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[This is the 7th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

Proverbial Models

In this 7th part of the series, we take a look at some religious proverbs that have become woven into the fabric of civilization: the golden rule, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” “turn the other cheek,” and the idea of universal dignity.

“An eye for an eye” is best understood not as a formula for retribution or punishment, but rather as a simple descriptive model of how humans behave. When we’re injured or abused, our immediate impulse is to do unto the perpetrator what’s been done to us. We call it biblical justice. Often, victims of predation are not satisfied with merely getting even, but rather are inclined to “better the instruction,” as Shylock points out in The Merchant of Venice. Escalation follows. Not to stand up to the perpetrator of a predatory act is to signal weakness and invite a follow-up that may bring death or enslavement.

It may be hard to tell who started a feud because the initial act of predation lies buried in a disputed past and escalation has since blurred the picture. A pattern of reciprocal indignities is what we see today in any number of ongoing conflicts around the world. At some point, it becomes more important to find a way to interrupt the cycle of revenge than to assign blame.

Attempts to stop cycles of predation by “turning the other cheek” can be suicidal unless they’re part of a broad-based strategy of civil disobedience, and even then can result in great harm to protestors. Religious ideals, decoupled from political pressure, have seldom been enough to prevent predation or to arrest the cycles of vengeance that tend to ensue.

On the other hand, turning the other cheek, in the form of forgiveness, and as institutionalized in “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions, is the only thing that can permanently end a cycle of revenge.

The Golden Rule

The golden rule embodies a symmetry reminiscent of those that turn up everywhere in physics models. A variant of the golden rule can be found in virtually every religion, ethical code, or moral philosophy.

Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.
– Hinduism

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
– Buddhism

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
– Confucianism

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
– Judaism

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
– Christianity

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.
– Islam

We should behave to our friends, as we would wish our friends to behave to us.    
– Aristotle

Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
– Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Neminem laedere
– Legal codification of the golden rule, which translates as “general rule of care,” or “hurt no one.”

As in physics, a deviation from symmetry signals the existence of a force that breaks it. Among humans, asymmetries take the form of inequitable or preferential treatment of persons or groups and, as in the physical world, these deviations from the even-handedness implicit in the golden rule reveal the existence of coercion. For example, slavery requires force or the threat of force.

If the most famous formula in physics is E=mc2, then the golden rule, as a formula for reciprocal dignity, is perhaps its religious counterpart, a jewel in the crown of religious insight.

Dignity for All

If the idea of god, as signifying comprehensibility, were not enough to warrant a tip of the hat to religion, the god idea also contains the seeds of the egalitarian notion of universal dignity.

Notwithstanding the fact that religion has often impugned the dignity of adherents to other faiths, it has usually defended the dignity of its own followers. Theistic religions go further and proclaim the existence of a personal, caring god, a father figure who loves all who share the faith, according them equal dignity regardless of status, rank, or role.

The universal equality of dignity is among religion’s most revolutionary ideas. It’s not a description of life as we know it, but rather a prescription for life as it could be. Once formulated, the ideal of “dignity for all” exerts a pull that’s felt in every human interaction. In subsequent posts, I’ll make the case that, despite appearances to the contrary, human behavior is slowly coming into alignment with that prophetic aspirational, religious model.

The need for dignity runs so deep that when our fellow man seems determined to deny it to us, even non-believers may suspend their disbelief. As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Arthur Hugh Clough gives it this comical twist:

And almost every one when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel draws attention to dignity in an even larger sense. As we try to fathom our place in the cosmos, most of us, at one time or another, experience a sense of awe. Heschel interprets awe as an “intuition of the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme.”

The intuition of the dignity of all things is tantamount to recognizing that everything has an integral place in the whole, everything belongs and has an indispensable role. There is a perfection to things, not necessarily as they are at the moment, but rather at the next level up—as an inseparable part of the process of becoming. Everything is integral to the process, including our judgments and opinions, positive or negative, about what’s happening. Heschel’s observation recognizes this property of the universe and identifies awe as an appropriate response to the world’s intricate integrity.

