Alain de Botton argues in his book Religion for Atheists that religions still have some very important things to teach us, even if we no longer believe their supernatural claims. Rather than mocking religions, non-believers should instead take the best of what they have to offer.
One religious story that we can all still learn from is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which describes a conversation about what it means to live fully and how we should treat others. It is a story that nearly everyone knew by heart when I was a child, though hardly anyone does these days. So I repeat it as it was originally told, but with some alternative translations in brackets for the non-religious reader.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life [to live fully]?"
He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"
He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God [the Highest Good] with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself."
And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"
Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
"Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite [an instructor in religious law], when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
"But a Samaritan [a half-caste, despised by the religious establishment] while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity [compassion]. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [pieces of silver], gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.'
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"
He said, "The one who showed him mercy [compassion]."
Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
I have always thought this to be one of the great works of literature, ethics and morality - as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Writers can only aspire to create a story within a story as beautifully realized as this. Philosophers have not been able to improve on its compelling ethical and moral logic.
As a child, I was captivated by the story, particularly when read aloud with feeling. Something about the vividness of the scene and rightness of its message resonated and lodged.
As a teacher, I marvel at the sophistication of the teaching techniques involved, appealing to both the imagination and to reason. Jesus turns the question back onto the lawyer, forcing him to reflect on what he has already been taught and to accept responsibility for his own learning. Rather than preach, he tells him a story. Jesus does not promise him 'eternal' life, just 'do this and you will live.' The final stroke of genius is to reframe the question: not whether the man in the ditch was their neighbour but which of them was a neighbour to him?
As a lawyer, I am chastened by the confrontation between cleverness and goodness.
As a human being wanting to know how I should live, I am humbled by the example of the good Samaritan and challenged to ponder whether I am rather more like the priest and the Levite than I care to admit.
The story also makes me reflect on what it is that I love with all my heart, soul, strength and mind – what is 'God' for me, in the sense that Paul Tillich defines God, as 'that which is ultimate reality for you; what you take seriously without any reservation.' And this forces me to reflect further on whether I should be redirecting my attention in life to what is more worthy of such love.
Because of my background and temperament, I also find myself wondering about the relationship between 'the law' and 'love', between morality and compassion. The story operates at both levels: the Samaritan represents compassion in action; the parable represents moral reasoning in action.
Elsewhere, Jesus unambiguously proclaims his understanding of the Golden Rule, which is the basis of the Abrahamic law: 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'. This positive exhortation to 'do good' to others is a significant extension to the more generally accepted negative injunction: 'Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.' This primary obligation to 'do no harm' remains the basis of our law today. But it is an insufficient basis for our morality.
The Golden Rule, in one form or another, is universally recognised, because it is integral to the moral fabric of our being. As a very insightful friend pointed out to me: 'It's not a matter of accepting the rule and acting on it, but of the rule reflecting the universal nature of the impulse.' The distinctive inflection in the Parable of The Good Samaritan is that it affirms the sovereignty of good and the primacy of love, which transcends the law.
What is most striking about the difference between the priest and Levite and the Samaritan is that the former act partially out of a sense of what convention dictates, what their discriminatory religious rules require of them. By contrast, the latter acts out of a spontaneous compassionate impulse: 'when he saw him, he was moved with pity.'
The Samaritan does not even have to think about it: he knows what the right thing is to do. It is not a rational analysis of religious rules or moral principles; it is pre-conceptual. I am reminded of Shakespeare's 'pity, like a naked new-born babe' (suggesting an instinctive sense of right and wrong) and 'the quality of mercy...which is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
The principal message of the story is the need to 'put ourselves in the shoes of the other' and act on our compassion, like the good Samaritan, rather than find reasons for not doing so, like the priest or the Levite. To act requires us to extend ourselves, to make an effort.
The most revolutionary idea contained in this story, however, is that we should be compassionate to strangers. Here we have a radically extended definition of who we should regard as our neighbour and to whom we should be neighbourly-someone who is anonymous, not part of our family or clan or nation, who does not necessarily share our religious or moral beliefs, whose only qualification for our sympathy and aid is that he/she is a suffering fellow human being, of equal dignity and worth, with whom we share a common humanity.
Clearly Jesus was millenia ahead of his time! However, the parable makes it clear that individuals were already acting this way: Christianity did not invent compassion or moral action. They are universal values. And yet, while these qualities clearly still endure today, there is also cause for concern.
At the beginning of his wonderful short TEDx talk on effective altruism, Peter Singer shows a very disturbing video clip of a modern playing out of the Good Samaritan story. A two year old girl is run over by a van and left bleeding in the street by the driver. Several people pass by without offering any assistance. Eventually a street cleaner raises the alarm but the girl dies on her way to hospital.
Most viewers of this video clip are horrified by the indifference of the passers-by. And yet, as Singer points out, we know that some nineteen thousand individual children die each day from preventable diseases associated with poverty. We could save many of these if we didn't treat them with a similar indifference. The same could be said of many of the millions of individuals forced to flee their homes for their own safety and who are now stuck in refugee camps.
In an earlier article, 'Pippa's Dilemma: the moral demands of affluence', I quoted Singer's modern parable of the child in the pond: if one is walking past a shallow pond and sees a child drowning, one ought to wade in and pull the child out. This might mean ruining an expensive pair of fashionable shoes but most of us would accept that this is insignificant compared to the death of a child. (And, equally clearly, it makes no moral difference whether it is a pair of shoes or a portion of our money that we are called on to sacrifice.)
Singer derived the following moral principle from such a simple act of compassion: if it is within our power to act to prevent something bad from happening to another human being, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then we have a moral obligation do so.The corollary is that it is morally wrong for us not to do so.
According to this argument, it makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Syrian, Rohingya or African refugee whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. They are fellow suffering human beings of equal worth and must call forth similar compassion and moral concern, irrespective of proximity.
Of course the modern context is different. Instead of being confronted by a single man in the ditch, we are now being confronted by millions of people in refugee camps. But these are all individual men, women and children in no less desperate need of assistance. We may not be able to come to the aid of all of them but we can certainly help some.
While proximity will always make an encounter more immediate, more personally confronting and more difficult to avoid, as well as potentially more satisfying, I like to think (hope) that it is mostly a failure of moral consciousness-rather than lack of compassion, wilful blindness or indifference-that prevents us experiencing a similar sense of moral obligation when confronted by the more distant but equally disturbing realities witnessed on our television screens.
Whether we respond individually to these modern day people in the ditch will depend on our ability to respond personally to the story about the good Samaritan or the child in the pond. Arguments about the responsibility for and scale of the problem, or any political views we may have about our national policies on refugees and asylum-seekers, are secondary to the personal ethical and moral issues: Do we care and are we willing to act on that care?
The good Samaritan shows us very practical ways to act as individuals: he gives the person in need immediate first aid, then takes him to a place of safety and then gives some money to a third party to help maintain him until he gets back on his feet.
We may not be in a position to do all that he does but we can certainly give some of our money to third parties who are in a position to offer such assistance on our behalf. And one of the most exciting recent initiatives to help such people has just been launched by one of the world's most effective charities GiveDirectly.