2020 January Theodicy, Religion and Compassion

See here the PDF version of the Power Point presentation of this paper.  Click here:Theodicy, God and Compassion

Theodicy, Religion and Compassion
explored from a Buddhist/Humanist Perspective
John Baxter  2019. www.johnbaxter.org email johnbaxter119@gmail.com

After having my paper Theodicy, Religion and Compassion accepted for delivery at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion conference on 19th July 2019, I was pleasantly surprised to receive some months later an email from the editor of the on line academic journal Open Theology who asked me to submit an edited version of my paper for that journal.


This showed an unexpected serious interest in what I had said at the IRC conference where, as I had expected, my rejection of so-called Special Divine Action had not gone down well with conservative minded Christians.   As a result I spent considerable time editing, checking and reworking my text.  After submitting it to Open Theology however I was told that since two external judges had rejected it, it would not be published.   The reasons given by these consultants were contradictory and in my view failed to address the aim of the paper which is clearly expressed in the abstract.  Was it too radical for them?  Here is the full text as sent to Open Theology and the Power Point used for the IRC presentation.   Comments can be sent to johnbaxter119@nullgmail.com


Starting with a look at the Christian theological approach of Special Divine Action as explored through the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, Oxford University, the paper raises the need to compare monotheistic theodicies for understanding pain and suffering with such non-theistic approaches as that of Theravada Buddhism and secular Humanism.

In doing so it questions the adequacy of an approach to dealing with pain and suffering which is restricted to one religion, Christianity, compared to an open  World Religions approach.

Focusing on the Life after Death and End of the World theodicies of Jews, Christians and Muslims, the paper pays particular attention to treatments of the Holocaust and the Eschaton in these religions and their dangerous contemporary manifestations.

It ends by exploring compassion in Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinking compared to Buddhism and secular Humanism, and concludes by questioning the value of both SDA and the traditional theodicies in promoting compassion and how they miss the point in the face of the real immanent “eschaton” of climate change we now face.  173  words

The Paper ( as submitted to Open Theology)
Theodicy, Religion and Compassion
explored from a Buddhist/Humanist Perspective
John Baxter  2019. www.johnbaxter.org email johnbaxter119@gmail.com

Edited for Open Theology this paper was first presented at the annual conference of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, Oxford University, July 2019. The conference theme was Compassion and Theodicy and it was planned by Professor Alister McGrath, Dr Andrew Pinsent and Dr Bethany Solereder.

Religion. A Definition
Too often the term “religion” is used, even in academic circles, to refer simply to Christianity, or at best to the monotheistic religions.  This can be confusing and is avoided here by using a definition of religion based on reading Geertz, Smart, Diamond and Harare.

Religion: All religions are prescriptive belief systems which sustain and create communities. They are multi-faceted and communicate through shared stories, ceremonies, symbols, rules of behaviour, music and singing.  Using these elements they facilitate an apprehension that transcends the individual as to what reality is and how we should respond to it and to each other.  As products of human evolution and the way our brains work, the religions enable humans to share values and co-operate as no other species can.

Exploring SDA, Special Divine Action
The subject of the Oxford conference, Theodicy and Compassion follows on from the earlier work of Professor McGrath and Dr Pinsent in examining a theological approach called SDA, Special Divine Action.  In supporting this they appear to be in agreement with the interventionist views of the well-known New Testament scholar Professor N.T. Wright.   So what is SDA?

SDA is an assertion that the very order and regularity of the cosmos – which the scientist assumes and explores – points to that which is beyond it; God. However, that does not mean the whole process was set off “in the beginning” and that God stands back as it rolls on pre-determined. (Deism).  Instead SDA asserts that God is immanently present and active throughout the cosmos while at the same time nudging natural processes along in creative ways to achieve special evolutionary ends, like human consciousness.  In addition on special occasions, and in order to mark some unique events, God brings about spectacular special results in order to encourage and inspire those he has chosen. Key examples of this are seen in the miracles and resurrection of Jesus which are read as being objective , historical events.  Thus Dr Pinsent sees God making himself known to man by Grace, (sacraments ?) Inspiration (scriptures ?) and Providence (miracles and intervening in history?).  For Dr Pinsent this SDA view of God is crucial.  In fact he has said, “Without SDA Theology is dead.”

