Thursday, July 2, 2009

My Four Word Solution to All That’s Wrong With Religion

Since shortly after the dawn of time through today, the major religions of the world have provided benefits to billions of members of humankind but have also caused some pretty serious problems. And, while it's maybe a little presumptuous for me to say so, I think I've figured out how to fix religion. You never know where inspiration will come from. My epiphany in this case came from a bumper sticker on the back window of a pickup truck (not the first time this has happened - see this previous post). Plain white font. Black background. Four words (a major plus in bumper stickers; while I like the sentiment behind "it will be a wonderful day when schools get all the funding they need and the military has to have a bake sale to buy a new bomber," I wonder how many people are killed every year when their cars veer off the road while trying to read the tiny font required for such a ridiculously long statement).

The bumper sticker I saw said - "Don't Be A Dick"

There is was. Shockingly brilliant in its simplicity, this teaching, if applied to all world religions, could revolutionize the conduct of adherents to organized religion and fundamentally reshape how individuals and whole populations treat one another.

I'm not religious myself, but I've read enough Newsweek articles to understand that organized religion has been somewhat important in shaping world history. The purposes of religion, it seems, can be broken down into three primary components: 1) helping people find meaning and purpose in a world that is confusing, scary and sometimes horrible; 2) providing a sense of identity, culture and community; and 3) setting forth guidelines about how people should treat one another. Components 1 and 2 are all well and good so long as they don't create negative externalities that harm other people. 1 and 2 are OK if there’s enough number 3 in the mix. The problem is, that's not always the case. Some moderately annoying things and some truly horrific things have been done in the name of religion. Colonialism, not letting a Jewish guy into your country club, genocide, being mean to your interfaith daughter-in-law, bombing your neighbors into a parking lot, rape-n-pillage, etc. can too often be justified as being ordained by whoever wrote the religious text in question. And in these cases, the sometimes extensive rules that comprise component 3 can be twisted around so as to somehow not be technically violated.

It may be that most of the horrible things done in the name of religion were the result of cynical individuals tricking their followers / subjects into believing that religion justified the bad things they wanted to do. I think most serious religious scholars would tell you that the "Don't Be A Dick" principal is nothing new, and that Jesus, Muhammad, the Buddha and whichever other icons I'm forgetting would all agree that this principal is exactly what they were trying to get at in their teachings. That the teachings were intended to be, in essence, a comprehensive set of rules demonstrating how not to be a dick. Maybe all that's needed is an overarching clarification that would make it harder for such aforementioned cynical individuals to follow what we lawyers like to call "the letter but not the spirit of the law." How hard could it be to chisel out a retroactive 11th commandment - "thou shalt not be a dick" - or to slap an appending sticker onto the last page of all of the holy texts saying something like "notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in pages 1-7892 hereof, the point of this text is to remind you, Don't Be A Dick" (bold / ital / underline)? If I'm right about the original intent of all the best selling religious writings, this clarification wouldn't have any effect on all of the people who use religion as an agent for positive change while at the same time putting the kabosh on people who have been engaging in assorted nastiness that surely would have been frowned upon by all the original prophets. Sheltering tsunami victims and disinfecting lepers? Not being a dick. Smiting first born children of another race and claiming that you have been ordained by God as a ruthless dictator? Being a dick.

What's more, the "Don't Be A Dick" concept applies just as readily to non-religious life. Even if you're a strident non-believer, you could measure each component of your personal conduct against this simple and easy to remember standard. It would be perfectly logical to incorporate the concept into civic life, i.e., a social contract based upon which it is understood that I will refrain from acting like a dick if, in turn, I can enjoy a reasonable degree of certitude that my fellow countrymen will not act like a dick back to me. "E Pluribus Unum and Donotus Beist Dickunium" (I never studied Latin, but this is probably close enough).

You might recognize the "Don't Be A Dick" concept as an offshoot of the "Golden Rule" - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There's nothing wrong with that incarnation, but when advocating for massive social change, I find it's always best to try to avoid using the word "unto." Also, there has been some confusion in recent decades because of the newer Murphy's Law version of the Golden Rule - the one with the gold makes the rules. "Don't Be A Dick" is just sort of the Golden Rule for the new millennium.

For those who think a little dose of capitalism might be required to effectively spread the word, think of all the "Don't Be A Dick" crap you could merchandise. Just look at the whole line of "Life Is Good" junk that's managed to remain on the scene for all these years. Or chastity rings. Or No Fear / Fear This stuff. Maybe it would become as popular as WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) merchandise and we could start hawking DBAD jewelry and coffee mugs and henna tattoos. "Mean People Suck" paraphernalia was popular for a while, but that was more of an observation than a command. To turn that concept into an action item, you'd have to say something like "mean people suck, and you're being mean, so you suck, so stop being mean, then you won't suck." And that's too cumbersome.

The "Don't Be A Dick" credo would have to be somewhat custom tailored to make sense in different languages. As part of the extensive research conducted in connection with this posting (thank you Brenda, Mitra, Guy, Epaminontas and Ora), it came to my attention that calling someone a dick doesn't make sense in a lot of languages. In Hebrew, it would be more common to call someone a "bastard." An "asshole" in Mandarin. In Greek, there are even different words for "dick" depending on whether you really mean it or not. But no worries here. I would bet my life that there does not exist a single language in the world that does not recognize the concept of a person being something akin to what is referred to in the American English dialect as a "dick."

As you may have learned from a number of my earlier postings, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But at least on the personal interface front, there could be hope. Diminishing worldwide dickishness would be self-reinforcing. The more times a person leaves the house and interacts with a stranger would who is not a dick, the more likely it is that that person will himself choose not to act like a dick. This will explode exponentially and, before we know it, a new wave of non-dickitude will wash across the globe. Society as we know it will be kindler and gentler.

What can you do to help crusade for this worthy cause? Get yourself a "Don't Be A Dick" sticker and slap it on your car, or, if you don't have one, on some other possession. Repeat the mantra to yourself throughout your day. Internalize the message. And, if you've been being a dick, knock it off.


Matthew E. Sullivan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dfields said...

If only this worked for Cheney.

R Birch said...

I've got it! Extrapolated from Martial: Noli esse mantula. Literally: Don't be a dick.

:) Have a great Monday,
From your nearest fan.

R. Birch