A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: Science and religion: Part 2: The core of religion

Monday, October 05, 2020

Part I described how scientists attempt to understand the world using empirical evidence and falsifiable hypotheses.

Religions sometimes approach things differently. Religions often require scriptural evidence and explanations based on scriptural evidence and the word of God. Such explanations are unfalsifiable and therefore are incompatible with scientific explanations.

Scientists rejecting religious conjectures has been common but too hasty and too broad. To see why, we have to delve into religious prescriptions to reclassify religions and what they provide.

Even atheists and agnostics can name familiar religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Scholars inform us there are 12, perhaps 18, major religions, and altogether about 4,300 religions. In most religions we can find outer prescriptions and inner prescriptions. It is the variety of outer prescriptions that make for what we call the many religions. The inner prescriptions make for one.

Outer religion (OR) orients us to the outside world and how to live in it, by prescribing: how to act toward others; what to eat/not eat; what to wear/not wear; how and when to pray; rituals to engage in/attend; beings to worship; scriptures to study; whether there is an afterlife and what it is like, etc.

OR orients you to something outside you. Often, OR teachings vary sharply from one religion to another. Eat pork; don’t eat pork; cover your head; don’t cover your head; pray this way, pray that way, God is one, God is three, Gods are many. In short, OR comprises the myths, rituals, and dogmas that differentiate religions.

Inner religion (IR), the root of religion, points inward: Jesus saying “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21); Buddha saying the Buddha is within. IR manifests in Sufism, in Hindu Advaita Vedanta, in Judaic Kaballah, in Christian mysticism.

All the major religions have their OR and IR wings. I consider all of the IR wings as different expressions of one religion and all of the OR wings as many religions. Some forms of IR mention a deity; some don’t. It doesn’t matter. They all share common defining characteristics. Every mystic understands every other mystic. Outer religionists can have a hard time talking to each other. Why is this?

The mystics’ ability to communicate hangs on an experience the mystics share. Zen speaks of transmission of mind, not words, to avoid loss of that experience. Inevitably, branching of religions produced branches retaining only the words but losing the experience.

In theistic variations of IR we hear of guiding the soul through practices that enable it to reach “loving union with God,” or fana, the annihilation of self. Kabbalah speaks of ayin, nothingness. Meister Eckhart describes the union of God with the soul when the soul is at peace, still, with no functioning of the memory, intellect, or senses.

Thomas Merton speaks of “a sudden emptying of the soul in which images vanish, concepts and words are silent, and freedom and clarity suddenly open out within you until your whole being embraces the wonder, the depth, the obviousness and yet the emptiness and unfathomable incomprehensibility of God.”

In the Zohar we find “Master of the worlds! … no thought can grasp You at all ... And there is no image or likeness of You, inside or out ... .” Nontheistic religions speak of emptiness, void, sunyata, pure consciousness, pure being.

The experience that supports these IR characterizations is one of pure being, pure nothingness, pure consciousness. Indescribable. Yet we find attempts at describing the indescribable in the scriptures of all the great religions. A Hindu response to a request for description is “Neti neti.” Not this, not this. No matter what attribute you assign, it will be erroneous because this nothing is attributeless.

This nothingness that is a being, this being that is a nothingness, this void that we know, not by beholding it, but by being it, such that our individuality has vanished and only awareness remains, is the crucial experience that unites, and is the core of, all inner religion. Repeated experience of pure consciousness changes us and reveals the reality of consciousness as the actual self, self-realization, relegating what we took to be the self to mere thoughts that come and go.

IR scriptural records concerning consciousness provide abundant hypotheses and report records of “experiments.” Part III considers how science might use IR and its emphasis on consciousness to approach a more inclusive theory of everything.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.