Chatral Rinpoche Passes Away (with some thoughts on Thomas Merton)

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On Jan 5 the Himalayan sage Chatral Rinpoche passed away at the age of 102. Rinpoche was a long time ascetic, practitioner of dzogchen (a Nyingma meditation tradition), and spiritual teacher. He studied with many of the masters considered “greats” within the 20th century Vajrayana Buddhist world, and taught many of the leading teachers of today at some point in their lives. He was a man of enormous spiritual “weight”, an old elephant, a true sage. With his passing there is a feeling the earth just got dangerously lighter.

Here are some words from Harold Talbott, who travelled with Thomas Merton in Asia. From a Nyingmapa website:

“In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the Dzogchen Nyingmapa lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him?

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharmasala he met Avalokiteshvara-the Bodhisattva of Compassion-in the person of the Dalai Lama and I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course that will an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of.

He could throw stones at you- as he does do-and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.”

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was?

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of those people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down.

So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche.

Tricycle: Freedom from fear?

Talbott: Freedom from all kinds of constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom.

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal.

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says, “At last I understand Christianity.Thank you very much.” And Merton says, “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your own ngondro (the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year).

We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work

together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says, “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words.

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be.

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.”

Merton is a truly inspiring man: a devout Christian capable of revering and learning from the sages of other religions. My reading of the above meeting is that Chatral Rinpoche may have been testing Merton when he referred to Jesus as a “rolog”, a kind of Tibetan zombie, to see where Merton was coming from. If Merton has gotten offended or launched into a hyper-intellectual explanation he would have been revealed as coming from a place of ego or intellect, not heart practice. Instead Merton was unoffended and met Rinpoche skillfully, explaining the resurrection in a way which held true to the Christian view of it yet presented it in a way a man like Rinpoche could understand and value. Bravo, I would say. Having practiced the ngondro myself I have doubts that an orthodox Christian could practice them (they involved worshipping gurus and spirits) but I think Merton and Rinpoche would have worked out some way to work together if only they had had more time together. As it stands Merton was electrocuted in an accident in Thailand shortly after their meeting.

Rinpoche was a vegetarian and an advocate for animal rights. He was also concerned about nuclear weapons, and wrote the following prayer. It might be fitting to post it today, given the recent activities in Iran and North Korea. Here is an excerpt from the prayer (omitting a lengthy intro addressing the buddhas and spirit beings Rinpoche revered):

  

 We are beings born at the sorry end of time;  

 An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.  

 The forces of light flicker,  

 The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.  

 And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons  

 That will disintegrate the earth.  

 The weapon of perverse and errant intentions  

 Has unleashed the hurricane.  

 Soon, in an instant, it will reduce the world  

 And all those in it to atoms of dust.  

 Through this ill-omened devils’ tool  

 It is easy to see, to hear and think about  

 Ignorant people, caught in a net of confusion and doubt,  

 Are obstinate and still refuse to understand.  

 It terrifies us just to hear about or to remember  

 This unprecedented thing.  

  

 The world is filled with uncertainty,  

 But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,  

 Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,  

 (Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and  

 Dakini)  

 If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,  

 If we implore you with this prayer,  

 Do not falter in your ancient vows!  

 Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!  

 Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!  

 When the mighty barbarians sit in council of war  

 – barbarians who rob the earth of pleasure and happiness  

 – barbarians who have wrong, rough, poisonous thoughts.  

 Bend their chiefs and lieutenants  

 To the side of peace and happiness!  

 Pacify on the spot, the armed struggle that blocks us!  

 Turn away and defeat the atomic weapons  

 Of the demons’ messengers,  

 And by that power, make long the life of the righteous,  

 And spread the theory and practice of the doctrine  

 To the four corners of this great world!  

 Eliminate root, branch and leaf – even the names  

 Of those dark forces, human and non-human,  

 Who hate others and the teaching!  

 Spread vast happiness and goodness  

 Over this fragile planet!  

 Elevate it truly with the four kinds of glory!  

 And as in the golden age, with all strife gone,  

 Let us be busy only with the dance of pleasure, the dance of joy!  

