Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yours Faithfully

As humans, we have great fun applying labels on each other, including ourselves. Indian! American! Left-centric. Socialist. Gooner. Red Devil. On-Facebook. Not-on-Facebook! Hindu. Muslim. Christian. Monotheist. Atheist. Agnostic. Believer. The list is endless, and we discover new ones to label ourselves with each day. But, perhaps the one labeling that has stood the test of time is the one related to one's belief in God. The Wikipedia page on Theism presents one with the remarkable array of labels one can apply on a "believer".

Let me define the terms of engagement briefly, as I see them.

Theist: Believes in at least one God, most often a personal God, that has been accepted as the creator of the Universe and as the one responsible for its governance or maintenance.

Atheist: Believes that there is no need for a God entity to explain the Universe, and that rigorous logical analysis (Science) satisfactorily answers all questions the human mind can raise about the world around us.

Agnostic: Believes that they do not have sufficient knowledge to choose sides and perhaps even admit that they may never have an answer to questions regarding the Universe.

Once you try to dissect these terms however, it is remarkable how all the arguments seem to sound similar, except in the final mental image they seek to achieve.

Fundamental Basis of Belief
It would be difficult to deny the fact that what category we fall under when we try to label ourselves with one of the 3 labels listed above has much to do with how we were brought up and what kind of influences affected us through life. There is absolutely no link between education levels and a lack of belief in God. It is wrong to say atheists are usually highly educated. and vice-versa. I have met physics majors, deeply involved in Quantum Theory, who are devout Christians at the same time.

If one has parents that actively practice some religion, it is but natural that they will be introduced early into a life surrounded by theories about God and related religious beliefs. In families where reasoning and questioning is encouraged, children seem to grow up free of any imposed religious beliefs, but this does not imply they couldn't be affected by an influence later in life - a book, someone wise whom you respect, a tragic event. Ultimately, it all comes down to what you believe in. Some idea forces itself into your head, and you mull over it long enough to actually start believing it.

I Believe in Science
To the atheists who claim - "I believe in Science, and Science has proven there is no need for an entity named God to explain the Universe and human creation. You give me a question, Science will find an answer - Evolution, Big Bang, Gravity." - I ask, do you really understand as much of Science as you believe in? Do you really understand how Gravity works? Do you really still think matter is made up of spheres with revolving electrons and a sun-like nucleus in the middle, and by dissecting these "particles" someday we will know what the "God particle" is? Have you heard of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and how it throws a spanner in the works of any "scientific" observation or experiment? Or is it that you believe that the scientists are smart and intelligent, and you would rather hedge your bets on such intellects compared to the medieval saints who "meditate and levitate".

Ask any established Physicist, and they will tell you that Physics has hardly made any significant breakthrough in the last 80 years. The problems have become a lot harder than the ones we started out with - observations have not answered all our questions, but have instead thrown forth new and much more difficult ones. The very essence of Quantum Theory screams "I am not sure, but I can give you deterministic probabilities". It doesn't surprise me that so many Physicists eventually realise they may not get an answer in their lifetime, and try to seek solace outside Science at the same time as they pursue their research.

I Believe in a Supreme Force
It's hard to put forth examples about the hollow and shallow nature of religion as a whole without hurting particular sentiments, so I must desist from doing that. One thing is clear though - if there was a God, my God would not have to be superior to yours. Most of what we call religion can be summed up as a really "dumbed down", generally applicable abstract of what their founders meant for it to be, and too focused on "rules and practices" for a reasoning human to accept freely. When children ask their parents about some peculiar practice they notice during a festival or worship, we scold them for asking, instead of realising we are following something we do not understand nor dared to question ourselves. Reasoning and questioning are the most precious gifts we have inherited as humans, and what can be more insulting to the God one prays to, to forgo the gifts He has bestowed upon us?

One respects their parents and having been born in a family where both parents practice one religion with faith, one was bound to end up following in their footsteps. Another heard a preacher at a time when they were going through immense personal upheaval, and heard a bell ring and answered the calling. Yet another was preached by someone who they deemed to be morally and spiritually superior, and out of fear of retribution by said God decided to accept the prescribed religious ways.

To all Theists I say - "Have you understood what your religious founders really set out to preach? Or do you think they were preaching trivialities (like Heaven/Hell) that everyone thought they understood, and there was no need for any further inquiry? Which of the human problems - fear, wars, hatred, greed - has any preacher of God been able to overcome yet? Or did you think the problems are all because we don't all believe in the same God? Is that even possible? If I asked you to describe the qualities of God, which is ultimately an image developed and embedded in your head over time, do you think everyone else would use the same qualities to describe God as well?"

I Believe I Must Believe
The last category of agnostics, at least put up a humble front when faced with the problem by throwing their hands up and saying "I am open to more information, but I doubt I can ever reasonably come to a conclusion". The other categories label them as weak, indecisive. The one appreciative quality agnostics portray is an inquisitiveness regarding everything. They realise they will likely never get all the answers, but they regard the reasoning ability of humans to be the essence of what they want to base their lives on. Yet, in believing they can never get an answer, they find comfort in the belief that life cannot give you all the answers. It may sound to be a weaker belief, but once again, man hasn't escaped the comfort and security of believing in something.

