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Greatest Insights of the World Religions by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

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Introduction

In August and September 2018, I published a series of articles entitled ‘Greatest Insights of the World Religions’, on the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum Facebook Page. These articles explored seven key insights of seven major world religions. They were the insights I believed were most relevant and useful to modern secular societies, keeping the Secular Liturgies ‘Nine Themes’ in mind. This article brings these Facebook posts together in a single piece.

Here is the line-up of faiths, in descending order of numbers of adherents (see the 2010 Pew Research Centre Study at https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/), with the date on which they were first published on the Secular Liturgies Network page on Facebook. I have also included a section on Reason and Enlightenment also taken from other earlier Facebook posts.

  1. Christianity: Costly Love and Forgiveness (4th August 2018)
  2. Islam: Constant Surrender (8th August)
  3. The Non-Religious: Reason and Enlightenment (19th September)
  4. Hinduism: One Substance, Many Faces (15th August)
  5. Buddhism: Freedom from Suffering (23rd August)
  6. The Folk Religions: Being Human (12th September)
  7. Sikhism: the Warrior Saints (29th August)
  8. Judaism: Speaking Truth to Power (5th September)

While we so often dwell on the negative aspects of traditional religion; its power and control systems, its religious elitism and ‘spiritual’ hierarchies, the dogmatism, the superstition, the psychological abuse and so forth, we often forget that the religions have still contained many ideas, insights and practices which have proven useful to humanity. They are, after all, systems of human thought and behaviour, which have been developed in multiple directions over thousands of years. It would be very cynical indeed to write them off entirely. Thus, the Network takes both an open and critical approach, which appreciates and repurposes the insights of all faiths and philosophical traditions, while acknowledging their weaknesses and flaws.

The philosophical perspectives and practical wisdom discussed below, stand independently of the other, less admirable, aspects of the religions. They are of as much use to atheists, humanists, secularists, religious progressives and the nonreligious, as they are to those who are still religious in the traditional sense. Indeed, I venture to suggest that we might make much better use of the beneficial ideas and practices that have developed in religious cultures.

Each religion has many useful insights and practices of course, but for the sake of brevity, I will focus only on the greatest of these, and on the insight which gives each religion its distinctive flavour.

1.   Christianity: Costly Love and Forgiveness

In the Christian faith, ‘God’ is love, and although, for most Christians, God is also a supernatural being and creator of the universe, ‘God’ may just as easily be defined entirely naturalistically as everything in reality which we hold in awe and wonder and should devote ourselves to, love being one of those things.  Perhaps the greatest insight of Christianity is that this ultimate reality, this divine love, is costly, sometimes very costly. It is certainly not a matter of the cheap sentiment to which the word is so often reduced. Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi who was posthumously made the ‘Christ’ of Christianity, came to lose his life because he loved his people, the poor of Judea, enough to risk everything in the struggle to free them from oppression, injustice and poverty. He hoped to save them from the political and religious authorities they were suffering under, but since he was powerless to liberate their bodies, his teachings focused instead on liberating their minds and hearts. Eventually, those political and religious authorities had him put to death.

Real love takes such risks. Rather than standing by in self-righteous judgement, it gets its hands dirty in the political and business affairs of human life. It has the humility to acknowledge its mistakes and failings, and the tenacity to keep on trying to do better. True love stands the test of time, enduring many troubles, and resists the temptation of excess, during times of prosperity and privilege. Real love is generous with time and money, taking pleasure in the success and happiness of others. It is forgiving of its own and other people’s weaknesses. Jesus may not have ‘died for my sins, to save me from the wrath of God’, or to ‘guarantee my entrance into heaven’, but the way he chose to live his life is nonetheless, a fine example of the kind of love to which I aspire.

Though I may not be a ‘Christian’, in the sense of believing a certain set of doctrines, I do still occasionally wear a hidden cross because it reminds me of ALL those who have truly loved to the point of great personal sacrifice, and of the many who have died for their cause or their people. The cross belongs to us all. It reminds us of what this love really is that we all crave so much both to give and to receive – a love that requires empathy, sacrifice, forgiveness and struggle, and which, when it achieves its noble ends or is reciprocated, makes our suffering and pain in this world worthwhile.

Another word we hear Christians use a lot in addition to ‘love’ is ‘forgiveness’. However, many Christians become confused about what it means to forgive. What results, is a kind of cheap notion of forgiveness, the sort of cringe-worthy forgiveness so many Christians talk about in the wake of tragedies. This kind of forgiveness requires those wronged to say and act as if they have ridden themselves of all negative feelings towards (and even been reconciled to) those who have done them wrong, even when the wrongdoer is unrepentant, and even when the wrongdoer continues to harm them and others. This is not real forgiveness. It is, however, a very damaging act of self-deception.

True forgiveness, of the kind that Jesus taught, is far more costly. It requires us to fully acknowledge our pain and anger at how we have been harmed and accept it as justified. We must refrain from denying and suppressing it in unhealthy, dishonest ways. It then requires us to learn how to voice and release our hurt and anger in ways that will lead to our healing and the healing of those around us. It requires us to view a perpetrator as a human, just like us, with weaknesses, flaws and delusions, and subject from the moment of conception to machinations of the universe beyond the control of any living being. It requires us to plumb the depths of their pain as well as our own, and to mourn over their damaged mind, broken life, and slavery to negative emotion, as much as we mourn over our own. It requires us to look at ourselves, and the times we have wronged others, and to reflect upon how we should forgive because we would like others to forgive us. Jesus wasn’t sitting in an armchair in the developed free world, pontificating about how others ought to forgive! He was poor, his life was in danger, and he was engaged in a constant struggle to understand why his world was so full of suffering and injustice and to find some sense of peace – an inward acceptance of things and people as they were – while simultaneously trying to change them for the better.

In very serious cases, it will only be psychologically possible (and morally acceptable) to forgive in the fullest sense, when a person is no longer abusing or harming us or those we love, and when they are repentant and remorseful about what they have done. There are also crimes, which many people may rightly feel are ‘unforgivable’, even while they may still work to release their negative emotions for the sake of their own health, and even though they may uphold a system which leaves it to a neutral judge to decide that person’s punishment and fate. No onlooker has the right to judge victims in such cases and expect them to forgive. Surely, the only right action in tragic cases, such as those where a heinous crime has been committed, is to help victims to channel their pain into actions that will give them a sense that they can at least begin to heal, and that their lives can still be full of meaning and love in spite of their continued suffering.

