Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What does faith have to do with morality?

“La foi n’a rien à voir avec la morale.”  Faith has nothing to do with morality.

graffiti scrawled on the back of a sign 

We came upon this piece of graffiti three years ago while in Tournon in southern France.  It could have been written yesterday in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded scores of others.

When crimes like this one occur, it is tempting to demonize religion and believers. The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come under particular scrutiny. Some argue that the Hebrew Bible, the foundational text of these religions, encourages violence and immoral acts.  They point to passages of scripture that command the stoning of adulteresses or the smiting of one’s enemies to the practice of slavery and to misogyny. 

These passages are clearly problematic from today's moral perspective, and I have no intention of defending them.  It would be dishonest to pretend that over the millennia religion has not played a part in man’s inhumanity to man. However, it is quite a leap to claim that religion has nothing to do with morality. Faith can be a strong influence on morality and can govern behavior, for better or for worse. Terrorist attacks committed in the name of religion illustrate the worst of that behaviour. 

No rational person, especially a deeply religious one, accepts violence as moral. Rational people (and most religious people fall into this category) share a universal understanding of morality. Boiled down to a basic principle, morality might be summed up as “do no harm” to others or yourself.   Violence as an exercise of faith is especially odious since love and compassion are inherent qualities of the world’s great religions.

We do not need to think very hard to find inspiring examples of faith filled moral individuals. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jean Vanier and Jimmy Carter spring to mind.  I can think of examples from my own small town. Whether they are handing out food at local food banks or spearheading actions to reduce poverty or holding the hands of the dying, religious individuals are positively impacting my community. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped my understanding of morality as it has shaped that of much of the western world.  Its moral tradition, with which we struggle, precedes and goes beyond the “do no harm” principle.  For the prophets, three things were necessary: to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with God.  For Jesus of Nazareth, the great commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself. To love, to be merciful, to be concerned about others, to be humble are some of the ways that a person of faith honors the goodness of God and behaves in a moral way.

Islamic terrorists are not the only group of religious people who commit violence. One need only think of the Crusades, the burning of Protestant “heretics’ at the stake, or the bombing of abortion clinics to find other examples of religious zeal gone wrong.  In an unequivocal condemnation of the Paris attacks, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam of Egypt wrote, “We must remember that as recent attacks in many parts of the world indicate, violent extremism knows no particular faith. It is rather a perversion of the human condition, and must be dealt with as such.”

We cannot let this latest attack on humanity warp our collective moral sense and harden our hearts towards others.  Since the Paris attacks, there has been a backlash against Syrian refugees.  When I wrote this, 35,000 Canadians had signed a petition to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada.  This is clearly irrational; many of the Syrian refugees are not even Muslim, and the terrorists carried French or Belgium passports. It is also wrong. Fear of those who are different can prevent us from doing the right thing, as much as it can motivate someone (like a terrorist) to do the wrong thing.

No one has a monopoly on morality. A person does not have to be religious to be good. And while one would hope or expect a religious person to be moral, we know this is not always the case.

Faith and morality are like two streams flowing into one river, shaping the river’s ability to sustain or destroy the life along its banks. For better or for worse, religion can shape behavior and influence moral decision-making.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"New tolerance" is intolerance in disguise

“I am intolerant of intolerance” has become something of a mantra for suppressing unpopular opinions.  Today’s “new tolerance”, as it is called in academic circles, is redefining our understanding of tolerance and shaping our behavior in public spaces, but it is no friend to the exercise of conscience or the freedom of speech.

In the past, we used to “agree to disagree”.  It was a respectful way to end debates before they degenerated into personal and hateful attacks.  We disagreed without rejecting each other.  

We used to define tolerance in the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  We allowed others their opinions and the right to express them.

It is no longer acceptable to agree to disagree

New tolerance requires something different. It demands that we accept either the most popular view or the view of the most vocal group.  If we believe differently, those who hold the dominant view or shout the loudest accuse us of bigotry. They cannot countenance our intolerance; we must be muzzled. This is especially evident when it comes to issues around sexuality and gender.

