This is the text of the sermon at the first Gathering, 15th October 2003, by Alec Brady.
I’m going to start with a story that I first heard told by the American story-teller, Dan Keding.
A man dies.
And then he comes round in the next life.
He’s in a sleeping bag in a walker’s shelter in the hills. There by his bedroll are his boots, his stick, his knapsack…and the dog he had when he was a teenager.
So he thinks to himself “I have no idea what’s going on, but…” And he dresses, puts his boots on, whistles his dog, and off they go together. And he is completely happy.
At the end of that first day, he finds himself approaching a shining city on a hill. The man and the dog look at each other, nod, and go up to the city gates. Which are made of solid gold, and attended by a mighty angelic power with a flaming sword and eyes like the sun.
“What is this place?” says the man. And the angel replies,
And the man asks, “may I come in?” And the angel says, “come”.
And the man, awestruck, begins to walk forward. And the angel says “ah, oh, no, sorry…no dogs”.
“No dogs. You know, it’s the rules. Sorry. It’ll have to stay here. We can…um…deal with it.”
The man and the dog look at each other. Then they nod, and turn, and walk into the darkening hills.
The next morning they wake in a wood, eat breakfast, and set out again.
Towards the end of the day they find themselves in a rich landscape, with wide fields of grain, and orchards, pigs , and noisy brooks. As the sun dips towards the west they come on a stone farmhouse. The man goes to the door, knocks, and the farmwife comes out.
“Can I get some water? For me and my dog?”
“Course you can. There’s a pump just there, it’s good water. Take what you need”.
And he gives the dog a bowl of water and then fills his bottle. And he says to the farmwife, “this is a good place. Can I stay for a bit?”
“Course you can. There’s work needs doing in the orchard, you can stay as long as you like.”
“What about the dog?”
“Sure, he’s welcome. He looks like a good friend.”
And the man smiles, and says “I like this place. What do you call it?”
And she laughs and says “heaven”.
And he says “Oh, that’s…wait, what? I thought the city back there was heaven.”
“Oh no, that’s the gate of hell”
“but…but…why do you let them do that? why do you let them pretend to be heaven?”
And she grins at the dog and the dog grins back at her and she says,
“Oh, they have their uses. They weed out the bastards who are prepared to leave their friends behind.”
Today is Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim celebration. It is not to be confused with Eid al Fitr, the celebration that brings Ramadan to an end; this is the Great Eid, the Day of Sacrifice. In Pakistan alone, 10 million animals – sheep, cows, goats, camels – will be sacrificed. A third of the meat is eaten by the family, a third given to neighbours, and the final third to the poor and needy.
What is being celebrated is the story (told in the Q’ran) that Allah commanded Abraham to offer his son, Ishmael, as a human sacrifice. Ishmael consented but, just before the sacrifice took place, Allah intervened and gave Abraham a lamb to sacrifice instead. The tale is common to all three Abrahamic faiths, though the Jewish-Christian version has important differences.
Now, most of us, when told this story, feel mainly revulsion. How can we honour someone for his willingness to kill his son, at the command of some bloody-handed tribal god? What on earth can he have been thinking?
Some of you may now be thinking about the famous quote from Steve Weinberg (who, incidentally, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979) that
with or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.
I think that this attitude is dangerously over-simplistic. Not only because it suggests that there are good people and bad people, but because it limits to religion something that has broader and deeper roots in human nature. The Chinese soldiers who massacred civilians in Tiananmen Square, or the British soldiers who did the same in Amritsar, the German children in the Third Reich who denounced their own parents, the settlers who herded native Australians off cliffs, or the Spartans who killed imperfect babies; they weren’t doing this in response to the supposed moral dictates of a religion, but because of political or racial ideology – communism, imperialism, nationalism, racism or eugenics.
The enemy is not religion as such, but any ideology that treats human beings as being less important than the idea.
And I guess that’s why we react the way we do to the Abraham story. For the bronze-age culture that it sprang from, a son was not primarily a person but a man’s hope for the future; a support in old age, a continuer of your name into future generations, someone to make sacrifice when you died. Seen in those terms, Abraham wasn’t sacrificing a boy, he was…well, the Wikipedia article on Eid al-Adha says:
One of the main trials of Abraham’s life was to face the command of Allah to devote his dearest possession, his only son.
That word “possession”, I think, gives the game away. For people of Abraham’s world, a son was a precious possession. But for us, the thought that someone could sacrifice a warm, living, breathing child is monstrous. Making an idea more important than a human being is offensive.
Of course, religion is a major culprit in this, because of the robustness of its memes, but it isn’t theism as such that does the dirty work here, it’s ideology, the cult of the idea.
