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A Defence of Religion

By Iftekhar Sayeed


Original Content at


May 30, 2008 

Certain western thinkers use irrationality as a ground for the superiority of western civilisation, a ground that gives them the moral authority to look down upon, and manipulate, the irrational. It may come as a shock to them to learn that we are all irrational, equally human.



Anthony Pagden, a British historian who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, has no doubts about the superiority of the "Western" way of life, according to the Economist (" It is hardly a coincidence, he suggests, that ancient Athens found itself doing battle with the Persian tyranny of Xerxes, while the modern Western world faces a stand-off with the mullahs' Iran. In his view of history, these are simply related chapters in a single narrative: the contest between liberal and enlightened societies whose locus is Europe (or at least European culture) and different forms of Oriental theocracy and authoritarianism."

Although the learned historian dislikes religion in all its variety, he has a soft corner for Christianity because "in refreshing contrast with Islam, its adherents were willing progressively (in two senses) to let go of their irrational beliefs; and to let go of any desire to mingle spiritual and political authority."

Further, the civilisational conflict between East and West has been going on for 2,500 years. "Even where the enlightened West did bad things, these were aberrations from a broadly virtuous trajectory; where the tyrannical east (from Darius to Osama bin Laden) committed sins, they were no better than anybody could expect...."

Firstly, why only 2,500 years? Human history is 10,000 years old, and only a quarter of that seems to have been devoted by the East to bashing the West; what happened before that? Well, it would seem that before that there was no West – and no East either. These extremes existed on the compass, of course, (not yet invented by the irrational and tyrannous Chinese), but they had no psychological counterpart.

The reason, as I have argued elsewhere ( was that it took the destruction of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilisation (irrational and tyrannous, of course) by the second Greek invasion to usher in a Dark Age that gave rise finally around 750 BC to the Greek city-states, where the political authority of kings was necessarily circumscribed by the assembly and the council as depicted in Homer's Iliad. Thus, Greece traveled in one direction, the East in another.

Second, Greek democracy rested solidly on slavery – the very meaning of freedom derived from the unfree status of the slaves. "...possession of slaves made active political life, and so eventually democracy, easier (it would be too strong to say that it made it possible) by giving the citizen elite the leisure for political discussion and office-holding (Simon Hornblower, "Democratic Institutions in Ancient Greece", ed. John Dunn, Democracy The Unfinished Journey, New York: OUP 1992, p. 4)." However, the very meaning of freedom was deduced from its opposite, slavery, not only in Greece, but in Republican Rome, and the modern western world (see my article "Freedom and Freedom" at; moreover, whenever a participatory form of government disappeared and gave way to a "tyrannous" form, slavery tended to disappear – even in Europe, as during the Hellenistic Empire and the Roman Empire.

Third, the classical thinkers produced by Greek democracy themselves felt democracy to be a dangerous and violent form of government; Thucydides glorified the tyrants, and deplored the demos. "Indeed, generally their government was not grievous to the multitude, or in any way odious in practice; and these tyrants cultivated wisdom and virtue as much as any, and without exacting from the Athenians more than a twentieth of their income, splendidly adorned their city, and carried on their wars, and provided sacrifices for the temples. For the rest, the city was left in full enjoyment of its existing laws, except that care was always taken to have the offices in the hands of some one of the family (Project Gutenberg's The History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides, Chapter XIX, EBook #7142). " Of the Athenian demos, he held a very low opinion: " Pericles, indeed, by his rank, ability and known integrity was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude –in short, to lead them instead of being led by them;...what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen. With his successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude. (Thucydides, Chapter VII) "

It is small wonder that 2,000 years later, Thomas Hobbes translated Thucydides to convey to his compatriots the horrors of democracy.

Socrates' horror of Athenian politics was so intense that he stayed away from every political function: in Plato's Gorgias, he is accused by the others of shirking his duty as a man, and hobnobbing with kids in a quiet corner, avoiding the agora. In reply, Socrates distinguishes between two kinds of politics: one that makes people virtuous, and one that resorts to mere flattery, that is, demagoguery. He says that every Athenian statesman practiced the latter kind, finally creating an empire they didn't know what to do with (

Indeed, Simon Hornblower, in the article referred to above, observes that after the Persian Wars (490 – 479 BC), the tribute collected by Athens from her 'allies', enabled her democracy to pay for political participation and so radicalized democracy: "This link between radicalism and imperialism is uncomfortable but undeniable (Hornblower, p. 9)."

