11 February 2006

Belief: to kill or die for?

Muslim protestor - source The Epoch Times
I'm interested in belief at the moment. This essay and one next week will explore two aspects of belief, one rather negative, and one more positive.

Few people can be unaware that some people hold their beliefs so dear that they are willing to kill others who disagree with them. It's all too easy to treat this fact simplistically. Such a rigidly held belief can be difficult to understand at first sight. We are repulsed by the killer.

Killing for one's beliefs is not a new phenomena. It's been happening for the entire history of human kind. However we live in interesting times. Since the Enlightenment we have stopped believing in an omnipotent god. This seems only right and proper to me, but then I am a product of a rationalist-materialistic social and education system. There are two main responses to this decline in religion: credulity, and incredulity, both in fairly extreme versions. The first extreme is that we believe in everything: from Aliens living amongst us, to crystals that heal diseases, and dead spirits that speak to us from beyond the grave. The other extreme is that we don't believe in anything beyond our five senses. We are skeptical of anything we can't measure.

From either point of view we may find it difficult to understand the radically angry reaction from Muslims whose faith has been publically mocked. From one point of view all beliefs are the same, God = Allah = Jesus = Buddha = Mohammed = Snoopy the Dog, so why would you get all het up over one or the other. From the other point of view believe in God is a childish whimsy, at best. We're just not equipped to deal with someone who is so insistent on their point of view that they will kill anyone who tries to contradict them, or to have a laugh at their expense.

There is also a remarkable naivete in the reaction which says that because a newspaper from Denmark, or where-ever, mocks us, then the government of Denmark is responsible, and Danish citizens are one and all legitimate targets of our anger.

In response to recent events I was saying to myself that I could understand dying for a belief, but not killing for a belief. I said to myself that there were no grounds on which I would kill anyone. But this is not entirely true. I'd probably kill to save myself or a loved one from harm. I imagine that I'm capable of it under extreme circumstances. So this is interesting. What makes me prepared to kill under these circumstances? Well it's a view isn't it? A belief. I believe that my life is worth more than the person I'm protecting myself from. So perhaps killing for a belief is not so alien as I thought. Gulp!

Further more I said to myself that I certainly wouldn't kill anyone for mocking the Buddha. I'm not like those fundamentalist theists! But then I realised that I had been in some pretty heated arguments on this subject, had allowed myself, perhaps even willed myself, to be pretty angry over issues which were relatively petty. And actually there have been times when I felt, and even expressed a considerable amount of illwill towards people whose point of view I disagreed with. So it's starting to look like a matter of degree in which I differ from fundamentalists, not anything intrinsic. I just keep my anger in check to a greater extent. That's not trivial by any means. But the anger is not different from the anger of the terrorist!

I'm not saying here that I have sympathy with killers, or condoning killing in any way. What I'm saying is that the mental states I imagine a killer to be experiencing as a result of their strongly held views, are not alien to me. I recognise hatred in myself.

We all have experiences that we don't want. Our cherished beliefs are challenged, mocked, abused. We respond with anger, and we might even feel quite justified. These need not be religious beliefs. We may believe that saying please and thank, in the English manner, are absolutely essential, but run into someone from a culture where they don't even have words for these concepts! That person unwittingly falls foul of our belief system and whammo we hate them!

The Karaṇīya Metta Sutta tells us, Diṭṭhiñ ca anupagamma "And don't fall into views". In the contemporary idiom of the FWBO we might say: hold your opinions lightly. Beliefs can be constantly re-examined in light of experience. Particularly hatred. My observation is that words said in anger fail to reach their mark. Whatever I am trying to say, if I'm angry, then pretty much all I communicate is I am Angry. And people respond to this in various ways, but none of them involve weighing up my words or empathising with me. And why should they? I know my own reaction to anger is FEAR, and I just want to get away whenever I known someone is angry. Angry people are dangerous, they lash out, they say and do hurtful things. I'm not so very different from anyone else.

If however we hold our beliefs lightly, if we are open to other view points, then we are much less likely to react with anger when we meet an opposing belief. And this is important because if our beliefs are so rigidly held that we are enraged by opposition, then we may end up killing for our beliefs.

In this essay I have assumed that killing is a bad thing without ever justifying this proposition. And last week I suggested that if we are really paying attention then we won't be happy if we try to be happy at the expense of another person. For now I hope that you agree with these sentiments enough to follow along with the argument. Next week I'm going to look a little more at why what we believe is important, not only personally, but more cosmically speaking. This should help to fill out the picture somewhat.


*image by Chris Jackson/Getty Images.
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