By: Furrukh B Ali
For humans, the relationship with God commenced when they began to personify as gods and goddesses the powerful, awe-inspiring forces of nature that surrounded them, sometimes benign, often threatening, always mysterious. There followed a long and diverse succession of tribal deities, divine rulers, the Greek Olympians and their many offshoots. Finally, there appeared the one God of the monotheistic religions, who gradually displaced the others among a large portion of humanity.
Each of these later versions of God was soon surrounded by an elaborate web of dogma and ritual, presided over by a layer of clergy and theologians who became the guardians of the religion (often in a mutually beneficial alliance with the secular authority). These religions maintained that God created the universe and all that is in it, and controls and directs everything. They also taught that God directs and controls human affairs, and rewards and punishes human beings according to their compliance with His wishes.
God’s wishes, it was claimed, were enshrined in the religion’s scriptures and laws, which were developed, interpreted and expounded by the religious establishment. For a long time religions maintained their hold on their followers by investing their lives with meaning and purpose, and through the promise of divine rewards and the threat of divine punishment. But, in modern times, as knowledge and information have increased and superstition has faded, the hold of religion has weakened and with it the belief in God, so that for increasing numbers of people He has become a polite fiction and plays no real role in their everyday lives. Even for many of those still caught up in religious ritual and dogma God is a distant presence, obscured by all the clutter; they may have belief in Him, but not faith.
More recently, a religious phenomenon that has surfaced from time to time has once again risen to prominence – the God fanatic. These fundamentalists (to be found in all religions) claim a direct connection to God, and zealously adopt the mission of implementing His will (usually some simplistic but grandiose formulation, bolstered by selective reading of scripture). This pits them not only against outsiders but also against their co-religionists, whom they declare to be lacking in the true faith. The crisis affecting the human relationship with God today is that while too many believe too little in Him, an aggressive minority believes too much.
Lately, into this flux has come a spate of books attacking the concept of the God of religion. The essence of their case is that the various “proofs” or arguments usually advanced for the existence of God can all be shown to be fallacious, and that the concept of God proposed and taught by religion is not supported by any evidence; in fact, that there is much evidence and logic to contradict it.
Science has shown that the universe, life, and human beings could all have developed through natural processes, without the intervention of God. Similarly, whatever goes on in the natural world can be shown to occur according to natural processes and laws. One would have to shut one’s eyes and close one’s mind to deny all this evidence.
Human societies and individuals live in many different modes and forms, their natures and shapes due largely to the dictates of history, geography, economics and politics. There is no evidence to show that the God of religion plays any part in determining these. We also see that the outcomes of human choices and actions follow no discernible pattern relating to their ethical or moral quality, or their conformity or otherwise to any divine or religious injunctions. Often, good deeds have bad outcomes while evil actions result in gains, the wicked prosper and the virtuous or innocent suffer.
An open-minded, unbiased examination of the evidence of science, as well as an honest assessment of human affairs, show that there is no convincing proof of the existence of the God of religion. Nor is there any necessity to postulate such an entity to explain what happens in our world. However, it does not automatically follow from the demolishing of this concept of the God of religion that it is not possible to formulate a tenable concept of the entity that we generally think of as God. All that these contrary arguments and evidence show is that the God of religion is not a concept that an informed and intellectually honest person can accept as sustainable.
A viable and tenable concept of God would have to meet two basic conditions :
• Externally, it must conform to our observation and experience of the physical world (i.e., our science).
• Internally, it must be logical and self-consistent.
Another obvious requirement is that the concept must have some relevance for us (otherwise the whole exercise becomes pointless).
In studying and exploring our universe science has established that it is a unitary system. All matter is composed of various combinations of the same fundamental particles. The forces that operate in the universe are all interrelated. The laws that we observe functioning on earth appear to govern the entire universe; they are also all coherent and compatible with each other as part of a single system. It is thus not surprising that, in its search for the origin of our universe, cosmology is discovering that it appears to be of a single origin, a singular event or process that caused it all to come into existence.
