By Keith Best
Every member of humanity is on a journey through life but more than just progression through age from birth to death coping and achieving as best one can throughout that journey it is also a spiritual as well as an actual experience. Just after a holy period for the Abrahamic faiths of Easter, Ramadan and Passover perhaps the time is right to examine this in greater detail.
For some this is rooted in different religions into which some are born and others discover or reject during their lives. Yet for all, whether religious, atheist, humanist or without any formal guiding beliefs every human being has a conscience (as was pointed out by Rev Sun Myung Moon who referred to conscience as the “origin of life”). The concept of conscience is present in all the ancient major religions – the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism. In the Qur’ān verses Taqwa refers to “right conduct” or “piety“, “guarding of oneself” or “guarding against evil”. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations that conscience was the human capacity to live by rational principles that were congruent with the true, tranquil and harmonious nature of our mind and thereby that of the Universe. Martin Luther argued that it was unsafe to go against one’s conscience which is a matter more of ethics than religion. In the secular field Sigmund Freud regarded conscience as originating psychologically from the growth of civilisation and Immanuel Kant referred to “the moral law within me.” Amnesty International has its list of prisoners of conscience.
I respect the views of those who do not accept the existence of God (although it is somewhat unkindly stated that there are no atheists on a sinking ship!) but those who do not acknowledge any deity nevertheless have that inner voice. Whence does it come?
Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people: it was a sarcastic reference to religion akin to a drug or palliative but perhaps his words were more perceptive than intended – for those living under oppression, in poverty and hopelessness religion is more than an opiate, it is often the only source of comfort. For billions of others religion is not just a prop or narcotic but a conscience, an inspiration, a moral guidance – the compass which steers their lives. Attempts by regimes to destroy or eliminate religious belief in their populations – whether by the Nazis or communists or others – has always failed. In England in the 12th century the Jews were expelled and Jewry was outlawed – but many converted ostensibly to Christianity and remained secretly practising their own religion. During the turbulent times in England in the 16th century the new Protestantism was persecuted by Mary I, having been promoted by her brother Edward VI and then subsequently by her sister Elizabeth I (and the old church was outlawed on the basis that Catholics were potential traitors aligned with the King of Spain): those faiths that were proscribed remained active beneath the surface. Both Bangladesh and Turkey are nominally secular states yet some 99% of their populations are Muslim. The wise ruler harnesses religion in their own support rather than alienating it. Freedom of religion and worship are enshrined in universal human rights documents.
Why is it that rulers fear religion? First, it poses a threat to their omnipotence giving citizens a dual allegiance to the state and to their God. Jesus Christ neatly stepped around the dilemma when asked the trick question by his detractors as to whom tribute should be paid by holding up a coin and pointing to the head depicted on it as Caesar’s, responding “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give unto God that which is God’s.” Of course, there is potential conflict between religion and state: on issues such as abortion, death penalty, asylum seekers and family union the actions of the state can seem to be contrary to religious belief and teaching.
A second reason for fear among rulers is that the main religions teach a care for humanity, one’s neighbour (in a wide definition) and desire for peace. Where this leads to conscientious objection to serving in the military, the consequences for an individual confronting the state’s requirement to bear arms and fight other peoples can be dire and involve, at least, imprisonment and obloquy (the white feathers).
God may be invoked equally by both sides in a conflict, but where is God in a conflict or a natural disaster such as an earthquake? Does a just and omnipotent God allow such terrible things to happen to innocent human beings and children? Each religion and probably each minister in that religion will provide their own answer! Most would tell you that God may be the creator of all with infinite power and wisdom but that s/he gave humanity free will for us to sort out our own problems and responses to natural phenomena. What about those who deny the existence of God or who are agnostic? As was pointed out earlier, everyone has a conscience and, arguably, this applies even to the sociopath.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 enshrines that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” Religious adherents will say that conscience comes from God – but you do not have to be religious to feel that within every human being, whether by nature or nurture, there exists an inherent understanding of what is right and wrong. So, what sort of conscience, if any, do mass murderers and those who inflict pain and suffering on others, whether through aggression or torture, have? It is difficult to conceive where lies the conscience of Vladimir Putin as his rockets rain down on the elderly, women and children who pose no military objective unless, of course, such suffering is justified by a greater goal, however perverse it may seem to others. Putin has now convinced himself that not only should Ukraine be regarded as part of Mother Russia, hence the invasion, but now that those countries supporting the Ukrainian resistance are determined to destroy Russia itself. In a Rossaya 1 television interview on the anniversary of the invasion he claimed “”They have one goal: to disband the former Soviet Union and its fundamental part – the Russian Federation.” So, for him, the war has become one of national survival – although for many it is more about the survival of Putin himself.
We all know that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus’ (the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church) has supported the Russian invasion to the embarrassment and potential action by Kyiv against the many Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine. He has been condemned for doing so yet how far is this an uncritical and supine submission to the President (he has described Putin’s rule as a miracle)and how much a belief that the Orthodox Church’s role is to work in partnership with and support for the civil power as the moral backing for that power? To answer that requires an intimate knowledge of the history and position of the Church which is beyond the scope of this article.
I am old enough to remember when certain Asian countries (especially Malaysia under Prime Minister Mahathir during his earlier years when he became more authoritarian, closed newspapers and ordered the arrests of activists, religious leaders and political opponents) portrayed human rights as a Western construct that were alien to Asian values. That has now disappeared and the Universal Declaration as well as other instruments setting out civil and political rights are now accepted as having global application – even though their origins may have been in Judaeo-Christian ethics. The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, created by Islamic Councils in Paris and London restates basic human rights using the language of Islamic jurisprudence, the “Draft Charter on Human and People’s Rights in the Arab World”, endorsed by the Arab Union of Lawyers in 1987,and the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam“, adopted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1990, all generally mirror the earlier human rights documents which can now be regarded as both universal and secular.
It is important for obvious reasons that international law should not be the creature of any one religion or tradition but a set of principles that can be applied and accepted throughout the world. Yet religions can still form the basis for strife so we must always be seeking reconciliation and accommodation between them. That does not mean the suppression of some by others – and proselytising should be viewed with suspicion as should penalties against apostasy which, in themselves, are a negation of the concept of freedom or religion – but a greater understanding among them and how to live with the differences. Although the Abrahamic faiths have so much more that unites rather than divides them there are common factors in so many other religions which can be found without excessive research. Humanity has demonstrated with devastating effect over the centuries that we have within us the capacity for both extreme good, compassion and sacrifice but also for unspeakable evil. The complexity of the human spirit is that those extremes can sometimes be found in the same individuals. I never forget seeing at an exhibition the discovered personal photographs of Nazi officers in concentration camps playing with their children and families after a day’s work of mass slaughter – the anomaly is hard to fathom.
As a lawyer I believe in the importance of the rule of law which is universally applicable as a civilising force in the world – but for that to have its continued renewal and moral basis it needs to be informed and guided by conscience. You do not have to be religious to appreciate that but you do need to know where to find it.
The views expressed on this site are attributable to their individual authors writing in their personal capacity and do not seek to represent the views of the World Federalist Movement as a whole.