“You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.” Anonymous
This anonymous quote that I received as a forward and in turn forwarded to my friends, though seemingly clear, rational and reasonable is however susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
On reading the quote, religionists’ first instinct is to defend their own belief and their belief system. Yet, I first saw it as a message of amity amongst religions. It does not suggest, endorse or propagate anti-religious sentiments.
The quote means exactly what it says, and it’s not anti-religion. It is just quote of about human values, the common ground of all religions.
One must remember that human values, or, if we want to call them moral and spiritual values, are common to all religions, its only the symbols and rituals that distinguish one religion from another. The quote just infers that those that don’t practice religion have basic human values without observing the symbols, rituals and practices of the various religious traditions. It does not contest the superiority or inferiority of religionists against those who don’t practice a religion.
The defense by religionists of a harmless quote led me to reflect on the nature of faith and religious belief and the divisiveness that may be caused by religious identity.
My friend the late Professor Ali Ansari’s well written novel ‘Dear Prophet’ subtitled ‘A Woman’s Story’, left a lasting impression as it explored the nature of religion, faith and its practice through the eyes of a modern Indian woman named Zarina who writes a series of letters to The Prophet.
Zarina had lived for various periods of her life in India, Lebanon, Germany and USA has always been attracted to Sufism; and while living in the USA, was exposed to Native American culture and philosophy. And Ali, in his novel ‘Dear Prophet’, has, remarkably, drawn parallels between Native American mysticism and Islam.
And though Ali has referred to Buddhism and Islam and Native American beliefs, he has not concerned himself with a particular religion or with the comparative values of any particular religious behavior, but has written the novel as a series of complex positions that show that religious experiences are universal.
Zarina, the protagonist, says in a letter to The Prophet. “I hang on to my understandings with a bitter and mocking feeling in my stomach that nothing makes sense except our compulsion to create a semblance of understanding out of life’s absurdity”.
At another point in the book, a professor says, “As a thinking person I have faced the question in my mind, instead of pushing it out. What I concluded is that reason cannot help you decide the truth of fundamental questions of existence”.
At another point Zarina says, “I realised then that something had happened in some part of my brain, an alchemy of sorts. I realized that faith has this quality of total mystery. You perceive a truth and it doesn’t depend on external evidence. So, it’s personal, or maybe I should say, a private truth. Everything is faith. You believe what your senses show you and that is your private truth”.
This resounds very distinctly with what the poet William Blake had said, “Men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast”.
And one of the great thinkers on these matters was William James, who studied religious experience as he would study any psychological formula, defined religion in one of his lectures in the ‘Gifford series’ like this. “Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”
This led me to thinking about how fragile religious belief is and how and why it should separate people and nations. This should not be so when religious experience is so personal, so internal, and yet so universal. Yet, perhaps, it is in what we consider divine that we are so divided. The ‘divine’, as so neatly explained by Michael R. Trimble, in his book ‘The Soul in the Brain’, “is the primordial sense of the awareness of another, ineffable world… The issue of God or gods does not necessarily come into it, in the sense that some religions such as Buddhism, do not assume a god. …This feeling (the primordial sense of the awareness of another, ineffable world) has been called a sense of divine; others may prefer alternative expressions“.
This is not an essay on the mystery of faith and belief or myth and divinity. It is about the senselessness of the separation of people due to religious belief; especially since belief is so personal. And, why it is important to be more receptive to different streams of thought, and to the wisdom of nature and the oneness of the universe – as these words by Native American thinkers exemplify.
“We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. It teaches us to be thankful, to be united, and to love one another! We never quarrel about religion.” Sogoyewapha, (Red Jacket), Seneca 1752-1830
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the centre of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this centre is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.
The second peace is that which is made between two individuals and the third is that which is made between two nations.
But above all you should understand that there can never be peace between nations until it is known that true peace, which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men“. Black Elk, Oglala Sioux & Spiritual Leader (1863 – 1950)
So I will end with one more nugget of Native American wisdom from ‘Obligations of the True Path Walkers‘ which would be the last words on openness to acceptance and pluralism: “Accept the Great Mystery in order to end foolish argument over religion”.
Pratap Antony writes on ecology and environment, social justice and pluralism when not reading and listening to music.