What of Theodicy
Theodicies have developed from the religions based on monotheism and each attempts to vindicate or provide examples of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil.  SDA relates to theodicy in that it is a monotheistic and primarily Christian approach.  The problem monotheism faces in all its forms, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, is that we live in a world where unmerited suffering, horrible cruelty and unbearable pain – that is evil – is all too obvious. How then can this be reconciled with the actions of a loving, all powerful, all knowing God?

Here we remember that besides the three related monotheisms “a series of religions arose in the millennium before the common era that maintained that the superhuman order governing the world is the product of natural laws and not of divine wills.”[1] Harari lists nine. For the sake of brevity I refer to two which have had a substantial impact.  These are the Buddha Way and, following Harari, Humanism.

Theodicy and the Buddha Way – A Theravada Perspective
Over 2,500 years the Buddha Way has crossed major political, linguistic, religious and cultural boundaries, without recourse to war, to become the first truly world religion.  ( Note that it accords with the given definition of a religion.)

Gotama, the “Enlightened One, the One Who Knows,” lived in India around 450 BCE and his teachings and practice was revolutionary. While not denying the existence of any Indian god or deva, he refrained from worship, offering prayers or sacrifices, consulting oracles, astrology or other fortune telling methods.  He also questioned focus on an immortal soul (atman) and disapproved of claims to perform “miracles” like levitation saying it was a distraction from investigating the real issue, the cause and cure of dukkha.  This is usually translated as “suffering”, but it is a wide term including alienation, dis-ease, dissatisfaction, mental and physical pain, unhappiness and misery.  It could also be called evil.

Considering himself no god or spokesman of god, his focus was on understanding our nature and condition as human beings and how we cause misery for ourselves and others as we live in a world in which so much goes wrong.  His aim was the training of the mind, the development of insight and responsible behaviour in order to overcome dukkha and follow the path to enlightenment, nibbana, something accessible only to humans. This makes his Way a precursor to Western Humanism.

He pointed out that dukkha, is inescapable. Disease, old age and death are the fate of everyone regardless of who we are or what we have and we attempt to evade them by craving false forms of happiness instead of facing them.

Our cravings can be acquisitive, as in forms of greed and more or less subtle patterns of addictive behaviour.  They can be negative, as in forms of hatred, anger, self-loathing and denial. Finally, and most seriously, they can be delusional, forms of error, fantasy, superstition, wilful blindness and prejudice. He also emphasised that we can choose and our intentional actions and thoughts, kamma, are part of the natural laws that operate and have inescapable consequences. [2] What is needed to break the power of dukkha and for true happiness is to undertake the disciplined, systematic self-training he promoted.  Rightly practiced this enables one to tame craving, attain balance and a true “middle way” between greed and hatred based on seeing things as they really are so we can act increasingly compassionately, dispassionately, honestly and responsibly.

Despite Gotama’s focus on “the problem of dukkha/suffering,” theodicy has no place in his teaching for his Way has no place for God. [3]  On one point in contrast to Brahmanical religion, Gotama was very clear.  The operation of kamma (natural law) and its effects cannot be predicted except in the most general way. (hatred breeds hatred)  In particular it does not justify the Indian caste/varna system which he rejected.

A growing (53%) of people in the UK today class themselves according to the census option they are given as “having no religion”[4]. This means many, though not all, could be or might describe themselves as humanists.  Harare [5] describes how Humanism (as an overt and implicit prescriptive belief and value system) has become the default position in Western cultures. He explores its influence and the different forms it has taken and the threats it now faces, particularly with the growth of Artificial Intelligence.  This is an illuminating, and provocative piece of writing.

