For my research thesis, I am focusing on the Hare Krishnas, also known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), in Cape Town, South Africa. Very briefly, Hare Krishna is an alternative religious community within the Western world that first emerged in the United States in 1966. Part of my project has been evaluating alternative and new religious movements and, in particular, collecting as much discourse and content from and about the Hare Krishnas as I can. What are they saying? How are they presenting themselves to the wider society? How are they perceived by outsiders? What are their conversations with unbelievers like? How are they perceived by a predominantly Christian influenced society? I am asking many questions and engaging in observation and interviews to derive my data. One of the areas I notice popping up often is apologetics and this is what I want to reflect on briefly here.
The Hare Krishnas exist in a secular, pluralistic Western society and therefore face the same issues as do proponents of our society’s dominant religion, Christianity. In our pluralistic, secular society no particular religion is treated as special by the state. Today no-one is forced to accept any specific religion because it what religious or state authorities enforce. Secular states cannot favour any one religion, people are free to be irreligious, religion cannot be foisted upon members of the public, and it cannot influence legislative policy. Part of this complex process is, I believe, that religions find themselves having to prove their legitimacy. Much research of various countries has suggested this to be especially the case for new and alternative religious movements that exist in predominantly Christian majority societies. In these societies, new religions are deemed as threatening and alien to accepted religious and socio-cultural conventions. Although my research focuses predominantly on the West, I also found deviance labeling of new and alternative religious movements under the Shinto and Buddhist religiosity of Japan that continues to have strong ties to family and community loyalty there. But for now, I wish to avoid speaking about dominant religions and return to apologetics.
The Hare Krishnas find themselves having to prove their legitimacy in a secular culture in which religious truths are not merely accepted because an institution or founder or sacred text says so. They need to give something intellectually appealing for members of society to grasp. Here I also see similarities between Christian and ISKCON apologetics. Like their Christian co-religionists who battle against certain socio-cultural forces, so does ISKCON and this reflects in its attempt to defend the objective existence of God. According to ISKCON author and apologist Dhananjaya Pandita Dasa, many Westerners are convinced that God is a figment of the imagination or is due to some cognitive aberration,
“Many intellectuals seem to agree with Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of the people. A common misconception in these times is that God is an anthropomorphic projection, a psychological crutch for those who are helplessly bewildered by the problems of life and who haven’t the guts to face reality. This unfortunate misconception prevents people from learning that God’s existence is an objective fact.”
There is a great deal to unpack from this fascinating statement. We will get to what this author means by God’s existence is an “objective fact” shortly, but what surprised me initially is that this author, no doubt influenced by Eastern-Hindu religious sentiments and who reads the Bhagavad Gita diligently, evidences a fair knowledge of historical skepticism of religion as it has presented itself in the West. We have in the author’s statement a direct appeal to Karl Marx (his famous remark that religion is the “opium of the people”) as well as indirect appeals to Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Feuerbach (see my reflection on Feuerbach here). These thinkers were atheists who saw religion and belief in God owing itself to some discontent within human existence. God does not exist “objectively” out there but is an entity conceptualized and embraced for illusory reasons: Marx saw this due to the suffering brought on by the proletariat’s exploitative economic conditions, Freud saw it as wish fulfillment, and Feuerbach viewed it as the projection of ideal human traits into the cosmos. This author shows a neat awareness that if one lives in the West and continues in its intellectual tradition, he or she really needs to grapple with the skepticism presented by thinkers like Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and others. We don’t need to agree with these skeptics to affirm their status as intellectual giants and geniuses in the Western intellectual tradition that deserve our attention, especially if we want to be religious and claim intellectual legitimacy. We are bound to come up against their arguments.
This brings us to the second contention of the article and this is God’s existence being “an objective fact.” Who is God to this devotee and his fellow ISCKON community? Because this author’s article is published on the official ISCKON website of South Africa, we can be confident that it is the orthodox position. God is to the ISCKON devotee a “person”. In particular, it is “Krishna” and he is personal,
“After all, Krishna, God, is a person who thinks and feels and desires just like us. But unlike us, He is unlimited. He knows everything. He is eternal. He controls everything. But He is a conscious person nonetheless… Lord Krishna is a person, and He’s our superior.”
This conviction, I believe, motivates the author’s engaging in an apologetic defense of the objective existence of God. Why? Likely because the author is aware that fewer persons today are willing to accept his, or any other, view of God uncritically. More people today, especially in the secular and university spaces, are evidentialists when it comes to worldviews; they want reasons for belief and are unwilling to take blind leaps of faith in the dark. This conception of deity presented in the article is strikingly similar to an orthodox Christian view and will no doubt face the same challenges.