Plato's horror of democracy has become proverbial – he has been branded one of the enemies of the open society, by Sir Karl Popper. That he was a father – if not the father – of totalitarianism, can hardly be denied. Again, this is one of the 'rational' ideas to have come out of Western civilisation. For Plato, the Platonic Forms, or Ideas, were more important than any living and breathing human being. People are to be valued only to the extent that they embody those Forms. Since few people are perfect, love of Forms must be greater than love of people (Gregory Vlastos, "The Individual as an Object of Love in Plato", Platonic Studies, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 152-3). Time and again, we shall see this malign philosophy at work – in the French Revolution and in democracy (below), in nationalism and in Marxism. However, we must not overlook Plato's source of inspiration: it was the sheer disorder of the Greek polis that led him to dream of Utopia:

'And those who have been of this little company and have tasted the sweetness and blessedness of this possession and who have also come to understand the madness of the multitude sufficiently and have seen that there is nothing, if I may say so, sound or right in any present politics, and that there is no ally with whose aid the champion of justice could escape destruction, but that he would be as a man who has fallen among wild beasts, unwilling to share their misdeeds and unable to hold out singly against the savagery of all, and that he would thus, before he could in any way benefit his friends or the state, come to an untimely end without doing any good to himself or others – for all these reasons I say the philosopher remains quiet, minds his own affair, and, as it were, standing aside under shelter of a wall in a storm and blast of dust and sleet and seeing others filled full of lawlessness, is content if in any way he may keep himself free from iniquity and unholy deeds through his life and take his departure with fair hope, serene and well content when the end comes"' (Republic, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, trans. Paul Shorey, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 496c-e).

Now, it is remarkable that three Greek thinkers – Thucydides, Socrates and Plato – felt similarly about Greek democracy. And Aristotle, in the fifth book of the Politics, repeatedly mentions the demagogue as the destabilizing factor in society: he considered democracy to be the perverted form of "rule by the many" ("democracy." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, document.write(new Date().getFullYear()); 2008.).

So, even when the enlightened west did terrible things – such as the small matters of slavery, colonialism, racism, the Holocaust, the two world wars, the Vietnam War, the Iraq war – these were mere deviations! Essentially, western civilisation is rational and liberal.


"The ideal of 'direct democracy' – democratie pure in the language of the time – was very prominent in the context of 1789 and continued to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the absence of more accessible historical examples of democratic governments, the French revolutionaries found their inspiration in the models of the Greek city-state (the polis) and of the Roman Republic – perpetuated within Western political tradition by historians of classical antiquity and republican writers. (Biancamaria Fontana, "Democracy and the French Revolution", ed. John Dunn, Democracy The Unfinished Journey, New York: OUP 1992, p. 112)"

Thus, Europe refused to listen to the sane advice of Thomas Hobbes.

But what emerged was not a secular state, but the sacred concept of the nation-state. "Its first purpose," observes Fontana of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and Citizen, "was to confer on popular sovereignty the sacredness which had always accompanied the acts of the monarchy by appealing to universal principles and the authority of God. (Fontana, p. 115) " According to S.E. Finer, "...the Revolution became a kind of religion, and one that everybody was supposed to share" (S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 1544). 

Above all, the great innovation of the French Revolution was the creation of the citizen-soldier-voter nexus. The Declaration 'consecrated the principle of election by or through the People' (Finer, p. 1534). The deification of the people had begun: the French people deified, the Germans soon reacted by deifying the German people. Finer quotes Heine as having anticipated Nazi Germany 100 years before the event: "There will come upon the scene armed Fichteans whose fanaticism of will is to be restrained neither by fear nor by self-interest; for they live in the spirit, they defy matter like those early Christians who could be subdued neither by bodily torments nor by bodily delights....(Finer, p. 1549) "

