Since it is Christmastime and since so much of the world’s attention is focused on the Middle East, it seems appropriate to write a column about a man who encompasses both, Jesus Christ and the religion he founded.
As always, there’s big movement going on among intellectuals these days against religion. The latest salvo was “Beyond Belief,” a seminar held at the Salk Institute in November. As part of the festivities, British biologist Richard Dawkins touted his best-selling book, The God Delusion, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, showed pictures of deformed babies to prove God doesn’t exist, Carolyn Porco, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, showed pictures of Saturn’s rings and said they were more beautiful than anything in the Bible, and Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg declared, “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief.”
Looking at the Middle East these days, I find it almost incomprehensible that people of such intelligence even waste their time on such activities. Like it or not, religion is what Emile Durkheim called a “social fact.” Whether the myths and legends that inevitably surround religions are true — whether Jesus was really born in a manger, whether Mohammed took a Night Journey to Jerusalem, whether snails really came and sat on Buddha’s head to keep him warm — all this hardly matters.
The important thing is that religions shape the personalities of whole cultures. A religion is a template for a society. What a religion says makes an enormous difference in how that society and individuals act in history. In fact, it is history itself.
We live in a civilization that has been created by Christianity, an offshoot of Judaism. Because Christianity is the air that we breathe, it’s easy to forget its role — or even to assume that we don’t need it at all. That’s why supposedly far-sighted intellectuals can point to the rings of Saturn and say they contain far more beauty than all the soiled superstitions of humanity. They forget that once they arrive on Saturn they still have to breathe.
All religions are not alike. Christianity, as it happens, is religion built around forgiveness. “Turn the other cheek,” “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” — you don’t have to look very far. All this may seems natural, routine, inevitable — maybe even boring to educated people — but it is not universal. Hinduism is a religion that established a caste system and revolves around helping people escape the great chain of being. Buddhism is a reform of Hinduism that rejected the caste system but still seeks escape from the suffering of being by attaining non-being. Islam is a religion built on forced conversion and conquest. It does not put a value on forgiveness. The Shi’ia have still not forgiven the Sunni for the death of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.
HOW IMPORTANT IS FORGIVENESS in establishing a peaceful culture? Well, science itself has provided the answer. About twenty years ago game theorist Robert Axelrod wrote a book entitled The Evolution of Cooperation exploring the great evolutionary mystery of how individual organisms — all pursuing their own Darwinian self-interest — ever learn to cooperate with each other. To investigate in scientific terms, Axelrod used a game called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in which two hypothetical criminals are being interrogated by the police. If they both deny the crime, they may get away with it. If each one betrays the other, however, the betrayer can get a lighter sentence while the betrayed individual suffers. How do individuals weigh the long-term risks and advantages of cooperating against the short-term advantages of not cooperating? In other words, how do individuals and societies build trust?
The game theorists found that trust does not develop in a single encounter. It may evolve, however, over a long series of anticipated encounters. Trying to figure out how people act in real life, they asked mathematicians all over the world to design strategies on how to play the game. Then they matched the strategies against each other on a computer.
The winner turned out to be the simplest strategy of all, called “Tit for Tat.” Tit for Tat cooperates on the first encounter and then copies the other person on each subsequent encounter. In other words, it swiftly rewards cooperation and punishes betrayal. This strategy proved best at eliciting cooperation from other players — since it always takes two to win. This seemed like a model for all justice systems — “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
There was only one problem. In certain instances Tit for Tat failed completely. This was against what you might call a “neurotic” or “sinner” strategy, where a person refuses to cooperate on the first round and then copies the other person on each succeeding round. The result is an endless series of reprisals. So the scientists tweaked the system once again. They found Tit for Tat works best when there is an occasional round of “forgiveness” that breaks the cycle of reprisal. Forgiveness is a way of wiping the slate clean and starting anew, no matter what the past history.
In Western culture, Jesus has become a Universal Symbol of Forgiveness. Invoking his life gives everyone the chance to start afresh. That’s why the religion has such personal appeal — and why contemplating the deformed limbs of babies or admiring the rings of Saturn will never come within an fraction of a small percentage of taking its place. Christianity transforms people’s lives — everyone from Presidents on down.
I remember going to Reverend Floyd Flake’s church in Queens one Sunday a few years ago. It’s an amazing place — a building that seats 3,000, with a 100-member choir that performs gospel anthems with the polish of a Broadway chorus. At the end of the service, in the manner of Billy Graham, Flake asks people to come down to the altar and “accept salvation.” Many did. I remember one dolled-up woman in her late 20s sobbing uncontrollably as she approached the rail. Whatever her life had been before, I’m sure it was changed. And all because of a man who lived 2000 years ago.
WHICH GETS US BACK to the Middle East. It’s true that, in the Land of Religious Warfare, things aren’t really much different from what they were in Biblical times. Jews and “Philistines” have been battling over territory since “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.” The Holy Land remains riven by sects with a hapless Roman Empire still trying to impose order. Now imagine that a man of peace should come riding into downtown Beirut or Baghdad on a donkey preaching love, peace and forgiveness. How long would it be before he was assassinated?
We in the West are incredibly lucky to have inherited this Christian tradition. There is no forgiving others in Islam — only the beheading of enemies (the Prophet himself practiced it). Finding your spiritual destiny means becoming a jihad warrior. Even in Buddhism (according to a book I am now reading) confession “is not like the Christian confession, where there is a sense of forgiveness and atonement.” Instead it involves confessing to your fellow monks that you have not yet succeeded in obliterating the desires of self and cutting all ties with the world.
Yet this sense of universal forgiveness saturates Western culture, creating a grand equality among all people. Long before Thomas Jefferson wrote that “All Men are Created Equal” or the French philosophes declared the “Universal Rights of Man,” St. Paul declared, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. You are all one.” This ideal of the brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity is what has enabled the West to establish democracies, abolish slavery, and create peaceful societies — so that even today we continue to try to wipe out every trace of inequality among sexes, races, and classes. It is certainly something worth celebrating at Christmastime.
That is why, without any embarrassment at all, I can end this column by saying: