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Speaking across the chasm: literature as a bridge between science and religion.


As an instructor of core courses on world religions at a large public university, I am often confronted with the problem of articulating how the academic study of religion differs from religious instruction one receives in religious institutions. Very few of my students are aware when they sign up for a course like World Religions, that unlike seminary courses where the focus is on theology, religious studies courses at public universities such as ours aim to study the phenomenon of religion from a secular perspective. Traditionally, religious studies have been a mainstay of the university's humanities curricula, mostly attracting students with personal interests in religion. However, as American society has become more diverse, and we have become increasingly aware of religion's role in our social and political discourse (particularly since September 11, 2001), there has been a surge in the interest within the general student body to study world religions.

Unfortunately, with the growing encroachment of religion in the American, as well as international political discourse, the academic discussion of religion has often ended up in displaying the diversity of political groupings based on religious labels rather than enhancing our grasp of the phenomenon of religion. Given the great diversity in people's understanding of the term religion, it is often easier to describe religions than to satisfactorily define the term. In addition, since it is not always easy to distinguish cultural from religious values, the descriptions of religion frequently remain stuck at the level of superficial study of rituals and practice. Indeed, there exists little consensus even among scholars of religion on how to differentiate between cultural and religious practices. Accordingly, students rarely learn to discern any broad pattern behind the diversity of religious expressions and seldom acquire a deep understanding of this very important socio-cultural phenomenon.

An Empirical Look at Religion

In contrast, the understanding of the biological basis of consciousness, has recently been identified by the editors of the journal Science, (July 1, 2005 issue), as one of the most interesting scientific challenges of our time. Recognizing the key role of consciousness in the formulation of religious and spiritual experiences across cultures, scientists have started looking for it in places, rarely associated with empirical research. Exciting observations have been reported by neuroscientists such as Dr. Andrew Newberg (1) at the University of Pennsylvania on the changes occurring in the brains of Buddhist monks while engaged in meditation. Prof. V.S. Ramachandran (2) of UC, San Diego has speculated on the location of specific regions in the brain associated with religiousness, basing his studies on brain damage and diseases that affect particular areas of this organ. The discovery of mirror neurons have led other scholars to wonder about the role these cells may play in feelings such as empathy. (3) However, this kind of research still faces considerable skepticism (perhaps for good reason due to past claims based often on pseudo-scientific basis) both from the public as well as the academic community. However, the extensive bibliography (4) currently available on the subject, only possible now due to advances in bio-analytical techniques (such as positron-emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance), suggests that the biology of religious experience is bound to attract increasing scholarly attention in the future.

A different approach to the study of religion has been proposed by the Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson. He has proposed using methods of behavioral biology in studying the religious phenomenon. (5) Describing the religious phenomenon as one instance of the many naturally occurring self-organizing complex systems (ant colonies, language systems, are other examples), he looks forward to an integrative approach to the study of faith across cultures. Wilson's approach will allow knowledge from biology, social sciences, literature, philosophy, as well as computer sciences to help us understand how ideas (about morality, mortality, and responsibility) that have captured the religious imagination through the ages may have managed to give rise to communities united on the basis of faith. In this context Steven Johnson's account of emergent behavior (6) may also be particularly relevant. Johnson's cites the work of the Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon (7) on harvester ant behavior to make his case for the phenomenon of emergence. Emergence, according to Johnson, is the step by step process of increasing complexity that provides the organizational structure within any system; patterns of traffic flow through downtown arteries at peak office hours provides an illustration of emergent behavior among urban folks in any big city.