The no-platform movement that is taking hold of western universities is the poster child of new tolerance.  The movement, which denies speakers a platform, fosters intolerant behavior in its misguided attempt to protect democracy and equality. 

Notable feminist Germaine Greer is the latest fatality of the no-platform movement. Greer was to lecture on “Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century” at Cardiff University in Wales.   Twenty seven hundred students signed a petition that accused her of misogyny and inciting hate and violence against transgender people. In an obvious twist of irony that students seemed to have missed, the no-platform campaign triggered its own form of violence against Greer.  Her opponents attacked her on social media sites, verbally crucifying her. Even though the university rejected the student petition, Greer declined to speak, citing concerns for her safety. 

Greer’s unspeakable crime was to say that she does not think “a post-operative transgendered man is a woman”.   But, others required Greer (and anyone who might hold the same opinion) to think differently.  Payton Quinn, a Huffington Post columnist writing in support of the petition, asserted, “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny.”   

Greer, incidentally, was not campaigning against anyone. She has not written about transgender issues for years, nor was her lecture about transgender issues. In her words, “Its not my issue. I don’t even talk about them.”

New tolerance is not limited to the no-platform movement on university campuses. In Canada, some political parties require all candidates to be pro-choice.  A person who questions abortion must want to limit a woman’s right to choose; that person has no place in government. Trinity Western University requires students and staff to sign a covenant agreement with a clause that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The institution must be discriminating against LGBTQ people; it must not be allowed a law school. 

It is no longer enough for a tolerant individual to treat people with the respect and dignity that all individuals – gay, trans or straight – deserve. We must now accept the most popular views and believe what the most vocal group tells us to believe.  To do otherwise, is anathema.

Tolerance takes practice
Tolerance does not come easily or naturally to us.  It requires practice.  From time to time, we need to check our attitudes.  We need to make sure that our concern for one group does not express itself as intolerance for someone else; that we do not become violent, hateful or self-righteous in the name of tolerance. 

Social media has done little to promote tolerance. Social media sites that invite us “to join the conversation” frequently become platforms for intolerance. Outrage, insult and hatred characterize many social media exchanges.  These exchanges do little to foster understanding of difference or to improve society.

It is easier to spew contempt than to allow different voices the latitude to speak. If we are serious about the freedoms of conscience and speech, we cannot bully or exclude others when their opinion goes against the grain.  Rejecting an opinion is not the same thing as rejecting a person or discriminating against a group.

New tolerance is a form of intolerance in disguise.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thoughts while running through a cemetery

It was a crisp, sunny morning for a run along Toronto’s Kay Gardner Beltline Trail.  Having spent the previous day traveling, I was anxious to get moving. I turned on my tunes, hit the timer on my watch, and quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm. 

I was relishing the beauty of the changing season. The rays of the autumn sun, low in the sky, filtered through the trees, and glinted off the rustling leaves that slowly drifted towards the ground. Black squirrels foraged at the edges of the path. A cardinal caught my eye. 

Before long, the high wall that marks the boundary between that section of the belt line and Mount Pleasant Cemetery came into view.  In order to continue along the tree-lined trail, I needed to run through the cemetery.

This was not the first time that I had run through the cemetery.  As on previous occasions, it felt a bit odd to be jogging alongside headstones. There was something vaguely unsettling and disrespectful about it, as if life were thumbing its nose at death. Yet, at the same time, it felt quite natural. 

On this particular day, as leaves were decaying underfoot, I was acutely conscious of the proximity between life and death.  In the buildings and along the by-ways outside the cemetery wall and along the trail itself, we humans, like ants intent on a task, were consumed with the business of living.  Unless we were in the act of burying our dead, the cemetery was just a pleasant park; its graves had nothing to do with us.

I began to speculate about the lives of those who were buried beneath the ground.  Perhaps these graves that stretched out in every direction beneath my pounding footsteps had something to tell me.