While a costly forgiveness may, in time, lead to us being free from negative emotions towards people who have done us wrong, it certainly does not require us to be reconciled to them. On the contrary, it may require that we keep well away from a person indefinitely, for the sake of the health and wellbeing of ourselves and those close to us. We may still hope in such cases that the person may one day learn the error of their ways and seek forgiveness and friendship. Where a person hasn’t committed terrible crimes or serial abuse, one does not like to give up them entirely.

In general, we are now living in very unforgiving times. There is a lot of anger and hatred expressed both in the real and virtual environments. Everyone feels aggrieved in some sense or another and wants their pound of flesh, and no one will be satisfied until they have it – and even then, they will not be satisfied! The old saying that unforgiveness is much more harmful to the victim than the perpetrator rings true here. It is also true that much hatred these days is woefully misplaced. The wrong people are repeatedly blamed for the wrong things, such as we have seen with the scapegoating of immigrants. We are also living in times where a minor transgression or difference of opinion between strangers, acquaintances, friends, colleagues, neighbours or even family members, that once might have led to a brief hostile exchange that was just as quickly forgotten, may be enough to send one or more parties into a rage and hatred that never really dies.

I hope that humans will learn how to love and forgive again, in the costly way, and be much more understanding of one another’s fragile humanity and trivial differences. I hope that secular liturgical events will facilitate the practice of forgiveness in ways that will help us to heal inwardly, and help our relationships to heal. I hope that our secular values will help to bring about kinder, more honest, and more compassionate societies.

2.   Islam: Constant Surrender

Islam is the second most popular of the religions. It teaches that one must continually surrender every aspect of oneself to a greater reality they call Allah (God), who is said to be the ultimate truth and source of the universe. Its claim is that we find peace in this surrender, and that when we elevate ourselves over Allah, we suffer, and cause others to suffer. Muslims pray five times a day (Salat), reminding themselves constantly to surrender. Thus, Islam recognises the deep truth that we are weak, changeable, forgetful, contrary and ultimately flawed beings, and that we often do best when we continually surrender and devote ourselves to forces of good that are better and stronger than we can ever be as individuals, communities or even as nations.

The rituals and ‘legalism’ of Islamic practice is often criticised because far from encouraging humility, such practices often serve to instil a false sense of holiness or righteousness in followers. Religious authorities who assert themselves as the interpreters of God’s will, may use this emphasis on submission to tightly control and indoctrinate large numbers of people. However, the regular practices and rituals of Islam can equally be used to instil humility, and reflective, self-critical thought in followers. They have the potential to give ordinary people a space to cultivate greater autonomy over their own beliefs, through which they might challenge the powers that be. Whatever the original intentions of the Prophet Muhammad (about which there is much debate), there is no reason why Islamic practices should not be interpreted or reinterpreted in a positive way, and in a way, which eventually prevails as the essence of the religion.

Interestingly, the same principle of constant surrender to a ‘higher power’ lies behind the 12 Steps Programme for addicts and sufferers of eating disorders, and has a strong track-record of success in treating these conditions (though this course takes inspiration from Christianity rather than Islam). Frequently renewing trust in a force for good that we cannot ultimately control or infect in any way with our human madness, can free us from a great deal of anxiety and inner turmoil. This ‘letting go’ (copied in a secular context to some extent by the popular ‘Fuck It’ philosophy), allows our bodies and minds to heal of their own accord, since there really are beneficial forces at play in the world, many of them unconscious, like the body’s natural mechanisms to heal and restore itself.

Then there are of course the consciously beneficial forces of human-led movements, which demonstrate compassion and justice. We can support these more effectively if we have the confidence that whatever happens to them – whatever defeats or suppressions they suffer – the good that they endeavour to uphold, will never be ultimately defeated because it is somehow eternal. There will always be those willing to fight for it. It will always live on in someone, somewhere. When we focus our attention and practice dependence upon a good that is greater than ourselves – such as when we join with others in the struggle for a noble cause – we stop our constant pathological meddling with what is already fine as it is and should be left well alone, and we learn to direct our energies instead towards more productive and rewarding activities.

In spite of all that we see in the media about Islam’s fundamentalism, social conservatism and extremism, there are helpful ideas within its philosophy, which evolved to meet human psychological needs, and there is a great deal of potential for reform. More enlightened schools of Islamic thought have been dormant in recent years, persecuted and overshadowed by the darkness of fundamentalist forces, but they are yet being kept alive by some of the bravest and most admirable people on earth – minority Muslim cultures and Muslims seeking reform – and these are people who deserve our admiration and support. Islam is an optimistic religion, which chooses to trust that what is true and good is eternal, and I for one, will continue to hope that the light of a scholarly, egalitarian and compassionate Islam will one day shine into every corner of the Islamic world.

3.   The Nonreligious: Reason and Enlightenment

Religion is declining in Britain but according to a large study by the Pew Research Centre in 2010, 6.1 billion (or 84%), of earth’s 7.3 billion people, were found to be religiously affiliated (The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan American fact tank, see http://www.pewforum.org/for details of the study). This number will have since grown, not so much because of conversion rates but due to higher birth rates in religious societies that outpace religious decline in, for example, Western Europe. There will also be those who did not claim religious affiliation but who still hold religious beliefs such as belief in God, and practice aspects of religion such as prayer. It is important to remember this because in spite of the inadequacies of these surveys, they do illustrate just how far we still have to go in terms of teaching the world’s children a rational approach to knowledge that will safeguard them against superstition, dogmatism and all the negative consequences of traditional religious belief.

And it really does have to be taught! The human mind, right from early childhood, is inclined to perceive agency where there is none and to explain what are essentially random/unconscious happenings as having been caused, willed, aided or interfered with by ‘persons’, whether mortal or divine. Children are alarmingly quick to believe in magical beings, and it is many years before they have enough experience of the world to be able, confidently, to differentiate fact from fiction. Their brains are statistical machines, which reason inductively, and which therefore need to process a lot of information before they can be convinced that, for example, the monsters people have invented, do not actually exist, and nor does the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas. It also takes them longer than necessary to develop a rational approach to knowledge because of the fact that many adults confuse them with contradictory beliefs and behaviours. Many adults talk about supernatural beings on a regular basis and either suggest or state openly that these exist. This presents as evidence to the very young because, in general, adults tell them the truth, and in fact, in matters of both survival and flourishing, children rely on them to do so.

