Religion and Conscience

Religion is often juxtaposed against conscience. There is a good reason for this: religion is truth that descends upon man, whereas conscience is truth that emerges from within man.

That said, it should not be maintained that moral intuition is intrinsically antagonistic to faith. The Zoroastrian religion uses conscience synonymously with religion—and quite literally: the Avestan word for religion, “Daena” (akin to the Persian-Arabic “Din”), is also the Avestan word for conscience.

“Conscience” has two related meanings. First, it is a moral intuition (literally, a “knowing”). Secondly, it is a sense of shame. In religious circles, the latter usage is often employed, inasmuch as moral intuition is often rejected. Zoroastrianism appears to use the concept in both senses.

In Christianity, there is of course plenty of shame, but though men are seen as flawed, conscience is treated more as a moral intuition than a capacity for shame:

When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another … —Epistle of Paul to the Romans

And again:

Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfilment of the law. —Epistle of Paul to the Romans

From such sayings of Paul, “examination of conscience” has become orthodox Catholic practice. It does not presume a state of guilt, but rather presumes a capacity to distinguish right from wrong:

Directly, this examination is concerned only with the will, that is, with the good or bad intention that inspires one’s thoughts, words, and actions. — Catholic Encyclopedia: Examination of Conscience

Again, some other scriptures focus more on incapacity and shame. This appears to be the case with Baha’u’llah, who emphasized the Judeo-Islamic notion of religion as revelation of and adherence to divine law.

Regarding the incapacity of man, Baha’u’llah said:

Man is unable to comprehend that which hath streamed forth from the Pen of Glory and is recorded in His heavenly Books. Men at all times and under all conditions stand in need of one to exhort them, guide them and to instruct and teach them. —Lawh-i-Maqsud

Regarding fear and shame:

The fear of God hath ever been a sure defence and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. This, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed and do not possess it. —Words of Paradise

9 comments on “Religion and Conscience

  1. Wahid Azal says:

    A few observations.

    1) “Daena,” besides its secondary Avestan moral/ethical denotation, is primarily an Angelic Hypostasis, i.e. one of the Yazatas. She is the Angel of Revelation Who appears to Asha Zarathushtra at the beginning of His mission (like Gabriel to Muhammad or Metatron in the form of a Burning Bush to Moses) as well as the guardian guiding the faithful/wicked across the razor-sharp post-mortem Cinvat bridge (note the Quan Yin-Avalokeitsvara post-mortem motif happening in Mahayana Buddhism). Some Zoroastrian cosmologies include Her amongst the 6 Holy Immortals, others do not. But the issue is that the emanationist and theophanological/angelophanic revelatory aspect of this word/concept cannot be divorced from its theophanic metaphysical personfication or embodification. Daena is the Angelic Theurgy of religion-in-itself eo ipse since it is the Immortal Hypostasis of Ohrmazd as the Angel of Revelation. Where there is the good religion/asha daena there is the Angel. The two are interchangeable and it is not reducible to a simple metaphor either. Period! The ethical/moral dimension emerges as a secondary fact. Not a primary given. The moral/ethical dimension emerges due to the emanation or Theophany as Angelophany, not the other way around. In order to understand what this means it is necessary to grapple with Platonic Realism, and the best possible place for this in its specifically Zoroastrian trajectory is the first section of Henry Corbin’s SPIRITUAL BODY AND CELESTIAL EARTH.

    As such conscience, intuition, revelation and angelophany in this space are a unitary contiguous and inseparable reality, not separate and compartmentalized static non-sentient conceptual abstractions or metaphoric rationalizations appearing in a mythopoeic garb. Which leads to a proposition subtly proposed by Corbin via the authors he dealt with; namely, that a religion without a dynamic Angelology is by definition no religion at all, but an ahrimanic inversion and thus a ruse of the counterpowers of darkness, since it does not participate (in the Platonic notion of ‘participation’) in the Daenic haqiqa/reality.

    2) Given this, I am not sure you can attach the exoteric Judeo-Christian notion of “shame” to this concept as integrally understood in its Avestan context. The Indo-Aryan/Vedic concept of “ratu” (which appears as “right conduct” in its Iranian Gathic context) — and the metaphysical edifice behind that — or the Ancient Egyptian concept of Ma’at (albeit not synonyms or one-to-one corollaries) are one way to juxtapose in order to understand what is going with Daena in the mind of a Traditional Zoroastrian, who by definition is a Visionary.

    3) The word you translate as “fear of God” is the Arabic word “taqwa” — albeit the word “khawf,” meaning fear, also appears in such contexts –, being a word which has several simultaneous meanings beyond just a narrow definition of “fear”. The word comes from the root ‘w-q-y’ that denotes, among other things, wariness, circumspection, right-conduct or “piety” vis-a-vis the Divine ground. The Anglo-European Christian notion of “fear” does not enter its meaning, and this is a point of endless confusion for most Europeans of a Christian background regarding the word/concept. One manner it has been glossed is as “god-consciousness” which could then tie it to the Aryo-Vedic/Gathic notion of “ratu”. Righteousness has also been glossed as a meaning of “taqwa” which then ties it to “sidq” (sincerity).