 We pray with pure thoughts-  

 By the compassion of that ocean the three supreme refuges  

 And the power of the Realm of Truth;  

 The complete sublime truth,  

 Achieve the goal of this, our prayer  

 Magically, just as we have hoped and dreamed!

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Father Louis (Thomas Merton) and Chatral Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well known postmodern Lama and film maker (eg. the Cup) had this to say about Chatral Rinpoche (here):

“…make no mistake: Many lamas like myself, who make the loudest noises, display the most jarring images, and travel every inch and corner of the world, have achieved next to nothing compared to this man who appears never to have done anything except for keeping his meditation mat from ever getting cold. And if he did manifest in action, this is the man who spent 99.99% of what he had rescuing the lives of animals. So for ignorant beings like us to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky.”

“In my limited life I have seen very few anti-hypocritical beings, and he was one of them. He meant business, there was no negotiation, and of course he never traded one single word of the dharma for money. Time and again, he refused to bow down to the mighty.

He made a lot of us hypocritical beings shudder. Just knowing he was alive and breathing somewhere between Siliguri and Pharping made our hearts quake. Even though we never got to see him, especially towards the end of his life – and I myself was refused an audience 20 times or more – his mere presence on this earth shattered hypocrisy.”

 

New Post on Elephant Journal

After a long absence, a return to the pages of Elephant Journal with a brief yogic  satire.

“If there are a ‘chosen few’…” Wendell Berry

If there are a “chosen few”

then I am not one of them

if an “elect”, well then

I have not been elected.

I am one who is knocking

at the door. I am one whose foot

is on the bottom rung.

But I know that Heaven’s

bottom rung is Heaven

though the ladder is standing

on the earth where I work

by day and at night sleep

with my head upon a stone.

-Wendell Berry, from “Leavings: Poems” 2010.

Jacob's Ladder Albert Houthuesen 1966
Jacob’s Ladder
Albert Houthuesen 1966

 

Kenyan Muslim Heroes Are An Important Reminder

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It was widely reported in the last couple of days that a group of Kenyan Muslims stood against Jihadi terrorists at the risk of their lives on a bus in Northern Kenya. The bus was travelling from Nairobi  to Mandera with 60 passengers when militants believed to be affiliated with the Somalian group Al-Shabab stopped the bus by shoooting through the windsheild. Before the militants boarded the bus some of the Muslim passengers gave Christians riding on the bus headscarves to try and conceal their identity as non-Muslims. They may have been recalling a similiar attack last year in the same region where terrorists killed 28 non-Muslims on a bus.

One of the terrorists boarded the bus and demanded that the Muslims and non-Muslims seperate. One Christian passenger tried to run and was shot in the back, according to eyewitnesses. The Muslim passengers refused to seperate from the Christian passengers and one man reportedly declared, “Kill us all or leave them alone”. Another man deceived the militants by claiming a police escort was not far behind the bus, and the Jihadis, apparently faced with a more complex situation than they had anticipated, left.

This heroic and beautiful story is being widely shared, and rightly so. It comes as a timely reminder of the divisions within Islam and should act as a curative against generalisations rooted in fear and anger over Jihadi terrorism. There are two mistakes I think we could make in hearing this story. The first is use it as proof that Islam is entirely a “religion of peace” and the supposed widespread problems in contemporary Islamic fundamentalism are a fiction in the minds of paranoid westerners. That is not the case. There are serious problems in today’s Islamic fundamentalist world, not the least of which are widespread violence towards women and homosexuals, rampant anti-semitism, and hatred of “infidels”, all of which are well demonstrated by polls and studies. These are dangerous sicknesses and to call them by any other name or pretend they don’t exist is unjust and deceptive. It would be nice not to get involved, to say that non-Muslims should not study or speak about these things, but the Muslim community is a large and inportant part of the global village and we are all now far too interconnected to turn our eyes away. We need to get used to being in eachother’s business, because that’s the way of the future as the human family gets every closer and closer. For a good discussion of this perspective from an insider, see this video by Toronto based Sunni Muslim activist Raheel Raza.

