Ethics in Tangents: Part 4 – The God you Believe in is What you are


I will begin this blog post with a small anecdote, if you may.

In Shirdi, where I had lived for 9 months during my internship and had gotten pretty intimate with the Trust employees, I came to know that young people, even graduates, were quitting their existing jobs and trying hard to get recruited as a watchman/sentry in the temple. The reason must not be hard to guess. On most days, the queue of devotees would be so long that one would have to wait (standing in the queue) at least an hour to gain audience. On days of festivities things were much worse. People might have to stand in queue for over 10 hours. The Trust used to have a separate counter also, wherein, one could pay a certain amount, get a receipt and join the queue at a point closer to the sanctum sanctorum. Some, who used to be celebrities – politicians, Bollywood stars, etc., would gain direct access. Close relatives/friends of employees would also get direct access to the sanctum without standing in the long queues.

But apart from all the above ‘short cuts’, I came to know that many affluent people would pay bribes to the tune of a few thousand rupees to the watchmen manning the gates close to the sanctum and gain a direct access. Now, I do not need to elaborate further.

There were very few devotees (my estimate would be ~ 0.5%; yes, around 1 in 200) who used to harbor a sentiment akin to “if I have to meet my God, I must not indulge in any dishonesty in the process and that I must bear some hardship”. Others did not bribe, because they did not have sufficient money or they felt that in terms of ‘input-output’, bribing or getting the receipt were not worth it, as as it is, they would have set aside the entire day for Sai Darshan, so “what was the hurry?”.

That some devotees used to bribe and others used to accept them, and that young men were bribing the Trustees to land up a job as watchman is one aspect of the problem. What is really disconcerting is, that the devotees were the people who used to think that their Sai Baba was omniscient and omnipotent. That their Sai Baba could see all these wrong-doings, could punish for the same, and yet, either these devotees found nothing wrong with bribing thus, or much worse, they felt, that by being servile, offering prayers, garlands, prashad and some money/jewelry they could cajole and flatter their omnipotent and omniscient Sai Baba into not just forgiving them for bribing the watchmen right before His watchful eyes (and for all other ‘sins’ they might have committed from time-to-time), but also persuade Him into being so benevolent and generous that He would even make them rich, or would cure of some terminal illness (which He only would have cursed them with in the first place), or would get them a good life-partner!

For all practical purposes, there exists no God. And even if there were one to exist, we do not know what that God is like. It is no surprise that different religions, civilizations and cultures have come up with myriads of varieties of gods. Also, within the same culture, and even within the same family, different individuals ascribe different traits to their God/gods. That is something that should surprise us a lot. Because all the above forces – religions, cultures, traditions, religious leaders, religious books propound the same/similar ideas about God and that act as a homogenizing force. Moreover, even those who believe in God/gods out of what they believe to be their own convictions, do so, it must be remembered, after living in the same world with comparable if not identical things to observe and draw conclusions from. Yet, in midst of relentless homogenizing factors, every believer’s individuality manifests itself in the subtle ways in which their god differs from the next believer.

Why do people come to believe in different God/gods despite the above homogenizing forces?

I had believed since long that God you believe in is what you are! In my previous blog post (click), I had described my journey from being a passionately devout theist to turning an atheist. At the end I realized that whatever I thought the God to be, were in fact, my own prejudices and convictions projected (click) on to the God. If I am hateful, my God would be hateful; if I am practical person, so would be my God; if I am idealistic and believe that the purpose of human life is to live for one ideal or the other, so would my God be, so on and so forth.

However, my above conclusion was based solely on introspection and observing people around. I had not been confident of my hypothesis. A year back, I had come across a blog post titled ‘My Imaginary Friend’ (click) that had carried a very good analysis of the same phenomenon, which in turn had also contained an excerpt of a study involving brain-imaging, providing a lot more objective data to buttress what had been my suspicion. Also, not all the prejudices are projected on to the God per se, some are also ascribed to the highly vague-sounding ‘nature’. E.g., “it is against the order of nature to allow carnal co-habitation of same-sex individuals” – conveniently forgetting that if a person feels an urge, that in itself proves that the Nature had ‘willed’ it thus. This argument based on what we think the ‘intent’ of nature was, is termed as appealing to ‘nature’ (click).

