Neuroscience and Karma: 14. Religion; Believing and Worshipping

0. Right Belief

Indian philosophers in general and Jains in particular emphasize that perfection and self-realization is integral in soul and yet it has been hindered from achieving its infinite glory from eternity. The soul has been oblivious of its own real nature and has been wandering in wilderness.

The principle which acts as hindrance against self-realization is called avidyā or mithyātva (nescience) or moha (delusion), because it deludes the soul by producing perverse belief or faith. The soul is lured in the wrong direction and it clings to the worldly life as the source of happiness which leads to the endless cycles of re-births. The common aim of all the Indian Systems is to show the way out of this vicious circle and the very first step in this direction is the destruction of nescience or perverse belief.

According to the doctrine of karman in Jain philosophy, the most vicious bondage is that of belief-deluding (darśana mohanīya) karman. Its function is to delude the soul and produce nescience - perversity of faith/belief (mithyādarśana).

In order to destroy the perversity, the first thing that is necessary is possession of right belief of spiritual conviction (samyagdarśana). Once this happens, the soul turns back and treads upon the right path. Thus right belief is the foundation of Jain religion; it (samyagdarśana) is the sine qua non - forerunner / precursor - of right knowledge (samyagjñāna) and right conduct (samyakcāritra).

1. Knowledge Depends on Believing

The very word belief implies conviction and trust and the essential feature of all our beliefs is that we believe in them, they are the props and stays of our brain programs. Without belief we could not have trust in either analytic propositions, such as "2 + 2 = 4" or synthetic ones such as that "the sun will rise in the morning." Thus beliefs are essential to all reasoning but they are not achieved by reason. They are, quite simply, the result of the trusting capacity of the human brain, which allows the individual to build up programs that use such beliefs. Of course, it is hard to know just how much of any particular belief is due to training and how much to heredity. But the basic capacity to believe is essential to the functioning of every individual, and, like the capacity to speak, it must have a fundamental inherited background.

The capacity to believe includes much more than religious belief. Belief is necessary to accept the fundamental concepts upon which all logical discourse depends. Acquisition of knowledge in the human's rational way depends on the capacity to recognize certain logical truths. For example, we know what is meant by asking a question and giving an answer. Then we must agree about the nature of truth and falsehood, equality and difference, the meaning of "more' and 'less', "before' and "after', and many more such relationships. In fact, we have to have faith in the intelligibility of discourse, capacity to learn. The capacity for believing is a mode of operating that is not learned by experience. Of course, this does not mean that a baby is born with any particular system of logic or of religious belief, but that its brain will develop a power to operate with complete reliance on certain concepts. Without the capacity to believe, it could not function at all. The development and construction of the whole human brain-model depends upon this capacity to accept or have faith in certain fundamental methods of operating. Animals do not believe either in logic or in God. As Bertrand Russell said, 'believing seems the most "mental" thing we do'.

We all need belief where knowledge fails us. But it is degrading to continue to use detailed beliefs that have become inconsistent with knowledge.

2. The Function of Belief

To fulfil their tasks, beliefs have to assist the individual through all the difficult phases of life. The individual has to face a very wide range of eventualities and anxieties, and his own detailed knowledge and information is usually supplemented by a set of categorical beliefs, whether scientific, political, or religious. We all need beliefs. A characteristic of our method of brain modelling is that we require what we call 'explanations' for all the occurrences around us. We expect them to fit into one coherent scheme. Yet all of us, however wise, reach, in the end, points where our knowledge and understanding fail and some form of hypotheses, or guess, or faith, or religion becomes the only possible way to provide the explanation. This is, therefore, the mode of brain-activity that relates a man to ultimates that he cannot know about logically. Many people believe that they can do this by cultivating modes of mystical experience, which they enshrine in beliefs about some spirit or god. Others may find that a logical belief in the unity of nature is sufficiently satisfying. Neither of them can prove that they are right.

The capacity to accept faith in religious beliefs is determined by the strength or intensity of deluding (mohanīya) karman and has inherited background. Man has an innate tendency to believe in God. But the actual form of his faith varies very much with his culture. He needs repeated reassurances in the face of his fears of the unknown and is comforted by belief when he is faced with the uncertainly of his future. Our brain-programs are so highly organized around concepts of persons that gods are nearly always personified. To form a concept of god in non-personal terms may be a rational aim but people prefer to believe in the operation of agents who are receptive to human communications. Thus, Jesus and the Virgin are in a sense more important than the Father or Holy spirit who is remote and inaccessible. An important feature of the gods and goddesses in many religions is that they are accessible and receptive to human appeals and also have greater powers.