The second mistake would be to think that these Muslims were not inspired by Islam but were acting against it, some kind of “rebels against Islam”. That is also clearly not the case. Islam also has lofty ethical teachings and traditions that respect the humanity of all beings. Islamic spiritual practices and meditation on God inspire wisdom, love and courage in untold numbers of Muslims every day. If we see the al-Shabab attackers as Muslims, we must also remember and emphasize that the bus passengers who resisted were also Muslims.

I would argue that one of the greatest mistakes we can make in our era is to paint all Muslims with the same brush. It is surely at least as great a mistake as whitewashing the problems in Islamic fundamentalist culture and politics, and probably in the end a bigger one. It is imperative that any critique we engage in of Muslim culture should be informed, empathic and loving critique. We must reach out and befriend those Muslims who live the teachings of love, peace and tolerance which are also part of Islamic tradition (see here for one example). Now more than ever we must be their friends, allies and, if needed, protectors.  

 

The Real Religious War

The real religious war is not between one religion and another or between believers and nonbelievers.

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I am Jewish. A few years ago I read a great book called Yiddish Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek, which is a wonderful history of the yiddish speaking Jews of Europe over the last thousand years or so and the civilization they created- a civilization wiped out by fascism in the first half of the 20th century. This book changed my understanding of Jewish history in many ways, and in one way particularly. Growing up in the Jewish community I was taught that our time in Europe had been one long stretch of persecution by Christians, followed by the climax of the Holocaust and the triumphant creation of the modern state of Israel. I often wondered what Jews had done between the 2nd century CE and 1939, but I had no clear idea other than vague notions of shtetls in Poland. But how did the Jews get from Roman occupied Palestine to Glemboke, the northern Polish village where my grandfather grew up?

 

Reading Kriwaczek’s book I learned of the way that Jews had moved outwards away from Israel to fill the boundaries of the Roman Empire and beyond, and had often followed the movement of new frontiers as merchants. I learnt how they had eventually settled in Germany, Hungaria, Poland, Galicia, Lithuania, and Russia, forming the Yiddish Civilisation that my father descended from. I also learned three new and to me amazing things. The first was that the Jewish trek through European history was not one of unmitigated suffering. Jews had also thrived and contributed to the various Christian civilisations of Europe- politically, scientifically, medically, philosophically, and artistically. Jews had also created their own civilisation and culture with its own languages and dialects, its own art, mores, institutions, and literature. The second was that Jews were far from the only persecuted minority. The fact is that European culture was often brutal and marked with almost constant inter-communal violence. Prior to the Reformation in the early 16th century violence tended to be along ethnic, political or geographical lines or directed towards minority religious movements. After the Reformation the previous list of targets continued, adding the multinational fight between Protestants and Catholics and the fight against the Anabaptists, with everyone else doing the killing and them doing the dying.

 

It began to dawn on me that, as the author of YC argues, to a large extent the violence against Jews does not stand out. It is part of this larger pattern, not an anomaly. Many Jews, habituated (again, like other persecuted minority groups) to a narrative of victimization, will find that a shocking assertion. All I can say is: check the history books.

 

The third realization was that although it is a horrible truth that Christians, both individually and as government policy, discriminated against and persecuted Jews, it is also true that Christians, both individually and as a matter of government policy, protected, cooperated with, and supported Jews. It was this last realization which brought me to the insight I want to share here. It will not be new to many of you, I’m sure, but it bears repeating and disseminating.

 

It has become a commonplace bit of “flat-earth” philosophy today to say that religions cause wars. This is not true: historically only about 7% of wars have been religious in nature, and explicitly anti-religious societies have in fact been much, much more violent, which suggests that religion, even when the cause of war, may actually curb the amount of violence perpetrated over-all. In any case, it is certainly true that religious leaders and followers alike have committed acts of violence for what they have described as religious motives. It is also true that religious people have used religion to defend morally heinous ideas and practices like slavery, male superiority, colonialism,  violence against LGBTQ people, and even capitalism. What is often overlooked is the other side of the coin: religious people, claiming religious motivation, have run hospitals, fed the poor, reformed the justice system to make it more humane, advocated for feminism, against slavery, against war, against colonialism, against social injustice, in favour of greater access to education and literacy, for human rights, for the ecology, for the rights of LGBTQ people, and even for freedom of religion itself. Which brings me to my point: the real “holy war”, the real “religious war” is not religious people against non-religious people or members of other religions. It is within religions themselves, between those who heed the wisdom those traditions have accumulated in their centuries of pilgrimage through history and wield the immense transforming power of religion for the soul and the community from a heart of love, and those who are lost in ignorant and malformed fundamentalisms or are busy fashioning religion into a weapon to use against others, driven by anything but religious motivations whatever they may claim.  

