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Religion, end to discord?



Imagine that your religion, like most religions, does not consider changing faith as a punishable offence – say, Buddhism. If one of your family members changed her religion, for example, to Hindu, but continued to live the same good life she had been living till then, would you have any objections regarding her change of faith? Is it likely that you would condemn her for what you call a disloyalty of sorts?

There is no reason why you should feel bad about it unless you think that changing one’s ‘faith’ is improper. If this family member starts living an immoral life after changing track, you have reason to be worried. However, if she does not show any decline in her conduct, you have no basis for worry unless you are unjustly biased against anyone changing one’s religion. However, most families, irrespective of their faith, would at least try their best to dissuade her from taking up a new faith. And, surely, the resistance of the family would depend on various factors including the intensity of your faith in your religion, the levels as well as the nature of education of the family members, your general outlook on life, how open-minded you are about sensitive issues and the binding nature of the decrees of your religion. The pressure your family would bring to bear on the nonconforming member would be the net result of all these factors.

If the majority were more tolerant the objection from the family is likely to be minimal and the ‘rebel’ would make the transition with no loss of face. Further, the less stringent your religion was regarding codes of discipline, the less disquieting the defection would be for everybody concerned. Now, think of a whole family changing faith. The situation would be equally disconcerting, or much worse this time, for they would incur the displeasure of a larger religious community, be it neighbours, friends or relatives. The disapproval would once again depend on the factors mentioned above and, perhaps, more. Besides, their displeasure, if not censure, would be immediate and, what’s more, it would certainly not come from any fear of the nonconformist family becoming immoral.

However, this sort of negative reaction flies in the face of what we are frequently made to believe about the civilizing nature of all established religions. Priests and laymen tell us frequently that all religions are set to make us behave more virtuously and hence we should not show any disregard to other religions. This sounds great. If these claims were genuine, no one – priest or layman – could have any difficulty whatsoever in readily consenting to any person of any faith switching allegiance at any point in his life. Sam Harris, the neuroscientist, philosopher and writer expresses the same sentiments more pointedly and with no trace of ostentation when he says, “Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality” (The Moral Landscape). In sum, morals are useful recommendations for good conduct no matter whichever religion you inherited from your parents. It’s a plea for scores of humans who remain haplessly divided by historical circumstances despite their capacity to agree on codes of behaviour based on love and compassion, which we all are capable of feeling, whichever religion we were initiated into as children by circumstances.

Suppose, religion, at its best, is a way of helping people to realize their best selves, through which they can maximize their sense of togetherness, collective well-being and happiness. As we may all agree, morals prescribed by any religion can stand on their own without reference to other religions. This is true of all religions, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. What if one were to ask why not distil the morals of all the religions practiced in your society and formulate a common schema agreeable to all? He would say that it would enable our next generation to live in a society which will not be compartmentalized by religions imposed on them by their parents whom they didn’t choose. However, such a proposition would be summarily dismissed by many of those who profess the uniqueness of each religion. Why?

The reason is, for an overwhelming majority of us religion is much more than a manual for a good life. In addition to the ethical aspect, there is, in every religion, an intricate web of worldly as well as supernatural features that engage us both physically and emotionally. Ninian Smart in his book The Religious Experience of Mankind sums up the many-sidedness of religion when he says, “it is a six dimensional organism, typically containing doctrines, myths, ethical teachings, rituals and social institutions, and animated by religious experiences of various kinds.” As the title of the book indicates, the ‘experiential’ element plays a significant role in tying us to our religion. It seems that the bewildering variety of all the above features of religion that creates the deep divisive lines between one religion and another, which we cannot circumvent easily despite our efforts to bring about religious reconciliation. Ironically, this goes against the avowed mission of all religions to make the world a better place for all humans. Our obsession with the ‘other world’ enunciated, differently, by each religion eclipses the brotherhood they seek to promote. This is sad, isn’t it? However much we reject it, don’t we have the deep-rooted feeling that our religion holds the key to truth and ‘ultimate salvation’ and thus the moral precepts of our religion have more authority compared with those of other religions? Our early indoctrination makes us feel reluctant to look at ethics as useful and modifiable standards of behaviour. It is not open-mindedness but an attitude of insularity and fussiness that robs us of the opportunity of uniting under one banner.