We all have heard about the collective behavior of worker ants within a colony, in promoting the general welfare of the same. What is interesting in Gordon's ant colonies is that her ants exhibit a level of organizational sophistication not usually associated with these insects. These ants have isolated two separate areas within their colonies, one of which functions as a trash heap, and the other is a place to discard the dead, a cemetery. The location of these areas is even more intriguing: The ant cemetery appears to be at the furthest possible point from the colony, and the trash heap is located precisely at the point that maximizes its distance from both the colony's living quarters and the cemetery, suggesting that individual organisms, such as these ants, work together in ways that provide the semblance of what humans may characterize as advance planning. Johnson ponders the implications of the discovery of organizing principles that may lie behind the emergence of such complex behavioral patterns within ant societies. It may force us to recognize that it is possible for a naturally occurring system to exhibit intricate and seemingly centralized planning without the benefit of an overarching organizing intelligence (an urban planner of the ant colony). If ant colonies can exhibit such emergent behavior, then why not humans, who are biologically programmed to be gregarious? Such a question is obviously relevant to any one exploring the group dynamics behind all kinds of networks, including organized religious systems. It may be interesting to speculate if the organizational order that religions display and often attribute its legitimacy to a transcendental source is really a product of the algorithms of group dynamics.

According to Johnson, computer scientists have also been interested in the question of group dynamics and its effect on behavior. David Jefferson, a computer scientist, and Charles Taylor, a biologist, both from UCLA, have come up with a set of computer programs, virtual ants if you will, that are programmed to learn to navigate a path within a finite amount of time and using only limited information about the path's twists and turns (Johnson, 61). In an experiment devised by these two scientists, sixteen thousand virtual ants were given one hundred cycles to navigate the path, and they were given a specific score between 1 and 82 (1 being the lowest and 82 being the highest) on the basis of their ability to successfully navigate a particular path. The high scoring ants (software programs) were then allowed to "mate and reproduce" creating a new generation of software ready to tackle the trail. At the end of hundred generations (produced in two hours) the software had evolved an entire population of expert trail followers despite the fact that the two scientists did not endow the first generation with any navigational skills. The software created by Jefferson and Taylor in the 1980s illustrated how evolutionary forces may operate in a controlled environment. Johnson writes "The two UCLA professors had created a random pool of possible programs, then built a feedback mechanism that allowed more successful programs to emerge" (61-62)-thus providing a laboratory example how principles of evolution may come up with self organizing systems. Anybody familiar with popular video games such as the SimCity can recognize how the same principles of self organization have by now permeated the popular gaming culture.

I believe that the implications of the knowledge that is being generated in biology, neuroscience, and computer science laboratories are enormous for the understanding of one of the most complex social phenomena of human cultures, the religious systems. Indeed, better understanding of the organizing principles behind the emergence of complex social systems in humans will enhance our understanding of many problems that are classically part of the disciplines in the humanities. Again, to quote Johnson, "Indeed some of the great minds of the last few centuries--Adam Smith, Frederich Engels, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing--contributed to the unknown science of self-organization, but because the science didn't exist yet as a recognized field, their work ended up being filed on more familiar shelves ... [Questions in these individual fields can be answered] without resorting to the sciences of complexity and self-organization, but those answers all share a common pattern, as clear as the whorls of a finger print. But to see it as a pattern you need to encounter it in several contexts." (18) It is precisely here that the rules guiding the emergence of complex self-organizing systems can provide us with a deeper understanding of the diverse religious practices of the world's religions.

The Necessity to Cross Disciplinary Boundaries and its Problems

Ironically, this is also a time when a significant section of the American public is uncomfortable with the perceived interference of science in the realm of religious belief (as is amply demonstrated by the recent controversy around teaching of evolution in public schools and the popular debate on intelligent design). There exists significant unease among some scholars of classical humanities who have alerted us to the dangers of "scientism," (8) using methodologies applicable to sciences to understand phenomena that lie beyond the reach of empirical study. Notwithstanding the vigor that this debate arouses among partisans on both sides, I argue that it is absolutely essential for the universities to educate the general student body about the knowledge that is being discovered in the scientific laboratories: The future generations not only need to be cognizant of the way science can influence the quality of human life, but knowledge gleaned from science can provide us with novel outlooks to understand the complexity of human behavior. As the pace of scientific discovery quickens, we run the risk of leaving behind a large section of even the educated populace behind if we do not integrate this new knowledge in to the university curriculum. These issues can no longer afford to remain just topics of academic debates, but they have very practical implications for the intellectual preparedness of the next generation of Americans to face and compete with the global citizens of the future. The new understanding of the brain's function and its emergent properties may in fact be helpful in pulling us out of the current public controversy on creation and evolution from the blind alley that leads nowhere, to a path of intellectual enquiry based on a deeper understanding of the biology of religious-spiritual processes. The rules of organization guiding the formation of complex systems can similarly enlighten us about the way individual faiths can give rise to religious communities, which in turn influence group behavior such as religious wars and sectarian violence.