 

This war has raged throughout history in every religion without exception, and continues to do so today. As a Jew I realized that the true history of European Christendom was not a war of Christians against Jews, but one between Christians who wanted to persecute, exploit, or eliminate Jews and Christians who wanted to treat them like human beings or even, occasionally, to treat them like Jesus would want them to be treated.
Today it is imperative that we understand that there is a similar war within Islam, as in other religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. I would argue that attention, friendship and community should be extended to those within all religions who teach and embody the values of justice, kindness and peace for all people. To those who don’t we should extend love and honest, respectful attempts at communication. Mockery, hatred and dehumanisation will not serve us- they are just sophisticated forms of revenge and subtle violence.  

Days of Rage: A Call for Nonviolence in Thought, Word and Deed

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November was a bad month, and December is not shaping up much better. In the last 6 weeks ISIS massacred civillians in Paris, and Jihadis also killed innocent people in Beirut, Kenya and Israel. In Israel random attacks on Jews are now a daily ocurrence and are becoming part of the daily run of life, while many Palestinian Arabs celebrate the deaths and hand out candy. A Saudi Arabia led coalition massively bombed Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, a city where it is estimated 10 children die from warfare every day. In the United States racist gunmen opened fire at a Black Lives Matter rally, killing 5. Another gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing 3. In Texas one man shot a waitress for not letting him smoke inside, and another shot someone for parking on the street in front of his house. On Dec 2, hours before I wrote this, 3 gunmen opened fire in, of all places, a clinic for people with developmental disabilities, killing 14. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg- a more thorough, more global search of the news would reveal more of the same.

 

All of these horrors have one thing in common: violence. We are living in violent days: days of rage. This violence is not limited to the physical. Anyone who spends time on the Internet soon becomes amazed by the fountains of vitriol, self-righteousness, hatred, aggression, insult and hostile caricature which are constantly being produced. This is not limited to the dreaded “comment area” on websites but is promulgated by many news and opinion sites on every side of every issue. Donald Trump mocks a disabled reporter and defends supporters who beat up african americans and homeless people. A popular leftwing website runs the headline “Ted Cruz, You Lying Sack of Shit.” Canadian newspaper comment sections are so inundated with racism against aboriginals that a leading First Nations academic calls for making comment sections anonymous no longer. A firefighter called to the scene of a burning Mosque is heard to say “Let it burn” over his truck radio. A “peacemaker” in Israel writes publicaly that she hopes two Israelis found guilty of killing an Arab teenager “rot in jail forever”. Violent speech is also endemic, and is not unrelated to the physical violence raging throughout the world, which in some cases is egged on and incited by online (and offline) aggression, caricaturing, and hatred.

 

In this atmosphere it is imperative that people of faith not contribute to the fires of rage. It has become more important than ever to be committed to nonviolence in thought, word and deed. This three part nonviolence does not carry any exceptions. It does not exclude whoever you think is really deserving of violence- it does not exclude Israelis or Palestinians. It does not exclude Republicans, Fundamentalist Christians or Fundamentalist Muslims. It does not exclude the Police, or Men, or Women. It does not exclude Abortion providers or Pro-Lifers. It does not exclude Racists or Jihadis, or Domestic Terrorists. It does not exclude people who stay stupid or offensive things. The only way to turn the tide of rage and righteousness which is poisoning the public atmosphere and spilling out in acts of anger and horror is to commit to absolute nonviolence in the way we write, speak, and act, as well as to withdraw support for any acts of violence against people, animals or nature. This applies to the way we treat our families and our colleagues. The way we drive a car. Our casual comments and our official statements. Our online comments and our Facebook postings. The world is on fire and every bit of water helps.

