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Theism Vs Atheism

by Br. John Martin (aka, Swami Sahajananda)

In 2010, when the world-famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, made a statement that theology (God) is not necessary to explain the origin of universe, certain religious leaders reacted very strongly. Atheists were jubilant as they felt they'd found a strong alley in a theoretical physicist.

In his visit to the UK the same year, his holiness: Pope Benedict XVI, with the then vociferous atheist movement in mind, observed that "the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of humankind and of society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his or her destiny".

Atheism, of course, is not a recent phenomenon. It began when the first human beings wanted to be free from the restrictive concept that some had conceived of a separate dominating and demanding God, 'up there'.

So rather than investigate deeply into the origin of life and its Source, they decided to ditch the idea of God altogether and certain people will do this as long as human beings exist.

Today, some atheists have become almost as missionary as theists in propagating their 'no-God' dogma. Atheistic secularism is spreading very fast and concerned religionists are trying to confront it. There seems to be a real conflict between theism and atheism. Could there be a way of resolving this seeming antipathy?

It's this writer's contention that theism should not look upon atheism as its enemy but as something that belongs to the evolutionary process of  human consciousness towards its ultimate destiny. Theism should use the assertions of atheism as a catalyst for its own evolution.

If atheism finds its strength only on the dark side of theism, then it's building its house on sand. It would do better to  open itself to the infinite Presence, or, the ultimate formless Source of all (including theism, atheism and every other 'ism') which the wise one's contend is beyond all forms and the ground of true inner freedom.

What both theism and atheism need is humility to learn and to grow. This attitude forces us to reflect on the nature of Truth.

Truth and Religious Absolutism

Religious absolutism is in force when a religion claims to have the absolute truth. Its followers believe that their scripture alone has been revealed by God and that it is eternal. Followers are asked to submit their will and intellect to the authority of this sacred scripture and to the religious leaders who claim to have the sole right to interpret holy writ. 

Religious absolutism distrusts the power of reason alone to arrive at the truth; it insists on belief or faith in the supernatural. It also enjoins its followers to be loyal, to defend its belief system and propagate it, even if it involves giving up one's life for the cause.

Religious absolutism can play a positive role. It gives meaning, purpose, direction, a sense of identity and security to its adherents. One doesn't need to think too much because everything is already prescribed. One has plenty of time to do other things instead of searching for truth.

Even if religionists do think, it's usually only to defend and confirm their own belief structure. In difficult situations of life, religionists find support and consolation in their 'God' or belief structure.

The main limitation of religious absolutism is that it restricts spiritual life to beliefs (about God) and thus blocks one's evolution toward 'God' consciousness (or direct experience of the divine).

It doesn't give freedom to think independently, to speak or to act as 'right' thinking etc. is already decided by 'Scripture' or by 'God' as interpreted by religious officials.

Religious absolutism is also a source of division, conflict and violence in the world as human beings are divided on the lines of beliefs. It creates collective identities and breeds intolerance and religious fundamentalism.

Atheistic Secularism

Atheistic secularism dismisses the notion of God or an afterlife, but is concerned with finding fulfillment in this life. It blames religions or belief in a particular ideas about God as being the source of division, violence and bloodshed in the world. It seeks to diminish the influence of religion, especially in public life.

It considers religion superstitious and fanatical and thus obstacle to the freedom of human beings. It wants to free human beings from what it sees as crippling notions of 'God' or religion. It relies on the power of reason and the evidence of the natural sciences to achieve its goal.

Though secularism was agnostic in the beginning, it later became atheistic. The secularism that tries to eliminate 'God' completely from public life could be called aggressive secularism. We find this in the effort of secularists in Western and some Asian societies to remove religious education from the public schools and replace it completely with secular education.

Modern secularists see belief in (or fear of) 'God' as something that oppresses human beings, and, that the elimination of such beliefs is necessary if humankind is to be truly free. When the philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, declared: "God is dead." he thought he was announcing freedom for humanity.

Secularism based on scientific investigation has a positive contribution to make to the evolution of human consciousness as it reveals the limitations of religious belief systems and institutions.

Secularism also says it is up to human beings to create their own destiny -- they alone are responsible for their actions. Mature secularism often advocates human values such as, freedom, liberation, equality, dignity and justice.

However noble may be the ideal of atheistic secular humanism, theists contend that it cannot satisfy the deeper longings of the human heart. As St.Augustine has said memorably, even if somewhat simplistically, "O Lord, our hearts are made for you and they are restless until they rest in you."

Assertive atheism tries to make people abandon any concept of God and the supernatural but offers no meaningful alternative except scientific materialism, consumerism and liberalism. It tells people that they are only one among zillions of other life forms in a limitless universe and that they have no special significance or purpose.

Atheists find no inherent meaning in the (material) world or their existence, so they must impute some meaning to it. Instead of being salt to the world they must make the world to be their salt. Instead of being light to the world they must make the world to be their light ... and a dim and inconstant light it is at best.

God of History and God of Eternity

This brings us to raise the most important question: what is the Truth ... or God? In the Mundaka Upanishad, a disciple asks the teacher, "Master, what is that by knowing which we know everything." The teacher replied: sages say that there are two levels of Truth: Apara vidhya (lower wisdom) and Para vidhya (higher wisdom).

Apara vidhya consists of four Vedas, rituals, and other sciences. The Para vidhya is that through which one knows God directly. Any knowledge of God that comes indirectly is lower wisdom; this includes even sacred scriptures. Higher wisdom is that in which a person has the direct experience of God and realizes the universal and indwelling presence of God (which is 'Spirit' -- and neither a person nor an object).

