15 November, 2019

Blog

Religion Without God

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

The attempt here is merely to draw the attention of readers to this short (about 150 pages) but concentrated and demanding work. It is likely to be of particular interest to Buddhists: they, unlike adherents of other religions, won’t find the title, ‘Religion without God’, oxymoronic or absurd – cf. “Marxism without Marx” – because Buddhism is agnostic. (“Among religions in this country [USA] which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God” is Buddhism: Dworkin, Note 5, page 161.) The Buddha in a well-known story said that what a man wounded by a poisoned arrow needs is immediate and practical help, not abstruse speculation: “So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say, ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal […] whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues  or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha, and meanwhile that person would die.” Dr K. S. Palihakkara in his lucid work, Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles (Stamford Lake Publication, Pannipitiya, 2003), notes that unlike in other religions, there is no Creator God in Buddhism (p. 97). All Buddhists know that “Buddhism preaches ‘Anathma’ or no rebirth” (page 41).  Lest Dr Palihakkara’s credentials be questioned, the book tells us that he has held posts such as Director of Education, Sri Lanka; “Director of Pirivena Education (temple schools)” and was “also one time Secretary to the Oriental Studies Society (which conducts examinations mainly for the Buddhist clergy”). Going further than agnosticism, some would argue that Buddhism is practical, based on reason (“enlightenment” implies knowledge, the product of reason) and essentially atheistic.

Ronald Dworkin, Religion Without God, Harvard University Press, 2013

Ronald Dworkin, Religion Without God, Harvard University Press, 2013

Dworkin (1931 – 2013), renowned Professor of Law and Philosophy, aims not to divide those who believe in God and those who don’t but to unite them by showing they share certain fundamental values and approaches. Though an atheist, Einstein said he was a deeply religious man: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primate forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men” (Einstein, quoted by Dworkin, page 3). Einstein did not subscribe to a ‘Naturalism’ which holds that nothing is real except what can be studied by the natural sciences. One can be “spiritual” without believing in the existence of spirits; “religious” without believing in a creator, controlling, God. Men whose religion does not allow them to serve in the military are termed “conscientious objectors” and granted exemption but the US Supreme Court exempted “an atheist whose moral convictions” prohibited military service (page 4). The appellant’s moral convictions constituted his religion.

As with many a discussion, it is a matter of definition. For example, what do we mean by ‘democracy’? Is democracy merely majority rule or is it the showing of equal consideration for all citizens? Is winning an election the only criterion of ‘democracy’? Is ‘peace’ the absence of overt war or the presence of justice and harmony? Is ‘justice’ the implementation of laws? But what if the laws of a country are discriminatory and unjust? Do we then have ‘justice’ within injustice? Similarly, ‘religion’ is also an interpretive concept, that is, the word is used by different people with different meanings in mind. (Tolstoy offers his conception of religion in an essay titled, ‘What is religion?’) I would suggest that while religious doctrine and teaching have, or are claimed to have, a sacred origin, ‘religion’ with its beliefs, structures, rituals and observances; with all the paraphernalia that surrounds the original teaching, is a human construct. (Emile Durkheim argued that in religion the object of worship is finally society itself.) This may help to explain how religion can be in total contradiction to bequeathed doctrine or teaching; why religious hatred and violence can be unleased in the name of compassionate and pacific teaching. ‘Doctrine’ may be divine but ‘religion’ is human. In the observation, “people are willing to fight for their religion; even to die for their religion, but few actually live their religion”, the last use of “religion” needs alteration to “doctrine” or “teaching”. So it is that in an email message recently received, a friend declared he was not a Christian but tried, daily and as best as he could, to be a follower of the teachings of Christ. Conflict based on religion is “like a cancer, a curse of our species” (page 7). But, adds Dworkin, religious wars are really cultural and ethnic competition and conflict. These wars reflect ambitions and hatreds deeper than reason can dismantle and philosophy can address (page 10).

What then, according to Dworkin, is the religious attitude, one to which atheists also subscribe? The religious attitude “accepts the objective truth of two central judgements about value” (page 10). The first holds that all and every human life has importance; the second, that nature or the universe is sublime, and “of intrinsic value and wonder”: a word Dworkin uses is “numinous”, meaning awe-inspiring.