Science is coming up with ever more refined (and elegant) hypotheses for how our universe came into existence, and its resulting structure and composition (in the process even postulating the possibility of the existence of many other such universes). But, even as the originating event keeps getting pushed further and further back, there always remains the question : what brought this into being? (As Leibnitz asked : why is there something rather than nothing?). This conundrum cannot be resolved in the physical sphere since, in it, something cannot come into existence from nothing (just as, in reverse, it is not possible for matter or energy to disappear into nothing).
We are thus left with two options : to either accept that there will always be a grey area around this origin, however far back science pushes it, or to assume that the first physical entity or event was caused by something outside the physical sphere. It then becomes a matter of choice which position one adopts. But the belief in a non-physical causality would be just that – an assumption; no physical proof will ever be possible since we are considering an entity that transcends the physical.
If we choose to believe in this higher causality we could define it thus :
That entity which, while existing independently of our universe, is its ultimate cause; which, while existing outside the space-time framework and energy-matter structure of our universe, imposes on it a systemizing unity and direction; and which, as a result, is connected to everything in the universe in a benign and constructive way.
This concept conforms to what we know of our world. It is in accord with the hypotheses of science regarding the origin of our universe, and with its functioning as a symmetrical system working in conformity with natural laws. It is logically consistent, and also postulates an underlying connection between this entity and us. It would be appropriate for us to call this entity God, since this is the name we use for a concept of this nature.
As was stated earlier, believing in such a concept of God is purely a matter of belief. It involves making a conscious choice to assume the fact of an external causality for the universe instead of being content with accepting a purely physical universe, created (in some unknowable fashion) through natural processes and physical laws, and running according to them. The question arises: why would we want to do that? Why should we try to go beyond the facts of science to a belief in the fact of God?
The main reason is that certain logical implications follow from whichever assumption we make about the existence or non-existence of God (the latter is as much an assumption as the former, since it is not possible to prove this negative proposition). These implications are not just of academic or philosophic interest but have far-reaching significance for the way in which we live our individual and collective lives.
Foremost is the issue of what, if any, is the significance and purpose of human life on earth. As we stand at the edge of an increasingly fragile world and look out at the vast, empty darkness of the cosmos, aware that each of us may be but a tiny spark of consciousness born of a freak combination of cosmic circumstances that, after a short while, winks out for ever, this is not a question we can easily avoid.
Ever since humans could think beyond the needs of daily sustenance and survival, they have wondered about this. With religion came an answer that sufficed for centuries, but as religious faith has waned so has its power to answer this conundrum. Materialistic doctrines and systems such as capitalism, socialism and communism have all, despite initial bursts of enthusiasm, failed to provide a satisfactory alternative meaning and purpose to human life. In recent times, increasing numbers of people are turning to religious fundamentalism to fill this void.
Apart from its existential significance, this issue is becoming one of critical importance as our power and efficacy grow exponentially. Already we are reaching out to the planets and the stars; we are probing into the central mysteries of life and matter; we have the potential to alter the face of the earth; we have the means to reorder life on this planet. There seem to be few limits to how much more we can acquire in this direction. The critical question is : to what aims and purposes will human beings put this vast reach and capacity? So far it has been mostly used for parochial profit and power, and often put to destructive purposes. A rational belief in God, and its resulting implications, could provide us with a common set of goals towards which we should use this great power and capability that we are acquiring, goals which serve all humanity and are in harmony with nature.
A darker side of this great progress in science and technology, and the uses to which we have been and are putting it, is its impact on the natural world. As we are beginning to realize, from a nurturing habitat we have transformed it into a polluted, dysfunctional environment that is threatening to severely disrupt life on earth. The most effective way of dealing with this looming crisis is through a united response by all of humanity. A common, rationally tenable belief in God, and the acknowledgement of its implications, can provide us with the basis for the tremendous joint effort that we all need to make to deal with this threat to human welfare and, possibly, even our existence on earth.
A tenable belief in God can also have an important effect on our everyday life. Human societies have constructed elaborate systems of laws and institutions to control and channel the many human tendencies that are a legacy of our evolutionary past (in which the ‘law of the jungle’ generally prevailed). However, the success of these measures depended to a great extent on the ethical and moral codes that religion taught, and which became embedded in the cultures it fostered. With the decline of religious belief these codes have lost much of their power; we need a new basis on which to revitalize the system of human values which govern our individual and collective lives. A rational belief in God, and in the implications that follow from it, can provide such a basis.
