How Reasonable is a Cult of Reason?

Hurmat Ali Shah reflects on the need to put Reason in a historical context, especially when engaging with religious ideas

How Reasonable is a Cult of Reason?
There are two major contradictions or shortcomings of the cult of Reason (reason with a capital R) which commonly are expressed as anti-religion. The first one is that the very category of ‘religion’ is too inadequate and flawed to give any coherent, consistent and universal account of particular human experiences – all of which end up labeled as ‘religion’. In fact, religion in itself is a category of modernity and was a response to particular theological, political, social, intellectual and epistemological circumstances of Enlightenment Europe. What came to be defined as religion as opposed to the secular was a binary division suited for the milieu of Europe under the hold of Church and the movement of the Enlightenment against it. Those concrete historical, social and intellectual circumstances were not to be found elsewhere but what with Enlightenment being the epistemological language of modernity and also of colonialism, that category of religion was universalized and applied to make sense of the experience and lives of the colonial subjects: so as to administer them from the moral high-point of civilizing them.

For instance what Islam was and is can’t be made meaningful as an analytical object in terms of the European Enlightenment and its experiences with the Church. There is no Church in Islam. And Islam in itself as an experience and a human-historical fact is a set of coherent contradictions. Take Hinduism: what is important there is the caste system, not the concept of divinity (as practiced historically), or a creed or set of values made meaningful outside of the caste system. Buddhism, famously, is an ‘atheist’ religion. As to how the analysis of the Church in Europe can be universalized is something which needs explaining in terms of modernity as being a colonial project which disrupted the epistemology of the colonies.

In modernity-tilted and reform-oriented Meiji Japan, the problem was particularly difficult when it came to drawing the line between the secular and the religious. It had to be a totally arbitrary process and decision. And it was so done! A ministry for religion was created which declared some practices religious, which hitherto had been seen as ‘religious’ but as directly resulting from the integrality of epistemological, spiritual and intellectual conceptualizing of the people. The colonial anthropologists were satisfied, though. They now had two sharply cut spheres of human activity to be analyzed by their lens of ‘secular and religious’.

The Church was the regulating body which regulated the intellectual, spiritual, epistemological and cultural conceptualizations and experiences of pre-Enlightenment Europe authoritatively. Sociopolitical experiences also were not exempt from authority of the Church. The whole movement of Enlightenment, from Spinoza onwards, was directed at defining what the Church can and can’t do. Its authority was challenged not only in what public matters it could intervene in but also in what matters of creed and beliefs it could have a say in. The defining of the intellectual and the very principles of what constitutes knowledge and truth were challenged by alternative engagement with truths of philosophy through reason.

Let us contrast that with the land of Islam, from the Balkans to Bengal, when colonial modernity came conquering it. There was no Church with authoritative and exhaustive social, moral and intellectual regimenting as its function, but there also was no one dominant tradition which had supremacy over self-conceptualization. The hermeneutical engagement with Islam for making meaning was carried out largely through four different epistemologies. These are: reason as used by philosophers; the concept of Being and Existence as employed by Sufis; the bounded interpretation of jurists of text of revelation; and the mixed use of reason and text by theologians of Kalam to make meaning in terms of Islam.

An argument can be made that depending on the political patronage or the historical moment one or the other of these traditions had a dominant position. But looking at the vast corpus of literature, poetry, fiction, books on akhlaq (i.e. ethics advising the right behavior in public and in private), practices explicitly forbidden by jurists or by literal reading of texts – such as wine-drinking, figural paintings and investigating the being and nature of the Divine – but valorized as Islamic widely, it can be deduced that the philosophical-Sufi amalgam of means and meanings was the preponderant epistemology of hermeneutical engagement with Islam.

The purpose here is not to show the superiority either of Christianity and its Church or Islam and Sufi-philosophical traditions, but to present how diverse the socio-political, historical and spiritual experiences of people in terms of meaning-making were. Consider, then, what it meant for them to be subjected to an analytical category which was formulated specifically for the European experience!

Wherever modernity went, it carried along with itself the epistemological violence of creating binaries where they did not exist.

The other related issue is the misunderstanding and ahistorical understanding of reason itself. Reason is equated with science, not as is understood historically as a philosophical tool to explore and engage with truth. The universal-historical character attributed to reason and thus to science also is a myth of modernity where the limitations of science and reason are denied by believing in the ability of science to produce invariant eternal truths which are not historically specific. This in itself isn’t much of a problem. The problem arises when from this grounding Reason (reason as understood to be infallible, eternal in unraveling the truth) is applied from the position of self-righteousness, and to the rejection of other positions, as the only legitimate grounds for organizing our social, moral and intellectual selves.

From this position reason is understood as an activity separate from the wider human intellectual, social and epistemological activity. It becomes Reason in contradiction to ‘religion’ (again transporting and projecting a modern analytical category to critique what admittedly is pre-modern). This position would be in deep trouble to accept the philosophizing of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) as a ‘religious’ (aptly it should be Islamic) activity. After all, what he and all other Muslim and Islamic philosophers were doing was to make sense of Islam (‘religion’) through the epistemological tool of reason. They were not interpreting Islam (or the revelation to be specific) in terms of reason but were interpreting reason in terms of Islam! The same goes for Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages who borrowed extensively from the philosophy of Muslims.

Rejecting science is never the aim of a critique such as the one we present in this article. In fact the aim is to understand what reason is and the implications of that understanding for our social and intellectual selves. There is undeniable progress in the nature of sustainability of life, i.e. there is progress in means of production of material life. That much is a fact.

But as to how that fact has to be engaged with in the project of meaning making – this remains an open question. Religion as defined in modernity has a configuration of characteristics like a belief in divinity or the supernatural; a set of creeds, beliefs and values; and a code of rituals. From the standpoint of Reason all ‘religions’ (to mention again how hollow this analytical category really is) are discarded as traditions, pre-modern, dark and retrogressive.

In effect, a new religion is created.

That religion, for the New Atheists in particular, is the blind belief in free-market with ‘trickle down’ as the core creed and the secular-religion binary as the essence of all moral values. The meaning making that follows from this cult of Reason has supernatural elements no less than traditional religions.

The belief in progress as a meaning-making and as a social, intellectual and epistemological creed is pervasive.

As to whether progress is an illusion, a myth or truly a catastrophe can’t be covered here. But suffice it for now to say that the progress that happened in nature, ie. means of production of material life can’t be equated with progress in human history or as global-universal phenomenon. Yes, science has improved life, but that improvement as a result of investigation is neither something unique to modernity nor it should be something which erases all other fields of human activity and experience.

The modern believers in Reason from their premise jump to a supernatural ordering of the world. If one engages with reason and from that premise believes in free-market or progress for meaning-making, then how is that different from someone who engages with reason as an epistemological tool to make meaning for themselves in terms of revelation or ‘religion’?

It is pertinent to mention here that the secular-religion binary division mentioned earlier had as its consequence the legitimizing of one sphere of human hermeneutical engagement with texts of revelation and delegitimizing others. For instance, when the Reason of modernity came into contact with coherent contradictions of Islam, it couldn’t make sense of the contradictory experience in terms of the secular-religious binary. The wine-cup of Jahangir which had inscribed Scriptural verses on its tip is one peculiar example which the Reason of modernity simply could not make sense of – try as it might!