According to Fontana: "The new French republic showed that modern democracies would not be, as many had hoped, exclusively committed to commerce, quiet living, and peaceful relations with their neighbours. On the contrary, they could prove more aggressive and imperialistic than any of the monarchies of the Old Regime. The partisans of Greek, Italian, and Hungarian independence in the nineteenth century, the Red Army at St. Petersburg, the thousands of names on the mass graves on the Somme, aggressors and resistance fighters of 1939-45 all found themselves following in the steps of the ragged battalions who marched through Paris in the summer of 1792 singing for the first time the 'Marsellaise'. (Fontana, "Democracy and the French Revolution", p. 124 – 5)"

It is, therefore, not surprising to read that "The history of democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries involves the story not so much of making the world safe for democracy, as Woodrow Wilson wanted it, but of making democracy safe for the world.( Charles S. Maier, "Democracy Since the French Revolution", ed. John Dunn, Democracy The Unfinished Journey, New York: OUP 1992, p. 126) "


"My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others. (Bertrand Russell , Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?"

This was the inimitable Bertrand Russell venting his personal resentment of religion. It seems that he had suffered acutely as a child because of his Christian upbringing, and later, having emancipated himself from the superstition, blamed all of mankind's evils on religion.

And yet, in his own essay, On Being Modern-minded, Russell observed: ""In former days, men wished to serve God.....Every religiously minded artist was convinced that God's aesthetic judgments coincided with his own; he had therefore a reason, independent of popular applause, for doing what he considered his best, even if his style was out of fashion....( Bertrand Russell, 'On Being Modern-minded', Unpopular Essays (Bombay: Blackie & Son (India) Ltd, 1979), p. 68) "

He correctly places Copernicus among those who wished to reveal the works of God to man, and toiled ceaselessly to record and interpret the planetary poetry. "There was no single moment in history when science replaced mysticism as a means of explaining the workings of the world; but the lives of two men neatly circumscribe the transition, which occurred (for them, at least) more or less as the sixteenth century became the seventeenth," observes John Gribbin, in his superb book, Science: A History (John Gribbin, Science: A History 1543 – 2001, London: Penguin 2003, p. 68). The two lives he mentions are those of Galileo Galilei and William Gilbert. And he places Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler solidly under the title "The Last Mystics".

But that is misleading. For mysticism continued to influence science throughout the Enlightenment and beyond. "In other years, when scientists acknowledged their motivations more freely, they often openly confessed their nonrational, mystical, or religious convictions...Galileo, a pious man, looked upon the laws of nature as works and evidences of the Deity equal in authority to the evidences of the Scriptures....Until about a century ago, the typical scientist openly asserted that the physical world could not be understood without resort to fundamental theistic assumptions (G.Holton and D.H.D.Roller, Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1959, p.235)."

Thus Newton affirmed in 1692: "When I wrote my treatise [the Principia, 1687] about our system, I had an eye on such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. (Holton and Roller, p. 236) " Gribbn himself cites the instance of Carl Linnaeus: "Like so many of his contemporaries, he saw himself as uncovering God's handiwork in his classification of nature, and he said on more than one occasion that the number of species existing on Earth in his day was the same as the number created by God in the beginning.( Gribbin, p. 219) " The theoretical physicist and astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington (1882 – 19944), once wrote a "Defence of Mysticism" (Holton and Roller, p. 238).

"In analyzing the Newtonian conception of force, Richard Westfall arrives at the conclusion that modern science is the result of the wedding of the Hermetic tradition with the mechanical philosophy.(emphasis original) (Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume three, trans. Alf Hiltebeitel and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1988, p. 261.) " In 1975, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, in her book The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy, revealed that Newton's contemporaries complained that his "forces" were actually "occult qualities". "Newton's forces were very much like the hidden sympathies and antipathies found in much of the occult literature of the Renaissance period (quoted in Eliade, Volume three, p. 261)."

Hermes Trismegistos was believed to be Moses' contemporary: his writings gave an alternative account of creation, one in which man played a more central role. God, according to Hermes, had made man fully in his own image – not just as a rational animal, but as a creator in his own right. Man can imitate God, and he can create like the Creator, through alchemical applications – doing away with disease, want and old age. "It was a heady vision, and it gave rise to the notion that, through science and technology, man could bend nature to his wishes. This is essentially the modern view of science, and it should be emphasized that it occurs only in Western civilization. It is probably this attitude that permitted the West to surpass the East, after centuries of inferiority, in the exploitation of the physical world. ("science, history of." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, document.write(new Date().getFullYear()); 2008.) "

Retracing our steps a little, we shall recall the heliocentric preoccupations of Copernicus: these were directly influenced by Hermeticism. Inspired by Platonic mysticism, Hermeticism emphasized the source of light, the sun. The 15th century Florentine translator of both Plato and Hermetic writing, Marsilio Ficino, composed a work that very nearly idolized the sun: the young Copernicus was heavily influenced and went back to his native Poland to work on the problems of the Ptolemaic astronomy.

