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Saturday, April 16, 2005

The case for religion

Kartik Ariyur?s response to the typical assertion that secular materialists (liberal-socialists) don?t need religion to be moral.

The following article is by Kartik B. Ariyur, whose comments were posted earlier in Another Reader’s Insightful Views.

Prefacing the essay, let me note that many readers have chided me for references to the classical Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Those objectors say that the only truth is that revealed in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

As a Christian, I believe that God?s Truth has been most fully differentiated (to use Eric Voegelin?s term) in Christianity.  But anyone studying Plato and Aristotle will be quite reassured by the almost exact congruence between Christianity and the Greek philosophers? ideas of the Divine order of the cosmos, human nature, and the highest and best purpose of human life on earth.

My knowledge of Eastern religions is only a thin veneer.  But it seems apparent that they all are addressing the same fundamental questions of human existence that animated the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, and the later Christians.

The conclusion that I draw from this is that there is truly a universal Divine order to the cosmos, and that human nature has been a constant from the very date of Creation.  In other words, that man everywhere, and in all societies, was created in God?s likeness.

As a Christian, I believe that God?s Truth was most fully revealed to the Hebrews and the Christians.  But I also believe that God, as the Creator of everything in the universe, has used His power to permit humans at all points in human existence to catch glimpses of Divine Truth.  Thus all Divine revelations, from whatever source, can speak Truth to us.


The case for religion?does ethics need a spiritual foundation?
By Kartik B. Ariyur

There are several arguments both for and against the need for a spiritual foundation for ethics. Through most of history, ethics has had a spiritual foundation; the very fact that civilization has advanced under the ethical self-discipline engendered by religious training gives a compelling empirical case for the need for religion. Now civilization is the process of becoming civil, i.e., of gaining greater control over the instincts of self-preservation and procreation. Without a continuing decrease of the proportion of time in which the individual is governed by the instincts and therefore unamenable to reason, or consideration of more than the immediate consequences of actions, the advance of civilization, and the concomitant advance of the division of labor and thence of prosperity are impossible. Thus, it is clear that we would not enjoy easy satisfaction of our basic needs (of air, water, food, clothing, and shelter) and many of our wants, but for the religious training of our forbears.

However, many popular interpretations of religion are inconsistent, permitting infinite discretion on the part of the interpreter (for one can establish the truth of any proposition from a contradiction; for example, 1=2 implies 1+1=2+1 or 1=3 and similarly 1=4 and so on to 1=infinity, all of which are false and 1=2 implies 1=3 and 2=3 and therefore 3=3 or 1=1 which is true), and therefore several crimes have been justified under the rubric of religion in different times and climes, continuing to the present day. The question then in the minds of many is whether ethics still needs a spiritual foundation or can other bases be found for it?

How then are we to decide on the truth? As in any inquiry, we need clear operational definitions (the performance of a specified set of actions produces specific results) of the terms involved. We can then deduce the relationships between them. The following analysis I believe, demonstrates that ethics does indeed need religion, and that this need is a logical consequence of universally observable facts.

I first proceed to clarify the meanings of the words religion and ethics. There are several definitions of religion that are in circulation?these are either unclear or circular. However, the etymology of the word (from Latin religare?to restrain, tie back?see Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary) yields the meaning of religion as that which binds. The question that then naturally arises is: what is it that binds us all if any such objective exists? Observation shows us that all men are seeking happiness (by which I mean security of existence), and they perform different actions to attain this end. Note that this happiness presumes existence of the objects of the senses and consciousness to feel secure or indeed to perceive anything as do all of our processes of thought.

A murderer or robber believes his happiness to lie in killing or theft respectively; a libertine believes happiness to lie in sensual pleasures; many believe happiness to lie in raising a family and practicing some trade and still others believe it to lie in serving others. The list is long, but none would deny the objective of happiness (be it through altruism or crime or hedonism).

