[This week’s interviewee didn’t want their picture taken. Instead they asked to post a picture of “my hero, Epictetus” – the Greek slave-cum philosopher]
What I believe depends on the time of day really. Everyone has doubts. But I’d say I’m a Muslim. That’s the moral system that’s most compatible with what I consider to be natural. Not always. But for the most part.
But I don’t view religion as guidelines designed by a deity. It’s more an accumulation of collected wisdom. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you look at Buddhism, you look at any religion, Abrahamic or not, on a number of issues they’re in alignment. So even though human tribes have been separated from one another throughout millennia, they’ve ultimately come to roughly similar conclusions.
An example is lying. For me that’s the one thing I love about myself. I don’t lie. Ever. I might not tell you the whole truth. But I won’t say something to you that’s not true. And I often think about why that is. And it’s partly because the vision of being caught lying and the embarrassment that comes with that, whether it’s small or big, is so overpowering that it’s enough to deter me form lying. But that’s only one aspect. Because even if I won’t get caught, I’ve noticed I don’t lie. And I think that’s because when you lie, assuming no one catches you, assuming you get away with it, there’s one person who does see. And [pointing upwards] I’m not talking about God. It’s you. It doesn’t sound like much but I strongly believe that your self-image is tarnished. And that’s an unimaginable blow to your confidence. I’m just talking about you thinking of yourself as a worthy person. It has a massive influence on how you conduct yourself on a daily basis. If you can look into people and say to yourself, “no, I’m worthy of…I’m a worthy individual.” Not in an arrogant narcissistic way but “I’m a good person.” The confidence that comes with that is immense. I can’t stress enough. Knowing that even in my privacy, when there’s no one around, I can come out with my head up high. The confidence that comes from that. For me that’s religiosity. I’m more interested in religiosity and spirituality in that sense than I am in religion as a set of precepts.
If I’m totally honest I don’t find belief itself…I don’t hold it in high value. Cos what, do you just believe that you’re gunna go to heaven? How is that in any way special? In the same way that not believing in God…That’s why I can’t be an atheist. It’s just so arrogant. You figured out there’s nothing and you’ll turn into nothing? Well how are you any different from the religious wack job? For me they’re equally dogmatic. The one’s who say there’s nothing beyond this bodily existence, and the ones who tell me exactly how it’s gunna go down: pearly gates and all that.
It’s about a moral existence. Actions speak louder than words. What stands out for us is when we’re touched by an action. They reach to the depth of human beings. Sometimes, of course, the word is the action. But seeing people embodying their moral beliefs, their moral existence, their moral worldview, that is the most…and that can be from any faith or any religion.
There’s a famous battle in Islamic history, especially in Shi’ite Islam…you heard of the battle of Karbala, or the ritual of Ashura? There’s a story in the battle…it doesn’t have to be true according to me…there’s a story where one of the individuals involved in the battle, on the good side [said with a wry smile] – his side are deprived of water. And there are women and children on his side. And they’re deprived of food for days on end. And he finally finds a river or something and he finds an opportunity to drink. And now if you want to analyse this rationally, you’ll say, “well drink because you’ll be stronger and you can help the others.” But he doesn’t drink – at least that’s how the story goes. So this figure by the river…it’s this idea that there are these people who are thirsty and hungry and have been through hell and I’m not gunna…it’s a lesson about empathy and solidarity.
And you look at all these stories…they don’t have to be true…I don’t waste time arguing with people about the veracity of Noah’s Ark or any of these stories because they’re not meant to be real. It’s what you get out of it. What’s the moral lesson? And it’s gotta be something simple that everyone can agree with.
I say I’m Muslim but that may be because I come from a Muslim background and it’s more familiar to me. I don’t deny my bias in that sense. From a very early age I read a lot of philosophers influenced by Buddhist thinking. And I was very open to that. I’ve got passages of the Bible that I really like, that I remind myself of at times: though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….I find it comforting. So for me religion’s more of a tool for a more moral way of living. Of conducting yourself. I’m not bothered by questions of whether or not this really happened or whether Jesus really did exist. You can provide me endless proof about the falsity of any of these stories that I hold dear. It wouldn’t make a difference. Because it’s the meaning that counts and the meaning doesn’t have to be rooted in an historical event. Meaning is something you kind of create.
There must be things in my life that contradict all I’ve said. I try not to…as Gandhi would say, “I’m a human being and I have a thousand flaws.” And it’s our flaws, in a bizarre way, I feel, that bring us together. Our weaknesses. It’s not our perfections. Think of every story, ever novel, every movie you’ve ever liked. The main figure at some point has got to overcome his weakness, his doubts, his defeats, his failures. We don’t sympathise with perfection. You can’t connect with perfection. It becomes the object of desire. But desire’s not necessarily a deep-seated source of emotional bonding. That’s what I find anyway.
I think most Christians would find it surprising that I repeat, in critical moments, moments of difficulty or uncertainty, passages from the Bible. I don’t think Muslims would find that surprising. I know lots of them that read it. I think also a number of people find it surprising that I have any faith at all.
Interviewer: No, you come across as irreverent.
At least you didn’t say pervert. Anything above that is a plus.
[We both start laughing]