One of the problems I have with organized religion…

Let me jump right in, but let me do so by using a short, fictitious story to highlight what I see as a big “issue” of religion:

A man believes he is communicating with God, and God tells him to take a piece of chalk and draw a circular line in the middle of the market place in town. This circle, according to God, is sacred and no-one shall enter it. So, the next day the man goes into town, walks to the center of the market place, and draws the circle as God told him to. Then he sits next to it all day, and he tells everybody who comes by and inquires about the circle that God told him to draw it and make sure no-one enters it. Initially, most of the people don’t think too much about it, but a few are inspired and make sure not to step into the circle, and soon after the man isn’t sitting alone next to the circle, but there is a small group of people sitting there.

Once the group gets a little larger, they become more and more vocal about telling people not to step into the circle, and because people don’t really have a reason to do so, everybody in town begins to follow the rule. Then, one night, the man once again hears God speak to him, and God says that if someone does enter the circle, that person shall be punished by being put to death. And the next day the man tells his followers and they then become convinced that they are righteous in preventing people from stepping into the circle.

However, one day a stranger who has never visited the town comes to the market place and, when he gets to the circle, he doesn’t understand what the line is for. Obviously there is nothing in the circle, there is no good reason not to step into it. He also doesn’t really believe that the good people of the town would actually mind if he steps into it, and because he actually thinks that being in the circle would allow him to breathe a little more freely he steps inside the circle. Then the people of the town become so outraged that they start shouting and yelling, and before anybody can really take a moment to think, someone has picked up a stone and has thrown it at the man in the circle. Once the violence has started, people all around the circle do the same, and it feels good to punish the man, because he has broken the rule.

My questions now are: was it just for the people to kill the man? And if not who is responsible for the man’s death?

Personally, I don’t think the death of the man can be justified. Even if I were to believe God exists and that God has talked to the man who drew the circle, I would then have to say that maybe the man misunderstood God, or that for some other reason God may have wanted to change the rule and didn’t get the chance to talk to the man. In short, I believe that the man should not have been killed.

From that premise, I then wonder who is (mainly) responsible for his death. From a point of a believer in God, you could then simply say the man should have listened, but I also don’t think that this is an adequate point of view, for the same reason as to why I think the death cannot be justified. Given the somewhat imperfect means of how God “chose” to communicate his “wishes”, I think it is at least fair to assume that the error is more likely to be on the human side–even though it would of course be much easier to “blame” the man who died or, alternatively, God for giving out such a rule to begin with.

From the point of an agnostic it becomes much worse. Given that the rule, “draw a circle and no-one shall enter it,” is, indeed, entirely arbitrary–and it also doesn’t come with any good explanation for why following the rule is actually in the interest of the people–it seems that the main portion of the responsibility lies not even with the man who drew the circle but with the people who simply accepted the rule without thought.

And funny enough, I think that is exactly the point that I believe the person or persons that are now usually identified as Jesus of Nazareth tried to make, for which he (or they) was eventually put to death: don’t simply and blindly follow arbitrary rules that some religion sets, but think and feel and then decide from the wisdom of a kind heart that a rule that does not foster well-being and requires that people who not follow it should be punished is unlikely to be a rule that God would want us to follow–presuming that God exists that is.

So, in short, one of the problems I have with organized religion is that it comes with lots and lots of rules, that for many of these rules it only gives “the word of God” as heard by a few select people as “backup”, with little explanation for their benefit, particularly given the continually changing environment we live in. And the rules are not even considered guidelines but absolute.

Sometimes, a white line, such as that at the edge of a road, can be a life-saver. And everybody, even a non-religious person, would likely agree to its value and use. But if a rule, a white line, has lost its value, its meaning–or never had a value or meaning other than for those who made it, because it gives them power over the ruled–then I think it ought to be challenged by someone. And in that sense I do believe that Jesus can be someone to inspire me, just not necessarily in the direction religion points to…

S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi! — Relationships and responsibility

[Disclaimer: this post has been (heavily) edited on July 21, 2013]

In this post I want to reflect upon my current understanding of meaningful relationships. Before jumping into the topic however, I want to explain a bit about the first half of this post’s title… It comes from one of my (if not my most) favorite books: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

For those of you who do not know the book, it is the story of a man in a desperate and life-threatening situation–having crash-landed his own, small airplane in the desert, and not having much water to survive. He meets “the little prince”, who through conversations reveals what I would call extremely valuable truths about life: how people treat their existence, and how if they treated it differently their experience could potentially be much richer and fulfilling. The language is poetic as well as naïve, in the sense that it seems to be written for children; but for me, with every reading as an adult, I still “learn” from it. Many times, I was able to rephrase my own life in the terms the book provides and “see with my heart” to what extent I was able or not to already incorporate the notions I consider relevant and worthwhile.

