Zeitgeist

[Summary: Does morality come from religion or does religion just reflect the zeitgeist/yardstick of the times? Richard Dawkins’ POV, and introducing the new blog category of psychology and dhamma.] 

Zeitgeist

“New Athiest” Richard Dawkins talked in the ‘Beyond Belief’ symposium in the US about the shifting ‘Zeitgeist’; which means ‘spirit of the times’. His argument is that morality does not come from religion, but from the common spirit of the people at any time. Hence different ages of Christianity and Islam have produced vastly different attitudes to war, compassion, right and wrong, and suicide bombers. Each culture simply cherry picks its way through whatever religion is handy, to justify its own presumptions which have come from the moral Zeitgeist.

If we look at Buddhism it seems as if there is a clear set of rules and principles that is fundamentally moral; and further, there are clear tools for morality and rational justifications for the practicing of the moral life – it stabilizes the mind and aids in concentration. Hence one of the other new atheist Apostles Sam Harris claims that religious beliefs actually manifest in behaviour, and it is time to recognize that some religious teachings (read Islam and Christianity) foster violence, and others (his own example is Tibetan Buddhism) do not. He is of course generalizing, and ignoring the many especially moral people found in all faiths.

So does Buddhism lead the moral Zeitgeist for Buddhist nations? Or does the moral Zeitgeist determine the how Buddhism manifests?

Consider the following account from Carl Bock’s visit to Wat Sikhet (Chapter 6) as described in his narrative Temples and Elephants, published in 1884.

Strolling a little further, I came to another portion of the temple-grounds, a sort of yard in which stood a circular altar made of bricks, whitewashed, in the middle of which was fixed an iron post about four feet high, with a couple of iron hooks at the top used for hanging lamps upon. On this altar lay a number of human bones of all kinds, from a vertebra to a scapula, several skulls, and the bodies of a couple of infants only lately dead, but in an advanced state of putrefaction, round which buzzed myriads of flies busy as bees. Opposite this altar was a wall, on the face of which I observed the remains of a human skeleton plastered in. What could this new horror be? I asked myself. Through a friend I afterwards ascertained that this was the skeleton of a priest who had, during his period of priesthood, violated his vows of chastity, an offence with which the punishment used to be death. This mad had accordingly suffered the extreme penalty of the law, and his skeleton was now exposed as a warning to others.

It has always been common to reflect on death in temples, by means of real skeletons. Dead and decaying bodies have been used since ancient times for sobering reflections on the fleetness of life and the urgency that we should rouse for practise. Even in the modern era many monks will go and witness post mortems (autopsies for Americans). Perhaps that was what Carl Bock saw, and the back story of a monk who had broken his vows was incorrect. The important point is that it could be true. The meandering moral Zeitgeist could well have sanctified execution for monks back in the 1800s. Up until a couple of years ago Death Row prisoners were executed by machine gun in Thailand – supposedly a ‘Buddhist’ country. This machine gun, cleansed by monks chanting and holy water, is now on display at the museum of corrections, along with other curiosities including large rattan balls with nails hammered through, in which prisoners were placed before elephants kicked the ball around a courtyard until the nails finally killed the prisoner. Now the ‘humane’ lethal injection is preferred, and is administered at only a couple of hours warning – the prisoners are not given advance notice of their execution date beyond a couple of hours.

More empirically you can ask Thais of the older generation if they were beaten as children. Most say they were. Even monks sometimes use the cane on young novices today, and often this is purely ego driven. One monk told the story of how he had been caned frequently as a novice, and had done the same once he became a teacher. He said in a disquieting almost detached manner that he had slowly learned that this is not venerable behaviour, and he had stopped doing it.

So it would seem that Dawkins is right – if monks and monasteries have allowed caning of children, the moral yardsticks of the times are not coming from scripture, but from the moral Zeitgeist. England and Europe have been banning the corporal punshment of children in both schools and home, with varying reactions. It should have been obvious that beating children is counter productive. Just as it should be obvious that children are obliged love and respect, and not mere control. Just as it should be obvious that killing, hating, and trying to force/coerce others into your own ideology of religion is not right.

To this end psychology has been a massive guiding light. So many things that have been learned from psychology over the last century have foltered down into common sense that we have not recognised their source. Dhamma teachers frequently present ‘Dhamma’ that has come from modern psychology more than any sutta. Over the next few months several of us will be adding some more blogs on the topic of the contributions that psychology has made to Dhamma and the Buddhsit Zeitgeist, as well as the contributions that Dhamma has made to psychology. In the mean time we are still left to wonder if psychoology is a result of the shifting moral zeitgeist, or if the zeitgeist’s new direction is a consequence of psychology.

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