I leave the readers with a few illustrative paragraphs from Matt McCormick’s blog post as well as the brain-imaging study carried out:

Subjects consistently made the most egocentric attributions to God. No matter what their views were, God shared them across the board. But these same subjects would not do that when making estimations of the moral views of other humans. Even fMRI scans showed that when people were thinking about God’s beliefs the brain activity was most similar to that when they were reflecting on their own views, in contrast to areas of the brain that were active when subjects thought about other humans’ beliefs. Who would have thought that God is just like me, no matter who I am or what I believe? How could that be? Maybe it’s because God is imaginary?

In both nationally representative and more local samples, people’s own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God’s beliefs than with estimates of other people’s beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people’s beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God’s beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people’s beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one’s own beliefs and God’s beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person’s beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs.

Source: Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs. (click) by Epley N, Converse BA, Delbosc A, Monteleone GA, Cacioppo JT.

So well, the truth may be very bitter. If my guesses and estimates from the Shirdi experience are correct, the majority of population is so unscrupulous that it has no qualms even believing in and worshiping a morally challenged and compromised God. And to think of it, is not the God (at least for the theists) the highest, the best, the most perfect that could have been conceived or could exist? You see what our “highest”, “best” and “the most perfect” is like?

Apart from my getting to rant against belief in God (which I do with some regularity), the implications of above observation when it comes to the moral fabric of our society are very grim, indeed. How can we expect a populace to truly hate the politicians, bureaucrats and other government employees for being corrupt, when the same people do not find anything wrong with a God amenable to bribery and flattery? How will people find it a disincentive to indulge in corruption, when money and associated power is all we worship, and despite the platitudes that we air against corruption, we covet the same corrupt people privately? Are not jugaad and ‘contacts’ coveted? Do we not take pride in announcing how we would have shaken hands with someone high and mighty? Do we not see people framing their photographs taken with some corrupt politician and hanging them prominently on some wall of their living room or office or both?

When will we truly develop respect for practice of ethics and contempt towards lack thereof? That is something I wish the readers would think over. For I believe, perhaps too optimistically so, that if enough people would think over this, World would be much better place to live in.

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17 thoughts on “Ethics in Tangents: Part 4 – The God you Believe in is What you are

  1. Yes the point which you made “That their Sai Baba could see all these wrong-doings, could punish for the same, and yet, either these devotees found nothing wrong with bribing thus, or much worse, they felt, that by being servile, offering prayers, garlands, prashad and some money/jewelry they could cajole and flatter their omnipotent and omniscient Sai Baba into not just forgiving them for bribing the watchmen right before His watchful eyes.” is seriously the biggest distraction from God for me. (I actually noted some of incident which happened in my childhood, I also went some of religious places where people are in hurry of buying “Darshan” by any mean which is wrong and immoral. And abiding with the fact if god existed why he never punished those people.)

  2. God has become a salable product and Worshipers have become impatient customers. In the haste to buy, money is offered for purposes from Darshan . And mind you this is a phenomenon across all religions. This is Kali Yug. we have to endure all this process before the end happens and the Kalki Yuga begins which is foretold to be peaceful, serene and unselfish. Let us wait for the then generation to live in harmony. As for us, we are the unlucky ones to live thru this period mercilessly.

    • Prashanth,

      Welcome to the blog!

      I agree with you on how God, for many, has become a sale-able commodity. But I think humans have always been like that – in terms of their morality. Though, quite unfashionable to say this, if anything, humans are turning more honest and ethical with time.

      However, the basic issue is, how it is ‘power’ (omniscience, omnipotence) that people worship over simple morality, and needless to say, this attitude is going to be reflected in their daily life.

  3. Heyy Ketan!

    Okay, see, some entity like God, who a person hasn’t ever seen, heard or whatever, isn’t it natural, that there will be a variety of ideas of who he is like? Even about a walking talking person, people have so many different, and many times, even conflicting views! So, well, obviously they would have different views on God, the way they have different perceptions of Heaven and Hell and whatever else.
    I think I may be completely off the point, I’m not sure, you tell me?

    • Srishti,

      You have got one aspect of the post quite correctly that ideas about God are quite subjective and hence differ from person to person, either drastically or only slightly so.