Refuge (Isaiah pt.2)

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Into the 21st chapter of the book of Isaiah, this luminous and unsettling book continues to speak about the current crisis. Presaging the multiple religious voices calling to accept Syrian refugees (Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish) Isaiah says to Israel:

 

Shelter the outcasts;

do not reveal the fugitive;

let the outcasts of Moab

sojourn among you;

be a shelter to them

from the destroyer

(Isaiah 3:4 ESV)

 

Moab was related to Israel (through Lot, Abraham’s cousin) but also frequently in tension with, if not in outright conflict with, Israel. Yet God here enjoins Israel to shelter their refugees. Later on in the series of “oracles” concerning the nations surrounding Israel Isaiah prophesies destruction coming on the Arabs. God here calls out to those who will find the refugees lost in the desert:

 

The oracle concerning Arabia.

When you lodge in the scrub-brush of the dessert,

O caravans of traders-

To the thirsty bring water;

meet the fugitive with bread,

Those who live nearby.

For they have fled from the swords,

from the drawn sword,

from the bent bow,

and from the press of battle

(Isaiah 21:13-15, ESV modified).

 

Speaking of the recent reaction of US Republicans, no one said it better than Stephen Colbert: “How do you tell if someone is a Christian? Jesus said, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was cold and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you ____.’ If they fill in the blank with anything other than ‘welcomed me in’ they are either a terrorist or they are running for president.”

 

A Church is Burning

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Six Churches have burned in St Louis this month, five African-American and the last mixed. The perpetrators and motivation are unknown but the latter, at least, is suspected. These arsons remind us of those that followed the murders in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston last summer. As David Graham pointed out recently in the Atlantic, there is a long sad history of African American Church burnings in the US.  There are, in fact, around 280 Church fires a year in the US (based on stats between 2007 and 2011), although how many are arsons is unclear, as well as how many are racially motivated, how many rooted in anti-christian sentiment, and how many simply “mischief”.   

The rash of racist arsons this year reminds us too readily of the arsons of the 1960’s during the civil rights struggle, which Simon and Garfunkel addressed in this beautiful song, worth contemplating and singing today:

A church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying

“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”

Three hooded men thru the back road did creep

Torches in their hands, while the village lies asleep

Down to the church, where just hours before

Voices were singing and hands were beating

And saying “I won’t be a slave any more”

And a church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying the fire is saying

“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”

Three hooded men, their hands lit the spark

Then they faded in the night, and they vanished in the dark

And in the cold light of morning, there’s nothing that remains

But the ashes of a Bible and can of kerosene

And a church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying

“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”

A church is more than just timber and stone

And freedom is a dark road when you’re walking it alone

But the future is now, and it’s time to take a stand

So the lost bells of freedom can ring out in my land

And a church is burning

The flames rise higher

Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky

Like hands that are praying the fire is saying

“You can burn down our churches, but I shall be free”

© 1965 Words and Music by Paul Simon, “A Church is Burning”

 

Who Speaks For Religion? And What Good Is It Anyway?

 

 

Here in Canada, as in much of the Western World, there is a plethora of voices condemning religion. The essential claim is that religion is both false and harmful. The falsity or veracity of religions is open to honest debate and disagreement, and can’t be settled by simple argumentation. The means employed to argue for the harmfulness of religion, however, are frequently shot through with bigotry, misinformation, shoddy argumentation, and caricatures. These should be refuted.

 

What one frequently hears is that religion is bad for people. This is proven by taking the worst examples of people claiming religious motivation for acting badly and presenting them as “typical” of religious behaviour. Violence, hatred, irrationality, psychologically or physically harmful behaviour, when given a religious justification, become in anti-religious polemics “religion”. On one level this is no different from any other type of bigotry. Bigotry works by taking an “other”, some identifiable group, and then assigning negative generalizations to the group as a whole. Of course these generalizations, by stigmatizing the other group, make your own group superior. Anti-semites find examples of greed, corruption, or chauvinism among Jews and say “this is how Jews are”. White supremacists find examples of African Americans committing crimes or performing badly at school and say “these people are violent and stupid”. Buddhists point to examples of Christian intolerance or extremism and say “you see, Christians are like that” and Christians point to Muslim terrorists and say, “That’s Islam”. And here’s the kicker: secularists point to violent, irrational or intolerant religious people and say, “Religious people are like that.” 

