Not Such a Bright Idea
By Madhava Smullen
In one corner, a new breed of atheist. In the other, a knowledge older than time itself. Who's really turning towards the light?
Krishna consciousness is a delusion, scarcely distinguishable from such childhood inventions as the imaginary friend or the bogeyman under the bed. It is not based on a single fragment of reason or evidence, but rather on a fanatical blind faith. As for God, He is nothing but the projection of a childish wish for parental protection from the sufferings of human existence. So if you really want to develop a positive attitude towards life and be free to concentrate on the only life you are ever going to live, forget religion. You’ll be much better off without it.
Or so the self-proclaimed “brights” would have us believe.
Coined in March 2003 by husband and wife team Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, the term borrows heavily from homosexuals’ hijacking of the word gay to create a positive impression of themselves. Why shouldn’t atheists, or, to use Futrell’s definition, “persons who have a worldview free of supernatural and mystical elements,” have a positive umbrella term too? British evolutionary biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins thought so, and soon jumped on the bandwagon with articles in the Guardian and Wired. The concept took off. Today, the online Brights Network claims there are “thousands of brights now in 79 nations.”
But hold on a second. Let’s backtrack here. If those who don’t believe in God and hold empirical science as the supreme means to the truth are bright, then what is everyone else? Dim?
Well, maybe they are. Maybe Krishna consciousness really isn’t based on any reason or evidence. Maybe the only absolute truth out there is that which can be garnered from empirical science.
Let’s find out.
That’s the Limit
In a March 2006 article for Science and Theology News, Nigel Brush, a scientist himself, says he wondered about science’s self-imposed monopoly on the human quest for truth and began to explore its limitations.
There were, he discovered, quite a few.
To begin with, it’s quite obvious straight from the outset that scientific truth is not absolute. It continues to change, the scientific truths of today becoming the scientific falsehoods of tomorrow. Imagine the ridicule you’d face if you went around claiming, as scientists did fervently in the 1400s, that the Earth was flat, or that the sun revolved around the Earth rather than vice versa.
And recent developments are no different. The July 2004 issue of New Scientist reported, “After nearly thirty years of arguing that a black hole destroys everything that falls into it, Stephen Hawking is saying he was wrong. It seems that black holes may after all allow information within them to escape.”
Some may be surprised to learn that this glaring error earned Hawking praise rather than a verbal thrashing. Yet advocates of the empiric worldview see nothing wrong. They argue that to recognize errors and correct them is a strength, not a weakness. And this is fine, as long as they admit that science is only an attempt to understand the world we live in, and nothing more.
It certainly isn’t the absolute truth. Why not?
Because scientists are humans, and humans, unguided by perfect authority, are fallible. Vedic scripture states that anyone born through the material energy must be subject to the four material deficiencies: bhrama (the tendency to commit mistakes), pramada (the tendency to be illusioned), vipralipsa (the tendency to cheat) and karanapatava (imperfect senses). True, highly developed technology has increased scientists’ capability to understand the world around them. But it is still just an extension of their five senses.
According to Nigel Brush, objectivity is further marred by the fact that scientists are not born scientists. These people are not bloodless cyborgs with programmed missions that they cannot deviate from. They all started out the same way as anyone else—wearing their birthday suits and screaming helplessly. They all had unique upbringings and experiences, were all influenced by parents, friends, and role models. And they continue to be—if they’ve got any sort of social lives—. All this colors their conclusions, making it impossible for science to retain its claim of cold, research-based, one hundred percent objectivity.
The final blow is the instability of empiricism itself.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Brush writes, “facts do not speak for themselves.”
And this is true. The empiric observation “the water is green” may be a fact, but it carries little meaning until it is interpreted. For example, the water could be green because there is green seaweed at the bottom, or because the bottom is lined with a certain kind of stone, or—who knows?—someone might have gotten creative and poured a bucket of green dye in there. Thus, we often find two scientists using the same body of data to arrive at totally different conclusions. So once again, how can scientists claim that their knowledge is absolute?
