Blog Archives

Humanism and Religion

It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.

An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.

In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an. 

In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect. 

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Advertisements

Faith and Cosmos

In his book ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ the economist E.F. Schumacher argues that science on its own provides a one dimensional, ‘horizontal’ view of reality, and we need faith in the metaphysical to give us a ‘vertical’ dimension — to connect us to heaven.

Faith is necessary as well as science because faith leads us from the part to the whole, enabling us to see the wood as well as the trees. Faith and imagination allow us to make the leap from atom to cosmos. Reason provides the power to analyze and dissect; faith, imagination and intuition give us the power to build a coherent whole, which is the cosmos. Belief that we live in a cosmos rather than a chaos is an essential point of faith. Belief in cosmos is belief that the universe is fundamentally good, is fundamentally in harmony. This faith needn’t be explicitly theistic — I like those Buddhist teachings, such as Chogyam Trungpa’s, which emphasise the basic goodness of the mind.

Taoism provides a useful framework to explore the ideas of cosmos and harmony. If we have faith in fundamental goodness and harmony, we can learn to discern then in many situations, and understand how those situations reflect the coherent whole. According to Taoism, all situations are microcosms, containing within them the essential elements of the cosmos (yin and yang). The Tao itself is the harmonic principle bringing meaning out of chaos, and is always present, even if hidden. For me, God is similar to the Tao. God’s jamal (beautiful) and jalal (majestic) qualities are like yin and yang.

Many scientists are in awe at the complexity and precision of the natural laws they study. However I think there is still a “glass half empty or half full?” question, and which side one comes down on depends on faith. On their own, complexity and precision are meaningless — cancer and weapons systems can also be complex and precise. So it is the question of goodness which is key. Genesis tells us that when God created the world he saw that it was good.