Important to this book is the concept of values. Today many Christians do not believe in hell, a geographic location of crude and fiendish torture; of pain most excruciating and eternal. After all, even in the human world, torture is against the Geneva Convention, and God is infinitely superior to man in compassion and forgiveness. But if there isn’t the stick of hell and the carrot heaven, why should one be good? On similar lines, the religious claim to have received their values from God. If there is no God, from where do values derive their value? “But how can religious atheists know what they claim about the various values they embrace? […] Believers have the authority of a god for their convictions; atheists seem to pluck theirs out of the air” (page 12).  Dworkin suggests that values exist in themselves and, for the religious, God only confirms them. Values are prior, and can be subscribed to by non-believers as well. In his work, ‘The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values’ Sam Harris argues there cannot be a Buddhist morality, a Christian morality, a Hindu or an Islamic morality – my listing is in alphabetical order. Morality must be objectively defined, agreed and established, and be applicable to all, irrespective of religious allegiance or atheistic conviction. Since there are different religions, and each has its own “morality”, conflict is inevitable. In order to make the world a more peaceful and better place, morality must be based not on religion but on reason. (On somewhat similar lines, Stephane Hessel who helped to draw the UN’s declaration on human rights explains in his ‘Time For Outrage’ why the phrase opted for was “universal” and not “international” rights: “That is how to forestall the argument for full sovereignty that a state likes to make when it is carrying out crimes against humanity on its soil”. Ideally, aspects such as morality, justice and human rights should be uniform and universal. It is a desideratum to be worked towards.) Some religious commitments are based on God or gods, such as “duties of worship, prayer and religious obedience” but there are other values not dependent on religious observance, and these the atheist can share. “The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude”. Both the religious and atheists “feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret” at a life they think lived wrongly or wasted.

‘Religion Without God’ is a short but thought-compelling work. It is an exploration, patient and penetrating; a prompting to thought rather than an arrogant assertion. As Gandhi said, the essence of religion lies in the practising of moralitynot in the label (Buddhist, Christian, Muslim etc.); not in ritual and observance. The Buddha disbelieved in God and simply believed in Moral Law. His greatest contribution to humanity is his exacting regard of all life, be it ever so low (Gandhi). Ronald Dworkin sets out not to divide believers and atheists but to show common ground, and so make a contribution towards mutual respect and tolerance. His book, a posthumous voice, is worth listening to, and thinking about, even if at the end one remains unpersuaded. Both religious believers and ‘religious atheists’ can attempt to live a good life: “Someone creates a work of art from his life if he lives and loves well in family or community with no fame or artistic achievement at all” (page 158).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    There is also a Book by the Dalai Lama called “Beyond Religion” which deals with the same subject

  • 3
    1

    Why do you think people want religion or god?

    I don’t have either of them and I am fine.

    • 1
      0

      Thiru,
      you might one day.. perhaps when you get older and some of your organs shows clear signs of deterioration, your loved ones are busy and away, feel lonely, money getting tighter……. and get confused WHY(not How) those things happened, question “Why” make you confused,…
      Anura

    • 0
      0

      you are FINE ? Who told you that ??!!!

    • 1
      0

      ” Why do you think people want religion or god? “

      Thiru, Look honestly at yourself.
      If and when you have been utterly desperate, and wanting something to happen, maybe a cure for a very sick child, Have you not prayed to something, anything, to help you. Not necessarily ‘GOD’ or an established Religion. I believe GOD was invented for the Human need for outside help, when Human efforts proved ineffectual!

      • 0
        0

        Rationalist,

        Contrary to your names sake, I too do not believe in a Supernatural Power of a God or whatever. I have had the experience of nearly losing a child of mine due to sickness when young, long ago and I never sought divine help or Providence, except of the Doctors who treated. I knew I had to accept reality in the event I lost the child, but the child came around. Thereafter I myself had a close encounter with death and I never prayed to any God. My assumption is that if there is a God, this kind of Villainy cannot happen where Murderers, Rapists, Drug Barons and the Dishonest have the best of everything and some innocent suffer from womb to tomb. It Is easy to attribute to Karma the good and the bad one has to face in life based on Rebirth. Then again Good Karma has to necessarily follow Good and Bad Karma should follow Bad logically arguing. But this is not the case in reality. God and Religion are for the weak minds who are unable to cope life.

        • 0
          0

          GAMINI.- “I too do not believe in a Supernatural Power of a God or whatever”

          My argument is that we may not believe in a Higher Authority, but when disaster strikes it is ‘Human Nature’ to seek help from something, anything, even if it seems irrational!

          Do some Insight Meditation and you will understand in your Heart, this need even if your Rationality tells you otherwise.