The great philosopher Adi Shankaracharya, is known to have furious debates about Advaita - non-dualism - with other theists and atheists of his time. It is hard to get away from the fact that this was also based on a personal belief - albeit perhaps one that was reasoned by a questioning and ruminating mind after dwelling for years on ancient manuscripts.

We would all love to have answers for all the questions our minds throw up each day. It is possible there is an answer - one answer for all questions. Or there may be none that we can stumble upon in our lifetime. No matter which bracket you fall into, it may be worth considering not to ever stop questioning or reasoning. To betray a reasoning mind, is to betray yourself, the very essence of who you are. For if Shankaracharya, Budhha and other similar philosophers are right, with sufficient introspection we can arrive at a mental state where there is no past, no future, no time, no space, and all problems melt into the one consciousness. I wish you all the best in finding your personal God!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Human Face of Climate Change

Another year goes by and another UNFCC summit on Climate Change comes to an end with semi-promises agreed to and hesitant agreements made in the name of progress. Cruel, hard facts still stare at us - none of this is going to prevent temperature rise by 2C in the next 40 years - yet global leaders, expected to be strong-willed and seeking the benefit at large of their national society, cannot look beyond petty short-term gains and bargains. After the delegates have all flown home in jumbo-jets, thus adding a few more tons of CO2 each to the atmosphere, the bitter truth stares us in the face - humans cannot solve this problem until they stop being humans.

Let me point out a couple of the human aspects of this problem, as I see it.

The hunger to have more, when one already has more than enough, is something most humans can see, but cannot always act against. All around us, especially in a socially lopsided country like India, we see greed build a billion dollar mansion standing up against the slums. The rich know how to get richer, working through the system until they become the system itself, blind to any adverse effect it may have on the poor.

I wholly agree with the Bolivian president Evo Morales when he says capitalism, with its guiding principles always feeding individual greed, can never solve the world's problems - including tackling climate change. Yes, it makes the rich richer, and the poor a little less poor over time, albeit a lot slower than you can get richer. But, at what cost? Those same rich are desperate to hold on to their riches, built by burning gigatons of coal, millions of barrels of oil, chopping down forests with abandon and dumping waste where no one questions them. And so they deny climate change. Spread hoaxes to brain-wash those who are now so used to the comforts of always available cooling and heating, as well as personal transport. Lobby governments that depend on their investments not just to keep the economy moving, but also to fund political campaigns. The result, corporate greed screws the poor farmers and jungle foragers that make up more in numbers than the corporate class, but have a smaller voice of opinion.

At the global round table, selfishness really becomes nationalism - a more aggregate form of selfishness. Yet, the results are the same. The developed nations fail to look beyond the loss of economic advantage and a potential drop in the so-called "standard of living" to acknowledge other nations have more severe problems to deal with. The developing nations are caught in the trap of seeking justice, for the "right to pollute" as much as the others have for decades. The poor countries, who cannot even pollute if they wanted to, are left to negotiate over the remaining scraps.

It will be no surprise to watch a few islands disappear while other nations fail to look beyond this self-focused view of the world. Poor countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, nations in Sub-Saharan Africa will soon face devastating bouts of drought where they will struggle to save lives. Yet, the Americans will count how many Americans are affected, while the Indians will do the same. It is here where Jairam Ramesh's departure from the staid stance of waiting for the developed countries to act in the name of justice, seems so mature. The "status quo" is not good enough, and it is not too hard to realise this.

What would Gandhi do?
It is hard to guess what the Mahatma would have done today, but it would have involved sacrifice, of individual good for global welfare. He would have passionately asked Indians first to consider the choices they have - a life where they might live with all the comforts they can afford today, where they may never have to face an unnatural natural disaster, but their children will have no such choice. He would have asked those who believe that their short life isn't as important as the health of the Earth, the mother who rears us all in her womb without a sigh, to follow him. He would have then led them to sacrifice these comforts, sacrifice the security of a capitalistic economy, and work together to show the world how to live within one's means, in harmony with nature, and yet live a full and satisfied life.

He would have hoped the other nations notice this act of mass sacrifice, and Gandhis sprout up all around the world, against the oppression of the corporates who are now losing their massive markets as more people give up unnecessary comforts. Eventually, just like the whole Indian nation rose up against the British Raj, perhaps most of the world will rise up to the corporate bullies, and let the real human nature - one where we care about everyone, do not distrust other nations, and work for a collective good - shine through to solve this unique problem.

Is this just Utopia? Can humans, who have never been able to see past their petty differences for a million years, suddenly rise and solve this problem we have created for ourselves? Or are we condemned to be extinct soon, like dinosaurs, except that the dinosaurs weren't stupid enough to kill themselves.