Those who critique religion maintain that religion does not permit freedom of thinking or freedom of conscience. One has to accept received dogmas and traditions as they are and no one is allowed to criticise them. And when religious authorities for any reason happen to be in power they severely punish or persecute anyone who disagree with them or who refuse to accept those religious dogmas and traditions. There are several examples of such persecution from all religious traditions.
The early history of Islam also provides us with many instances of such persecution. The eminent Imam Abu Hanifa was flogged every Friday and also jailed because he refused to subscribe to the dogma of createdness of the Qur'an. Similarly Galileo was made to recant his conviction that it is earth which goes round the sun and not the sun. Throughout the ages such persecution has taken place in the name of religion. Thus some people conclude that to believe in religion is to have blind faith and complete loss of freedom of conscience.
Is it really so? Does religion mean blind faith? Is belief in received dogmas and traditions an essential part of religion. Has one who believes in religion and has faith no right to think freely and criticise received traditions? These are important questions and one has to answer them satisfactorily. Does one has to give up religion in order to be free and to enjoy freedom of conscience?
I think religion and freedom of thought or conscience is not antagonistic. Before we proceed further one has to clearly understand what is religion? What is its relationship with the society? How is it related to political structures? How it is understood at higher levels of intellect and how is it practised at popular levels? Are superstitions integral parts of religion? These are also important questions, which need to be thrashed out clearly.
The problem is that those who are rationalists or 'non-believers' as they call themselves also adopt simplistic approach to religion as those who 'believe' adopt simplistic approach to 'non-believers'. Often both are strongly prejudiced against the other. Sometimes it is as difficult to argue with rationalists as with the believers in religion. Basic problem, according to me, is not religion but human prejudices on either side. Secondly, all humans love to believe rather than exercise freedom.
This 'dogma' also needs to be seriously examined that basically all human beings love freedom. Psychologists tell us that to believe and to follow is to transfer our responsibility of thinking to others and most human beings tend to adopt this easy path. To exercise freedom is to take serious responsibility to think and normally all human beings are not ready to take up such a responsibility. We all try to escape our responsibilities. There is another thing, which we have to keep in mind. We may like to do critical thinking in one field and like to believe in another field. Rationalists too, tend to believe and defend their beliefs vigorously as people of faith defend.
Thus it would be seen that problem is human rather than religious. Most of us tend to be credulous in one sense or the other and feel secure in being 'faithful'. Questioning and exercising intellectual freedom requires hard work and acquisition of great deal of knowledge. Myths and stereotypes is product of ignorance. Where we lack knowledge we tend to accept myths and stereotypes. We are all in a sense ''one dimensional man? as the American philosopher Herbert Marcuse ably put it.
So blind faith is more of a human than a religious problem. It is not true that all believers in religion are invariably blind followers nor is it true that all rationalists are critical thinkers and exercise their critical faculties. As there are submitting faithfuls among people of religion there can be such faithfuls among rationalists too. There can be critical thinkers or faithfuls in both the categories.
What we have to understand is that great minds never submit to dogmas and traditions whether they are among religious category or in rationalist category. It is these great minds who transcend given existential limits and bring about change. Thus critical thinking is more mind-related than to rationalism. Absence of critical thinking is more due to lack of knowledge than to religious dogma. Thus lack of knowledge also creates political, economic or sociological dogmas. Only great and critical minds bring change in these fields. An average mind continues to believe whatever has been developed by great thinkers like Marx, or Max Weber or Freud or Erich Fromm. It is such thinkers who bring about revolution in thinking. These minds have mastery over accumulated knowledge in their respective field and can reject established dogmas in their field.
Similarly all philosophers do not become Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aviseena, Averros or Bertrand Russell. These were great critical thinkers in philosophy and questioned dogmas prevalent before them. Same thing applies to religious thinkers. Buddha, Jesus or Mohammad (PBUH) were great minds. They rejected what was prevalent as religious dogmas during their times. The old morality had become outdated. They revolutionised morality of their times.
A great thinker is never satisfied by what is, he, on the other hand, feels deeply dissatisfied by the given or received dogmas and traditions and goes beyond and gives new concepts and ideas. All great thinkers are persecuted whether they are religious thinkers or philosophical or from field of science. This is because they challenge the established system and in challenging the established system they harm the interests of those who control the establishment.
Thus role of human interests in opposing new critical thinking should not be overlooked. Also there are hosts of people around any establishment who also lose if new ideas are accepted. It is these people who joined hands and persecute critical thinkers. All founders of great religions were critical thinkers and deeply dissatisfied with what was around them. They responded to voice of their conscience and fearlessly exercised their freedom to criticise the powerful religious establishment of their time. Hence they were opposed and most of them even severely persecuted. Without exercise of their freedom of thinking they would not have been able to be great beneficiaries of humanity. Thus freedom of thinking was most essential to these founders of great religions.