Indeed it does, but the author’s apologetic attempt to defend God’s existence is somewhat disappointing in light of its limited scope. There is no engagement with, for example, the problem of bad design or the problem of evil, and so on. It would be fascinating to see how ISKCON seeks to answer these objections from its worldview. Unfortunately, the article only seeks to respond to the argument against God’s existence from God’s invisibility in the world (this is known theologically as the “challenge of God’s divine hiddenness”); the author caricatures the skeptic saying,
“Show me God,” many people say. I hear this all the time. “OK, if God exists, prove it. Show me God right now”—as if seeing something were the only test of its existence.”
This skeptic’s question is an important one that needs to be answered by members of religions who affirm the existence of a personal, all-powerful, superior deity. It is also a question that Christian apologists themselves face: why if God is so powerful and all-present does he seem so hidden, especially when we need him most or that he wants us to know him? I believe this insight captures a real feature of modern-day skepticism of religion. In many areas, especially in the university and in the sciences, we operate with a post-enlightenment, post-positivistic Western mindset that prioritizes empirical evidence and verification when learning about the world. Usually, theology, morality, and philosophy take second place to disciplines that engage in empirical verification. In other words, we don’t see or perceive God and religious people tend to say that he is immune to empirical verification. According to a positivistic mindset, we shouldn’t then believe in such a being.
The author tries to downplay this criticism of God by pointing to various phenomena we take for granted but that are invisible or go unseen by us. He points to our own death, knowledge of the atom, and a fictional scenario of a fire on the other side of town that we learn through the news but do not ourselves see. We all accept these realities that we have not ourselves witnessed, so why do we expect it to be different from God or Krishna? Here I think the author rightly points to a common double standard in modern-day skepticism of religion; he writes,
“Besides, why do we have to see something to believe it? “Seeing is believing,” we say, but actually we believe in many things we don’t see. It’s only when we don’t want to believe something that we make the rules more difficult and say we have to see it to believe it.”
Often skeptics will uncritically apply this criterion to what they don’t want to believe in. If the skeptic dislikes religion, then he will apply this criterion to belief in God or religious truth. The skeptic will also make the burden of proof far greater for supposed religious truth than he will for some other claim or phenomenon he views more neutrally or favourably. Admittedly, this is not limited to the skeptic; we all embrace double standards when we look closely and honestly at ourselves and our worldviews. It is naive to think we are immune to this. Moreover, perhaps the skeptic will find a problem with this author’s defense by pointing to the clear and obvious differences between invisible atoms and an invisible God. This might especially be the case given the deity conceived of by ISKCON who is personal, loving, caring, and willing to have a relationship with human beings. In our trials and sufferings, we certainly don’t expect an atom to lend us an ear or for it take our pain away; but perhaps we do expect this when it comes to an all-powerful and all-loving God who cares for us and wants a relationship.
The author believes that the Bhagavad Gita gives us a clue as to why God is invisible; the text has Krishna stating: “One can understand Me as I am, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, only by devotional service” (18.55). Only by devotion can we come to know and understand God, and we shouldn’t expect to see him. But if Krishna so desires, “He can give us knowledge of Himself.” The emphasis is placed on Lord Krishna; it is he who can give divine revelation to human beings who are in no position to demand it: “Why should He immediately respond to our demand that He appear on the spot?” asks the author.
But for anyone looking for evidence for God, this article will not satisfy. The author makes an appeal to the Bhagavad Gita and a teacher (guru) to learn about God, but this will be no more compelling to a skeptic or seeker than for the Christian to appeal to the Bible and a priest or the Muslim to the Qur’an and an imam as proof of their Gods. However, if the author could provide good reasons for supposing the Bhagavad Gita to contain divine revelation then we could consider it a proof for a Supreme Lord, but the author did not attempt this. Furthermore, although the article successfully highlights how we human beings believe in all sorts of things we cannot ourselves see, the article falls short in providing a case for the existence of a Supreme God. At best, the author offsets a common alleged refutation of God’s existence from divine hiddenness, but he does not build a positive case. This is surprising since it is the author who is claiming Lord Krishna’s existence to be an objective fact.
As a student of religion studying the Hare Krishna, the value this apologetic article contains is in it providing a fascinating attempt to grapple with the intellectual skepticism present within the West and that continues to exist in the contemporary period. The article illustrates how religions need to adapt and evolve in social contexts in order to survive. Many people today want reasons for belief and religions need to come to the table and offer them, especially if they want to maintain the intellectual legitimacy of their religion.