Most of those who have ticked the “no-religion” box here in the UK have joined no organisation, but the organisation Humanists UK states in the words of Andrew Copson, chief executive officer: “We advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have.  Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.” (note even here ceremonies and rituals are proving a highly popular way of communicating values.)

It keeps its programme restricted to five campaigns which all promote religious freedom and basic human rights.  It has among its growing membership ( around 70,000) many prominent scientists and philosophers (Professors Jim Al Khalili, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, and yes Richard Dawkins and several other media luminaries who are well known.) Its basic stance is “non-religious” in that most members are atheistic or agnostic and consider that this is the only life we have.  They do not usually speak of Humanism as a religion as Harare does, but rather as a life-stance or world -view.

Humanism UK does not attack religions, recognising religious people often share  values and attitudes with humanists, but is in favour of the sort of open, multi-faith, multi-life-stance Religious Education that has been practiced with more or less success in UK schools and which was promoted particularly by Professor Ninian Smart and now continues to be promoted by his successor at Lancaster, Professor Linda Woodhead.

Humanists see evil as being the result of human choices and the future and wellbeing of humanity as being in our hands alone.  This leaves no place for a theodicy. Humanists like Buddhists are well aware of the human capacity for war, depravity and cruelty – evil, but also recognise the desire for “fairness”, empathy and altruistic behaviour (compassion) and recognise these are part of human nature and can be usefully promoted and developed through education, training and the development of a fair and just social order.

This means the Buddha Way and modern liberal Humanism can be quite compatible because of the centrality they both give to developing our humanity, the alleviation of pain and suffering and the promotion of a happy, balanced life and society.

Special Divine Action
The SDA approach with its interventionist or “hands on” view of God appears to have ignored or rejected much that the historical, critical and comparative  study of religions,  the social sciences and philosophy have achieved since the sixties. For example Professor Tom Wright has taken a different path from his predecessor David Jenkins when he succeeded him as Bishop of Durham, as regards the resurrection.[6]

Some Doubts about SDA

  1. Without SDA Theology is Dead,” sounds extreme. Does faith in Jesus and Christianity really depend on miracles seen as wonderful, inexplicable, yet historical events which are needed to trigger belief? No other religion relies on “having faith” in the occurrence of inexplicable events in anything like the same way. Jesus, (Mt 4v5) like the Buddha, appeared to reject the spiritual or moral weight of appeals to “miracles” in order to induce “faith”.  Does the moral weight of Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbour” ring more true because it is claimed the man who said it could actually turn water into wine?
  2. 2. SDA also “proves” too much. It allows for a God who intervenes with acts of Grace, Inspiration and Providence all over the place from the New Testament miracles to Lourdes, Fatima, (Beloved of St John Paul) charismatic healings, exorcisms, visions and prophesies. How do you differentiate these “divine interventions” from “superstition” and “magic,” and what about non-Christian “miracles” such as the claimed divine inspiration of the Koran? Are some of these works to be seen as “demonic” or products of “the powers of darkness”?
  3. Overall this interventionist SDA approach appears blinkered. Its exclusive focus on Christianity, misses significant parallels, differences and insights that can be seen when other religions are taken into account. Its proponents also it seems under-estimate the shifts in culture and world-views that take place over time within every religion and it seems they are biased against exploring the rich understandings, metaphorical, symbolic, poetic and psychological that religious texts, rituals and practices can give.  Such understandings do not involve a conflict with science and the historical critical method.  Instead SDA assumes historical external events are needed to trigger belief and faith and it is in favour of “objective” and literal interpretations on the basis of little or very doubtful evidence.

Scientists and SDA
Does the SDA approach come across as credible to serious scientists who do not come from a monotheistic background?  For example Professor Marcus du Sautoy (successor to Professor Dawkins) writes:

“I reject the existence of a supernatural intelligence that intervenes in the evolution of the universe.  This is a rejection of the God people assign strange properties to – such as compassion, wisdom, love – which makes no sense when it comes to the idea that I am exploring.” [7]  The idea he is exploring is that “God” might be a good name for that which we cannot ever know.  