Therefore, the leading minds of Europe – Paracelsus, John Dee, Comenius, J.V.Andreae, Fludd and Newton – sought in alchemy "the perfection of man by a new method of knowledge" (Eliade, Volume three, p. 261 ).

It would appear, therefore, that modern science would have been quite impossible without religion as a source of inspiration; pace Bertrand Russell, religion contributed more than the calendar to civilisation.


"Maybe so, but once religious inspiration got the project of science going, there was no longer any need for religion, and science has fared quite well without that noxious body of superstitious mumbo-jumbo." Both Anthony Pagden and Bertrand Russell may be imagined to make this highly effective retort. As Holton and Roller observe: "In modern science, personal philosophic persuasions do not intrude explicitly into the published work – not because they are nonexistent, but because they are expendable.(emphases original) (Holton and Roller, p. 238) "

The scientific method, in short, is an impersonal, rational affair.

Holton and Roller outline the method used by Galileo in his Two New Sciences (italics original): "First, Galileo will discuss the mathematics of a possible, simple type of motion, namely, motion with constant acceleration. Then he will assume or hypothesize that this is the type of motion that a heavy body undergoes during free fall. Third, he will deduce from this hypothesis some predictions that are amenable to experimental tests. Lastly, he will show that these tests do indeed bear out the predictions, thus confirming the fundamental assumption, namely the constancy of acceleration in free fall." No wonder John Gribbin describes Galileo (and Gilbert) as the first scientists, as opposed to the last mystics, Brahe and Kepler! Where is there room for faith in the above procedure?

The procedure – used in scientific experiments – may be generalized thus:

If the hypothesis, H, is true, then the test implication, I, is true.

(As the evidence shows) The test implication, I, is true.

Therefore, the hypothesis, H, is true.

Or more succinctly:

If H is true, then I is true.

I is true (as the evidence shows)

Therefore, H is true.

In logic, this is known as the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Consider a similar argument: 

If I am in Paris, I am in France.

I am in France.

Therefore, I am in Paris.

Both the premises may be true, and yet the conclusion can be completely false: I could be in any French city other than Paris (or in the lovely, subsidized French countryside!).

Now, let us extend the above schema:

If H is true, then I1, I2, ...In are true.

(As the evidence shows) I1, I2,...In are true.

Therefore, H is true.

And yet H may be entirely false (Carl G. Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc 1966, p. 8).

The upshot is momentous: no amount of favourable evidence can ever verify a scientific hypothesis as true.

What remains, then, but faith – the selfsame faith in the unseen, unknown and mysterious reality behind phenomenon so dreaded and lauded by people of a religious persuasion? The worship of science turns out to be as irrational as the worship of any deity.

This point was taken to its – logical – conclusion by the philosopher P. K. Feyerabend. He complains that many people take science to be the paradigmatic form of knowledge, rejecting other subjects as non-science (and almost, and sometimes definitely, nonsense). Since there is no rational criteria by which to judge a scientific belief system, one approach to interpretation of reality is as good as another (A.F. Chalmers, What is this thing called Science?, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1983, p. 140 ). We have seen above the mutual hostility between science and logic – and logic must be our only guide to rationality (if not logic, then what else?). The logical mind is that which is amenable to reason and argumentation – which, when it accepts the premises of a valid argument as true, must accept the conclusion to be true also.

"One of the strangest arguments I have seen put forward – apparently seriously – is that using a word such as gravity to describe the cause of the fall of an apple from a tree is no less mystical than invoking 'God's will' to explain why the apple falls, since the word 'gravity' is just a label," complains John Gribbin. "The difference between the scientific description of how apples fall and the mystical description of how apples fall is that, whatever name you ascribe to the phenomenon, in scientific terms it can be described by a precise law (in this case, the inverse square law) and that the same law can be applied to the fall of an apple from a tree, the way the Moon is held in orbit around the earth and so on out into the universe. (Gribbin, p. 615 – 616) "The long-suffering John Gribbin deserves a decent reply.

