I have recently found myself musing about the amazing power of belief, particularly belief in a religion or guiding philosophy of life. Freud, for example, wondered at how men willingly die to “protect a scrap of cloth” (their country’s flag). We are called to sign up to fight for “God, King and Country” and ‘God’ is always presumed to be on our side!
History is full of wars fought in the name of God, or Allah or Jehovah and countless beings have died or been maimed for the rest of their lives from the violent effects, or results, of the wars fought in the name of a spiritual belief in a being (God) that cannot be observed with the senses. At the simplest level, God or Allah is a belief based entirely on faith in the word, or instruction, of authority figures. By contrast, the Buddhist explanation of karma (the moment-to-moment action and motivation of beings) as the force creating our worlds can be tested by careful observation.
Again, Freud comes to mind with his belief that God is a projection of the human ‘father’, or head of the family and Marx is renowned for his pronouncement that “religion is the opiate of the masses!” On a more personal level, two recent experiences have triggered my present contemplations on the power of belief.
‘Always trust that God knows best…’
The first experience was watching a movie on TV titled “Though None Go With Me”. Very briefly, the movie was structured around a Christian woman, the two men she loved and the nature of that love and how it was tested by life’s vicissitudes as she developed from an independent, ‘hungry for life’, young woman to an older woman in her 60s, respected by her church community for her generosity and service to those in need. Apart from enjoying the romantic and biographical nature of the movie, what really struck me was how she attributed all the deaths, losses and difficulties of her life to God’s will and action.
Again and again I wondered at what appeared to me as a projected responsibility for her suffering onto an all-powerful God figure. As one loss after another tested her faith in the God she felt responsible for her suffering, the advised solution to her distress was to distract herself from the pain by making herself busy. Fortunately for herself and those around her, this busyness involved helping others. The satisfaction she felt from doing this was again attributed to God’s generosity and love, rather than her own generous and loving actions.
From a Buddhist perspective, the shifting of focus from oneself to helping and attending to others is indeed put forward as a way out of suffering but the explanation for its effectiveness in reducing suffering is different to the Christian explanation. My understanding is that our deluded belief in our separateness (each of us perceived as a separate entity) and the consequent expectation of an ongoing stability of existence – rather than constant change – are the prime sources of our suffering. The ‘refuge’ idea that supports us when life is difficult is an understanding of interbeingness: the dependent arising and impermanence of all phenomena, rather than a dependence on an all-powerful benevolent or avenging God-figure. By regularly contemplating the inevitability of change, death, impermanence and interbeingness, it seems easier to me to accept losses, illness and death than it would if I were to still believe in an all-powerful God that was arranging these experiences for me.
Thinking of ‘caged virgins!’
The second prompt to deeply contemplate the power of belief came in the form of the international bestseller, ‘The Caged Virgin‘ in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim, appeals to the West to save women from her religion’s hostility towards women, including the migrant and refugee women living in communities in the West. This book (which I have listed under recommended reading if you wish to buy it) comes before her moving memoir, ‘Infidel‘, in which she records and interprets the first few decades of her life in which she was indoctrinated as a ‘true believer’ in the Islamic faith, that is until she discovered freedom of thought and action in the Netherlands. I was so moved by her story that I chose Infidel as one of the first books to review on this website. Her outspoken criticism of the Islamic faith she grew up with has resulted in death threats and rejection by her clan and close family. As an outspoken campaigner and a member of the Dutch parliament, the threats to her safety (at the time of writing Infidel) were deemed sufficiently serious by Dutch authorities to necessitate personal police protection and for a period she had to ‘hide out’ in the U.S.
She argues that “the Islamic faith lends itself more than any other to the preservation of premodern customs and traditions. For in Islam, culture and religion are very closely connected, and verses from the Koran legitimize many practices that – in the eyes of Westerners – are unacceptable” (Hirsi, p.44). Reading this book, I am again horrified at the enslavement of Islamic women, justified by the belief that women are responsible for evoking sexual desire in men, rather than men being responsible for their actions and management of sexual desire.
Women are believed to be essentially the property of first the father, and then the husband. If she is perceived as shaming the family by breaking any of the many dress and behaviour rules that bind her, her father, husband or brothers may beat her, lock her up or even kill her! Again and again, Ayaan Hirsi Ali traces the endemic violence against women to Muhammad and the Koran. She points out how “even the victims of physical abuse themselves cite the Koran to justify the violent actions of the men, and often return to their husbands, promising they will be more obedient and improve their behaviour in the future” (p. 154).
It appears that, as in the Christian faith, ultimate responsibility for the affairs of Islamic men and women is seen to lie with the all-powerful God, or Allah, and that all behaviour must comply with his rules, as interpreted by the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams. Punishment will be carried out in the name of God but according to the interests of the men who claim to act on his behalf. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali concludes near the end of ‘The Caged Virgin“, “the first victims of Muhammad are the minds of Muslims themselves. They are imprisoned in the fear of hell and so also fear the very natural pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness… The present-day attitude of Western cultural relativists, who flinch from criticizing Muhammad for fear of offending Muslims, allow Western Muslims to hide from reviewing their own moral values” (p.176).
In Buddhist thought, the moral values that guide action combine as the karma creating the world we perceive. Where, I wonder, does this God figure come in, other than as a projection of the responsibility we are reluctant to accept? If Islamic men were to come clean and tell women that they must do this and that “because I say so” or “because I want you to”, it seems unlikely that Islamic women would accept their subjugation so readily. To have God on one’s side seems a very handy device!
In conclusion, I am reminded of the Buddhist teaching that a mark of reaching the first stage of enlightenment is when one is no longer governed by the first three hindrances (Samyojanam):
* Sakkayaditti: Self centred, as though king or queen of the world;
* Vicikicca: sceptical doubt; nothing really matters; it is all relative to how I/you see it;
* Silabbataparamaso: belief in right and ritual; belief that one way of doing something is in itself, and in all circumstances, better than another.
So it is not belief in itself that is the problem, but rather the rigidity and denial of the right to question and disagree and adapt a belief according to circumstances that I question. It seems to me that all beliefs can become distorted by self-interest, misunderstanding and the abuse of power invested in a belief. I must also add a rider that I am not claiming Buddhist understandings as ‘the right belief’, nor theistic Christian, Islamic or Jewish religions as ‘wrong beliefs’. I fully accept that there are many paths to spiritual unfolding and wisdom. My concern is about projecting responsibility away from oneself and using another person’s spiritual belief to serve your own interests while claiming that it is ‘God’s will’.
What do you think? I recognise that I am touching on one small aspect of the vast bodies of religious and philosophical thought, but you, too, may have some quick reflection to share…
With warm wishes,