Listening to Each Other’s Stories

If religious belief is not malleable to reason, then there can be no rational discussion between, or about, religious stories, because you cannot communicate unless you become the other.


Can the religious and the non-religious communicate with each other? Credit: PTI

Last month I received a packet from Juggernaut Books which included two recent publications, Rana Safvi’s Tales from the Quran and Hadith and Hindu Fables from the Vedas to Vivekananda by Renuka Narayanan. I sighed and thought that this is how we deal with secularism in India, one tradition matched by another, with so much more – Sikkhism, Jainism, Christianity, Judaism, atheism – that is missing. Even within the framework of religions as a whole – there is no plurality of views, no ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas by Ramanujan‘.

Given these gaps, how are we to discuss such books? Or should we bar the discussion of religious stories completely, and leave discussion of religion to the religious, and the secular to the secular? At the heart of the matter is whether we can communicate across our stories. Can the religious and the non-religious communicate with each other, and can those from different religions? Asked in a certain way, the answer is obviously yes. We talk to each other every day, people from all faiths and belief systems cooperate in all sorts of ventures.

This type of cooperation, though, is one in which faith can be ignored. And it demonstrates how different the conversation of science is from the conversation of faith. In science, a hypothesis has to be tested against empirical evidence. No matter what an observer believes or does not believe. In a scientific experiment she can verify whether one plus one will make two, or whether oxygen will burn, or nitrogen will not, and that water at four degrees is heavier than any at any other temperature.

Science is essentially a way to discover how things work, but it cannot answer how things should work. We can rely on science to help us build nuclear weapons, but it cannot tell us whether we should use them. There is no scientific way to get to justice. The classic philosophical problem of whether a person should throw a fat man in the front of a runaway trolley to save five others has no scientifically derivable answer. While the mathematical answer of whether one life is worth more than five is obvious, this is not enough for people to murder the one person.

Stories from which we derive meaning are, by their very nature, stories of belief. For example, there is the classic Abrahamic tale of his willingness to sacrifice his son to God.


Rana Safvi
Tales from the Quran and Hadith
Juggernaut, 2017

The story has a prologue. Abraham, an old man, is promised a son by mysterious messengers. He scoffs at them, but the promise holds. But after the birth of the child, Abraham receives a second message: that he now must sacrifice the child to God. There are minor differences between the Judeo-Christian telling of the story and the Islamic one. In the former, the child is Isaac, son of Sarah and the child is not told he will be sacrificed, and is tied down. In Islam the child is Ismail, son of Hajira, the child is told, and goes gladly to the sacrifice.

At the last minute, a ram is revealed, and Abraham sacrifices the animal instead of the child. But the true nature of the sacrifice is that Abraham acts on God’s command, not out of choice. The sacrifice is that of his own will and reason at the altar of religious duty, on the premise that what he is sacrificing (his son) was a gift from God, and it was God’s to take back. A religious/moralistic reading of this story would be that life comes from beyond humanity, and if the divine has gifted that life, then it is the divine who has the right to tell us how that life should be lived.

Here, there is a – minor – clash with science. As our observations of the universe have shown us, the evolution of life is a lot more complex than our religious stories suggest. For a religious person this is hardly a deal breaker. You can easily believe in evolution, and still insist that life itself is a divine, i.e. nonhuman, “gift”, not subject to mere human intellect.

For some this is done through the idea of “intelligent design” – that there is a Creator fiddling with little things to design things just so. It is given some additional ballast by over-broad interpretations of the anthropic principle. The religious can hold on to their beliefs while at the same time acknowledging science. One only has to look at the current Pope, who dismisses the idea of God as “a magician, with a magic wand”, and the current Dalai Lama, who is happy to dismiss any claims which are contradicted by science.

Nevertheless, at their core, there is something all religious institutions demand: the sacrifice, or submission, of individual desire to the rules of the divine. In fact, in Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, she cites one example of the mystery of the Triune God of Orthodox Christianity – the three that are one – as contemplation on an impossibility that allows a believer to look beyond the bounds of reason.

It is this elevation of “divine law” over human reason that is the cause of concern. If religious belief is not malleable to reason, then there can be no rational discussion between, or about, religious stories. Reading each other’s stories then becomes a pointless exercise, because you cannot communicate unless you become the other – as in believe what they believe, or have them believe what you do. That is not communication, it is conversion.

Yet, religion is a human construct. Even for those who believe in divine inspiration or divine dictation, religion exists only through the actions of its believers, its human agents, or as Iqbal expressed it in his iconic poem, ‘Shikwa’:

Hum tu jite hain ki duniya me tera naam rahe,

Kahin mumkin hai ki saqi na rahe, jaam rahe?

We live to make sure your Name is alive in the world,

Is it possible that the wine server disappears, and the goblet remains?

And a central argument of all religions is that they make life better – they teach humans how to live life best. It is on this fundamental issue that arguments can be made when belief systems interact with each other.


Renuka Narayanan
Hindu Fables from the Vedas to Vivekananda Juggernaut, 2017

The most prominent example of this interaction is the development of the Geneva Conventions, which are accepted by all states (in theory, if not in practice). These conventions governing the humanitarian treatment of combatants and non-combatants in war have a long history, generally termed the Just War theory. While forms of Just War theory comprising jus ad bellum (the right to go to war) and jus in bello (the right conduct during war) have reflections in most cultures (the Bhagavad Gita can be seen as the oldest such a treatise on morality and war), the delineation of the doctrine into law is best seen in the Christian context. First documented by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a theologian and philosopher, at a time when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Just War theory tried to meld Christian morality and the secular needs of war making.

Initially restricted to Christian states (being humane to Christians was correct, heathens could be dealt with however you wished), the Just War theory was slowly expanded to cover non-Christians, and even colonised populations over the centuries. The signing of the Geneva Conventions has made them into universal secular law, certainly the jus in bello part. Even jus ad bellum has been incorporated in the UN. As per Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the UN Security Council can act to prevent or respond to “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. And a state can fight in self-defence, both key principles of Just War theory.

Nor does the transition have to take centuries or to come from religious doctrine. The term genocide became accepted coinage only after the Second World War, when the Genocide Convention was signed in December 1948. One man played an immense part in this. Rafael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, who lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust, coined the term in 1943 and worked indefatigably to get it made into a law.

Today that term is accepted by all parties (if only to be flung as an accusation to those they most hate), and this happened despite the resistance of major powers. Although enough countries signed the convention for it to go into law in 1951, the Soviet Union only did so in 1954. The British, intent on their late colonial genocidal actions, signed in 1970. The US, that beacon of human rights and all good things, did so only in 1988.

In the case of the treatment of combatants and non-combatants in war, as well as genocide, the various communities of the world were able to come to an agreement that, while they might believe in different ideas, certain acts should be beyond the pale. We drew the line on where humanity and inhumanity diverged, and agreed that any stories that we told beyond this were illegitimate. This does not mean that everybody will condemn genocide. Some will still advocate such crimes, even using religious justification, but these actions will be condemned by most people as immoral conduct.

These extreme examples are not the only ones where ideas of a common morality are coming together. The list of endangered animals is one way that a common morality is being created – of animals that should be cared for, not killed, as are other environmental issues. These are, admittedly, more contested, but they are all centred around the question of what it means to be a “better person”, of how ideas we believe in may help us create a better society, a better world.

On Maundy Thursday in 2016, Pope Francis washed the feet of refugees – both Muslims and Christians. Nor was this his only action. In April 2016 he took with him 12 Muslim refugees from a Greek refugee camp as “guests of the Vatican”. In many ways the refugee crisis has been central to Francis’s papacy, and in a number of moves and speeches he has emphasised the teachings of kindness to strangers that are easily found in Biblical passages. He has chided European governments for their laws and regulations that focus on detention and deportation, while praising ordinary people, often the Greeks on whose shores the refugees arrive, for their kindness.

It is around the question of how we define “good” or what it means to have a “better society” – that the debate is structured. We come to it with ideas formed by stories we have heard, that make sense to us. Others, too, have their stories and reasons why they believe in them. We are unlikely to be able to convince them to abandon their stories, but we may be able to convince them of a common good that we can work towards, a world that is better for all of us. To do that we need to be more familiar with each other’s stories, not less, and thus I would urge you to read these books, and many, many others.