In describing the religious phenomena, Wilson identified a set of characteristics that all religions display including: 1) an acceptance of a mystery about human existence at its core which provides the central focus of the ideology; 2) the way mystery functions as the center from which religious power radiates gathering converts and binding followers to a group; 3) the devotees of the religion compete as a tribe with those of other religions, and can harshly resist the dismissal of their beliefs by rivals; and 4) venerate self-sacrifice in defense of the religion. In his effort to explain the human motivation to religion Wilson writes:
 A great subterranean river of the mind, it gathers strength from a
 broad spread of tributary emotions. Foremost among them is the
 survival instinct. "Fear" as the Roman poet Lucretius said, "was the
 first thing on earth to make gods." Our conscious minds hunger for a
 permanent existence. If we cannot have everlasting life of the body,
 then absorption into some immortal whole will serve. Anything will
 serve, as long as it gives the individual meaning and somehow
 stretches into eternity that swift passage of the mind and spirit
 lamented by St. Augustine as the short day of time. (280-281)

While Wilson's description may echo the classical scholarly view of religion as that which provides the organizing principle around which human societies find their focus, (9) his position is distinguished by his insistence on documenting the empirical observation of the behavior of the faithful. Such an exercise may be particularly difficult to follow through because of the lack of any uniformly acceptable scholarly methodology that can successfully integrate the study of sciences and humanities.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has recently argued that, with the increasing sophistication in our understanding of the biology of the brain, the time has finally arrived for the study of religious faith from an empirical perspective. (10) Comparing the human affinity for religions with our love of music, he argues that religious feelings while being part of our innate biology, thrives because of its active nurturance by cultures. Echoing Karl Popper, (11) Dennett maintains that the questions that religions ask and attempt to answer are not unlike questions posed by scientists, (the beginnings of and the nature of life processes etc,): The difference lies in the way the answers are fashioned. Religious answers are based on traditional knowledge and past wisdom, the shared acceptance of which provides a group with its sense of identity. In contrast, science increasingly looks towards advances in the understanding of the functions of the body and the brain, patterns of biological organization to answer those same questions.

Problems of an Integrative Approach

There are two serious problems in the use of the empirical method in the study of the religious phenomenon. The first one is the difficulty of standardization: How would one observe and dependably record an emotional experience? How does one recreate processes that are intimately personal and at the same time highly dependent on the context within which they are generated? Many devout people, for example, have described the sense of fellow feeling and spiritual arousal they experience when they participate in communal worship, but these feelings are rarely reproducible and may be generated under unique circumstances that are impossible to re-create in an artificial laboratory setting with any dependability. While Andrew Newberg, and Mario Beauregard (12) et al are studying brain images of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns, such experiments are rare, and face considerable skepticism from both sides of the academic divide. Consequently, it will be extremely difficult to devise studies of the kind suggested by Wilson and Dennett that can satisfy the rigors of empirical observation without being open to charges of individual bias.

The second problem lies in the questionable utility of one set of methodology (that works in one discipline) in any cross disciplinary study, particularly the ones involving such volatile topics as religion and science. Should there always be a clear demarcation between empirical and theological studies as Huston Smith maintains, and never the twain shall meet, or is there some room in the middle for a scholarly engagement on this issue?

The Role of Creative Literature

It is here that I argue that creative literature, specifically, fictional literature (describing religious behavior) may play a critical role by bridging the gap between the empirical method favored by scientists and the descriptive method of humanities. The literary sources that immediately come to mind in this regard are accounts of personal mystical experience such as the autobiographical records of mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, or poems of William Blake. These writings may give us rare glimpses of the intensely personal spirituality, but these do not help in the empirical arena, precisely because these are unique and irreproducible despite being genuine. In contrast, examples drawn from fictional literature aiming to capture the spiritual reality have not satisfied the needs of empiricism because of their obvious artificiality.

