Sunday, November 16, 2008

Girls and Rocks, Marriages and Votes

Karen Armstrong finds religion uplifting and loving and so on:

"My religion is kindness," says the Dalai Lama; faith that moves mountains is worthless without charity, said St Paul; the Golden Rule was the essence of Torah, said Rabbi Hillel: everything else was "only commentary". The bedrock message of the Qur'an is not a doctrine but a summons to build a just and decent society where there is a fair distribution of wealth and vulnerable people are treated with absolute respect.

The religions also insist that it is not sufficient to confine your compassion to your own group. You must have what one of the Chinese sages called jian ai, "concern for everybody" – honouring the stranger and loving your enemies.
Indeed so. Just as all true Scotsmen are strong and virtuous, the true essence of the religions is compassion and justice.

But Armstrong is broad-minded enough to allow that it does not always seem that way:
Why, then, do we hear so little about compassion from the religious? Because whether they are religious or secular, people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Certainly the religious traditions have a deeply intransigent strain.
The intransigence comes along with the introduction of a new character onto the stage of human affairs -- a big, bold character with vast powers and even vaster demands. Since he doesn't deign to appear onstage, the other characters scramble to deliver his lines, each with supreme confidence that they're imparting his "true essence."

It's worthwhile to take a clear look at actual cases where being compassionate and being right come into conflict. Which wins? What are the stakes? In the recent election, Christians in California chose their god's truth about marriage over any sense of compassion for gay people's lives by a 2-1 margin. The Muslims who gathered to hurl stones at the head of a thirteen-year-old rape victim were willing to smash the bedrock of decency like so much skull-bone and discard the "absolute respect" for "vulnerable people" of which Armstrong rhapsodizes but they were not willing to question the truth-claims on which their religion insists.

How this truth-versus-compassion choice comes out is not an academic question; the course of lives hangs on it. The actual scenes and characters in the stage-play are opened to severe distortion and debasement when the imaginary offstage character is assumed to have a role. All the world's a stage, sure, but it's a play with real blood.

Ophelia Benson has more on this.

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