Why Religion 9: Ignorance is Bliss?

Why Religion 9: Ignorance is Bliss?


Greater than the senses is the mind. Greater than the mind is buddhi, reason; and greater than reason is He—the Spirit in man and in all. — Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 3:42

Religion, so the story goes, encourages shallow thinking. It keeps us from having to deeply contemplate life, the universe and everything.

Some of you will no doubt be saying, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s just the way it is.” Others will be scratching their heads and wondering what color the sky is on the planet from which that comment came.

This is the “ignorance is bliss” take on faith. It gets a lot of airplay on the web and in certain publications. Religious people, this view supposes, are hiding from reality behind dogma and have checked their brains at the door.

Is there any truth to this? Well, of course there is. People from just about any group you can slap a label on may hide out from reality a little, a lot, almost always, or almost never. It depends on the individual, as do most things in life.

To be fair, people have banded together under religious banners that seem to encourage this sort of take on life. The idea, as I’ve heard it expressed, is that if you eschew the knowledge of “the world” for a particular interpretation of scripture, you will be “saved” or at least not confused by all the changes in life and society. There are indeed religious groups who make it a point of discouraging their followers from reading anything that is not a product of their group. I know of a handful of Christian denominations that do this and it also is (or at least used to be) the case in Eckankar. I’ve even had people tell me they can’t read my novels because of religious convictions that works of fantasy are evil.

I’ve also had people condemn the scriptures of my faith on the basis of religion. This condemnation has not always come from fundamentalist followers of another faith. Ironically, it has come just as often from anti-theists. I have had persons from both sides of the “debate” tell me that they don’t need to know anything about a subject (in this case, a religion) in order to judge that it’s evil or nonsense (or evil nonsense).

Circling the wagons

I’ve done some thinking about this circle-the-wagons philosophy. I think it’s both contrary to religious principle and counter-productive. I was discouraged from reading the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada by a clergyman or two on the grounds that they were filled with lies. Fortunately, I have an overdeveloped sense of curiosity. When I was exposed to those works for the first time, I discovered that these clergy persons had … well … stretched the truth a bit, to put it generously. The most cursory reading of either of these sacred texts revealed that they contained the same message as the one I’d read in the Gospels growing up.

When I commented on this to a friend who personally believed that religious text besides Bible was a lie, they told me that Krishna and Buddha were merely clever copy cats. Clever indeed, to copy the guidance from someone who wouldn’t be born for several hundred to several thousand years. And even the most rudimentary application of reason indicates that if something was true when Christ said it, it was also true when Krishna or Buddha said it. That, of course, begged the question of how God could blame the Indian people for believing the message they heard from Krishna or Buddha, when it was the same message Christ would bring the Hebrews and Romans some centuries later. (Especially given that Christ rather explicitly denies that God would deprive any of His children of necessary sustenance.)

Asking and answering these questions requires the use of reason. Something Christ clearly calls upon His followers to do. And notwithstanding this advice from Christ Himself, I have had at least one clergyman tell me I ought to use some other criteria. I know I’m not the only believer who has had a pastor tell them their mind was a tool of the devil and their heart deceitful, which begs yet another question: what faculty is one is supposed to use to make life’s major decisions if not the rational faculty that God settled on humanity as its birthright? (“Come let us reason together, saith the Lord.”)

As I noted above, the idea that ignorance is bliss is contrary to the clear teachings of—in this case—Jesus Christ, who exhorted His followers to use the test of reason in making decisions about truth and falsehood. The context is His instruction on how to tell true prophets from false ones found in the 7th chapter of Matthew: “You will know them by their fruits,” He says and goes on to give His well-known analogy of gathering figs from thistles—or good fruit from bad growth. Throughout His ministry, He used analogy and metaphor to get people to make observation and reason the basis of their decisions about things.

And as for religion discouraging the acquisition of “outside” knowledge, the practice is rare enough to surprise even religious people. Especially, given Christ’s prescription for the application of reason, Muhammad’s proposal that the acquisition of knowledge was a virtue and Bahá’u’lláh having elevated it to the position of worship, giving special mention to the sciences. Shoghi Effendi, who was appointed the “guardian” of the Bahá’í Faith by his grandfather, Abdu’l-Bahá, encouraged believers to read 10 books from other disciplines for every Bahá’í text they read and, like his great-grandfather and grand-father before him, emphasized the importance of the sciences.

As Abdu’l-Bahá explains:

The virtues of humanity are many, but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue. It is a bestowal of God; it is not material; it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God. …Science is the first emanation from God toward man. — Promulgation of Universal Peace p. 50


…in accordance with the Divine Teachings, the acquisition of sciences and the perfection of arts are considered as acts of worship. If a man engages with all his power in the acquisition of a science or in the perfection of an art, it is as if he has been worshipping God in the churches and temples. — Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Faith p. 377 

Science has its limits, of course. Abdu’l-Bahá notes that,

Science cannot cure the illness of the body politic. Science cannot create amity and fellowship in human hearts. Neither can patriotism nor racial allegiance effect a remedy. It must be accomplished solely through the divine bounties and spiritual bestowals which have descended from God in this day for that purpose. This is an exigency of the times, and the divine remedy has been provided. The spiritual teachings of the religion of God can alone create this love, unity and accord in human hearts. — Promulgation of Universal Peace p. 171

Bahá’ís, regular eaders may have noted, view science and religion as two parts of a larger whole and believe, not that they are at odds, but that both must inform the solutions to the many problems our species has spawned.

Bahá’u’lláh, in fact, exhorts us to,

Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.— Gleanings  p. 213

He repeatedly exhorts humanity to pursue knowledge, to use the “first faculty”—the rational faculty—and to gather useful knowledge in order that we may be able to address those requirements. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not new—witness the quote from Krishna that opened this post. Faith is not the antithesis of reason. But irrationality is. Dogmatism, prejudice, and ignorance are. They are also, notably, the enemy of faith. And they are all ills that can afflict anyone—theist, atheist, anti-theist, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy.

Next time: Religion as penance

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2 thoughts on “Why Religion 9: Ignorance is Bliss?

  1. Religion for me has never been an exhortation to not keep thinking of the relevant things in the world. It’s the complete oppsite. It is religion that has taken me to question the meaning of life, the existence of God, why is the universe here, why do we love, why is this wrong or right, etc. This is just a huge falsehood (albet an unitentional one) from the part of secularists and antitheists.

    1. The Baha’i writings contain a myriad statements and principles that conduce to much thinking. We are to independently investigate truth and reality, accept that science and religion / faith and reason must be in harmony, make sure our ideas about faith and science conform with reality and are supported by reason, call ourselves to account each day.

      Taken together, this is a mandate to think. In fact, there are repeated injunctions in all scripture to ponder deeply, to meditate on a point, to apply reason. Christ, for example, frequently exhorts His followers to use logic, to judge a thing by the fruits it produces, to extrapolate what will happen by what is happening now, or by what has happened historically.

      Someone once asked me if there was anything beneficial a religious person could do that an atheist could not. There is. Love someone unlovable because God asked it of them and because the God they love exhorted them to see HIs face in the face of other human beings and therefore love them.

      There’s more though. Faith gives one a goal—it gives them a set of principles to live by, a set of qualities to aspire to, and guidelines on how to accomplish that goal. My faith does more than simply give me a vague collection of aphorisms such as one can glean from the writings of any philosopher. It gives me a personal goal and the reason and tools to work toward it day by day, year after year.

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