Lately, I have been thinking a lot about a very broad topic: universal values. It has been on my mind since I am editing my second draft of a book for students grades 9-university tentatively called Human Rights: Towards a Universal Values System. Also, I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s latest hefty book: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Although I certainly am not claiming to be the caliber of Karen Armstrong, I am struck by several similar concepts put forward in her book and my forthcoming book. I would like to share with you a few of these ideas.
In order to understand a universal values system, Armstrong explains early on in her book that each person has basically three parts to his/her brain. In our “old brain” that we have inherited from the reptiles 500 million years ago, we are directed by our self-centered survival behaviors—feed, fight, flee, and reproduce—with no altruistic impulses. Sometimes after mammals appeared, about 120 million years ago, our limbic system formed over the core brain that stimulated new behaviors, such as protecting others, nurturing the young, and aligning with other humans for survival; in other words, empathy. About 20,000 years ago (or perhaps 40,000) humans evolved the neocortex, home of reasoning powers and self-awareness. Thus, humans today struggle with the conflicting impulses of their three distinct parts of the brain.
I have found in my research of human rights that the old, reptilian brain violently asserts itself much too frequently through history. When triggers of scarce resources, territorial infringement, or threats to power structures are present, the reptilian brain takes over and overshadows the two other parts of the brain. But a universal values system draws from the limbic and neocortex brain, which offers a counter to our innate violent reptilian behaviors.
Armstrong firmly believes that all religious (used in a broad sense) traditions support the concept of a “golden rule:” One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. I, too, in my book emphasize that universal human rights draw on traditions, not just from the West, but also from Indigenous peoples, Ubuntu (Africa), Judeo-Christian, Persian (Cyrus), Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Greek philosophers, Stoics, Maurya Empire of India, Islam, Western Enlightenment, and social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Although violence and human rights abuses have certainly been made in the name of these traditions, they also draw on the part of our brain which expresses compassion, morality, and a sense of shared purpose and humanity.
Another point that Armstrong makes in her book, and that I highlight in my book, is that the state, government, or those in power, by their very nature, use violence and abuse our human rights to maintain power and perpetuate the state. Every state in history has done this. I know my country, the United States, is guilty of many abuses, even though it has advanced human rights and instituted many mechanisms to check abuses and power. So does this mean we are destined to live in societies that must constantly use violence to quell descent, that our reptilian brains must guide our governments? I am optimistic that we can create and choose another way and so is Karen Armstrong (see her Charter for Compassion campaign). I think understanding that our religious traditions have more in common than they do differences is one step forward. Also, recognizing that the underlying causes of conflict and violence emanates from competition over scarce resources, marginalization of less-powerful groups of people, and lack of meaning and connection in our modern/globalized society; instead of attributing all problems to the unsolvable differences in religious ideologies. This would be a start in creating a global society that focuses on compassion and sharing as its guiding principle.
The point I am trying to make in my book and Armstrong makes in her book is that we must strive to rise above the petty cultural, historical, differences and perspectives separating our religious traditions and causing violent disagreements and conflict, to arrive at a shared common purpose and understanding that unites us as a species. We are a meaning-seeking species and the meaning of our existence has been spelled out to us in many different ways through different traditions and religions across thousands of years of history. It is our obligation as global citizens of the 21st century to draw on these traditions that have been handed to us and to shape them and make them meaningful for life today.
It isn’t casual beach reading, but I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s latest book, or, for that matter, any book that she has written. Her command of the broad sweep of history is astonishing, and her keen insights into what makes us human is always enlightening. Happy Reading.