Re: "The problem with peaceful co-existence," Letters, July 23.
I thank Stan G for his thoughtful letter, in which he sets me straight on several issues.
When I wrote that Hinduism has 330 million gods, I didn’t mean to imply that that’s a bad thing. The Hindu godhead is both transcendent and immanent. It encompasses, pervades, and indeed constitutes everything that exists – and transcends it as well. In a sense, every atom is a god. That would give us a lot more gods than 330 million.
Hinduism divinises everything. We just don’t see it. That’s why, as with all religions, a little empirical evidence would be helpful. Stan maintains that if God is utterly transcendent and beyond sensory perception, any empirical proof of his existence would prove only that he is not God.
But that’s if you define him as ONLY transcendent. That limits him, bars him from manifesting himself in the empirical world. The ancient Hebrews conceived him as an invisible but powerful spirit who could manifest himself visibly – for instance, as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire – and who could inflict plagues upon Egypt, separate the waters of the Red Sea, and send manna from heaven. That’s the kind of evidence that convinced the Hebrews to believe in him, never mind that it may all be a myth. It’s the kind of evidence that would be useful today. Instead, if there is such a god, the evidence we’re getting (check the headlines in this newspaper!) suggests that he’s been on vacation for some time.
The peaceful coexistence of atheists and religionists is impossible only if they insist on imposing their views on others. Within my extended family in the United States, we have rabid atheists and equally rabid Christian fundamentalists. (You can see why I left!) They keep the peace only by an implicit agreement never to discuss religion at family gatherings. It’s an uneasy coexistence, but if they failed to maintain it, the whole family would blow up.
Peaceful coexistence depends on mutual restraint. When that evaporates, you get disastrous scenarios like Sunnis and Shi’ites slaughtering each other in Iraq and Syria, and possibly soon throughout the world. But restraint requires discipline. Control of the mind is a prominent feature of Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s less evident in the Abrahamic religions. That may be one reason why violence and warfare have been more conspicuous in the histories of Christianity and Islam than in the histories of the Indian religions.
Whether human beings can maintain restraint and learn to live together despite differing viewpoints may well determine the future of our species. I agree with Stan G that the prognosis is not favourable.