Dissecting Reality 101: Religion, a Poetry of Paradoxes

EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the universe. There cannot be anything that can be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is Human Truth. I have taken a scientific fact to explain this. Matter is composed of protons and electrons with gaps between them, but matter may seem to be solid.

Similarly, humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationships, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner. It is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature, and the religious consciousness of man.

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Some or the other kind of religious dimension has been found in every culture that has been studied by anthropologists. Since very many cultures have organized their understanding of the world around their religious beliefs, an exploration of ‘knowledge’ is incomplete if we don’t speak of religion.

The tendency to picture God in human terms is anthropomorphism ( which means ‘in the form of man’) and is particularly apparent in the religion of the ancient Greeks where gods are portrayed as glorified human beings. Atheist philosophers argue that, rather than God creating man in His own image (as claimed by the Bible), man created god in his own image and that we continue to project human qualities onto Him.

On the other hand, when we try to describe God using abstract terms, we run into a few paradoxes as described below:

1)      The paradox of Omnipotence: the idea of an all-powerful being is self-contradictory. Can God create a being that he cannot subsequently control? If He cannot, then there is at least one thing he cannot do, and hence he is not omnipotent. If He could create a being that could not be controlled by him, he ceases to be omnipotent anyway.

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2)      The paradox of Change:  God has traditionally been thought of as perfect. The question is, how can a God who is perfect intervene in human history as he has been thought to do? Being perfect is like being at the top of a mountain. The only direction you can go in is downwards. If God takes any action, He will inevitably become imperfect, which contradicts our assumption that he is a perfect being.

3)      The paradox of Suffering: This troubling paradox arises from assumptions that ‘God is all-loving’ (and hence would not want us to suffer) and that ‘God is all-powerful’ (and hence able to stop suffering as he has the power to do so if he chooses to)

4)      The paradox of Free-will: If God is all-knowing, then He knows not only the past and the present but also the future. This means he knows everything that is being done, was done, and will be done. This would seem to make human free will an illusion and reduce us to characters in a divinely premeditated script.

Despite their importance, religious experiences are, of course, very different from everyday experiences, and difficult (if not impossible) to verify. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wryly observed: ‘From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven, and the man who drinks much and sees snakes’. Most recently, neuroscientists have observed that epileptic seizures can result in intense religious experiences. This had led some people to speculate that St Paul and Joan of Arc may have been epileptics. Then again, a believer might say that it is possible that God has chosen to communicate to humanity primarily through the medium of epilepsy.

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There is still the question of how religious experiences should be interpreted. People tend to have visions in terms of their own cultural traditions. Buddhists do not see the Virgin Mary, and Catholics do not have visions of the Buddha. Let us look into a common topic of ‘Miracles’. A Miracle can be defined as an extraordinary event which is brought about by God’s intervention in the natural order of things. For example, if you survive a plane crash that kills everyone on board, you might say it’s a miracle you survived. This is because there is an extremely low probability that anyone would survive. However, it is worth noting that extremely unlikely events happen surprisingly often if you look at a large enough population. So, expecting someone to survive a tragedy when seen through the eyes of probability doesn’t make sense. Perhaps it makes sense to say that a miracle would be an event that is not merely unusual, but one that contravenes the laws of nature too.

To end with, let us discuss an interesting sketch by the philosopher Blaise Pascal called Pascal’s wager. He argued that a rational person ought to bet on the existence of God. The argument runs as follows: since we do not know if God exists, let us assume that the odds are 50-50. Now, consider the gains and losses of betting on God’s existence or non-existence. If you bet that God exists and you are right, you hit the jackpot- heaven. If you are wrong, then you haven’t really lost anything. If you bet that God doesn’t exist and you are right, you win nothing. But if you are wrong, it is bad news- hell. Given this distribution of potential gains and losses, Pascal concluded that a rational gambler ought to bet on the existence of God. His basic idea seems to have been that religion is ultimately a matter of practice, and that if you begin leading a religious life you will end up genuinely believing in God.

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