Perhaps the time has come to take a renewed look at fictional depictions of religious behavior because of the way fictional literature functions in society. The classical Greeks had long ago recognized the mimetic function of literature. Aristotle's famous defense of poets against Plato's charge that poets deal with lies rightly argued that literature is profoundly relevant to an ideal society because it provides us with a mirror through which we can look back at ourselves. Literature becomes successful only if it can faithfully capture and recreate human sentiments. Also, since the success of fictional literature depends on verisimilitude (the author has to recreate a scenario which will accurately portray our real experiences within reasonable limits, while making no bones about their artificiality), it may provide the closest substitute to real life depictions of complex social phenomena such as religious behavior that can be put under an empirical scrutiny.

The advantage of using fictional accounts of human behavior for empirical studies lies in the fact that unlike reality, all the variables within the fictional world are confined within the pages of the text. The legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, once said, "An important difference between fiction and nonfiction is that in novels and plays, Chekhov's dictum prevails: 'If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.'" There are no coincidences: A chest pain is followed by a heart attack; a phone call is always meaningful; the purchase of a life insurance policy is followed by a murder or suicide. In real life, on the other hand, most chest pains are caused by transient indigestion; phone calls tend to be from life insurance salesmen; the purchase of a policy is followed by years of good health; and rifles gather dust on walls. (13) The cathartic benefit of literature recognized by Aristotle works only when a reader recognizes the simultaneously real and fictional nature of the description on the pages of a text: The pleasure lies in the reader's concurrent awareness of the truth of the life like descriptions and its fictional nature.

The joy that a devout believer derives from faith may operate somewhat similarly. Just as a critical reader is trained to decipher the human author's intention from a piece of literary text, a devout person learns to decipher a grand design (if not necessarily a personal designer) from the real life experiences unfolding in front of one's eyes. Most religions teach the faithful to read one's life events as the expression of the ultimately beneficial intentions of a supreme creative power. It is here that fictional depictions of religious behavior may allow a scholar to explore the dynamics of faith in vitro. The scholar of religion needs not only to be aware of the way readers make sense of literary texts as Dershowitz has described above, but also has to be cognizant of the expectations that a specific religious paradigm may impose on the devout: The faithful actively looks for a particular pattern behind one's experience to decipher that unique sense of order in one's life with one's own religion providing the blue print. Consequently, any recognition that other people's religious traditions can be just as valid a basis to make sense of the same experience can be profoundly disorienting. It is almost like attributing a different authorship to a piece of literature that one may have long associated with one's own favorite author.

It is only in the twentieth century that the academic community has begun to study different religious traditions as different ways of conceptualizing, and organizing the differing ideas of god (or lack there of) and understand the complex social organizations that arise from these varying conceptualizations of god. For example, Mircea Eliadae described the sacred as the fundamental organizational principle around which human societies have traditionally structured their history, cultural values, social organizations, etc. Huston Smith has similarly argued that it is very hard, if not impossible, for humans to live in a world without any intellectual focus and the will to order orientation is a very important part of our nature. The study of different systems of faith and their practice in an academic setting, therefore, can be deeply disturbing for a devout believer: It forces a person to confront one's own commitment and at the same time recognize that one's own faith may be one of many possible ways of organizing one's experience.

Ironically, a class on world religions, unlike courses in theology, demands exactly such awareness from its students. The students are expected to step outside that mental space, that zone of comfort--to shift one's focus beyond the intellectual order around which one may have habitually organized oneself, or have been taught to organize one's experience according to one's own faith.

Given the power of piety to stir up emotions leading groups to great good or terrible evil, a scholarly understanding of the religious phenomenon is not just important, but absolutely essential: And where else but in the secular university classroom should such an inquiry take place? But any such effort would need a broad awareness of the intellectual frameworks that underlie not only one's own personal faith, but also the increasingly diverse belief systems of others. Thus, a course on world religions is a suitable class for the kind of intellectual exercise I outline above.

