Place of religion in public schools: Part 2

Rohit Dhankar

[As “Part 2” in the title indicates his post is in continuation of the earlier one with the same title.]

After the little discussion on secularism and freedom to practice and preach one’s religion in a democracy we can proceed to the second set of questions.

Meaning of religion—

  1. Isn’t dharma the knowledge of right and wrong? Then how can we be secular? Every one needs the knowledge to distinguish right from wrong.
  2. What is religion? What is the difference between ‘religion’ and ‘dharma’?

Secularism is translated into Hindi as “dharma-nirapekhshta”. Dharma-nirapekshata is also understood as ‘unconcerned or indifferent to dharma’. If dharma is interpreted as moral duty or morality or ‘knowledge of right from wrong’ then indifference to moral principles or moral duties becomes the same thing as ‘dharma-nirpekshata’. But how can one live in a society as an amoral being? Thus the question.

This confusion arises out of the use of term ‘dharma’ for religion. Dharma has several—one feels too many—meanings in Sanskrit, and is used in almost all those meanings in Hindi as well. Some of these meanings are close to religion: religion, faith, denomination, sect. As in Hindu-dharma, Tantric Pantha, Islam dhama, etc. Others are close to morality: righteousness, duty, merit, virtue. As in ‘it is dhama of the Raja to protect his praja’ or ‘it is a father’s dharma to get his children educated’. Still others indicate law and rights; and still more indicating properties or nature of something: nature, quality, attribute. As in ‘the dharma of water is coolness’, the dharma of agni is to burn’. In Hindi textbooks properties of matter are called ‘guna-dharma’.

In ‘dharma-nirapekshata’ the term dharma is actually used in the sense of pantha, majahab, religion, samyradaya. Thus it is pantha-nirapekshata or sampradaya-nirapekshata; and not indifference to duty or moral principles. What is happening here is that the term dharama is being interpreted in a sense it is not intended to. When we talk of ‘Hindu-dharma’, ‘Bodh-dharma’, ‘Islam-dharma’, etc. we are using the term dharma as an equivalent to religion, majham, pantha. One can be nirapeksha of religion without being indifferent to morality. But very often this question is asked to deliberately confuse the debate, rather then as a genuine point in a dialogue. In such cases the person asking the question already knows the different we have delineated above, but still makes the point to show that secularism in impossible. I am not sure if the question here was not just for the sake of asking, rather than being a genuine issue in the dialogue.

That brings us to: what is religion? First I will try to give a short answer and then will try to elaborate upon it. To start with we can say that religion is a system of beliefs. The religious belief-system provides the believer with purpose of life, principles to direct her conduct, principles to organise society and polity, and a world view to make sense of her existence and experience. Humans are sentient beings. Sentience includes at the least: intelligence, self-awareness and consciousness. A self-aware intelligent being can not help but ask such questions as: what am I? Does my life have a purpose? What is this world? What is my place in this world? What is good human life? Though these questions may not be always be asked at a conscious deliberative level, answers to them are always assumed in human life. The religion as a belief-system provides answers to these and similar questions.

Religion, though, is not the only belief-system that provides answers to these questions. There are several other kinds of belief-systems available to modern humans what do the same job, and better, in the eyes of some. For example: atheism, rational belief systems of various kinds that do not use religious belief-systems, science being included. Actually philosophy actively seeks answers to the very same questions without necessarily being religious. Therefore, just by saying that religion is a system of beliefs we are not providing a good enough definition of religion. We need criteria to distinguish a belief system that is religious from one that is not.

But before we jump into these difficult waters lets dwell a bit on understanding what a belief-system is. A simple—but good enough for our purpose—definition of belief could be: belief is a claim about something that we accept as true. Something as simple as “trees need water to grow” is an example of a belief if we accept it to be true. We may take a number of beliefs like: “Trees need soil, water and air to grow. They grow from seeds. Humans use various parts of trees for their own purposes. They purify air. If all the trees die human race will also die out.” These beliefs taken together could be called a belief-system about trees. Therefore, any world-view that we form to make sense of our life, experiences, purposes, desires, et al is a belief-system. As per this definition a political ideology, scientific explanation of the world, philosophical systems, etc. all are belief-systems. As mentioned above, present day humans due to being self-aware and intelligent can not live without a belief-system; be that implicit or explicit to her/him. They form their beliefs on the basis of experience of nature and living in a society. Language plays an important role in all this; perhaps the most important role as a belief can not even exist without language.