Another consideration relates to our human individuality and its subsistence. The observable fact is that each human being lives for a certain period and then dies; as far as we know he or she then ceases to exist. Yet, from the earliest times, humans have conceived of the idea that what dies is only the person’s body, and that the person can continue or resume their existence on a different plane. It is easy to see how radically the whole perspective embracing our life on this earth changes if we believe that this is in fact what happens.
There is no way in which we can prove that human beings can live again after death; we can only make an assumption that this may be so. It is an assumption that most of us would like to make, not least because the alternative robs human life and human individuality of much significance. To make such an assumption is, of course, to postulate a whole order of existence outside or beyond the framework of this universe. This assumption becomes logically possible if we first assume the existence of an entity that created this framework, and is thus capable of creating other frameworks of existence . Logic apart, it is also almost impossible to believe in a life beyond death without a prior belief in God.
To sum up, the God of religion is fading away. The mists of awe and incense within which He thrived are being dispersed by the cold, hard light of science. Even most of those who still mumble the old formulas probably know in their hearts that He is a dying fiction. So do many of those who cling with increasing desperation to His waning presence, waving His flag and fighting against the rising godless tide, some with strident faith and strange crusades, others with guns and bombs, all the while assuaging their mounting fear with comforting reports of His imminent arrival on earth.
Those of us who are prepared to face this hard truth find ourselves in an empty landscape, bereft of the many comforting props and shelters we have come to rely upon. Some declaim that the brightness of the new light will suffice, but for the many others who recoil from the barren hardness of a purely material existence, there is another choice. We can choose to believe in a God who can withstand the bright light of science. Such a belief could invest our lives with true significance and purpose, determine how we will use the great powers and capability that we are acquiring, provide a common basis for us to jointly deal with the many dangers that threaten humanity, underpin our societal structures with a moral basis, and give hope that death is not the end for us.
To establish whether believing in such a God can lead to these results, and therefore this is a choice worth making, we need to examine what would be the implications of this belief.
What Does God Want of Us?
Having assumed the fact of God, a transcendent entity that is, in some fashion, connected to everything in our world, the next issue that faces us is the nature of our relationship with God. What does he want of us? What can we expect of him?
In seeking answers to these and similar questions the first thing we observe is that there exist certain fundamental differences between human beings and everything else that we know of. Everything else in the universe is bound in a certain mode of existence and behaviour. The mighty galaxies travel in pre-determined paths and speeds; the huge stars follow ordained life cycles; the planets move unwaveringly in their orbits. The microcosm is no less firmly regulated than the macrocosm; each particle has its inherent properties and must conform to them; the sub-atomic universe appears to be as bound in a unitary system as the wider universe. Life itself comes into being and develops according to evolutionary laws. Plants live and die in the established rotation of the seasons. Animals exist bound in the iron bands of instinct, their behaviour fixed within narrow limits.
On the other hand, human beings, in contrast to everything else, appear free to order their lives and determine their behaviour in any way they choose. Recorded history and our own observation disclose human beings living, individually and collectively, in many different modes, according to the highest standards conceivable as well as the lowest, in pursuit of all kinds of aims and goals as well as none at all, performing actions that we would call saintly, and also those of the utmost depravity. This vast variety is proof enough that neither our inner nature nor any external constraint compels human beings to live and act in any particular pattern or mode. How they live or what they do is for them to decide. It is true that not many of us are able, in practice, to make such free choices, but, in principle, there is no insurmountable barrier to prevent us from doing so. What any human has done, it is possible for other humans to also do.
It appears, therefore, that there is a radical difference in the relationship between God and humans, and between God and everything else we know of. The systemization and orientation that binds the latter does not extend to human beings. Whatever God may want of other things and beings is inherent in their natures or properties, and in the laws that govern them, but this is not so in the case of human beings. Everything else perforce lives out its relationship with God; human beings alone can live and act in any fashion they please.