Initially, I was intrigued with the individuals whose tombs bespoke wealth or importance.  But then, the light went on. Death levels the playing field. Distinctions of wealth, race and status crumble. Rich or poor, famous or infamous, we all come to the same end. All that we amass gets left behind.  Death reduces; we are “dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. 

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto
Eaton Tomb

Maybe because it was a beautiful day and I was feeling healthy and vigorous, the commentary in my head was curiously uplifting despite its morbid subject.  I actually felt more alive.

Coincidental with my visit to Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum had an exhibit on Pompeii. I spent several hours wandering amidst artifacts that told the story of a community abruptly destroyed, lives suddenly snuffed out; artifacts that left me pondering once again the fleeting nature of human life.

A carbonized half loaf of bread and bowl of figs were stark reminders that life can change in an instant.  An exquisite gold and emerald necklace delicately wrought and in perfect condition was one of the artifacts that exemplified human creativity and our appreciation for beauty. Like many of the other items on display, it also represented for me the human quest for wealth and status, and the age-old practice of ordering human society based on the two.

Gold and emerald necklace from Pompeii

The exhibit ended with the poignant and sobering display of plaster casts of individuals who had perished.  Rich or poor, important or insignificant in the eyes of society, all those who remained in Pompeii suffered the same fate; buried under four meters of ash, they found their final resting place in an extraordinary cemetery.

I think that periodically reflecting upon our mortality has some benefits.  It creates a sense of urgency about living well, which for me means to live more simply, and with more mindfulness, compassion, gratitude and love. It can help us define the things that make life meaningful and prioritize the tasks that out of necessity occupy our time. 

When I set out for my run, I had no intention of thinking about death. My purpose was much more mundane.  Yet, as I ran through the cemetery, its graves, like the well-preserved and stately artifacts of Pompeii, reminded me that “there is a season for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven”, and that the fullness of life includes all of human experience.

Eaton Tomb photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMount_Pleasant_Cemetery%2C_Eaton%2C_Toronto_3121.JPG
By Deansfa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gold and Emerald Necklace photo;
Royal Ontario Museum Facebook page

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Life is an invitation to gratitude

Our brains are “like Velcro for bad experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”, according to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson PhD and neurologist Richard Mendius MD. 

The human brain’s tendency towards the negative makes it difficult for us to be grateful, even though practicing gratitude is really good for us. Research has shown positive links between gratitude and blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and kidney function. Grateful people have better sleep quality, exercise more frequently, and are happier and more altruistic than less grateful people.  Yet, despite all the positive benefits of a grateful disposition, gratitude does not come naturally or easily to most of us.  It requires practice.

Some ways to practice gratitude include keeping a gratitude journal, writing a letter of gratitude to someone (even if you never send the letter the act makes you a more gracious person), and making it a point to say “Thank you”.  It can be helpful to have a daily cue that reminds you to count your blessings (it could be as simple as putting on your shoe).  If you are a grumpy gills, paying attention to how frequently you complain can help you become more grateful.  Reading inspirational literature, meditating, praying, reflecting on your day, and savoring the moment also help to make gratitude a habit.

Richard Emmons PhD is one of the leading authorities on gratitude. He writes that gratitude heals, energizes and transforms lives.  He compares gratitude to a stone structure. The foundation is joy, which he defines as the ability to see the good. The cornerstone is grace, the ability to absorb the good. The capstone is love, “paying it forward” or returning the goodness that one has received.  All of life, he says, is an invitation to gratitude.

Because of the brain’s negativity bias, it is natural for us to overlook life’s invitation to gratitude. We frequently operate from the philosophy that “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence”.  We fail to recognize the good in the ordinary, and when things are going poorly, gratitude is the last thing on our mind. 
It is easy to be grateful when life is humming along like a well-oiled machine.  Gratitude does not prevent bad things from happening, nor is it a panacea to life’s challenges and problems. But by fostering a disposition of gratitude we are better able to handle the disappointments, pain and suffering that is part of being human.  We gain perspective from choosing to be grateful. Gratitude helps us to see our life in its entirety, to put negative and painful experiences in context, and to find the silver lining in every cloud.

