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Is Man a Religious Animal? - By Asif Zaidi

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“Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion--several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven....The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste.” ― Mark Twain

Religious Symbolism as reflected in the myths of mankind often deciphers the wonder of life’s evolution from the animal to the human plane as a miraculous intervention of a power whose manifestation we see all round and within ourselves but whose operations our present plane of consciousness is not yet qualified to understand. The mystery of life defies us at all levels. The metaphysical explanation for the upholding of a certain religious conviction or its relevance to life has to be furnished by our meagre powers of reason and these explanations need to be treated by us for what they are worth. But regardless of the worth of different religious beliefs to us, the way the man is correlated to his environment indubitably substantiates the emergence of man from the forms of life which precede him in evolution and which continue to be an essential part of his psychic nature and experience.

Thus religious awareness, in the sense expressed above, is a need to affirm some supra-personal ground in order to impart meaning to our existence. This explains the phenomenon of moral choice as seeking to move out from the spot we are in to another which our imaginative reconstruction presents to us as a desirable one for us to be in. Thus we talk about one conduct being right and leading to an end which is good and the other being wrong and leading to evil. This engenders in us the craving to move on to ever newer phases of existence because of our link with an unchanging supra personal plane. It is this perception of this plane that gives us a sense of moral direction and formulates our conception of good life in the succession of events unfolding themselves before us. This consciousness of the moral quandary of man and his destiny as an agent of change in his environment and history is reinforced by our contact with that abiding ground of our being which is other than us. It gives us a sense of responsibility in all we do or do not do.

Edmond Burke was right, I often say, man in truth is a religious animal. As man becomes aware of himself he begins to see that he has transcended himself. His awareness of himself originates from his going out of himself in an encounter with nothingness. Just as the eye needs a mirror to see itself, the self in us has no direct awareness of itself except as it sees itself reflected in an undifferentiated ensemble outside of itself. At heart, religious experience lies in our feeling bound in some way to something that is not us, that other could be a focus of worship, a way of life, a scheme of beliefs, or a set of practices. Etymologically too, the word religion conveys the idea of being connected to something. Our being and our actions are a manifestation of this connection we have with the world around us. Man’s life is an endeavour to elaborate this connection and to discover his own ground for affirming it. Human life is about this transcendence. Everything else in universe just exists; whereas man knows what he is and what he recognizes as his true existence. His rational powers are born in the very struggle to control the forces of nature, but the quest for discovery of truth stems from his being a religious animal, his inborn longing to reach beyond himself.

Animals’ motivation is fuelled by the craving to seek satisfaction of biological needs, enabled through a series of complicated instinctive responses that call into play an entire process of stimulus and response. However, a higher degree of evolution in man’s life teaches him to rise above the demands made by his instincts and thus confronts him with a choice between good and evil for a moral bearing. It is at this point that the religious attitude is born as man seeks to act upon a view which is not solely presented to him by his sensory powers but is rooted in the need for explanation of the ‘why’. All traditional systems of religious faith and practice are anchored in man’s need to go beyond himself. That a certain type of religious belief is valid or not is a totally different debate and is entirely independent of what I am saying here. What I am saying is that man’s being a religious animal is an inevitable phenomenon of his being a life higher than that of animals. The life that is absolutely immanent in animals becomes partly transcendent in man.

Sometimes our perception of our environment gets brusquely cancelled out by the failure of action contrived by us. This leads us to revise, from time to time, the picture we have in our mind of the world outside. Thus our views keep on progressively changing in accordance with our experiences and our consciousness grows as we correct the picture in our head and make it more accurate. The discoveries of the cognitive adventure of life in man are valid only in so far they help develop a plan to deal with the environment. As life advances it realizes that the real ground of action lies outside the constricted confines of its immediate consciousness. For example, when an architect is invited to design an edifice, the ground of his action is not his immediate perceptual consciousness but has to do with the imaginative construction of his creative faculties. Direct discernment of the world of the unseen thus gets drawn in as is the case in most transactions of life. This same phenomenon is echoed by the mystical traditions when they state that there are certain needs of our real self which can only be fulfilled if we blend our self with a wider being that swallows it up. No wonder the combined wisdom of the religious heritage of mankind reminds us to realize the truth of this relationship in order to give man’s toil hereunder a sense and a purpose.

There are three main mindsets in understanding man’s relationship with his ground of experience.