Then there is Professor Martin Rees who rejects the resurrection “as an historical and physical event” which his old teacher Professor Polkinghorne accepts, but sees himself as “an unbelieving Christian” and member of the Church of England.  He thinks atheists and theists have much in common and can work together, a commendable position.

With these criticisms in mind we turn to the monotheistic theodicies.

Theodicy from the Jews to Paul. Life After Death and End of the World
The Jewish Scriptures have many examples of attempts at theodicy in the utterances of the prophets such as Job, Isaiah and Amos. They all wrestle with the problem that the righteous and good do not always seem to get justice in this life. They do not however address or promote belief in an after-life. When it comes to the later book of Daniel and Christianity this changes as two connected elements of theodicy are introduced. They are combined by Paul in Romans 8:18-25

 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

This “glory” as is made quite clear in his letters, refers to the “life everlasting” or “eternal life” that he believed (first while a Pharisee) that the Jew and the Christian can expect to experience after death, or as he strongly believed, in the imminent arrival of the End of the World, the Day of Judgement, the Eschaton. It is then when the risen Jesus, who Paul had never met “in the flesh” but worshipped as “Son of God and Saviour of the World,” would return.

God will provide his chosen with a “resurrection body” at the end of the world. “When the last trumpet sounds – the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed as well, because our present perishable nature must put on imperishability, and this mortal nature must put on immortality” (I Cor. vs15).

It is this Eschatology, these assertions about a Day of Judgement and how God will provide his chosen with a “resurrection body” to compensate them for suffering and death that makes up the dominant theodicy of Paul and the New Testament he was so influential in creating.

 “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” [8] So he comes to establish his Kingdom, reward his faithful followers, and punish the damned.[9]

How the Eschatological SDA Theodicy Developed
This dramatic, dark vision of a Day of Judgement and an after-life was first adapted by Jews from Zoroastrianism it seems.  They used it to encourage themselves in the face of national humiliation and persecution at the hands of the Greek Seleucids and then of the Roman invaders of Palestine.  It was taken up by the Pharisees and Zealots (referred to in the Gospels,) then by John the Baptist, by Jesus himself and of course Paul who got it not from Jesus, but directly from the Pharisees.  How many of them took it all literally as SDA we will never know for among the Jews there were and remain differing views concerning life after death, but it seems Paul and those who followed him did.  For them an immanent Day of Judgement was coming.

When after Paul’s death the expected cataclysm failed to materialise, and then the Jerusalem Temple fell, and finally when the Western Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Jews seem to have de-emphasised apocalyptic speculation.  Instead they focused on Talmudic study and the building up of synagogues in order to maintain their identity in the Diaspora.

[10]The Christian Life after Death Theodicy
At the same time the Christians also played down their expectations of an imminent Apocalypse and instead focused on preparing for immortality.  A theodicy developed which emphasises that all who turn to Christ, repent and are baptised into the One True Church, can expect the reward of salvation.  This would be both now and in the next life when they would join Jesus in Heaven.  Finally, they would also receive a “resurrection body”. Such a theodicy continues to satisfy millions today, though Marx saw it all as delusional “false consciousness.”

The Apocalyptic SDA Theodicy Resurfaces. Israel.
The earlier Apocalyptic Theodicy seen as SDA has not gone away and keeps resurfacing. This has happened at times of extreme crisis like the Black Death and the Thirty Years War.  It also jumped to North America with a series of “Great Awakenings” and the growth of Millenarian Sects, Adventists, Mormons and Witnesses. All, together with many Baptists in the South, saw signs of the imminent coming of the end of the world.

