Monday, January 11, 2010

Speaking Honestly, Living Honestly

Last weekend I viewed the documentary In God’s Name with a discussion group of about 25 people. The film features interviews with 12 religious leaders who discuss the teachings of their respective faiths. With the terrorist actions of 9/11 as a backdrop, the documentary examines several major world religions and the harsh fact that wars, atrocities, and other terrible things have been committed in the name of religion throughout the years. We heard the Dalai Lama, the archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Benedict XVI, two Muslim imams, a Russian Orthodox priest, a Baptist, a Lutheran, a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Shinto leader. They all spoke of how their religions teach love, acceptance, forgiveness, peace and unity. All declared that there was no place in religion for killing, violence, and abuse of our fellow human beings. The National Geographic documentary by French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet is very well done and offers a respectful sensitive portrayal of the major religions.

It is a beautiful and informative documentary, but it leaves one wondering why so many people practice their religion and at the same time commit acts of terrible violence and injustice.

My friend Malcolm stated during our discussion that a breakthrough for him came with the understanding of the concept of cognitive dissonance. He said that although we imagine that thinking precedes our actions, in actuality our behavior comes first, then we rationalize that behavior. The way Malcolm explained it, Cognitive Dissonance Theory proposes that a person experiences internal discomfort and stress when attitudes and behavior contradict. To resolve that dissonance, one must either change one’s thinking or one’s behavior. My friend tells me that research indicates that people are much more likely to change their thinking than their actions.

As we continued our discussion, I realized that with a healthy religion there is a kind of cyclical effect in which our faith and values inform us of ethical standards which often call for a change on our part. I know that I consider myself to be guided by religious faith and ethical standards, but there are those days when I am greatly disappointed in my behavior (usually after my wife points it out to me). If my faith is important – and I believe it is – then I must make adjustments to realign my actions.

Another friend, Barry, stated that he thinks religion offers the best vehicle for guiding our thinking and improving our actions. My church has something called the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) to assist the individual in making those realignments. For any of us, religious or not, if we are to maintain any human relationships at all, there will be occasions when we must make amends, ask forgiveness, and seek restitution. We will also find ourselves having to grant forgiveness and offer restitution.

It seems that all of us are agreed that the Golden Rule should be the standard for all our interactions. But living out the Golden Rule in everyday life – there’s the rub. Just because we fail at it one day, doesn’t mean we have to fail the next day.


1 comment:

  1. I think Malcolm's comments about cognitive dissonance are right on. Wright's book on "The Evolution of God" points out very clearly that our theology is driven by culture and politics. I happen to believe that we homo sapiens do not use our large brain to stand back often enough and take a look at where we stand on the evolutionary scale. Our actions are driven far too often by our limbic system of the brain, the so-called "lizard brain," the seat of emotions. The cortex may be doing rational analysis of a situation, but our actions may follow from impulses arising in the limbic system. We are creatures of our evolutionary past, and too often we try and convince ourselves that we have risen far above our animal heritage. For proof, just look at our ridiculous courtship and mating rituals for the sake of propagating the species!

    Karen Armstrong points out in her new book, "The Case for God," and also her wonderful earlier book, "The Spiral Staircase," that the one common requirement for a religion is that it be based on compassion. You can make up all the other details. A religion not based on compassion is bound to fail. But, as your discussion points out, even a religion based on compassion has adherents and believers who act out of tribal behavior to do terrible things to other humans. I do believe Malcolm is correct. This is all too often born out of fear, out of tribalism and fear of those outside the tribe, and out sometimes out of greed.

    Perhaps we need to humble ourselves a bit and accept the fact that we are still in process, as Jack Spong would say. We're not there yet in our development, our evolution. Will our technology allow us to destroy our species before we are able to evolve further? I'm not so sure.


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