Let’s take the following scenario to help us understand our self-indulgent blinkeredness more objectively. Imagine that all living beings and plants were to be wiped out from this earth one of these days either by a chemical mishap or a much more virulent pandemic than the current one. It will perhaps take millions of years for intelligent beings to evolve again on earth. They will never have heard of any of our religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam, etc. However, they are sure to develop their respective religions that are likely to interpret things like good and bad which could not be detached from their irreconcilable interpretations of ‘after life.’ Now, being millions of years distanced from them, we would be able to better understand their predicament as ‘outsiders’ without sharing their emotional attachments to their religions. What advice can we offer them to make their world a place of less turmoil? The best instruction would be to urge them to formulate their morals free of religious tones so that they would avoid endless frictions that are likely to lead to disunity and enmity. We may tell them that morals work best without religious stamps on them, if our experiences are anything to go by.

Now take the train back to the present moment. If example is better than precept, what will be our first step towards a more peaceful world? It will be to encourage people to, firstly, understand the applicability of morals devoid of their religious flavour and, secondly, go easy on the non-verifiable and mutually exclusive claims about ‘after life.’ Will science be able to help us in this project?

Although science has constantly been taking over spaces occupied by magic and religion in the past, many people remain pessimistic about science ever coming to throw light on ‘after life.’ However, Yuval Noah Harari, renowned historian and philosopher, says, “In premodern times religions were responsible for solving a wide range of technical problems in mundane fields such as agriculture…when an agricultural crisis loomed…, farmers turned to the priests to intercede with the gods. Medicine too fell within the religious domain… if you were ill you were likely to go to the witch doctor rather than to the doctor…” (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Surely, unlike our ancestors, we are far too enlightened to trust religion any longer to solve our day to day problems. However, with regard to ‘after life’ we don’t seem to be that much better informed than our ancient cousins. As such, the confusion about what happens after death has caused human beings the world over to be more divided than united. All religions, as we said previously, claim to know the ultimate truth about where we would ‘go’ after death. As religions don’t rely on empirical methods of verification of this claim, it is unlikely that they will be any wiser in this regard even in the next millennium. Let’s hope science will throw some light on the issue sooner than later and save us from being divided on the basis of unverified claims till the cows come home. If consensus on ethics can unite us why let unearthly and nebulous issues thwart it?


Susantha Hewa

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Science vs religion – II



Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method. Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical.


(The first part of this article reproduced from our Asia News Network partner in India, The Statesman, appeared on 25 Nov.)

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite”, the British biologist Thomas Huxley wrote in 1887, “Intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.”

Before the last century, the vast unknown territory of inexplicability was ruled by religion.But the last century has seen a tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge, and ever since, science has been reclaiming more and more territory from religion so that scholars started predicting a diminishing relevance and eventual disappearance of religion from human society.

While it is true that religion’s stranglehold has been remarkably weakened in most countries during the last half-century, except in the diehard Islamic states which stubbornly refuse to reform Islam, the resurgence of religion in our contemporary socio-political life negates the prediction of religion’s demise.

There is too much religion on the streets now that is increasingly intruding unto our lives. It is not the spirituality that Sagan had talked about, it is religion in its crudest original form – bloodthirsty, demanding total and unquestioning allegiance from its followers who would not shy away from spilling the blood of non-believers. While science continues to conquer ever newer frontiers and invents technologies that are revolutionising our society, a full transition to a scientific society is not possible without the complete displacement of religion.

From medicine to biotech, from electronics to telecommunication, from AI to nanoscience, the progress of science during the last 50 years has completely transformed the way we organize society, conduct business, and connect with people for ideation.

The paradox is that while we are exploring the frontiers of science and technology driven by limitless human yearning and thirst for knowledge, we are also reinforcing the prejudices, bigotry, and intolerance of contrary ideas and beliefs in our social and public life with renewed vigour and pride. Of course, there are many shortcomings and limitations of the scientific method.Scientific knowledge alone is certainly not enough to make humans attain their full potential. The German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued against recurrent tendencies of applying the methods of natural science in the research of human affairs, which are essentially outside empirical scientific approaches.

The human values we live by, and questions of meaning and purpose, morality or ethics, etc. are not amenable to hypotheses, modelling, and mathematical equations. They rely on methods that are interpretive, speculative, and philosophical. This is always an epistemological problem in social sciences, and this is where religion is supposed to supplement the techno-scientific worldview of science to understand how Nature works her laws in the universe and in human society.