The first is the theocentric mindset, where man treats the ground as a higher magnificent presence. He surrenders to the will of this higher presence and respects and worships Him. Thus the foremost consideration for man in all he does is his relationship with this Supreme presence. For this mindset, man is the most primary and sacrosanct constituent in the scheme of things. The human person is unique in its characteristics and is completely original in the world hereunder in which his lot is cast. To my mind Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and some systems of Hindu religious thought belong in theocentric group. For this group the personal life is understood as a meta-cosmic reality which manifests itself in the world of appearances ruled by a higher being with whom dialogue by a man is possible. In terms of life after death, for theocentric mindset, of course, the immortality of soul is the quintessence of human existence and any experiences gained by the soul of man in earthly life would be available to it for further growth and expansion after it has thrown away the mortal coil.

The second is the anthropocentric mindset, where man endeavours to understand the law or process of the ground in order to plan action to alter the world of appearances. This is a mindset of expediency rooted in man’s desire to exploit the forces at work in the universe. In this mindset man regards himself as the measure of all things. For this mindset, man has emerged from what has preceded him and is understandable in connection with the cosmos as he shares in his being that which exists outside him in his environment. Thus, he is just the child of cosmos and nothing unique. However, as the final product of creative evolution, he is superior to all that has contributed in his existence. I think, many of the Hindu metaphysical doctrines, Confucianism, Taoism, and Theistic Existentialism belong in anthropocentric group. For this group, man has to utilise to his advantage his knowledge of the laws and processes of a supra-natural ground. For anthropocentric mindset the survival of human soul after death is debatable because it treats human personality as the highest of life’s evolution operating in the cosmos. For most groups in this mindset the immortality of soul is not a birthright of man but can be attained as a reward for his work on earth. For them there is a possibility that something may survive the end of bodily life in order to continue the evolution of life and, therefore, the possibility of soul’s survival after man’s death remains an open question.

The third mindset is the nihilistic one, where man considers his relationship with the supra-personal ground as pointless and immaterial for satisfying the basic needs of his earthly life. This mindset discards any codes of behaviour based on supra-personal source, but it is, in itself, a positive philosophy of action. For this mindset the idea of personality is an illusion. The most supreme end available to man is to reject this illusion and to adjust himself in an unfriendly universe in which his life has emerged by the interplay of forces which had no prevision of man as an end. I would say Atheistic Existentialism, Buddhism, and all forms of Materialism –as philosophies of life- belong in nihilistic group. For this group the salvation of man consists in giving himself up to a wider synthesis - to Nirvana, to the State etc. For the nihilistic mindset the further continuance of man’s life after death is of no real consequence as in its view, with the disintegration of man’s body the bubble that is human personality bursts and man disappears into absolute oblivion.

To elaborate the last point I make about nihilistic mindset, I believe that a total denial of belief in religion and morals is itself a positive basis of action and a religious attitude. When Marx declared war on religion he was not merely attacking the religious belief and practice sanctioned by traditional forms of religion. He was, in fact, out to establish another religion, just as Buddhism does not recognize God in the Abrahamic sense but still is a religion. Communism makes a god of economic force. Similarly, modern atheism’s evangelical rejection of God is also a religion in itself. Just to divert for a while, I have never been impressed by the evangelists of any type. If at all, you have to judge the evangelists on what they do, rather than on what they believe. The contradictions of traditional religions are certainly confusing but so are those of other belief systems, such as atheism or communism. In fact the modern atheist is in agreement with the religious fundamentalist that a person’s attitude towards God is the most important aspect of their character. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a classic example of someone who uses dogma to justify a particular viewpoint and bellows it at the population, principally aiming at folks with far less scientific knowledge than himself, knowing full well those with enough scientific knowledge to make an informed decision regarding belief in God will not fall for his crude arguments, and seeks to cash in on his own academic credentials, much like clergy does.

As Ali Ibn Abi Talib explains, the slave is doomed to worship out of trepidation and the merchant bows in greed. But to think of God greatly and to feel his boundless splendour is greater. Such thought makes one a free man when one bows to divinity to absorb it to make it a part of oneself. Bertrand Russell echoes this when he writes, “To abandon the struggle of private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things – this is emancipation and this is free man’s worship. And this aberration is affected by the contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of time.”

Time to conclude, as we have already been too long. We started by saying that there is a primary nexus that links man with something other than himself. Then we examined that, broadly speaking, this ‘other’ can be perceived in three different manners. One, as some supreme force or law underpinning the cosmos. Two, some presence of a sort reflected in our fellow beings. Three, in what an empirical self feels and finds in the self he contacts when he introspectively attempts to recover his real self hidden by the glacial screen of a false ‘I’ which goes on impersonating as self. I take these three interpretations of supra-personal ground as three types of religious symbolism since these present various levels of communication through the very link we have with the ‘other’ based on the evidence that is available to man. The evolution of man on earth, I feel, may have something to do with man’s yearning for a communion of his deeper self with the meta-cosmic Reality unknown to any existing form of consciousness. Man thus, in quintessence, remains a religious animal even in his most profound atheistic convictions.

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