What is religion for most of us? It is nothing but a set of rituals, dogmas, doctrine, customs and traditions. Often many associated superstitions are product of ignorance which become part of what we think is 'religion'. All this is treated as sacred and closed to critical thinking. At best we apologetically defend all these received dogmas and doctrines. Most of us submit to this received knowledge either because we are ignorant, indifferent, have interests in following it, and want to escape our responsibility for critical thinking and find greater solace in submitting to authority or simply lack courage to exercise freedom of our conscience.
Many of us simply do not possess intellectual calibre to think critically. Similarly many of us want to enjoy life and left to be in peace so that we can pursue our interests and carry on with our professional work. Also, all of us in the depth of our inner being search for security and there is always greater security in submitting than in revolting or engaging with intellectual ideas. What exists does not disturb us as either it benefits us in some sense or the other or we prefer to make peace than struggle.
It would thus be seen that causes of lack of freedom are more within us and in our external circumstances than in religious dogmas per se. Everyone does not want to be Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekanand or Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Iqbal or Mohammad Abduh of Egypt or if we go back to medieval ages Martin Luther. Those who are deeply dissatisfied by what is given around them and also have capability to think critically and boldly and have mastery over received and new knowledge do not hesitate to exercise their mental freedom. They are ready to suffer for the cause.
It is these people who are truly religious. A truly religious person can never be satisfied with what is given as what is given is often morally imperfect and controlled by vested interests and must be changed. And what is required for changing given reality is critical thinking and raising right questions. All such thinkers anger powerful vested interests and pay the price for it.
A truly religious mind is engaged in constant quest for truth. And this quest for truth leads to restlessness which in other words means that it would critically examine the given dogmas and doctrines. The only aim is continuous struggle for refinement of morals and evolving new ways of achieving moral heights. Today's dogmas are yester- years' intellectual breakthrough. A mind ever engaged in search for newer heights, for better morality would not seek refuge in any dogma. It is only when urge for this eternal quest becomes sluggish dogmas become mental refuge. Dogmas, in other words, are refuge of tired minds.
And this holds as good for religion as for various social sciences. We have dogmas in social sciences too as most of us find it easier accepting dogmas rather than in continuing intellectual engagement. Only those with sharp mind and with urge for truth question these dogmas in social sciences and advance human knowledge beyond given frontiers. Human knowledge of course can advance only by questioning established dogmas. Even religious knowledge advances only by questioning established religious dogmas. If religion remains static it would cease to be relevant at least for this worldly life. New questions are arising and they cannot be answered in old way.
Thus it is in the interest of religion and its relevance that it should keep pace with comprehensive changes taking place all around. Here a question arises what should change and what should not change. What is permanent in religion and what is not? It is important that we understand this in order to avoid confusion. Most of the people feel that religion has been perfected forever. It does not need any change. This is not totally correct position. There is much in every religion that is subject to change.
Dr. Iqbal published his lectures under the title Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and he tried to evolve the parameters of reconstruction of religious thought. Muhammad Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt in late nineteenth century tried to re-think many issues in Islamic jurisprudence. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was writing a new commentary on Qur'an and he tried to reconcile modern science with religion.
It is important to understand what is changeable in religion. What we think in religion is not entirely based on revealed scripture though quite a lot is based on it. Human endeavours to understand the scripture, commentaries on it, formulations on its basis all constitute part of human endeavour. And what is based on human endeavour is neither perfect nor beyond change. What we refer to as dogmas are nothing but human constructions which may be partly based on scripture and partly on their own learning and culturally mediated opinions.
All that is based on human understanding and on human construction is subject to change. It is neither perfect nor infallible. All the commentaries on scripture are culturally and socially mediated and should change with society. Also human knowledge is never static. It keeps on advancing and it has advanced by leaps and bounds since nineteenth century. All the formulations as far as religious dogmas are concerned came into existence hundreds of years ago.
Unfortunately even then existing knowledge about the age of the universe or certain geographical matters etc. also became part of religious dogmas. That the sun goes round the earth or not has nothing to do with religion or whether earth is flat or not cannot be a part of religious teachings and yet they were considered until 18th century as such and any deviation from it a religious heresy. Many Christian priests had even fixed the age of universe as few thousand years.
Thus all legal formulations were also deeply influenced by social and cultural ethos. In almost all religions women was given secondary position and this was considered as divine injunction. All divine injunctions to the contrary were commented upon by human commentators under the influence of their respective socio-cultural ethos so as to give secondary position to women. All these formulations have to change today and the old formulations should be subjected to critical examination in the changed circumstances. All scientific formulations should be taken off religious sphere. Thus it would be necessary to subject all legal and scientific formulations of the past by theologians to thorough scrutiny.