Again, it’s now widely acknowledged that religion’s record at upholding dignity is spotty. Religious leaders of every faith have at times sanctioned indignity towards others, persecuting them as infidels, heathens, and heretics.

Science makes as many mistakes as religion, probably more, but it has found a way to rectify them relatively quickly. As a result there are few who doubt its value. In contrast, the proposition that “The world would be better off without religion” has many takers.

Religious models such as monotheism, the golden rule, and universal dignity are pillars of human civilization. Like science models, their strength is due to the truth they embody, and not dependent upon the zeal of “true believers.” A prerequisite to realizing religion’s vision of “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” is a new relationship to the idea of belief itself. If you’re wondering about the seemingly intractable problem posed by fundamentalism, the next post is for you.

Religion and Science[All 20 posts of this series have now been collected in a free ebook: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship. If you enjoyed this series please let me know at breakingranks.net. My most recent book, The Rowan Tree: A Novel,  explores  the personal and political ramifications of my ideas as part of the coming of age of America in an era of global partnerships. The Rowan Tree is available as an ebook or in print format.]

Originally posted to Robert Fuller on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 03:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Couldn't agree more ... (5+ / 0-)
    it’s now widely acknowledged that religion’s record at upholding dignity is spotty

    "Four more years!" (Obama Unencumbered - The Sequel)

    by jwinIL14 on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 03:28:14 PM PDT

  •  You completely lost me at dignity in foxholes ... (7+ / 0-)

    Redefining dignity as an external construct outside of human relationships is false. There is no dignity between me and a rock, between me and the stars, between me and a god.

    Your argument conveniently conflates dignity with a supreme being, when, in fact, exactly none of your blockquotes on the Golden Rule manage to mention god at all. They all talk about the essential condition of dignity between human beings.

    Personally, I'm sympathetic to the many religions that argue for dignity by understanding the nature of the human social condition. Where it falls flat is exactly what your diary is claiming; that this nature is handed down somehow from a being outside of that social condition.

  •  Monotheism is a pillar of civilization? (6+ / 0-)

    With respect, I disagree.

  •  "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (5+ / 0-)

    really SHOULD be understood as a formula for retribution or punishment. It is a direct quotation from Laws 196 and 200 of the Law Code of Hammurabi (though the sentiment exists in earlier codes as well), a civil code which while "sanctioned" by divine authority (see the preface to the Laws) had far less to do with religion per se than establishing 1) the state's authority to mete out justice and 2) the rights accorded to different social classes in various circumstances. It was the legal functions of kingship and the state (and fear of the state's monopoly on violence) and not religion that muted the instinct to exact vengeance, turning the other cheek in order 1) to seek recourse in the legal system and 2) to avoid finding oneself subject to that system.

    Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time. (Terry Pratchett)

    by angry marmot on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 04:06:39 PM PDT

    •  Well Turning the Other Cheek and the Golden (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Garrett, G2geek

      rule also describe basic behaviors in any social species. Individuals wouldn't cooperate if there were no altruism, or if individuals never surrendered to retribution at any point.

      As humans develop more complex societies they need more formal regulations, but these things seem to me to predate religion, humanity and mammals.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 04:27:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  At its best this also limits punishment ... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wee Mama, a2nite, G2geek

      in other words, the punishment needs to fit the crime. So you take an eye for an eye rather than killing the person or taking his ass (his livelihood) or his wife or land.

      However, this is mostly practiced as violently and negatively as possible, since as human beings we do tend to go more toward the negative than the positive.

      The same as do unto others ... it becomes to to others before they do to you.

      "Life without liberty is like a body without spirit. Liberty without thought is like a disturbed spirit." Kahlil Gibran, 'The Vision'

      by CorinaR on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 04:34:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  that, I think, was the intent. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JDsg

        To limit punishment to something proportional, rather than disproportional.  

        And it also shows up in the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: each making an effort to limit violence in some way.

        The fact that humans tend to seek out disproportional punishments is probably what motivated Jesus to push the issue all the way to the other end of the table with "turn the other cheek."  

        What we're talking about here is ultimately the matter of avoiding the expression of the worst in human nature, by requiring (as a religious obligation in times when religion was the supreme arbiter of human existence) that humans live up to a higher standard than mere impulse.  