  2. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi Wahid.

    Thanks for your informed comments.

    Point 1. Well put, and I don’t generally disagree. The notion that Daena represents both revelation and conscience is what’s important here. Whether the chicken or the egg comes first does not concern me. That is to say: I don’t mind the suggestion that conscience is primarily revelation. Now, if what you are saying is that Zoroastrians believe more in the literal angel than the revelation that is conscience, I would not disagree. Zoroastrians, as a rule, are traditionally polytheists, but not all Zoroastrians are literalists. Zoroastrianism, at least, provides room for the metaphor.

    Point 2. I’m not sure of anything in Zoroastrianism, but it appears to me that the idea that one is accompanied by one’s daena/conscience across the Chinvat Bridge is commonly believed to mean that the wicked are haunted by their own shame.

    Point 3. I think this new age notion that Islam does not utilize reward and punishment is misguided, and perhaps disingenuous. The Qur’an is stuffed with references to Heaven and Hell. I think a better defense of Islam would show that it actively appeals to the conscience of individuals rather than duty, piety, submission, etc. But does it? Where does Islam appeal to any inner sense of right and wrong? I think the more compelling point would be that conscience is antithetical to Islam.

  3. Wahid Azal says:


    A couple of things:

    1) It is contemporary (probably originating from largely fallacious modernist Cartesian => Kantian categorical) assumptions that makes conscience and revelation simple intellectual abstractions, even when equated in either metaphorical or logical juxtapositions. To the mind of an Asha Zarathushtra or a mobid like Dastur Azar Kayvan, conscience is simply a faculty (an actual “organ”) of veridical Vision rupturing into the atemporal realm(s) beyond mundane, everyday physicality. I would invite you to investigate Henry Corbin’s notion of the Active Imagination and the metaphysics of the mundus imaginalis underlying it since it has much truth to shed on this question. Simply put, when the psyche expands into its pneuma there is an ascension , as it were, into another – more *real* – ontological plane where “bodies are spiritualized and spirits corporealized.” Parapsychological entheogenic research into the traditional pedagogies of indigenous shamans has a neologism coined for such a thing: they call it *synaesthesia*. Think of the Stoic-Buddhist Tetralemma in *real time*.

    Given this, the Angel is the conscience and the conscience is the Angel. Here we are beyond the level of the one-dimensional “literal” and are in the presence of the multidimensional Symbol/symbolized and its multi-plane holarchy of correspondences. Pagan Hermetic literature and Manichaeanism both discussed this in terms of syzygy (two-in-one) or paredros (guardian twin or perfect nature). Both heavily relied on a Zoroastrian (meta-)narrative. So from this perspective, thought qua conscience qua revelation is located in its *reality* as actual Sentience on a higher plane.

    2) I don’t know if you can call Zoroastrian Angelology polytheistic, but rather kathenotheistic. Different things.

    3) I am not suggesting that Qur’an does not utilize reward and punishment, hell and heaven motifs. Quite the contrary. But taqwa has a multifaceted meaning beyond a simplistically circumscribed notion of primal “fear”. There is a lot more going on with this word as a concept within the Qur’an itself, and one does not have to look at the theological hair-splitting of the mutakalimin or Sufis to see it. Crack open an Arabic dictionary and look up the root w-q-y. If you read Arabic, look at the entry on the root in *Lisan al-‘Arab*.

    4) The verse in the surah Ha’-Mim, “Soon shall we show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves until it be made evident to them that it is the Real Truth” is one of the more prominent and compelling ayat/verses in the Book reinforcing the notion of an inner conscience as a Theophany of the Logos.

    On a somewhat related note, what do you know about a contemporary Zoroastrian sect in India known as the Khushnumis?


  4. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi again Wahid.

    No, I’ve never heard if the Khushnumis. Who are they?

    I used the term ‘polytheistic’ loosely. I really don’t know how to properly categorize traditional Zoroastrianism. One cannot justly overlook its monotheistic and dualist aspects. Interesting how that dualism parallels the cosmic ‘Aql and Jahl of Shi’a Islam.

    I’m all for doing away with that other dualism–of Descartes, and reuniting the spiritual and material. I’m not sure I even want to use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’.

    I’m not a big fan of esoterism and secret doctrines, but I will look into Henry Corbin. He seems too topically relevant to avoid. I am willing to look into esoteric thought so long as it doesn’t get elitist. It may be that some Iranians of the past concealed their thinking in the interest of preserving their philosophy against charges of heresy. I wonder how much esoterism was a matter of self-preservation (Taqiyyah).

    Thanks again,

  5. Wahid Azal says:

    Dear Dan,

    The Khushnumis are a Neo-Sepassi Zoroastrian sect I have run into recently that interpret pretty much most of the Avestan scriptures in quasi-Neoplatonic fashion and hold to the Kabbalo-Islamic notion of a Greatest Name of the Godhead, which they claim is “Ahu,” hence their designation as Khushnumis (those who follow the Good/Kush Name/Nam or ‘Num’ in the Gujarati Parsi dialect).

