Monday, September 7, 2009

"The founder of my religion" and the wisdom of crowds

The wisdom of crowds: the many founders of post-Christian religiosity


            I am here as a representative of the largest faith community in this country, viz. the ex-Catholics. That is not a community with a sense of unity and structures of its own, like the Catholic Church. As a leading unbeliever in this country used to say: “No, freethinkers don’t need structures of their own. It’s not because diabetics get together in their own self-help group, that non-diabetics should likewise get together.” So, I have not been mandated to represent the millions who fall in the category of ex-Catholics, I am only representative in the sense that I am a typical case. I am an apostate, I no longer espouse the beliefs I was brought up with. An earlier generation of ex-Catholics, when they were still a small minority of the Belgian population, often became anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-religious with a vengeance. Today’s far more numerous ex-Catholics no longer have serious accounts to settle with the Church of their childhood. They, i.e. we, are simply sceptical of its defining beliefs. No hereditary sin of Adam and Eve, no virgin birth of Jesus, no resurrection.

Not that we reject everything about Jesus. He’s still popular for some of his sayings, especially when he was being anti-authoritarian like ourselves, when he went against the stifling weight of tradition and prejudice. But Son of God, no, most baptized Belgians don’t believe this anymore. That defining belief of Christianity is doubted now even by many of those who still go to church on Sundays. I understand that Muslims likewise venerate Jesus but reject his divine status. This at least proves that it is possible to be religious and yet not believe in Jesus as the divine Saviour.

One component that recurs in many though not all religions is God. People who have had bad experiences with a tough and authoritarian religion, tend towards a wholesale rejection of religion, including and especially God. They find something heroic in atheism, like standing on top of a mountain with no one above you. Or as John Lennon used to sing: “Above us only sky.” To assert human freedom, they would find it a crucial point to reject God. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Si Dieu existe, l’homme est un néant. Si l’homme existe, Dieu n’existe pas.” Among ex-Muslims, this is still common, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her discovery of atheism as a liberation.

By contrast, now that Catholicism has lost its teeth, most ex-Catholics don’t bother to rebrand themselves as atheists or God-deniers anymore. The anti-authoritarian generation dislikes the idea of a monarch in the sky, but then He can be redefined as something hazier, genderless, faceless, a mere “something”. We are the Something-ists. If you ask us whether we believe in God, we say: “It depends how you define God.” Tongue-in-cheek, God is still okay, though the old expression “the fear of God” can now only be used in an ironical sense. Conversely, long-standing atheists have lately explored the idea of an “atheist religiosity”. Their rejection of the Pope and of Biblical authority need no longer imply a wholesale rejection of religion. Or “spirituality” as some insist on calling it, with studied vagueness.

We learn that Buddhism and some lesser-known Asian tradition also fall into this category of “religion without God”. That’s why the Buddha is so popular in modern culture: he reputedly doesn’t want you to submit to some omnipotent authority in heaven. At the same time, the millions of modern Westerners who do Buddhist things, like practicing “mindfulness”, don’t become card-carrying Buddhists. They don’t want to put all their eggs into a single basket.

It is like in science. Everybody accepts that many pioneers have contributed to the present state of our scientific knowledge. Nobody swears by only one of them, nor denies the importance of all the others. Everybody knows that Aristotle’s work was, by all accounts, path-breaking, yet his knowledge was tentative and often clumsy. Both these facts, glorifying as well as belittling Aristotle, are equally true, and uncontroversial. Of course his work was a tremendous contribution to science, and of course it was very incomplete, in need of improvement by others who came after him. Nobody faults him for the immaturity of his theories, because everybody knows a single man couldn’t have created the whole edifice of science. Nobody says that Aristotle was the only son of the science god, nor that he was the seal of the scientists never to be equalled.

A poet has said that after Isaac Newton, “all was light”, so decisive was his breakthrough in physics. Yet to those who would dismiss the preceding generations of thinkers and researchers as merely caught in darkness, Newton admonished that he could only see as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants, i.e. his predecessors in thought and research. No scientist would ever say that he received the whole of scientific knowledge in a flash, devoid of any prehistory nor in need of any additions or improvements.

In the experience of most moderns, the same is true in religion. Earlier, a very monarchical view of religion prevailed: one founder, a single leader with a single book, and the rest are devout and obedient followers. Or if they aren’t, they are outsiders to and enemies of the religion. Today, we are evolving towards a more democratic view of religion. It is open-ended on all sides.

It is open-ended in a geographical sense: valid religious teachings have originated in many parts of the world. In the colonial age, Christian travellers were puzzled to find noble people in China, in Arabia, in Africa and other heathen countries: “How can they be so good and not be Christian?” And they had qualms of conscience: “How sad that this Chinese new friend of mine, this thoroughly good man, will have to go to hell because he isn’t baptized!” Today, ex-Christians and quite a few Christians are confident that even God hasn’t put all his eggs in a single basket: non-Christians had been provided with their own Zarathustra, their own Yajñavalkya, Confucius, Bodhidharma, or Shankara. Post-Christian people quote from Jesus, Laozi, Kabir or Jalaluddin Rumi with equal respect.

