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Religion, Morality, Fear, Understanding and Modern Secularism
Publication date: 2002-12-26

Unravelling the Confusion about Morality and Religion

There is much confusion today about morality and religion. To unravel this confusion we shall look at the roots of this confusion.

Imagine a woman walking in the street holding a child by her hand. The street is a busy road in the middle of a city. Suddenly, the child sees a shop on the other side of the street and starts pulling his mother's hand to cross the road.

“Don't run!”, says the mother, “You will get run over by a car.”

But the child pays no attention to her warnings.

“Stay quiet!”, says the mother, “You'll get killed by a car.”

But her words have no effect. The child keeps pulling his hand out of hers trying to break out and cross the road.

The struggle continues for some time. Then the mother sees a man with a big sack across his shoulder walking along the opposite side of the road.

“Look at that man with the sack on his back”, says the mother to the child. The child looks at the man with the sack.

“If you run across the road, the man will catch you and put you in his sack”, says the mother

The child looks at the man with the sack, than at the mother. He stops pulling her hand and quietly walks by his mother's side.

The mother is happy — her child is safe.

We shall now use this simple story to understand some fundamental truths about Human Nature, which underlie the problems of the 21st century.

The first question is: “Did the mother tell the child the truth?”

Of course, taken literally, her statement about the man catching the child and putting him in his sack was obviously false. The man would not have done such thing.

But, seen in the context, what was the mother trying to tell the child?

She was trying to tell him that it is dangerous to cross the road.

Her attempts to communicate this message to the child by telling him that he could be killed by a car, which was true, did not impress the child, because the child's power of understanding was not sufficient to understand the meaning of her words. She only succeeded in impressing upon the child the danger of crossing the road by illustrating to him this danger in a way which was at the level of his understanding.

It is also important to note that the purpose of her story was to protect the child, not to take advantage of the limitations of his understanding.

At that time in the child's life this way of impressing upon the child the danger of crossing the road was effective and beneficial to the child. But what happens later, when the child grows up?

There is no single answer to that question. There are a number of possibilities, and they depend on the personality of the child:

  1. The child will grow up and learn to understand why it was dangerous to cross the road and why his mother had to illustrate this by telling him the man-and-sack story. He will say, “My mother was a clever woman. She knew to explain to me the danger of crossing the road in a way that I could understand at the time when I was a small child. She saved my life”.

  2. The child is not very clever. He continues to believe in the man-and-sack story, and this belief continues to protect him from danger throughout his life.

  3. As the child grows up he understands that the man‐and‐sack story told to him by his mother is not true, but he fails to understand why the mother told him this story. “My mother lied to me!”, he exclaims in anger and triumphant defiance. “Any fool can understand that the man would not catch me and put me in his sack! Nothing will happen to me, if I run across the road!”. He runs across the road, is hit by a car, and spends the rest of his life in a wheel chair.

  4. As the child grows up he understands that the man‐and‐sack story told to him by his mother is not true. He is also sufficiently intelligent to understand the danger of crossing the road. But the moral he draws from the man‐and‐sack story is as follows:
    “My mother lied to me, and I believed her because at the time I was not clever enough.”

    “There are plenty of stupid people around in this world. So, if I tell them clever lies, I shall be able to take advantage of them, and this will bring me fame and power”.

    So he becomes a politician and in a short time becomes the ruler over his country and even succeeds to subject other countries to his rule. But one day the people whom he cheated and manipulated rebel against him, his supporters abandon him, his palace is ransacked by the angry crowd, and he is dragged out into the square and torn to pieces by the same people who used to worship him like a god.

So, how does this man‐and‐sack story help us understand the problems of today's world?

The child who blindly believes in the man‐and‐sack story is those people who blindly follow the teachings of religion, because this is what they were taught to believe. This blind following of religion helps them to protect themselves and others from harmful activities. But they cannot explain to others the benefits of their religion, except saying this is what my religion tells me to do, and this is why I am doing it. When others challenge the validity of their religious beliefs, they feel insecure and defensive, but are powerless to refute the challengers' arguments. Their lack of understanding of their religion can also lead them to misapplication of the religious teachings in complex situations. Such people can also have difficulty in passing on the morality of their blind beliefs to their children, if their children happen to be too intelligent to believe the man-and-sack story, but not intelligent enough to understand its message. They can also fall pray to wayward religious leaders who will lead them to their destruction.

The child who rejects the man‐and‐sack story, but fails to understand its message is those modern secularists who, having rejected the morality of religion, have embraced the morality of their own ignorance, arrogance and wishful thinking. Because of lack of moral principles, such people often commit acts which are harmful to themselves and others.

The child who becomes a politician is the fraudulent political leaders who succeed to deceive their followers for a time, but then are exposed and discarded. Human history is full of such examples: Hitler, Ceausescu, Milosevic are some of the recent examples.

And the child who grows up to understand the meaning of the man‐and‐sack message is those who accept the fundamental truths, which the prophets of Mankind taught the people, not through fear, but through understanding. Understanding of the fundamental principles of morality enables such people to apply these principles in complex situations, to refute any attacks on these principles and to explain these principles to others.

The Prophets of Mankind called upon the people to fear God for the people's own safety and well-being, because few people in those times were capable of understanding the truths taught by the Prophets. But they also called upon people to understand the consequences of their behaviour. The Qur'an repeatedly asks the questions: “Will you not understand?” or “Will they not understand?”, while acknowledging that the majority of people will not understand until they are faced with the disastrous consequences of their own action.

Now, that the world has shrunk to a small village, and the ability of Man to wreak destruction has no limits, we are coming to times when Mankind will have no choice but to rediscover the fundamental truths of Human Morality if not through fear, then through understanding.

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