Most every school has rules that students are expected to obey. In days gone by such rules were very prescriptive. They gave guidance as to dress, manners, deportment, how to address ‘superiors’ and so on. Young minds needed strict instruction on how to conduct themselves. The rules were enforced by fear. Transgression resulted in corporal punishment and ultimately expulsion. Children were too naïve to know the reasons for such rules. All they had to do was obey them faithfully and they would earn the epithet of ‘good’ and mostly all little children want to be seen as ‘good’. Rules were manufactured by their betters and they should be the grateful recipients of such rules. It was not their lot, nor should it be their intention, to question such rules. They should just be grateful that someone more knowing than them should have provided them with a guide to being ‘good’ and if they were ‘good’ than everything would turn out alright.
This seems to be a model adopted from many religions, at least of the more fundamental kind. The British philosopher, A C Grayling has written, “It is the business of all religious doctrines to keep their votaries in a scare of intellectual infancy.”
There is much debate in recent times of Muslim populations wanting their societies to be regulated by Sharia law. In the sixteenth century, at the height of Muslim power, some of the devout decided it was necessary to go back to the life of Muhammad to try to understand how the Prophet had lived and record the details of his life so believers could try to emulate him. Muhammad was seen by believers to be the perfect man and they would profit by trying to live as he did. From this process a detailed prescription was derived about how to live properly under Islam.
The ex-Muslim who writes for his own protection under the assumed name of Ibn Warraq and the author of ‘Why I am not a Muslim’ doubts the fantastic claim that the Koran is the final and unalterable word of God as delivered to an illiterate merchant in seventh-century Arabia.
He relates how the Koran deals with a host of rules and regulations for the proper functioning of Muslim communities. These rules deal with:
• The position of women, marriage and divorce
• The institution of slavery
• The doctrine of Holy War
• The taboos concerning food and drink
• Social prescriptions regarding legal alms or the poor tax
• Usury, inheritance, prayers and pilgrimage and fasts
• Many moral precepts
He asserts that with respect to Sharia law “far from being the word of God , it contains many barbaric principles unworthy of a merciful God. Enough evidence has been provided to show that the Koran bears the fingerprints of Muhammad, whose moral values were imbued with the seventh century world-view that can no longer be accepted as valid.”
Of course the laying down of prescriptive rules to govern the detail of peoples’ lives is not exclusive to Islam. William Manchester, the American author and biographer, in his history of the Renaissance, ‘A World Lit Only by Fire’ records some of the diversions forbidden by John Calvin,
“feasting, dancing, singing, pictures, statues, relics, church bells, organs, altar candles, indecent or irreligious songs, staging or attending theatrical plays; wearing rouge, jewellery, lace or immodest dress; speaking disrespectfully of your betters; extravagant entertainment, swearing, gambling, playing cards, hunting, drunkenness; naming children after anyone but figures in the Old Testament; reading immoral or irreligious books.”
He records how miscreants were dealt with. A father who christened his son Claude, a name not found in the Old Testament spent four days in jail as did a woman whose hairdo reached an ‘immoral’ height.
Calvin formed the Geneva Consistory which was set up to enforce discipline in the early Protestant Church. Although Calvin championed the separation of Church and State, the Consistory had a role in punishing those who flouted the church’s rules and recommending to civil courts what penalties should be applied to transgressors. The Consistory beheaded a child who struck his parents. They drowned any single woman found pregnant.
The Puritans in America emulated Calvin. Roger Ludlow in 1650 wrote The Code of Connecticut which is the first codification of Connecticut’s laws. In his book, ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’, Philip Yancey the best-selling American evangelical Christian writer, quotes from the code:
“No one shall run on the Sabbath Day, or walk in his garden, or elsewhere except reverently to and from meeting. No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave on the Sabbath. If any man shall kiss his wife, or wife her husband on the Lord’s Day, the party in fault shall be punished at the discretion of the court of magistrates.”
Primo Levi, the Jewish-Italian chemist wrote ‘If This Be a Man’ which was an account of his experiences in Auschwitz. He wrote about those who tried to survive by being totally obedient to the rules the Germans set for their pathetic captives. The inmates called them ‘muselmans’. He related that these obedient souls were the least likely to survive in the longer term. Submitting our sense of self to be moulded by the rules of others when such rules cannot be challenged is self-denying and in the end self-annihilating. It is an offence to our humanity, our intelligence and our sense of worth to have to be slaves to prescriptive dictates imposed upon us as though we were children compelled to meet the arbitrarily imposed rules of our totalitarian schools. When fundamentalism compels such obedience we can infer that it has little substance to stand behind its dictates.
And of course, the other, issue of concern is should we feel compelled to do things because it is a dictate of our god knowing that disobedience will send us to eternal damnation or should we voluntarily behave in such a way because we understand the benefits of such behaviour to humankind? Anybody who has much to do with the conduct of humans would know that the latter position is most likely to deliver the best outcomes. It is far better to do the right thing because we understand the benefit of such action, than to slavishly follow some dictate because we feel we will be the beneficiary of such action.
But this is not the way of the fundamentalists of any persuasion. For them there is no questioning or no convincing needed, we just need to follow the dictates of the headmasters!
The argument is made by “the believers” that if the rules are set aside, if they don’t have their divine authority then people will behave as they will and morality will be disregarded. It is an unfortunate fact that the conventionally religious would prefer to ignore that morality is not the sole province of traditional believers. It is easy to list the sins of the traditionalists from the inquisition to the attack on the twin towers. There is no dispute that the same class of people have made great contributions to the support of the underprivileged and the oppressed. It is not hard however to make the case that those of a more secular point of view have contributed at least as much.
The logic of the fundamentalists is quite black and white. We either obey the rules to the letter or we are sinners. Modern ethics rarely sees things in such a black and white perspective. Using the terminology of modern science ethics belongs in the realm of “fuzzy logic”. Someone once said that it is a sign of psychological maturity to be able to hold two contradictory opinions in the mind at the same time!
Schopenhauer pointed out that monotheism is inherently intolerant. Monotheistic gods are by their nature jealous gods who cannot tolerate the dissenting viewpoints of their competitors. Thus for such gods the rules become even more important, and in particular the way they differentiate one religion from another.
Aldous Huxley, many years ago prescribed the “philosophia perennis” (The Perennial Philosophy – a term first coined by Leibniz) which outlined the common beliefs shared by all the major religions. Indeed these seemed to be the major underpinnings of all religions that have endured over reasonable periods of time. But this is not what religions emphasise – they highlight not the commonality but the differences between one set of beliefs and another.
The difficulty we have to confront is the fact that the God of the fundamentalists seems so more inclined to punish than reward. Can this be the God of Love? More and more it seems most feasible that the characteristics being ascribed to God are the characteristics of Man. It is difficult to believe that an almighty God of infinite love would at all be concerned for example with what we wear or what we eat. It is impossible to imagine that an all powerful God could take offence at the minor misdemeanours of human beings. The catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1994 asserts that, “there is no offence, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive.” Is God less forgiving than this?
It is hard to relate to a concept of God that is so prescriptive and dismissive of human reason. There seems to be no other interpretation (in line with the words of Ibn Warraq quoted above) that such petty attempts to regulate the everyday lives of believers are not guidelines from an all-knowing God but the egoic determinations of insecure men.