This crucial difference between us and other living things is due to the evolution of our minds into this powerful instrument that gives us the capacity to chart our course as we will, to bend our environment to our purposes, and to think conceptually, imagine, analyze and speculate. If our relationship to God is not implanted within us or imposed upon us from without, then perhaps the only way in which we can discover it is through our minds.
The human mind, on its own, has tried two methods of discovering this relationship : rational speculation and mystical intuition. Neither of these has produced any answer which has commanded acceptance either from most other minds similarly engaged or from large numbers of other people. Since this relationship is not between God and some humans but between God and the totality of humanity, any valid answer must, over a period of time, appeal to and be found satisfying by a large proportion of human beings. The only answers which have, historically, met this test are those provided by religions based on “revelation” or “inspiration”.
However, that does not solve the problem. We find that there are many major religions in the world that have held the allegiance of vast multitudes over centuries, and still number their adherents in the hundreds of millions. Each one of them claims to be based on “revelation”, and each asserts, whether overtly or implicitly, that it alone possesses the truth while all others are false. Whose claim should one accept? It is not good enough to accept a religion as true just because one happens to have been born to parents who professed it. As rational, thinking beings it is fitting that we cast aside all preconceptions and use our minds as best we can in arriving at such a decision.
When we approach this issue in such a manner, certain factors strike us straightaway. The most recent serious claim of “revelation” or “inspiration” is that of the Quran. Even though there have been a number of prior “revelations”, logically we should first examine the latest one, which should be the one most relevant to us and our circumstances. Secondly, it is an established historical fact, generally accepted, that the Quran we have today contains in its original form (practically, if not totally) the record of the “inspiration” that occurred some 1500 years ago. No other religion can make a similar claim; in none of them is it possible to disentangle the pure, original “revelation” from later accretions of human inception.
Thirdly, the Quran is the only self-claimed “inspiration” which does not reject the similar claims of others. It affirms a whole system of periodic “inspiration” which culminated in itself; all of them, it says, had the same source, and the same fundamentals have underlain each one of them. Thus, it does not reject previous “revelations”, but claims to incorporate them all within itself.
The above factors all point to the conclusion that, in seeking to discover the true relationship between God and humanity through “inspiration” or “revelation”, logically we should turn first to the Quran. (Whether the answer it provides is worthy of acceptance will, of course, depend solely on our evaluation of it and not on the source).
What Does God Say to Us?
The Quran claims that the essentials of the message it brings to humanity are the same as those perceived and transmitted by earlier messengers over the course of human history, including the “revelations” on which the major religions were based. Unfortunately, these essentials have to a large degree been lost or distorted under layers of later constructions and elaborations. (The same fate has befallen the essential message contained in the Quran, but it is possible for us to rediscover it).
Summarized below are the main elements of this message :
• The origin of our universe is due to God, and he is connected to everything in it. The universe, and all that it contains, is bound by the laws that he has embedded in it but, beyond that, he does not intervene. Humans, as physical beings, are also so bound, but otherwise possess complete freedom of choice and action. In addition to this freedom, God has given us great powers and capacity, and, by virtue of these, offered us a special role – stewardship of our world on his behalf. He urges us to assume the responsibility of acting as his surrogates, to act in his place as causative beings in our world, to work towards his goals and purposes, to do all that he would have done in our world if he had chosen to act in it.
• In accepting this role we would live our lives for God, and not for ourselves. Whatever responsibilities and obligations he has in our world as its creator, we would undertake to fulfil. To be able to do this we have to develop the great potentialities with which he has endowed us; with these we must strive, individually and collectively, to move this world towards its rightful condition, and thus, through human instrumentality, to restore God as a causative agent to a world within which he has chosen not to act as one. We stand for God in our world, and must fashion ourselves and our actions accordingly.
• The message also tells us that the principal values that should govern our lives and our actions should be freedom, love and compassion, justice, the sanctity of human life, and beauty and harmony.
This is the essence of what God has to say to us, according to the Quran. This is what he has said to human beings through all the prophets and seers who have perceived his message, enshrined now in the many religions that have held the allegiance of countless millions over the centuries, in spite of this message being largely concealed under the later additions and interpretations of men.
