makes the first sound and beyond, but it has no framework to tackle the question whether a child is a gift from God or not. Also, science seems to have perfected the mechanism for garnering knowledge, but it has not been able to integrate into that mechanism, guidelines which would show whether the garnered knowledge is being applied wisely or unwisely – or, to employ religious terminology, righteously or unrighteously. It is religion that can answer this question. Where religion is lacking is in its insistence on knowledge being static – that what has once been revealed must remain unchallenged throughout time. Philosophy on the other hand is weak in practicality. Much of philosophy seems to be focused on pondering abstract concepts rather than issues of practical importance to humanity. Thus we have three approaches to understanding the same thing – God’s creation, how it works and towards what end. From the fact that even religious discourse is increasingly citing scientific evidence in support of scriptural statements, one might conclude that science has taken a pre-eminent position in providing answers to our questions. Is this state of affairs good for the general well-being of humanity?
My view is that science is making the same mistake that religion did – it seems to presume that it has answers to all the questions. Or to put it another way – humanity is repeating its mistakes by thinking that science can provide answers to all its questions. Scientists, it would seem, are the new clergy – or the new prophets. If we consider religion, science and philosophy as three rivers, then rather than look for answers in one or all of these rivers, we would be best served by looking for answers in the “sea” – where all three combine, as do many other streams. However, we also need to understand that a fish can never hope to fully fathom the sea. In the Sikh discourse, the analogy of fish’s relationship with sea (or river or simply water) is used at numerous places to illustrate man’s relationship with God. Man is equated with fish and God with water. Man’s state of being unaware of God’s presence is equated with a fish out of water.
“O Almighty! You are like an all-knowing all-seeing river and I am just a fish – how can I find Your measure? Wherever I look, I see only You. The moment I am separated from You, I am in pain and die. I do not know of the fisherman, and I do not know of the fishnet. But when the pain comes, I call upon You.
A fish needs to be intimately aware of that part of the sea where it ventures day in and day out, and be always on the look out for even minor changes in its surroundings in order to live its life. Sea was there before fish came into being and it will be there when fish dies. Sea’s existence isn’t dependent on fish while fish cannot exist without the sea. While sea sustains numerous entities along with the fish, fish has a set role in not upsetting this regime of sustenance and contributing to it positively. What if the fish starts to think that the sea and everything within exists to serve it (the fish)? The thought seems such a ludicrous one. However, superimpose it on humanity. We need to be fully aware of our surroundings – worldly wise – in order to live a “successful” life. More worldly wise we are better our chances of success. But most of us seem to think that this world and everything within exists to serve us. In a way, clergy’s main role seems to be to promise humanity that it (the clergy) can invoke God in its favour. This promise seems to prompt one to think in terms of trying to influence events to fit one’s own goals. Thus, we consider ourselves as the centre-of-the-universe – that not only the whole world but even other humans exist to serve our purposes. This lays the ground for seeking commonality of agendas – dividing humanity in clusters according to common agendas, with each cluster trying to influence events in furtherance of its particular agenda. Religion and wealth seem to be the most common binding factors in the construction of these clusters. It does make one wonder why those acting as guardians of religion (the clergy) or wealth (the rich) feel so threatened.
One effect existence of these varied groups has is the suppression of intra-group discussion of beliefs. As every group sees itself at odds with all or most others, it becomes a prerequisite of survival that each group ridicule the belief/agenda of others in order to prove to its adherents its superiority over these others. It is by this mechanism that the “flock” is sought to be kept together. More vulnerable a belief system is to questioning by others, more repressive its approach towards those of its members who seek an intra-group discussion of these beliefs. The result of this repression, however, is never one intended. It might take time for the questions raised within and without a group to take effect, but sooner or later every question must get its answer. A question once raised lingers on till it elicits a satisfactory answer. Thus, even though religion claims revelation to be timeless (or static), religious beliefs keep evolving with time. What we are witnessing today is a growing acceptance of scientific outlook over religious or philosophical one. This may be seen as a weakening of faith’s hold over humanity. If one is to predict the defining feature of the 21st century, it will most likely be the gradual diminishing of the concept of faith. Faith, in fact, has always been questioned, from within as well as without. The concept of revelation, as prevalent amongst the Semitic religions, made it necessary that those who questioned faith either had the credentials to be accepted as prophets (with the new revelation or prophecy superseding the earlier one) or end up being banished or executed.
In order to understand the absurdity of this situation, consider for a moment a hypothetical scenario:
This in a nutshell is the crux of the problem inherent in the concept of faith. Knowledge is fluid and it is ever growing. To claim that everything that was said two or three thousand years ago is the truth when all the evidence suggests otherwise, may only be termed rather unreal. This does not mean that one is arguing that everything that was written two-three thousand years ago has become irrelevant, rather that some parts may have become superseded with new knowledge and insights that humanity has gained over this period. Just as without Newton’s discoveries Einstein would not have been able to postulate his Special Theory of Relativity, it is a given that a big gap would be left in what little we know about the how and why of God’s creation if even one of the revered religious figures’ contribution is negated.
Our knowledge may be equated to a wall of bricks, with the present being seen as the top of that ever-growing wall. What we know today has been built over time brick by brick. A centuries old belief that we may now know to be untrue or irrational still contributed to humanity’s understanding by providing a contrast to what we now know to be true or rational. And what we know today to be “true” may be challenged tomorrow. It is the proposition of this paper that faith-based religion that we know today has its days numbered. Humanity as a whole has become more reliant on reason rather than faith. Religion too must start depending on reason, as opposed to faith, in its discourse with humanity. This is possible only when religion becomes non-denominational. For it is only in a non-denominational environment that the apparent irrationalities may be discarded without any need for the arrival of a new messiah to do so.