Billions of adults, in spite of having lived longer and experienced with their own senses that magical and supernatural beings do not exist and that miraculous occurrences do not happen, nonetheless still believe in them. They do so for several reasons. Some have a strong underlying desire to believe them and thus convince themselves of their existence because it makes life seem more interesting, exciting and eventful. Others go a long way to convincing themselves of the existence of the supernatural because belief in such things happens to be very convenient for them in furthering their cause, holding on to power or pursuing their selfish ends (hence why the greatest proponents of religion have usually been privileged males). After all, it would have taken an unusually humble person to be born a monarch but then not to believe in the ‘divine right of kings’! Getting others to believe in the supernatural makes them fearful, and this fear has proved throughout human history to be the perfect tool for influencing and controlling people, most often for the purposes of obtaining power, adulation, wealth and sex. Today’s supposed ‘faith healers’ are a prime example of this kind of deception, often combined with varying degrees of self-deception as well.

Then there are the many adults who believe in the supernatural because they have experienced something strange or coincidental that they cannot explain with the limited number of natural processes they are aware of. Consequently, they put these experiences down to supernatural interference. While an adult may be able to reason deductively that one, add one, equals two, the same adult may find in incredibly difficult to get their head around anomalies, statistical complexities and advanced science. They will often find it much easier and much more convenient to lay the praise or blame for anything unusual on a divine or devilish being. The tabloids of course depend on the average person’s poor grasp of statistics, since they use numbers in ways which deliberately stir powerful emotions that have an addictive quality – sensation sells!

Others believe in the supernatural because it is their only hope after all other solutions or cures for their ills have been exhausted. Whatever the reasons, belief in the supernatural arises from flawed assumptions, and from the weaknesses, imperfections and cognitive biases of our human brains. The insight that they are all flawed presents us with our greatest opportunity for evolution yet. If the majority of the world’s population can learn to think critically, to be aware of their cognitive biases (and how to overcome them) and their innermost desires, and if they can learn to manage their emotions so that their judgments are not so often clouded by them, the world would surely be a much better place. If artificial intelligence can help humans to achieve this, without harming us in the process, then the more the better.

Reason does of course have limits (at least as a tool used by humans). After all, one can reason one’s way into a dystopia, as so many religious fundamentalists do, by developing an internal coherence to their world-view which makes sense as long as no one questions the erroneous assumptions on which their world-view is based. This is why it is important to point out that our emotions and intuitions can sometimes guide us to more reasonable behaviour and more reasonable conclusions, when our heads have become hopelessly muddled. I have met so many people who have left conservative or fundamentalist religion, not because they first reasoned their way out (though that came later) but because they felt increasingly uncomfortable with elements of dogma and/or practices based on dogma that were overly harsh or cruel or biased in favour of one type of person or another. Occasionally, even a dogmatic hard-liner will, when faced with carrying out a cruel act his beliefs require of him, experience pangs of human empathy and possibly refrain from carrying it out. Sometimes our emotions can help us to remember a higher reasoning, in this case, one which understands that acting mercifully to others will make for a better world for everyone, including ourselves and our own loved ones. A higher reason remembers that cruelty brings no lasting benefit to us – or to the people we care about – because it does harm to our own psychology, and if we ‘live by the sword’, so the saying goes, we will die by it. Thus, reason must take our emotions into account because our emotions might be revealing something about ourselves or the world that we have forgotten or failed to noticed.

In a previous article, I wrote about now we might indulge, in a managed sort of way, in our irrational natures, through literature, music, and the arts in general – where we can explore worlds of the imagination. We might also bask in the ‘specialness’ of our liturgical events, expressing our sense of awe in all sorts of literary and ritualistic ways. However, all of us need to learn to better understand our emotions and irrational natures, and the reasons why we have evolved this way, so that we can use our feelings, desires and consciences as useful cues and reminders, without letting them get the better of us.

Meanwhile, scientific reasoning, while it may allow us to travel in space, also allows us to make bombs that can destroy our whole planet and humanity along with it. This is why it is so important for our species to understand its own mind (with all its cognitive biases), and its own history, cultures and philosophies, and to be able to apply this knowledge and wisdom to our scientific endeavours. The humanities have been undervalued in recent times, and standards or opportunities for education in subjects like languages, literature, history, politics, philosophy and economics have in some schools and colleges dropped significantly below what they should be. Meanwhile, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been placed on a pedestal and given priority in terms of funding. It is my view that we create this imbalance at our peril.

Only a robust education in the humanities, and a thriving arts and culture sector, can give us the perspective and understanding of ourselves that we need to steer our future endeavours, including our scientific ones, in the right direction. If development in STEM is not matched worldwide by cultural and ethical development, then our future, indeed our very survival, will become increasingly untenable. Some would argue that it is already too late, that we have put economic growth before culture, ethics and wellbeing for so long that our environment has been destroyed and is now beyond salvaging. Our ability to make and sell ever more stuff, and our inability to put people before profits, may well turn out to be our undoing.

4.   Hinduism: One Substance, Many Faces

Hinduism, is the world’s oldest surviving religion, a religion that has evolved over millennia, and which contains numerous schools of thought and divergent traditions. It is primarily concerned with the ways in which we might understand and connect with the deep essence of humanity and the universe, that which is eternal, and beyond our thoughts, feelings and memories. This ultimate reality, truth, or divine essence, is known as Brahman (God), and Hindus believe that within each of us, is a spark of this eternal essence, which one might call ‘soul’ or in Sanskrit, ‘Atman’, who is the ‘unseen seer’ or the ‘unthought thinker’ (Advaita Vedanta tradition). While on the surface, human beings and other living creatures are individual and finite, our true natures are part of an infinite, divine and eternal reality.

