Religious Romanticism: rationality need not apply

“One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. …[This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. that they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”
– H.L. Mencken, American Journalist and cultural critic
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

When I was a freshman in high school (around 2005-06), the “New Atheist” movement was beginning to take hold on the internet and in real life. For those who may not know, New Atheism approximately began with Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion and soon snow balled into many more authors with many of their own books and ideas. Along with Dawkins, the other big authors included the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Now, atheists (as we define them today) have existed since organized religion and theology began, and non-religious rationalism really took hold during the Age of Enlightenment; but what differentiated the New Atheists from the non-believers of centuries past was their approach to religious belief. No longer was there to be any respect or mutual understanding between relgiious and non-religious world views. Instead, religion was outdated, barbaric, and those who adhered to it were stuck in the dark ages. Non-belief in religion was a sign of a superior intellect and essentially should be the next stage in human cultural and social evolution.  While these ideas still exist to this day, I’d say that the prevalence of New Atheist ideals, by in large, fizzled out from the mainstream around 2011-12.

I bring this up, because in high school I was the quintessential angry teenage atheist. Angry at God for being cruel. Angry at Christians for being anti-gay, anti-woman, and anti-science. Above all else, I was angry at the irrationality of religion and couldn’t understand how people could still believe in all of that in the then current year of 2006. When Richard Dawkins and New Atheism at large came onto the scene, it was a field day for me. “Yeah, this will show them how stupid their beliefs are!”

Lo and behold, nearly 10 years later and I now know that is not at all true. There is a deep history and study of scholasticism in the western religious traditions (Thomas Aquinas comes into mind) and the great Acharyas of India made debate and logic into an art form in and of themselves. Religion and theology aren’t just something which exist for stupid people to blindly follow. There’s a deep philosophy at their core and profoundly deep reasons as to why some theologies stuck around and others faded away. Does this mean that blind faith doesn’t exist? Of course not, but it certainly flies into the face of the idea that religion is inherently irrational.

sankara-debating

I’d love to see Adi Sankara and Dawkins debate. Pay money, even. 

 

Yet with that said, a question comes to mind: Why is it so bad if religion is potentially irrational?

I don’t mean that scholasticism and scholars of religion shouldn’t exist and do their jobs. In this day and age, experts of religion are still very much needed. But in the actual practice of religion, why is it bad that the beliefs themselves “don’t make sense?”

The average person isn’t a scholar. Regardless if they follow the same religion in which they were raised or converted to another, the majority of people know why they believe, but can’t define it by logic or empirical means. For many atheists, this is a point of contention in which religion becomes mute. Yet you know who would probably agree with me? The great mystics and saints of the past and now. For these great men and women, despite the reality of the world, there was an undeniable essence behind it all. Many of whom went against the norms of their age to transcend the boundaries and reach the Divine in any way they can. They were, at best, highly “irrational” in their beliefs and perspectives. However, they still were challenging the very notions of what faith, God, love, and theology mean. Many of whom are still big influences in this day and age  (Teresa of AvilaIgnatius of LoyolaChaitanya Mahaprabhu, and Ramakrishna). In their irrationality of belief, the world suddenly makes sense.

I’d make the argument that theology has a scholastic postulate, but faith in and of itself is at its core romantic. We can argue ’til we’re blue in the face as to how God can exist or the importance of certain theological points. But in the end, for the average believer, it’s the “why” that trumps the “how.” Emotion and love which trumps the mind and the objective. Besides, there are plenty of irrational things which exist in this world, yet are often lauded and celebrated. Art, love, poetry, and philosophy are what immediately come to mind.

Art and poetry are so subjective and can greatly challenge the norms of a given time. Love has brought great men and even empires to it’s knees, and often the only thing it can promise is a broken heart. Yet, love is something that most people yearn for and crave more than anything else. Philosophy, one of the bedrocks of western civilization, starting all the way back in ancient Greece, asks questions which can never be truly answered, yet people can and will accept them without question. Who the hell knows if there truly are multiple universes or if all matter is only made of one substance?

Does this mean that religion is off limits from criticism? Of course not. There are plenty of things about religion which have been rightly criticized and reformed over the years. However, when keeping that in mind, perhaps it’s those in power who have used religion to harm others that is the problem. Not the mere belief of the average citizen just trying to make it in life.

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