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Faith for the Faithless (Revisit)
Wisdom Letter #63 | The One About Religion
Hello and welcome to The Wisdom Project — your weekly dose of human curated wisdom in a world full of algorithmic noise.
Its Diwali — the big fat annual holiday in India. Happy Diwali to all our dear readers, may you have a very happy and prosperous year ahead.
Today we are talking about Religion.
This is a revisit of a post we did on last year’s Diwali. It talks about ideas such as faith, belief, mythology, symbolism, atheism and a need to include religion in our college curriculum.
Hope it helps you in your personal contemplations this festive season.
Do you have ‘Faith’?
Do you ‘Believe’ in God?
If not A single God, then perhaps many gods?
Or perhaps you believe in a higher power that governs the world. Or maybe some sort of superior energy that runs through all matter in the universe, uniting all of us in some mystic sense? Or are you faithless? just drifting through life without attaching any larger meaning to any of your actions.
Its heavy stuff, I know.
Religion, or Spirituality, or whatever you want to call is a very complex idea, and its often hard to describe what we feel about it.
It takes a lot of hard work to make sense of religion in our day to day lives. Hence, once we study some science, the easier choice is to discard religion rather than try to wrap our head around it. A modern secular education makes it very convenient for us to proclaim ourselves an atheist, or as is in vogue these days, an agnostic.
That’s an easy escape from having to think about the tough questions that religion attempts to answer.
The Big Questions
What do you believe in? What do you live for? what are you ready to die for?
What is the meaning of your existence, what is the purpose of your life?
Where do we come from? where are we going?
How are we born, what happens after we die? What constitutes life itself? Is life matter or energy, can it be measured like Gravity or felt like the wind?
Looking out at a summer night’s clear sky, with a million stars and an enormous moon, when we feel all small and irrelevant in the eternal dance of the cosmos, I’m sure we all have often questioned where do we fit into the whole story of the universe. A story that science can only explain the “How” of and not the “Why”.
Its overwhelming, right?
Religion in Curriculum
Organized religion has given us social order, morality and a value system that has helped our species survive and thrive for thousands of years, tapping beautifully into our tribal instincts.
Its interesting that while it works really well at a group level, at the individual level, with more and more knowledge of the natural world, it often falters in explaining the larger questions we would want answered.
But if used well, religion can help us at a personal level as well. It can help us answer, or deal with some of the most complicated questions of our lives.
Writer Marshal Poe feels religion should be taught in college. And no, not the “study” of religion, instead, he argues that colleges should teach the “practice” of religion.
Checkout his 2014 article in The Atlantic where he makes the case for teaching religion to young college students.
My favorite bit from the article—
When people ask me why this spiritual program worked for me, I usually say that it gave me a “way of life.” Without a way of life, I would say, one’s thoughts and actions tend to move at random, like water poured on a surface, spreading out and seeking the lowest places. With a way of life, I would continue, one’s thoughts and actions move in a single direction, like water poured in a channel, moving in a single direction toward a final end.
Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins has been called a ‘militant atheist’.
Over a career expanding more than 50 years he has written several books propounding evolution and criticizing the major religions of the world. Apart from being attributed as the creator of the term ‘Meme’ in his 1982 book ‘The Selfish Gene’, he has mostly been ridiculed by religious fundamentalists for almost starting the religion of modern atheism.
His latest book "Outgrowing God” is a great summation of his beliefs about religion and evolution. He meticulously takes down the major world religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism in the first half of the book. In the second half he goes on to explain how evolution can explain almost every absurdity and profundity we see around in nature, and we don’t need religion anymore.
Interestingly enough, he also explains that the need for religion in human society is also a result of our social evolution.
Its a fascinating read, and as the subtitle of the book says, its a perfect beginner’s guide to atheism.
Get the book :
While Dawkins’ atheism rejects religion outright, British philosopher Alain De Botton’s atheism wants to embrace the qualities of religion.
In his Ted Talk, Botton proposes Atheism 2.0, where we pick and choose the best features of the world religions that we love. So be it the ritualistic practices of faith, or the oratory of the sermons, or the constant repetition of key ideas day in and day out, he argues that these aspects of religion can be extremely helpful to the non-believers in making their lives better.
Watch Alain de Botton’s Ted Talk
Observe religious practices around yourself, and think about the ideas you would like to incorporate in your own personal religion.
Hindu mythology is vast. Thousands of years ago most of the ancient stories and myths were propagated via verbal traditions across generations. This lead to a lot of fluidity in ideas and personal interpretations of widely popular beliefs.
This tradition continued even after the invention of writing. And that has lead to various interpretations and perspectives on the commonly read mythological stories. In present times of course, we have Amish Tripathi interpreting the Shiv Puran and the Ramayana in his modern technology-centric view of mythology.
But perhaps the most hard hitting of such interpretations came in 1952, when renowned poet Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ wrote the epic poem ‘Rashmirathi’. It is an interpretation of The Mahabharata from the point of view of Karn, one of the most underrated characters in the traditional story.
It speaks of human grit and competence like no other piece of writing can. The expressions in the book evoke extreme emotions of rage, pain, sadness and love at different moments. Its a must if you can read a bit of Hindi poetry.
Get the book
Meanwhile, this rendition of Rashmirathi’s one of the most powerful passages by Manoj Bajpayee is beautiful. It will give you goosebumps.
Watch the video
Signing off for the weekend, here’s a quote worth pondering from Alain de Botton—
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This was Wisdom Letter #63. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 62 letters, checkout our entire archive.
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Aditi & Ayush