I was watching a video of a talk by the British Humanist philosopher AC Grayling recently. He spoke of Humanism as encouraging you to live for yourself. This did chime with my own Taoist / Buddhist views as the message I get from them is to attempt to be fully present in the moment and live according to your own reason. The Kalama Sutra makes this clear and any attempts to avoid this that I’ve seen boil down to a Theistic attempt to frighten people into agreeing with the speakers views, or those of their sect.
This got me thinking about Pascal’s Wager. This is a famous bit of thinking that attempts to make the case for believing in God. The idea is that God either exists, or does not; You can either believe or not. If you believe and God exists, then you’re saved; If not, then you’re no worse off than an Atheist. If you don’t believe and God exists, then you’re in some trouble; if not then you’re no better off than the Theist anyway.
There are a few problems with this. The whole question assumes that you have the right God, but how do Zeus or Odin feel about all this? It assumes you understand the nature of God properly, but surely an all loving God makes the wager irrelevant? It assumes the nature of an afterlife, but what about reincarnation? But, I think that there’s another story here; one of the poverty of the supposed victor.
The theist “wins” by worship and submission to the will of a God, and in loss is supposed to be no worse off than an Atheist. However, has the Theist ever really lived for their own reasons? They’ve lived for their God, for their faith; but never for themselves. So, if the Theist does win the wager, it’s a hollow victory. They won, not on their own choices or merits, but by blindly towing the line; who they were never really mattered. And in loss? The only life they had was thrown away living for someone else’s agenda. Not a wager I think I care for.
It’s been an interesting week over here from my perspective. I watched with interest as the European Court ruled on the cases of four Christians. Two of them had been refused permission to wear crosses by their employers. Two others had found their duties as employees to be at odds with their faith. All of them had applied to employment tribunals, all of these appeals had been rejected. In the case of one woman, the court found that banning her from wearing a cross did infringe her rights. The others lost their cases.
This is being reported on from both the secular and religious camps. As someone with an eye on both, I can see both points of view. On the Christian side, they feel they’re being discriminated against for practising their faith. On the secular side, one more unwarranted privilege of religious faith is filleted away. From my more eastern flavoured perspective, this is a mixed result, but ultimately one that has a silver lining. The lady who won her case did so justly, in my opinion. There was no defensible ground to ask her to remove the cross. I think this sets a precedent that reaches beyond the Christian faith and advances the rights of the individual.
The other results may seem hard to find a silver lining in. After all they lost, didn’t they? Yes, in court. But there is, I think, a silver lining here. That lining is a chance to realise the practise of compassion. The three other cases were a registrar who refused to marry same sex couples. Someone who could not wear a cross on health and safety grounds, and a sex therapist who would not see same sex couples. The therapist and the registrar are the two cases I would like to comment on.
When exploring religions and religious thought we keep coming across compassion. It is considered as one of the greatest virtues in most of them. That’s not to say that the religions monopolise it, far from it, but it is a constant thread in them. But, what happens when your faith clashes with the things that life expects of you? In this instance you are called to counsel those in need or to officiate at a happy occasion and your faith stands in the way? My answer is that the needs of reality must come first, but by showing compassion here, you are in fact strengthening the practise of your faith. There is a Christian saying; “Hate the sIn, love the sinner”. This is the direction I wish to indicate. By refusing to help on “faith grounds”, you miss a chance to put compassion into practise.
I have always considered the Buddha’s view on religious teaching to be the correct one. They’re like a raft carrying you across a river, when you reach the other side you are wise to abandon the raft as it’s done its job. While crossing, don’t cling too tight to the raft. I interpret this as saying that whatever your dogma, sooner or later you will have to grow beyond it. Also, remember that you will need to be flexible at times. There is a great metaphor in Taoism for this of reeds in the wind, the reeds flex in a wind and so survive while a solidly inflexible tree risks being uprooted or broken. Though a quote from the Tao Te Ching illustrates what I mean.
While alive, the body is soft and pliant
When dead, it is hard and rigid
All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life
Therefore, an inflexible army will not win
A strong tree will be cut down
The big and forceful occupy a lowly position
While the soft and pliant occupy a higher place
(Tao Te Ching. Ch 76. Derek Lin Translation courtesy of Truetao,org)
So, while this may all look like a defeat, I do find a silver lining and the hope that it might lead to a more flexible public interaction between faith and society.