One can imagine a more sensible mystic arguing perhaps as follows: "But, John, the inverse square law has only been proven for a finite number of cases. Every successful verification of the inverse square law entails the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. Therefore, defining gravity in terms of the inverse square law is a circular procedure."

Indeed, the mystic might continue, when you go beyond the evidence, you are claiming that your belief in the inverse square law (or any scientific law) is evidence-transcendent. If you can be permitted this privilege, then why not I? For you accuse me of inconsistency when you say I hold three mutually incompatible premises to be true: (1) that God is good; (2) that He is omnipotent and (3) that He allows people to get hurt.

For I can reply, after your fashion, that the goodness of the deity is evidence-transcendent, just as the eternal truth of the inverse square law is evidence-transcendent. How do you and I differ?

Furthermore, I can be perfectly consistent after your fashion by introducing the devil as the one who allows people to get hurt, and not God, and that ultimately God will prevail; or I can, as the Gnostics maintained, affirm that God did not create the world, that he does not interact with an evil world, and that people get hurt because of the evil inherent in matter. "First of all, for the Gnostics, the true God is not the creator God, that is, Yahweh. The creation is the work of the lower or even diabolical powers, or, alternatively, the cosmos is the more or less demonic counterfeit of a superior world....Not only is the creation of the world no longer a proof of God's omnipotence; it is explained by an accident that occurred in the higher regions or as the result of the primordial aggression of Darkness against Light. (Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Volume two, trans. Willard R. Trask, p. 373 ) " Or I can, like the Buddhists, deny everything as illusion, and posit no God at all; or, like the Confucians, I can do away with the notion of God and gods and focus on the state, society and family....

The above paragraph is intended to impress on the reader the fact that the word 'religion' has, so far, not been defined at all: indeed, when it comes to talk about religion, the most slipshod methods are allowable.

The most comprehensive and exhaustive definition of religion known to the author is that put forward by Ninian Smart in his book The World's Religions (Ninian Smart ,The World's Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989), pp 10 - 25).

(1) First, there's the ritual dimension; (2) then there's the experiential or emotional aspect; (3) the narrative or mythical dimension; (4) the doctrinal dimension; (5) the ethical dimension; (6) the social and institutional aspects and (7) the material dimension (See my article on nationalism at, and on democracy as religion at

Thus, practices and belief systems ranging from Christianity and Confucianism to Marxism, nationalism and democracy come under the definition of religion. We have already seen how the French revolution, and French nationalism, were religious phenomena, ones that persist to this day. The words "secular religion" do not constitute an oxymoron.


Since science is useful, rather than truthful, religion can be viewed in the same terms. Religion has provided succour to those who were oppressed, stability to entire societies over millennia, and strength for the persecuted. This is not to deny that religion has not had its dark side – but then so has the scientific endeavour. It was the use of physics during the Second World War that turned a young man, among other young men, off the subject, and towards a new direction. His name was Francis Crick (Gribbin, p. 563).

Vittorio Lanternari's The Religions of the Oppressed (Vittorio Lanternari, The Religions of the Oppressed, trans. Lisa Sergio, New York: The New American Library, 1965) stands as a lasting monument to the role of religious inspiration in the face of western colonialism. ""The anti-Western attitude which emerges from this study is not the personal attitude of the author but that of the native peoples expressed through their own ideas and, often, in their own words. Their feeling toward the missions is only one facet of their general stand in regard to the white man (Lanternari, p. xii)"

Thus, the doctrine of the benevolent civilisation described by the learned British historian Anthony Pagden receives a summary rebuttal from an Italian sociologist – or perhaps the entire volume adds up to one of those all-too-frequent deviations that western civilisation is prone to. "The movements analyzed here are concerned with a bitter and painful present as well as with a radiant future wherein all evil will be erased. (Lanternari, p. x) "

Thus, the author recounts the African struggle, painting a vivid portrait of Simon Kimbangu (1889? – 1951), a nonpolitical prophet of the Bakongo people of the Lower Congo. Then Lanternari describes the plight of the Native Americans: "In the struggle of the American Indians against the white invaders, religion played a far more significant role than is commonly believed. (Lanternari, p. 63) " Chief Sitting Bull, by means of the "Ghost Dance", gave his people the inner strength to struggle against the conquerors. However, when resistance failed, the Peyote cult emerged.

