The Science of Religion

Source: maharishiyagyaprogram.eu

Perhaps a potentially interesting area of exploration for neurological and psychological researchers is the science of religion: the science of discovering not only how religion wires the human brain in general but how different religions shape it differently. Perhaps it is indeed worth exploring how a Muslim’s brain is wired to work, perceive, and process ideas differently to a Hindu’s brain and how the religious conditioning changes their outlook on life and society. And more importantly, why people following different religions tend to be tribal or communal in their mannerism.

Of course, it would be going too far to suggest that certain channeling of thoughts would bring about a physiological change. But would it be too far off to suggest that this channeling of thoughts would force certain neuron routes in the brain which could have existed in another state had this intervention not occurred? Would it not inspire or prevent the construction of new patterns of cognitive practices which otherwise would not emerge? Or is it possible that instead of the subtle differences between the religiosity of a Hindu sadhu or a Sufi ascetic and an orthodox Muslim cleric or a Jewish Rabbi, the wiring of the brain would only be apparently different between a religious dogmatic and a rational agnostic?

I know it may sound like an unworthy subject for such a deep exploration but it is of little doubt that these different belief systems nurture a completely different set of behaviors altogether. There have been works which acknowledge the impact of religiosity and spirituality on the human brain, effects of prayer, and explore the neurological basis of religion, but can we study the impact of different faiths? The only problem with this idea is setting up science to “evaluate” religions and their impact on society. However, there must be a way to do so without political controversy as unlikely as it seems.

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that factors such as religious upbringing or inspiration can shape a person’s personality to be a certain way. However, what do we mean when we say that? It definitely implies a pattern in which that person behaves and thinks with certain individual nuances in the context of that cultural tradition.

The politics of such a study is indeed going to be controversial in the postmodern era with many likely to be jumping to comparing it to a pseudo-science such as eugenics in terms of being discriminatory to religious communities. However, it is not necessary to see this potential study through the lens of morality, of right and wrong, and of virtuous and evil. It will merely be a psychological and sociological experiment with possible physical dimensions if anyone gets to discover them.

But at least questions can be asked. How a person would think if they are told about the existence of God and how would they think if they are told there is no God. What would be their behavior if they were to believe if divinity can take different forms of life and how it would be different if divinity was held to be off-limits to mortal creatures? Would there be a difference if they were raised in a vegetarian culture as opposed to a carnivorous tradition that relishes hunting as a sport? Will any such biases impact whether they are more receptive or hostile to people from another culture?

This indeed sounds intriguing but the future of humanity is not depending on it either.

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The Intolerance of the Cult of “True Islam”

Source: Hindustan Times

Source: Hindustan Times

The unfortunate and devastating bombing at the Sehwan Sharif shrine sheds a new light at the. The devotees of the shrine and those with a Sufi leaning in their faith reinforced their love for the spiritual rituals practiced over there.

The Islamic State accepted the responsibility for the Sehwan Sharif suicide bombing and sent a clear message to all who have deviated from the true practice of the faith.

Perhaps only a day or two after the bombing, classical dancer Sheema Kermani went up to the shrine and performed the iconic dhamaal to send her message that life must go on at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine. Now, this was supposed to be a beautiful, powerful moment of spirituality and love that should have brought the entire humanity together.

By good numbers, the dhamaal, or the ecstatic spiritual dance, was seen as a moral abomination. Something they would never imagine their mothers or sisters to be doing as opposed to the obscene dancer who defied the terrorist, other than the notion that it was pure heresy. Something which would have made the true founders of Islam turn in their graves.

Obviously, many of the urban upper class Deobandi/Wahabi kids had seen dhamaal for the first time in their lives, so their shock is understandable. But it is the rest of the crowd, who actively campaigns to condemn dissenting religious groups is where the intolerance begins a little too much to tolerate.

While their assertions of what was and was not done by the Prophet and his companions may well be true, their effect in the contemporary society goes far beyond that. What the Cult of True Islam cannot stomach is the fact that somehow Pakistan happens to be very pluralistic in its religious makeup at the grassroots, even with its seemingly very homogeneous official faith. What the Cult of True Islam cannot come to terms with is the possibility that Islam may have evolved a little over the last fourteen centuries and hundreds of regions.

The Islam of Pakistanis happens to be far from one at least, unlike the monolithic form of monotheism you see practiced by the Saudi Arabian regime. We do kiss and touch stones over here, prostrate at grave sites in reverence, and wear charms and amulets. Not surprisingly, we have sects within sects within sects in Pakistan and it is not necessarily a bad thing, the shock at it certainly is. Not only that, we have a rich Sufi tradition that has oftentimes been a result of marriage with the wisdom from Hindu ascetics. Nobody should be afraid to say that.

So just like the region of the Indus that today falls under the modern Pakistan republic is ethnically and lingually diverse, it is no surprise that it is as diverse in its religious affiliations. The Cult of True Islam has been at it to dismantle every aspect of its culture and turn it into Arabia. Too bad we still don’t see as many date trees around our neighborhoods than we ought to.

While we can manufacture several conspiracy theories about how the Islamic State emerged, what we hesitate to face is the foundation of our fatwa culture. It is basically the Islam purists among us who we dismiss playfully that are responsible for the culture of declaring “kafir.” While I have never had personally anything against the label (I used to think it was a compliment), I gradually realized what it meant for others.

The acceptance of this intolerance has been as commonplace as the occurrence of the word kafir and Shia in one sentence. It was only a matter of time that the larger practice of paying homage to the great Sufi saints that this region is known for started falling under that category.

The expression of “True Islam” remains to be an enigmatic paradox which apparently is grappled only by those who claim to be its proponents in whatever context it is thrown at you. If it is in the context of secularism, you know all its good qualities were already embodied in it. If it is in the context of who is a truer Muslim, then you know you certainly cannot win. I only wish the proponents of the True Islam were as flexible as the concept itself is.

It is not a problem to hold, observe and practice a certain belief system. Actually, that is precisely what I am arguing for. But how about you stop imposing their superior faith of you on others who are observing their own tradition. Perhaps, it is not going to happen in an atmosphere where intolerance is encouraged and where art and culture are seen as obscenities.

The funny thing is that the same people would make tall claims of how their faith would perfectly allow existence for anyone with a different belief system.

We may feel appalled by the Islamic State and dismiss and condemn them as “Kharijites,” but what about the apologies for the very philosophy that they are acting on? Are they not found all over Pakistan? Or sitting in the next cubicle at your workplace?

Religious zeal and puritanism sound like nice ideas but they need to understand that the fabric of the society cannot remain intact without the necessary tolerance for the faith of each other.

And yes, even the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan appears to promise that freedom that these purists want to see disappear.

So how about we keep the contract going that the locals of this region have had with each other for thousands of years?

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.