Also, political doctrines should be based not on theological ones but on the socio-economic problems. Politics should also be off limit of the religion. Politicians are tempted to use religion for their own political ends and religious authorities are tempted to enjoy political power and this collaboration between politicians and religious authorities proves calamitous for the common people. The common people have always lost out whenever there has been nexus between politics and religion.
What is unchangeable in religion is values and morality based on these values. The values like truth, love, non-violence, justice, peace, human dignity, equality and compassion are permanent values. No one can change these values. These values belong to core teachings of all religions. Also, there are metaphysical aspects of every religion, which deal with world hereafter, which should be kept off limits as far as critical inquiry is concerned.
The metaphysical beliefs concern belief in God, His prophets, day of judgement, accountability to God, His revelations etc. These also form core of religion and ultimate mystery. Every religion is different and unique in this respect. And as far as metaphysical beliefs are concerned they may not be scientific and in fact need not be scientific. They relate to the ultimate mystery of life. Human life acquires meaning through this ultimate mystery.
There are different truth claims as far as this ultimate mystery is concerned. The knowledge of this ultimate mystery may be acquired through revelation or through deep spiritual experience or intuition. But one thing is common that founders of religions go through a period of deep spiritual turmoil and even intellectual crisis which compels them to seek after truth through deep reflection or meditation in isolation from the humble and tumble of the world.
Reason has its own sphere and religion its own in this sense. But what is needed to see is that irrationality or superstitious beliefs should not become part of religious truth. Even metaphysical beliefs should not be irrational though they may be non-rational. Irrationality and superstition should have no place in any metaphysical beliefs. Having said this one should also recognise the limits of human reason. Human reason cannot answer the matters related to ultimate mystery of life. Every religion makes statement about this ultimate mystery in its own unique way.
It is not for human reason to investigate the nature of this ultimate mystery as it is not for theologians to pronounce their views on matters relating to physical sciences. Science studies empirical reality and its methods are based on observations. Observations may be made through naked eye or through sophisticated instruments. Without empirical data science cannot advance.
Religion, as defined above, does not deal with observable phenomenon. Its function begins beyond the world of empirical observations. In the past religion, science and philosophy were not differentiated. They were all rolled into one and hence great deal of confusion. Now with tremendous advances in knowledge religion, philosophy and science must have different spheres of operation. In fact each branch of science has several sub-branches and specialisation is limited to that particular sub-branch of science and so religion has no longer any relevance as far as science is concerned.
Religion, as pointed out, does not and should not deal with observable phenomenon. All moral and ethical questions fall in its sphere besides matters relating to metaphysical sphere. Religion concerns itself with truth as against science, which dabbles in empirical facts and theories based on these observable empirical facts. One should also distinguish between fact and truth.
Truth is certainly more than mere empirical fact. Truth, however, should not be non-conformity with facts. Thus truth belongs as much to higher realm of values as to the realm of facts. God is truth as God represents highest of values. In fact famous British philosopher maintained that God is ultimate value. God is truth as God is ultimate value and seeking after truth is to seek after God. All prophets and religious thinkers sought after truth and discovered it in their own unique way.
God is not an observable phenomenon like any empirical fact as often insisted by rationalists. God belongs to higher realm of unobservable phenomenon. It is ultimate mystery. And God should not be perceived in any human categories of thinking and is beyond any form of perception. God has no form or attributes (nirgun, nirakar in the Hindu tradition) and unique and beyond human perception, according to Islamic tradition. The Mu'tazila and Shi'ah (as well as Isma'ili) theologians maintained God cannot have attributes as He becomes dependent on human categories.
Thus it should be seen that certain matters pertaining to higher realm of ultimate mysteries cannot be subjected to rational analysis like theories based on observable phenomenon. But even in this sphere one cannot deny role of freedom. There can be new insights and new spiritual experiences and one can explore new frontiers.
Lack of freedom is acceptable neither in religious nor in empirical spheres. Freedom is one of the highest moral categories. There is no human worth if he is denied freedom. Any subjugation to 'final truth' as often happens, robs us of our human dignity, which is one of the highest moral values. Freedom of conscience is one of the noblest of human functions. No moral growth or flowering of cultures is possible without freedom of thought. It is next to none in moral qualities. All religions came into existence as great minds used their intellectual and spiritual faculties to challenge stagnating theological dogmas of earlier faith traditions. These stagnating dogmas were result of denial of freedom by vested interests and it was exercise of freedom of conscience that gifted humanity with new religious thinking. Thus freedom of conscience is as necessary for spiritual and religious growth as for worldly growth.