The test of spirituality

The test of spirituality May 25, 2016

You know how Karen Armstrong, above, likes to say that compassion is at the heart of every great religion? For a year or two around 2009 she seemed to be saying nothing else. She said it in a lecture to the Unitarian Universalist Association for instance:

And yet, each one of the major faiths, I discovered, has at its core the ethic of compassion. Every single one of them has developed its own version of the Golden Rule, never to treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself, and has said that this is the test of spirituality …

But if that’s really at the core of “the major faiths” then why do we hear so little about it? Is it because it’s at the core in the sense of being at the middle under many layers of other stuff, so that we can never actually see it? Hilariously, Armstrong herself makes the same point, apparently without noticing that she’s done so. At the end of the paragraph I just quoted we get:

And yet, so often you don’t hear about it. Often when religious leaders come together they talk about a particular sexual ethic or an abstruse doctrine, as though this, rather than compassion, was the test of spiritual life.

So very very often, you don’t hear about it.
Take the five pillars of Islam for instance. The Saudi embassy in Washington DC has a nice little guide for us.

Shahadah, profession of faith, is the first pillar of Islam. Muslims bear witness to the oneness of God by reciting the creed “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”…
Salah, prayer, is the second pillar…
Zakat, almsgiving, is the third pillar. Social responsibility is considered part of one’s service to God; the obligatory act of zakat enshrines this duty…
Sawm, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, is the fourth pillar of Islam. Ordained in the Holy Qur’an, the fast is an act of deep personal worship in which Muslims seek a richer perception of God. Fasting is also an exercise in self-control whereby one’s sensitivity is heightened to the sufferings of the poor…
Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, is the fifth pillar and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity in the world…
One out of the five is about other human beings as opposed to a god. The other four are about what human beings owe to their magical overlord. If you’re being generous you can include the bit about Ramadan as a way to become more “sensitive” to poor people who have to fast every day – but I’m not much inclined to be that generous, given that priority is given to “an act of deep personal worship in which Muslims seek a richer perception of God.”
God god god – recite words about god, say prayers to god, seek a richer perception of god, go on a trip to god’s own city – what does any of that have to do with compassion? Nothing. One out of five isn’t much. I think Karen Armstrong is bullshitting us about that “core.”
Or take the “Ten Commandments” that people in the US are always trying to get displayed in public buildings. In the short, edited for broadcast version, they go like this:
1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
2. You shall not make idols.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet.
They’re not about compassion. Not one of them is really about compassion – you can’t call minimal rules like don’t murder people and don’t take their stuff “compassion.” If I refrain from hitting small children in the face I don’t get a gold star for compassion. And the first four – the first four – are again all about groveling to the overlord. Again the first one is Join My Gang – say god is god and nobody else is god, or else. Don’t make toys from other religions; don’t say god’s name unless you’re groveling; treat one day in the week as god’s day and act accordingly.
Meanwhile this was posted on Twitter a week ago.
It happened on a train in the “deeply spiritual” country of India. It seems fair to assume the woman and man are Muslim, given the woman’s hijab (and the man’s entirely secular clothes) – perhaps they’re even “devoutly” Muslim. Where is his compassion? Where is the compassion of the men around them? Why does it appear to be so commonplace and unremarkable for a man to punch his wife in the head that way?
I could use countless other bits of video or photos to illustrate the question, with far more people and far worse violence to make the point. But this one has haunted me for days – the woman just breaks my heart, trying to recover her dignity, trying not to anger her husband further, trying not to burst into tears, trying to hide, trying to find comfort where there isn’t any. She doesn’t live in a world where compassion is at the core of religion. If she doesn’t, why should we pretend we do?

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  • Brummie

    Well said, and beautifully written Orphelia.

  • Oh drat – the tweet shows up in other places as a playable video but it didn’t work here. Be sure to click on the link and see the vid – it’s only 30 seconds. I think it’s well worth seeing.

  • Stuart H.

    There’s also the concept of ‘deserving poor’ that so many ‘compassionate’ Christians bang on about.
    2 local examples –
    My wife helps out at a soup kitchen for the homeless in a Baptist church. She’s as atheist as me, just thought if they were doing something practical, then why not?
    There’s a locked room lined floor to ceiling with tinned goods donated by overstocked supermarkets, yet the only food served is a crappy soup made elsewhere by prisoners as some sort of good behaviour program – also controlled by Christians. No-one will say what is done with the food in the locked room, but it never reaches the needy.
    She also bakes a cake to hand around to the guys each time she goes, yet is constantly nagged not to give them a piece to take away, as it ‘encourages dependency’.
    Elsewhere, some relatives set up a Christmas day lunch for the lonely in a Sally Army hall. Again, a major supermarket donated Xmas surplus stock that would otherwise end up in a skip – tins of biscuits, cakes, etc., but most were not being passed on. It got to the situation where Sally Army worshippers were being offered bag-loads to take away to save an obvious stack of leftovers by the bins and some member of the public asking what was going on.
    Both of these schemes get massive publicity with appeals for monetary donations.
    Jesus might be saving, but he sure as hell ain’t sharing.

  • L.Long

    She is so delusional that crazy does not come close!!!

  • John the Drunkard

    AND…’zakat’ can be satisfied by donating money to terrorist groups just as much as by doing anything for the poor.

  • Justin

    Armstrong is the epitome of the white Westerner who fetishises religion but only if she gets to define it in a way which is agreeable to her. Any negative bits magically disappear, all criticism and dissent is considered unjustifiable all the while collecting honours and praise a long the way.
    It’s also worth remembering she essentially accused Bill Maher, who is half- Jewish, of being Nazi-esque for his criticism of Islam. Then when asked about it again later on she basically doubled down and reiterated her view that his rhetoric was the kind heard in the ’30s and ’40s in Europe. Classy.
    If compassion appears in all different religions it is probably simply because it is common to all humans who aren’t psychopaths, not because religion is universally enlightened about such things.
    I wish the true test of faith &/or spirituality was being able to keep your religion to yourself.

  • sailor1031

    I believe the christian “prophet” is supposed to have said “by their fruits you shall know them”. It doesn’t matter a rat’s patoot what they profess It’s what they do that counts. If you claim to be compassionate but go around raping little children and lying and covering it up – well maybe folks will get the idea that compassion isn’t really very important in your religion. Go figure.

  • Cali Ron

    A common conceit among the religious is that there would be no good deeds or compassion without religion when in fact those traits are learned early from the environment or innate and religion is divisive, fomenting hate, intolerance, violence and death. Religion is hypocrisy perfected.

  • Stephen Mynett

    Cali Ron, I read one of Dennett’s books (if I can find it will post the details) and in it he lists a lot of the supposed morals we get from Christianity and other sources of the same morals, some come from Taoism, which is 500 years or so earlier and all can be found in belief systems that pre-date the old testament. Like many other things, Christianity hijacks something and then claims it is the source of it.