Tuesday, September 07, 2010

2. Faith

Deamon God

The tyranny of dogma

The stagnation of a culture or civilization, is often described by historians as its 'dark ages'. It is the inevitable outcome when the outflow of new ideas is stemmed by a slavish attachment to old ones. The shadows of time lengthen as the illuminating evolution of thought is driven to a standstill by tradition, where civilisation itself is held hostage by out-dated perceptions. This strangulation of a civilization's creative output has often coincided with - because they have often been the result of - dominance of religious or dogmatic faith within the political power structure.

A religion's demand of an unquestioning belief in its doctrines, in itself, is not only acceptable but may even be necessary for a person's spiritual growth; the same way that a training routine and a rigorous coaching regime is necessary for athletes to hone and improve their skills. Yet, religious doctrines which have enjoyed monopolies in satisfying our 'need to believe' has been exploited by politicians who had a keen interest in exercising total control over their subjects. Religious faith, where it has been used to claim political power and justify its execution, has enabled rulers to enforce their demand for compliance on a broader population. In most - if not all - of the present and historic examples we have, leaders who had both a religious backing to claim and maintain political power, have had far less incentive to be tolerant of those who dared challenge the political and religious dogmas they sponsored.

Political oppression that was sponsored by religious dogma has done much more to destroy our trust in religion than it has done to tarnish our trust in politics. The reformation, which was a religious movement both in its inception and at its core, when it swept through Europe and much of the world, has been unseating monarchies and dictatorships and establishing republics in its wake since the middle ages. Centuries on, the questioning spirit of the reformation has not only been democratising the political sphere of humanity, but has also led to the resurgence of the human intellect in the creative arts as well as the pure and applied sciences.

Ironically, this spirit of free inquiry that was borne out of the religious reformation, which actively encouraged subjecting dogma to reason, has led our threads of logic and reason on a collision course with the very foundations of what constitutes all 'faith'. Though aided and enabled by the manipulative power of religion, the oppression of free inquiry, the violent punishments meted out to those who exercised the innate curiosity of their human intellect and the discouragement of all intellectual pursuits is essentially a political exercise. These political practices may have evolved over the years to take different forms such as media censorship, the curtailment of public funding for education and the subjugation of research and knowledge creation processes to political and commercial interests. Limiting the efforts of their intellectual resources to only meet political or commercial interests has plunged constituencies around the world at different ages, into cycles of stagnation by stifling human creativity and expression.

The political power and influence of religion over their subjects has often been used by tyrants of history to justify their persecution of those who questioned the state by alluding a direct link between political action with religious doctrine and the claim of sovereignty by the ruling classes with a Divine ordination. The collusion between religious leaders and politicians that enabled the oppression of entire civilizations across many generations has eroded our trust in religion. The practical obstacles that stand in the way of separating religion from the state that are evident even today, continues to undermine any trust that is left in both religion and politics, even after centuries of constitutional and legislative reform of the political process.

The ability to manipulate the faith of its subjects is still an essential tool for every form of government. Some politicians do so by aligning themselves with what their constituencies believes to be just and acceptable systems of distributing the wealth of a nation; be it socialism, communism or capitalism. Societies that believe in the Divine anointment of their rulers may be prone to accept dictators or monarchs while those who believe in their own sovereignty would demand democracy. The people's choice of economic and political systems is therefore based on what they 'believe' to be fair and just. No political or economic system can be absolutely fair and just, yet we accept them because of our persistent 'faith' in the ideals they espouse. Therefore, because our political choices are also based on ‘faith’, the ability of laws and processes to separate the religious influence from politics will continue to be a significant challenge as far as most of what constitutes our faith is seen to be heavily concentrated and structured within a religious framework.

Perhaps there has always been a political and evolutionary imperative therefore, to find a counterbalance to the power of religion in human society. Perhaps there was always a necessity to find something visible to believe in, that is not a deity; and be able to seek its help without having to rely on the intercessions of an organised priesthood. But we are no longer merely sentient beings. We are cognitive beings; so why ‘believe’ when we have the power to ‘know’? Our ‘recently’ acquired ability to create machines and manipulate the environment in ways that previous generations may have thought impossible, has inclined us to underestimate the existence of a greater power than ourselves or a greater knowledge than what we already know (or more modestly put; what we think we can know). Technology seems to have empowered us to believe that we are in control. Therefore it is no coincidence that the twentieth century witnessed a significant shift in the balance of power away from the religious path of spiritual inquiry into the scientific path.

On a fundamental level therefore, religion and science share these common values despite their distinctively different approaches to uncovering 'higher truth'. For all the common ground that science and religion share however, our limited comprehension of both processes have pitted them in a fierce battle by placing them at opposite ends of our intellectual pursuit of knowledge about the world and of ourselves and a meaningful justification of the role we play in it. In the absence of absolute knowledge about anything, we still have no choice but to believe in good faith, much of what we think we know; regardless of whether they are based on logical experiments or reasonable theoretical assumptions about the nature and evolution of the universe.

For centuries, our 'faith' has been monopolised by religion, but now, notably in the realms of theoretical physics and evolutionary biology, science is fighting to posses the awesome power of this singularly most essential and uniquely human, cognitive tool. Though distinctly different in their approach, they are both borne out of our propensity and need to know the unknown and make believe the unbelievable.