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An Open Question

God in the Age of Atheism

Tabish Khair ( teaches at Aarhus University, Denmark and is the author of The New Xenophobia, 2017.

Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism by Haulianlal Guite, New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2017; pp xxxvi+378, ₹ 559.

In his foreword to Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism, C K Mathew, the former chief secretary of Rajasthan, calls it a “masterpiece” and expresses astonishment that the author is a young man “not yet thirty.” Perhaps the matter is not that of astonishment, for the book is on a topic that only an ambitious young man “not yet thirty” would dare to tackle: God.

Haulianlal Guite approaches the matter from various disciplinary perspectives, but mostly by way of an eclectic reading of philosophy and science. It might not be a “masterpiece” but the author has to be commended for his intention, effort and ambition.

More specifically, this is also a book of the times. With religion storming the bastions of society and even banning science—consider, for instance, the effective prohibition on teaching Darwinism and evolution in some states of the United States (US) and West Asia—scholars, who had long forgotten about religion as a sociopolitical force, have had to return to the matter of God. Marxists like Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Žižek are engaging fruitfully with religion now. Even the new atheists—with their staunchly faithful dismissal of God—can no longer afford to ignore religion: the fact that some of them get so upset at the unprovable existence of God proves it. In that sense, Guite’s book is at the tip of a burgeoning trend.

Despite his recourse to a vast selection of texts, Guite approaches God and a/theism with two texts always in mind: Plato’s dialogues and the Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. Guite’s Confessions of a Dying Mind combines the two in its structural allegiance: it is a “novel” that consists of dialogues between a dying man and an angel/hallucination, named Walker. This is again an ambitious choice, but it is not certain that it works: Can the largely prescriptive and eventually monologic structure of Plato’s so-called dialogues be turned into the dialogic—multivocal—form of a novel? I also fear that Gaarder’s excellent bestseller is a dangerous model, for it is surreptitiously based on standard courses of high school philosophy as taught in Norway, while Guite is venturing into unknown pedagogic territory. Still, the effort has to be praised, and it leads to some interesting arguments, many of which, as is the case with Plato’s questions in his dialogues, are already slanted towards a certain resolution.

Let us take this extract, in which we are presented with “Walker’s Sixth Dilemma: Is there a way, a criterion, to definitively distinguish the real and the unreal?” (p 62):

“But there are other good criterions that will help us distinguish the real from the unreal. For example, the idea of a shared reality—of a reality shared by many people,” he suggested.

Walker shook his head.

“It won’t work,” he disagreed. “Otherwise, there would be no such thing like hallucinations and mass delusions, split personalities and schizophrenics.”

“But these people don’t share their experiences. It is they and they alone who has them,” Dyers objected.

“Not from their perspective, my dear Dyers. Not from the point of view of the patient. When they hallucinate, they do not see them as unreal images of their minds, but as truly real.” (p 63)

Apart from the rather insipid language of the dialogue, this is an idea that has been repeated more often than it deserves to be, sometimes in complex ways by great philosophers, for instance, when Friedrich Nietzsche questioned whether the cause comes before the effect, because we only look for a cause after feeling the effect. From various kinds of idealist religious beliefs, it has also seeped into much of recent postmodernism and, now, contemporary politics, as “alternative truths” and “fake news.” The problem with all such arguments—and God, when negotiated within such arguments—seems to be their ultimately closed nature. At best, it represents a kind of sophistry. Reality, which is always negotiable, is never settled by a single or a singular indicator. Or, in other words, reality is not “closed;” it is open on all sides—both its dismissal and its proof. That is why the fact that the Wright Brothers built a plane is history and the fact that Ravana had a flying vehicle is a story. The day enough and credible indicators of Ravana’s flying vehicle are made available, it would become history. Until then, alas, we cannot claim to have flown the first plane, no matter what Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ideologues believe, envision, feel or imagine.

The reason I choose this “dilemma” to focus on is that it represents both the essential weakness and the ultimate strength of belief in God. The weakness is this: You cannot ever disprove God, and hence people in power can get you to believe in their God. The strength is this: They cannot ever prove God, and hence you can always have no God, or a hidden God who is different from whatever God is in power. In Guite’s case, however, one does not really know what his God is, though one senses a degree of tolerant impatience with atheistic ideas.