After the Civil War, the inexorable westward drive of the white people proved a harrowing experience. The author quotes John Collier: "beginning about 1870, a leading aim of the United States was to destroy the Plains Indians societies through destroying their religions; and it may be that the world has never witnessed a religious persecution so implacable and so variously implemented.( Lanternari, p. 91) " (We must keep in mind that America then was a liberal democracy that had just emancipated all its slaves.)

In Indonesia, the convulsion of war and the return of the Dutch, led to a revival of the Mahdi (messiah) mythology. Religious prophets emerged who combined native tradition with messianic Islamic ideas. In Sumatra and Java, the population waited anxiously but did not know what they waited for. Groups of believers, spurred by their leaders, were seen racing through villages and cities. Apparently, Islamic prophecy had foretold that the Mahdi would appear after mass movement and popular agitation. The growing hatred for the Dutch finally assumed political form and helped to bring about the revolution of 1945-49 (Lanternari, p. 212).

In conclusion, Lanternari observes: "Religious autonomy resolves the conflict between an outside power striving to destroy native culture and the culture's own power to resist and survive, between willful opposition to an alien culture and supine acquiescence in the demands of an alien ruling minority. (Lanternari, p. 253) "

Again, pace Bertrand Russell, religion appears to have made another great contribution to civilisation. Of course, Russell did acknowledge the contribution of the Egyptian priests by way of calendar-making: what he failed to see was that the Egyptian civilisation and Egyptian religion were indistinguishable.

Henri Frankfort has observed that the boast of Louis XIV – l'etat c'est moi – could have been made by the Pharaoh without any exaggeration. "There can be no doubt about this. The practical organization of the Egyptian commonwealth implies it; the texts and monuments proclaim it; and it is confirmed by the absence of any trace of revolution in three thousand years of recorded history. Pharaoh was no mere despot holding an unwilling people in slavery. He ruled in the strictest sense by divine right....( Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p.31) " This fact is even more significant when we consider that the Egyptian "state" lacked an army until the Hyksos invasion of 1630 BC: only one of the two instances known in human history where a bureaucracy co-existed without an army to extract the produce to feed and equip the latter (the other was the neighbouring case of early Mesopotamia (Finer, p. 36)). If deep religious conviction can provide three thousand years of happy stability, then such religious conviction can not but be held in reverential awe.  


The desacralization of the world and the rise of the rational individual more or less went hand in hand in western civilisation. ""More than the 'human dignity' exalted by the humanists, it is the individual liberty to reject every authority outside of God that has made possible – by a slow process of desacralization – the 'modern world' such as it emerges in the period of the Enlightenment, and defines itself with the French Revolution and the triumph of science and technology (Eliade, Volume three, p. 248 ). "

The rational individual openly appears as homo economicus in the pages of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. The wealth of a nation depends on the division of labour made possible by the consensual exchange of products in a market untrammeled by government or monopoly. "He [Adam Smith] seems to have taken care to note that his remarks do not apply to all, but only to the generality of men. He continually recalls the fact that he is speaking of men of common understanding, or of those gifted with common prudence. He knew well enough that the principles of common prudence do not always govern the conduct of every individual, but he was of opinion that they always influenced that of the majority of every class and order. His reasoning is applicable to men en masse, and not to individuals in particular. Moreover, he does not deny that man may be unacquainted with or may even entirely ignore his own interest....These reservations notwithstanding, and full account being taken of all the exceptions to the principals as laid down by Smith, it is still true to say that as a general thesis he considers 'the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition' – that is, personal interest – as the fundamental psychological motive in political economy. (italics original) (Charles Gide and Charles Rist, A History of Economic Doctrines, trans. B.A.Richards, London: George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd., 1959, p. 103) " That is to say, the rational producer-consumer would try to better his lot, and in doing so, unwittingly, better the lot of the community he finds himself in. This was the product of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it has come to stay.