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 09:44:51 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Why stop at dignity? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, G2geek

    You wrote

    . . . it’s now widely acknowledged that religion’s record at upholding dignity is spotty. Religious leaders of every faith have at times sanctioned indignity towards others, persecuting them as infidels, heathens, and heretics.
    Isn't this also a violation of the golden rule too?

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 04:19:08 PM PDT

  •  Some Big, Civilization-shaping Ideas from Religion (4+ / 0-)

    Include the Crusades and the Inquisition.

    •  stoning (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a2nite

    •  The crusades, inquisition, and other horrros (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      G2geek

      I'm aware of all that Religion got wrong and does wrong. (Part 1 of this series stipulates that.) My question is rather what did religion get right (if anything)? Without acknowledging that, a fruitful cooperation between religion and science on urgent current problems is unlikely.  

      •  But which religion? The various religions, (0+ / 0-)

        major and not so major, can't speak to each other. There is no unified voice. So which among the various ones will speak to science?

        •  Religions can't speak to each other??? (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          G2geek, JDsg

          Guess you've missed decades of inter-religious dialogue.

          Harvard's Pluralism Project is probably your best starting point for getting caught up to speed on that one.

          Orbis Books has an entire series of books devoted to the concept Faith Meets Faith.

          If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

          by dirkster42 on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 07:31:26 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  yo, bro'. don't we often get the feeling... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            dirkster42, JDsg

            .... that we're looking for a few people who understand what we're talking about...?

            Slowly but surely we'll find 'em.

            "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

            by G2geek on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 09:49:10 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  they can and do. (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          bevenro, JDsg

          Interfaith conferences, and also science & religion conferences: these things go on and yet don't get publicity because they don't fit the popular emotional narratives of the religious right and its enablers.  

          "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

          by G2geek on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 09:47:18 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Ray Bradbury, in one of his Martian Chronicle (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JDsg

          chapters, describes his Martian world as one that melds together religion, science, and art--a kind of spiritual progress, if you will.  It's actually a very moving concept.

          RIP, Ray... one of my favorite authors ever

      •  slowly and step by step.... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JDsg

        .... over time some of this gets through to some of the folks here.  

        I'm wondering about this: how to break through the predictable reflex reactions that we've been seeing around here lately?  

        I'm going to try a little experiment right in this diary:-)

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 10:00:14 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I might suggest (0+ / 0-)

          supporting the claims made, instead of taking them as proven as asserted. The claim from #6, that monotheism fosters better modeling, is nowhere near shown to be useful or accurate, nor is the present claim that religion in general promotes dignity for all. One can say god loves and cares for all, but what evidence outweighs Fukushima, Katrina or Auschwitz? I have a hard time calling belief despite evidence a virtue.

          The foxhole cliche is handy, but flat wrong. And even if an irreligious solder is overheard to mutter Holy God get me outta here!, how are we to know this has anything to do with reclaiming dignity and not merely a vernacular wish for deliverance from mortal danger?

          I understand this is intended to be a discussion of the function and value of religious ideas as metaphor in culture, not theology and not a case that gods are real. But [e.g.] the well-known unitary deity YHWH is almost always considered inscrutable, is on record contradicting himself [commanding not to kill, and commanding genocide], is wilfully cruel [why ten plagues, and all that cholesterol to harden Pharaoh's heart?] and is touted by his faithful as so powerful that literally any arbitrary thing from stopping the rotation of the planet to reanimating dry bones is possible, rendering science vainglorious. The claim that the idea of such a god implies the universe is comprehensible and lawful is far from proven.

          into the blue again, after the money's gone

          by Prof Haley on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 05:46:24 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  on second thought... (0+ / 0-)

        ... the experiment I had in mind isn't applicable this time, but might be next time, depending on what comes up in comments.  

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 10:04:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Slavery (0+ / 0-)

      The radical Republican party is the party of oppression, fear, loathing and above all more money and power for the people who robbed us.

      by a2nite on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 05:47:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  and the liberation from slavery. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        CorinaR, JDsg, bevenro

        The slaveholders and their enablers argue that it's the will of the deity that some humans can lord it over others.  