God is not only everywhere outside us but everywhere within (omnipresent). In other words, there's nowhere where God isn't! A person says, "I am in God and God is in me." A person may grow even further and realize that God is the source of one’s existence and may declare "God and I are one" (aham brahma asmi).

It doesn't mean one becomes God or there are many Gods -- it really means that ultimately God alone exists and the whole of creation comes from God and returns to God as ice comes from water and returns to it. We have to begin with Apara vidhya and grow into Para vidhya.

Once, when Moses felt he was in the immediate presence of God, he asked this 'Presence' its name. At first Moses was told enigmatically: "I am That I am,"

But this was too much for Moses to handle. So the revelation was regiven in more concrete and historical terms: "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." Moses could then recognize the divine mystery as the God of his ancestors.

Here we see that revelation regarding the nature of 'God' or ultimate Truth. Revelation can have two aspects -- historical and eternal.

With historical truth only, human beings experience God as transcendent mystery. God reveals his will through commandments.

The Ten Commandments given to Moses and the people on Mount Sinai imply: God is greater than human beings, they have to submit their will and intellect to the almighty, and that God demands absolute obedience, loyalty and exclusivity.

But this is not the ultimate divine-human relationship. God also promised that he would make a new covenant in which he would write the Law in the heart of the people. When this happens, there's no need for one person to urge another to believe in God because everyone would then know God inwardly.

This is the experience of the indwelling and the universal presence of God. God is no longer an authority who demands the obedience of will and intellect, but he is the God of freedom who gives the recognition of What they really are to his mature children. God is known in silent inner stillness even while one is outwardly busy.

Jesus of Nazareth experienced this transition in his understanding from acknowledging the God of history to experiencing the God of eternity -- probably at the moment of his baptism. He could then say, "I am in the Father (God) and the Father is in me."

He went even further, however, when he realized he and his Father (God) were one. To say "God and I are one" may appear to some as a presumptuous and blasphemous statement but in fact it is a most humble statement.

It is the dropping of our egoic identity and the recognition of our oneness with God ... and with everything else. It's  affirming that God alone exists -- that we all come from God and return to God. It makes a person humble. It is the realization that everyone is that reality (tat vam asi).

Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, an act of great humility. The deeper one grows into God the humbler one becomes.

All the sacred scriptures are the gift of God to humanity. But they belong to the historical manifestation of truth. Since theism is based on the sacred scriptures it also belongs to the historical manifestation of God or Truth. The historical manifestation of truth is conditioned according to the times and culture in which it is revealed.

The difficulty comes only when historical truth is understood as eternal truth. It's like saying that the space within the four walls of a room is infinite space. To anyone who has been out in the open, it clearly isn't.

Our confined experience when taken as a total and final revelation becomes a source of division and violence in the world. Just as every house has a door to the infinite space, so also every religion should have a door to the 'God' of eternity.

In every scripture and major religious tradition, there are keys that open the door to the God of eternity. It is the responsibility of spiritual guides to look for these keys if they want to grow in their spiritual journey and help others to do the same.

A wise spiritual guide is one who is well versed in the historical God (sacred scriptures) and is also established in the eternal God. In this way he or she becomes a bridge for the people to progress from the historical God into the eternal God.

Jesus was very angry with the spiritual leaders of his time. He said, "You have the keys of the kingdom of heaven; but neither will you enter nor allow others to do so". He felt that the religious leaders of his society had become an obstacle for the spiritual growth of its members.

A theism that confines people to the historical manifestations of God is blocking the spiritual evolution of human consciousness and thus not in harmony with the purpose of God. It may be even acting against the will of God!

Mature atheism is a cry of the human heart to free itself from the God of history and authority and move into the God of freedom and eternity. It is an existential urge to be born into a new life.

The fight of atheism is against the God of history. Since the God of history demands the submission of the will and the intellect, he is considered to be authoritarian and oppressive.

Both atheists and theists can leave the 'God of history' concept behind and move out into the natural light and infinite space of the 'God of eternity.' It's the next necessary step in our personal growth and in the evolution of human consciousness. 


NB: If you enjoyed this article, there is another by Bro. John Martin Sahajananda >>>HERE

Br. John Sahajananda By Br. (Swami) John Martin Sahajananda, OSBCam, now Spiritual Director at the Saccidananda Ashram, Shantivanam. He was a close disciple of the great Vedic Christian mystic, Bede Griffiths.

Br. John contributes immensely to Hindu-Christian dialogue and resides at Shantivanam, Thannirpalli, Karur. Dt., South India 639107. Some recent articles by him are:

Radical Love is Advaitic Love
The Teaching of Jesus in the Light of the Upanishads
Bulletin 82, January 2009

Mission without Conversion
An Open Letter to Christians
Bulletin 81, July 2008

His books include:

Sahajananda, John Martin -- You Are the Light: Rediscovering the Eastern Jesus. ISBN 1903816300, Softcover, 224 pp. O Books, Ropley, Hants, United Kingdom, 2003.

-- The Hindu Christ: Jesus' Message Through Eastern Eyes. ISBN 190504755X, Softcover: 113 pp. O Books, Ropley, Hants, United Kingdom, 2006.

-- Truth Has No Boundaries: Proclaiming the Goodnews of Peace. Softcover: K. John Martin. Tamilnadu, Inda.

-- A New Vision of Christianity, Softcover: 68 pp, Shantivanam: Saccidananda Ashram, Tannirpalli P.O., Kulitthalai, Karur (Dt.), Tamil Nadu 639107, South India. 1998.