The distinctive genius of Hinduism, its sophisticated polytheism, is often mistakenly thought to be its greatest weakness by adherents of the younger, monotheistic traditions. The latter tend to see themselves as having moved beyond polytheism, to a more enlightened understanding of the divine. Hindus, however, understand that precisely because (on the surface at least) we are finite beings who are limited to specific times, places and capacities for understanding – not to mention swept along by changing circumstances that we cannot control – we can only interface with one, or a mere few, aspects of the divine at any one time. We are also highly social beings who relate to persons and therefore need to personify those eternal qualities we call ‘God’. As physical beings who relate to the world through our senses, we can only gain knowledge of this ‘God’, or ultimate reality, through images, smells, sounds, tastes and textures, and as emotional beings, we are moved more by poetry and other literary conceptions of divinity, than some abstract idea, argument or doctrine of ‘God’.

It is this same insight, which later inspired the development of Trinitarian theology in Christianity, especially with regard to the human incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, who made the indefinable YHWH of Judaism more visible, tangible and relatable. It is the reason for the proliferation of saints and the near deification of Mary in Roman Catholicism, and the reason why Catholic and Orthodox Christians pray before icons and statues. However, Hinduism has by far the most incarnations and expressions with its 33 million ‘Gods’, and, in some estimations, its thousand or more Hindu festivals, not to mention its multitude of rituals, many of which are extraordinarily elaborate.

A Protestant/Reformed Christian who has endured a bad relationship with his/her father (or other male authority figure), may struggle his/her whole life with the idea of God as ‘Father’, and a human born female in such a culture, with its stark gender distinctions, may never fully relate to the male conceptions of God in the monotheistic traditions. However, a Hindu may turn to female representations or incarnations of divinity, Gods conceived of as sisters, mothers or simply as powerful women. While there are Gods such as Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Preserver), there are also Goddesses such as Saraswati (Goddess of learning, wisdom, speech, and music) and Lakshmi (Goddess of good fortune, wealth, and well-being) and many, many more Gods, enough perhaps, to appeal to every individual and section of society. The essence of God in Hinduism is not constrained to one conception of divinity that will invariably reflect the dominant, most privileged gender or class of society, though of course in practice, there is considerable bias towards male forms, with male gods being the most powerful and important in popular culture, reflecting the dominance of men in Indian society.

Thus, the Hindu Gods represent many different aspects or faces of the divine or eternal, though these Gods and their backstories inevitably reflect the prejudices of the societies that invented them, and often serve to reinforce the endemic class and gender stereotypes and prejudices in Hindu societies, not to mention superstitious thinking! However, the panoply of Gods does help millions of people to remember important principles and re-commit to the pursuit of noble goals. They also help people to comprehend and express eternal truths in physical ways, through daily rituals, seasonal festivities and frequent pilgrimage. After all, we are physical beings and need to engage our bodies as well as our minds, if we are to truly experience or understand anything at all. Some Western religious and philosophical traditions are very good at rationalisation but less good at this holistic approach to human learning and expression.

Followers of Hinduism can choose to approach the eternal by contemplating the representation or personification of divinity that they can best relate to, depending on their specific circumstances, needs and yearnings. They can choose an object of devotion to suit their state of mind, family heritage, or simply, the whim of the moment. They can be limitlessly creative in their own representations of the divine, even incorporating other people’s deities, prophets and saints into the pantheon, and into the family or community shrine. It is no wonder that Hindu cultures are some of the most colourful and diverse on earth.

5.   Buddhism: Freedom from Suffering

In the previous section we looked at Hinduism, which is often said to be more of a shared culture (arguably containing many religions) rather than one distinct religion. The word ‘Hinduism’, after all, is used in the West as an umbrella term to refer to almost all the schools and traditions of philosophy, belief and practice, which developed in South Asia, and which are seen to share certain characteristics. This week we will look at Buddhism, which also developed in that region before spreading Eastwards but which is often (especially in the West), thought to be more a philosophy than a religion because it is better known for its distinctive way of thinking about the world rather than for a statement of belief or sacred text. This worldview (or the basic teachings of the Buddha), are summed up in the Three Universal Truths, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (The Dharma).

However, in many of the traditions of both Hinduism and Buddhism, adherents do share much in common with those of the Judeo-Christian traditions, including belief in the supernatural and accompanying superstitions, ritual practices, deference to religious authorities/hierarchies, sacred places for worship, prayer and devotion, and therefore, many of the things that we think of when we use the term ‘religion’. In fact, in many parts of the world, in spite of the philosophy and teachings of the Buddha, Buddhists tend to have a far more ‘enchanted’ view of the world than, for example, many Christians in the post-enlightenment West. The difference is that while practising Hindus and Buddhists (in general), focus primarily on ‘rightness’ of their practices (orthopraxy) rather than on doctrine, and the ‘rightness’ of their beliefs (orthodoxy), practising Christians and Muslims are more concerned with the latter.

Interestingly, as an aside, the extent to which a person is either open-minded or dogmatic about their religious beliefs and practices is now thought to be more closely linked to personality traits, some of which are innate, than to the specific religion or culture they grew up in. Therefore, while a naturally ‘binary’, rule-driven person will become unbearably strict and intractable if his/her culture and religion is conducive to it, he/she will still, in an open, liberal society, find some way to be dogmatic, even if it is just about football or the proper way to wash dishes! Equally, a more questioning and subtle thinking person born in a strict religious culture is likely to be one of those who keeps out of religious leadership affairs and either complies with the hard rules to survive, while being a little creative with any other rules, or takes a stand and becomes a reformer. This certainly rings true in my experience – some people are just naturally more dogmatic and/or superstitious than others. Of course, in this series, we are putting the superstitious and dogmatic aspects of religions to one side for a moment, and considering only the important insights that remain relevant to modern secular societies.

Buddhism’s greatest insights are about the universal nature of suffering (Dukkha) and the means with which we can free ourselves from it. It asserts that all life is suffering, since we constantly experience cravings for what we do not have, desires to change things that are, and attachments that compel us to cling to things that are changing. Thus, we do not accept the universe as it is. Our minds are very often in the past, plagued by regret and anger, or in the future, tormented by anxiety (all those ‘what ifs’), and yearning. We find ourselves often weighed down by grief over loss, saddened by the ills of the world (or simply by its imperfections), consumed by physical pain, or seething with jealousy towards those who have more. Even when our minds are relatively peaceful, we are never entirely free from an underlying discontent. Even our happiest moments are tinged with an ‘uneasy feeling’, partly overshadowed by a sorrow in the background, or brought to a sudden end by an intrusive sense of impending doom.

