Saturday, November 15, 2008

Atheism/Agnosticism Plus Compassion Equals Humanism

by Greg M. Epstein, On Faith

Thanks to SPS for the link. via RichardDawkins

Reposted from:

Karen Armstrong, a religious thinker I can admire and support, has begun a project called the "Charter for Compassion." The aim of the project, as far as I can tell while observing it in its initial stages, is to promote the golden rule.
The golden rule appears in every religion, as Armstrong points out. But if I might summarize it in my own purely secular and Humanistic language, its message is that the very first thing we must do in order to be good people is learn to look inside ourselves, understand what we love and hate, and use this information when deciding how to treat others.

In other words, it's an obvious point. But it's also achingly, embarrassingly important.

The golden rule is achingly important because it hurts to think how often our neighbors brush us aside, violence in their words if not their fists. It hurts us to be merely a pink and brown object in their way, rather than a human being who will feel the same way about their behavior as they would if they had to endure it.

And it is embarrassingly important because it is humiliating to realize how often we ourselves often buzz right past our kids or spouses or best friends, our eyes distracted, focused on some goal or fantasy we have about how our day ought to be going, forgetting that these people too are struggling not only with petty everyday problems but with the great sources of suffering from which the Buddha sought refuge: aging, sickness, and death. Our dignity begins to slip away when we lose sight of our ability to stop and acknowledge their existence, and their struggles, for a moment.

The golden rule shows up in every religion simply because religion has thus far played a prominent role in just about every human society. But you can have a society that lacks Krishna, Jesus or Buddha and it will be fine. Eliminate multiple prayer sessions per day, gift-giving around the winter solstice, or candle-lighting every Friday night, and things will work themselves out.

But if you have a society that lacks this principle of compassion? Then all hell really will break loose. Then you don't have a society. You have chaos.

In the killing fields of Cambodia or Rwanda during their Genocides, religion was not absent but the golden rule was as hard to find as a respite from death. The murderers there thought only of their own pain and their own wants. The pain and wants of others--the lives of others--were valued less than the piles of feces and blood those entire countries were nearly reduced to. In general once people start stabbing or shooting one another, you won't find a lot of worry about compassion. The Palestinian suicide bomber planning to blow up Israeli civilians is not thinking about it. And the Israeli settler who bulldozes the olive trees around hunger-stricken Palestinian villages is usually weighing neither Kant nor Ethics of our Fathers nor The Analects.

Again, neither I as a Humanist nor Karen Armstrong as a "freelance monotheist," as she puts it, offer anything new here. But while the golden rule may be simple, it is so hard to follow. Religious and secular people alike fail at it all the time and then we wonder why our lives and countries are such a mess. And one of the reasons religion still has such a seemingly irresistible pull, to this scientifically and rationally advanced day, is that religious leaders are among the only classes of people in the world who still give themselves permission, without irony, to stand for such a childishly simple--but achingly and embarrassingly important--message.

We idolize rock singers and rappers for their detachment and defiance, but rarely do they sit down with us and take the time to explain why we shouldn't get so annoyed with our mother when she does that thing she always does to make us feel guilty. We learn Big Ideas from philosophers and other public intellectuals, but how often do they help us find the strength to be more loving husbands and wives? Psychologists and therapists will talk to us about all our problems, but don't give warm, supportive hugs; they don't make judgments even when we want them to; and they don't come out with us into our communities and offer us ways to get involved with others in a positive, healthy way. Clergy are among the precious few individuals in our society whose job description it is to do what other heroes won't or can't do. A good priest, minister or rabbi--and we've all known one or two no matter how much we might resent the religious institution that sent them our way--takes it as a professional responsibility to prod us against our will towards the golden path.

Yet I hope Armstrong and all those who support her initiative will acknowledge that turning to the golden rule for inspiration means tabling any notion that we cannot be good without god, or that atheists and agnostics should ever be considered 2nd-class moral citizens, because not a single version of the golden rule requires a god.

We can imagine that God forgives us for our lousy behavior, after all. Religious conservatives and liberals alike ask forgiveness of sin all the time, from Bill Clinton's famous line "I don't think there is a fancy way to say I have sinned," to the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's slightly, well, fancier, "I have sinned against you, my Lord, and I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God's forgiveness."

Is anyone naïve enough to believe that such preening alone merits forgiveness of acts for which men are supposed to be damned to hell for all eternity? And yet, these apologies are trotted out time and again, part and parcel of Christian morality in practice if not according to everyone's version of Christian theory. And this pattern must embolden some who take enormous risks for the thrill of a little immoral behavior--their Lord will forgive them, if they only they ask nicely enough when--or if--they are eventually caught. I'm not saying religion makes you more likely to sin, but it has a less than stellar success rate as a prophylactic against immorality. If you want to do something naughty, you're going to do it, and all the theology in the world isn't going to stop you.

Other people generally do not forgive us unless we earn it. So I hope Armstrong's point is: given that we have so much forgiveness to earn, imagine if we as a society put more energy into earning it. Imagine if all the arguing we do over prayer in schools, or about which religion has the right laws or which miracles really took place, were instead devoted to national days of the golden rule, and into seminars and sermons on learning to better relate to our fellow human beings--more love, more compassion. We'd probably still miss our mark fairly often, sometimes running the risk of descending into Hallmark kitsch.

But if this is what Armstrong has in mind, she can sign me up and I hope many in my extended community--the world's half-billion Humanists, atheists and agnostics--will join me in making the most of a project with noble intentions.

Meanwhile, we non-religious people would do well to acknowledge that while we are at no moral disadvantage when it comes to following the golden rule, by leaving congregations behind we can miss out on mutual support networks that inspire and nurture compassion. That's why my in my Humanist community at Harvard, like other Humanist communities around the US, we're starting projects like "Parenting Beyond Belief" seminars, helping young families raise caring, ethical kids without religion. I invite you to join us. If the invitation offends you, I welcome your comments: but perhaps try to avoid a response you'd find hateful if the equivalent was said to you.

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