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A Plea for Rationalism

Mohammad Akram Gill

According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, rationalism means (a). reliance on reason as the basis of establishment of religious truth, (b). a theory that reason is in itself a source of knowledge superior to and independent of sense perceptions, (c). a view that reason and experience rather than the non-rational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems. I am using rationalism approximately in the sense of (a) and (c).


There are many religions in the world and the followers of each religion believe and profess that their religion is the only true one in the world. Others have reasons of their own to reject that religion. Let me give you an example. Hindus believe in the plurality of God; they are polytheists. One of the articles of their faith is derived from a legend that is described in the following (1):

'There is a legend behind Shiva's phallic form. It is believed that once Brahma and Vishnu, the two pillars of the holy Trinity were having an argument as to who was supreme. Brahma declared himself to be the Creator of all and thus more revered. Vishnu claimed that since he was the Creator of all and the Destroyer, he commanded more respect. At that moment, a huge lingum ablaze with flames appeared from nowhere. Both the gods were so overwhelmed by its constantly increasing size, that they forgot their quarrel and decided to determine its size. Vishnu took the form of a boar and went to the netherworld while Brahma in the form of a swan ascended to the skies. Neither could ascertain the size. Just then, Shiva appeared out of the lingum and proclaimed that he was the progenitor of both of them. He was the Creator, Preserver, and the Destroyer. He demanded that thereafter he be worshipped.'

And he is. Can any one seriously believe in this fairy tale? I am posing this question without malice and ill will towards any particular group of people. It is also not my intention to provoke any intellectual hostility and insensitivity. Millions of Hindus believe in it without ever questioning it. It does not make any rational sense to me literally or any other wise.


Compare this with the old Greek conception of Creation. According to Reale (5), 'At first 'Chaos was generated, then Gaia (Earth), in whose bosom all things reside, and in the depths of the Earth the dark Tartarus was generated, and finally, Eros (Love) who then was the origin of all other things. From Chaos was born Herebus and Night, from which was generated the Aither (the High Heaven) and Hemera (the Day). Uranus was generated (the starry Skies) from the earth alone, as well as the mountains and the seas; then, united to the Heaven, Earth generated Ocean and the waves.' It is doubtful if any body including Greeks believes in this legendary story of Creation now. Human thought has evolved from fiction, superstition, observation and reasoning. Some fictional beliefs which made a lot of sense at one time in the remote past have been abandoned and replaced by others; it appears that nothing is permanent and perpetual.


Two of the great rationalist of all times, were the Greek philosophers, Xenophanes (580 BCE -' ) and Protagoras (480-411 BCE). According to Russel (6), 'Xenophanes asserted that 'Mortals deem that gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form'yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds'The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.' And again according to Russel (6), Protagoras proclaimed, 'With regard to the gods, I can not feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of subject and the shortness of human life.' He (Protagoras) also said, 'Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that they are not that they are not.'


Among the divinely revealed books, the Holy Bible is probably the only book that has been scrutinized very closely by the skeptics and rationalists. By far the majority of these critics originated from the Christian backgrounds with the result that their scrutiny cannot be ascribed to religious bias. Without going into too much discussion, only a couple of examples are discussed herein. Consider verses 12 through 14 of Chapter 10 of the Book of Joshua in the Holy Bible (2).

12. Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the Children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou Moon, in the valley of Aj-a-lon'''


13. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed until the people had avenged''' themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Joshua? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.


14. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel.


It might be mentioned here that according to the medieval Christian belief, Earth was stationary and centre of the universe, while the sun revolved around it; remember the Galileo episode. This issue came under discussion at the Great Monkey trial at Dayton, Ohio, USA, in 1925. The defense attorney was Clarence Darrow and William J. Bryan was the chief attorney for the prosecution. Darrow put Bryan on the witness stand as an expert on Bible and Biblical studies, and cross-examined him as follows (7):


Darrow: Can you answer my question directly? If the day was lengthened by stopping either the earth or the sun, it must have been the earth?

Bryan: Well,'. I should say so.

D: Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stopped still suddenly?

B: No.

D: Don't you know it would have been converted into a molten mass of matter?

Darrow cross-examined Bryan on the creation of the Earth in six days as described in the Holy Bible. Some extracts are given in the following:


''''''''''' D: You think these were not literal days'''''.

B: No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years, or as in six million years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

D: Do you think those were literal days?

B: My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against any body who wanted to believe in literal days.

D: Have you any idea of the length of the periods?

B: No; I don't.

D: Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?

B: Yes.

D: And they had evening and morning without the sun?

Bryan mopped his skull. I am simply saying it is a period.

D: They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?

B: I believe in Creation as there told and, if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it'.


Accepting it as a personal belief is one thing but using it to discriminate, torture, and massacre those who choose to have different beliefs or no belief whatsoever, is inhuman and indefensible.


Finally, according to the opening verse of the Surah Qamar, Chapter 54 of the

Holy Quran (3) :


''''''''''' The Hour (of Judgment) is nigh, and the moon is cleft asunder.


Maulana Maudoodi (4) has described this incident in his Tafheem-ul-Quran and has commented (in Urdu): 'It was the fourteenth night of the lunar month. The moon had just arisen. Suddenly it got rent apart and one of its pieces appeared on one side of the hill in front, and the other piece on the other side. This situation lasted only momentarily and both pieces came together again to re-form the moon.' Justifying the physical occurrence of this miracle, Maudoodi offered to argue rationally in these words: ''it is quite possible that a sphere may get torn apart (in two parts) due to its internal violent volcanic activity and both of its parts may be thrown afar and then due to its nuclear magnetic attraction, both of the pieces come together.'' Maudoodi's argument using scientific terminology is flawed but without any contention, it may be stated that it goes beyond what has factually been described in the Holy Quran. The quoted verse states that the moon was cleft asunder; it is nowhere mentioned in the Holy Quran that the broken moon came together again.


It may be observed here that the other religions that have not specifically been discussed herein are not any more reasonable nor self-consistent than the ones to which attention has been drawn above. The intention is to point out some of the many inconsistencies and unrealistic and miraculous beliefs that are the hall- mark of all the religions. Any one single religion has not been targeted here as an object of critical and hostile inquiry; the criticism which is applicable to Hinduism, for instance, is also attributable to all the other religions which invoke belief in the irrational and divine God(s) and deities, and irrational incidents and miracles. Man has lived under a cloak of mysticism, myths, superstition, and faith in the otherworldliness for far too long. It is time to examine critically the nature of the things that he is called upon to believe in by his upbringing, tradition, peer pressure, and just by a routine habit.




  2. 'Holy Bible', King James Version, Dicksons, Bible Book Stores, Livonia, p. 154.
  3. Ali, A.Y., 'The Holy Quran', Dar-Al-Arabia Publishing, Printing, and Distribution, Beirut, Lebanon, 1968,' Chapter 54, Surah Al-Qamar, p. 1454.
  4. Maudoodi, A., 'Tafheem-al-Quran', Tarjman-al-Quran, Lahore, 1984, p. 230.
  5. Reale, G., 'From the Origins to Socrates ' A History of Ancient Philosophy', State University of New York Press, 1987, p. 29.
  6. Russel, B., 'A History of Western Philosophy', Simons and Schuster, New York, 1972, pp. 44, 77.
  7. Sprague de Camp, L., 'The Great Monkey Trial', Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1968, p. 407.