There is a Religious War Going On Most of Us Don’t Want

Our nation is involved in a religious war, one that most of us don’t want or are even aware of. However, we feel the pressure of it as an anxiety that arises when we hear, read or see news reports. It is not a war of Christians against Muslims or Jews. It is a war by fundamentalists against other fundamentalists, and fundamentalists against secularists and those who have different views on religion. The religious scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, warned us about this war years ago and we are now paying the price for not understanding her message.

 

Why call this a fundamentalist religious war? To answer this, think about what is meant by religion? This is a huge question and can be answered in many ways, but one way is to examine the roots of the word. Re means ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Ligion comes from ligare which is the root of ligament, to ‘bind’ or ‘tie.’ Yoga has a similar root, which means ‘to yoke.’ So religion is to tie back. But to what? To a set of beliefs and practices? To a shared vision of what is most important or sacred, or how to face what is most difficult? To how to live a sincere and meaningful life?

 

What is fundamentalism? It can be defined as an attempt to reach back to what is fundamental or original to a religion at its purest time. To get back to the beginning often means to tie back to a literal and “original” interpretation of scripture or to a mythical time⏤one that never existed except as a metaphor of longing. For many fundamentalists, it is the story, the interpretation, the words that make a religion unique, not the experience of transformation that might have been the root of the scripture, as illustrated by Buddha’s enlightenment or Moses and the burning bush. Since the word is sacred, anyone who speaks or acts against the literal interpretation, or even offers a different perspective, is committing a sin.

 

The leading fundamentalist religion in the US is often called Christian, and its adherents identify as Christians, but in reality I think the religion is economic. George Soros called it “free market fundamentalism.” I am probably taking his quote further than he intended. Soros was talking about those who adhere to the belief that only an unregulated market and uninhibited pursuit of self-interest can serve the common good and preserve civil liberties. The only way to be rational, according to this belief, is to be selfish and allow the “invisible hand of the market” to rule. For humans to regulate the “invisible” is to interfere with forces beyond our control.

 

This economic fundamentalism might be thought of as akin to a belief in other invisible or even supernatural forces, and might be a matter of faith, but is certainly not a rationally examined truth. It defies the preponderance of evidence. It is a religion whose priests are the wealthy and whose symbols are coins, stock, and property.

 

These fundamentalists hold up Adam Smith and Charles Darwin as two of their saintly authorities. Yet, Adam Smith said, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: …The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions [e.g. avarice], is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.” And: “…to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.” And Darwin, the scientist most known for natural selection in evolution, wrote about the importance of moral sensitivity, love, mutuality in his second book, The Descent of Man, where he talks about the application of evolution theory to humans. In fact, the systems scientist and evolutionary theorist, David Loye did a data analysis of Descent. He found “survival of the fittest” mentioned 2 times, ‘competition’ 9 times, but ‘love’ mentioned once in the index but 95 times in the book, ‘mutual aid’ 24 times, ‘sympathy’ 61 times, ‘moral’ 90 times.

 

Deregulation has not led to a utopia where everyone’s selfishness leads to everyone’s freedom and increased wealth, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, to increasing inequity, poverty, immorality, and political chaos; to control of the political process by the financial sector, and an increasing monetization of everything— from people to the environment. As Mathieu Ricard points out in his extensively researched book, Altruism, research by scientists and several international organizations, including the UN, shows that the consequences of inequity are far reaching: “for each health care or social indicator (physical health, mental health, school success rates, …obesity, drug addiction…infant mortality, and the well-being of children in general) the results are significantly worse in countries where inequality is highest.” The US is now one of the most unequal of nations.

 

The religious fundamentalist nature of this economic belief system helps explain the difficulty many people describe trying to talk to someone who believes in this religion, when they don’t. It helps explain why believers in Mr. T hold on to their belief despite extensive evidence to the contrary, and why his supporters feel liberals and radicals talk down to them.

 

To undermine a religious belief is to undermine what is central to one’s grasp of reality. And when one thinks and feels one is in a state of war, anyone who is not a supporter is an enemy. Understanding this mentality, of a religious war, and understanding the thinking and fear behind it, is one step toward transcending and ending it. Understanding our selves more completely and how to respond with more clarity and compassion is a beginning. But ignoring it is not a good option.

 

*There are two marches coming up you might want to participate in and support, in Washington, and in local cities. There’s a March for Science, on Earth Day, 4/22, and The People’s Climate March for Climate, Jobs and Justice, 4/29.

 

**Photo of the Lion’s Gate to Mycenae, Greece.

A Compassionate Curriculum Part A: Teaching Our Nature

Mindfulness and compassion practices are wonderful, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school and the curriculum. So, how do you do that? What needs to be included in a curriculum so students are more likely to graduate as compassionate human beings?