The suffering we experience is not, in Buddhist thought, the result of original sin, or a fallen world, or the just punishment of God for human disobedience – though many Buddhists do believe that misfortunes of birth are due to evil deeds in past lives, and many do believe in the interference of malevolent spirits. Rather, suffering is due to a lack of control over our minds, our thoughts and our emotional states, something that will continue to ruin our chance of happiness, unless of course, we practice meditation. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation is the key to freeing ourselves from suffering and from a cycle of death and rebirth.

The techniques of mindfulness meditation can bring our minds back to the present so that instead of resisting what is, we come to an acceptance of it, and of the fact that we, like everything else in the universe, are changing, impermanent, and swept along on a tide of thoughts and emotions. By focussing on the present, and on the reality that we can immediately experience with one or more of our five senses, we can become aware of our internal chatter, which is often at odds with reality, and thus gain some perspective on it. By watching a flame, or drawing our awareness to our own bodily sensations, such as our breath (or whatever works for us), for longer and longer periods, we can learn to gain this perspective much more often. Then, we can begin to direct our thoughts and emotions increasingly towards a position of neutrality, remembering that much of what goes on in the world is, in a deep sense, random, and completely indifferent to our wellbeing.

More advanced meditations can help us to replace negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones. Some have complex visualisations, in which, for example, we imagine negative emotions leaving us as dark smoke from the tops of our heads, or in which we imagine the compassion of Buddha opening like a lotus flower within our hearts. As we practice meditation, we get better and better at noticing when our mind and emotions wander from our neutral focus on the things ‘are’ around us, or from our positive visualisations. We become more expert at gently bringing our thoughts back to the object of focus, until eventually, we are able to maintain a state of calm alertness and positive focus in ordinary daily life.

In Buddhist philosophy, we are not born sinful but are corrupted after birth by the evils and ignorance already in the world around us, which makes us desire things that are not in our real long-term interests. This begs the question of whether the Buddhist practice of acceptance encourages Buddhists to acquiesce in the evils of the world. However, the reality is that Buddhists do believe they should act in ways to bring an end to the ills and injustices in the world but that they should start with themselves, in the belief that by surpassing the ‘self’ and demonstrating the benefits of this, others will follow their example, and eventually, the whole world will become a kinder, more compassionate place. This partly explains the ascetic lifestyles of many Buddhist monks and nuns, in which they set themselves apart from wider society with its distractions and temptations, and it explains why Buddhists do not generally proselytise in the more aggressive manner of Muslims or Christians.

Buddhists uphold a more controversial belief that the practice of meditation can eventually lead to an end to our suffering, and bring us to a state of liberation or enlightenment. Some Buddhists have claimed that the Buddha and certain senior monks have achieved such as state, though many Buddhists would disagree with them. Science has shown that there are beneficial physiological changes, which can be brought about by meditation, such as reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and that with frequent and prolonged meditation, some of these benefits can be maintained to some extent in ordinary life. However, it is highly debatable, as to whether anyone can truly free themselves from all suffering, or whether anyone can maintain a permanent state of compassion towards others and themselves (or even whether they should!).

There is a substantial body of evidence, however, to support the benefits of mindfulness meditation for mental health. Indeed, it is recommended by NICE as a preventative treatment for those with recurrent depression. It is also recommended by GPs, used in workplaces and prisons, and now in schools, where it helps children and young people to manage anxiety and depression, and calms the behaviour of children with ADHD.

Thus, Buddhism, not only reminds us of the universal nature of suffering, which is a rather bleak but accurate picture of the world, but it also provides us with tools to alleviate our suffering and to keep our minds healthy, peaceful, and resilient, in spite of our troubled and chaotic world. Meditation is definitely a practice that secular societies should embrace, and which should form an important part of our secular liturgies, especially liturgies written specifically for events to do with health and wellbeing. Literary ‘meditations’, guided meditations, and meditative activities or mindful rituals, such as the Tea Ceremony and Thai Chi (so not necessarily activities that are purely Buddhist!), can be easily integrated into secular liturgical events for both their health-giving and aesthetic properties.

6.   The Folk Religions: Being Human

Our focus now moves to an insight that all the folk religions have in common, religions such as Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese traditional religion, African traditional religion, Spiritism, and many of the ethnic and indigenous religions. It is an insight into what it means to be both rational and irrational creatures. Every established faith also has its variants of folk religion because the impulses that underlie it are universal, e.g. folk Catholicism and folk Islam. Indeed, all the world’s religions grew out of folk religious feeling and practice. Folk religion, is the kind of religion, which springs naturally from our need to express our emotions and our irrational impulses, in ritualistic, oral and artistic ways, to suit our particular context and circumstances. Some of you will have read my posts on the ‘Rites of Passage’ series that was shown on ITV, presented by Grayson Perry, which vividly illustrated the universally human impulse towards folk religion, and showed that even in secular societies, where established or popular religion no longer exists, people still create their own religious beliefs and rituals at times of great joy or pain.

While we may rightly guard against superstition, and the dark undercurrents of fear, control and abuse that folk religion can inevitably bring with it, going to the other extreme of denying or suppressing our irrational natures proves unhealthy also. Instead, it may be wiser to manage this aspect of our being, by allowing ourselves some harmless indulgences that may provide temporary relief in difficult situations, through the release of uncomfortable emotions. For example, I may allow myself to act on a compulsion to pray for something I desperately need, or that I want so badly that I can hardly bear to be without it. One might do so, as if one believes some divine being were listening, and yet, for all other intents and purposes act on the assumption that no such being exists.