Indeed, the rational economical agent has pervaded every sphere of human activity – he or she is also the rational voter, the rational ruler, the rational citizen....Rationality is everywhere evident, except, as observed by Anthony Pagden and others, in the nonwestern world. These lesser people must either be ignored (which is not possible in today's cheek-by-jowl world) or elevated to the first rank, or as near to it as their feeble intellects will allow. The great neo-conservative experiment in disseminating the seeds of democracy far and wide, with violence if necessary since we don't know our own good yet and are apt to resist the 'moderniser', is part of this grand project.

It is remarkable that Adam Smith felt that the well-spring of human activity is to better oneself. A casual reading of Hesiod's Works and Days would have disabused him of this notion."...a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with his neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel. (Hesiod, Works and Days, 11-24, Project Gutenberg's Etext of Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, Etext #348) " For Hesiod, the psychological inducement to work is not the urge to improve one's lot, but to make one's lot better than that of one's neighbours'. More on this soon.

To posit a rational motivation for human endeavour is to misread humans altogether: the irrational aspect of man's character has been the subject of study in western civilisation since at least the time when Plato divided the soul into its three divisions, only one of which is rational. In our age, Sigmund Freud made irrationality the hallmark of humanity, again dividing the psyche into three warring parts.

Freud wrote the following words in a letter to Dr. Chaim Koffler in 1930: " It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives. ( "

He was well aware that a rational project would never have got off the ground – the appeal had to be made to the irrational side of the people.

In philosophy, even David Hume pointed out that we cannot live as rational beings – it is impossible: "...all our reasonings concerning causes and effects, are derived from nothing but custom; and that belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures(The Project Gutenberg Etext of A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume, Part IV, Section 1, Etext #4705) ". In the previous paragraph Hume says that total scepticism is incompatible with nature: we have to believe, willy-nilly. "Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has determined us to judge as well as to breathe and feel...." If we are to survive at all – breathe and feel – we have to form judgments and beliefs, even when reason tells us that we can never have enough evidence for our judgment or belief.

David Hume was a contemporary and friend of Adam Smith, to whom we now return. It is a pity that the latter did not share the skeptical predilections of the former, for then we might not have had the caricature known today as homo economicus. It is remarkable that progress in psychology and psychiatry has had absolutely no effect on the belief in the Rational Individual – and this is nowhere more evident than in the discipline of economics.

In 2002, a remarkable event occurred: the Nobel Prize for economics went to Daniel Kahneman for his attempts to debunk neo-classical economic theory (never mind that he had to share it with someone who believed that people can be trained to be rational in controlled circumstances). Mr. Kahneman is not even an economist – unsurprisingly, he is a psychologist. His insights (achieved with the late Amos Tversky) have been labeled 'behavioural economics'. Psychological studies have shown that people value the comfort of the herd (yes, even rational Anglo-Saxons); and that they are far more frightened of losses than inspired by potential gains. This explains why millions of seemingly rational people – egged on by analysts and the media – jumped headlong into the 'irrational exuberance' (the title of a bestselling book) of the dot-com mania. These people were willing to pay more for shares than rationality would dictate – and then get out suddenly in a fit of collective panic (The Economist, October 12th 2002, p. 76).

Studies have revealed that people would rather be better off relative to other people than to their own present situation (The Economist, August 9 2003, p. 60). So, if you work harder and increase your income, you will not be happier if the Jones's income goes up by the same proportion. Only by making sure that the Jones's are worse off than you can you ensure your well-being. This was the insight of Hesiod, and where Adam Smith went completely wrong.

To state the obvious, people are irrational. That is what it means to be human. Writers and artists have known this for millennia, but thinkers tend to lose sight of a simple fact. Anthony Pagden claims that the west has progressively given up its irrational baggage, and the rest of us have not. It will come as a shock to Mr. Pagden to be told that nobody can give up their irrational bequest. To do so would be to cease to be human - to cease to breathe and feel.

But the claim itself is telling – for no other civilisation bar Mr. Pagden's claims to have an edge over other civilizations in this, or any other, department. Is it rational to feel superior to other people? Doesn't that deny our common humanity? Of course, it follows logically that if you pride yourself on your rationality, you will look for somebody to boast about it to – somebody to look down upon. So long as western civilisation continues to believe that somewhere, always there's someone who is less than human, so long will western civilisation continue to perpetrate the atrocities it has become dreaded for.

Pride is, after all, a sin.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio: Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka,
‎Bangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ‎TEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ‎He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh. ‎ 

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