Rationalism and Piety


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Human beings are rational beings as against animals and birds that are governed by instinct. Rationalism basically means that we are governed mainly by reason and logic. Our behaviour is generally based on ideas or facts that are well known and are based on theories that can be verified by experiment – or at least that is what rationalists like to say and believe.

In epistemology, rationalism considers reason as the chief source of acquiring knowledge of ourselves and the world around us or “any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification”. Some philosophers believe that reason is the primary means of acquiring knowledge. In contrast, empiricism holds the view that knowledge is acquired or derived through our experience by means of our senses of a situation that we observe around us and want to understand.

There are contrasting views about rationalism and empiricism. According to the well-known German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, our senses are necessary to understand an event or an entity but they do not give us its complete picture or in other words its complete truth.

The British philosopher John Locke is considered a prominent empiricist whereas the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza belong to the empiricist school.

Philosophers and other intellectuals argue about the correctness of these two schools of thought. However their arguments and justifications do not concern us in this essay.

Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) is as the name suggests an Indian institution that tries to expose the so-called godmen and other superstitions. Sanal Edamaruku a 60-year-old scholar and author who was born in Kerala and studied in Kerala University and JNU New Delhi is the current president of IRA. His father was a Christian and mother Hindu. Sanal has been active in the IRA right from the time he was in his teens and has tried to explain that the so-called miracles of some religious godmen actually result from some scientific theory or process. He was charged with blasphemy by the Catholic church of Mumbai in 2012 for exposing a certain miracle. To escape arrest he left the country.

Recently I met a professor of JNU who is a rationalist and was critical of people especially scientists who had a religious attitude and perform certain religious rituals at some special events like marriages or birth of children or before some important occasion like an examination or interview for a job.

But most of us are also governed by our emotions and religious feelings – or what we may refer to as religious piety. The word piety comes from the Latin word pious that means dutiful or devout. It can also refer to our religious feelings that we may have for the beauty in the world. Is it indiscreet or a sin or illegal to have such emotions or feelings? When we see a beautiful sight such as a rainbow or the evening sun at dusk or the full moon we have a sense of pleasure and peace and wonder about the factors that create such beauty. A snow covered mountain is another sight that makes us wonder in awe.

If we offer water to the sun or chant the mantra of Surya Namaskar (praising the sun in its various forms) is it an irrational behaviour or conditioned by our emotions and a sense of being part of the universe of which the sun, the moon and rainbows are part. In one sense our behaviour is irrational because even if we did not pray to the Sun, these sights and life would still exist on earth. But in a certain sense our attitude is not irrational. All life on our planet exists because there is a sun that provides all the necessary ingredients that makes life possible. When we offer prayers to the Sun we are in a certain way acknowledging our debt to the Sun or saying Thank You. There is a Sanskrit mantra in the Indian Upanishad “Tamso ma jyotirgamaya” that roughly means “Lead us from darkness into light.” Apart from the sun, the earth allows human life and biodiversity to exist. In India we often call our planet the Mother Earth. Does it make us irrational? I think this is not irrational.

There are other instances or events that can be considered in this light. Love for one’s beloved or one’s child is another example for rationalists of the so-called irrational behaviour. But is it so? Let us ponder over this question.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – Educationist and Peace Researcher. Retired Professor, Delhi University. ravipbhatia@gmail.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 14 Dec 2015.

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