Now, perhaps, we can come back to our question: how do we distinguish a religious belief-system from a non-religious one? In other words: what is the difference between, say, a political ideology and a religion? Between a philosophical explanation of the world and life and a religion?

Unfortunately no perfect answer is available. But we can try to construct a reasonable and useful one. Often, it is claimed that the idea of God is central to a religious belief system. But Buddhism and Jainism do not seem to necessarily recognise the need of a God. However, even in them there is a clear tendency to raise their founders and other realised ones to the level of divinity. Still, the God cannot be taken to be a necessary part of religious belief system.

The best indicator perhaps is belief in after-life. All religions have belief in some or other form of life after death. None thinks that the human life ends at death. Hindus, of course, are famous for belief in rebirth, haven and hell. Islam does not believe in rebirth but does hold that humans will attain haven or hell as per their religious merits. Christianity also believes in haven and hell. Buddhism does not believe in haven or hell, but does believe that life does not end at death, unless one attains nirvana. It believes that as long as we live dukkha will remain; the only way to end dukkha is to merge into maha-shunya, nothingness. In sum: it seems all religions believe in life after death, some with hope for better world, some with trepidation. What I have written above about life after death in various religions is rather rudimentary and crude, not a detailed and accurate account. But enough to make the point that all religions believe in life after death. We will see below that this fact has immense psychological importance for religions. So, one criterion for a religious belief-system is acceptance of life after death.

One notices that all religions have some central dogmas which are basic to construct their belief systems. In Christianity Immaculate Conception and Christ being son of God will qualify as central dogmas, among some more. All Christians are supposed to believe in these. Similarly in Islam only one Allah and Mohammad being the last prophet are part of central dogmas. For Buddhism four arya-styas will be part of central dogmas. The nature of central dogmas in all religions is such that they can not be justified rationally, and often can not be even be refuted rationally. Therefore, have to be accepted on the bass of faith and authority. This can be seen as the second characterisation of a religious belief-system: that a religion necessarily has central dogmas that can not be rationally justifies, have to be taken on faith, and can not be questioned.

The idea of central dogmas requires two explanations. One, Hinduism as commonly understood poses a problem: there is no central dogma that all Hindus believe in. The theory of Karma (crudely put that our actions have impact on our live and eventually govern it) is often mentioned as something that comes closest to a central dogma. But not all Hindus believe in karma theory. On the face of it, then, it seems that Hinduism has no central dogma. This, however, can be explained if we see Hinduism not as a single religion but as a group of religions (panthas) with very strong family resemblance and respect for each other. I suspect, (by no means am certain on this issue so would be grateful if some one in the know informs me on this point), that Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Tantra, and other sects of Hinduism may have clearly articulated central dogmas. Another point that we should remember in this regard is that the term Hinduism is much more ambiguous than Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. Hinduism can be interpreted as a geographical term: all people living on the east of Sindhu river in the Indian subcontinent are Hindus; that is how it was employed originally. There is no surprise in fact that this land may have had several religions so close to each other and so overlapping sets of believers in them that outsiders could not see the subtle differences. Without this, or some such qualification, Hinduism as it is today, will hardly qualify as a religion in the Semitic sense of the term. Thus we can still retain the second characterization of religious belief-system if we see Hinduism as a set of belief-systems very closely related to each other.

The second point we must explain here is: rational refutation of the central dogmas. The religious minded make a lot of this fact. They would claim, for example, that the existence of the God can not be disproved rationally therefore the God exists or that there are no rational grounds for atheism. This is a fallacy. Taking lack of rational refutation of a claim to be positive proof will lead us into very serious problems. This is not the place to go into nitty-gritties of epistemology; therefore I will just give a simple counter example and rest the case. Suppose I claim that at this very moment there is a white elephant in your room which can not be apprehended through your five senses and this white elephant is controlling all your thoughts and actions. If you accept that ‘lack of rational refutation of a claim is its positive proof’ then you should believe in the existence of my white elephant in your room now. One who believes in this becomes so vulnerable that she/he can be made to believe almost anything. That will result into a total abandonment of one’s own reason and autonomy in the matters of beliefs. (And that, by the way, is the strength of or problem with religion. Whether it is seen as strength or a problem depends on the point of view one takes.)

