Sunday, July 15, 2007

Believing and Doing

Norm has a piece on the importance of taking seriously the claims of religious people who have taken great risks on behalf of others, namely that their beliefs were an important part of their motivation for doing so.

Here is an email he received:

"I am Jewish, and a complete atheist. Many years ago, when I was still a student doing my D. Phil. in Oxford, I travelled down to London on a bus. I was reading Nietzsche's 'Antichrist', when the elderly lady next to me asked me, in German, what I thought of the book. She was Polish, but spoke good German.

"When I started to express my admiration for Nietzsche, she listened benignly for a moment and then told me how she, as a fervent Catholic, had fought against the Nazis at the side of the Jews in the Warsaw uprising. She described it all in great detail, no pathos, no false heroism, just a straightforward and honest account of what she had done, what she had seen, and how she had escaped after the failure of the uprising through the tunnels under the city. It was her religion which had kept her going, given her strength, and given her her love of humankind, justice, and of goodness, full stop. I put my Nietzsche away, said not a word, and listened in total silence, and with a humility and admiration I have rarely experienced before or since.

"I've never forgotten the episode, it was some forty years ago, and to this day I've taken the greatest care not to offend people of a religious bent when it is obvious they are sincere in the best way in their beliefs and actions. Religion, it seems to me, is far too complex a phenomenon for one to treat each and every religious person as some kind of idiot bent only, whether they will or not, on evil. That lady, empowered by her religion, had done what I could never have accomplished in a million years, and to claim she would also have done it merely out of the goodness of her heart without her religious belief was, as far as I could tell (and as a religious sceptic), simply not true. She was the living embodiment of what religion at its best can achieve, and even to have suggested she would have done the same without her beliefs would have been to profoundly insult a woman of the greatest courage and moral rectitude.

"This tale is to me too important and still so moving that I felt it right to pass it on..."

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