But Nature also includes her children and us humans, and her well-being depends on their activities. No one knows that better than us, especially at this juncture of time when the world is precariously poised between sustainability and irreversible devastation from uncontrolled human greed.

Religion was supposed to impart and promote morality, ethics, love, and compassion among humans to make them understand their symbiotic relationships with nature, with fellow beings, and with animals. Religion was supposed to teach humans to limit their greed, increase empathy towards others, and strike a harmonious balance with nature to make the world a better place for all to live. What it has done and the moral blindness it has promoted instead is for all to see and judge.

Religion today is relentlessly marching to colonize every aspect of our socio-economic and political life with increasing aggressiveness. Suffering has been trivialised by it, the pain has been glorified by it, killing has been sanctified by it and the tattered social fabric that has resulted is being flaunted with egotistical pleasure and pride.

Though it will be unfair to blame religion alone, it has to take a large share of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It is propelling us energetically to forget our humanity and respect for those who do not share our faith and driving us towards an Orwellian world where intercultural understanding, the richness of culture and diversity, and the ideal of an inclusive and pluralistic society are strongly denounced in favour of a blind pursuance of faith as dictated by its self-proclaimed guardians and their bigoted followers.

The ideal of peace and harmony are receding at the speed of light as religion strives to regain the territory it has lost to science and is countering science with what can best be described as a pseudoscience that is carving out a niche for itself – and a wide one at that.To quote Huxley again, “The question of all questions for humanity is that of the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the Cosmos.”

Religion derived sustenance from the concept that humanity was positioned proudly at the centre of God’s magnificent creation, the Earth, around which revolved everything, and humanity – the crowning achievement of God’s creation in his own image, the pinnacle of his divine handiwork, occupied the centre-stage on this earth.Science would shatter the concept, but not before thousands of Giordano Brunos were burned at the stake for holding a contrary view.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn convincingly explained how paradigm shifts take place in the history of science when one dominant worldview is replaced by another. He showed that scientific progress is like Darwinian evolution – a process of selection of one amongst all the competing theories that have the most predictive power puzzle-solving ability, a concept that was later supported by Bas van Fraassen in The Scientific Image (1980).

But each such major paradigm shift has shaken the edifice of religion from which it could never recover. Thus, when the geocentric Ptolemaic worldview was replaced by the Copernican worldview, man lost his centrality in the scheme of things. Till then, heaven was in the sky, hell was underground and God in heaven ruled all three while religion regulated the entry to heaven or hell.

Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the Universe, and later Hubble displaced the entire Milky way from the centre of the universe, giving us instead an expanding universe of billions of galaxies in which neither is humanity at the centre of creation nor is the earth at the centre of the universe; in fact, the universe itself is one tiny dot in a multiverse of many universes.

Thus, God’s magnificent creation has been relegated to the position of a second-rate planet attached to a third-rate star, discarding religion’s medieval fancies. Today we are humbled by the immensity of the universe and mesmerized by the eternal silence of infinite space.

But for religion, the determination of man’s place in nature and his relation to the cosmos was not a question, it was an irrefutable truth questioning which meant inviting risk. Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelesticum on his deathbed in 1543, beyond the morbid reach of the Inquisition.

Galileo and Bruno were not that fortunate. Science established that neither does life enjoy any special privilege – countless worlds exist in deep space devoid of life, and countless species have become extinct in the course of evolution. We may be one someday, and going by our misdeeds on this planet, that day even may not be too far.

Darwin would finally dislodge humanity from the centre of the biological universe, giving it a lowly ancestor that was too humble compared to an almighty God to be a creator of such intelligence as possessed by man. Thankfully, the inquisition was dead, but prejudiced minds that shun logic were not. They are again back at the centre stage in force, flaunting scriptures, dictating how we should conduct ourselves, threatening to push us into a hell of ignominy and violence if we disobey.

Creationism is still being taught in many US public schools, despite the Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. Half the people in the USA still don’t believe in evolution, their share in India is unknown. But here, vigorous attempts are now on somehow bringing God inside the classroom in any guise, be it a hijab, or anything else.