Belief in after-life and in a set of central dogmas, then, can be taken as epistemic characteristics of religious belief-systems. Properly speaking one can collapse them into one: belief in a set of central dogmas that can not be rationally established and can not be questioned; as belief in after-life can be taken as part of the set of central dogmas. But then we will loose insight into the psychology of belief, as after-life plays a central role in that. Also, most religions are more open to debate after-life than the rest of their central dogmas.

Religions, however, are more than just epistemic belief-systems of academic interest. They are social practices and organised associations of humans as well. The belief-system has to be expressed in social life as well as guarded from enquiring human intellect. This is achieved through: 1. Formal articulating the central dogmas in a scripture; 2. having official interpreters of the scriptures; and 3. creating rituals and social practices that identify the believers from non-believers.

These three characteristics of religion as social practice have immense impact on the lives of believes as well as non-believers sharing socio-political and geographical space with them. Therefore, it is in order to make an attempt at understanding them a little better.

Religions have their scriptures that articulate the central dogmas and their implications in the social life. These scriptures are so deeply respected that they can not be criticised. The sanctity of the scriptures is a necessity to protect the central dogmas from being critiqued and questioned. They are embodiments of the central dogmas. One can easily understand this if looks at the reactions of Hindus—it is a relatively modern phenomenon—on a deviant interpretation or critique of Ramayana these days. Or, if ne notices the response of Muslims to any questioning of Koran. Perhaps Buddhists are the most relaxed in this matter.

Similarly, all religions have their official interpreters of the scriptures and dogmas. If a common man/woman tries to interpret religions scriptures in one’s own light he/she encounters a general refrain from the religious minded and their sympathisers that ‘that is not what Gita or Koran or Bible means’. One can not understand its true meaning without studying with the official interpreters. And the official interpreters develop a whole shastra called theology to interpret and rationalise the scriptures. The interpretation of the scriptures then is closely guarded, by violent force is necessary.

All religions also have their ways of worship or dhayana specific to them. Some of them specify the object of worship and its rituals very strictly; while others might be more relaxed about them. But all do have some form or other of worship. Form of worship may also change over time; a religion which has very strict specifications may relax them over time and may even change. Vedic Hinduism is a case in point. Islam admits Allah the only object of worship, and Allah even visits punishment on those who worship anything else. On the other hand, Krishna in Gita declares that whomsoever you may worship, all of it will finally go to him. Still Hindu forms of worship can be easily recognised from Islamic forms, in spite of the ‘openness’ exhibited in this statement of Krishna. These social markers of believers do not end with distinct form of worship alone. They further guide believers in their ways of living: what to eat, how to dress, how to great, and so on.

If the above analysis has any merit we can look at religions at two levels: a. At the level of belief –system; and b. At the level of social practice. Both are closely associated with each other. Historically speaking it is not necessary that the belief-system emerges first. It may have been the case in some religions that the social practice was established first and the belief-system was formulated later. The other way round is also possible: to oppose or change a prevalent social practice the belief-system may have been formulate first, to begin a new religion. But all modern religions do have these characteristic.

To summarise then, religion is a belief-system that:

  1. Accepts after-life, or in other words, life-after death.
  2. Has a set o central dogmas that can not be justified rationally, has to be accepted on faith and can not be questioned and criticised.

Religion also has a social practice aspect that is characterised by:

  1. Scriptures that articulate the central dogmas and workout their implications for life.
  2. Authorised or official interpreter(s) of the scriptures and the dogmas.
  3. A set of social practices and behaviour patterns that distinguish its adherents from other people.

I am aware that this is becoming rather long, tedious and boring for a blog. But we can not properly answer questions regarding place of religion in schools without understanding what it happens to be. Before going to the third set of questions listed in Part 1, then,  we still have to deal with two issues: 1. The impact of religions on their believers and on socio-political life in general, and 2. Contribution of religion(s) to the development of humanity. These will be the subject of part 3 in this series.

To be continued….


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