We started off by seeing that it is not possible for an informed, intellectually honest person to believe in the existence of the God of religion. A tenable concept of such a transcendent entity that created and “governs” our world must conform to what science has discovered about the physical world, and what we know of human history and human affairs. We formulated such a definition of the concept and called it God, because that is the name most familiar to human beings for such an entity.
However, the concept we have defined here, and refer to as God, is not the God of religion. We could give it another appropriate name; for example, we could call it the Cosmic Principle, or the Primal Cause, or Ultimate Reality. We can then visualize this entity actualizing its intent in the first physical form or event, which then led to the evolution of our universe, a gradual process that is still ongoing. This has resulted in the entity’s intent and impetus becoming, in some fashion, immanent in this creation, as we can observe in the consistent, symmetrical and all-pervasive laws of nature, and the way in which the universe has evolved. Its directing impulse caused the creation of life in inanimate matter, and then propelled its evolution into increasingly complex life-forms, culminating in humans with minds capable of self-awareness, abstract thought and volition. We can conceive that, since humans have broken free of the determinism of the natural world, this Cosmic Principle now also seeks to express its impulse through us, trying to make us aware of our responsibility to use the tremendous capability that we already have, and can increasingly acquire in the future, to move our world towards a more perfect state.
It is also quite possible that the working of the Principle has resulted in life developing in other parts of our universe, where it may well have gone through an evolutionary process similar to ours to create intelligent beings who, though their form might differ from ours (due to the differing physical characteristics of their environment), share with us a kinship (and an orientation) through the working of the same originating entity within them and ourselves. We can also imagine this actualization of the entity’s intent occurring on other occasions and creating other universes, which may be quite different from ours in their characteristics, but would share with us the systemizing and directional impulse of our common creator.
Whether we call this transcendent, systemizing and orienting entity God or some other appropriate name the basic human predicament remains the same. Our science, the tool constructed by our analytical and visionary minds, indicates to us an origin of our universe (and ourselves) where the physical processes that created it can be traced back only so far. Beyond this point, science can offer us no answer, no solution to the riddle of how something came to be from nothing.
We have the choice of stopping there and being content to be merely physical creatures in a physical world, or we can choose to believe that a non-physical cause started the physical process of creation, and that this transcendent entity not only caused our universe to come into being but also works within it (through the laws of nature and evolution) so that, instead of chaos, we live in a symmetrical, coherent, dynamic system, whose progression led to the creation of life, which finally evolved into human beings. Making this choice also entails the onus of recognizing and accepting the task that our evolution into humans implicitly imposes upon us, the task for which God (or whatever else we call this entity) has, in this manner, created us, the task that is revealed through a true reading of these many messages that have been perceived by humanity through the ages; namely, to assume responsibility for our world and ourselves, and to respond to the Creator’s call to shape our world into one of peace and plenty, beauty and harmony, freedom and justice.
In the final analysis, for us the issue of God is really the issue of humanity. Accepting and acknowledging the fact of God is to accept and acknowledge our place in a universe that did not come into being by happenstance but through the purposeful unfolding of a measured intent; a cosmos with a thrust and direction which finally brought us into being in one of its far corners through a long evolution from inanimate matter into beings capable of unmatched thought, feeling and action. No longer, then, need we feel we stand on a flimsy perch looking out at the empty, meaningless darkness of unending space, but instead, from this azure orb, we can see unfolding before us the majestic handiwork of the Creator, a process of which we are a part and in which we have a role to play. Filled with grace and awe and reverence, we can raise our voices in praise and gratitude at the nurturing love the Creator showers upon his creation, not as acts of bestowal but as expressions of his very being.
We are called upon to express this gratitude by assuming the role that our human status offers us, by accepting and undertaking the task of stewardship in our world on behalf of God. Not only to preserve it but to continue to make it a better world, ever closer to what it would have been had its creator chosen to act in it. A task that we have so far not undertaken in a manner befitting its critical importance, since failure on our part could result in the destruction of human civilization and perhaps even the end of human life on earth.
In its picturesque language, the Quran puts it thus :
We did offer the Trust to the skies and the earth and the mountains, but they were afraid to accept it. Human beings, however, undertook to bear it, but surely they have ignored it, and indeed they have failed to accord it its rightful due (33:72).