Somebodies and Nobodies

Dignity for all.

Some Big, Civilization-shaping Ideas from Religion

Religious proverbs have become woven into the fabric of civilization.

Proverbial Models

In this 7th part of the series, we take a look at some religious proverbs that have become woven into the fabric of civilization: the golden rule, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” “turn the other cheek,” and the idea of universal dignity.

“An eye for an eye” is best understood not as a formula for retribution or punishment, but rather as a simple descriptive model of how humans behave. When we’re injured or abused, our immediate impulse is to do unto the perpetrator what’s been done to us. We call it biblical justice. Often, victims of predation are not satisfied with merely getting even, but rather are inclined to “better the instruction,” as Shylock points out in The Merchant of Venice. Escalation follows. Not to stand up to the perpetrator of a predatory act is to signal weakness and invite a follow-up that may bring death or enslavement.

It may be hard to tell who started a feud because the initial act of predation lies buried in a disputed past and escalation has since blurred the picture. A pattern of reciprocal indignities is what we see today in any number of ongoing conflicts around the world. At some point, it becomes more important to find a way to interrupt the cycle of revenge than to assign blame.

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Attempts to stop cycles of predation by “turning the other cheek” can be suicidal unless they’re part of a broad-based strategy of civil disobedience, and even then can result in great harm to protestors. Religious ideals, decoupled from political pressure, have seldom been enough to prevent predation or to arrest the cycles of vengeance that tend to ensue.

On the other hand, turning the other cheek in the form of forgiveness, and as institutionalized in “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions, is the only thing that can permanently end a cycle of revenge.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule embodies a symmetry reminiscent of those that turn up everywhere in physics models. A variant of the golden rule can be found in virtually every religion, ethical code, or moral philosophy.

Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.
– Hinduism

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
– Buddhism

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
– Confucianism

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
– Judaism

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
– Christianity

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.
– Islam

We should behave to our friends, as we would wish our friends to behave to us.
– Aristotle

Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
– Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Neminem laedere.
– Legal codification of the golden rule, which translates as “general rule of care,” or “hurt no one.”

As in physics, a deviation from symmetry signals the existence of a force that breaks it. Among humans, asymmetries take the form of inequitable or preferential treatment of persons or groups and, as in the physical world, these deviations from the even-handedness implicit in the golden rule reveal the existence of coercion. For example, slavery requires force or the threat of force.

If the most famous formula in physics is E=mc2, then the golden rule, as a formula for reciprocal dignity, is perhaps its religious counterpart, a jewel in the crown of religious insight.

Dignity for All

If the idea of god, as signifying comprehensibility, were not enough to warrant a tip of the hat to religion, the god idea also contains the seeds of the egalitarian notion of universal dignity.

Notwithstanding the fact that religion has often impugned the dignity of adherents to other faiths, it has usually defended the dignity of its own followers. Theistic religions go further and proclaim the existence of a personal, caring god, a father figure who loves all who share the faith, according them equal dignity regardless of status, rank, or role.

The universal equality of dignity is among religion’s most revolutionary ideas. It’s not a description of life as we know it, but rather a prescription for life as it could be. Once formulated, the ideal of “dignity for all” exerts a pull that’s felt in every human interaction. In subsequent posts, I’ll make the case that, despite appearances to the contrary, human behavior is slowly coming into alignment with that prophetic aspirational, religious model.

The need for dignity runs so deep that when our fellow man seems determined to deny it to us, even non-believers may suspend their disbelief. As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Arthur Hugh Clough gives it this comical twist:

And almost every one when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel draws attention to dignity in an even larger sense. As we try to fathom our place in the cosmos, most of us, at one time or another, experience a sense of awe. Heschel interprets awe as an “intuition of the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.”

The intuition of the dignity of all things is tantamount to recognizing that everything has an integral place in the whole, everything belongs and has an indispensable role. There is a perfection to things, not necessarily as they are at the moment, but rather at the next level up—as an inseparable part of the process of becoming. Everything is integral to the process, including our judgments and opinions, positive or negative, about what’s happening. Heschel’s observation recognizes this property of the universe and identifies awe as an appropriate response to the world’s intricate integrity.

Again, it’s now widely acknowledged that religion’s record at upholding dignity is spotty. Religious leaders of every faith have at times sanctioned indignity towards others, persecuting them as infidels, heathens, and heretics.

Science makes as many mistakes as religion, probably more, but it has found a way to rectify them relatively quickly. As a result there are few who doubt its value. In contrast, the proposition that “The world would be better off without religion” has many takers.

Religious models such as monotheism, the golden rule, and universal dignity are pillars of human civilization. Like science models, their strength is due to the truth they embody, and not dependent upon the zeal of “true believers.” A prerequisite to realizing religion’s vision of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” is a new relationship to the idea of belief itself. If you’re wondering about the seemingly intractable problem posed by fundamentalism, the next post is for you.

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Robert W. Fuller, Ph.D., former president of Oberlin College, is an authority on rankism and dignity.

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