BOROUGH OF HILLINGDON ANNUAL SACRE LECTURE
Author: Dr Indarjit Singh OBE, JP
Better People: Better Society, The Role of Religious EducationThat in this dark night of falsehood,
I've been asked to speak this evening, on 'Better People: Better Society, The Role of Religious Education'. It's a theme close to Sikh teachings, which began some 500 years ago with Guru Nanak's observation
No moon of truth is seen to rise
He saw rulers oppressing their subjects, he saw greed and selfishness with the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor; he saw people obsessed with ritual and superstition, with the two religions of the subcontinent, Hinduism and Islam in deep conflict; a scene not very different from much of the world today. Why can't we learn from the past? Who is to blame, the individual, or society, or both?
Today, we face the imminent threat of war in Iraq; a conflict that can have far reaching repercussions. Can we really blame what the Americans call a few rogue states, or is evil behaviour far more widespread?
Some 18 months ago, I did some work for Amnesty International, looking at genocide and human rights abuse in a number of different countries; abuse which often involved unbelievable depravity. It wasn't only the details of abuse that I found sickening, there was also the growing realisation that those who we learn to trust are often the perpetrators: police and soldiers, and, even worse, priests and teachers and previously friendly neighbours. Why do people behave in such ways?
The sobering conclusion is that our human family has only a thin veneer of civilisation that differentiates us from those we call savages; a veneer that is all too easily shed at times when, out of ignorance or self interest, we are persuaded to see others as lesser beings, or, even more absurdly, claim that God will overlook, or even approve the murder of innocents, if we say we did it in his name.
Since the second world war, we have, just to give a few examples, seen the brutal killing of more than a million civilians by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda and many parts of the world.
The key feature, the common feature, of all these atrocities, is the use of fear, prejudice, jealousy, or ignorance of others, to play on our baser passions, in a way that triggers, and almost rationalises irrational behaviour. It is important to remember that when, at the time of the second world war, we were looking with loathing at the racist behaviour of the Nazis in Germany, the word 'Jew', was a common term of abuse in this Country. Today the word 'Paki' is used too much the same effect.
Goulding in his book 'Lord of the Flies', about a group of children marooned on a remote island, puts forward a thesis that without moral and ethical guidance, children, and by implication, adults, gravitate "to less civilised behaviour. It is a disturbing view that unfortunately, has the ring of truth.
It's not only so on mythical remote islands, or other countries. We see such behaviour in this country, in for example, the murder of an old lady for the few coins in her handbag, or in this week's murder of a young woman only yards from her home in Hampton in Surrey, and in appalling crimes against children.
Where we were once mesmerised by our undoubted cleverness, today we are becoming increasingly aware of the downside of our disregard of moral imperatives. In our greed, we have destroyed much of our environment and polluted our food supply. In our arrogance, we have harmed our social environment by disregarding religious teachings of responsibility and concern for others, in a false pursuit of personal happiness. The results are hardly surprising: family breakdown, increasing crime, including, as I've mentioned, mindless violence against children and the elderly; a greater dependence on alcohol and drugs and a general blurring of moral standards;
The reality of human nature, and the evidence is all around us, is that we humans do not come with preloaded software of right, wrong and responsibility. Decent responsible behavior has to taught and learnt. We cannot have a better society without better people. We cannot have better people without responsible teaching. The question is, who should do the teaching?
There are, two levels of behaviour. The first is behaviour that keeps us out-of trouble. For the small child it's not throwing food about, or not kicking aunts and uncles in the shins. For the adults it's being reasonably polite to those around us, and complying with those in authority and the rules and laws of society.
Is religion necessary for teaching behaviour at this level? Of course not. No more than it's necessary to involve religion in teaching a dog to stand on its hind legs, or a dolphin to perform tricks. Sanction or reward, are sufficient motivators.
In many ways, the teaching of citizenship, to help children understand and appreciate the society in which they live, falls into this category. It's important for children to learn about national institutions, democracy, the media, ethnic identity and the consequences of bullying and racism. These teachings of citizenship, or conforming behaviour, are not however the same as the teachings of religion, although I believe they should be taught in a religious context.
Citizenship teaching can help an individual understand and respect the norms of society and thus enhance his or her opportunities in life. Skills in citizenship, often help an individual's material progress and standing in society. The teachings of our great religious leaders on the other hand, frequently challenge social norms. Religious teachings have nothing to do with conformity, or, equally importantly, individual or material advancement. They are about improvement of society as a whole. Religion takes us away from obsession with self, to active concern for others.