As I wrote in a previous post, even atheists have been known to talk to ‘God’ in moments of despair or other powerful emotion. In such cases, God, as an imaginary being, or personification of all that they value most in reality, provides a valuable moment of relief. After all, we use literary and self-help devices to trick the mind for positive purposes in all sorts of other contexts, in order to increase our happiness, confidence and success in life, and in order to cope with anxiety, danger, suffering and loss. Thus, I may place a picture of someone I love who has died on the wall, light a candle beneath it, adorn it with flowers, and speak to it as if the dead can hear, even while my rational mind knows that in reality, no one is listening. I may allow myself to wear a necklace that I wore in a time of good fortune, hoping it will bring me luck, even though my rational mind knows that such things have no power whatsoever, apart from the power to give me a momentary feeling of comfort or confidence. This last act is of course a great favourite among competitive sports people, and mascots and talismans in general, are still popular the world over for times of challenge and danger.

However rational we consider ourselves, we still desire to make the most emotionally significant moments in our lives special, and this impulse is at the heart of folk religion. Therefore, our marriages, births, deaths and changing seasons are punctuated by rituals, formal words, and often a ‘sacred’ significance. By ‘sacred’, we may simply mean filled with awe, self-transcendence, and a sense that something profound has taken place. These feelings underpin belief in the divine, as a supernatural entity, reality or presence, but they need not lead to such a belief. There are other ways of expressing such experiences, which do not imply such a being exists.

When we no longer experience these occasions of shared celebration and ritual, we lose much of the company of others with all the pleasures that brings, and we lose valuable opportunities to connect and bond with others. A vital means of facilitating face-to-face social interaction is no more. We also lose a wealth of personal and collective memories, a richness of culture, language and the arts, and a sense of personal and collective identity and purpose. Principles, both personal and collective, also erode in isolation from community. In modern, secular societies, we have already suffered a great loss in these areas, and it was partly a sense of this loss, which compelled me to launch the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum.

Looking in greater depth at just one aspect of folk religion, ancestor worship, we discover how it is essentially a means by which humans cope with the death of loved ones and find a way of frequently remembering and expressing their love for those who have died. Through reverence for ancestors, humans learn to understand and remember their heritage. They become better able to pass on their history and the wisdom of several generations to their children. In contrast, in 21st Century developed nations, we have become very good at forgetting where we have come from, which may condemn us to the fate of repeating the mistakes of the past. Our lives are to some degree impoverished, in terms of our sense of identity and place in the world. Modern societies are so fractured and families so spread out that many of us barely knew, or barely remember our grandparents, let alone our great grandparents and more distant ancestors. We often live far away from extended family, and our cultures have normalised the nuclear family as their primary social unit. This is no doubt why, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of people of all ages researching their family trees, and watching programmes like the BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’, in an effort to rediscover their family history and cultural heritage. People sense that they have lost something basic to their sense of identity and purpose.

Meanwhile, those who worship their ancestors remember a great many things, often through oral storytelling traditions, though admittedly, some of it will be myth and legend, rather than true history. Mind you, even the myths and legends, can reveal a lot about our ancestors and what was important to them! The folk religious show far greater interest in their families and their community heritage and identity. A stronger identity is often associated with tribalism, and therefore with greater prejudice, conformism and small-mindedness but these things are not a necessary consequence of being aware of our heritage. We can learn from how the folk religious value the past as a major part of (and explanation for) what they are today, and from how they respect and care for the elderly, the purveyors of history, which is something we could learn to do much better, especially with our ageing populations. We can learn to take inspiration from our past, recognising both the strengths and weaknesses of our ancestors, and applying this knowledge in ways that would benefit us today.

7.   Sikhism: the Warrior Saints

It amazed me when I first learned that many people mistake Sikhs for Muslims. After all, I grew up in London where diversity was the norm, and no one I knew had any trouble distinguishing between different religions and ethnic groups. However, even so, my knowledge of Sikhism was limited to a few key facts. I was immediately able to recognise the Sikh turban, worn by both male and sometimes female children at my schools. I was intrigued, and I must admit slightly envious, of the sword they carried when in ceremonial dress, and I was aware that they worshipped in a Gurdwara, followed the teachings of Guru Nanak and believed in one God (monotheism).

I was also vaguely aware of the fact that their sacred text (The Guru Granth Sahib, compiled in 1604 by the 5th Guru, with contributions (many of which are poetic) from Sikh and Hindu gurus and Sufi mystics.) and doctrines were generally thought to be unusually egalitarian, largely because many of their predecessors had rebelled against the supremacy of the Brahmin priestly caste of Hinduism and against persecution at the hands of the Muslims during Mughal rule. It was no doubt their success as a mercantile class, and the fact many of them had also come from India’s military/warrior caste, the Khatris (just one bellow the Brahmins), which gave them the confidence to stand their ground.

However, I was also conscious of the fact that in spite of a theoretical equality of all people before God, men still played all the major roles in Sikh rituals and dominated the positions of spiritual/religious authority. Sikh communities also remained blighted by gender inequality, violence against women, female foeticide, and the endemic caste discrimination that was rife in the wider Hindu and Muslim cultures. Though there may have been the potential, theoretically, for a truly egalitarian religion based on the Sikh texts and teachings, it had not been realised, due to the social conservatism, inequality and wider patriarchal culture of which Sikhs were a part, and the consequential lack of a feminist interpretation of the religious texts. There remains a discord between Sikh belief in equality and its actual practice to this day. However, it is heartening to see an increasing focus on the egalitarian nature of the doctrines and on feminist interpretations, and gathering pressure for more female spiritual leadership, including female leadership of Sikh rituals, and a drive to eliminate discrimination and violence towards women and girls.

It seemed to me, when I started writing, as if this great potential for Sikh egalitarian and feminist thinking was the obvious choice when writing about the greatest insight of the religion. However, on second thoughts, why should this be? Is it not a simple ‘no brainer’ for modern societies that human beings should be considered equal regardless of gender and class? Was it even such a great insight at the time of the Sikh Gurus? Surely any man of intelligence at any time and place in history would have been sensitive to the unfairness and injustices towards women and the lower classes, even if he was unwilling or unable to change them. Indeed, in spite of indoctrination, there have always been men of intelligence and sensitivity who have known that women and people of lower caste, when given half the chance, were capable and worthy of all the things privileged men did, and that we all deserve equal respect as sentient beings. As a historian, I have never bought into the view that people were simply ignorant ‘men or women of their time’, and therefore somehow innocent of the injustice. Cruelty and injustice to women and girls was indeed normalised, but it was still cruelty and injustice, which many were aware of but chose to ignore or collude with for their own ends. The egalitarian approach of Sikhism is less a deep insight than it is the admission of a few men that people are equal because they themselves, and their kin – a comparatively privileged class of people – had experienced life at the sharp end of discrimination and had had to acknowledge it. However, the Sikhs do have one of the finest cultural expressions of equality in the Langar (kitchen), where a free meal is served to all the visitors of the Gurdwara, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity, and this must indeed be admired. The meal is always vegetarian in order not to exclude vegetarian Hindus and Buddhists, and people sit on the floor together to eat, served by a team of Sikh community volunteers.

