It is said that once an atheist and a theist debated the question of belief in God and after they finished, the atheist became a theist and the theist an atheist – showing pointlessness of usual debates on God. Buddha when asked about God responded by silence and is also by making seemingly opposite statements depending upon the questioner’s obsession with theism or atheism. To an atheist he said that only God meaning non-self/Absolute/pure Being really is and you are nothing and to the other one that there is no God as he imagined. The Bible says that only a fool denies God and the Quran implies that there is no possibility of entertaining doubt regarding God. How are we to understand heated debate on God between atheistic/agnostic scientists and believers of world religions including Islam? How come we can assert people like Russell, Hawking, Dawkins are fools if they deny God? How come we can contradict the Word of God which leaves no doubt entertainable and calls those who deny God fools? Leaving aside subjective claims, who has reason, evidence and plain common sense on his side? Has science somehow made atheism more rational choice for modern man? Answering these questions requires clarifying the terms of the debate. Here, at some risk of oversimplification, I attempt it.
Major world religions are not dependent on the view that God exists – Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism, Hinduism, all are largely compatible with silence regarding personal God – and mystical traditions talk about Godhead (Absolute/Void) rather than God that is usually contested by atheists. All the religions are wedded to a metaphysics accessible to Intellect all potentially share that affirms what is dimly intuitively known by all regarding Being/Consciousness/Intelligence. What is or may be contested in the name of reason and science by atheist scientists and philosophers is mostly:
• The God of popular religion or exoteric theology.
• One model of the Divine that posits a cosmic policeman or voyeuristic vindictive deity who threatens instead of complementing my freedom.
• A God who fills the blanks in scientific explanation, a being who intervenes from outside and encounters the world as other.
• An abstraction which one could dispute about and not feel emotive/existential bonding with.
• A King who primarily operates from otherworld or directs afterlife film, a God who has to contend with Satan as an adversary (as if Satan isn’t His left hand or his agent in a way),
• A being among other beings, who isn’t my very being/Self.
Let us ask if any atheist would fail to appreciate, in certain sense at least, the God of:
• Abraham who grounds ordinarily unalterable natural “laws” – Allah’s unalterable sunnah – such as rising of the sun in the East.
• Moses who is “I am that I am” or the witnessing consciousness we all know we are when we see without judging or identifying with any phenomena.
• Jesus who is Love something of which is experienced by all of us and in more intense manner by every mother and good spouse.
• Poets (which is Imagination of which Blake speaks) and creativity and celebration (which Hafiz and Rumi sing).
• Mystical philosophers like Simone Weil (“attention without distraction” which we, for brief moments at least, are all capable of realizing), Levinas (encountered in the face of the Other) and Stace (who is Mystery of existence or the Sacred experienced in “the sense of mysterious” as Einstein would put it or as Haldane emphasized in his statement that the universe is not just queer but queerer than we can imagine).
• Plato (who is Beauty and Truth and felt as attractiveness of the Good by every good person) of lover of beautiful things or faces).
• Upanisads (for the sake of whom all things or anything is loved, who is non-different from Me, who is Bliss we dimly know in joy or in another expression of a mystic-philosopher “sweetness of all sweet things” and “Isness of things” and “Being of being”)
• Scholastic thinkers like Aquinas (who is “What Is”)
• Scientists who try to understand how “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,” what grounds Truth and requires passion for truth and weighing evidence and
• Who/what is experienced in the depths of ourselves, where we are silent and free of ego, or in and through nature/art/moral and aesthetic dimension of the self we are endowed with that evokes wonder, irresistibly attracts, transports us to ecstasy, moves us to tears or makes us bow as in presence of saints, makes us lose ourselves in dance or contemplation or an object of work.
• Modern theologians like Tillich’s “power to be” and “ultimate concern” or whatever concerns us ultimately, and Bonhoeffer’s “the beyond in our midst.”
God has not been denied and can’t be denied in principle by any scientist or philosopher in one or more of these senses.
