Things used to stay the same but looking at the examples of debates about religion from a hundred years ago it seems the level of discussion has significantly declined.
Maybe it’s because back then only truly intelligent people went on record, and to actually get on record, to get published, was fairly difficult. These days anyone can post whatever nonsense and if it attracts any sizable audience of like-minded nitwits we have ourselves an opinion maker and a force to be reckoned with.
Maybe there are some wise men discussing these same things on a far higher level but if they are not trending on twitter they might as well not exist. Instead we are left with neo-atheist crusaders like Dawkins et al plus budding philosophers on any number of public forums.
Media is doing its own destructive role, too. A hundred years ago there was clear difference between art and media but now it’s all converged on entertainment. Media provides us with infomercials and art simply ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. The movie PK I was talking about for the past few days is an example of that. No one in his right mind would call it art, it’s not a news media presentation either, but one way or another it’s meant to inform and shape public opinion. In my local newspaper there was an opinion piece on roughly the same topics as covered in that movie even if it had nothing to do with Hinduism whatsoever.
There is a handful of arguments being recycled again and again, on all kinds of platforms, and they are made simpler and simpler on each iteration. I don’t know if there’s a point in counteracting them at all, it’s like that proverbial fight with pigs in a mud pit – impossible to win, you get dirty, and pigs would enjoy it.
Before the internet we had a chance at capturing public imagination because there were relatively few channels to reach billions of people but now everything has become customized and only few headline stories reach everyone, otherwise people read their personal feeds populated by stories they are likely to like and purged of everything not to their taste.
No matter how big one might become on the internet, Facebook would simply filter you out for those who are not into you. Everyone speaks it his own echochamber now, there’s no need to be loud anymore.
Perhaps our best shot is the same good old-fashioned hari–nāma saṅkīrtana, working the streets, actually meeting people, giving them food and sending them home with actual books. Internet makes it far too easy to ignore the devotees. That is not to say that we shouldn’t cultivate those who express interest in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, but as an outreach tool Internet is simply not as good as hoped for in the beginning.
Anyway, recently I saw a collection of quotes from an essay called What I believe by Bertrand Russel, a British thinker who died just Hare Kṛṣṇa was becoming a household name. I don’t know if he ever commented on us but this essay is from 1925, from Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s time. Russel never went to India, afaik, and the only Indian he was close friends with was a politician from Nehru’s circles, the architects of Indian secularism. Russel’s interests even in that time were numerous, from communism to mathematics, but it’s his views on religion that make for an interesting reading for us.
Take this one, for example:
Believers in immortality will object to physiological arguments [against personal immortality] on the ground that soul and body are totally disparate, and that the soul is something quite other than its empirical manifestations through our bodily organs. I believe this to be a metaphysical superstition. Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process. It is evident that it grows like the body, and that it derives both from the spermatozoon and from the ovum, so that it cannot be indivisible.
What do we say to that? We take the soul as unchangeable and it’s obvious to us but for Russel the soul grows “like the body”. We speak in completely different languages here, at least as far as definition of the soul is concerned. We take ours from Bhagavad Gītā and then use common sense examples to illustrate it. Body changes, we say, but your perception as yourself stays the same. The idea of “I” doesn’t change. By the time you finish reading this sentence your body has changed, however slightly, and you mental state should also have changed, but “you” stays the same. Even when we say “I’m not the same person I was back then” we still mean that “I” am still the same “me”.
For Russel, however, the soul is something mental and emotional, something we can perceive and analyze as opposed to something imperceptible and unknowable, as Kṛṣṇa describes in Bhagavad Gīta. From Russel’s perspective he is largely correct – our empirical mental and emotional states are not immortal, to be immortal things need to be transcendental and therefore impossible to observe.
All the evidence goes to show that what we regard as our mental life is bound up with brain structure and organized bodily energy. Therefore it is rational to suppose that mental life ceases when bodily life ceases. The argument is only one of probability, but it is as strong as those upon which most scientific conclusions are based.
He leaves the possibility that mental life continues after the death of the gross body and, as it turns out, it is true but it still has nothing to do with the existence of the spirit soul itself. False ego survives death and some of it’s coverings, namely mind and intelligence, survive, too, but in a limited degree as we generally do not remember our past lives.
Or take this observation:
Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.
This realization is clearly missing in a current crop of atheists. They assume that the world exists to make them happy and that it owes humanity a good life. After all, we figured out science, liberal democracy, human rights, capitalism – everything we could possibly need. We have examples of it working so it’s only a question of time before reaching golden age of humanity. Nature’s bias towards our happiness is taken as an axiom.
Speaking of nature:
Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than Nature. In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value… It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature — not even for Nature personified as God.
There are two parts in this – first is the false ego convincing Russel that he is the doer and the seer with the sole power to appraise things around him, free from any outside censure. There’s no outside force to show that our valuations are wrong.
In his own way, he is right again – that’s what māyā makes us think, it’s a true observation even if it completely misses the existence of the spirit soul and spirit soul’s real self-interest. We can easily dismiss it but, perhaps, a more productive reflection for us would be to recognize these traits in ourselves and distance ourselves from them. One of the features of the illusion is that it’s transparent – we don’t usually see it. As soon as we accept the position of an independent observer trying to judge things around us we fall under the spell of māyā and start finding illusion only in others, never in ourselves.
Second part confirms the previous quote about cold impersonalism of the material world. If we become partial to certain manifestations of it we lose proper perspective even from the jñāna point of view. Russel might be an atheist but here we can learn something from him.
Finally, take this fit of absurdity:
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.
Instead of chasing the eternal life, eternal love, and eternal happiness he simply redefines what “true” happiness is. What can we say to that? As far as this life is concerned, he appears to be correct. I mean even with our devotional service we have to accept that it is not permanent, that sometimes we slip up and would probably be absolutely useless towards our death. This impermanence, however, doesn’t take away any value from our efforts. Russel applies the same logic to love and thoughts.
These things lose their value only from the point of view of eternal life, or at least sufficiently long life where one just can’t be bothered about every new or old thought, there would be too may of them to keep.
Actually, in the Internet age and serial monogamy both love and thoughts have lost their values almost completely. Thoughts have become simply bits of information stored by Google, there are untold petabytes of them out there, whichever one you are having now can get in line. Situation with love is a bit more complicated – people go through romantic relationships like they go through socks, and they become very cautious about actual love because hangovers can be brutal. They prefer to chase a series of little, no strings attached highs.
People do not have time to treat their current infatuations as some sort of “true love”, nor do they give “true knowledge” credits to anyone’s thoughts but their own. If Russel were alive today and asked to clarify what he meant, by the time he would finish explaining the value of true love people would have taken three selfies and posted them everywhere they could, not waiting for the end of Russel’s bits of wisdom.
A truer observation would be that, thanks to Amazon, we know price of things, values don’t matter.
Perhaps that’s another reason we shouldn’t join this race for public attention but stick to what works – hari-nāma saṅkīrtana parties on the streets where they are a lot harder to escape or to ignore.