 

A curriculum that teaches compassion should start with “big questions,” especially those chosen or verbalized by students. In that way, students will feel heard and thus more inclined to listen. They will then look at the school as part of themselves, not as something totally separate. As discussed in an earlier blog, creating a curriculum out of big questions gives students not only an understanding of issues they consider important but the sense that they can figure out for themselves how their actions can serve a useful purpose.

 

Next, the curriculum needs to directly face a question that students in several of my classes often raised: what are we humans? What is it in our nature to be? We say things like, “it is just human nature to do x, y, or z.” What could that mean? Students often assume that humans have a “nature” and having a “nature” means that you can’t help but enact that nature. Your nature is fixed, in your DNA. But what exactly is fixed? And what would having such a fixed nature imply? Since there is so much violence and suffering in the world, how can it be our nature to be compassionate? This question is a mirror of another old philosophical question: If God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

 

One book that could be a resource for a secondary school curriculum on compassion is The Compassionate Instinct. This book explores scientific evidence and philosophical arguments for compassion. In the first essay, Dacher Keltner makes the point that “human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature.” When you assume something about your nature, you act in accord with that assumption. To talk about human nature is to talk about who you are as a person, who you are as a friend or loved one, parent or child. It is not simply an intellectual question. It affects the whole way you relate to others and live your life. Students need to look for the larger dimensions and implications of their questions, and teachers need to understand the implications of the material they teach and their pedagogy.

 

Keltner argues that compassion is “rooted in our brain and biology, and [is] ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” It is in us, as a possibility. It can be developed—or subverted. Our brains are plastic in that they are continuously rewiring to some degree. We change according to our experience and education. Learning means change. Even the expression of DNA depends on experience. Maybe how we think about our nature is both a result of our nature and at the same time helps form that nature.

 

How do you relate to suffering, or to the awful, the holocausts, genocides, wars, and death? When students, and teachers, read about something awful like violence, murders and even the devious manipulations of political leaders now or in the past, they might say, “Ah, yes. Just what I expected.” Others, “I don’t want to hear about it.” It is difficult to allow yourself to be in the middle between assuming the worst of people and wanting to hide.

 

In history, it is easy to overemphasize the horrors that humans have perpetrated and to leave out the good. To talk about Hitler and forget Asoka. The good is often seen as inconsequential, banal or everyday; yet without this everyday counterweight to what we consider evil, we could not go on. This is not “inconsequential” but the most consequential. For example, students in one of my classes claimed that humans are not cooperative. I then asked them, how did you get to school this morning? Why didn’t all the cars on the road crash into each other? I continued: Name all the different people you can think of who contributed to making your lunch. In our school, this was a very visible subject as one group of students helps cook the lunch for the school and another grows some of the food. Students went on and on, surprising themselves with the result, naming teachers who instructed students on how to cook the food, farmers and truckers and people who made the forks and spoons. After just a few minutes, it seemed that everyone and everything contributed to their lunch. Instead of disconnection, students learned about interdependence, which in turn opened the door to the possibility of compassion.

 

Teachers might claim they value compassion and have empathy for their students and others. Yet, if they teach that selflessness is a myth, that we are born to put competitiveness and greed before other ways of being, they undermine that claim. For example, take science or social studies teachers who discuss evolution and have students read portions of Darwin’s  The Origin of Species but not The Descent of Man. Psychologist and evolution theorist David Loye points out that Origin spells out the theory most people associate with Darwin, that through random variations in genes and “natural selection” the best organisms are picked out to survive while the rest are discarded. Such a choice has led to theories about humans being naturally aggressive, that competition is necessary for survival, even that there is such a thing as a “selfish gene.” In Descent, Darwin applies his theories to human beings and, I think, leaves us with a very different message than he did in Origin. He speaks more about “mutual aid,” ethics or morality, and love than about “the survival of the fittest.” He speaks about helping others, even the weak, out of “sympathy.” So, should we teach both books? And which book gives us more incentive to act in an ethical or a compassionate manner?

 

We need to let the light in. Especially when the subject is difficult, we need to hold the reality, even the difficult and painful reality, in our arms for a second; to listen to what has to be said without jumping to a conclusion or running to hide.

 

There are specific characteristics of being human, for example, our shape, the fact that we normally have two legs, two arms, and two eyes. Our brain and senses obviously allow us to do some things but not others. We can walk on our own two feet but not fly with (just) our feet. Most of us can perceive a variety of colors but none of us can perceive ultraviolet light. If we could see ultraviolet, just think how our experience might change. But is our nature something different from a description of what our mental and physical equipment makes possible? Or should I ask: Does our physical and mental equipment make it possible for us to have meaningful choices in how we act? Is the most important thing about our nature the possibility that we have a choice about how we use our equipment? That we can choose to be either compassionate or hurtful?

 

The question of what does it mean to be a human being is a crucial question for students to raise in our classes and for teachers to address directly. Hidden in the question is the recognition that who we are is about who we choose to be. Who do you choose to be? What would you choose to teach?