It is open-ended towards the past. Every teacher was a pupil once. Everyone has a navel as visible proof that he was born from a mother and is indebted to earlier generations. The Buddha, who is often venerated by Buddhists as totally unique and original, acknowledged that he had merely walked the path that all the earlier Buddhas before him had walked. After him, his tradition spawned equally important masters like Bodhidharma, Huineng or Dogen. Evolutionary psychology shows that the germs of religion go back very far. We now know that a sense of morality, of altruism and fellow-feeling, which religious teachers usually claim as a special merit of religion, is present already in the higher animal species. Apes already have an (admittedly very embryonic) sense of religion. Some of you may have seen the documentary in which a gorilla flares up in anger against a burst of lightning: he is caught in the act of inventing a personal god behind the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. Right there, he just thought up a thunder god, like Jupiter or Indra or Thor. Later mankind has discarded this belief in personal agents behind the natural phenomena, but it was a step on the way forward and upward. While it is still controversial here and there to say we have descended from apes, I dare say that we are, moreover, the pupils of the apes.

Modern religiosity is open-ended towards the future. More teachers are bound to come, equal in rank with the ancient teachers. Nobody is the last prophet. We’ve heard that after Mohammed, some Muslims had a Baha’ullah or a Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Without going into the merits of these specific individuals, we can generally say that most people agree that renewals are called for once in a while, and that even in religion, progress is made once in a while. Nobody has a monopoly on the road to truth or salvation in our post-Christian religiosity.


Brussels, 3 May 2009.

Read more!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Interreligious dialogue

Interreligious dialogue is very fashionable these days. But what achievements does it have to show?

Interreligious meetings are ten a penny nowadays. It is obviously better for people to spend their time talking to each other than to smash each other’s heads in. But apart from this elementary use, do they have any merits? Last January I attended a conference on “Religion in Asia after 9/11” at Jamia Milia Islamia, Delhi. There, Swami Agnivesh, the Hindu equivalent of a liberation theologian (“Vedic socialism”), was asked to evaluate his long experience with interreligious dialogue. His conclusion: “No, it has no use. Have we achieved anything with it? No, we have not. It is time we tried something else.”

Yet, some people keep on trying. In the forthcoming weekend of 12-13 September 2009, Antwerp (hall Paroza, Bacchusstraat 67-71, all are welcome) will witness a modest conference of all religions, or nearly all. Every religion will have its own little stall for self-presentation and a spokesman from each will give a speech. The major religions will be present, though they mistrust such meetings as (1) conveying the theologically unacceptable impression that their own message is on a par with that of other, “false” religions; (2) giving undue importance to small religions, since each one sends one delegation regardless of the size of its flock.

Indeed, neo-Druids, neo-Templars, non-Muslim “Sufis”, would-be-Amerindian sweatlodgers and other Wiccas will stake their claim to an equal seat at the table with the billion-plus religions of Catholicism and Islam. Biblical and Quranic orthodoxies dismiss such syncretism and “equal respect for all religions” as Pagan par excellence, an insult to the sole revealed truth. The initiative for the upcoming conference lies with these small religions, though they found a Catholic priest willing (and others unwilling) to open his church for the oecumenical celebration. Some Catholics have gone soft under the impact of the Zeitgeist, represented by the political authorities of the city, who are always eager to patronize such chummy interreligious affairs.

This planned highlight of a truly oecumenical celebration is theologically very risky. For example, many traditions impose specific purity requirements for a ritual to be effective, requirements which outsiders don’t observe and generally don’t even know about. Therefore, the usual scenario is that at such gatherings the delegates pat each other on the shoulder a lot in the plenary session, intone the predictable mantras about “mutual understanding” and “respect”, but insist on celebrating the intimate moments of religious worship separately (e.g. at the Assisi gathering hosted by Pope John-Paul II). Let us just see how it works out.

Meanwhile, my own experience with such gatherings is that they may have their uses at the personal level. On 3 May 2009, I participated in an interreligious dialogue session organized by the Belgian Ahmadiya community in the Basilica of Koekelberg (Brussels). It worked out very nicely, at least for me.

The Ahmadiyas are a Muslim-yet-non-Muslim tradition. Founded in the late 19th century in British India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad from Qadian, they claim to be Muslim and even excel in their zeal for Islam, yet they are considered non-Muslim by other Muslims including the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The reason is that the Ahmadiyas consider their own founder as another prophet, completing and reaffirming the message of Mohammed. But Islamic orthodoxy holds that Mohammed was “the Seal of the Prophets”, the final prophet whose word is definitively authoritative until Judgment Day. The Prophet’s status is belittled by the claim that he could have any use for a self-styled helper. Because of this alleged disrespect for the Prophet of Islam, Ahmadiyas are actively persecuted in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, hence their massive presence among our bonafide asylum-seekers.

