The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, January 14, 2008


In the good books or the genes? © Duncan Graham 2008

The pious argue it’s necessary to follow a faith for practical and spiritual reasons. Their argument runs that without a religion humanity would have no moral map to follow and society would tumble into the mire.

So what about the debauched behavior of some who loudly profess their faith, like the Catholic priests who’ve abused children, the Muslim fundamentalists who bomb crowds, and the Protestant televangelists who’ve ripped off their congregations and deceived their wives?

Well, say the religiously entrenched, these few flawed individuals are unrepresentative of the majority; you don’t dump the rules of football just because a few play offside. Humans are forever prone to sin. If the leaders at the top have backsliders all the more reason for maintaining vigilance among the common herd.

This bleak view of human nature has long troubled Jakarta educator and children’s storywriter Derek Robertson. He believes we don’t need ancient parchments and finger-wagging clerics to remind us that it’s wrong to steal and hurt others.

He reckons the so-called Golden Rule that’s supposed to feature in most religions: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is a good enough template for all. As human beings we understand this instinctively without having to be forever reminded what real or imagined prophets instructed long ago.

It’s an argument that makes sense to rationalists and free thinkers, but it’s a hard one to push in the pews and prayer halls. So Robertson has set out on his own personal search for meaning and called this The Moral Compass.

“I’ve lived an interesting, rewarding and deeply fulfilling life,” writes Robertson, and indeed he has. A former teacher he spent three years as a Labor politician in the South Australian Parliament before moving to Indonesia 13 years ago for a job with a United Nations agency.

Also with him came his wife Penny and their three children, including Shona who has Down Syndrome. Their fruitless search for a school that would take a handicapped child led to Penny establishing the now famous Australian International School.

The devout would probably claim the couple has been rewarded because they’ve followed the Judeo-Christian code of behavior that comes unbidden with their Australian-European heritage, even though they may not kneel on Sundays.

They’ve been fulfilled because they’ve pursued with passion the rights of children who are different to be properly educated and treated with dignity and equality – and that quest was hard-wired into their cultural background.

Robertson has a more pedestrian take: ‘If I am in any way blessed it is because that is the way it is. Good fortune and good genes.’

To counter those who reckon they have a mortgage on ethics Robertson has had to bolster his thinking with some facts. Or some disputed facts, like evolution.

If you subscribe to the Adam and Eve story and believe there’s a master plan for the universe, this is not a book for you. But if you’re floundering in doubt like Mother Teresa – whose diaries reveal that she was tormented by anxieties even as she ministered to the destitute of Calcutta in the name of Jesus – then this can be a useful read.

The current world leader in the genre is trans-Atlantic journalist Christopher Hitchens. His latest work God is not Great, subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen and Unwin, 2007), does a ruthless demolition job on organized religions. His thinking has come from his experiences in war zones where all sides claim their righteousness of their cause and close affinity to the Deity as they launch their missiles and fuse their bombs.

Robertson says that religions like Islam and Christianity owe their successes to the conversion of kings who then used the new faiths to support their own authority: “Even more than trade, religion has served the state to reinforce in-group compliance and out-group conquest.”

Correct – but that doesn’t mean all leaders embraced a new religion with cynicism just to keep the serfs servile. They were still men of troubled minds and must have kept one eye on the hereafter and the possibility that a new faith might be a surer path to paradise as well as a handy mob-control system.

According to Robertson most of us tend to ‘do the right thing’ as Aussies like to say. We do this instinctively because we know that’s the only way we can survive – and it’s a lesson learned over millions of years, long before religion was invented.

Just as we no longer need tails now that we walk upright, so we don’t need priests telling us what we must or must not do. In other words ethical behavior comes with the ability to suckle and crawl, no handbook required.

Also in the genes is the instinct for faith, says Robertson, and it’s located somewhere in the mid-brain – ‘atavistic, primal and visceral’. We follow organized religions like we pursue sport ‘because they meet the same intrinsic human needs for belonging to an identifiable, mutually supportive group. They give us a feeling of importance beyond the here and now.’

In Australian mythology the early explorers of the Great South Land believed there was an inland sea that would be revealed if they only looked hard enough.

Until the truth was known it was great sustaining story. Philosophers like Robertson who claim there is no creator God and only emptiness beyond disturb the comforts we enjoy from not thinking too deeply. The discovery may be arid, but the journey is intellectually worthwhile.

Unfortunately Robertson has provided neither an index nor a bibliography to his stimulating little work. These are major defects. He quotes many of the world’s leading thinkers in a way that invites us to read further, but makes that task unnecessarily difficult.

As he knows these books, and even includes page numbers where he’s lifted sentences, though not editions and other necessary publishing details, this absence is particularly annoying. It makes the journey in search of answers to the ultimate question – why are we here? – a plod.

Let’s end on a positive point: The fact that an outsider can publish a book that doesn’t kowtow to organized faith in a country where religion rules is surely a sign of tolerance.

Robertson, Derek: The Moral Compass.
PT Eka Kolese, Jakarta, 2006
210 pages
First published in The Sunday Post 13 Jan 08


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Donny Tedjo said...

Derek Robertson what is his relation to Bo Derek and Pat Robertson
Just Asked.

Tamar said...

Hello Duncan,

I am trying to contact you from Film Australia, regarding an article you wrote entitled "WA blacks make huge land claims".
I have tried emailing you on the email address listed on your site, but it has bounced back. I would greatly appreciate it if you could contact me with an updated email address.

Many Thanks,
Tamar Albeck-Ripka
Melbourne Production Secretary
Film Australia

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