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Posts Tagged ‘fanaticism’

My mind . . . . .
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: this is the third and last.

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.

There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.

I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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My mind . . . . .
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism.

This is the third and last of the sequence: the second was published yesterday. Next month I will be posting my most recent look at the value of uncertainty, which pays tributes to William James and explains why I feel that a high degree of uncertainty is compatible with my religious faith. The text below goes some way to explain why such a posture is perhaps essential for collective, coherent and determined action.

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions. (I have now explored that in depth in a recent sequence of posts.)

There is more to it even than that though. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. This reflective and consultative system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing either fossilised or indecisive about it. It is essentially empirical in the Jamesian sense. It also maps onto the pragmatism explored in John Ehrenfeld’s recent book – Flourishing. It is responsive to experience and, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132), ‘no one can own an absolutely “true” belief or claim to have the one “right” way to act,’ an openness of mind essential if we are to cooperate together to address the problems that currently confront humanity. There will be more on that attitude tomorrow.

I believe there is much to learn from the Bahá’í model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Bahá’í community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the second of the sequence: the first was published yesterday

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the first of three posts on consecutive days.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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My mind . . . . .

Yet knows that to be choked with hate

May well be of all evil chances chief.

If there’s no hatred in a mind

Assault and battery of the wind

Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.

There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.

I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

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