The insight of Sikhism that I have chosen to highlight, which also in theory (if not always in practice) includes both men and women of all castes, is the idea that all members of the community are warrior saints. The name Khalsa (the pure), refers to a special group of initiated Sikh warriors (the first were baptised by Guru Gobind Singh in a special ceremony and dedicated to the protection of the innocent from religious oppression during Mughal rule) but it also refers to the wider Sikh community. Special Khalsa warriors wear and carry the five Ks (uncut hair, a wooden comb, an iron/steel bracelet, a special undergarment and a dagger) and conform to the four prohibitions in which they promise not to disturb the natural growth of their hair, not to eat meat of any animal slaughtered according to Muslim rituals, not to cohabit with a person other than their spouse, and not to use tobacco or alcohol.

However, while the ceremonial dress is undeniably beautiful, it is neither the dress nor the puritanical rules that interest me primarily here, it is the underlying insight, still relevant to us today, that life is a struggle, a fight against the hostility that will always encroach on the innocent if they are left unguarded. Rather than the supine pacifism, which some religious groups go in for, Sikhs exemplify a brave readiness to face danger, and to use force to protect what is dearest to them, while nonetheless being reluctant to use violence and taking no pleasure in it, using it only as a last resort for defensive rather than aggressive purposes. There are of course reasonable and brave versions of pacifism that require people to put themselves in danger, yet without carrying arms, but they rarely take fully into account the relentless pursuit of power and the thirst for violence that characterises our species, and which must be resisted by those who have learnt to subdue those crueller, baser instincts.

Therefore, while I think gender and class equality is too obvious to be called a great insight, a definition of the perfect balance in any given situation, which avoids both an uncontrolled and unjustified aggression, and the kind of extreme pacifism that amounts to a ‘sin of omission’ or a cover for cowardice, has always been a great moral challenge for humanity, but Sikhism appears to have made a good shot at it. This balance remains a subject of much debate in modern secular states, where people are often polarised over issues of military spending and nuclear weapons, and where the true geopolitical picture is often extremely complex and muddied by all sorts of conflicts and alignments of interests that many ordinary citizens know little about. It is commonly understood among Sikhs, that as a Khalsa, one is enjoined to be honest, to treat everyone as equal, to meditate on God, to maintain one’s fidelity, and to resist tyranny and the religious persecution of oneself and others. This stance is one that is fundamentally peaceful and inclusive, and yet it includes a strength and preparedness for active resistance to political or religious oppression. It is one whose wisdom has echoed down the ages, and is perhaps the closest we can get to a general principle when it comes to the use of force.

8.   Judaism: Speaking Truth to Power

When people think of what makes Judaism distinct from the religions that came before it, they generally point to its claim that there is only one God – one ultimate source of all that exists. From our perspective centuries later, this claim appears to have stood in stark contrast to the surrounding religions of Egypt, Rome and Greece, which featured many deities. However, as we have seen, earlier religions also had various kinds of monotheism including several denominations of Hinduism, the Aten cult of ancient Egypt and Zoroastrianism. Some had an exclusive monotheism (belief in only one God, all others are false), some a polymorphic monotheism (belief in a single deity who takes many forms) and others a henotheism (devotion to one God while recognising other people’s Gods exist). Indeed, even among the Israelites, it took hundreds of years of repeated assertions that their God was supreme over the deities of surrounding cultures, before it was finally accepted, and Judaism fully developed its exclusive conception of the one deity, YHWH (“I am that I am”), who is ultimately a mystery that cannot be defined or contained.

In spite of the historical importance of this development, which signified the birth of all the Abrahamic religions as we know them today, it is another aspect of Judaism which I consider to be its greatest and most relevant insight. Within Judaism is a long tradition of approaching or understanding the divine through the lives and teachings of prophets, who often stood in opposition to the dominant culture, and this approach has led to the dynamic and evolving character of many Jewish traditions. It is the reason why liberal and progressive Jewish traditions developed. Inspired by the Prophets, these groups combine a commitment to Judaism with a constant regard for the universal values that guide all ethical behaviour. A related concept, Tikkun Olam (repair of the world), is a fundamental mission for Liberal Jews. They assert that Tikkun should happen on four levels: the personal or inter-personal, the communal, the Jewish, and the global. In the footsteps of the Prophets, Liberal Jews see themselves as constructive irritants to the mainstream, and/or as influencing the mainstream. They identify as willing to make difficult and sometimes unpopular stances on issues of Jewish concern.

Prophecy, one must remember, need not be about predicting the future in some miraculous way – something we all know to be impossible – but it may be about reading the times, sensing the zeitgeist and extrapolating forward. It may be about issuing warnings from history when our contemporaries are behaving in ways that are cruel, reckless, and likely to lead ultimately to their own destruction. It may be about looking at what has worked in the past and pointing to potential solutions for current problems. A modern-day prophet may be a person who advocates for justice, especially justice for the vulnerable and those without a voice. Within the prophetic tradition is the idea that true leadership, is enlightened leadership, which has the humility to learn and the courage to speak against the tide, combined with a determination never to stand idly by in the face of suffering and injustice. It is this insight that ‘speaking truth to power’ should be central to culture and philosophy, which I believe has the greatest potential.