While many notable authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, have portrayed the myriad ways religion influences individual and social behavior, I argue that Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses provides a particularly accurate case study of this mimetic function of literature in our time. (14) Indeed, the real political unrest that this book caused in the wake of its publication in the 1980s is a perfect illustration of how religious sentiments may be aroused, be appealed to, and can operate in today's religiously sensitive times. The book, published in 1987, gained notoriety in some Muslim communities for the way it depicted a prophet like figure, called Mahound; Mahound of The Satanic Verses was perceived by some devout believers to be a thinly veiled portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad. (15) That perceived spite then became the kernel around which unscrupulous politicians whipped up a public frenzy, which ended up in several bouts of riots and book burnings in different parts of the world, culminating in the proclamation of the Fatwa or edict by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini against the author of The Satanic Verses. Khomeini proclaimed that Rushdie should be killed and the killer rewarded for avenging the dignity of Islam. Fortunately, the controversy surrounding the novel has since died down, although it is clear that the sentiments aroused by this piece are still quite volatile. A similar controversy played out in early 2006 with the publication of a set of Danish cartoons depicting Islam illustrates how charged the situation still can be. Notwithstanding the political importance of such events, I argue that demonstrations of public outrage in the name of religion serve an interesting purpose for those of us who study religions. It provides a window in to the way religions function in the real world. A brief discussion of the way in which religion can be studied at a public university may be useful at this point.

The Individual and Social Aspect of Religious Faith

The study of world religion at a public university where one is forced to view one's own faith as one of many equally valid ways of organizing one's experience requires a level of profound self-scrutiny. Anybody familiar with current political events across the globe does not have to be told of the sophistication of thought that such an exercise may demand. However it is precisely here that fictional literature may be best able to portray the intensity and commitment required by religious faiths and its effect on the dynamics of group behavior. Clifford Geertz has defined religion as a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods in formulating conceptions of a general order of existence, and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (16) Implicit in Eliadae, Smith, and Geertz's understanding of religion is its characterization as a peculiarly human activity that is rooted in the instinctive urge to know and the attempt to impose an order on our day to day experience. Religions bring individuals together on the basis of the shared sense of what is sacred to impose that order, which in turn shapes our group identity. Moreover, if we accept that our biological nature makes us humans to operate as "social individuals," then a successful study of the religious phenomenon must include both individual and social aspects of this identity formulation. Could religions then be viewed as ways in which humans balance the intricate dynamics between the individual and the social sides of their cultural existence? The religious process can then be represented as a balancing act suspended between the two polarities of religious sentiment, that of the individual and the group.

At the individual level religious behavior involves formulating symbolic expressions for deeply personal and often intangible ideas, and deciphering their meanings through shared understanding and ritual behaviors. Personal faith also includes a sense of emotional attachment to things beyond the comprehension of natural laws. This faith is invested sometimes in a personal God such as in case of Western monotheisms, and at other times can be based on an assumption that there is an order to the world which is ultimately life sustaining but may not be readily understood by human rationality. I would categorize Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist views about the inherent sanctity of the universe within this second variety of faith. And of course, there is a broad spectrum of personal beliefs among practitioners of both eastern and western traditions in this regard. Finally, the degree of emotional commitment to one's faith often has a profound impact on one's behavior such as adherence to particular ways of living. For example, whether one adheres to particular diets or ways of dressing ultimately depend on ones commitment to ones own faith.


At the social level, religions deal with immediately visible customs, and rituals. These serve as cultural, social, and linguistic markers which in turn provide the context within which religious communities find their identity and function accordingly. It is reasonable to assume that individuals with similar commitments towards faith would come together as a group, which in turn would then reinforce other members' commitment to the same group. Moreover, religion as a group phenomenon attempts to, and often succeeds in influencing our biological impulses through its ethical and moral dimensions Finally, religion often operates through attaching specific meanings to things, sounds, acts, and making those meanings acceptable to a group, thereby affirming its social legitimacy and bringing its members closer.