      The other point I was trying to emphasize is on the ‘quality of morals’ possessed by the God that majority of people believe in.

      What would you think of a boss who promotes subordinates on the bases of flattery and displaying servility as against on the basis of their contribution to the organization in meeting its goals? The analogy translates as: most people believe that just like the above kind of boss, God is someone who could be pleased with flattery (just pay attention to the lyrics of most of the hymns) and servility (again, most acts as part of rituals are to prove man’s lowliness compared to the God). Also in addition, irrespective of what people say, most people also think that their bad deeds would not bring them harm, nor do they think that doing good deeds would make the God bless them (just like an employee who thinks that rather than working efficiently for furthering organization’s goals, it would be better to cajole the boss to get a promotion). So, the idea that you’ll go to heaven if you do good deeds and to the hell if you do bad deeds is something people just do not believe in, if one is to go by their actions. Would you consider above kind of boss as someone moral, or someone you would ordinarily hate?

      Also, in addition, most people think that God is “so great” that no man can equal God, and it appalls me to think what is this “so great” about God (susceptibility to flattery, megalomania, whimsical injustice) that people admire. And if that is what people adore/respect in their God, then imagine what would be the moral standards followed in daily life.

      I hope I could explain sufficiently well. 🙂

      Thanks for your input and providing me an opportunity to clarify! 🙂

  4. As usual a very nice post which made interesting read. The concept of God residing at a particular place and the dogmas regarding significance of some day , time and Muhurat for prayer and darshan has always been beyond the arc of my wisdom. People dying in these stampedes at temples, eve teasing, pickpocketing and all that evil that you see in places of worship makes me wonder where is God?
    This world is full of God fearing people and there is hardly any God lover . Sometimes I really think only sinners need God to make Him an accomplice in their ill deeds. Neeraj in one of his poem rhymes with your thought in the post

    जब तुम्हारी ही हृदय में याद हर दम,
    लोचनों में जब सदा बैठे स्वयं तुम,
    फिर अरे क्या देव, दानव क्या, मनुज क्या?
    मैं जिसे पूजूं जहां भी तुम वहीं साकार !
    किसलिए आऊं तुम्हारे द्वार ?
    आज मुझमें तुम, तुम्हीं में मैं हुआ लय,
    अब न अपने बीच कोई भेद-संशय,
    क्योंकि तिल-तिलकर गला दी प्राण! मैंने
    थी खड़ी जो बीच अपने चाह की दीवार।
    व्यर्थ फिर आना तुम्हारे द्वार॥
    दूर कितने भी रहो तुम पास प्रतिपल,
    क्योंकि मेरी साधना ने पल-निमिष चल
    कर दिए केन्द्रित सदा को ताप-बल से
    विश्व में तुम और तुम में विश्वभर का प्यार।
    हर जगह ही अब तुम्हारा द्वार॥
    We had a long debate on a forum of orkut community and
    I think you might find that discussion interesting .
    http://www.orkut.co.in/Main#CommMsgs?cmm=54654322&tid=5261992681825130750

    • Sunil,

      This is the suspicion I had for long and you put it so well:

      “Sometimes I really think only sinners need God to make Him an accomplice in their ill deeds.”

      If you’d have read the abstract of the research paper I had linked, you’d realize your and my suspicion is increasingly proved to be true.

      This poem was also amazing!

      I wonder how you manage to get such pertinent poems in Hindi for almost everything we discuss. 🙂 And then I also wonder why we did not have these kind of thought-provoking poems in our school-days. 😦

      Thanks a lot for your insightful comment!

  5. My mother used to be a ‘devotee’ (using the word in the loosest sense) of Sai Baba and she wud take my brother and I to Shirdi frequently when we were kids. Of course, being kids we were extremely fascinated by the food they served there more than any darshan or such other things. I remember being rather offended when they wudnt allow me to enter Sai Baba’s chamber claiming that females, even 8 year olds, were not allowed there since Baba was a practitioner of celibacy.

    That was the first taste I had of the kind of rife sexism inherent in the commonly practiced widespread version of ‘religion’.

    I decided if some God-figure didn’t want me then well I didnt want it either.