To illustrate and give one of the most profound ways in which I experience relationships, I want to quote from the book–in the original French with a few comments of mine. After his arrival on Earth, but before meeting the pilot and narrator of the book, the little prince with his wheat-colored hair also meets a fox and they share a conversation. This is a part of it:

“S’il te plaît… apprivoise-moi!” dit-il.

“Je veux bien,” répondit le petit prince, “mais je n’ai pas beaucoup de temps. J’ai des amis à découvrir et beaucoup de choses à connaitre.”

“On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise,” dit le renard. “Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchands d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi!”

So, in this first part of the conversation the fox tries to explain that it is worth “taming” someone, that is to say getting close to as a friend; in fact it is the only way to make a friend, by spending time with and on someone. It is followed by an explanation on what exactly entails taming: the slow and deliberate process of establishing mutual benevolence, respect, trust, limits, rituals, and allowing natural and intuitive reliance on these relationship foundations to form over time. The little prince engages in this process, and by the end of it, evidenced by the following (shortened) dialog, has successfully tamed the fox:

(…) Et quand l’heure du départ fut proche:

“Ah!” dit le renard… “Je pleurerai.”

“C’est ta faute,” dit le petit prince, “je ne te souhaitais point de mal, mais tu as voulu que je t’apprivoise…”

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Mais tu vas pleurer!” dit le petit prince.

“Bien sûr,” dit le renard.

“Alors tu n’y gagnes rien!”

“J’y gagne,” dit le renard, “à cause de la couleur du blé.” (…) “Va revoir les roses. Tu comprendras que la tienne est unique au monde. Tu reviendras me dire adieu, et je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.”

(…) Et il revint vers le renard:

“Adieu,” dit-il…

“Adieu,” dit le renard. “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (…) “C’est le temps que tu a perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.” (…) “Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité,” dit le renard. “Mais tu ne dois pas l’oublier. Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose…”

In other words, once someone has been tamed as a friend, he or she will always remain special and, as the fox says, we remain responsible for keeping it that way. At the very end of the book, the author reflects on how meeting the little prince will always be a source of joy and meaning for his own life. And with that in mind, I am turning to some of my experiences…

About five years ago, only a few months after arriving in New York–and the United States for that matter–I got to know my first ever boyfriend. While it may not have been love at first sight, we developed a great sense of comfort, and despite our differences I think it is fair to say that we tamed one another: we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable, to rely on those elements of friendship and be hurt by their absence. Over time, we both experienced hurt and pain, and looking back I would say the biggest factor in the prolonged pain was a lack of determination and courage to communicate some of the aspects that were lacking or remained unsatisfactory. At some point I felt this relationship to be no longer adequately taking care of some of my needs. At first this was unconscious, and only too late it became fully visible to me.

Unfortunately, this lack of courage didn’t allow me to communicate this sense of dissatisfaction better with my boyfriend of then four years. I very unceremoniously and not at all truth-fully broke up with him. However, both due to the fact that we had tamed one another as well as my not being able to fully appreciate and boldly accept some of my needs–in part driven by very early childhood experiences, I believe–I decided to get back together to my ex-boyfriend, only to fail again…

From the past few months, I have learned it is essential for me that, once someone opens up to me and makes him or herself vulnerable, I do actually want to accept at least part of the responsibility for how he or she becomes fragile and that I want to take care of their needs and feelings, at least to the point that is part of the promise made during the taming. And now I simply have to accept that I cannot take anything back that I did, but want to look into the future and remain open in case my caring is appreciated and wanted. So, as one important life lesson learned: after breaking up with someone, I don’t want to cut the other person off.