On the way to work this morning I was listening to a BBC broadcast of a debate between Christopher Hitchens, renowned atheist, and Tony Blair, former supposed prime minister of England and recent convert to Catholicism. The statement they were debating was “Religion is a force for good in the world.”
I realized something important part way through, listening to both use the homily ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. I listened with great interest to Mr. Hitchens warn of the dangers of religious fanaticism and how it is one of the chief causes of wars and violence, and listening equally to Mr. Blair pointing out that whether or not the world has religious fanaticism it will always have fanaticism and fanatics. That’s when it really hit me.
Jesus said the way to God is harder to get through than passing through the eye of a needle (for a rich man at least) and also said that the ‘gate is small and narrow is the road that leads to life and few are those who find it.” (Matt 7:14, NIV) Many other religions speak of how difficult it is to become truly holy, to gain the life Jesus is speaking of; in Buddhism there are saints as well, and they like Christian saints must have lived a life of utter purity, self sacrifice, charity, and devotion. The examples of the necessity for charity, of purity, of devotion and self sacrifice abound no matter which religious tradition one looks at. And, giving credit to secularism, I believe along with Mr. Hitchens that one knows the duties and laws (if you will) of being human in human society; they don’t require a god to impose them, we know them in our biology.
The fact that so many traditions count those holy, and the accompanying fact that so many of us humans fall so short, means only one thing. It means that true compassion, true service to humanity, is a rare quality indeed amongst us. It means that perhaps there really are only a few in every generation who meet the definition of sainthood, and those are the rare few who really are better, more evolved, more ‘human’ than the rest of us. That’s why we value them so much, tell stories about them, remember their names and deeds for centuries after their deaths, and even develop mythologies regarding them in the passing centuries. They are valued because they are rare.