    Also, there was this news of a throne made of solid gold being gifted to the Trust or the Sansthan as we call it at home. I wonder how no one noticed the irony in gifting a golden throne to a man who slept with a stone for a pillow and who eschewed all wealth in general.

    I was also rather intrigued by the idea of how a man of flesh and blood can be deified to such great extents, not a man like Joshua who lived a couple thousand years ago but a man like Sai who lived a little more than a century ago.

    But of course, it comes easily to people in our country where temples are dedicated to living film actors.

    Suspension of disbelief is scarily and unnaturally easy for most people.

    • TUIB,

      To be honest, in fact, I’m even not convinced of the qualities that are attributed to Sai Baba. Any legend that relies on supernaturalism (miracles) makes me highly skeptical of ulterior motives.

      Yes, it is possible that Sai Baba himself never performed miracles, and those miracles were only later added to his ‘arsenal’ of greatness.

      Also, you might be surprised to note that despite the recentness of his existence, actually very little is known about him. Of course, not all of that is his fault.

      However, there is one curious thing I noted, there are words attributed to Sai Baba that hint at his self-proclamations of divine greatness and which would ordinarily inspire servility (“meri sharan meing aao”-kinds). Now again, those words might have also been those of certain devotees wanting to project a larger-than-life of his. However, in addition to that, there were certain messages, which tried to project ‘donations’ to Sai as some kind of *financial* investments. And that put me off further.

      So, somehow I could never develop any respect for even the purported being that Sai Baba might have been. 🙂

      And though I don’t remember properly, perhaps females are still not allowed to get close to the idol when aarti would be going on. 🙂

      Thanks (and thanks) for your (which I use as plural) for your comment! 😉

  6. When u stay in a society there are various variables in play. To stay with Sai Baba; one of them is “ever been to shirdi?”. So a lot of ppl come to just say; “Yeah man! It was a totally divine experience”. When this is the outlook towards Darshan then u r bound to get a lot of sacrilegious practices. And u can’t blame any one trying to profit from it.
    Once man used to be a hunter; in those he answered to no one(in his conscience, shall we say) when there was scarcity of food he migrated.
    For hunting phase, may be man worked for say 2hrs in a day, thought it was a perilous task it was less time consuming.
    Then slowly agriculture was practiced, that meant staying in one place for a long duration of time for agriculture is not a result yielding as hunting was.
    and agriculture is fairly dependent upon the forces of nature. So here was an entity that was out of man’s control.
    I am giving u this history b’coz when there are a lot of factors out of your hand then there is always comfort in knowing someone’s got ur back. And man being man can always exploit any opportunity that comes his way.
    There never was truer saying than “necessity is the mother of invention”.
    Moral fabric is a very lofty and over rated term in today’s time; especially when ur survival hangs on one silly mistake. If we truly had moral fabric we never would have increased our numbers to more than 6 bill. Even the most ardent proponents of morality agree that true morality is impossible, for instance every person in mumbai should, say, not use any electric appliance for 5 hrs a day as the state is facing a power crunch(we’ll leave politics out)
    so that the rural areas get power for a decent 10-12 hrs a day.
    The argument over this cld b where does morality play a part, but morality dictates ur day day to behavior more than the stupid examples ppl keep touting, helping Sr. citizens and so. one wld say morality permeates into every little decision u make.
    So u see when morality has no place in day day to life; then the special cases aforementioned by you have scarce necessity of it.
    I am also surprised how much the idea of disproving God’s existence motivates things in our society as to expend so many resources behind it.

    • Rahul,

      Welcome to the blog!

      There is little doubt that morality is involved in all life-decisions that affect others directly or indirectly or sometimes even those that don’t affect others.

      It is also true that morality is relative and subject, but yet there is quite a bit of overlap in the same subjective/relative morality as illustrated by how similar the law-systems all over the world are. Or how all over the world similar things are considered as illegal/unethical. Bribery and deception are widely regarded as unethical/illegal in my knowledge. I’m not invoking here the “majority says so, hence it must be right”-kind of logic here. But trying to point out that there is certain pragmatism usually behind all the legal and moral principles that have evolved. The bases of such principles, though not always, but largely is the facilitation of co-existence without much friction.

