The Regression of Rationality


Published on 7th October, 2014, in Daily O

To me, modern rational thought is linear, hence a child of Western thought, which in turn is a child of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, that is at odds with, but strongly influenced by, Greco-Roman thought. As a mythologist, one who is strongly influenced by Hindu thought, I find modern thought to be a struggle between what I call Biblical mythology and Greek mythology.

Those who believe in rationality (and I use the word “believe” very deliberately), this assertion of mine can be very disturbing. For the rational mind sees itself as one that has found THE truth after surviving the Classical Period (age of mythology) then the Dark Ages (age of religion), thanks to the Enlightenment (age of science). Rationality cannot see itself being called a “belief”.

Yet rational thought, or at least modern thought which considers itself rational, assumes that we are progressing, moving towards a greater future. In the cyclical worldview, favoured by Hindu thought, however, we are just deluding ourselves with such notions of progress; we are not looking far enough to realise we are actually no different from a ferret on a Ferris wheel.

Yes, we may have progressed technologically but not emotionally. From an emotional framework, we are still no different from our ancestors, struggling either to conquer the world (like Alexander and Caesar) or to save the world (like missionaries of Christ). We may have banned laws against slavery, but we replaced it with the yearning for robots, who function just as slaves were once supposed to.

Everybody agrees that our understanding of social sciences (now renamed humanities after the realisation that humanity defies measurement) is Euro-centric, and increasingly US-centric. The assumption is what works in Europe and America works for in rest of the world. China and India may protest, but no one really hears them – they are at best indulged like petulant children clinging to irrational things like identity.

I can be accused of making sweeping statements. But then these statements are not the truth (that I do not seek) but rather my truth (that I seek to constantly expand). And I base these statements on recent interactions with students and academicians from Europe. In the past I have engaged with students and academicians from USA. And the find has been remarkably consistent. I constantly warn myself of observer bias. But this is unavoidable, and must be acknowledged even in attacks on religion by passionate modern/rational philosophers.

The world is dominated by the Euro-American Western discourse, where the journey does seem to be from a mindset that believed in many gods to a mindset that believed in one God (spelt with capitalisation) to a mindset that believes in no God. In this worldview, polytheism is mythology, monotheism is religion, and atheism is rational. For the religious folk, mythology is falsehood (most thinkers are still stuck here). For the rational folk, religion is also mythology, hence falsehood (this tribe of thinkers is on the rise). But what about a different premise: that all this – polytheism, monotheism, atheism – is nothing but mythology?

The human mind is unique because it has the capability of imagination. Imagination by its very nature is fluid. But that can be very disconcerting. Human beings prefer to fix it, structure it, most often by inheriting structures from the world around. These structures are communicated using language which manifests as stories, symbols and rituals. A tribe, or a community, can be identified on the basis of its unique stories, symbols and rituals. A study of these stories, symbols and rituals is mythology.

Those who coined the word “mythology” used it for study of these stories, symbols and rituals of the other – the non-Western tribes of Asia, Africa and America. No one was allowed to see the French Revolution as a tribal movement driven by its own particular mythology. No one is allowed to see America’s obsession with capitalism and consumerism, as yet another tribal movement. But it is. For what binds a group today is exactly what bound a group yesterday – language, manifesting as stories, symbols and rituals.

Observe carefully: in the arguments of the rational atheists, you will discover the same evangelical zeal that once was seen in the missionaries of Christ, the desire to bring the ‘good word’ to humanity. And in many social activists, you see the outrage against authority, no different from the determination of a Greek hero that refuses to bow down before the hydra created by one of the Olympian gods. For eyes that can see, the West is entrapped between Greek mythology and Biblical mythology. For the comfort of the tribe, we shall call it rationality.