Materialism and ego get in the way of becoming a more grateful person.  Consumerism feeds our restlessness and fuels our dissatisfaction. We become focused on what we do not have, instead of being grateful for the things we do have.  Our ego fools us into thinking that we are entitled to more, and that we are the authors of our own good fortune. Gratitude, though, is always directed towards someone or something other than the self.

Emmons defines gratitude as “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received” and “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves”.  

Thanksgiving is a natural time for us to give thanks for the good things in our life. To whom or what do we direct our thanks?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pope Francis, Political Leaders, and the smell of sheep

Politicians would love to have Pope Francis’ approval ratings.  His popularity crosses party lines and spills over the borders of the tiny state he heads. The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church may be the most influential and galvanizing leader on the world stage. Leadership traits alone cannot fully explain the “Francis effect”.

Leadership is more than a mastery of skills 
Francis is a case study in leadership; he has every attribute that shows up on checklists for good leaders. He is willing to take risks and to effect change. He delegates and allows people to do their jobs. He seeks advice from different voices, including dissenting ones. He will act unilaterally if necessary. He puts the good of the organization first. And, while good leaders are accessible, Francis finds novel ways to be present to people. He leads by example.

Politicians share many of these traits. Yet, as we are seeing during this election campaign here at home, as well as south of the border, few politicians enjoy the same level of popularity as the pope.  In my view, this is because leadership cannot be boiled down to a checklist of behaviors. 

Leadership requires more than the mastery of a set of skills.  An outstanding leader also communicates, through words and actions, the person that he is and the values that inform his life. We might refer to this as the leader’s spirituality.

Apart from all of his leadership qualities, I think that people are attracted to the spirituality of Francis. His humility and respect for others reflect his understanding of service, and his commitment to placing people, not dogma, at the center of his papacy.

Politicians should take on the smell of many different sheep
It would be unfair to make a direct comparison between the leadership style of Francis and those individuals presently seeking the top job in the nation.  After all, Francis does not have to worry about getting elected or coming up with a platform that appeals to a majority of voters.  But there is one page from his playbook that national party leaders might consider imitating.

Francis inherited a church rife with problems. He identified one of these problems as clericalism, the focus on privilege, status and power that separates priests from the people they are supposed to serve. One way to combat the tendency towards clericalism is to take on the smell of sheep.  “Priests”, said Francis, “should be shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”  

Our national party leaders say they walk and talk with ordinary Canadians. They speak eloquently about what the average Canadian thinks. Each of them would have us believe that he alone has the pulse of the nation.  But, it is obvious from watching the televised coverage of the leaders’ tour that no one is taking on the multitude of smells that permeate the pasture. 

The majority of people who attend the campaign events are party faithful. In fact, some events are by invitation only.  Campaign organizers carefully select the individuals who stand adoringly behind the leader, nodding in agreement as he presents his platform and denigrates that of the other guys.

The political backdrop of faces sends a visual message of diversity and support for the leader. The group is there to make the leader seem like one of us, to humanize him and the party’s policies, and to persuade us to enter its sheepfold.

image courtesy of khunaspix at freedigitalphotos.net

Our national party leaders are accustomed to the smell of their own sheep pen. That is not necessarily bad, but it limits perspective. Leaders may miss the bleating of dissonant voices with good ideas; voices that could help the country become more prosperous and equitable.

This hanging around at the center of one’s pen does not end with the campaign; it makes it way into government in the form of partisanship.

The center of the sheep pen does not afford a complete view of the pasture. As Francis observed while visiting a parish at the edge of Rome shortly after he became pope, “We understand reality better not from the center, but from the outskirts.”

In an election campaign, party leaders try to convince voters that their party has the best ideas. After the election, the top dog would do well to seek perspectives and incorporate worthy ideas that come from outside the party fold.