Guru Nanak taught, where self exists there is no God, where God exists there is no self. Or as a Christian theologian put it, it's the 'I' in the middle of 'sin', that makes it sin. Religion then, is fundamentally different from civics or citizenship in that far from conforming, it has it's own standards and frequently challenges existing social norms in looking to deeper truths. Today, for example, the law of the land requires us to be tolerant towards those of different appearance or belief. But it was not always so.
Let me give a personal example. In my early career, I trained for six years as a mining engineer and found myself in the fast stream for early promotion. Then, at an interview with the then National Coal Board, I was told that the miners wouldn't take kindly to a Sikh Mine Manager, would I like to go into the Scientific Department? Those that so advised were not in any way being racist; they were trying to be helpful according the norms of the times. Then in the 60's, many will recall the accommodation ads in shop windows saying 'no blacks or coloureds', perfectly legal at the time.
I'd like to believe the changes brought about since then, were all due to enlightened thinking but studying the literature of the time, it is apparent that it was more a fear of social unrest that that led to anti-discriminatory legislation. Religion bases it's teachings on what it sees as fundamental truths that unlike the law of the land do not change with time and place. In his very first sermon, Guru Nanak declared Na koi Hindu, Na koi Mussalman that in God's eyes there is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and by today's extension, neither Christian Sikh nor Jew. God, he taught, is not interested in our religious labels, but in the way we behave. I'll give other examples to show how religion aims to move us towards only to being better citizens but to a better and fairer society.
And lets face it, today's society that seeks happiness in consumer goods, drink or drugs or in pampering ourselves because 'we're worth it, or exporting the means of killing to distant lands in the name of a defence industry, clearly needs a bit of ethical uplift. I'll take my examples from Sikh teachings, and I'm sure that in these you'll find ready and resonant echoes of the teachings of your different faiths. As I said, Guru Nanak taught that God wasn't in the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in the way we behave. Sikhism sees other religions as different paths to a truer understanding of God; like paths up a mountain. We can start from different points, but still reach the same goal. Nor are the paths mutually exclusive. They frequently merge in ways that give us a heightened understanding of our own faith.
Take for example the Sikh teaching ' There is an inner- light in all; and that light is God.' Exactly the same sentiment is conveyed in the line of the Christian hymn 'to all life Thou givest to both great and small; in all life thou livest the true life of all'. It is important to remember that that a major benefit of our study of other religions is that it gives us a wider view of religion and a new and fuller perspective on our own beliefs. We learn that different religions are not barriers between people, but gateways to a greater understanding and enrichment of life.
Far from accepting the status quo on social practices, Guru Nanak was boldly critical of divisive practices such as the caste system or superstitious, dietary customs, and taboos on eating with, or socialising with those of other faiths. He and his successor Gurus taught the oneness of our human family and in this, emphasised the dignity and complete equality of women; teachings wholly at odds with the practices of the day.
Religion puts today's obsession with the material in balanced perspective. Guru Nanak did not condemn material comfort, but taught the importance of a life of balance between the material and the spiritual dimensions of life. There is the story Dunni Chand, a rich merchant who used to put another flag outside his house every time he made a million rupees. And there were lots and lots of flags outside his house. He went to Guru Nanak and said 'I've made it in this world, will you help me get the same sort of success in the hereafter? Guru Nanak said that's easy. Take this needle with you when you die. It will guarantee your passage to heaven. Dunni Chand rushed home excitedly to his wife and told about the needle. She laughed aloud and said how can you take anything with you when you die. And then the penny dropped and the foolish miser began giving away his wealth to the poor.
Another story illustrates the foolishness of the opposite extreme. Guru Nanak once met some hermits who had left their homes and were now living in the mountain wilderness in search of a greater understanding of God. They asked the Guru, 'how goes the world below? Guru Nanak was angry in his reply and said the world is suffering and how can it be otherwise when those with knowledge and understanding desert it in such a selfish way. The Guru reminded them of the importance of meeting our social obligations, including the need to stand up against injustice.
Today there's not much wilderness left, but it is all too easy to spend our life in a virtual wilderness, surfing the internet for hours on end, or in front of television, or, in other pursuits that leave us little time for those around us.
Religion reminds us of the need for balance in life. Sikhism, for example, requires us to live in three dimensions at one and the same time. Naam japna, kirt karna and wand chakhna. Naam japna is meditating on God or reflecting on our direction in life in a way that allows us to distinguish between the trivial, which so often obsesses us, and the real priorities of life. Kirt karna is earning by honest effort, and wand chakhna is the sharing of our good fortune with the needy a common and important teaching of all our great religions.
