By Mahmood Jawaid
In his article in the Sunday Gazette-Mail earlier this month, lawyer Perry Mann suggested priests and rabbis should confess that “they were not certain that there is an afterlife or a heaven and a hell or that there is a God.” He is of the view that religion is the reason for so much violence in the world.
It is true that news headlines are filled with religious violence and violent religious confrontations were common in the past, but we cannot deny the need for religion in human life. Although science has provided answers to most of the unanswerable questions of the past that were considered in the domain of religion, one thing science has failed to do is to give us a perspective of human life. Science can tell us how we came into existence, but only religion can tell us why we are here and where we are headed after death. It is only religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, that gives us a purpose. Religion looks far beyond this life, and it is this perspective that brings stability in our life. When driving a car, if we look too close to the hood, the car starts swinging right and left. Only by aiming at the horizon, can we drive straight without much swinging. Religion provides us the horizon of afterlife that brings smoothness in our life.
Evolutionary biologists are of the view that religion arose from evolution. Psychiatrists Eugene d’Aquiuli and Andrew Newberg write in their book, “The Mystical Mind,” that the human mind generates gods or other “power sources” to explain unanswerable questions. They are of the view that “because it is highly unlikely that humans beings will ever know the first cause of every strip of reality observed, it seems that we will always generate gods, powers, and other entities as first cause to explain what we observe.” Even in science when we reach a point where we cannot explain a phenomenon any further, we invoke nature as the cause. Even the theory of evolution, the antithesis of religion for some, relies on natural selection to explain why certain traits are selected and why some are rejected. It is nature doing the selection. It will be fair to state that when it comes to explaining unanswerable questions, religious believers invoke the term God and scientists resort to the term nature. It is in our nature, and there is no way out.
Religions have a scientific basis. The history of religions suggests that almost all the religions originated from mystical encounters. Buddhism arose only after Buddha achieved nirvana, Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation while he was meditating in a secluded cave in a mountain, Prophet Moses had his first encounter with God on a secluded mountain, and Paul had his mystical encounter while on the road to Damascus. According to the scientific methodology, when a phenomenon is observed or experienced by more than one observer and is reproducible, it becomes a scientific fact. We all see sun in the day and stars in the night, so we believe in their existence. Things that appear real to a schizophrenic patient are considered to be non-existent for regular observers. Of course, not everything can be observed by everyone. Sometimes we need special equipment and expertise to observe a phenomenon. For example, we need a microscope to observe the bacteria and special training is required to study X-ray reports.
Mystics of different faiths have reported similar experiences when they attained the enlightened state. According to d’Aquiuli and Newberg, “Such states yield not only feeling of union with a greater force or power but also an intense awareness that death is not to be feared and a sense of harmony of the individual with universe.” Recent advances in modern physics, according to Menas Kaftos and Robert Nadeau, authors of “The Conscious Universe,” also suggest that “the universe on the most fundamental level is an undissectable whole, and that discreteness of objects must be, in some sense, a macro-level illusion.” Just as we need a telescope and scientific expertise to observe distant stars, the holistic reality of the universe can only be observed by following established meditation methodology. Einstein recognized this holistic reality when he wrote in his “Autobiographical Notes” that “[a human being] experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
The originators of religions, having experienced this unity in their enlightened vision, gave us a code of life that rises above our personal desires. The difference in religions arises from the cultural translation and distortion of those visions. In recognition of this unity, the Holy Quran states: “Those who believe [Muslims] and those who are Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians: whoever believes in God and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve.” (2:62 and 5:69)
Religion has therapeutic power. Last month in “New Scientist,” a writer suggested that belief alters our emotional state. He is of the view that “belief is mediated by the same neurotransmitters — for example, dopamine and serotonin — that mediate other emotions.” According to Alison Motluk, also in last month’s “New Scientist,” belief has measurable physical effects in our brains, which could affect the outcome of events. Evolutionary biologist Robert Dunbar, also in “New Scientist,” points to the recent sociological studies showing that actively religious people are “happier, live longer, suffer fewer physical and mental illness and recover faster from medical interventions” than nonreligious people.
Religion is an efficient tool to maintain law and order. It provides moral code to fashion our lives. Whereas governmental laws require a huge apparatus for their implementation, religion provides a moral compass to achieve the same.
Religion serves as glue to keep the society together. Religious rituals, according to evolutionary biologist Dunbar triggered the release of endorphins. Since most of these rituals are performed in a group, the endorphin rush makes participants feel good about their group members and promote a sense of camaraderie.
The strength of religion is also its weakness. The religious beliefs are based on the certainty in the unseen. But the same certainty prevents its believers from accepting the beliefs of others. Adherents of every religion feel that their view is the absolute view. It allows no room for other faiths and has sometimes resulted in mayhem. What adherents of every faith need to understand is that religion, according to d’Aquiuli and Newberg, arose from “human need to order the universe into meaningful patterns” to explain the ultimate aspect of reality. Since each region and culture is unique, they will each have different view of the same reality. Even if we are born in the same faith, we may agree on major issues, but will still differ on minute issues. There is a lot of truth to the old saying: “if there are two Jews, there will be three opinions.”
There is one absolute reality. Each of us has a different view of the same reality. We must all recognize this diversity. The Holy Quran has said it very well: “O mankind! God created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other. Verily the most honored among you in the sight of God is he who is the best in conduct.” (49:13). The Holy Quran in order to promote religious tolerance and harmony reminds us: “Did not God check one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure, would assuredly have been pulled down.” (22:40)
Jawaid is a writer who lives in Dunbar.