        But the slaves and the liberators of slaves argue that the will of the deity is toward equality and justice.

        In the end what changes is not only that slavery is abolished, but that the culture's ideas evolve about what its religion considers to be moral conduct between people.

        Today this has also reached the point where the conduct of humans toward all of nature is also becoming a religious issue, for example in the culture war between dominion theology and stewardship theology.

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 09:53:55 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  so without religion there would be no slavery? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AaronInSanDiego, JDsg

        I admire your faith in the altruism of the rational human--but it really doesn't exist, unfortunately.

        Are we going to blame child trafficking on religion too?

  •  Errrrr......is this some sort of lampoon? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Prof Haley

    What a pack of Deepak Chopra brand woo woo cack, written from the perspective of a monotheist Babble Basher.

    Theistic religions go further and proclaim the existence of a personal, caring god, a father figure who loves all who share the faith, according them equal dignity regardless of status, rank, or role.
    .... except for all the ones that dont....like Hindhuism for example, not to mention of course Shamanistic religions like Bon, Voodoo, Muti etc etc.
    The universal equality of dignity is among religion’s most revolutionary ideas
    ....errr except Confucianism is a secular non theist belief system, and isnt a religion either. Hindhuism has at its core a Caste System that directly contradicts your point altogether. Islam separates believers from non believers as well. Errr....fail again there chummy.
    As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
    Actually, in the US Military there are no PASTORS in foxholes as they are non-combatants. And in the military forces of most of Northern Europe, including the UK, Denmark, Sweden etc in foxholes next to your forces you'd be hard pressed to find a bible waving prat like you chummy. As someone who did my three for Her Majesty and commanded a unit of non believers may I also add on my behalf and theirs a hearty F U!
    Again, it’s now widely acknowledged that religion’s record at upholding dignity is spotty.
    .... try nonexistant.
    Religious leaders of every faith have at times sanctioned indignity towards others, persecuting them as infidels, heathens, and heretics.
    And continues to do so to the present day, all across the globe. Go ask someone who is gay in the US how loved they feel by the faith-heads.
    Religious models such as monotheism, the golden rule, and universal dignity are pillars of human civilization.
    .... again conveniently excluding non theistic faiths such as Buddhism, polytheism like Hindhuism, Animism, Shamanism.....as well as secular systems like Confuciansm..... y know.... the ones that outnumber the monotheists. And then theres the inconvenent FACT that almost all early societies and great civilisations, including Greece, Rome and Egypt were polytheists. And on to the other point..... the golden rule isnt universal at all, as is proven by Meso-American faiths, Kali worship by the Thuggee....modern hate filled Southern Baptists, Christian Identity ministries, the KKK....and on and on and on.
    Like science models, their strength is due to the truth they embody, and not dependent upon the zeal of “true believers.”
    Utter crapola. Science works on facts and evidence, Faith works on a total lack of those. The two are non compatible, non comparable.

    Utter bloody Deepak Chopra woo woo and brain dead Babble Basher drivel from start to end.

    And once again as a solid atheist ex-serviceman who served with atheists and saw good men fall who were non believers in stupid fairy tales, screw you for the "foxhole" slander. I hope Pat Tillman's brother tracks you down and slaps some sense into that faith filled melon you call a head.

  •  There is no religion, there are relitgions. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Prof Haley

    There is no religious ideal of "peace on earth", but such a slogan has been used at times in attempts to sell the product.

    The "golden rule" is no more special to religion than "Kill the infidels", god is arbitrary, not knowable, capricious, not comprehensible. Religion is not necessarily levelling nor at all supportive of personal or human dignity.

    All these assertiona about religion have no clear basis in fact or history. Religion has, more often than not, been about obtaining, retaining and expanding power and control over the non-sacerdotes, no more and no less. The window dressing is not the product.

    I might note that a "correct conclusion drawn from a false premise" is not "right". The statement "because the moon is made of green cheese, E=mc^2" is false; there is absolutely nothing right or correct about it.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Fri Jul 06, 2012 at 09:02:59 PM PDT

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