In the Islamica interview with Karen Armstrong I mentioned yesterday, it is also put to her that “Too often it seems that religious people are not necessarily more compassionate, more tolerant, more peaceful or more spiritual than others. America, for example, is a very religious country, and at the same time it is the most unequal socially and economically. What does this say about the purpose of religion?”
“The world religions all insist that the one, single test of any type of religiosity is that it must issue in practical compassion. They have nearly all developed a version of the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” This demands that we look into our own hearts, discover what it is that gives us pain and then refuse, under any circumstances, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion demands that we “feel with” the other; that we dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there. This is the bedrock message of the Qur’an, of the New Testament (“I can have faith that moves mountains,” says St. Paul, “but if I lack charity it profits me nothing.”). Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, defined the Golden Rule as the essence of Judaism: everything else, he said, was “commentary.” We have exactly the same teaching in Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. I have tried to show this in one of my most recent books, The Great Transformation. The traditions all insist that it is not enough simply to show compassion to your own group. You must have what the Chinese call jian ai, concern for everybody. Or as Jewish law puts it: “Honour the stranger.” “Love your enemies,” said Jesus: if you simply love your own kind, this is purely self-interest and a form of group egotism. The traditions also insist that it is the daily, hourly practice of compassion -not the adoption of the correct “beliefs” or the correct sexuality- that will bring us into the presence of what is called God, Nirvana, Brahman or the Dao. Religion is thus inseparable from altruism.
So why aren’t religious people compassionate? What does that say about them? Compassion is not a popular virtue. Many religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate. They don’t want to give up their egos. They want religion to give them a little mild uplift once a week so that they can return to their ordinary selfish lives, unscathed by the demands of their tradition. Religion is hard work; not many people do it well. But are secularists any better? Many secularists would subscribe to the compassionate ideal but are just as selfish as religious people. The failure of religious people to be compassionate doesn’t tell us something about religion, but about human nature. Religion is a method: you have to put it into practice to discover its truth. But, unfortunately, not many people do.” [My emphasis] I would accept this line – that morality is essentially an elaboration of the golden rule, and what you do is what’s imporant not what your religion is. What I found interesting is that the question assumed religious people are thought to be less moral than non-religious people. Humanists are generally of the opinion that they are the one’s thought of less moral (which is why the O Project was established) so it’s strange to see it flipped around the other way. Perhaps humanists and religious people make the same assumptions about each other and then get upset in exactly the same way about being on the recieving end of assumptions! At least Armstrong concedes that religious people frequently fail to be compassionate – a position humanists don’t seem to be at yet.