The Swiss Army Knife or the Utility Argument for Religion & Faith

I have always wondered what basis people use for the Utility Argument for religion. I get this more from my Hindu and Buddist friends.  Here are a few examples of how this goes:

a) I do not profess to the dogmas of religion and religious practice. I consider religion a spiritual journey that gives me inner peace.

b) I belong to a mission/church/temple/sect etc. and it gives me a sense of belonging and community.

c) I perform religious ceremonies or practices more to bring my friends and family together and am not really doing it as part of any belief framework.

d) (My Favorite) – I pray since it gives me inner peace and hey it is not like I am asking you to do the same.

e) And finally look at all the charity and humanitarian work going on with the churches and temples. Wouldnt you want to be part of something noble that makes a difference in people’s lives.

So basically it is religion “lite”. I see a few interesting issues and let us unpack this. There need to be some basic guidelines we need to operate under. Everyone is entitled to believe in what they like and feel comfortable with as long as:

  • You are not proselytizing
  • You are not shaping public policy 
  • You are not shaping education policy in public schools
  • You are not providing charity with a precondition of acceptance into your religious worldview

As Sam Harris puts it, ” beliefs matter and individual beliefs matter”. There is a monumental difference between what “feels good” vs what is true. Remember the definition of Faith is acceptance of a proposition with LACK of evidence.  If your practices provide you “utility” and do not violate the above guidelines that is ok …..but it still does not make it TRUE!

There are a lot of institutions that are providing charitable programs and funding without the slant of religion (ex. OXFAM; Doctors without Borders).

Outcome-based prayer has been proven to be ineffective via multiple studies. If the answer is “I am praying to calm my mind and not really ask for any outcomes from a theistic deity” then all you are really doing is meditation!

There is a myriad of ways that you can foster a sense of community. It can be based on interests or it can be based on activities. My point is being part of a church or a temple is not the ONLY option to meaningfully participate in a community.

And by the way, most of these people who will tell you that their approach to religion is a benign, mild spiritual approach have their children in Sunday school/classes learning inane mythological stories and dogmatic practices. Apparently, the utility and spiritual approach that they profess is not germane for their children. This double standard is evident in the Hindu Missions where (in Sunday school) children are being fed this tripe while at the same time the adults are having a “spiritual” discussion on the meaning of life and religious concepts.

I only wish that people would understand that they can get all the utility value that they perceive is being provided by religion, without it.

But then this is wishful thinking……

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You got to have Faith! Faith!

This topic has been a subject of study, debate and analysis since antiquity. My interest is NOT to examine if there is a positive merit to faith and religion. That is a vast and very contentious subject and can be deferred to another day. My specific interest is to understand whether Faith exposes the limits of Scientific Inquiry and if there is in fact an opportunity for coexistence in the scientific forum.

We are all painfully aware of the numerous struggles scientists had to go through, during the Middle Ages to be able to overcome religious dogmas and present conclusions about the universe that shattered religious world views. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an interesting article about Sir Issac Newton called The Perimeter of Ignorance.

Sir Issac Newton discovers, gravitation, optics, light spectrum, the laws of motion and on a “dare” invents Differential and Integral Calculus just so that he could explain the nature of planetary orbits. However, Newton cannot explain how adding objects to this gravitational law still keeps the solar system stable.

He is able to explain Moon and Earth, Sun and Earth all the two body gravitational models. However he is not able to account how the system is still stable with multiple bodies (Earth and Sun pulling but also Saturn pulling Earth, Mars pulling Earth and so on).
So Newton invokes Faith since he has reached his limit.  From Neil Degrasse Tyson’s article, “A century later, the French Astrologer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronts Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declares it a scientific challenge and solves the issue using Perturbation Theory

Dr. Tyson provides a few more interesting examples of illustrious scientists who reach their limits and invoke faith only to have someone solve the issue later.

Let’s review the recent past where there have been a few specific cases where famous scientists such as Dr. Francis Collins (who let the decoding of the Human Genome Project) has been vocal about his faith, having written books and articles on this faith. By the way he is also the chair of the National Institute of Health. For a detailed analysis of Dr. Collins’ positions, Sam Harris’ article makes for good reading.

Harris asks a very germane question: Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).




What we have understood about ourselves and the universe around us in the last 100 years has been more than the previous 50,000 years combined. Science has debunked, defeated and demonstrated so many cherished myths, superstitions and beliefs which is all due to the “scientific inquiry”. Science continues to attack the “God of the Gaps” theory.

That isn’t to say there is no room for spirituality and faith. There has been numerous cases of sages and saints who have experienced great revelations via meditation, self inflection and contemplation. People use faith to cope with adversity, tragedy and loss.

That is however very very different from when posed with a limit of sceintific inquiry the answer is to outsource the explaination to a divine creator.

There is an alarming groundswell in this country where faith is now starting to be used to question the scientific process. This is going to have long term repercussions in our ability to continue to be a world leader in innovation.

Here is an example: If there is an argument on the quality of evidence regarding Evolution that is a worthy debate to have. If one comes to the stage with a book written a few thousand years ago about a world view from even far back it is not even worth having a conversation. It is like howling at the moon.

