This week's 'In Our Time' on Radio 4 considered the An Lushan Rebellion. In the course of the programme Melvyn Bragg confessed he had no real idea about the richness and diversity of Chinese life and culture. So here we have a knowledgeable and highly intelligent guy who's spent years reading about and discussing philosophy, science and culture in general, and in spite of that huge intellectual effort he's somehow remained ignorant of Chinese history and culture. He's not alone in this. Western education and our Eurocentric culture chooses, for the most part, to ignore the Far East in general - including the history, philosophy and religions of China and Japan. This is a crazy and shameful situation.
The most interesting part of Melvyn's programme was a simple statement from one of the panel following Mr Bragg's enquiry about the religion of China at the time the An Lushan rebellion took place. The response was, "Religion? It was really a thought system, rather than about worship".
This is a brilliant and concise summation of the differences between Chinese or Japanese approaches to spiritual thought and behaviour and that of the rest of the world, where the worship of God or gods is the dominant mode of engagement with the spiritual and the metaphysical.
The two most ancient systems of spiritual intelligence and philosophy in China were Taoism and Conficianism, neither of which involved gods or worship. The third system, which came to China from India, was Buddhism - which eventually spread to Japan, and evolved another philosophical manifestation which was called Zen.
As we all know, Buddhism is based on developing our spiritual intelligence and ultimately enlightenment through various forms of meditation. There is no worship involved - and certainly no worship of the Buddha, who is seen essentially as an enlightened human being who serves as an inspiration, a spiritual pioneer and a role model. We can all aspire to becoming buddhas and enlightened beings - to a greater or lesser extent.
It's perhaps fair to say that the majority of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus aspire to becoming more spiritual and more enlightened. Those who support the use of violence in human affairs, and those who actually advocate it, are obviously very far from enlightened or spiritual. As indeed are all those who can't see that atheists and humanists are just as likely to be spiritually intelligent, virtuous and enlightened as those who call themselves religious.
Even James Corden - not the most cerebral of people - could see (as he explained on Desert Island Discs this week) that the so-called religious community that he was brought up in contained within it many individuals who behaved with a minimal amount of what Buddhists call lovingkindness.
Civic life and law must bind us, not ritual and religion
The Queen and Baroness Warsi might disagree. But there is nothing extreme about demanding church and state be separatehttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/16/civic-life-law-ritual-religion
by Polly Toynbee
No surprise that the Queen defends the established church, as she is the anointed defender of the faith. In a week of attacks on secularism she has invented a new role: "not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country." Who is threatening the free practice of any faith? Not any secularists I know.http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/feb/15/queen-says-church-misunderstood
Hers is a curiously Jesuitical justification for the CofE's uniquely privileged status, but the faiths are glad to circle their wagons round her against the unbelievers. Each has their own divinely revealed unique truth, often provoking mortal conflict, Muslim v Copt, Catholic v Protestant, Hindu v Muslim or Sunni v Shia. But suddenly the believers are united in defence against the secular, willing to suspend the supremacy of their own prophets to agree that any religion, however alien, from elephant god to son of God, is better than none.
They can all feel their victimhood now, facing what Baroness Warsi called a rising tide of "militant secularisation" reminiscent of "totalitarian regimes". Warsi on the warpath headed a delegation to the Vatican of six ministers, all agreeing the common enemy was not just the secularists but the "liberal elite", too.
How the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph loved wallowing in the CofE as victim against the rise of christianophobia, as if the waspish Prof Richard Dawkins had thrown them all to the lions. But in defending religious privilege, they are on their own: Ipsos Mori found 74% of Christians consider religion should be a private matter and should not influence public policy, so even most Christians are secularists. For Cameron, Lady Warsi may be a useful canary-testing if American flag-and-faith culture wars might fly over here. Mercifully, every poll shows the answer is no. The CofE is no longer the Tory party at prayer: polls show its pews filled mainly with the liberal-minded.
The prefix "aggressive" or "militant" is now super-glued to the word "secularist", but as president of the British Humanist Association and honorary associate of the National Secular Society, I find nothing extreme about trying to keep religion separate from the state. Aggressive? You should see this week's "burn in hell" messages to the BHA attacking "that spastic Hawking who denies God", and many more obscene unprintables.
I will defend to the death anyone's right to practice any faith, if it breaks no law, interferes with nobody's rights nor claims undue public policy influence. Church bells, calls to prayer, displays of crucifixes, beards or side-locks are freedoms, alongside bare midriffs and knicker-short miniskirts. Personally, I am affronted by women in face veils, but that's my problem. I will argue against them but freedom of speech, thought and dress are non-negotiable. But so is the right to robust argument that may offend religious sensibilities, including the right to challenge the improbability of the faith itself – and the right to make jokes.
A third of our state schools are run by religions, mainly CofE - oversubscribed as their results are burnished by admissions policies that consign an unfair share of poor or chaotic families to neighbouring schools. Though polls find only minority support for faith schools, the religions are rushing to set up free schools: this week the evangelical Christian Family Schools bid for 10 sites in Sheffield. Meanwhile, faith organisations are given more contracts for social services: once outsourced, clients lose Human Rights Act protection against religious coercion, harassment or discrimination. None of this is trivial.
"Faith and reason go hand in hand," said Lady Warsi. She's entitled to her view.
Odder still is the religious claim to a monopoly on moral authority, as Cameron did in his pre-Christmas "We are a Christian country" speech. Religious and irreligious alike commit atrocities, but faith ferments crusade, jihad and martyrdom.
Belief makes people neither better nor worse: the latest research by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations found the religious no more likely to volunteer than non-believers. As social animals, thriving through co-operation, the selfish gene vies with a collective instinct for social justice, from the day a child first protests "it's not fair".
Claiming no special superiority, the view that our fate is in our hands makes humanists naturally progressive, not fatalistic. There is nothing militant about demanding that civic life and law binds us together as equal citizens, regardless of whatever peculiar ideas everyone harbours in their imagination..