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Irshad Manji

Civility, humility pave the road to nirvana Add to ...

Readers of The Globe and Mail have given me a gift. In my previous column, I called for fresh substance and more civility in the debate between atheists and people of faith. My e-mail inbox overflowed with comments that met both aspirations.

The very first e-mail came from Nicholas, who has "scientific and mystical inclinations." He celebrates both because "life and its mysteries are far too important to be reduced to a frame, and in the process of refusing to do so, the power to impose through dogma is mitigated." Nicholas ended by suggesting we all learn to appreciate uncertainty - "the rich field where discovery and great art are born."

Tony chimed in with another bridge-building thought: The word "atheist" might be misleading. "When I look up into the heavens," he reflected, "I do see and feel a greater power" than that described in religious scriptures. "God only knows what else is out there beyond our comprehension! Does this make me an atheist?"

Moreover, Elsje asked, what do we mean by "God"? Absolutists on each side tend to emphasize a force that judges us from on high, embracing or rejecting God's existence on this basis. But, she proposed, "let's try substituting a few other names: Universe, Life, Nature." Then "the whole debate becomes ludicrous" because "all of these are undeniable."

In pushing a related point, Robert made me smile. "If there was only one god," he mused, "wouldn't she have got the message out correctly the first time? … I don't think She'll hold it against me for doubting Her existence but doing the best I could to live a good life."

Even the meaning of "faith" should be contested, wrote Brian. "We talk about 'faith' communities as if the only people who have faith are those who belong to an organized religion. In fact, everyone has faith in someone or something at various times."

My interpretation of the comments so far? There's a difference between the suffocating boundaries of organized religion and the liberating potential of personal faith.

Another reader drew that distinction in no-nonsense language. "Just because the major religious institutions of the world refuse to adapt does not mean all of [their]followers are cursed to the same narrow-mindedness," Josh affirmed. "I'm a believer who challenges those who tell me I have to believe and who impose uncivilized and self-indulgent rules on top of it."

Diane sees the same need for humility among those who pour all their faith into scientific formulas. She finds it "amusing" that "we, as human beings, believe that if we do enough experiments, we will one day know it all."

And yet, experimentation might be the key to a grounded humility as well as ultimate wisdom. "If a person is a true scientist," Bill e-mailed, "then inviting criticism and questioning of our ideas is central to our search for truth." For anyone with convictions, he recommends a "pinch of doubt."

Paul practises that principle every day. In raising his children, he explained, "I don't reveal to them my atheistic tendencies." Instead, "I've taught them to read and think, and hopefully they will discover the benefits of faith and atheism."

By loosening any attachment to preconceived definitions of faith and atheism, these readers might well be on their way to nirvana. Kirthi, a long-time Globe reader, prompts my optimism. "Have you heard of Buddhists who do not believe in a God-Creator?" he wonders. "What you do to reach nirvana is work toward the eradication of your cravings that cause you to hang onto your life as you see it. In other words, your destiny is in your own hands."

I don't know if individuals can completely control our destinies, but I do believe we ought to be agents of change in this life rather than sitting on our hands in fatalistic anticipation of the hereafter.

One of the final comments to land in my inbox sums up the journey I've taken with my readers. "The challenge," Jim contemplates, "is to hold the fundamental tenets of my faith closely enough to allow myself to grow while avoiding the pitfalls of bias and dogmatism. This debate is a reflection of my own internal work to maintain faith and reason in balance." Amen.

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