Worshipping the Mirror

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 4:15 PM

For centuries, the holy grail of a certain segment of the elite has been to boil down religion into something common to all faiths, thereby eliminating what is seen as one of the “major negatives” of religious belief – sectarianism and fighting between religious groups. Now, members of the TED Conference, at the behest of author Karen Armstrong, want to give it another go with the “Charter for Compassion.” Inevitably, it will fail.

The Charter wishes to take what people of all faiths submit as key principles of faith and boil them down to a common core. In other words, to extract and view the molecular building blocks of faith before they are combined into specific combinations. The proposal suggests that this breakdown into elemental parts can be done by using a high tech rating system allowing the masses to designate those different principles in various ways. This is no doubt an impressive technological endeavor; in its planning at least, it takes the good ideas of sites like Digg and Wikipedia and attempts to combine that use of human cooperative power with computerized formulae.

The underlying assumption of Armstrong is that at the atomic level, religions all revolve around the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated. At this stage, the project comes down to essentially attempting to find a way to unify religions. “They all do the same thing,” the thinking goes, “so if you summarize that, everyone will agree.”

A good idea? It depends on what one thinks George Santayana’s whole “those who fail to remember history” thing.

Attempts to merge elements of different religions into something that will unify people is a practice that goes back millennia, as conquering kings – if they were sensible – would try to find a way to add the conquered peoples’ gods to the triumphant pantheon. Sometimes it worked, other times, attempts to minimize the uniqueness of the native deity backfired, as Antiochus IV Epiphanes surely could attest. His attempts to put down Jewish resistance to Greek culture merely led to a full-scale revolt still commemorated by Hanukkah and helping to bring his dynasty to an end.

While Antiochus’s idea surely seemed wise to sage advisors – “it’s just another similar religion – it’s no sweat to combine it” – anyone who took the time to understand the core of Judaism could have seen the disaster coming. What part of “these people only will worship one God and only in a Torah approved way” is unclear?

The Charter for Compassion’s initiative, however, is more directly a descendent of something less distant to us: the Enlightenment. The wise minds of those intoxicated from the air of the early Enlightenment’s unbridled, optimistic humanism presumed that proper religion would be that which could be arrived at purely through reason. Surely, it was thought, if one stripped away religious dogma and simply reasoned about the Divine, one could come up with a Religion of Reason that would leave no reason to war.

This did not eliminate religious boundaries; instead, it further fragmented things, as these “intellectual believers” in reason became known as Deists. They eventually faded out, though their mark continues to appear throughout philosophy and theology – as a subgroup. The Enlightenment Project’s attempt to deal with religious sectarianism, like Antiochus’s failed.

True Believers in this mission, however, have not been deterred. They continue to plow ahead, each time ignoring past efforts, hungering for the utopia they know is just around the corner. This time will be different! The Charter for Compassion, as much as any project, fails to recognize that the essence of religion is something other than one of its common, positive attributes. The philosophically inclined will recognize this as confusing accidents for essence.

From afar, folks like Armstrong think they are on to something because they have backed so far away from the actual faith of actual people that key differences are blurred together as in the background of a picture. They have allowed their scholarly lenses to focus unnaturally on that which entices themselves, so that instead of reflecting on a picture filled with a collage of faiths, they are merely looking at themselves in a mirror. In contrast, more astute students of religion have become increasingly and necessarily self-aware: those observing “neutrally” from the outside are not nearly as effective as participants in understanding religion and culture — in part because they are never, in fact, neutral.

Armstrong and her colleagues are well intentioned, and for that, they ought to be commended. But, they need to start over, pulling themselves out of their dreams and looking at real life religion. Yes, there are things that are common between them, and yes, encouraging cooperation to produce good ends, such as tackling genocide and hunger are worth doing. But to go too far, and to assign too many things to the rubbish pile, thinking them nothing but odd cultural scraps obscuring the real core of religion will never solve the “problem” of the plurality of religions. It will merely create a new missionary religion, determined just as much as the others to prove itself the absolute truth, but without any claim to direct divine warrant to back it up.

Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business.

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