I often wonder whether atheists can have a sense of humor about religion, but the late, much-missed Christopher Hitchens made a comment about belief in his book God is Not Great that I found bemusing.
He asked whether the belief that Buddha had been born from a slit in his mother’s side would make the believer a better person. I expected him to come to the obvious conclusion that, of course, it wouldn’t, but that following Buddha’s teachings would.
He didn’t. He let the reader infer, instead, that therefore, religion was absurd. All religion.
He also told of the exceptional kindness and honesty of a Muslim cab driver, who returned to Hitchens’s wife a large sum of money she’d left behind in his cab. Though that level of adherence to spiritual principle was at the heart of this man’s faith, Hitchens refused to view Islam through the lens of such kindness, because of what he called the “weird exhortations of the Koran.” Ironically, one of those exhortations frames such scrupulously honest “small kindnesses” to others as the very essence of faith.
This raises a good point — it isn’t belief that makes a person good, or kinder, more forgiving, more generous. We have as reminders the Crusades, the wretched treatment of native peoples by professing Christians, Hindus and Buddhists at war, Muslims carrying out terrorist acts and burning Baha’i homes.
My point? Belief in God or any set of principles is worthless if we do not exert the will to assimilate them into our hearts and live by them.
One of the key watchwords among Baha’is is summarized by three steps: Knowledge, Volition and Action. One acquires the knowledge of a divine virtue, wills to incorporate it into one’s life, and then acts to put it into practice. If we fail to do this, our faith and our lives will not bear fruit.
Some men and women glory in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds.
Sadly, a current of fear and hatred flows through the world today — here in the US, as elsewhere. A few outspoken Americans, motivated by fear and hostility, are dominating the media and trying to move their nation to action. The targets of this action are various — Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics and other immigrant populations, the poor, the sick, the leadership of the country. Their attackers believe they are acting on principle. Fear can be a powerful motivator – but it is also a poison. Looking at America, you might suppose that these fears are stronger than faith, love, hope, justice, tolerance or any other virtues divine and human.
Over 100 years ago, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, described a “corrosion of ungodliness” that was “eating into the vitals of human society….” Clearly, unreasoning fear, hatred, intolerance and ignorance are part of that corrosion.
We live in toxic times, and I quite understand that many people who prize rationality and tolerance react to this by going into hiding. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to circle the wagons, pull the covers over our heads and hunker down until the shouting is over?
But can we afford to do that when the stakes are so high?
Many of us strive in our daily lives to develop the positive, spiritual human virtues mentioned above. We are appalled by the sheer volume of hateful rhetoric leaping from TV, radio, newspaper and computer screen. As tempting as it is, I don’t think we can afford to keep our heads down and hope the Big Bad will go away. Because if we do, fear, hatred, intolerance and ignorance will be allowed to inform the public discourse and drive the public policy of the world we share.
We know that hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love, because the Buddha revealed that eternal truth thousands of years ago. We know that only a thought of peace can destroy a thought of war, as Abdu’l-Baha said. We know that hatred and intolerance sap our vitality – Baha’u’llah revealed that insight. I propose that we take this knowledge and exert the will to stand up and push back — lovingly, compassionately, but firmly — to help stem the tide of fear and to promote the spread of reason and compassion and love for humanity.
This requires action and I, for one, will do whatever is in my power and purview as a Baha’i, a mom, a musician, a writer, an American, to keep fear, hatred, intolerance and ignorance from ruling our public discourse and behavior. We don’t have to carry a placard or march in the street, but each of us can do something.
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In 2012, Baha’is celebrated the 100th anniversary of Abdu’l-Baha’s speaking tour throughout Europe and North America. Abdu’l-Baha, in his sixties at the time, his health devastated by a lifetime spent as an exile and political prisoner, without formal education and new to public speaking, took his activism on the road, fighting hatred with love. So, it seems appropriate to end my call to action with this beautiful, stirring passage from one of his talks during that epic journey:
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. … When soldiers of the world draw their swords to kill, soldiers of God clasp each other’s hands! So may all the savagery of man disappear by the Mercy of God, working through the pure in heart and the sincere of soul. Do not think the peace of the world an ideal impossible to attain! Nothing is impossible to the Divine Benevolence of God. If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. Do not despair! Work steadily. Sincerity and love will conquer hate.
To those readers who do not believe in God, simply ignore the “God” parts. This message is no less for you because you don’t believe. You have hearts. You have minds. You have hands. Use them. The operative term is “work steadily.”
It’s worth the effort … because the stakes are so high.