Neither atheists nor their critics usually deny the imperative to be moral or fail to appreciate loftiness of Socratic principle that virtue is its own reward and knowledge is virtue. Who doesn’t in principle agree that our self has a moral dimension that asserts itself in care for the other/neighbor/stranger/posterity/environment? Who doesn’t affirm, in practice at least, need for certain degree of accountability of deeds in some plane here if not elsewhere and what is the crux of scriptural demand for ethical behavior, as far as it is applied on earth, if not this? Whether we believe in survival of personality after death or not or only in some mystical/philosophical doctrine of immortality that posits survival of suprapersonal intelligence (intellect) only, none denies summon from the court of conscience and that is what is essentially required from humans for living well. What is incompatible with religion is assertion, from some pseudoscientific or less intelligent scientists or dogmatic scientism of intelligence/consciousness being dispensable for or merely incidental/ad hoc/accidental to life/universe/existence/Being and this ultimately denies logic and rationality whose champion science is supposedly, and also an assertion of absolute denial of mystery for the sake of narrowly defined rationality and thus sacred and thus the rejection of the attitude of humility and receptivity towards phenomena in all their depth/height and this results in closure of mind characteristic of dogmatic scientism. Both religion and science are to be tested in the laboratory of Life (grounded or implicated in God’ s name Al-Hayy) and whatever diminishes life and its potential to creativity, beauty, joy, wonder, celebrate, adventure in outer and inner (higher) worlds, closes channels and modalities of newer expression of human personality and let us not forget that God is the ideal pole of man and another name of what is held intrinsically valuable or good or beautiful or true.
Since religion is for saving people and not truth as such which is the prerogative of metaphysics and accessible to intellect and religion is filtered truth for consoling people that has to give concessions to different individualities and emotions of believers, the more truly intellectual we are, lesser is the scope for religious point of view (which is fall from the intellectual constant as Guenon would put it) – religions use, for instance, the term God where metaphysics uses Being and to equate the two is an error. Science if committed to truth and nothing but truth would be more comfortable with esotericism and metaphysics – many great 20th century scientists including Plank, Einstein, Pauli, Heisenberg etc. have been strongly mystically oriented. Let us accept science’s passion for truth wholeheartedly, transpose religious language back into original esoteric and metaphysical language, recognize that metaphysics and individual sciences have very strictly delimited jurisdiction and can be autonomous as Guenon noted. Scientism and fundamentalism are both united in restricting rationality and abusing intelligence.
What the Quran requires is right use of intelligence, transcending prejudices of all kinds, bringing evidence for what one believes even if it is one’s paganism or shirk, affirming unity of reality as one witnesses it, being true to our own self – ethical self and the self that seeks company of stars and beyond that is in principle accessible “empirically” or one can witness/enjoy/taste. No scientists qua being a scientist will have problems with these demands. As far as modern science lacks or abuses intelligence (“science doesn’t think” remarked Heidegger) it deserves a thrashing and that is the key thing in the critique of Heidegger, Jaspers, Schuon, Burckhardt, Wilber and many other brilliant thinkers against philosophical abuse of science or scientism. Those scientists who:
• trapped in literalist reading and ignorant of ta’wil fail to find scriptures as keys to treasures of being,
• or who imagine man to be at bottom only a clay as Satan did,
• or reduce consciousness and intelligence to what is neither conscious nor intelligible,
• deny man intellect (nous) by reducing it to reason (ratio) and the intellect access to certainty of the Absolute by virtue of very definition or constitution
are not pursuing science but a particular philosophy that may be critiqued on philosophical grounds and rightly charged with ultimately impoverishing man, emasculating culture, refusing noetic aspect of beauty and attractive power of truth that deliver us from ego or samsara. Both theism and atheism need to be transcended (“all propositions about God, including “God is” and “God isn’t” are false. For all propositions operate through concepts. And all propositions are the work of logical intellect”) and believers and their critics can agree on dignity of man thanks to intelligence that applied to moral sphere means conscience and to cognitive and aesthetic spheres means pursuit of truth (ilm, irfan) and beauty (ihsan). Man qua man is born neither theist nor atheist but a playful spirit or consciousness that seeks creative expression, knowledge, joy, love, freedom, beauty, truth, goodness. Maintaining lofty human state in this sense requires strength of critical intelligence and lofty character and this is what all great thinkers and religions ultimately demand. How true we are to this challenge is the question and not badly phrased theology of less gifted minds or anti-theology in the names of religion or science respectively. Theology needs to be taught as autology (science of Self) and we bring otherwise warring camps of science and religion closer.