I was once asked to speak on the topic “My science: my spirituality”. The subject’s novelty helped it receive an equal amount of appreciation from ANiS [Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti] activists and the public. But it was a continuation of the thought process in an earlier discourse of mine, “We are the real religious ones”, which was held at a few places in Maharashtra. This session, especially the title, was a bit tricky. How could a non-religious person declare that they are truly religious without contradicting themselves? I went ahead anyway.

My choice of wording was based on the knowledge that religious sentiments were being commercialised, merchandised, perverted and politicised. Those involved in these practices have nothing to do with religiousness or its ethical aspect. To them, religion means rituals, clerical dominance and upholding mental slavery. In my case, I “religiously” live by my rational ethics. In this sense alone, I am religious. I have acquired the religion of my parents; I haven’t given it up or converted to any other. Thus, I have remained a Hindu by birth. Automatically, I have also inherited the teachings of the saints and social reformers from my birth religion, and I accept the noble meaning of religiousness defined by these greats.

Hinduism is so flexible that it even embraces a person like me, who refutes the existence of god and the validity of the Vedas.

My ideological adversaries hastily call me non-religious (rather than irreligious or anti-religion). They wish to possess the sole right to explain what religion is and express their own opinions about it. They also want to decide what action needs to be taken concerning matters religious. Instead of leaving the powerful weapon of religion entirely in their hands, I have devised a strategy to enter their territory of religious thinking and proclaim as loudly as possible, “I am the real religious one, while you are all pseudo religious.”

These days, the so-called spiritual authorities, with titles such as “Bapu”, “Dada” and “Paramapoojya”, are doing a roaring business. Their following runs into lakhs. There is a common explanation for this phenomenon. That the propaganda of religious awakening and spirituality offers support to harassed human beings and provides them with an illusion of relief from their griefs. There is, of course, some truth to this. But despite my personal choice of atheism, I believe that an understanding of the sociology of religion is a precondition for criticising it using a scientific outlook. Both sociology and religion should adopt a more mature, mellowed and tolerant scientific stance.

Everyone knows the common stand on scientific outlook, and there aren’t two opinions about it. Scientific outlook means that truth can be discovered through the step-by-step process of “observation to experiment”. Such an outlook is always humble. It never claims to have uncovered any final truth but considers upholding the truth more important. This truth is universal and objective. It develops maturity and understanding, which help find feasible solutions to the problems in our society. Scientific outlook, therefore, shouldn’t remain confined to a laboratory but must be used in all matters of life.

Adhyatma (the science of the spirit) means reflecting on the soul. Those who refute the existence of the soul find Adhyatma to be an empty, senseless discussion. When spiritualists say, “Where science ends, Adhyatma begins,” opposers reply, “Unlike science, Adhyatma has never, in all its existence since ancient times, found any solution to man’s problems of hunger, poverty and discrimination. Thus, Adhyatma has proved to be a total failure while science has rushed to mankind’s rescue.” We will keep this debate aside for now.

Opinions on the nature of the Adhyatma principle vary. Religions and sects differ in their expositions on it. Yet these explanations seem to have a broad similarity. Adhyatma has two approaches:

The first is Adhyatma as metaphysical thinking, which is focused on the world beyond rather than this one. Life on Earth is less important in this discussion. The search, instead, is for answers to numerous questions. What is the original nature of the soul? Where does it exist before and after one’s lifetime? Does it migrate through several yonis (classes of created existence as numerous as 8.4 million)? Is the soul immortal? Who created the universe? What is their purpose? Who operates it? How is this entity related to the soul? What is the meaning of talking to oneself? Who enables the eyes to see?

There is a difference between religion and spirituality. Unlike its physical counterpart, the spiritual principle is sentient and vital.

For various reasons, it is rooted in ignorance, gets sullied and bound (by chains of relationships and emotions), and is prone to unhappiness. When this vital principle realises who or what it is, it is freed from all bonds and finds eternal bliss. The fundamental principles of the universe are spirituality and “ishwar”, the supreme god (or “paramatma”, the supreme soul). The essence of an individual is spiritual and is called soul, or “atman”. When atman unites with ishwar, the individual reaches the state of eternal bliss: satchidananda. The vital principle, which is usually engulfed in sorrow, is then enlightened by the knowledge of its own self – of who it is – and relieved of all fetters to reach the state of permanent joy.

Religion shows human beings how to achieve this union. It recommends sacred texts and divine vision to obtain redeeming knowledge of the self. Logically speaking, the spiritual principle or soul, being vital and sentient, can think and remember. It can acquire knowledge. As it is sensitive, it can feel happy or sad. Only the vital spiritual principle can have sentiments such as compassion, love, charity and morality.

As per the concept of Adhyatma, every individual possesses a soul. God is not only another soul but also the supreme one. He is the most virtuous of all. When the individual soul meets the supreme soul, the former becomes virtuous as well. The individual’s inadequacies leave them and the person becomes accomplished in all respects. Hence, this is the path everyone is advised to follow in life.