The dual aspect of one's religious instinct has one thing in common: It is the sense of hope. All religions nurture and insist upon hope at the face of emotional and existential crisis. This sense of hope is what the biologist Wilson describes as "the subterranean river of the mind aspiring for a sense of permanence." It is here that biology and religion may indeed come together. Acknowledging the key role of hope in promoting human well being, religions have developed its nurturance into a fine art by recognizing its central role in the sustenance of faith. Furthermore, the shared sense of hope that people of the same religion have in common with each other provides the essential glue that keeps communities together. This is also where the force of religious symbolism becomes most powerful, and meaningful to the devout. Hope for eternal salvation unites many devout Christians, just as the hope for freedom from repeated births and accompanying suffering unites Hindus and Buddhists. Viewing the religious phenomenon this way allows us to define it as a combination of individual spirituality and one's commitment to a group identity. A person's religious belief and the resultant behavior at any particular point in time will depend upon that person's choice of how she or he balances these two aspects of spiritual and social commitment. It is also here that biology may give us insights behind faith, be it by enhancing our understanding of empathy through the study of mirror neurons, or revealing the areas in the brain that engage in spiritual experience, or helping us figure out the algorithms behind group dynamics.

The Satanic Verses as a Case Study

Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, a piece of modern literature that has mostly attracted the attention of the reading (and non-reading) public for offending the religious faith of some Muslims, provides a very perceptive account of this dual pull of religion and the role of faith in the nurturance of hope.


The Satanic Verses as a narrative operates at multiple levels. The book begins with a mid air explosion of an Air India jumbo jet over London, and the free fall of the novel's two primary protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladdin Chamcha toward the city. The London that Rushdie describes in The Satanic Verses is not the same city that American readers commonly encounter in English literature; Rushdie's London is the London inhabited by poor south Asian immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s: It is a city peopled by first generation Hindu and Muslim emigres from the Indian subcontinent, a city that gave refuge to the victims of political and economic upheaval in south Asia in the wake of the decline of colonialism. It is also a city where exiled Islamic politicians and religious leaders of the late twentieth century Middle East waited for a glorious return to their homeland to usher in a rule of justice and law fashioned after the Prophet Muhammad's rule of Mecca and Medina in seventh century Arabia. The citizens of London in The Satanic Verses, while physically residing in the modern, Western metropolis really live in an in-between world built on fantasy and hope- a terrible exilic existence somewhere halfway from their traditional homes in Asia and Africa, and equally far away from the city that is home to most non-immigrant Londoners.

The portrayal of south Asian immigrant life in modern Britain has been one of Rushdie's favorite topics. His descriptions are useful not only for understanding the broader crisis of confidence that many non-western immigrants from erstwhile colonies experienced when they chose to migrate to Europe in search for a better economic future, but it also depicts the way religions provide a sense of psychological comfort and sustenance in the face of uncertainty that economic migration have brought for many such people. While the motivation may have been economic in most of these cases, few were comfortable in openly rejecting their traditional culture. Not only did the move pull them between what is familiar and foreign, but it also forced them to choose between personal prosperity and loyalty to one's own cultural heritage: A terrible choice that pitted one's hope for a better future based on one's own efforts against the fear of becoming culturally isolated in a society that does not share one's long accustomed values. Unable to pick sides that may tear one apart, many preferred to view this move as an act of exile forced on them by history rather than choice.

The above problem while acute with the generation that made the choice became distressingly severe for many of their children: The first generation's sense of loss often stood in the way of the younger group's freedom to openly adapt to the land of their birth, while issues of racial, social, and economic discrimination in the host society (caused partly by the cultural isolation imposed by the parent's generation, and partly by remnants of colonial legacy in the host country) fueled the sense of helplessness and disorientation among many. The tension was further heightened by the almost mythical view of the parent's homeland, culture, and society promoted by the older generation in the land of their conscious exile. Often, religion provided the only dependable certainty in such an in-between world.