3. Religion - Social vs. Personal

The dual character of religion (transcendental and empirical) explains the paradox that it is both a personal/private and a social/public phenomenon. Many people feel that a man's religion is his own affair and we come across such pronouncements as "My mind is my church" or "I am a sect myself". Strictly speaking a church or a sect is not 'religion' but is only an assembly of like-minded people holding identical beliefs. But such an assembly is fundamental to the social nature of man and has been rightly or wrongly identified with 'religion' in all ages and all cultures. Perhaps for social-minded men the satisfactory conduct of his life require a degree of shared belief and some participation in collaborative ritual. The tendency to meet together in large or small gatherings is even more widespread than specific religions, and survives even when religion itself is discarded. People who never go to church or temple are often ready for a party to be held in the church. The very fact of assembly gives reassurance that we are part of larger whole and the individual's life is strengthened thereby.

4. Rituals are Social Obligations, not True Religion

This interpretation in the preceding paragraph emphasizes that ritual is more important than true religion. In a traditional society, there is no sharp distinction between two different activities practised together, for example sowing seeds and the prayers that accompany it. They are deemed to be of the same value, and one simply does them together. Religious rituals should be regarded as a special sort of social language, serving to symbolize society. Ritual often serves more for showing and saying than for actually producing some particular effect. The purpose of participation in a rite is to show one's respect for the social order. Also one's own upbringing and method of brain-working insist that one must do it. Even some superstitious acts and beliefs are supposed to reduce tension and anxiety. The individual does not participate because he believes in them, but because it is the correct thing to do in the circumstances. To say, 'I don't believe in Religion' is more 'bad manners' than 'bad metaphysics'. Religious experience and moral conscience take many forms and undoubtedly help many people by rites, whether in communal gathering and worship or individual meditation. Human brains are, as we have often emphasized, especially programmed to be indoctrinated. We make much use of simple rituals, for instance, of eating together, from the banquet to the family breakfast or supper. Each has its proper procedure. Communal acts, including worship, sanctify endeavours into acceptable and necessary conventions. Religious rites serve as signs of passage from one state to another, from child to adult, from single to married, and from alive to dead. They may be said to map the life-program of the individual.

5. True Religion is Personal

To emphasize the social function of religion is not to minimize the genuine importance of its personal content. Studies of the sociology of religion give us plenty of insight into its function in society but what does this leave of religious truth for the individual? We can, no longer, believe in the literal truths of traditions nor is it easy to accept the rejection of the scientific truths which has been characteristic of many religions. In the orthodox past, we have been taught, almost wholly, by exhortations and traditions with their attendant superstitions and dogmas. Whatever the meaning of God or of the universe may be, we should use all our knowledge including facts proved by science to understand them as clearly as we can. This is indeed what men have been doing through the centuries by expanding their sense of awareness and wisdom. Science cannot negate eternal truth nor can religion negate a proven fact. And, hence, it is wrong to believe that scientific discoveries can negate the truths of philosophy. Wisdom of philosophy and discoveries of science can, together, pave the way for more truths and knowledge which may be woven into a higher wisdom and used for the benefit of mankind. Both good and evil are present to some degree in human nature. True religion stimulates the good traits and inhibits the bad ones. Control of inherently evil traits can only be achieved from within by suitable modification of programs which have been inherited or learnt. The effect of these programs produce an urge which is stronger than the force of theoretical knowledge. Subjugating of the urge can be achieved by developing power that lies deeper in the sub-conscious. Such power is also innate in all humans. It is the function of the religion to develop that power by right techniques.

It is our spiritual duty to countermand and overcome the evil urges and we have the innate capacity to do so. All that is needed is to develop this potential into a reality. This is the work of the true religion.

6. Worshipping

Throughout this analysis/discussion our idea has been that believing is a characteristic feature of the human brain. The same is also true of worshipping. It is not something that is done with ritual solemnity only in church or temple. It is the product of a need in every human being and most of us have programs that provide satisfaction of the need to worship. We can, positively, identify worshipping as a very real program of the brain. As we feel the effects of worshipping, we allow our reward systems to pour their gladness over the whole range of cortical programs and there are literally streams of nerve-impulses releasing floods of the chemical messengers that open useful pathways to the cortex and within it. Study of belief and worship emphasizes again that the brain program is one undivided whole.


Title: Neuroscience and Karma
Jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun, India
Editor: Muni Mahendra Kumar
Edition: Second Edition, 1994

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Avidyā
  2. Bertrand Russell
  3. Brain
  4. Darśana
  5. Jain Philosophy
  6. Karman
  7. Meditation
  8. Mithyādarśana
  9. Mithyātva
  10. Moha
  11. Mohanīya
  12. Russell
  13. Samyagdarśana
  14. Science
  15. Soul
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