In religious traditions there are two models of leadership, the priestly and the prophetic. Priests are authorized to perform sacred rituals, acting as intermediaries or facilitators for the relationship between humanity and the divine. They preserve the received teachings and practices of their traditions. Prophets, however, claim to speak for the divine, to deliver new knowledge or truth to their contemporaries. In biblical tradition, prophets were those who spoke out against social injustice, moral degradation and unfaithfulness to God. Jesus was a prophet in this Jewish tradition. He spent much of his time speaking out against religious elites and their abuses of power. Indeed, he risked everything to speak truth to the corrupt authorities of his day, and taught a radical compassion that starkly contrasted with, and indeed threatened, their religious purity systems and hierarchies. However, he also took on some traditionally priestly tasks, such as expounding the scriptures in the temple courts to preserve and pass on ancient wisdom. Thus, he was a typical Jew, loyal to Jewish scriptures and traditions, while also being a radical reformer who was prepared to reinterpret and overturn laws such as the Sabbath laws, which were oppressive to working people of the lower social classes to which he himself belonged.

There is always a great tension between priestly conservatism and the prophetic call for change. The priestly enterprises of the Jewish religious elites and later the Christian Apostles (as evidenced in the Epistles) are a far cry from the movements that the prophets (including Jesus) began. As fledgling communities sought respectability and uniformity amid the dominant cultures of their time, they invariably compromised values, and became conformist and resistant to reform. And yet, within Judaism, the prophetic tradition became so significant that it was impossible to suppress it entirely. It resurfaced repeatedly in spite of brutal suppression by political and religious authorities. Indeed, the tradition passed over into Christianity (a religion founded, after all, on the life and teachings of a Jewish prophet), which maintained its own spirit of radical prophecy, underpinning its most important moments of reform, and which now features uppermost in the progressive Christian focus on social justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

In more recent times, religious institutions have often claimed to admire most, those who have been brave enough to do as the Jewish prophets did. These include names such as Martin Luther King Jnr, Gandhi, Archbishop Ramiro, the suffragettes, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Rosa Parks and Thich Nhat Hanh. And yet, all too often, they have still been quick to bow down to empire, government, royalty and dictator, and to keep silent in the face of injustice. Religious leaders have often proved to be much better priests than prophets. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every country, in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with whatever despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” (letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814) Though there is truth in this statement, many lesser-known priests (Rabbis and Imams etc.) have played a vital role in the building of local community, as hosts and facilitators of social life, and they have carried out important daily tasks of bringing comfort and practical wisdom to ordinary people in the best and worst of times. In contrast, whistle-blowers and radicals, consumed by their particular struggles, have had little time for these routine but invaluable tasks, or for meeting individual need. Indeed, many neglected their own families.

Have you ever been in two minds about joining an organisation, community, political party, institution etc. because you want to be in a position to influence things for good but do not want to compromise your freedom to maintain a prophetic voice, unrestrained by rules, loyalties, Whips, directives, contracts and other social pressures? While specific individuals may be predominantly one or the other when it comes to priests and prophets – determined by their career choices or even by their innate personality – no one can be wholly one or the other without being guilty of hypocrisy. Both the prophet who neglects or is cruel to his/her own kin, and the priest who neglects his/her responsibility to wider society are guilty of betraying the values they claim to uphold. While one may not need to protest when one’s ideals and principles align with government, wider society and culture, the moment that government or society stands in the way of justice, peace and the truth, one surely has a moral duty to bring it to account. All societies grounded in the principles of liberty and equality need to be watchful observers and critics of the status quo. They must be ready to defend the truth where it is obscured and the rights of the vulnerable where they are denied. We cannot hide behind priestly robes and rituals without being complicit in the evil deeds of our societies and those who lead them. We cannot ignore the grievous injustices of our time, such as poverty, human trafficking, gender inequality, war, cruelty to non-human animals and environmental destruction. We cannot like, Pontius Pilate, simply wash our hands, or otherwise ritually absolve our guilt for sins of omission.

Therefore, our current and future societies need a good balance of the ‘priestly’ and the ‘prophetic’, and as Judaism has demonstrated, to maintain this balance, we need to embed a vibrant tradition of reflective self-criticism into the very fabric of our cultural identity over a long period. While we must have strong democratic institutions, we also need a robust free press in order to keep them accountable and to keep the public informed. Otherwise, we end up with either thoroughly corrupt institutions or a tyranny of the majority – and even situations where a population are manipulated by those with power and privilege (and plenty of resources to produce fake news and manipulate the popular press) to vote in a manner that is not in their interests, and which even undermines their own democratic rights! I could talk about Brexit and Trump here but I will refrain!

In Summary

We have seen how the costly love of Christianity, and a related emphasis on forgiveness, can help us to form the most meaningful, genuine and enduring of relationships.

We have learnt how continually letting go of what we cannot control, as is practised in Islam (even when done without reference to ‘God’ or ‘Allah’), can bring us relief from our anxieties and help us be at peace with our inadequacies.

We have remembered how reason continues to revolutionise many people’s lives, liberating minds from superstitions and dogmas that have long plagued our species and helped keep the majority of humans in servitude to the few.

We have seen with Hinduism, how the things we treasure as our highest eternal values and truths, may be seen to share one substance (one ultimate reality), while having many different and complex manifestations.

We have learnt how the mindfulness techniques of Buddhism can help us to experience greater joy and contentment in the present, and how they can alleviate our sufferings and enable us to cope with life’s many challenges.

The folk religions reveal that we need to embrace our humanity, including our emotional and irrational natures, yet without allowing ourselves to be deceived by magical thinking. They demonstrate our need for emotional release and expressiveness, and for special occasions filled with awe and wonder.

We have also been reminded that life is a constant battle against encroaching malice, oppression, disease and decay, and that we, like Sikh warrior saints, must be strong, prepared, and courageous enough to engage in both the struggle for survival and the defence of truth and goodness.

Last but by no means least, we are reminded that a strong tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’, like that of the Jewish prophets, is absolutely essential to a free and fair society. We have seen how the ‘priestly’ traditions of institutions, which preserve the wisdom of the past, must be counterbalanced by ‘prophetic’ journalism and independent research, in which new information is shared, compelling society and its institutions to reform and progress.

autumn-forest-woodland-wall-mural

‘The Path Ahead’, Autumn in Killerton House Gardens, Photograph by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

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One thought on “Greatest Insights of the World Religions by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

  1. Very well done! While we each might see places where we might have said otherwise, considering the world’s wisdom traditions with their many differences and profound similarities is both an exercise in spiritual humility and intellectual growth.

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