 

The truth is that some religious people are like that. Just like some Jews are greedy, and some some atheists are debaucherous nihilists. Some but not all, and not even most. Making the worst example of religious people stand in for the group as a whole is a polemical and psychological technique, not an attempt to approach the truth. 

 

To understand this, consider: If a person wanted to understand medicine, who should they ask? An intelligent approach would be to approach an expert- someone who excelled in both the theory and practice of medicine. That person understands medicine, and embodies its wisdom. Going to an amateur doctor, or worse, a quack, would not teach you about what medicine is and can be. Taking that as a guide, when wanting to understand religion, who should one ask, to whom should one go? Those who have a superficial understanding of their religion, those who only practice it for an hour a week on Sundays, or worse those who use their religion to covertly or overtly seek power, money, sex, or the expression of their desires for violence and cruelty?

 

I am not saying that we have nothing to learn from studying the behaviour, individually or in groups, of religious people. Quite the contrary. There is much to learn both for the religious and the non-religious in studying the way different types of religious people tend to behave. For instance, one might argue that religion is a kind of neutral tool whose significance is entirely in the use put to it. Good people use it well, bad people badly. That does not appear to be true, however. Both scientific and historical studies of religion demonstrate that on the whole it more often a source of good things than bad. Studies of the effects of religious adherence have demonstrated over and again that it tends to promote happiness and longevity. Historical studies have demonstrated that in the West our human rights tradition derives mostly from the Bible, that Christianity “invented the idea of children as human beings”, that Judeo-Christian values reduced and then eliminated slavery, fought against racism, operated a massive hospital and orphanage system for centuries, were the seedbeds of science and amazing creativity in art and music. Hinduism has enriched the human understanding of the body and mind and expanded human ideas about the cosmos and the spiritual realms for millenia; Buddhism advanced all of humanities understanding of the workings of the mind and has been a voice for non-violence for 2,500 years. Speaking of the West it is surely also true that Christians and Jews often did not go far enough in their reforms, had blindspots, and sometimes resorted to religiously motivated violence. These failures are rightly sources of grief and self-criticism to religious people, but they say more about doctrinal or institutional practices that need reform, or about the human capacity for evil, than they stand as blanket condemnations of such an important and beneficial human activity as religion. On the whole religion has largely been, and is, a force to enrich life and address the needs of the soul, as well as to redeem civilisations. 

 

It is this last point I would like to linger on for a moment. I would argue that a significant part of the meaning and purpose of religions lies in their ability to (at least partially) redeem the civilisations they exist in. What I mean by that is that religions have in the past reduced human vices like greed and violence, been a refuge for those who fall through the cracks, stepped in where the political structure failed, inspired art and culture, and acted counterculturally against the defects of their time (at their best). When civilisational structures changed one of two things happened: either old religions changed and developed (eg. the birth of Rabbinic Judaism, Hinduism developing out of Brahmanism, the Protestant Reformation) or new religions were born out of or on top of the old (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam). These new forms than struggled to develop in redeeming ways in cooperation with or in struggle against their own socieities. That has always been the case until today, a time when all of the old religions are struggling mightily to catch up to the fastest and most disruptive level of civilisational transformation in human history. My belief is that catch up they must and catch up they will, because we are homo religiosis. They must catch up because we need them. Those who say we can do without religion are making an assertion that is totally speculative, and which in fact has mounting facts against it. Some individuals seem fine without it, at least by their own estimation. Civilizations which leave it behind, however, are largely burning the leftover moral capital that religions created without making anything new. Time will tell whether science and reason, operating in a fluctuating human space with no centre and no limits, can guide the human race towards peace, love, and justice. I have my doubts.