EM Forster famously said
If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
He goes on to explain:
Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.
This, to me, is humanism. Whether you are male or female, rich or poor, theist or atheist, communist or capitalist, – any ideology that you’re prepared to sacrifice your friends to is the root of all evil.
But that isn’t enough, not nearly enough. Of course we condemn the father or brother who kills a daughter or sister for the family ‘honour’. But most moral decisions really don’t resemble that at all. Herbert McCabe – a Roman Catholic theologian – wrote:
This [i.e. Situational Ethics, but that’s not important right now. Ed.] is a much less vulnerable moral position but it is, unfortunately, quite empty. Every moral problem of the slightest interest is a problem about who is to get hurt. The injunction to love everyone concerned does not help us to decide that question.
Philosophers have tried various schemes to analyse what makes a moral choice moral. John Stuart Mill argued that it was the consequences for people – one slogan of his followers, the Utilitarians, is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Others have made duty (whether civic duty or family duty or whatever) the core idea of morality. Calvinists believe that a thing is moral if it’s what God wants, hedonists would say that the morally right thing for me to do is what makes me genuinely happy. One important line of thought, called Virtue Ethics, proposes that a choice is moral if it is in accord with virtue – with, say, honesty, generosity, whatever. Most humanists adopt some version of consequentialism, which says that what makes a thing moral or immoral is the effects it produces.
All of these philosophical approaches have difficulties, which they deal with more or less successfully and which become battle grounds between the rival schools of thought. But as Marx famously said,
Up to the present time the philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.”
What do we need to change? Obviously we need to change our behaviour, as that is what morality is about. I’m prepared to bet that we can all think of things we’ve done that we wouldn’t like other people to know about; cruelty or indifference or selfishness or betrayal. And we keep doing it.
Sam Harris writes:
Most of us spend some time over the course of our lives deciding how (or whether) to respond to the fact that other people on earth needlessly starve to death. Most of us also spend some time deciding which delightful foods we want to consume at home and in our favourite restaurants. Which of these projects absorbs more of your time and material resources on a yearly basis?
If you are like most people living in the developed world, such a comparison will not recommend you for sainthood. Can the disparity between our commitment to fulfilling our selfish desires and our commitment to alleviating the unnecessary misery and death of millions be morally justified? Of course not. These failures of ethical consistency are often considered a strike against consequentialism. They shouldn’t be. Who ever said that being truly good, or even ethically consistent, must be easy?
Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, puts forward what I consider to be the most convincing moral philosophy. He proposes that human values are founded on human well-being and that – if we know what’s good for us – we should be virtuous. This is really a form of hedonism (what it’s right for me to do is what will make me happy), but with the perhaps surprising addition that vice makes me unhappy and virtue makes me happy.
Herert McCabe, again, puts it very succinctly:
Ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want, that is to say with being free…breaking the moral law means doing what deeply we do not want to do.
It’s not my purpose tonight to try and justify this claim – that’s a longer project! – but we need to notice that the implication of what I’ve said so far it that knowing what you most deeply want is tricky, and doing it is hard.
One of the main criticisms of Virtue Ethics is that it gives no guide to what should count as a virtue. Aristotle’s list of virtues included “magnificence” and the traditional Christian list includes “long-suffering”. Here’s the point though; even when we know what we want to count as a virtue, we find it hard to consistently display it. I’ve only in recent years got out of the automatic habit of lying to make myself look better than I am. Even now, I occasionally have to struggle to remind myself that looking like a dick is better than being a habitual liar. And I often don’t succeed.
What Virtue Ethics can offer, I think, is not a rule for what counts as moral, but a tip for how to act in accordance with what we know to be right. Which is this.
Once you have concluded that, say, trying to think the best of people, or making people feel comfortable, is the right way to behave, you have to practise it at every opportunity.
You might think that a private thought, a quiet sigh and a roll of your eyes is no-one’s business but your own. And that’s true. But with every disrespectful thought, every unnecessary white lie, every time you hide the odd-numbered cookie because no-one will miss it, you are making the job of being good that tiny bit harder.
If, on the other hand, you try to be as generous, respectful and kind as you can be, even when it doesn’t matter, you are building a character for yourself that – come the crunch – will do the heavy lifting for you.
As the Victorian proverb has it:
Sow a thought and you reap an action.
Sow an act and you reap a habit.
Sow a habit and you reap a character.
Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
If you want to defend yourself against the rising floods of your own failings, your biases, your bad ethical habits, it’s not enough to be well-intentioned. When the flood comes, you’d better have built yourself a levee.