Now it is linked with supporting Israel as born-again Bible believing Evangelicals await Jesus’ Second Coming to Jerusalem.  Then the Jews will at last see the error of their ways and accept him as their Messiah – and Son of God.[11]  This also appears to be what N.T. Wright believes. He calls this “Life after Life After Death and speaks of Christians on death being in a suspended state with God – not as souls in heaven- until the “real” return of Jesus when they will be raised with transformed bodies to live with Christ on a real transformed, perfected earth where the satanic powers of evil have been vanquished.  Here you have the ultimate SDA vision.[12]

Enter Trump. Israel

All this was the view of the American pastor Robert Jeffress that Trump brought over to speak at the ceremony when the US recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel was announced.  He did this in order to play to his Evangelical backers back home where it appears many are now seeing the godless Trump as “Harbinger of the Apocalypse.”[13]

This approach would however have been no surprise to his Israeli audience. They know that smiling and listening to this Christian theodicy of immanent SDA is the price they need pay for receiving vast quantities of American military aid.  They, however, as Jews have been faced with the enormity of the Holocaust and of wondering what possible theodicy they could have to deal with that.

Evil, Theodicy and Holocaust for the Jews
The Russian Jewish scholar Eduard Borysov has written an illuminating online paper entitled Theodicy and the Holocaust, a Critical Evaluation. In it he reviews contemporary Jewish attempts to construct a theodicy in which God’s chosen people become the victims of mass annihilation.  After noting Jacob Neusner’s view “There are no implications for Jewish theology (of the Holocaust) or Jewish community life which was not present before 1933.” This is because the Jews had already for centuries been so badly persecuted by Christians that the Holocaust changed nothing when it comes to attempting a theodicy.  Still, Borysov finds many attempts to deal with a theodicy that takes account of the Holocaust and he finds they can be divided into three groups.

  1. Attempts at a Jewish Theodicy of the Holocaust
    He notes some assert it is “because of our sins we were punished” and “Auschwitz is our just retribution.” Then there is the substitutionary theory. “The Holocaust is the ultimate in vicarious atonement.  Israel is the “suffering servant” of Isaiah  [14] and “Jews are the ultimate atonement.  Jews had to suffer for the loss of (their) faith (in God) and the secularisation that had been taking place amongst them.”

Then Borysov notes there are those who have created a “positive theodicy” in seeing the birth of the State of Israel as a justification for the “sacrifice that was offered in the crematoriums.” In fact he points out either as a religious theodicy or as a secular Zionist way of thinking, the setting up of a Jewish State of Israel  ( and the denial of the rights of Palestinians to own or return to their land) is seen as the will of God and justifiable because of the Holocaust.  In fact such thinking has become almost normative in Israel and amongst diaspora Jews.  We should however remember a significant Jewish minority has questioned this view.

  1. Creating A Holocaust Theodicy is Questionable

Borysov’s second group is one he places himself in for they reject “any utterance that attributes spiritual or moral “meaning” to (such a) genuine evil, or any attempt to “redeem suffering.”
He then quotes Berkovitz:  “The Holocaust is the maximization of human evil, the price mankind has to pay for human freedomThe Nazis were human beings not gods: Auschwitz reflects ignominiously on humanity. It does not touch on God’s existence or perfection.” And a final quote from Arthur Cohen: “The Holocaust is an inscrutable mystery.  Like all of God’s ways it transcends human understanding and demands faith and silence.”

  1. Any Holocaust Theodicy is Impossible
    This is Borysov’s third reaction. He quotes Richard Rubenstein whose book After Auschwitz 1966 was widely read: “The Holocaust is proof that God is dead – if there were a God, He would surely have prevented Auschwitz; if he did not, then He does not exist.”

The thread uniting God and Man, heaven and earth, has been broken.  We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any powerful power beyond our own resources.  After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God?”

“Human life is purposeless and void of any transcendental aim … the meaning of life can and should be construed only subjectively.  The Jews must abandon their theological illusions and create meaning for life in their own community.”

Borysov concludes: “In spite of my disagreement with the atheism of Rubenstein, I need to acknowledge that his logic and criticisms of the traditional theists are well grounded and thought-provoking.  Moreover, he does not just deconstruct theodicy for the sake of destroying it, but he provides an alternative meaning for life – that a Jew needs to identify (himself as a member) in his religious community.”

Despite the fact that these Jewish responses do not mention or explore ideas about an after-life they are surely relevant for Christian theologians reflecting on God and innocent suffering.  They also show how difficult monotheistic attempts to construct a convincing theodicy are.

Theodicy and belief in SDA in Islam
And what of Theodicy in Islam?  Many stories, themes and personalities from both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures have been incorporated into the Koran and the Hadith.  As well as promoting a vividly described Paradise and Hell for a life after death theodicy, these include the idea of an apocalyptic Day of Judgement and of (Jesus/Isa) returning to Jerusalem to establish his rule by SDA – so leading to mass conversions to Islam!

For most Muslim history however, these Last Days teachings have been peripheral.  Now with the revival of Islam initiated by Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as they smarted under Western political, economic and cultural dominance, this apocalyptic theodicy has been revived and used to deadly effect in the al-Qaeda reactions against Western dominance seen first for the West in the 11-9-2001 Twin Towers attack.

Subsequently it has been taken further in the brutal “theology” and exultant violence displayed on social media by the supporters al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State and “New Caliphate” who think that the establishment of an uncompromisingly brutal and fundamentalist practice of Islam will trigger SDA and hasten the return of Jesus/Isa and universal conversion.  The vast majority of Muslims of course see these actions as a deranged betrayal of their faith.

Compassion, Sympathy, Fellow Feeling, Love
Given the shapes these two theodicies (Life after Death and Day of Judgement) have taken within the three monotheistic religions, can they be related to and inform teachings on compassion in the face of evil across the religions?

For the Jews
Compassion in the Jewish scriptures is always linked to justice and the support of the poor. This has been seen as primarily devoted to family and other members of “the chosen people”, but not exclusively.  In addition their monotheism has lead them to recognise that all men are looked after by God in a Noachic Covenant” and that even working animals deserve rest on the Sabbath and that the “stranger” deserves to be treated justly and with compassion.  They however are in a special Covenant Relationship with God who they expect will show them some favour if they seek to observe the Torah.

Their treatment at the hands of Christendom has however been pretty dire and the Holocaust took their suffering and extermination to a whole new level.  Despite this when it comes to practical compassion the Jews remain by far the biggest givers to all forms of charity and their contributions to western culture and society, often altruistic and dedicated, have been out of all proportion to their numbers.

Syria, Palestine, Israel and the Three Related SDA Eschatologies
Despite generosity exercised in contexts where many have been badly treated, the Jews’ very successes have provoked the ugly and persistent blight of “anti-semitism” meaning hatred of Jews for being Jews.  This has not been helped by the post-holocaust setting up of a Jewish State of Israel in Palestine.  Now we see the three related monotheistic theodicies of the Eschaton, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, each being used with its own version of SDA to justify ongoing violence and intolerance towards each other on a relentless scale, so contributing to make the world a very dangerous place.

Compassion for the Muslims
Compassion has been focussed on members of the Ummah, the Islamic Community which has always been open for anyone to join who accepts Allah and his Prophet.  Christians and Jews as People of the Book were tolerated with more or less respect if they paid a tax.   When the Spanish Jews were suffering Christian persecution they were encouraged to settle in Muslim lands by the Sultan Bayazid 11 in 1492.   Such tolerance died with the establishment of Israel in 1947 on formerly Muslim ruled land and the displacement of millions. This is seen as against the will of Allah by virtually all Muslims.
For Muslims Zakat means payment to support the poor (that is poor Muslims). It is regarded as a primary religious duty.  For those outside the Ummah, such as Buddhists, Hindus and currently Christians, toleration can be very limited or non-existent in many countries where Muslims form the majority.

For Christians and Humanists
Jesus taught that God is father of everyone and every hair on our heads is numbered. Love your neighbour as your self means even the heretic, the pagan, the adulteress or yes, your enemy.  Similar to Gotama Jesus said, “In as much as you do this to these the least of my brothers, you do it to me.”(Mt 25.40) This, together with Paul’s baptism of pagans advertised that Christianity was and is open to all, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female in a Universal Church. This council of perfection has in practice been hard to take for Christians when it has come to slaves, women and those wishing for same sex relationships.

Humanism in the West
Bereft of the Buddhist focus on our common humanity, Western Humanism has grown out of the Christian inspired view of seeing every person as being of “ultimate value”, so promoting universal brotherhood/sisterhood, human rights and interdependence, even as the Enlightenment challenged belief in God and supernatural SDA as the traditional Christian and Jewish theodicies lost credibility.

When it comes to compassion, humanists simply see empathy and morality as natural and incline towards promoting happiness, personal fulfillment and avoiding suffering. (Utilitarianism  Bentham and Mill)  To survive humans have evolved to take care of each other and find meaning in doing so and these tendencies can be developed and promoted by education, training and political action.  William Beveridge, who promoted pensions, social security and the setting up of the National Health Service to provide free medical care for all, saw himself as a “materialist agnostic”.

Buddhist Morality
For Buddhists the moral goals are Metta – Loving kindness, Karuna – Compassion, Mudita – Altruistic Joy, Upekkha – Equanimity
Rejecting the varnas or castes of Hindu society Gotama taught that the path to “true nobility” was open to all, men and women, rich and poor, regardless of class or religious background.  In his promotion of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths and the Five Moral Precepts (evade killing, stealing, adultery, lying and drugs) he spelt out how to do this in quite easily memorised form.  Generosity and compassion towards all others he taught is the first step on the Path, with the practice of moral living as the second and reflective awareness or meditation and mental development as the third.  This includes compassion towards one’s own body, feelings and emotions while teaching that self-centredness is the greatest cause of suffering for the individual and those around.  All this is simply based upon reflecting on our humanity for he drew no clear dividing line between Buddhists and others.

What is more he saw religious tolerance as something fundamental if religious choice is to be preserved. He also set up the monastic Sangha as a symbiotic community of renunciates, totally dependent on the generosity of lay supporters. This, the first and oldest religious order provides a radically simplified life-style and a deeper training in self-discipline and meditation to preserve and communicate the Way in and beyond its community.  In the West this has led to a growing interest in and practice of Buddhist meditation and retreats led by Western teachers, monastic and lay, which has now taken off in the Mindfulness Movement started in the US by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn and then here in Britain by Professor Mark Williams who launched the Oxford Mindfulness Centre with its links to the  university and the Warnford Hospital.  Professor Williams is also an Anglican priest and Canon of Christ Church. An interesting and significant development.

Theodicy and Compassion. Are There Links?
My conclusion then is that I can see no clear or necessary link between the eschatological theodicies of the theistic religions which seek to deal with and explain evil and their often compassionate moral teachings and practices which can (if not always!) overlap with what is seen to be good both by Buddhists and secular Humanists. This seems just as well if the theistic eschatologies are interpreted literally in true SDA fashion for they have led us to a dangerous and toxic place.

Can the Monotheistic Religions Prepare Us for a Dark Future?
Of course they can contribute. The underlying values they share are essential for our future, but possibly not until they give up on expecting divine intervention, SDA.

And What of the Buddha Way?
Unlike the monotheisms Gotama from the start clearly taught respect for the environment, plant life and animals and encouraged (without demanding) vegetarianism.  All forms of life are protected on Buddhist monastic lands.  Of course he did not foresee the dire catastrophe we now face – global warming, a population explosion, accelerating climate change, pollution and multiple planet and life endangering threats, Still Buddhist teaching and practice remains relevant.

Humanist Values, Apocalypse Now and Special Divine Action?
Since writing this paper the situation has steadily deteriorated.  Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, together with Pope Francis, have been trying to wake us up as fire, flood, drought and hurricane rage.   Should we then wait for the Jewish, Christian or Muslim theodicies of Divine Intervention at the End of the World to come true with the coming of a Messiah?  Alternatively, do we need to put talk of SDA aside, reflect on our shared values and recognise that we stand “unaided by any power beyond our own resources,” and that we urgently need to act together, practically, morally and politically.