Sweeping Convictions

It is difficult to review a book like this, for one cannot engage with each of its arguments, all of which are taken from other sources: Not only does the ambition of this book makes a comprehensive review difficult, but also the fact that it draws upon convoluted ideas and complex texts (but tries to put them in simple language) makes it impossible. However, in general, the book struck me as interesting in parts and perhaps too self-assured in other parts. At times, this can lead to sweeping and slightly incorrect statements. Let us take this extract:

One of the oldest question mankind has ever asked since he came out of the caves, perhaps even the oldest of all, if indeed he came out of the caves, is the question of God’s existence. […] At first the questions were worldly, and the beings inquired about were themselves creatures. Except that they were spirits, perhaps even winds, the stones and the rocks, and the mountains too, animated in his image. Then the queries became more complex, and such beings were seen to control nature […] Not long after, mankind began wondering whether the supernatural world exists. This first happened in India, expressed through such writings like the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda and the Upanishads in general. (p 208)

Despite the obvious ghost of Max Müller in this extract, its vast sweep and absolute conviction of its own truth rings a familiar and somewhat unpleasant political bell in my head. This is sad: while there is no certainty that thinking critically about the supernatural started in India, there is absolute certainty about the fact that the Rig Veda was not “writing.” It existed in oral forms before being written down.

In general, scholars have avoided talking about God, and for good reason. Even in ordinary life, it is common to avoid talking of God, unless you are a devout believer or a fervent disbeliever. In reasoning circles, God is usually not discussed too much because he is impossible to define. Your God is not my God, unless, of course, we are united by a system of devout belief or a system of fervent disbelief. And even in that case, one can argue, that both my God and your God will actually be someone else’s God. As scholars such as E B Taylor have rightly noted, belief in God is not even compulsory in all religions: Buddhists, for instance, as Guite notes too, can operate without any necessary concept of God. That is why Taylor defined religion not as belief in God, but as “belief in spiritual beings.” And even this does not always apply.

Though religion is by no means a solid subject to grasp, it seems more amenable to reasoned—as well as scientific and scholarly—discussion. Hence, scholars and scientists tend to discuss religion more often than God, despite the rise of the new atheists in response to various religious fundamentalisms, which has followed the Newtonian law of action–reaction. However, Guite’s book basically discusses theism—and hence God—and that too without footnotes. This is a very difficult endeavour, fraught with pitfalls, though I respect the attempt.

‘Thoughtfully’ Religious

Like Guite, I too have a quarrel with those who want to convince me that God exists and those who want to convince me that God does not exist. That is so because, often, I see very little difference between them. I also see a world of difference between them and those who doubt or do not doubt the existence of God, without the desire to impose their doubt or lack of doubt on others. There is much in common between the religious who believe in a God they can never fully comprehend and doubters who doubt that such a God exists in a universe they can never fully comprehend. Just as there is much in common between those who claim that they know the mind of God (and hence impose it on others by force or persuasion) and those who dismiss God in the name of some greater knowledge, just as hubristic and misleading, and impose that knowledge on others by persuasion or force. It has to be noted to the credit of the latter that they have less often imposed their conviction by force.

To be militantly religious, you need not chop off heads, though some of the militantly religious do so too. You are also militantly religious if you are so convinced of your notion of God that you need to impose it on others, even if it is just my persuasion, by conversion. As against these, you have the thoughtfully religious—I avoid the word “truly,” as it has been misused by the militantly religious for centuries now. The thoughtfully religious might have a deeper faith in their God, but they are aware of their human fallibility and the basic “sacrilege” of claiming to know God or act and speak on God’s behalf, and hence they keep their faith, like a fragile treasure, to themselves. Similarly, avoiding the limiting “agonistic,” I prefer to contrast the militantly atheistic to the thoughtfully atheistic. The thoughtfully atheistic may be agnostic, that is riven by doubts about God, or they may be as convinced as the militantly atheistic that God simply does not exist for them. But, aware as they are that religion is a matter of belief and human knowledge is limited (though capable of improvement), the thoughtfully atheistic live with their doubt and do not make a political slogan of it. They are aware that there is at times little difference between championing faith and championing doubt. In this the thoughtfully religious share with the thoughtfully atheistic a true appreciation of the endlessness of the realities—God, universe, science, etc, whatever it may be termed—out there, and their own limited capabilities to comprehend it and themselves.

I have always wanted to write a book covering those matters. No longer being 30, I suppose I never will. Guite is to be commended for writing a book in which he is moved by a similar concern to tackle a necessary and much-muddied topic. Though I cannot help but wish that he had waited a few more years before publishing this book, perhaps after some revision. But, of course, then the book might have remained unwritten, just as I hesitate to write one on God at my age of 50-plus.



Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018


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