Calvin and Hobbes, the two protagonists of Bill Watterson’s irresistible comic strip of the same name, have the following conversation:
Calvin: Why do you suppose we are here?
Hobbes: Because we walked here
Calvin: No, no… I mean here on Earth
Hobbes: Because Earth can support life
Calvin: No I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?
Hobbes: Because we were born
Calvin: Forget it
Hobbes: I will, thank you
Calvin’s question from the conversation above beautifully expresses what all philosophers ask, and what religions try to answer by saying God is the creator of everything. Science, on the other hand takes the approach that Hobbes does, and really finds no problem with it. There is no denying that we have always wrestled with the existence of god.
I am often asked if I believe in god. In my opinion, this question has several questions built into it:
1) Do I believe that a supernatural being existing beyond time created the universe? I don’t.
2) Do I believe that occasionally a superhuman appears on Earth and sets things right by destroying evil and promoting good? I don’t.
3) Do I believe that if I make appropriate sacrifices, some great being will reorganise future events in my favour? I don’t.
4) Have I ever come across an experiment where I have had to say I went from A to B, when a miracle happened and the result was C? That it had to be a miracle since there is no scientific or logical way in which we could have gone from B to C or even A to C? I haven’t.
5) Have I come across ‘miracle cures’ that defy science? No. There are cases where willpower and body chemistry have produced results well beyond the average – but they are not miracles, they are more a case of a human being’s desire not to give in to death. It is a question of willpower.
6) Do I believe that people who sin get punished by god after their death? I don’t. But I do believe that some of them, at some stage in their life, begin to regret their past and that is punishment enough.
7) What do I think will happen when I die? People whose life I touched will remember me for a little while and then occasionally. My immediate family – professional and personal – will probably remember me for a generation. The set of genes that make me unique and that I passed on to my children will completely lose their identity within six generations, i.e. if you take a relative six generations down the line from me and compare his/her genes with mine, you will not be able to prove that he/she is my progeny.
8) So since I have only one life to live, will greed be my primary motive? No, because the price one has to pay to live a mean life is not worth the physical comforts it brings.
9) Have I always lived by these principles? No, like all humans I too am not perfect.
10) Do I believe that my behaviour and responses should be driven by morality rather than greed? I do, because that is what human being should do.
11) Do I believe in Heaven and Hell? No.
12) Do I believe in rebirth? No.
13) Do I believe in the universality of any religion? No. Even the Hinduism of today is so different from Vedic Hinduism that no Vedic sage will agree it is the same religion. Yet, all religions have at their core a similar message of kindness and consideration towards all and a virtuous living.
14) So am I completely averse to religious places? No, when I am alone and lonely, usually when I am outside my country, I do like to go to religious places – a temple, a church or a mosque – for they provide peace and tranquillity, which is good for me.
15) Do I believe in nonviolence? Yes, because I find violence abhorrent.
16) Would I like to prevent people from going to religious functions? No. If it gives them peace, why not?
17) Am I against religion? I am only against religions when they become competitive – for then they become violent and obscene.
18) Do I believe that if I don’t perform my children’s weddings in a religious manner, the marriage will be at additional risk? I don’t.
19) Will I participate in religious activities? I will, because it is nice to periodically pay respects to the grand working of nature – irrespective of whether it is driven by a god or was spontaneous.
20) Do I believe that there is an overwhelming elegance to nature that I can never fully comprehend? I do.
So, do I believe in god? I don’t know. All I know is that there is a great elegance to nature that we must all respect, and our life should be lived so that others may feel comfortable in our presence and not find us a burden to their lives, and if possible, even gain from our existence.
Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.