Concluding Thought: On Convictions, Persuasion, and Sharing

After running continuously for more than two years, this will be the last installment of Polydoxy. Look for V.V. Raman's new column launching March 27 in The Global Spiral.

Each of us has a worldview which determines our attitudes and actions in important contexts in life. Our worldview has many components, which take shape and evolve as we live and grow. Every worldview is cast in a framework to which many other human beings belong. Indeed, within each framework there are many shades and variations of worldviews. At some point in our lives they take on a more or less stable (solidified)  form, sometimes becoming rigid. 

When we feel very certain about some aspects of a worldview, we call it a conviction. Now convictions may be of different kinds. Those that are well supported by reasoning, arguments, rationality, empirical evidence, etc.,  form the basis of much of the scientific worldview.  Convictions of this kind are most valuable in the context of explaining the phenomenal world. The strength in the mode of arriving at convictions of this type lies in its consistency, reasonableness, meticulous respect for facts, critical analysis of data, etc. Its weakness lies in its having to sometimes reject some of the most meaningful, consoling, emotionally soothing, and spiritually fulfilling elements of human experience, or at least provide these only if one is able and willing to devote much time and effort.

Then there are convictions based on personal impressions, experiences, and reflections. These may be called opinions. Opinions tend to be judgmental and evaluatory. They arise mostly in the context of social and political situations, artistic appreciation, recognition of individuals, etc. On the other hand, convictions which cannot always be justified in terms of  reason and rationality, but which have nevertheless a very strong hold on our thinking and feeling constitute faith. Religious faith arises in the context of unscrambling ultimate mysteries like God, cosmogenesis, post-mortem states, etc. The strength in the mode of arriving at convictions of this type of conviction lies in the ease with which it can be acquired by cultural inculcation, and the inner peace, comfort, and assurance it provides. Its danger lies in its potential for irrational and unreasoned behavior which can sometimes become hurtful to others.

Those whose worldview has been formed largely by convictions of the first kind tend to either reject religious convictions or try to bring them under the reasoned category: i.e. improve upon or correct them so that they may be formulated in terms of reason, analysis, etc. Those whose worldview is impacted much by convictions arising from faith tend to argue that scientific convictions are too constrained.

An intrinsic aspect of human behavior is sharing. Most normal human beings like to share what they enjoy and find fulfillment in, with those they love and care for. Many of us have done this with foods and drinks, books we have read, movies we have seen, some good news we have heard, etc.

Sometimes we do this with our convictions also. One tends to dislike, look down upon, and feel sorry for people who hold different convictions from ours. We may even avoid personal interaction with people who are formed by different convictions.

However, consciously or otherwise, often we wish or hope  to alter the convictions of others. We try to do this by first persuading others. Persuasion is a perfectly legitimate and commendable activity in a civilized world. In persuasion we also listen to what others say. And we try to respond to their questions with respect and consideration. When persuasion is successful, we achieve friendly conversion.

When we try to persuade others without paying serious attention to what they have to say, and with the certainty right at the start that they are wrong and we are right, and that those others are in dire need of our help in seeing the Truth, it becomes evangelism. The stronger the conviction, the greater is the zeal to share it one way or another. Like cross-fertilization, conviction-sharing can be a valuable enterprise in society. In a Darwinian sort of way, it could eliminate many untenable convictions. Generally speaking, though not always, the scientifically inclined tend to persuade, and the religiously inclined tend to evangelize.

The normal educational process involves not only the transmission of knowledge and skills, but also a good deal of conviction-formation. As long as the recipient of the knowledge and information is willing and capable of working under the framework of persuasion, such conviction-transfer is achievable. In other words, it is not impossible to inculcate the scientific picture with regard to the phenomenal world, and form certain types of  opinions by persuasion. In these matters it is incumbent upon those who are better informed, better educated, and more enlightened to engage in persuasion.

However, in matters where religious convictions play a dominant role, in questions relating to the ultimate mysteries, in matters in which science has as yet no definite answers while other systems of thought or modes of reflection have some satisfying ones, persuasion may not always be effective. Indeed, after a certain age, i.e. after one's convictions have become solidified, most people will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change their deepest convictions about God, religion, morality, holiness  of a book, and other matters regarding origins, ultimate destiny, soul, no-soul, etc. In such situations, efforts at persuasion are generally ineffective in terms of reaching the desired goal: conversion or one kind or another.

Every religion, no matter what its historical roots, has forged a worldview of the Beyond in the context of the Ultimate Mystery. Over the ages the different  visions have elaborated meaningful rites and rituals and sacraments which answer to the spiritual needs of its practitioners.

Implicit in the doctrinal bases of most religions is the idea that its own particular vision of the transcendental is the appropriate and correct one (Orthodoxy). In some instances, it goes on to proclaim that those of other traditions are mistaken, primitive, or worse, and that it is incumbent upon them to bring light to the misguided. This is the instigation of missionary work which is paved with  good intentions. From the point of view of the outsiders, such a view is the theological equivalent of racism.

It is the responsibility of enlightened religious leaders to preach understanding and tolerance among faiths, rather than assert one’s monopoly as to the nature of the Divine or create unpleasantness by taunting the leaders of other religions. We need to form Interfaith Forums to inform and be informed about whatever is best in the various religious traditions of the human family.

Whether Christians or Jews, Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists, there will be true religious enlightenment only when people of one tradition invite ardent practitioners of other faiths to tell them about their joyful traditions  and religious ecstasies in a spirit of sharing, rather than with the presumptuousness of one who declares that his is the only right path to lead us to the beyond.  Moreover, there will be peace between science and religion only when it is recognized that each perspective is enriching in itself, but clashing when mingled with the other. This is the essence of polydoxy.

And with this I conclude this series.

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