Emotionally, the state of exile nurtures a hope for a renewal. This aspect of exile has long been recognized by the authors of many religious as well as epic narratives, starting from the history of Hebrew slaves in Egypt to the Prophet Muhammad's exile in Medina before his triumphant unification of the Arabs under acceptance of Islam. "Exile," writes Rushdie in The Satanic Verses "is a dream of glorious return. Exile is a vision of revolution.... It is an endless paradox: Looking forward by always looking back." The paradox of exile that Rushdie describes is also true more broadly perhaps of all religions. Faiths require the faithful to pin one's hope in a successful hereafter, and the current life is thus viewed as a temporary exile from that ideal existence. Such a hope is what ensures a faith's own perception of permanence within the context of its own view of history. It is God's past promise to the prophets that the devout monotheist looks back upon to chart his or her own personal future both in this world as well as the one to come. In the eastern religious traditions, one places one's hope on the redemptive power of Karma. It is the result of past actions or Karma that promises the believer a hopeful future. Thus, the past models provide the blueprint for what is to come in both the Eastern and Western religious imaginations.

In contrast, the empirical method, practiced in the academia, teaches us to recognize the limitation of past examples as absolute guidelines. Being cognizant of the limitations of historical precedence both at the individual as well as at the group level, the empirical outlook aspires to break free of the mind set that makes us look back to the past for both comfort and sustenance, and alerts us to our own responsibility in making our own future.

The debate between a religious and a secular viewpoint, of course, have been continuing since the eighteenth century European enlightenment. The traditionally religious amongst us, those who look back at history as an unfolding design intended by the maker of history, would point to the limitations of secular humanist world view by alerting us to some of the obvious and intractable problems of our time. The inability of the scientific enterprise to solve problems of poverty, disease, injustice, is cited by the religious traditionalist as classic evidence for the indictment against secular knowledge. The irony here of course, is that both the modern and the traditional outlooks are united in their hope to ultimately break free from past injustices and problems of history; the religious does so by looking back to an idealized past, being certain of its final success, while the secular looks forward, aware of its uncertainty, both visions tinged with hope of freedom.

Modern secular humanists aspire to achieve this freedom on their own armed with skepticism and individual judgment. The religiously devout, in contrast, look forward to the state of freedom that past traditions have promised them. When an exiled Imam in Rushdie's London proclaims: "We will make a revolution that is a revolt not only against a tyrant but against history. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of lies--progress, science, rights" (217), he is simply expressing his frustrations and impatience with the humanist hope for the future. The history that the Imam fumes against is the secular history based on rational skepticism, not the history of the scriptures. That is why "history" for him, claims Rushdie "is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion; because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-lah finished his revelation." It is the all too human voice of fear, impatience, and frustration that leads some of us to an idealized vision of history that religions promise. The Imam's frustration with history is further heightened by the easy identification of the secular point of view with the broader European or "Western" sensibility. The eighteenth and nineteenth century secular outlook is simply another facet of the ugly European imperialism for many in the non-western world.

While this conflict between a religious and a secular point of view may have been playing itself out in many different ways since the eighteenth century in Europe and America, the problem has taken an extremely serious immediacy since the rise of religious fundamentalisms across the globe. In the wake of the terrible devastation of the Second World War, many in the West had proclaimed the death of religion itself. However, it now seems that the rumor of religion's death was greatly exaggerated. The hope of miraculous redemption that religions extended and nurtured human society through the ages cannot, and perhaps should not be wished away so easily. It is played out every time we as a society or as an individual are faced with catastrophes. Perhaps it is undeniable that however confident we may feel about our rationality and skepticism to confront and solve problems, it is faith that guides our judgment and nurtures our sense of well being, particularly when events around us appear uncontrollable. Could it be that we are biologically attuned to fall back on our beliefs and faiths so that we can hold on to an idealized vision of the future simply to sustain us through periods when rationality is unable to provide that solace?