If you still need more convincing, next time a “bright” tells you that empirical science is the only way to understand the truth, remember that this is a self-defeating statement.
Try shooting back: “So if that’s your opinion, can you empirically prove it?”
That should leave them feeling pretty confused.
Straight to the Source
So we’ve established that empiric science is limited as a means to acquire ultimate truth. But what’s so great about Krishna consciousness?
The brights’ favorite way to denigrate religion is to say it is based on blind faith and is a veritable vacuum of reason. This they do by wielding attacks about as mature as playground taunts. Take for instance this one by Richard Dawkins: “Believing in God is like believing in a teapot orbiting Mars.” Or my personal favorite from Daniel C. Dennett: “We don’t believe in elves, goblins, the Easter bunny or God.”
Yet the fact is that the Krishna conscious, or bhakti-yoga, method of acquiring truth is far more reasonable than empiric science, and I’m not just talking about the eloquence of its advocates.
Let’s imagine you’re in your local grocery store. You look around at the shelves stacked with fruit and vegetables, with cans of preserves and boxes of cereal. You gaze around at the huge building housing it all. And you wonder, “How did all this get here?”
Now, you could theorize about all sorts of answers to this question. You could bring a group of your friends along and start coming up with all sorts of ideas: Maybe the company brought builders and contractors in and constructed the building as a store from scratch. Or perhaps the building already existed in some other capacity and was bought out by the company. Or you might suggest—if it was a particularly late night—that the whole operation had just materialized out of nothing.
Or you could simply ask a member of the staff who learned what happened from the owner.
In Vedic terms, the guessing method is called aroha pantha. It uses one’s imperfect senses. The other method, avaroha pantha, discards all mental speculation and cuts straight to the supreme source. How does one do this? Who is that staff member who knows the owner?
In the Bhagavad-gita (4.34) Krishna Himself tells us: “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.”
Of course, not just anyone can be a spiritual master. And this is where reason once again plays its part. The serious seeker must be selective and able to distinguish real teachers from cheap imposters pursuing fame and wealth. A true spiritual master has studied and realized the scriptures, and practices what he preaches. Perhaps even more important, he conveys to his disciples without change the exact message of the original spiritual master, Krishna. As Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.3.19) says, dharmam tu sakshad bhagavat-pranitam: the path of religion is directly enunciated by the Lord, no one else. What better source to learn about ultimate reality from than the ultimate authority, the person who created it?
Naturally, the “brights” would slam accepting authority rather than using “reason and evidence.”
“How do you know that what your authorities are saying is true?” they’d argue.
But it’s an argument that can be fired right back in their face: They also accept authority. Every “bright” ascribes to certain conclusions of scientists, yet cannot verify them, because they do not have the equipment used to achieve these conclusions, nor the knowledge to use it.
Enter Krishna consciousness, or bhakti-yoga, the real science, unrestricted by naturalistic or mechanistic worldviews. Like the “brights,” we followers of bhakti also accept the word of people whose realizations we may not yet be able to verify. Yet where scientists’ senses are imperfect and their conclusions plagued with subjectivity, we accept authorities whose conclusions don’t rely exclusively on sensory data and are one hundred per cent objective because they stem from God Himself. And where science constantly adjusts its reality, we accept authorities whose version of the truth never changes.
The “brights” insist that their moniker is simply a positive term, not a boast. But it’s obviously a conscious statement that atheism is enlightening. In a 2005 interview, Richard Dawkins mourned that America is slipping into a Dark Age because so many people believe in God.
“But,” he added chirpily, “don’t despair—the broad direction of history is towards enlightenment.”
As if in direct answer to Dawkins and his ilk, Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 10.4–5: “Those who are free from the illusory energy, those who are confident that they are not the material body, that they are spiritual parts of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and who are therefore engaged in the transcendental service of the Supreme Godhead, have nothing to fear. Their future is very bright.”
Yes, we do live in a free world. Sure, people are entitled to call themselves whatever they want.
But we’ll leave you to decide which method of discovering the truth should be labeled “bright.”