This notion cannot be accepted. The study of evolution tells us that the present universe evolved out of an abstract energy, which is the predecessor of all things existing in the entire universe. This energy is, however, inanimate. In the course of evolution, physical substances, life and vitality gradually evolved. The primordial energy cannot be called vital because scientists have proved that vitality is nothing but the living brain. It cannot exist in any other form. So, there is no basis for the belief that the fundamental principle of the universe is omniscient, sensitive, ethical, just and blissful. Also, the human being has attained an especially elevated plane of vitality only through evolution. The saying “God made man in his own image” isn’t true. Rather, it should be that man is the only animal to have reached an extraordinary stage of evolution.

There is another danger in this approach. In the everyday life of all human beings, conflicts are inevitable. Instead of facing them head-on, this version of Adhyatma advises people to run away from them by trying to bring about a union of their atman with the non-existent paramatma to create eternal bliss.

This can make it hard for a person to reconcile with everyday realities. The hardships of life on one hand and the pursuit of the illusive Adhyatma on the other may lead to a disharmony in the mental faculties.

The second way is treating Adhyatma as a process of cleansing the mind. The usually prescribed disciplines of kundalini, yoga, Sudarshan Kriya, namjap (reciting a deity’s name), and the like are not necessary to achieve this. Adhyatma requires training oneself to drive away lust and desires from the mind and inculcate moral virtues. It believes that there is something much more valuable to be accomplished in life than creature comforts and physical pleasures.

Most human beings think that wealth, leisure, enjoyment, honour and reputation are essentials for a good, worthy life. But a truly spiritual individual goes beyond these worldly diversions. They swear by a modest, ethical and simple life, asking and accepting nothing from others. Their actions are compassionate and oriented towards their fellow beings. Such behaviour itself is Adhyatma; the rest is empty talk. What keeps you morally aware is namasmaran (remembering god and reciting his name); if it does not, then it is only din and noise. When a so-called spiritual man amasses riches in billions, feasts on scrumptious meals, wears expensive silk clothes, and resides in an ivory tower, seeking the company of glamorous women, the contradiction in his life is obvious. That’s because Adhyatma or spirituality is related to restrained behaviour, the knowledge of what is good and bad, and the refusal to take anything that doesn’t belong to one.

Adhyatma has another element. To see truth prevail and good triumph over evil is an emotional need. Adhyatma is perceived as a way of striving towards meeting it. Every religion maintains that human good is what ultimately wins. This conviction is an important factor of religious faith. In this sense, the Adhyatma or spirituality of every religion is the same.

Vinoba Bhave goes a step ahead and says, “Politics and religion will fade away; science and spirituality will prevail.” It is necessary to properly understand this statement.

Politics is an arena where vested interests openly fight among each other at different levels – local, national and global – to capture the available resources. Science has made available the means to keep human beings reasonably happy. But the fight between politically inclined parties has deprived the masses of these supplies.

Statistical data shows this too. All over the world, including in India, nations earmark a large chunk of their budgets for defence. The politics of defence consumes whatever finance is available, leaving nothing for development. Today, expenditure on defence is unavoidable – so is the politics of defence. But one can imagine a scenario in which man, who is gradually growing wiser, will eventually realise the futility of such politics. When this happens, the biggest hurdle in the utilisation of science for human benefit will be removed. The money spent on defence will then be utilised for human development and well-being.

The same scenario can be extended to religion. Dr Ram Manohar Lohia succinctly said, “Politics is a short-term religion and religion is long-standing politics.” Every religion, like politics, has its own ethics, philosophies, rituals, clergies and also exploitation.

This type of religion will wither away, as predicted by Swami Vivekananda and Vinoba Bhave. Religious concepts or conventions that are blatantly contradictory to the laws of science will drop out automatically, just as the Roman church had to concede that Galileo was right.

The secondary aspects of religion – philosophy, rituals, clergy – will also go away, and only spirituality will remain to accompany science, as proposed by Vinobaji.

A belief in the triumph of morality and supremacy of human beings forms the core of all religions. is isn’t rooted in the principle of causality, but doesn’t contradict it either. While truth does win at times, it is also defeated on many an occasion. In the case of the latter, a religious individual says, “Truth shall ultimately emerge victorious by the grace of god.” This statement reveals the person’s belief in god, as well as their instinctive desire to see the good win. Non-believers, on the other hand, strive to achieve the values they cherish, even if the goal is beyond their capacity. Obviously, they don’t resort to god’s support or religion. But they are confident that other human beings will come to their aid and help them achieve their aim. This stand, too, isn’t entirely based on causality. While human beings are known to support others, there are also those who are best at placing hurdles in the path of others. In short, achieving values is as much an expression of an atheist’s optimism as a religious individual’s.

Excerpted with permission from The Case For Reason: A Scientific Enquiry into Belief, Narendra Dabholkar, Context.