I am hoping that we will be able to improve the discourse where a sense of inquiry and reason guides our evaluation and not a reliance on bronze age literature and practices.

Miraculously Speaking

We have a person at work that throws around the word ‘miracle’ rather copiously. This week after a particularly snowy day she walked into work and went “The morning commute was so bad, it is miracle that I made it to work on time”. This got me thinking about how people view miracles and what influence it plays in our lives and belief systems.

There was this joke that was very popular when I was growing up. It went something like this:

A guy goes to a priest in a church and asks the priest, “Father! how do you define a miracle?”. The priest takes a minute to reflect on the question and then a smile crosses his face. He tells the guy to close his eyes and proceeds to give him a really hard slap across his face. To the surprised (and mildly sobbing) guy the priest goes,” Son, did it hurt when I slapped you?”. The guy, looking up in incredulity goes, “YES”. To which the priest replies calmly, ” Well! it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t hurt!”.

Whether you call minor coincidences, random positive events or unexplained events as miracles, the fact remains that belief in miracles is very very popular. The need to divest your rational thought to an experience in faith is very high in this country.

The table above shows three quarters of the population have really strong beliefs in miracles. One wonders is there is a correlation between the above numbers and the drop in U.S.’s math & science rankings in the world.

In India, a country that is a perfect cocktail of God men, spiritual practices, rituals/pseudosciences, belief in miracles is also very high.There is the God man who materializes objects, or the idol that bleeds milk  (or some random liquid) or the guy who claims he can ward away evil spirits with a talisman. In all the cases the sequence follows the same three step process:

Step Description
The Set Up “I have a friend who told me about this” Or ” I was driving and heard about this and decided to check it out” Or ” We heard about this Baba and wanted to check him/her out”
The Description “My Friend described this thing that was amazing”, ” I saw with my own eyes the milk was flowing”; ” I saw with my own eyes when he materialized the object”; “He had this really bad ailment and he was magically cured when he got the blessings”
The Outsourcing This is where reason/logic gets outsourced. This goes like this, ” I am a sane and scientific person, how can u explain what I saw/experienced” OR ” There have been many scientists that have looked into this and they cannot come up with an explanation” OR ” How do you explain the person had a tumor and one week after meeting with this Baba it went away”

My own views on miracles can be summed up in the figure below:

There has been a lot of progress made in the field of debunking these miracles, although with some collateral damage. Indian rationalist – Sanal Edamauku had to flee the country after the Indian courts invoked an arcane Blasphemy Law to prosecute him when he disproved miracle claims of a statue of Jesus bleeding holy water. Other rationalists have been working hard to debunk these miracles in the hope of waning the public from being duped by these charlatan God men.

Miracles when combined with religious exploitation makes for a potent and lethal combination. You are literally at the corner of Susceptibility and Indoctrination. I would have loved to close with a dissertation from David Hume on Miracles and contrasted that with the current day belief in miracles statistics.

Blurred Lines – From Superstition to Pseudoscience

Growing up in India we had usual plethora of Gods stacked up in the “God corner”. In addition, there were the other usual suspects – a sealed pot of water from the Ganges, various dried herbs and a ton of other knick knacks – collections from various temple visits. Superstitious beliefs were intricately interwoven into the fabric of life and culture. They ranged from the harmless to the macabre. Reflecting back now it is interesting to see how these beliefs consumed you and became part of everyday life.

Prayer had to be done facing a specific direction. Idols were supposed to face a specific direction. Never understood this. Seems counter intuitive given the proposition that God is omnipresent.
Then there were auspicious days and auspicious times. Don’t leave on a trip unless it was an auspicious day (or time). Don’t embark on a new business venture unless it was an auspicious day. Parties and religious functions usually were followed by complex rituals to get rid of the “evil eye” or the “jealous eye”. If someone fell sick after relatives visited then “aha” it was the evil eye at work.A good portion of these superstitions are harmless and is an extension of OCD like behavior. Knock on wood, keep your fingers crossed, don’t pass the salt by hand etc. all things that grew from culture and folklore and are usually harmless. In this Web Md article – Psychology of Superstition, sense of security and confidence are some of the key benefits from having harmless superstitions and rituals.

The real problem starts when this morphs to pseudo sciences and belief in dangerous rituals.

