Reply to Raghwesh Ranjan

Associate Director, Law, Policy and Ethics
Foundation for Genetic Medicine, Inc.
l0900 University Blvd, MSN 4E3
Manassas, VA 20ll0, USA
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 160-1.

I was very happy to read Raghwesh's astute objections to my commentary. When Erin and I started the Mystical Bioethics Network, we certainly didn't expect everyone to agree with one another. But although it wasn't stated explicitly, I think we did look forward to discussion motivated by love and a sincere desire to seek truth and meaning together: even though we may have to do this sometimes by means of debate. I believe that it is in this constructive spirit that Raghwesh has objected to my objections, and I would like to continue in the same spirit.

Raghwesh insists that: "Religion obviously teaches tolerance, humbleness and respect for fellow beings". "Religion", he says, "is beyond criticism. No religion talks about hatred and immorality. The religious wars are all man made".

I do not know, however, how we can find out what "religion" has to say unless we look at the sacred books of the various religions. And we would be deceiving ourselves if we were to deny that these books contain incitement to hatred and violence. Let us look at some examples. In order not to point fingers at others without being self-critical, I'll begin with my own religion, Judaism:

The Hebrew Bible contains long lists of commandments to put to death people who perform certain deeds. Among these are the adulterer and the adulteress (Leviticus, XX,10), and the witch (Exodus XXII, 17) Such practitioners of disapproved sexual and spiritual activity are no longer put to death nowadays, but the Biblical statements that they ought to be killed certainly do not encourage loving them. These are just two examples. A careful study of the Bible will discover many more.

Anti-Semitism is a euphemistic way of referring to the hatred of Jews. Nazi Germany is often blamed for this phenomenon, but it really has its roots in the Christian Bible, the New Testament: especially in the Gospel according to John. I shall give one example. John says that when the Jews criticized Jesus, Jesus replied: "If God were your Father, you would love me.You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. And because I tell you the truth, you believe me not.He that is of God hears God's words; you therefore hear them not, because you are not of God." (John VIII, 42-47)

The Christian Bible also described what God is going to do to unbelievers in the end of days: "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." Revelation XXI, 8. This does not exactly encourage bioethical love either. And notice that the freethinking, the devotees of unaccepted spiritual practices, and practitioners of unaccepted sexual behavior, are all cast together with murderers and liars.

Although I have some scholarly background in Judaism and Christianity, I am less sure of myself when it comes to religions from more easterly parts of Asia, especially because of linguistic barriers. So I am willing to be corrected by the more learned. But the Bhagavad-Gita begins with Arjuna's eloquent hesitation at going to war against his own kinsmen. Krishna replies: "Considering your specific duty as a kshatriya [a military caste], you should know there is no better engagement for you than fighting on religious principles, and so there is no need for hesitation". (Chapter II, Text 31, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation) Is this not a justification of religious war?

Later on in the Bhagavad-Gita, there is the statement that "in this world there are two kinds of created beings. One is called divine and the other demoniac" (Chapter XVI, Text 6) Is this not a source of the idea that people who are different from ourselves are not really "human"? That they lack souls? And is it not an easy step from this ideology to the attitude that the suffering and death of those who do not think or feel like ourselves is not a tragedy? This idea that some creatures only appear to be human, but really are not, was both presented and questioned very dramatically in the recent film, Matrix.

But perhaps I have misunderstood the Bhagavad-Gita. I should be happy if a Sanskrit scholar were to explain the Hindu view on this subject with more precision and depth.

Another major religion is of course Islam. But I must confess my ignorance of the Koran, with which my familiarity is sketchy and second-hand. But perhaps an Islamic scholar can explain the concept of Jihad to us.

Raghwesh seems to believe that while "religion is beyond criticism", humans have distorted it. The difficulty is that we have no way of knowing anything about religion except through the intermediary of the words and experiences of human beings. I shall illustrate this by a true story. On my first visit to India, I met a professor in Chennai. When he learned that I am Israeli, he said: "I was in Cochi, and I saw your God." Cochi is a city in the State of Kerala, where there has been a Jewish community since at least the time when Israel was conquered by the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple , about 2000 years ago. But I was surprised when he said that he saw our God. I asked him how that could be.

He explained that he was in the synagogue in Cochi and saw Jews take a cylindrical wooden box out of a cabinet. Then, he said, they prayed to the box. "That box is your God, isn't it?" he asked. Understanding that he was referring to the box in which a handwritten scroll of the Tora, (the first five books of the Bible), is kept, I replied: "No, the box is not our God. But inside the box is a book. Our God wrote that book."

But reflecting on what I said, I realize that I was wrong. We do not believe that God wrote the Tora. We believe that Moshe, under the influence of revelation from God, wrote the Tora. (With the exception of the last passage, where Moshe's death is described.) But Moshe was a man. And although we Jews believe that Moshe received the most perfect revelation of God, it is not impossible that his understanding of this revelation was influenced, and perhaps even somewhat distorted by his human limitations, his thoughts, his feelings, his intellectual and imaginary capacity, his education, his historical and social contexts, etc. And I suggest that the same may be the case with all religious revelations, with no exception.

Even if I decide to try to bypass established religion and seek spiritual enlightenment on my own, and even if I manage to succeed in having a genuine spiritual experience (and am not just deceiving myself), I have no hope of getting a pure experience, unmixed with my own thoughts and feelings and prejudices and education. There is no escaping it. We can never get "religion" pure, because we are always limited by our human imperfections and the darkness of the world in which we live.

So I see no solution other than to study religious texts, all of them, critically, trying to sort out the spiritual insights from the exhortations to hatred and violence, while always ready to admit we might be wrong. The main thing is for all of us to try to get humble enough to admit that we are all basically in the same situation, cast into a life the meaning of which -- if it indeed has a meaning at all -- we do not understand. I have a kind of feeling that when I talk about ontological humility, and Erin talks about valuing our differences and letting it be, maybe we are both trying to grasp at the same thing.

Go to commentary by Williams
Go to Mystical Bioethics Network
Go back to EJAIB 11 (5)September 2001
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet: