Dear Donagh,

I had a long argument with a friend a few months during which we both said some rather hurtful things, much to my surprise….  It has been his view for many years that religion is only for inadequate people.  He said as much to a mutual friend in my hearing, and I rose to the bait – if bait it was.  He knows that I take my faith rather seriously – at any rate I hang on by my fingernails….  I said something like “Could you give us a list of the ways in which you think you are especially adequate?” That put us on a wrong course – it got quite nasty, it was like sliding into a swamp.  I'm afraid it has damaged our friendship, but I'm not going to take back anything I said….  My question to you is this.  Do religious opinions always end up dividing people?  Isn't religion supposed to bring people together?  Is it better not to discuss it – as most people don’t?  I like the calm way you reply to questions….  Could you comment on this?  Paula

Dear Paula,

You put a nice spin on that ball you sent back over the net to your friend.  He deserved it.  He probably wouldn’t presume to ridicule your taste in music, or in reading, or even in clothes, but he allowed himself to belittle your religious practice.  You made him a wiser man.  Maybe he will deserve your friendship better now!

Religion is supposed to bring people together, not set them apart.  Some scholars even believe that the word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin religare, ‘to bind together’.  But as everyone knows, especially today, it frequently has just the opposite effect. 

I knew an old man years ago whose most characteristic phrase was, “I myself personally.”  He prefaced it to almost everything he said; he was full of himself; there was no room for anything else.  His own ego was his God; it was a kind of Unblessed Trinity: I, Myself, Personally.

He was an exception only in degree.  It is quite common for religious and anti-religious people alike to be followers of the ego’s religion (the plus and minus signs don’t make any real difference).  Once you tune into this you see it with alarming regularity.  There is no ego in real religion; or if there is it is subdued and softened, and part-time.  There is instead an awareness that God is in everything and therefore everything speaks of God: trees, skies, mountains, animals, people…. There is room in us for everything; every object has the whole mystery of existence in it and behind it; it is like a window open on ultimate meaning.  But the ego doesn’t really look at anything or listen to anything; it has no room for anything but itself.  When we are in thrall to our egos we are the only creatures in the world that don’t speak of God. 

Why do we turn away from a sublime vision for the sake of a myopic view of everything?  It must be on account of some ego-need.  The ego is the original graffiti artist, scribbling its name on everything, probably for the same reason that young guys with spray cans deface walls and buildings.  We want to assert ourselves, we want recognition.  We want recognition from others because we believe we are nothing in ourselves.  We are right about that: the ego is nothing in itself.  But we are also wrong, because like every creature – and more than every creature – we are also the transparent presence of God. 

How do we talk to someone who has no awareness of the real depth of our religion?  We have to be that depth.  If we engage in their argument we have lost sight of that depth.  This sounds as if we think ourselves superior to them, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The ego is the specialist in feeling above or below other people.  In our true nature there is no high and low.  If we could keep our composure in the heat of an argument we would keep looking at the true nature of the other person – in which they are exactly equal to us; they are our very self in another form.  

In practice you could say quietly to your friend, “Have you ever been tempted to take up meditation?”  If he gives this the same treatment, you could go on to say that it is the deep end and that you are not really interested in arguments – which are like the shallow end, or even rather like an empty swimming pool.   

Something like that, Paula, I'd suggest.  You don’t have to win the argument.  What he may remember is your silence, your calm, the peace in your whole demeanour.  It is on this kind of axis that human lives turn right around – and not on the turn of an argument (especially not when someone has won it). 


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