Whether biology can provide a better understanding of the phenomenon of faith remains a wide open question at this point. Wilson's argument that:
 The symbol-forming human mind, however, never stays satisfied with
 raw apish feeling in any emotional realm. It strives to build
 cultures that are maximally rewarding in every dimension. In
 religion, there is ritual and prayer to contact the supreme being
 directly, consolation from coreligionists to soften otherwise
 unbearable grief, explanations of the unexplainable, and the oceanic
 sense of communion with the larger whole that otherwise surpasses
 understanding. Communion is the key, and hope rising from it
 eternal; out of the dark night of the soul there is the prospect of
 the spiritual journey to the light. For a special few the journey
 can be taken in this life. The mind reflects in certain ways in
 order to reach ever higher levels of enlightenment until finally,
 when no further progress is possible, it enters a mystical union
 with the whole. Within the great religions, such enlightenment is
 expressed by Hindu Samadhi, Buddhist Zen Satori, Sufi Fana, Taoist
 Wu wei, and Pentecostal Christian rebirth. Something like it is also
 experienced by hallucinating preliterate shamans. What all these
 celebrants evidently feel (as I once felt to some degree as a reborn
 evangelical) is hard to put in words, but Willa Cather came as close
 as possible in a single sentence. "That is happiness" her fictional
 narrator says in My Antonia, "to be dissolved into something
 complete and great." (Wilson, 284)

will continue to find supporters and distracters from both sides of the academic divide. As an instructor of religious studies at a secular institution I welcome the empirical scrutiny of religions across the disciplines, arguing for a further widening of the enterprise. Empiricism requires a close observation of the subject of study and keeping an accurate record of your observations. Where observation of human nature is concerned, who is best suited for the job? Is it not the literary artists since the time of Homer, who have been practicing this skill to entertain and educate us? It is high time that we call upon them to help us out in bridging the chasm between science and humanities to better understand the phenomenon of religion.


1. Newberg. Andrew, Eugene G. D'Aquli and Vince Rause. Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. New York: Ballantine Books. 2003.

2. Ramachandran, V.S., and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York: Harper Collins. 1999.

3. Ramachandran, V.S. "Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force behind "The Great Leap Forward' in Human Evolution." Edge no. 69. May 29. 2000. Also see Maksim I Stamenov and Vittorio Gallese (Eds.) Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language. Advances in Consciousness Research 42. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub Co. 2002.

4. See Dennett, Daniel C. "Selected Bibliography" Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking 2006. and Ramachandran V.S. and Sandra Blakeslee. "Bibliography and Suggested Readings" Phantoms in the Brain. New York: Quill. 1999. Also see Damasio AR: "Fundamental Feelings." Nature 413:781, 2001. and Damasio AR, Grabowski TJ, Bechara A, Damasio H, Ponto LLB, Parvizi J, Hichwa RD: "Sub-cortical and cortical brain activity during the feeling of self-generated emotions". Nature Neuroscience, 3:1049-1056, 2000.

5. Wilson, Edward. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Vintage Books. 1999.

6. Johnson, Steven. Emergence. New York: Scribner 2001.

7. See Prof. Gordon's research website at (last accessed Feb 12, 2007) for details. See also Gordon, Deborah. Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized? New York: Free Press. 1999.

8. Peterson, Gregory. "Demarcation and the Scientific Fallacy". Zygon. vol. 38, no. 4 (Dec 2003). 751-761.

9. See Eliadae, Mircae. The Sacred and the Profane. Ontario, Florida: Harcourt Inc. 1959, and Huston Smith. The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco. 1991.

10. Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking. 2006.

11. Popper, Karl. Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge Classics. 2002.

12. Beauregard, Mario and Vincent Paquette. "Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns" Neuroscience Letters vol.405, issue 3, 25 September 2006, pg 186-190.

13. Dershowitz, Alan. NY Times Book Review April 16, 2006, pg 12.

14. Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1988.

15. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Mahound has a pejorative connotation. It mistakenly referred to a god worshipped by Muslims during the Middle Ages. Some devout Muslims accused the author of The Satanic Verses of intentional misuse of that term.

16. Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System" Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Ed. Michael Lambek. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 2002.
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Author:Sen, Suchismita
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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