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'We Are Made of Star Stuff': Religion in the 21st Century

03/06/2013 01:52 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2013

Religion has always been a broad topic. Rather than simply being two sides of the same coin, a discussion on religion is an octagonal die, loaded with biases, experiences and deeply rooted beliefs. Add to this the inherently subjective nature of religion, and you've got a piece controversial enough for some to admonish and others to re-tweet. Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" never sounded more relevant. That being said, we turn now to the discussion.

Recent times have seen an increasing trend in non-affiliation to religion in many parts of the world -- in the United States there's been an increase of nearly 5 percentage points in the past five years. Coupled with this, there has been an increase in atheism, dubbed "New Atheism," championed by science enthusiasts like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Given this rising non-religious trend, perhaps religion's place in the modern world can be questioned.

This is precisely what the Open Forum in Davos -- the more publicly accessible version of the World Economic Forum -- chose to do. A panel discussion titled "Is Religion Outdated in the 21st century?" comprised of a Benedictine monk, a rabbi, a Jewish entrepreneur, a Buddhist monk, a nun of the Catholic health association and a professor of physics (theoretical and astrophysics).

There was a seeming under-representation of the non-theists as there were only the Buddhist monk, Bhante Sulak Sivaraksa, and the self-affirmed anti-theist (someone against religion, not God per se), Professor Lawrence Krauss. Even more unfortunate was the fact that all of the panelists were generally tolerant and intelligent people. I say this because their main arguments for religion's relevance revolved around its use as a gateway to spirituality. This included explaining the more abstract concepts in life, including emotion, uncertainty and all that which lay outside the realm of science. Their compassion did not reflect the general fear of religion in our world, namely its use as a tool by oppressive tyrants to force values, practices and dogmas onto others. A last contention against the panel is that none of them had any significant differences of opinions on the heart of the matter, that is, the relevance of religion (except perhaps Professor Krauss); instead, they merely had different approaches, resulting in similar conclusions.

One such conclusion was the need for spirituality, shared by both Bhante Sivaraksa and Professor Krauss. No stranger to conflict, Bhante Sivaraksa has been part of protests in Thailand and has been exiled many times for his political activism. The point he presented and represented was simple, straightforward, and addressed the issue at hand. He advised against pursuing material interests and progress for progress' sake. This attitude would lead to a detachment from one's humanity and spirituality, for contentment can never be found in material lust. His qualm was with secular society because he felt that it lacked a spiritual element. The secular society for him was one run by men in lab coats peddling a new demonic religion: consumerism. These scientists, according to him, were far too arrogant by claiming to have the answers to everything.

However, Bhante Sivaraksa did say, "Those in the secular world need to be more spiritual. One need not be religious." His general thesis is that we must care for one another and ourselves, whether we do this with or without religion is irrelevant.

Despite his stereotype of the cold distant scientist, Bhante Sivaraksa's point should have been reiterated and perhaps explored further in the panel. It wasn't a matter of religion; it was a matter of finding one's spirituality. Buddhism speaks of the concept Māyā. Evolved from Hinduism, the term Māyā refers to all things perceived as being illusory. There is constant impermanence in the world, be it a box of milk with a shelf life of a week or the vessel of the human body that lasts 70-odd years; our goal must be to free ourselves from it. For Bhante Sivaraksa, the secular world highlights this concept of Māyā and thus, he felt there was much need for spiritual relief in such a world.

But his notion of the separation of secularity and spirituality is a false dichotomy. Professor Krauss points this out by stating that scientists can be spiritual too, sometimes even more so because of the wonders of the universe they are confronted with on a daily basis. These are not necessarily religious experiences, but they are most certainly spiritual, filling one with a sense of awe and unity with the universe. In essence, Professor Krauss suggests that instead of seeking wonderment in an archaic concept of the world, we find it in the vast depths of science, by gazing up at the stars and pondering our existence; knowing that every atom that comprises our bodies was forged in mighty explosions in the cosmos, billions and billions of years ago.

It's worth mentioning here that another of Professor Krauss's contemporaries, Sam Harris (mentioned earlier), is a renowned advocate of spirituality and humanist value. He has written guides on how to meditate, all while advocating for a religion-free society. Sam Harris perhaps epitomizes the spiritual secularist. Bhante Sivaraksa's point, while true in that we require spirituality for fulfilment, was wrong in assuming it cannot be found in a secular world.

2013-02-27-PillarsofCreation.jpg

Pillars of Creation, source:Hubblesite

Setting aside spirituality, the case for religion's relevance was resumed. Father Jamison stated, "The development of the secular world is relatively new, though highly successful. Religion however is finding a new place within secular society." Faith and reason needed to be in constant dialogue, he said, quoting Pope Benedict, and that it was this dialogue which allows for a secular culture, one tolerant enough of all opinions to be expressed publicly.

The possibility of co-existence was also shared by the moderator who suggested that religion and science were but two sides to the same coin. Professor Krauss vehemently objected to this comparison, citing the lack of critique available in religion as being a fundamental difference between religion and science. The ability to question something until it has been proven to be true without a leap of faith is the hallmark of science, claims Professor Krauss. This nature of falsification that the professor describes is an essential feature of science. Formulated by Karl Popper, falsification is the notion that when a theory is un-falsifiable it ultimately must use itself to explain itself. This quality is not as present in religion. Most Abrahamic religions consider themselves to be infallible given that they are divine by definition. This divinity grants freedom from error.

This was as far as the discussion could spiral before being called to a halt by the time-keepers. It would be hard to determine how fruitful this debate was because it seemed that the panel had not convinced anyone any differently and everyone who entered the room (panel included), left with the same beliefs, biases, dogmas and thoughts that they came in with.

But before ending this, I would reiterate Bhante Sivaraksa's stance on the matter. We as people do need spirituality. This world, this entire universe, it's relatively chaotic. Life can be terrifying, unfair and inexplicably absurd. Everyone needs something to make sense of it. For some, it's a God or religion and for others, it's science. For me, it's good music.

In the end, everyone must find their own, without treading on others.