Let us conceive of the mind as a weave of two fibers, as we consider muscle a weave of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles.
The relative composition of a muscle is genetically mediated; we are born with a certain proportion. We can build up one kind or another through exercise, but there is a limit.
This is why some athletes are born sprinters and others are born weightlifters. You can make a born weightlifter run sprints every day, and a born sprinter pump iron, but they’ll never out-compete a born weightlifter or a born sprinter who has trained in the activity native to their physiology.
The mind is similarly composed, innately, of the irrational and rational.
This is why rationalism/atheism/materialism, let’s call it the Denial cluster, has been around quite a long time. Some talk about Democritus or Lucretius, but the Carvaka school of Indian religious philosophy—rejecting the existence of the Gods, the soul, and the afterlife, and denying the authority of the Vedas—dates back to 600 B.C. or so. (“Carvaka” means, literally, “beautifully spoken,” an interesting point in light of the eloquent “New Atheists” of our own day.) This is why there can be such a thing as an “atheist Hindu.” (Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has described himself as such.)
Atheist Hindu? Come again?
It appears that the religious world of the Indian subcontinent, originally described in lumpen fashion by near-Eastern Muslims as “Hindu” (“on the yonder side of the Indus”)—the term by which we call ourselves may well have been pejorative—accounted and allowed for metaphysical naysaying. Atheism was a vigorous and in some cases well-incorporated strain of thought; in fact, God-denial was not thought incompatible with the recognition of Vedic authority. This is why one the central “orthodox” schools of thought, Samkhya, rejects the existence of any “God” (Ishvara).
There were endless disputes between scholars, of course, as there are today, but there is very little history of burnings, stonings, inquisitions, and that kind of thing.
Why is that? It seems that the Hindu thought-world considered the mind as part irrational, part rational; part mystical, part worldly; part believing, part doubting. Accordingly, it set up, within itself, a variety of ways of looking at the universe. These possessed varying degrees of Denial and Assertion.
The generally pluralistic worldview (one should not say “polytheism,” as both monotheistic and atheistic outlooks are incorporated in what we call Hinduism) allowed for a full spectrum of frames of reference or belief systems.
So we have the highly poetic Gods of our myths and iconography, and stories which are rich in irrationality, the supernatural, nonfactuality—and meaning; the metaphysical assertion of soul individuated throughout matter, but devoid of active or intervening deities, as in the Samkhya philosophy; and the denial of the meta-physical itself, as in the purely rational Carvaka philosophy.
Similarly, the Gita propounds more than one “yoga” through which to advance spiritually (not to be confused with the flexibility exercises)—Bhakti yoga (devotion, what Christians seem to call “faith”), Gyana yoga (intellectual study), and Karma yoga (what Christians call “works”). Each Hindu pursues the path that matches his or her temperament. There is no coercion.
The hybridity of mind in people when it comes questions of their own existence—the reason why it’s easier to convince people the earth is round than it is to convince them they are nothing but atoms—is why Denial has existed for so long but never quite taken off in the way religions have. Denial does great at satisfying the rational part of the mind; it does not satisfy the irrational part of the mind.
The majority of the human species are not completely or nearly-completely rational; the vast majority of us have some irrationality in us (some more than others!); and this is one of the causes why a time of worldwide scientific advancement like our own is, simultaneously, a time of religious expansion (in South America and Africa, for example) and religious extremism (in the Middle East, and indeed in the United States itself).
In fact, triumphs of science and technology, like cellphones and satellite T.V., have paradoxically quickened the spread of highly irrational belief systems. Osama bin Laden used cellphones and video recorders in the service of Wahabbi Islam; megachurch Creationists beam screeds against evolution across the country. If priests or mullahs or Brahmins had accomplished what scientists have accomplished purely by prayer or something—if they had, say, tripled crop yields (the way scientists have with pesticides and fertilizer), or split and weaponized the atom—they’d declare themselves miracle-workers. The fact that they haven’t, and that scientific rationalists have, has done little to erode the power of religious assertions on human minds.
In the end, something as vast as a “weltanschauung” is not proveable or disproveable. Successful predictions in the phenomenal world can only corroborate it.
“I told you your son would be healed, and he was!”
“I told you that star’s light would bend, and it did!”
Such statements of “proof” confirm each speaker in his own outlook, and others of the same outlook in theirs; neither “proof” crosses over very well, and neither will convince someone of an antithetical outlook. People live, perceive, and think within different frames of belief.
Hinduism isn’t the only religion in which two members don’t necessarily believe the same thing. This is because of the principle of selectivity involved in scriptural interpretation. A Muslim can turn Islam into a religion promoting peace or a religion promoting violent war simply by literally interpreting or ignoring selected suras in the Qur’an. This happens all the time; this happens in our time. Did Christ advocate aggressive, expansionist warfare? The 14th century Crusaders read that he came “not to bring peace but to bring a sword,” and they chose—chose—to take him literally. Today’s Christians emphasize the kinder, gentler statements and decide to interpret Matthew 10:34 metaphorically. Sects and even individuals seem to construct personal religions out of the same source material.
Yet in spite of this innate, inescapable diversity—this human multiplicity of outlook—people dream of unity all the time. One explanation, one truth, one universally applicable This Is How It Is—manifested most often as an intense insistence on One God. This is why they insist that there cannot be more than one frame of cosmic reference, that the irrational mythic religion and the materialist atheistic religion cannot coexist. And it is true they are contradictory.
It may be that the poets, in Keats’s definition, are the most capable, among all people, of mature religious thought: They possess negative capability, and are at home among “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The rationalists are the obvious ones who reach irritably (and sometimes irascibly) after fact and reason. But even the irrationalists want their assertions to coincide with fact and reason; that is why they marshal reasons and engage in finely parsed arguments, that is why they try to use reason to persuade.
They all want their truth to be perceived as universally acknowledged fact. This would, perhaps, allay some deep seated anxiety that their truth is not absolute in the sense they want it to be; that truth varies depending on the composition of the mind.
When I hear an extreme absolutist of any kind, any one-outlook proponent, whether rational or irrational, talk about Truth, I long to demand of them, along with the supreme philosopher of the Bible:
Quid est veritas?