      Whatever allows someone to get something ‘undeserving’ is considered an unethical act. Yes, there can be debates on how certain things become ‘deserved’/’undeserved’, but the point is accepting and/or offering bribes is usually to circumvent the process that makes one deserving of what one seeks. The fact that one is offering to bribe (without even the ‘authority’ asking for in the first place, God, in this example) is sufficient evidence the concerned person himself thinks himself to be undeserving.

      Anyway, that was more of a digression. I agree that that Mumbaikars, just because they face higher electricity tariffs, higher property rates, have to live in much smaller houses, etc., feel entitled to get 24 hour-electricity could be construed to be a kind of immorality, but the fact is Mumbaikars are not held as exemplary when it comes to morality. Whereas, the God I discussed above is held as an exemplar of morality – a simple illustration of this is the common usage in Marathi of deva maanusa. I have never come across a megalomaniacal, threatening, vindictive and insecure person being referred to as ‘deva maanusa’ in earnest. And that is the point of this post!

      Thanks for your inputs!

  7. Funny you say that… In Indonesia, each hotel rooms normally provide Bible, Quran, Vedas, and Tripitaka inside it’s bedside drawers. But on many occasions, I would find the 3 books except for the Quran. When I asked why, the staff would explain it’s because most guests are Muslim, and they tend to steal the Quran. Lol. Why they think it’s ok to have (or read) a stolen Qur’an is beyond me. 🙂

    • wulanadian,

      Hehe! Funny thing you pointed out there! 😉

      I think that is because, contrary to popular perception, it is actually theology-based morality that is lot more *relative* than that of godless atheists. 🙂

  8. Between, when have people supported an institution – morally compromised or not – that has not benefitted them ? Religion being one among them. Governments are another. I can list many more such as Schools, Colleges et al.

    It is debatable whether the world has become more Moral or not. Earlier in wars mostly soldiers alone died and they were fought with least hindrance to civilians. But today, innocent civilians are one of the primary targets in a war. I wonder if this is moral.

    When the so-called benefactor of humanity – science – has been subservient to military, the morality is questionable. Science research is still heavily funded by military and the reason being to kill a few thousand people somewhere on earth. If your so-called best minds are into it, i wonder about the question of morality ? Perhaps, it is mere presentism.

    • Yogesh!

      Welcome to my blog!

      What you say in your first paragraph is pretty accurate and there is nothing to contest there. But then my point is: why this double standards? I mean, if you ask people, “are bribery and flattery good means to achieve whatever goals we might want to?”, vast majority of people would reply in negative. In other words, most people would agree that “one accepting bribes and doing favors to those who flatter him/her is a ‘bad’ person”. Also, most people would also say that any kind of ‘God’ is good and cannot be ‘bad’. But then the kind of God they worship is inherently ‘bad’ in that he (more often than ‘she’) is amenable to bribing and encourages flattery by rewarding the flatterers. It is this double standards that I am against. Either you worship such a God and openly state that there is nothing wrong with accepting bribes and encouraging flattery, or you do not believe in a God who would do the same. Why apply different standards for ‘men’ and ‘gods’?

      I wouldn’t comment with any degree of confidence whether the World has ‘become’ more moral, but I have some reasons to believe that yes it has.

      I would not attribute an ‘intent’ or ‘instinct’ to ‘science’. Because it is merely a tool. The nature of its use depends on the one wielding it. Yes, I have no qualms accepting that people with one of the best IQs can be bereft of conscience and compassion the way we know them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. I think contradictions are part of life. However hard one tries, it is not possible to avoid contradictions. The aim is to minimize them as we go along.

    Krishna whom most people worship has said that “Karmanye vaa adhikaaraste..” and most people know this too. They quote it many times but just that they forget to execute it in the context of prayer. Again, like with bribery in daily life, a couple of times their prayer succeeds, people start to think that this is the way forever. Why ? People have been trained that way all along. System has always strived for status quo. In any organisation, people who progress are people who will not disturb that equilibrium.

    Again the question of people wielding it differently. There have been people who have prayed because they enjoy it and not out of any expectation. In essence, every tool (be it science, religion or something more concrete) has been used effectively only by very few men. If many of us use the tools at our disposal effectively, the world wouldn’t be where it is now right ?

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