    In any day and age — unless in the name of a Hermeto- pan-Abrahamo-Iranian esoteric Left-Handed syncretistic adepthood you deliberately throw all caution to the winds as a sort of Tikkun and name yourself Wahid Azal; or are otherwise named Siyyid ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi or Hussain ibn Mansur al-Hallaj from another era –, all practicing esotericism(s) become a matter of self-preservation and “exercising the discipline of the arcane” (taqiyyah); this, otherwise you will earn the the total opprobrium of decent society or get yourself maimed and killed, at worst. The operative motto for those not Left-Handedly inclined is prudently “To Know, To Will, To Dare and To Keep Silent,” and this was coined by Western Adepts of the Great Craft not Shi’ites or Sufis in the East. And it is as simple and cut and dry as that because to put it as a great recent Sufi master put it,

    “If you love the Truth, the world will hate you,
    If you hate the Truth, the world will love you.”
    — Bawa Muhayiddin

    The fact of the matter is as brutal as that.

    Now this the case not because the secret is so big no one can bear to hear or face it who doesn’t genuinely have a predisposition to do so (and the Secret is HUGE, don’t get me wrong). The fact is that the Truth is so blindingly manifest that it requires a lifetime of de-programming on every conceivable level (what Abulafia called untying the knots of soul) to be able to have the predisposition to recognize It simply because socialized human beings (being creatures of the herd from the moment they are born) are specifically designed to reject it due to the fact that such a Truth confronts them on every aspect of their socially constructed identities. Now what this Secret and Truth is has nothing to do with any doctrine or Church per se. The True Living Divinity or Godhead is not an ideology or possibly capable of ideologization in any form. Henry Corbin said it best when he stated emphatically “The Church = Ahriman.” In the context of Baha’i adminolotry never were such words of penetrating fact spoken more truly than that! This is a long, convoluted and involved discussion, but the best place to turn to what this Truth means (at least for me) has been the hadith kumayl of ‘Ali, which to me has been an endless source of meditation going on eleven-thirteen years now.

    That the experience of esotericism in the West in recent memory (and the East in some parts as well) has been about elitist frat-boy clubs does not mean, therefore, that esotericism is about any horizontal, this-wordly elitisms or weilding of temporal power (even if behind the scenes). And that these things cannot be spoken does not mean they are not able to be communicated on some level. They are not spoken or communicable because other than those who have witnessed and tasted such things themselves, or have a magnetic predisposition to it, such things cannot be spoken in any layman’s level that is remotely intelligible. Crack open any alchemical text and you’ll see what I mean immediately.

    This said, there are ways to perceive and taste without having to go through the rigmarole of sitting in an ashram or cave for enth number of years and meditating oneself into the Reality, but unfortunately these quicker methods are usually deemed illegal by society and so inaccessible to many (there is the herd/pashu again blocking up the gates to Reality for those wishing escape out of maya). Sound familiar?

    In any case, I leave you with this, the *hadith kumayl* (the dialogue of ‘Ali and his disciple Kumayl), which to me and the Tradition I follow stands as the ultimate summary of the highest of the Truths possibly communicate-able in words:

    Kumayl: O Commander of the Faithful, what is Ultimate Reality (ma’l-haqiqa)?

    ‘Ali: what have you and Ultimate Reality have to do with each other?

    Kumayl: Is it not the case that I am sharing your secrets as a companion?

    ‘Ali: Yes, indeed. But that which sprinkles unto you is billowing through me unto you?

    Kumayl: So what is Ultimate Reality?

    ‘Ali: The Disclosure of the Majesties of Glorification without indication.

    Kumayl: Tell me more.

    ‘Ali: The apophatic negation of all speculation and the realization of that which can be realized.

    Kumayl: Tell me more.

    ‘Ali: The nullificative annihilation of the secret by the Victorious rending of the Veil off the Mystery of the Secret.

    Kumayl: Please tell me more.

    ‘Ali: The attraction of the Divine Oneness by the attributive apprehension of the Divine Unicity.

    Kumayl: Tell me more.

    ‘Ali: A Light Illuminating from the Morning-Dawn of Pre-Eternity and shedding Its traces upon the Talismanic-Temples of Mono-Unitarian Unicity.

    Kumayl: Please explicate further.

    ‘Ali: Extinguish the lamp for the dawn hath indeed arisen!


  6. Toby Simpson says:

    In reality, no single religion could guarantee us a place in Heaven. In the end, what matters is how we a treat other people..'”

  7. actually it doesn’t matter what Religion you may have, as long as you treat the other person right.,;;

  8. it doesn’t matter what religion you have, just do good and avoid evil;*~

  9. INGAAS says:

    what matters most is the good deeds that we do on our fellow men, it does not matter what religion you have as long as you do good stuffs .`’

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