One of their tactics to wriggle out of their persecuted condition is an emphatic veneration for Mohammed, the very prophet in whose name they are persecuted. An Ahmadiya spokesman and religious teacher explained at the Koekelberg meeting that the name “Ahmad” does not so much refer to founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, but to the name’s literal meaning, “praiser (of God)”, of the same root as Mohammed, “praised one”.

He mentioned only in passing the belief dear to the Ahmadiyas that Jesus had migrated east after the crucifixion and resurrection, then lived most of his life in Kashmir, there to die at the high age of 115 of natural causes. A Catholic priest was pressed for his view on this matter, and upheld the Christian belief that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, in a grave identified three centuries later by Emperor Constantine’s mother. It was a friendly meeting, so this dissonance caused no unpleasant reactions. However, the priest could have been even more diplomatic by avoiding this negative answer yet sticking to the Gospel truth, the way Jef Ulburghs did at the Islamist mass meeting in Genk (Limburg, Belgium) of 6 April 1992. Ulburghs, a Catholic priest and then socialist MP, dismissed the Crusades as a sad mistake: the Crusaders had gone to Palestine to liberate the Holy Grave, but that was a perfectly unimportant place as “Jesus was no longer in that grave, he was resurrected!”

Each of the Ahmadiya speakers denounced the Jihad-mongers in the Muslim community, at least those who justified terror as Jihad, e.g.:. “Other Muslims reproach us for not waging jihad. But this is jihad, this interreligious get-together here!” If such convivial meetings are really jihad, I wouldn't mind jihad too much.

They were very strict about the peace-loving and tolerant reinterpretation of Islamic scripture. Thus, they highlighted Quranic verses seemingly implying that Hell is not eternal, that even those condemned to hell (which includes all unbelievers) will get a chance to enter heaven eventually. They accepted the Quranic doctrine that God alone decides who becomes Muslim and who non-Muslim, and that it is only up to Him to punish wrong human “choices”. The orthodox reading is a fatalistic one, viz. that man has no real choice and that God is the only real agent in the universe, the rest of us being mere pawns in His game. But these Ahmadiyas said it means that God has willed the existence of different religions, and that this is a Quranic basis for religious pluralism.

Even more surprisingly, they effectively nullified the notion of “false gods”, since other gods but Allah are in reality merely other names for the same Allah: “There is no god but Allah, He is the god worshipped by Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and all other prophets. Mohammed accepted that messengers had been sent to all nations. Eventhough not mentioned by name, Zarathustra, Krishna, Buddha and others are acknowledged as valid by the Prophet.”

This comes close to the notion of the “common truth underlying all religions”, preached by Baha’ullah, Mahatma Gandhi and other moderns. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad lived and worked in the same colonial, proto-globalist context, the time when Ludwig Zamenhof a.k.a. “Dr. Esperanto” launched his “international language” as an instrument for world peace. The Baha’is and Ahmadiyas are two sects of Islam that came under the influence of the internationalist spirit of the age and increasingly started taking the “common truth underlying all religions” seriously. This is the philosophy underlying most contemporary interreligious initiatives. It sounds nice but is abhorred by religious orthodoxies, and I’m afraid it only convinces those who already take a liberal view of religious truth claims.

The liberal interpretations of Islamic scripture by the Belgium-based Ahmadiya community are theologically questionable, indeed they are sharply rejected by the orthodox. But there is no question that the people I met were entirely serious about them. Maybe the Quran does not truly support religious pluralism, but these people clearly do.

This, then, is my personal reason for supporting interreligious dialogue in principle. It doesn’t get the participants doctrinally closer, they are in no mood to change their minds about their cherished beliefs, not even by their dialogue partners; but it brings them humanly closer. Perhaps my speaking some Urdu had something to do with it, but I found the Ahmadiya hosts a very friendly group, in the sense that I felt like being among friends. The use of personal encounters with people representing other religions, even gravely distrusted ones like Islam, is to remind us that they are not abstract quantities in a discourse on “jihadist infiltration” and “demographic aggression”, but real people.

I get a lot of criticism these days for allegedly going soft on “the threat of Islam”. I remain perfectly aware of the problem that Islam poses. But I insist that any solution must start from the realization that Muslims are human beings who, like the rest of us, have merely developed an identification with the religion they happened to be born into. It is possible to outgrow one’s early conditioning, as I have done to quite an extent. We should not deny them the opportunity to go through a similar growth process, but we should respect their human freedom and capacity to discover the truth for themselves. Underneath the crust of religious doctrine, there is in them the same lava of longing for truth, pushing to break free.

Read more!