This paper 5,454 words.  John Baxter 12/11/2019






























References. Books, articles and videos consulted.

Stephen Batchelor. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist Spiegel and Grau.2010 Partly autobiographical it tells how he arrived at a position very similar to my own.

Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead. A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools. www.faithdebates.org 2014.  An excellent paper on Religious Education in Schools pointing out its importance in a religiously and culturally diverse society. Rejected by the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews. Ignored by the Conservatives who see votes in “faith schools”. Supported by Humanists UK.

Harvey Cox. The Secular City. SCM Press1965. A must read at the time predicting growing secularisation as inevitable and positive. Too optimistic but ground-breaking

Don Cupitt. The Sea of Faith. BBC 1984. Followed Kee but never acknowledged him and set off a post theistic mainly Anglican movement.  Now much diminished.

Jared Diamond. The World Until Yesterday. Allen lane. 2012 Part 5. The most brilliant and comprehensive exploration of the nature of Religion I have read.

Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens. A Brief History of Mankind Vintage 2011 and Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow 2015. Spellbinding.  Analysis and speculations about Humanism in Homo Deus.

Alister Kee. The Way of Transcendence. Christian Faith Without Belief in God.  SCM press 1971, 1985. A book that influenced me deeply.  Too radical for Oxford, he proved himself in Edinburgh.

R.F. Gombrich. What the Buddha Thought. Equinox. 2009. Professor Gombrich shows why he thinks the Buddha “one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of all time.”

Alister McGrath. Dawkins, God, Genes, Memes 2005 Blackwell and the Meaning of Life. Hodder 2017.  Written from an exclusively Christian  and probably pro SDA viewpoint. Most Humanists and Buddhists would agree with his criticism of idealism and the myth of progress.

Walpola Sri Rahula. What the Buddha Taught. One World, Oxford.1959 “By far the best introduction to Buddhism available”. Prof R.F. Gombrich.  

Martin Rees. On the Future. Prospects for Humanity. Princeton U.Press 2017  Decidedly scary.

Marcus du Sautoy. What We Cannot Know. From Consciousness to the Cosmos, the cutting edge of science explained. 4th Estate 2016.  Professor of Maths and the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford. Excellent.

Ninian Smart and Stephen Konstantine. Christian Systematic Theology in a world context. First Fortress Press. 1991. Theology with no SDA written from a World Religions perspective. Very influential for thinking about Religious Studies.

Taede Smedas. Groningen University, Netherlands. Why is Special Divine Action a Problem? IRC video.2019.  With impressive scholarship he questions the assumptions made by those who promote SDA.

David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth. Penguin. 2019. All the latest dreadful facts on Global Warming




Key Words

SDA Special Divine Action, Dukkha, Metta, Kamma, no-religion, Eschaton, Holocaust, N.T.Wright, Sangha, Ummah.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens p249

[2] Gombrich, What Humanist thinking and values  the Buddha Thought p27

[3] Batchelor. Buddhism Without Beliefs

[4] For the first time, more than half the population say they have no religion, and the generation gap on religious affiliation is widening, according to the British Social Attitudes survey 2017.

[5] Yuval Noah Harari.  Homo Deus. Ch 7 The Humanist Revolution

[6] Baxter.  Is Wright Wrong? www.johnbaxter.org. Wright asserts divinely authenticated and inspired scriptures, “breathed out by God” p11 Wright. Why Read the Bible, and sees miracles as “a series of concrete events in actual history.” p20

[7]  Du Sautoy. What We Cannot Know p147

[8] Rev. 1:7

[9] See Daniel and Mt 25;46

[10] Mk.13

[11] Sutton. American Apocalypse

[12] N.T Wright. Heaven and Rapture Theology.  U Tube.

[13] Christina Magda, Newsweek 1-12-18

[14]  Isaiah Ch53 f.