Worship only makes you a slave. A slave forgets his reason, and his purpose for existence, and ultimately becomes an automaton to serve the master – Religion – and obey its commands without thinking.Religion is not the source of spirituality, peace, morality, virtue, and ethics any longer. Its principles may be eternal, but its methods are gross. It has now become the source of violence, hatred, unconcealed greed, corruption, and a road to power.

Instead of breaking barriers, it is building them afresh, destroying the very roots upon which mankind has built civilizations through the millennia. Don’t expect the State to control religion and the street will always celebrate it with ever-ostentatious pomp and splendour. It is therefore for us citizens to shield our children from the corrupting influences of religion. It has no place in the fabric of the mind of civilized men and women, just as God has no place in the fabric of the space-time that science tries to untangle. We don’t need the ancient wisdom of the spirit to guide us, because religion which was supposed to imbibe it has lost its divinity. It is now for science to redeem religion.


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A dreamer’s dream



Last night as usual I watched the local news, leaving aside the World News and the FIFA matches on TV, looking for some encour-aging news about the financial situation in our country. On all TV Channels The daily scenes in Parliament are always the same very chaotic and a waste of time to listen. The arguments in Parliament resembles the Maria Kade fish market between some women, accusing one another in filth.

Rather disappointed I fell asleep. I dreamt I was at the Aragalaya on the Galle Face Green packed with jolly enthusiastic people seemed on holiday-spirit singing and enjoying the music, and some drowning the noise with speeches through loudspeakers. Walking around I noticed there was a bus with a full load of passengers stuck and surrounded by a mob who was trying to topple it.

Finally the bus toppled and they all clapped and cheered not caring for the poor frightened passengers in the bus. One of the mob leaders gave a speeh and then got the bus upright, and tried to start it, but couldn’t. Then they pushed and it wouldn’t start as the tank was empty . The wounded passengers came out crying some wounded with fractures and bleeding. Someone phoned for ambulances but none came. To my horror the Aragalaya then attacked that mob who toppled the bus and in the utter choas I woke up in a cold swept.

Recollecting my dream I wondered whether this dream is similar to what would happen to our country.

D. L. Sirimanne,

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How many people can the Earth sustain?



=On Nov 15 November 2022, we became a world of 8 billion people. 

It’s a milestone we can celebrate, and an occasion to reflect: How can we create a world in which all 8 billion of us can thrive? The growth of our population is a testament to humanity’s achievements, including reductions in poverty and gender inequality, advancements in health care, and expanded access to education. These have resulted in more women surviving childbirth, more children surviving their early years, and longer, healthier lifespans, decade after decade.

Looking beyond the averages, at the populations of countries and regions, the picture is much more nuanced – and quickly takes us beyond the numbers themselves. Stark disparities in life expectancy point to unequal access to health care, opportunities and resources, and unequal burdens of violence, conflict, poverty and ill health.

Birth rates vary from country to country, with some populations still growing fast, others beginning to shrink. But underlying these trends, whichever way they point, is a widespread lack of choice. Discrimination, poverty and crisis – as well as coercive policies that violate the reproductive rights of women and girls – put sexual and reproductive health care and information, including contraception and sex education, out of reach for far too many people.

We face serious challenges as a global community, including the mounting impacts of climate change, ongoing conflicts and forced displacement. To meet them, we need resilient countries and communities. And that means investing in people and making our societies inclusive, so that everyone is afforded a quality of life that allows them to thrive in our changing world.

To build demographic resilience, we need to invest in better infrastructure, education and health care, and ensure access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. We need to systematically remove the barriers – based on gender, race, disability, sexual orientation or migration status – that prevent people from accessing the services and opportunities they need to thrive.

We need to rethink models of economic growth and development that have led to overconsumption and fuelled violence, exploitation, environmental degradation and climate change, and we need to ensure that the poorest countries – which did not create these problems, yet bear the brunt of their impacts – have the resources to build the resilience and well-being of their growing populations.

We need to understand and anticipate demographic trends, so that governments can make informed policies and resource allocations to equip their populations with the right skills, tools and opportunities.

But while demographic trends can help guide the policy choices we make as societies, there are other choices – including if and when to have children – that policy cannot dictate, because they belong to each individual. This right to bodily autonomy underlies the full range of our human rights, forming a foundation for resilient, inclusive and thriving societies that can meet the challenges of our world. When our bodies and futures are our own, we are #8BillionStrong.


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