I’ve heard both of these exist in India – yet I’ve never experienced them in the same place. After downing some Masala Chai, I wander up a craggled street, hoping to catch sight of a mountain peak. A young man approaches, forward posture, with glazed, joyous eyes. He is young and not used to seeing tourists. I meet his eyes and within minutes he offers me a tour of his mosque. I follow him into a great hall, with hundreds of laminated posters, each expressing a different truth of Islam.
Aside from the chipping paint, domed ceiling, and beggars outside, these posters evoke the image of a marketing conference. Each poster has an elegant image of the world, seen from space, like in a Stephen Hawking book. Titles such as “Islam and the Cosmos” and “Islam and the Bible” perch above the images in bold font. In America, he could be selling staples or hardware supplies. He immediately asks my religion. I utter a quivered “Buddhist” to which he looks shocked. “So you are not Christian, my friend,” he says.
My mention of Buddhism sparks his philosophical mind. He eyes get bigger. “How could there be a universe with multiple Gods,” he asks, “for if more than two Gods existed, they would immediately choose to annihilate one another. One would say rain – the other sun – and poof, violence would happen.”
I am reminded of Descartes’s argument of God’s existence via perfection. The simplified version goes as follows.
- God by definition has all properties of perfection.
- Existence is one of these properties.
- Therefore, God exists.
To speculate on such properties of a divine being, or the possible intention of divine beings, feels to me little more than fun games of metaphysics. The yardstick for truth can be the closest sacred text at hand. I am searching for a response to his legitimate question, but drawing blanks.
As with many philosophy questions, I ask myself “What would Richard Rorty say?” A philosopher made famous for his system of pragmatism, he wrote a ton, including a book, Philosophy and Social Hope, that renewed my faith in the worldly importance of tinkering in my head all day. A pragmatic approach to belief asks the question of a particular belief– what is it useful for?
In more subtle terms, for the pragmatist, the utility is part of what makes a belief intelligible. I can believe in dinosaurs all I want, but this belief proves unintelligible if all I do is daydream about them. My belief in hope, God, and social justice is much different, because it compels me to act in the world. Even for Descartes, his belief in those abstruse arguments buttressed the rational conception of the God of the Enlightenment.
If we can prove God exists, we can continue to act as rational, intelligent beings. We endow God with reason, who then becomes the ultimate source of our rationality. For Rorty, our beliefs are intelligible, useful and meaningful according to the yardstick of action. “So what if two gods may annihilate one another – what does that say about human behavior, morality, truth?” I try to explain all this to the man in the mosque. He doesn’t buy it. He refers me further to the laminated posters, speaking more rapidly and energetically.
I am now home, typing comfortably in an air-conditioned attic in Somerville, Massachusetts, wondering why he and I were talking past each other. On a basic level, he had something he wanted to sell, and I was an extremely unlikely buyer. On a deeper level, he spoke of universal principles from texts, and I spoke of carefully reasoned arguments by individual Western philosophers. He spoke of divine intervention; I spoke of Descartes. He spoke of a self connected in time and space to God, and I spoke of a self free to doubt and reason. Where did such vastly different conceptions of the self come from? Are they at all compatible? Or are we consigned to perpetually talk past each other?
Buddhists may view the idea of the self as illusory, Christians as a broken vessel, and Muslims as an agent of God. These are of course, generalizations. Of course Christians view themselves as agents of God. Similarly, Muslims may view the self as broken and in need of redemption. Perhaps this schema can help bridge the divide. Perhaps not.
One major challenge remains that our modern identities are less religiously based than any point in human history. Imagine, for example, living in Europe in the 16th century – one’s belief in God was assumed. Even Galileo, executed for heresy, lived within Christian principles and was far from a staunch atheist. The notion of an atheistic self took time to develop, and developed in reaction to prevailing ideology, not out of some primordial rationality. It is not just atheism, however, which has come to fruition. In the last few decades, an increasing proportion of Americans’ identify as spiritual rather than with any formal religion.
If our modern identity rests less on religion than before, what filled its place? One short answer is the idea of man as an economic being – and consumer. The long answer is everything in its wake. Beginning in the industrial age, the division of labor, property, and wealth allowed a massive differential in power. This created markets geared to consumers of different social classes. One’s class defined one’s preferences, and visa versa, in a vicious circle. On an economic level, the benefits of industrialization are obvious – people are on average healthier, have better access to technology, and live longer.
On a psychological level, industrialization created the possibility of defining ourselves based on what products we like, dislike, and can afford. In aggregate, our likes and preferences form the backbone of modern economies. We are what we buy. The language of the marketplace has infiltrated how we talk about religion. We commonly refer to religious evangelists as “trying to sell us something.” We “shop” for new churches and religious communities, paying close attention to our likes and dislikes.
But what does this all have to do with dialogue? The more I examine the idea of “self” historically, the more I realize how my choice to approach religion through Cartesian thought or pragmatism or Buddhism is just that – a choice. I doubt that the conception of religious identity as personal choice is as common in Ooty than in Somerville. When I travel back, I hope to ask more about personal experience, identity, choice, and ideas of the self, and argue less about metaphysics.
Among other things, I will ask, “What brought you to this particular mosque? What are your experiences with other religions? Do you believe religion is ever a matter of personal choice? What does it mean to be a human being?” Maybe then I will start to understand what opened those big, joyous eyes.
Photo by NASA Goddard, via Flickr Creative Commons.