Astrology is pervasive in our society. A frivolous indulgence in the daily horoscope column to check if Mars will be messing with the S&P index is one thing. Relying on astrology for every decision in your life takes it to a different level altogether.
www.cartoonstock.com 
Career Changes, Marriage, Love, Financial Decisions, Property ownership, business ventures, education etc…..the list is very long. This culminates in the head of the Indian Space Research Organization seeking blessings from a temple visit to ensure auspicious start to India’s space launch to Mars.
The assassination of Narendra Dhabolkar an Indian Rationalist who drafted the Anti Superstition Bill was horrific and tragic. It resulted in passing the bill by two Indian states to criminalize practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, and magic remedies to cure diseases. Although this is a good start there is a lot more that needs be done to address many more superstitious beliefs like Vastu Sastra (Feng Shui), fortune telling, traditional medicine men etc.
This brings me to our recent stateside buzz with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debating Ken Ham president and founder of Answers in Genesis-U.S., and the “creator” of the Creation Museum. I was saddenend by the announcement of the debate. I am an ardent fan of Bill Nye and his contributions to inculcate a curiosity in science and reason into the public discourse. However as Dan Arel wrote on the Richard Dawkins website “Scientists should not debate creationists. Period.”  “Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to,” Dawkins said in 2006. “For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.” (link to WaPo Article).(Source:www.fsteiger.com )
Some things can’t be a debate anymore and pseudo science cannot be taught in school curriculum. It is depressing to read this map of public schools in the US that are teaching creationism as a viable option to evolution. This is like teaching Astrology alongside Astronomy as a science (oh wait! the Indian University Grants Commission is offering funding to create departments in Vedic Astrology).  Unless there is more awareness and advocacy (at the risk of hyperbole), we may end up with something like this:

Of God men/women (part 1)

As you may have already read in the news Commander Selvam is “accused” of separating money from his flock (link). It is important to note that he is innocent till proven guilty. However this does bring up an interesting set of questions regarding “god men/women” and their ability to influence people by exploiting their fears to amass large sums of wealth.

If you have not heard of Commander Selvam he is a self anointed Godman (About) who promises various cures and remedies with a combination of religion and pseudoscience, and has been instrumental in the construction of various Hindu temples in North America.

Up until his recent fall from fame he was a very popular figure amongst the Indian American community and his magazine ‘Karma’ was a free pickup staple in all Indian grocery stores. The website (Link) makes for amazing and hilarious reading.

Some examples are :

  1. a) In the Fees and Dhakshina section there is this gem –“Atharva Vedic Rituals Dakshina  fees varies from US$501.00 to US$10 Million depends on the rituals, time involved, priests involved and the various specialized Vedic items to be used etc.., The atharva Vedic Rituals cannot be canceled for any reason, once agreed to start, We have 100% no return policy. No guarantee for any results or outcome of any rituals”

Makes one wonder what Vedic Ritual costs US$10Million and a 100% “no return” policy! (Cut to Homer Simpson praying to God with a plate of cookies ” Dear God if you ‘don’t’ want me to eat these cookies give me NO sign”).

  1. b)The organization runs a ‘temple M&A’ operation that is surrealistic. This is from their website – “Also, if you know any temple which needs financial support to manage the Hindu temple in any part of the Universe, we are ready to adopt”the temple and we will make sure that the temple will survive for generations. 

c)Among the various nuggets of wisdom he has imparted over the year:

– Types of women that men should avoid (Link)

– This beauty titled ” Mantras for Delayed Marriage” (Link)

In any case, there are too many to name and list, you can find the entire offering here Link.

Now that the Feds have indicted Mr. Selvam on 32 counts of swindling his congregation, credit card companies and the IRS, one wonders what is going through the throngs of “devotees” that have invested their faith, time and money with this Godman.

I have always wondered the reason for the Godman fascination. Full disclosure – I grew up attending one of these popular “missions” in India and was on a healthy diet of astrology for a long time till I reached my own personal catharsis. I can understand the value in imbuing principles from philosophers and thinkers but there is definitely a huge fall (off the proverbial logic) cliff when one ascribes to using Godmen to ward off evil spirits, resolve marriage disputes and as Dr. Selvam colorfully articulates –  “Any and All kinds of problems created by any Human and or by deadly evils”

Today God men/women are pervasive in every culture and country. Be it the Indian Guru that is pedaling pseudo science by mixing parts of scripture, yoga and medicine or the Pastor that purports he can heal the evil spirits of Satan’s minions that is the cause for homosexuality. The common themes always revolve around money, power and ability to influence, but most important of all is money.

This Washington Post Article explores the rise of Indian Godmen and their accrual of wealth and power. However this is no different from the Jerry Falwells or Ted Haggards of this country. Same MO.

So here is my list of “Signs you are intricately involved with a God man/woman or group”

  1. a) You are required to attend religious sessions of ANY frequency (daily, weekly, monthly). (Entropy should be your friend here).
  2. b) There is a direct or indirect implication of monetary contribution of any kind.(dead giveaway – Your God person is getting richer by the day and you are not).
  3. c) You are absolutely convinced that he/she materialized objects right in front of you (or some other “miracle” that defied the laws of physics (also google- “image of Jesus on the tortilla chip”).
  4. d) You readily on board vague pseudo scientific concepts into your worldview ex. hugging a God person will bring you good luck, “getting a good view of the god person in a crowd’ is a sign of good times etc.
  5. e) You are very easily able to succumb to the cognitive dissonance that as long as there is evidence of “charity and social good” being implemented all other shortcomings/departure from law are fine.
  6. f) Finally…you lead by faith in places where you should have led by reason.

One can aspire to be free from the burden of fear, superstition and God men/women. Only then as Mr. Selvam eloquently depicted on his website – we will all be…………………………