          Mind you, I am not saying we should believe in a GOD, but that there is a need for someone like HIM/HER in our Subconscious, evolved there in our Journey from the Primeval Sea!

          We will only understand the Truth when we reach Enlightenment.

    • 0
      0

      Prof Charles Savan,

      Why do you need God?

      To maintain Priest, Mullah and Monk hegemony, fool the people and sell indulgences.

      The facts do not support the scriptures.

      Please listen below.

      DNA Mysteries – The Search For Adam – National Geographic Docu

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azWJPHypAeg

  • 2
    1

    The human jungle has been created only by those who believe in God,talk about peace,love,and truth.

    Compared to that jungle, nature’s jungle is simple and sensible.
    In nature animals do not kill their own kind other than for survival.
    But in the so call civilized human one,man kills for ideals and believes.
    That is the difference.
    That is the reality of the only moral there is.

  • 2
    1

    Be good.Do good.
    If God exists,let him be.
    This is my view.

  • 2
    0

    I found an interesting and thought provoking presentations in a book written by Dr. Walpola Rahula titled “What the Buddha Taught”. These are:

    1. “If you were to ask him (Buddha) “What is the beginning of God” he would answer without hesitation “God has no beginning”. The Buddha says: “O bhikkhus,this cycle of continuity (samsara) is without a visible end,and the first beginning of beings wandering and running round, enveloped in ignorance (avijja) and bound down by the fetters of thirst (desire,tanha) is not to be perceived” (page 27)

    2. “The idea of moral justice or reward and punishment arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgement, who is a law giver and who decides what is right and wrong. The term ‘justice’ is ambiguous and dangerous and in its name more harm than good is done to humanity” He continues “The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect of action and reaction; it is natural justice, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment. Every volitional action produces its effects or results.” (page 32)

    3. “According to some religions, each individual has such a separate soul which created by God, and which finally after death, lives eternally either in hell or heaven, its destiny depending on the judgement of its creator. According to others, it goes through many lives till it is completely purified and become finally united with God or Brahman, Universal Soul or Atman from which originally emanated”

    He continues “Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such Soul, Self or Atman. According to the teachings of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world. (page 51)

    4. “The Buddha’s teaching does not support this ignorance,weakness, fear and desire, but aims at making man enlightened by removing and destroying them, striking at their very root. According to Buddhism, our idea of God and Soul are false and empty” (page 52)

    In retrospect I found another interesting interpretation of this concept of God as: “You begin to reawaken your natural energy, curiosity and wonder rediscovering a place within yourself where you are strong, clear and whole – Some name this place “Soul” or “Spirit”. Some call it our “Inner Light” which softens the darkness in our hearts. Others call it the “Divine or the Beloved”. Still others describe it as our true nature or our Buddha Nature. Many of us simply name it GOD”.

    How about directing the attention of our Leaders to the above and ask them to ‘meditate’ at least few minutes every day. This world will be a fresh and wholesome place to live and die

  • 1
    0

    “‘Doctrine’ may be divine but ‘religion’ is human”

    I say Religion is always divine and doctrine is always human.

  • 4
    0

    A fine essay. For Sri Lankans who are rabidly intolerant of religions other than one’s own, the message is there in the sentence “people are willing to fight for their religion; even to die for their religion, but few actually live their religion”.

    • 0
      0

      Wickramasiri – re your statement “Sri Lankans who are rabidly intolerant of religions other than one’s own,”

      They are not only intolerant of other religions, but even other interpretations of the same religion, except for their own version of it!
      e.g Mahayana, Zen, which would probably be closer to the Buddha’s Teaching than The Sri Lankan Version.

  • 0
    0

    A thought provoking article. Here is another quote from Einstein that might be of interest to the religionist.
    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this.”
    (Ref: Einstein’s ‘God Letter’ fetches US$3M opening bid on eBay. National Post, Toronto, 2012)

  • 0
    0

    We don’t need anyone to tell us how to conduct our lives, because Mother Nature has given each of us, however illiterate we are, our own guide – our individual, inborn conscience – which She justifiably expects us to use in good faith, not with spurious self-justification for our morally wrong actions.

    Unlike man-made Gods She is not humane. She is more like the blindfolded goddess of justice where logical laws of nature, both physical and moral, prevail. Woe betide to those who ignore their conscience which She gave us – not to all the other creatures she created. [For more on this topic, please read my article “Afterlife: True or False” dated 19 July 2013 in Colombo Telegraph archives.]

    Mr S. Mahalingam

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 300 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically shut off on articles after 10 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.