Guru Nanak was frank in warning us that dedication to ideals that make for a fairer and more tolerant society, far from improving an individuals standing and acceptance in today's society, can cost dearly. He warned that those who would play this game of love for their fellow humans, should be prepared to carry their head on the palm of their hand, or in modern idiom, be prepared to place their neck on the block.
Guru Teg Bahadhur, ninth Guru of the Sikhs literally did this when he suffered martyrdom by beheading for speaking up for the Hindu community in the face of Mughal persecution. It was the philosopher Voltaire who declared, 'I may not believe in what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' Nearly a century earlier, Guru Teg Bahadhur gave this noble sentiment practical utterance. His sacrifice and the earlier martyrdom of Jesus Christ, gives us a higher view of tolerance and concern for others, that in my view, should be embedded in citizenship teaching, raising it to a higher and more uplifting plane. Having spoken at some length about religion, I should make clear, what I as a Sikh mean by religion. A religious person, in the Sikh view, is anyone who lives outside himself for the benefit of others. I for example, would consider the Soviet dissidents who risked there all in refusing to accept the evil in the former Soviet Union, as acting in a religious way. In much the same thecourageous action earlier this week, of two Zimbabwean cricketers in wearing black armbands on the cricket pitch, as a protest against what they saw as the death of democracy in their country, was in my view of religion, a religious protest.
Religion can help reverse negative trends in society with it's constant reminder to look beyond self interest of or nation' to concern for all God's creation; to looking beyond narrow nationality, to citizenship of our one world.
Every year, we celebrate one world week, and near instant communications and easier travel have indeed shrunk our world into a global village in which in reality, we are all interdependent neighbours. But it is a world in which more than half the members of the United Nations practice torture and gross abuse of human rights against their own people. We rightly condemn some countries for such practices, but all too often look the other way when such abuse takes place in a 'friendly 'country. The great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov reminded us to be even- handed in our approach to human rights. In my view, religion, which transcends national boundaries, can nudge us towards this even- handedness and move us towards true global citizenship.
To me, the root cause of many of the problems that face us today was succinctly stated by another famous Soviet human rights activist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Speaking at the Guildhall on receipt of the International Templeton Prize, he recalled his mother's words, when she reflected on the horrors of the Russian revolution and the great purges and said 'its all because we've forgotten God'. He continued, 'today, having witnessed suffering and horror that totally dwarfs that of earlier years, if I am asked to explain why the excesses, I can do no better than to repeat those pithy words 'its all because we've forgotten God'.
Today, when I look at the paradox of terrorism, international conflict, rising crime, increasing drug dependency and family breakdown, set in previously unheard of prosperity, I too feel it's all because we've et in previously unheard of prosperity, I too feel 'it's all because we've forgotten God'. Not forgotten God. Not the God of the Christians, Sikh, Muslim or Jew, but as we learn from the study of our different religions, the one God of us all. In the process, we have forgotten the common core teachings of our different faiths that must be the foundation to true citizenship training in the fraught and inter-dependent world of today.
Whenever I undertake any sort of do- it- yourself activity, I inevitably get into difficulties. When all else fails, and only then, I turn to the book of instructions. Today, our do- it- ourselves efforts for a fairer and more contented society have clearly failed It's time to turn to the book or Books, of instructions on balanced and responsible living.
But there's a problem. The teachings of our different religions are extremely easy to state, but very difficult to live by. It's not easy to put others before self, or show necessary degrees of tolerance and compassion to others. So over the years, leaders of religion have allowed and encouraged people to do other things in the name of religion. In our different faiths, all sorts of elaborate rituals, superstitions and dubious social practices have almost buried true religious teaching.
The need, the urgent need of the hour, is for all people of faith to look to the current state of their own beliefs and do some fairly drastic spring cleaning and discard all such practices in a way that reveals and highlights the actual teachings of the founders of our great faiths. These teaching remind us how to become a better person and work for a fairer and more just society.
In conclusion, I'd like to emphasise that one of the greatest gains in our study of the actual teachings of our different religions, is the discovery that they are not all that different. Our different religions are in essence, overlapping circles of belief in which the area of overlap is far greater than the smaller areas of difference.
Sikhs believe that in that area of overlap lie common values of tolerance, justice and compassion. Values that make us more considerate and responsible human beings; values that are the key to both to personal happiness, and the well being of wider society.
Thank you for listening to me.