The differences among men thus arise not in whether they want happiness, but in how they choose between different courses of action to achieve greater happiness. This naturally brings us to the subject of ethics?how do we determine in what lies our own good, and differentiate it from that which is detrimental? To be precise, the good I define as those actions which result in increased security of existence, and by the bad, I mean those actions that result in a reduction of security. Thus, the fundamental question we need to answer is?what kinds of actions increase our security? First, our security is greater if the proportion of time in which we can control the circumstances of our lives through solving those problems which are our lot from moment to moment is greater. The control we exercise is dependent upon the extent of knowledge we can bring to bear upon the problems confronting us. Thus, the greater the uncertainty we face, the greater our insecurity, and vice-versa.

Hence, it is clear that those actions that lead to greater knowledge and therefore control over circumstances and thence security of existence or happiness comprise the good. Note that those actions that bring us long term security also bring the best results for society as well. For it is impossible for a violent man to live very long, or a liar to sustain any business or even personal relationship, or for an adulterer to have a peaceful personal life, and so on. Thus, we see that the great religious codes (such as the Ten Commandments, or the Law Codes of Manu or the Eightfold Path of the Buddha) are essentially rules for avoiding unhappiness and suffering, both in individual life and in society as a whole.

This naturally leads us to the question of what are the actions that lead to greater knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge arises from the application of concentrated attention in our activities?whether physical or mental, as every schoolboy and individual earning his living finds through experience. Thus, the more complete the concentration of the attention to the exclusion of distractions or irrelevancies, the greater the number of facts absorbed through observation, inference, and intuition in a given period of time. This concentration of the attention is identical to the renunciation of immediate desires and their gratification in favor of long term security of existence or happiness. The attainment of this persistent concentration is the result of the practice of the above renunciation over long periods of time. Hence, if one is bound by the instincts, i.e., driven by instinct born desire to act under the influence of environment regardless of the consequences, one cannot attain the ability to concentrate and thereby acquire knowledge, and happiness.

The final question is of how we can practice this renunciation of immediate gratification to attain abilities of concentration. This renunciation is possible only if we have access to some perception that is immediately and significantly more tempting than any other temptation. Of all of our different perceptions, we find that the feeling of love, ranging from that with relations (usually conditioned by blood), to that in marriage (usually conditioned by sex), to that in pure friendship (unconditional because friends choose each other without the intermediary of any instinct), produces the greatest happiness or joy. This feeling of love is universal to men of all nations. To describe it physiologically, we can say it is that feeling that results in an immediate slowing down or calming of the heart and breath, the complete relaxation of the body and a concomitant increase of vitality (or the reduction of fatigue). In this state of calm joy, we find that we act with great prescience?as known to anyone who has experienced love?even if once in a lifetime.

The fact that physical fatigue can be immediately banished by just the feeling of love (which eases the efforts of loving fathers and mothers working for their children by freeing them from fatigue), gives us a hint of a non material source of energy accessible to all of us. This feeling, if sufficiently intense also immediately provides knowledge of the condition of the loved one irrespective of location?a possible hint of our potential Omniscience. Thus, this feeling intensified automatically enables deep concentration and intuitive perception.

The cultivation and intensification of this feeling is the object of religious practice?time-tested methods of self-discipline and self-control perfected over the millennia by religious experimentation, selfless service to others, and meditation upon the very Source of the Love that we feel for our loved ones. These methods are known to increase the powers of concentration of all men, faster than any other methods because of the irresistible nature of love. Since they are backed by the evidence of recorded religious experience through thousands of years continuing through today, there is no reason we should not at least test them out in education. Certainly for the complex situations we encounter in modern life, we need deep concentration to act ethically (for our highest good), and this concentration is possible for all men (as opposed to a few) only through the cultivation of love.

Finally, the cultivation of love also enhances our intuitive ability?the source of all great art and science. Hence, the universal cultivation of this love in educational systems will bring about much greater developments in all fields of endeavor, besides raising prosperity through raising ethical standards.

Acknowledgements: The arguments in this essay borrow heavily from the talk, ?The Science of Religion,? given by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1920 in Boston (and still in print) in the International Congress of Religious Liberals (before this word was perverted in the USA). One of the purposes of this meeting was to make evident the spiritual foundation of ethics in all lands and thereby bring about the universal adoption of that foundation in all aspects of life. The following web page provides details about the aims of the International Congress of Religious Liberals (though the rest of the site appears devoted to goals opposite to those mentioned in this invitation), at which this speech was given.

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